Category Archives: Featured

Outliving Outbreaks: Exploring Early Efforts to Fight Epidemics

Post contributed by Brooke Guthrie, Research Services Librarian and Rachel Ingold, Curator, History of Medicine Collections.

Philadelphia in 1793. New York in 1795. Gloucestershire in 1798. London in 1854. Crimean Peninsula in 1855.

This may seem like an unrelated list of places and dates, but each represents a particular moment in the history of our fight against infectious disease. From the earliest days of epidemiology to the experiments that launched our vaccinated world, these moments continue to resonate today. While most of us have more immediate concerns – from job security to our own physical and mental health – it is worth considering the roots of now-common disease maps or the idea of “social distancing” to slow infection rates.

The Rubenstein Library’s History of Medicine Collections has material related to the history of epidemics, pandemics, and infectious disease. Below you’ll find a sample of sources from us as well as resources from other institutions.

Yellow Fever, 1790s

When yellow fever struck Philadelphia in 1793, nearly a tenth of the city’s population perished during the outbreak. Physicians struggled to understand how the disease spread and struggled to effectively treat the growing number of ill Philadelphians. One physician, Benjamin Rush, wrote to his wife throughout the outbreak and their letters offer a look at life during an epidemic.

These letters, part of the Benjamin and Julia Stockton Rush papers, are digitized and available online. A companion digital exhibit, Malignant Fever, curated by Mandy Cooper, provides more information about Rush and includes additional resources for understanding the 1793 outbreak.

Letter from Benjamin Rush to Julia Stockton Rush describing the symptoms of yellow fever and noting that all common remedies have failed. August 29, 1793.

 

Image of the tongue during different stages of yellow fever, by Etienne Pariset, 1820.

 

Other American cities were not immune to yellow fever and New York City saw an outbreak in 1795. Local physician Valentine Seamen, trying to locate the source of the disease, collected information about each case and created an early disease map using this data.

Valentine Seaman’s yellow fever map where the dots represent known cases of yellow fever and an “S” represents areas with waste or filth.

Seaman, despite his efforts, did not correctly identify the cause of yellow fever. He did note the presence of mosquitoes, but concluded that the accumulated filth near the city’s docks were to blame. Seaman’s case data, maps, and his analysis were published in The Medical Repository. The Rubenstein Library has a copy and a digitized version can be accessed through HathiTrust.

Cholera, London, 1854

A later attempt to trace the source of a contagion through mapping was more successful. John Snow suspected that contaminated water was to blame for a cholera outbreak in London. Snow investigated each case and noted which water pump the infected individual used. He marked the cases on a map published in the 1855 edition of On the mode of communication of cholera.

John Snow’s map showing the spread of cholera in the Soho area of London.
Detail of cholera map showing the concentration of cases around the contaminated Broad Street pump.

Fortunately, Snow was right about the source of cholera. His data was convincing enough to have the water pump at the center of the outbreak disabled. The Rubenstein Library holds a rare copy of On the mode of communication of cholera (shown above).

Smallpox, 1790s

Decades before John Snow’s map, Edward Jenner investigated smallpox, a widespread and dangerous disease in the eighteenth century. Jenner created an early vaccine using material taken from a fresh cowpox lesion after observing that cowpox infection prevented subsequent smallpox infection. Jenner shared his discovery in An Inquiry into the causes and effects of the variolae vaccinae (1798). The library holds a copy of this book containing surprisingly lovely illustrations of infected arms. The library also holds a small collection of Edward Jenner’s papers that include letters discussing vaccination and a diary containing vaccination records.

Illustration of a cowpox infected arm from Jenner’s An inquiry into the causes and effects.

 

Camp Diseases, Crimean Peninsula, 1854-1855

As a nurse during the Crimean War, Florence Nightingale saw large numbers of soldiers die from diseases like cholera, dysentery, tuberculosis, and typhus. Linking these deaths to poor sanitation, Nightingale worked to clean up military camps while also collecting data about the impact of disease on British soldiers.

In Mortality of the British Army (1858), Nightingale’s data is used to create visualizations that illustrate the poor camp conditions and make the case for sanitation reform. One visualization stands out as we practice “social distancing.” The image below compares the population densities in various locations and notes the amount of space per person. Densities in military camps, where disease was widespread, were noticeably higher than even places like urban London where people had more distance from their neighbors.

We hold a copy of this work (that is definitely worth seeing in person) and a digital copy is available through Internet Archive.

Diagrams of densities in military camps compared to those in London.

 

From our colleagues at other institutions, you can find other excellent resources on this topic:

Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics is a digital collection of sources from Harvard libraries. As their site explains, the goal is to provide historical context to current epidemiology and contribute to the understanding of the global, social-history, and public policy implications of disease. Materials include digitized books, manuscripts, pamphlets, and more. The site is organized around momentous historical outbreaks such as the 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic in Philadelphia and the 1918 Influenza outbreak in North America.

The National Library of Medicine and National Institute of Health also have a number of resources, such as health information guides from past pandemics. The National Library of Medicine hosts the  Global Health Events web archive, a resource that has archived selected websites from 2014 around major global health events such as Ebola and Zika.  The collection includes both websites and social media with the goal of offering a diverse and global perspective ranging from government and NGOs to healthcare workers and journalists.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of resources related to infectious disease and the attempts to stop its spread. We encourage you to visit us when we reopen! In the meantime, get in touch and let us know if you have questions!

 

Clydie F. Scarborough and the Scarborough Nursery School

Post contributed by John B. Gartrell, Director, John Hope Franklin Research Center

Born in 1899, Clydie Fullwood Scarborough was a native of Opelika, AL, and the daughter of former slaves who had no formal education. After studying chemistry and education at Talladega College, Clydie, moved to Durham upon graduation and received a position at Hillside High School to teach science and history. Her marriage to John C. Scarborough, owner of Scarborough Funeral Home and a leader among Durham’s African American businessmen, further immersed her in the affairs and interests of Durham’s African American community.

Scarborough with class
Clydie Scarborough (center) pictured with a group of nursery children (c. 1930s)

In 1925, John Scarborough purchased the old Lincoln Hospital building with plans to open a day care home for young children, many of whom resided in the African American community of Hayti. Scarborough felt a deep charitable need to provide better health conditions and care in his community. The home served infants, preschoolers, and school-age children, and Clydie served as one of the key caregivers in the early days of the home.

The creation of the Scarborough Nursery Home allowed Mrs. Scarborough to resume her career as an educator. In 1932 she became executive director of the home and instituted kindergarten facilities. By 1938, she was pressing for the home’s expansion and formal licensing by the North Carolina Department of Social Services. Through the 1940s, she found additional support for the school through federal funding and foundation entities including the United Way. The home became known as the Scarborough Nursery School, Inc.

Scarborough class grads 1937
Scarborough kindergarten class graduates (1937/8)

Under her 50 years of leadership, the school would nurture generations of Durham’s youth in their formative years while providing working families with reliable child care. Mrs. Scarborough’s dedication to service also extended far beyond her work with the school. She was a member of the YWCA, Durham Committee of Negro Affairs, NAACP, North Carolina Association for the Education of Young Children, and the Women-in-Action for the Prevention of Violence and its Causes Inc.

Now over 90 years old, Scarborough Nursery School, Inc. continues its mission today. It is the oldest licensed nursery school in the state of North Carolina. The Clydie F. Scarborough Papers are available for research in the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke.

Searching for Records (Management)

Post contributed by Hillary Gatlin, Records Manager.

When one of my Duke University Archives’ colleagues alerted me to the presence of an Academic Council memo from 1982 requesting information on the management of faculty records, I was intrigued. Though often critical to an organization’s well-being, issues of records management rarely make headlines, and an administrative body like Academic Council taking an interest in records management was a big deal. I sought out the Academic Council records and unearthed the story behind the memo.

An opened Hollinger box showing folders from the Academic Council records.
Box 4 of Academic Council Records

Academic Council first indicated their interest in faculty files and records management with an announcement at the January 21, 1982 meeting, declaring that “the Executive Committee will shortly appoint a three-person ad hoc committee to ascertain what university files are kept on faculty members and who has access to them.” The Ad Hoc Committee on Faculty Files was established the following month at the February 18, 1982 meeting and consisted of committee chair Professor Paletz (Political Science), Professor Weistart (Law), and Professor Dearlove (English). The focus of the committee was on identifying university files that contained information on the faculty, including whom had access to those files.

As part of their work, the Committee drafted and sent out the aforementioned memo to university departments, seeking data to report back to Academic Council. Some of the questions asked in the survey are still asked by records managers today including: Who has access to the files and under what conditions? What is the content of the files? Who purges or expunges files? When are they purged?

This survey was sent to campus administrators in 1982, asking for information on records management.
This survey was sent to campus administrators in 1982, asking for information on records management.

While an initial report from the Ad Hoc Committee on Faculty Files was expected in March 1982, it was not filed with Academic Council until May 25, 1982.  Sadly, the actual report, including the results of the records survey, appears to have been lost to time. The Executive Committee of Academic Council provided a brief update on the report at the September 16, 1982 meeting, with the promise that further discussion would take place once the report had been more closely reviewed. This update did clarify the reason for Academic Council’s interest in faculty files: “the concern is with faculty rights to access of their personnel files, the ability to correct factual or other errors contained in those files,” and the absence of a clear University policy on faculty files.

The development of this policy stayed on Academic Council’s radar, and at the May 5, 1983 meeting, they reviewed a proposed policy draft. This review resulted in over five pages of documented discussion on faculty records issues. Major issues touched on during the discussion included the number of files to be maintained by the administration, who within the administration should be responsible for maintaining files, and whether information should ever be removed from files, and if so, under what conditions. There was also an in-depth discussion of confidentiality, particularly as it relates to faculty recommendations and the university’s procedures for appointment, promotion, and tenure.

After this substantial discussion, Academic Council agreed that a clearer policy was needed and decided to resume talks again in the next academic year. As far as the Academic Council records show, the policy discussion never resumed at this level.

Duke University has since developed guidelines regarding records management and retention of university records, including personnel files. Please review the Human Resources records retention guidelines for more information on managing personnel files.

The Records Management program is happy to assist University departments and offices with managing their university records and preserving their university history. To schedule a consultation with the Records Manager, please contact hillary.gatlin@duke.edu.

Captured in the Crucible: “Ivanhoe Donaldson” and Preserving a Movement

Post contributed by Craig Breaden (Audiovisual Archivist for the Rubenstein Library) and Liz Adams (Rare Materials Cataloger for the Rubenstein Library)

Harold Becker’s film, Ivanhoe Donaldson (1964), which was filmed during August, September, and October 1963,  follows the titular Ivanhoe Donaldson, a 21-year-old Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) field secretary as he travels from his home in East Lansing (Michigan), to Danville (Virginia), Selma (Alabama), and Greenwood (Mississippi), organizing demonstrations and voter drives. This rare 16mm film was recently acquired by the Rubenstein Library and is one of the first films we have digitized using our newly-purchased motion picture film scanner (a Filmfabriek HDS+). The film scanner, beyond offering impressive technical capabilities (we can scan each image up to 4k!), allows us to further our commitment to the preservation and discoverability of our moving image resources in the interest of the histories they generate and illuminate. In this case, footage shows Donaldson and other SNCC staffers, including Cordell Reagon and Avon Rollins, running workshops to show civil rights activists how to protect their bodies from high pressure water hoses and riot sticks; it shows canvassers urging citizens to exercise their right to vote; and it shows SNCC staffers invoking the name of Medgar Evers and discussing the efficacies of indirect and direct action in the wake of the 16th Street Bombing in Selma, Alabama.

Ivanhoe Donaldson not only documents the work of Donaldson and SNCC, but it also captures the joy with which they work. Between footage of workshops and peaceful demonstrations, the camera follows staffers as they clap their hands and sing civil rights staples like “We shall overcome.”  Donaldson is frequently shown singing boisterously, even if in the words of Dorothy Moore, “he can’t sing too well.” But more than anything else, it’s incredibly clear that Donaldson loves to sing, and when he does, there’s nowhere he’d rather be. And as audience members, we’re right there with him.

With the courage of his namesake, Ivanhoe Donaldson both shaped and survived a crucible moment in American history as a field secretary for the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, organizing and training young people to put themselves in harm’s way, challenging white supremacy and asserting the right to vote.  Becker’s emotionally-charged cinema vérité, the product of following Donaldson and his foot soldiers through the South in the summer and fall of 1963, provides an immediacy that is unique to film and, as SNCC’s members age and pass, a meaningful perspective to supplement memory. Also, having a resource created with documentary and poetic intention at the time the events occurred — much like James Karales’ photographs from an earlier period of SNCC’s existence — enlivens the dialogue of past and present immeasurably.

The digitization and preservation of the Ivanhoe Donaldson film is part of a larger effort made by the Rubenstein Library over the last decade to ensure that SNCC’s legacy is captured in documents, photographs, oral histories, and conferences, and made available on websites such as the SNCC Digital Gateway (https://snccdigital.org/). To learn more about Ivanhoe Donaldson, you can view a biographical entry and listen to an interview at https://snccdigital.org/people/ivanhoe-donaldson/

So, you might be wondering, when can I see the whole Ivanhoe Donaldson film? Since the film is still under copyright, we cannot post it to the web. But, you can view the newly digitized preservation copy by requesting the film in the online catalog and then visiting the reading room at the Rubenstein Library.

Nixon, Bradway, and a Friendship that Outlasted an Impeachment

Post contributed by Leah Kerr, Technical Services Processing Archivist for the Duke University Archives.

At Smith Warehouse, the Technical Services archival processing area of Bay 11 is quiet. But not because the librarians working there have shushed everyone. Rather, the archivists, catalogers, interns and student workers perform many tasks by themselves. And most of us are wearing headphones or earbuds. Undoubtedly we are listening to music, podcasts, sports events, and whatever else we can stream. As a self-proclaimed news junkie, I often listen to live broadcasts.

As an archivist of University Archives records, my worlds collided in a “deja vu all over again” manner. At the end of January and beginning of February I was listening to the impeachment hearings and trial of President Donald J. Trump as I was processing the John S. Bradway Correspondence with Richard M. Nixon records. The collection is comprised of letters written between the Duke law professor, and his former student from 1959-1978. Nixon graduated from Duke Law in 1937, and the two men stayed in touch. These letters were recently gifted to Duke from a historical society in New Jersey.

Invitations to Mr. and Mrs. Bradway to White House events, ca. 1972.

The correspondence covers the time periods that Nixon worked as an attorney at a law firm, a United States Vice President, a newly-elected United States President, an embattled impeachment defendant, and finally, a former President looking back at his legacy. But the bulk of the letters fall between 1973 and 1974, when President Nixon was first tied to, then accused of, and later resigned due to the Watergate break-in and scandal and subsequent White House cover-up.

A December 16, 1964 letter from Richard Nixon to John Bradway with the letterhead of Nixon's law firm, Nixon, Mudge, Rose, Guthrie, & Alexander. Nixon writes "The problem of the TV and radio commentators is a terribly difficult one. It just seems that those who choose that profession generally have a strongly liberal bent."

Bradway and Nixon’s correspondence show the respect each had for the other. They often mention their spouses, Mary Bradway and Pat Nixon, offering their greetings to them in each letter. The men also write glowingly of each other, and Bradway offered his suggestions to “stay with it” and his view that neither the Republican party nor the country would have anything to gain by Nixon resigning. When Nixon finally did resign and leave Washington, the correspondence continued, and Bradway urged him to write “a book or a series of articles” giving his side of the Watergate story.

A two-page letter on White House stationery from May 10, 1972. Nixon writes "You can be sure that during these days of rather difficult problems I will follow your advice to STAY WITH IT."

Processing this collection with impeachment trial streaming through my earbuds led to an unusual echo chamber. The same phrases that I saw in the documents were being repeated on the floors of the House and the Senate. For example, liberal media was mentioned in both the recent impeachment hearings and the correspondence. The phrase “Impeachment is a political process” and concerns about the health and future of the Republican party were discussed in the letters I read, and in the very recent commentaries I heard. For me it was a startling reminder of how primary source documents very clearly connect to our present-day lives and current affairs.

Three Last Minute Valentine Ideas from the Rubenstein Library

Post contributed by Amanda Lazarus, Ph.D. Candidate and Eleonore Jantz Reference Intern for the Rubenstein Library.

In honor of Valentine’s Day, our love of archives, and busy/forgetful people the world over, here are three very last minute gift ideas for your Valentine, straight from the Rubenstein Archives!

Vintage Cake Recipe

If you’re a bit (or very) obsessed with GBBO and your Valentine loves sweets but isn’t into chocolate, this one’s for you!

Marian Jane Parker’s Selected Recipes and Menus for Parties, Holidays, and Special Occasions (1920s) offers readers three different menus for Valentine Parties and a shortlist of recipes that vary considerably in complexity. Among these is a simple recipe for a heart-shaped cake made with pantry staples, which makes it ideal for hasty baking. Don’t have a heart-shaped cake pan? Neither did I! Just use what you have on hand and adjust the recipe quantities and baking time as needed. Since my cake was destined to feed no less than nine RL librarians, I doubled the recipe and made the sponge in two 9” round cake tins.

After 35 minutes in a 350F oven, everything was perfectly baked. I left the cake rounds to cool and moved on to the icing. Since MJP advises you to cover your cake with “white icing” without specifying any ingredients, feel free to choose your own recipe (vanilla buttercream and whipped cream are classic options), or keep things easy and use a prepared icing product. As for decorations, these can be as simple or elaborate as you like. MJP recommends you adorn your cake with small hearts, while the photograph shows her heart-shaped cake a bit more gussied-up with red and pink piping. I added a pink marzipan cover to my cake since I had some almond paste hanging around, and added strawberries—inside and out—both for the bright flavor and Valentine’s Day color. As a final touch, I cut the strawberry toppers into little hearts.

Custom Mittens

Easy, scalable, and will fly off your needles in no time!

I know what you’re thinking, “Winter’s over, it may not have even happened at all.” While that may be true-ish, here’s what I know for certain: summer is coming, which means we only have 2.5 months before Perkins undergoes its annual transformation into an ice cube. So, this Valentine’s Day, show your friends and SOs how much you care, and give them the gift of bespoke forethought and coziness. Give them the gift of handmade mittens.

This pattern for adult mittens comes from the Sarah E. Goodwin Needlework Patterns Collection, and is one of many charming designs and printed instructions for the creation of tapestries, collars, edging, capes, mittens, afghans, hoods, curtains, infant shoes, slippers that Miss Goodwin both collected and created during her life. In the 19th century, it was common for women to submit and collect needle work patterns from their local papers and women’s journals. Here, Miss Goodwin appears to have copied out one such pattern:

Rule for Knitting Mittens Mrs. M[ose?]/ Washington 1866.
22 stitches on each needle, knit an inch or more seamed, make a seam stitch each side of one of the two stiches and widen one new stitch between, knit 5 rows and widen twice just inside the two seams and so continue until long enough to commence to close the thumb. When there are 23 stitches between the two seams, take them off with a darning needle on a piece of yarn. Continue your knitting by making 8 stitches when you made the thumb knit around once. The second time slip and bind at the beginning of the 8 stitches and narrow at the end of them. Knit once plain again and narrow again as before then continue to knit to the end of the little finger these narrow once in 5 stitches and knit 5 rows, once in 4 and knit 4 rows until you finish. Take up the 8 new stitches one needle the rest on the other two, knit around and narrow twice as before. Knit plain until as high as the nail then narrow twice in each needle every other time.

After working this pattern myself, here are a few additional notes to help you get started:

Supplies*

  • 220 yard of DK weight yarn
  • US 5 / 3.75mm DPNs (double sided needles)
  • Stitch markers (paperclips work, too!)
  • Darning needle
  • Waste yarn

After you’ve cast on all your stitches (44 in total), evenly redistribute your stitches across two other needles (11 stitches over 4 needles), before joining in the round.

Happy Knitting!

New and Elegant Valentines for the Present Year

Back in the mid-19th century, folks did their Valentines by the book, and this book in particular:

In addition to having the longest title I have ever seen, Richardson’s New Fashionable Lady’s Valentine Writer or, Cupid’s Festival of Love , Containing All the Most Popular New and Elegant Valentines for the Present Year (this is only the half of it), is an example of books of Valentines that became quite fashionable during the 19th century.

Typically written in a series of rhyming couplets, some of Richardson’s Valentines are sweet, while others are sour. The best, in my humble opinion, are those dedicated to a person of a particular demeanor or profession:

*Did you know you can purchase all of these supplies at the Scrap Exchange**?
**Not a sponsored post.

“The Arm of Justice Cannot—Will Not Sleep”: Radical Republicans during Reconstruction in the South

Post contributed by Laurin Penland, Library Assistant for Technical Services

Warning: Some of the language in this blog post is outdated and considered offensive today. There are also descriptions of violence against African Americans in the South during Reconstruction.

The way in which archivists think about Reconstruction (1865-1877) in the United States can sometimes determine how we describe and interpret materials produced during that period. For example, if you believe that Reconstruction was an ill-fated, corrupt takeover of the South by Northern Republicans—a brief episode doomed to fail—then it makes sense that you would describe a Republican politician in Georgia as self-interested. The particular politician that I have in mind is John Emory Bryant (1836-1900), who was born in Maine, fought for the Union, and pursued a Republican political career in Georgia after the Civil War. Bryant was also an abolitionist, teacher, agent of the Freedmen’s Bureau, newspaper editor and publisher, and lawyer. The Rubenstein Library holds his papers, the bulk of which were acquired in 1968 (a later addition arrived in 2002). His papers came up recently as a candidate for re-processing due to their popularity among researchers, the aging folders and worn-out boxes housing the collection, and the fact that there were many voices within the collection that could benefit from updated description in the online collection guide. Also, when we investigated further, it became clear that there was a large discrepancy between what was described in the old paper catalog and the online collection guide. The original card catalog entry included 50 cards of description! And the online collection guide included only two small paragraphs. Sometimes this discrepancy happens because of the way the library managed the mass migration of our collection guides online; description was simplified. And sometimes this happens when the description was viewed as problematic for some reason. For the JEB papers, the discrepancy in descriptions could have been for multiple reasons. My task was to assess the description that was available to me and to do my best to improve the collection guide, a process which inspired me to think about how archivists and researchers interpret and describe materials from the Reconstruction Era. This process ultimately led me to edit descriptions of JEB and to make sure that the voices of people of color where discoverable in the collection.

To get an idea of how JEB papers were originally described, here is an unflattering snippet about Bryant from the old card catalog:

On January 1, 1862, Bryant made a significant statement to Emma [his future wife]. He refers to his “enemies,” who are again conspiring against him. He has been under arrest for stealing from a Negro, a charge which was dismissed later. He says he will come out on top, as he always looks out for ‘no. 1.’ This glimpse of his personality is prophetic for the career he later entered.[1]

Index card from card catalog
Card catalog describing John Emory Bryant.

The description portrays Bryant (JEB) as contentious, selfish, and possibly corrupt; the description also gives weighty significance to this episode in JEB’s life by suggesting that it illustrates an important aspect of his personality and the foundation for his political career. I think it’s also important to note that JEB was accused of stealing from a black person, which, if true, would do significant harm to any claims of integrity he might have had in fighting for the civil and political rights of African Americans.

John Emory Bryant sitting for a portrait.
Photograph of John Emory Bryant.

Why did the previous cataloger of this collection choose to highlight this episode in Bryant’s life? One reason could be because of popular notions about Reconstruction during the 1960s—for example, the cataloger, expecting to find a corrupt carpetbagger, could have been drawn to troublesome moments in JEB’s life and career. After all, JEB was no stranger to conflict and controversy in both public and private affairs. In her book, Carpetbagger of Conscience: A Biography of John Emory Bryant, Ruth Currie-McDaniel probes JEB’s life and career, wading through many of his successes, failures, flaws, and contradictions in order to try to discern what kind of Republican he really was. Currie-McDaniel comes down on the side that JEB was a staunch supporter and fighter for civil rights for African Americans; he was also “a complicated mixture of idealistic reform zeal on the one hand and a certain selfish realism on the other,” as well as being a neglectful husband.[2] To say the least, JEB was a complicated person, and the letters that he left behind tell of a controversial personality.

Eric Foner, who is one of the most well-known Reconstruction scholars and who is heavily inspired by W. E. B. Du Bois (Du Bois wrote “Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880,” published in 1935), lays out an understanding of Reconstruction in which

the [Republican] Radicals in Congress were acquitted of both vindictive motives and the charge of serving as the stalking-horses of Northern capitalism. They emerged instead as idealists in the best nineteenth-century reform tradition…. Their Reconstruction policies were based on principle, not petty political advantage, for the central issue dividing [President] Johnson and these Radical Republicans was the civil rights of freedmen.

Foner writes that a key element of this understanding of Reconstruction, which is very different than the one depicted by previous historians such as William Dunning and films like Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind, is the “testimony of the central participant in the drama of Reconstruction—the black freedman.”[3] While John Emory Bryant was an important player in Republican politics during Reconstruction in the South, I took Foner’s depiction to heart and shifted my gaze beyond JEB’s voice and actions alone.  Who were these black freedmen that Foner mentions, and what is their testimony from the Reconstruction Era? This blog post is an exploration of the African-American voices found within the JEB papers.

Daniel Broomfield: School Teacher in Warrenton, Georgia

Scattered throughout the JEB papers, there are myriad portrayals of black people fighting for a better life (and sometimes fighting just to live) by participating in civic, educational, religious, and political organizations. In 1866, one school teacher, who recently built a small schoolhouse, writes to report being shot at:

William John Spence came to the school house last Monday evening just after I had turned out and shot two balls through the house, he then shot three times at me as I run. I only built a small house, I was not able to build a very large one, I done the best I could. I had a good many scholars spelling and reading. I reported to the Bureau here but to very little effect did it take.[4]

Handwritten letter.
Letter from Daniel Broomfield, 1866.

 

This kind of terroristic violence is documented throughout the John Emory Bryant collection, perhaps most strikingly in a deposition describing KKK activity in Alabama, Florida, and Georgia in the 1870s. The African-American victims listed in the document are: Edward Thompson and his wife in Florida; Boss Fullard, Gamble Wright, and John Askie in Dublin, Georgia; and George Daymond in Montgomery County, Georgia. The atrocities recounted in the deposition paint a picture of white-supremacist terror.[5] We do not know the author of the deposition, but for those who are interested in this account and the efforts to hold the perpetrators of terror and violence responsible, we have another collection at the library that has more information. The Williams Woods Holden Papers, 1834-1929, document the life of a “journalist and Republican governor of North Carolina…. He was elected governor as a Republican in 1868, but was impeached by the Democratic state legislature in 1870 for his efforts to combat the Ku Klux Klan.”[6]

Henry McNeal Turner: Republican Leader, Preacher, Post Master General, and Bishop

In the midst of violence, terror, and constant, ever-present racism (including both hate-filled and less incendiary paternalistic propaganda), black freedmen (formerly enslaved people) and black people who were born free pushed full-steam ahead. The same year that the school teacher, Broomfield, writes to report the assault against him, Henry McNeal Turner (1834-1915) writes a series of letters to JEB. Turner was a chaplain during the Civil War and went on to become a black Republican leader, legislator, preacher, Post Master of Georgia, and bishop in the African Methodist Church. He writes his letters to Bryant while enduring loss and illness in his family; one of Turner’s children had just died and his wife was gravely ill, yet Turner pushed on for Republican causes. He writes to JEB about political news, updates him on his efforts to get subscribers to their Republican newspaper, tells of his hopes for the Georgia legislature, and strategizes ways to inform black citizens about new laws: “Major General Howard at my suggestion is going to print copies of the Emancipation Proclamation, Civil Rights Bill etc. for general distribution through the South for the colored people. I told him there should be thousands of copies distributed like tracts.” When Turner tries to get Democrats to subscribe to his Republican newspaper, he says, “The few democrats that are here, with whom I have come in contact, treat me very scornfully. They say I aught not to speak of those outrages. But the Republicans have assured me, that Mr. Johnson shall execute that civil rights bill or leave his seat. They also say there is more on hand, when they get ready to enforce it, and they will do it.”[7] The Civil Rights Act about which Turner is writing was passed on April 9, 1866 (three days before Turner’s letter). This act provided:

that all persons born in the United States and not subject to any foreign power, excluding Indians not taxed, are hereby declared to be citizens of the United States; and such citizens, of every race and color, without regard to any previous condition of slavery or involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall have the same right, in every State and Territory in the United States, to make and enforce contracts, to sue, be parties, and give evidence, to inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property, and to full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property, as is enjoyed by white citizens, and shall be subject to like punishment, pains, and penalties, and to none other, any law, statute, ordinance, regulation, or custom, to the contrary notwithstanding.[8]

Handwritten letter with prominent signature.
Letter from Henry McNeal Turner written to JEB, 1866.

The law was passed, vetoed by President Andrew Johnson, and then passed again with a two-thirds majority. In another letter, Turner offers aid to JEB, who, he has heard, has been arrested and whose paper was suppressed. He writes, “If you are in great need, write to Oliver Sanders of Columbus, Ga. I helped them to organize a society there, and they have some money, which they will send you as quick as lighting if you need it.” Turner’s letters show someone who was deeply engaged in the issues of the time, made personal sacrifices to fight for what he believed in, and cared for his friend and colleague, JEB.

Charles R. Edwardes: Preacher and Labor Organizer

One of the common threads that connects several of the people in the Bryant papers is the importance of newspapers. JEB, along with Turner and William Anderson Pledger (who I’ll mention later), published Republican newspapers, which allowed them to share their ideas more widely and broaden their connections throughout Georgia. One African-American minister, Charles R. Edwardes, writes to JEB in 1869 to tell him about his efforts to get more subscribers for Bryant’s newspaper, and to inform Bryant of a meeting—of the Colored Men of the Mechanics and Laboring Men Association—that he would like to be mentioned in the newspaper. Edwardes reports that there are 87 members of the Association and that he hopes they will have many more members soon. At the meeting, the men counted how much land they had purchased, how many crops they had produced, and how much money they had made as tradesmen. Edwardes explains, “We wants to buy land as soon as we can to give homes to our poor peoples for many don’t [have] homes and land to work and cheated out what money works for. I have some promise to take your paper. I will do all I can to have this paper among my people. Do what you can for us.” [9]

Handwritten letter, signed "I am yours truly dear sire, President of the Mechanics and Laboring Mens Association"
Letter from Rev. Charles R. Edwardes to JEB, 1869.

William Anderson Pledger: Teacher, Republican, Lawyer, Newspaper Publisher

My Dear Sir: The schools of this county being in the hands of the Democrats and they having such an avowed hatred to me till it has become impossible for me to obtain employment. Their hatred is because of my Republican principles, or because that I speak them freely—yet moderately. Consequently I must have recourse to my Republican friends to obtain a livelihood: to you I look as a very dear friend, because you know the privations an active Republican is subjected….[10]

This letter is written by William Anderson Pledger, who was a prominent black Republican in Georgia. He was also an editor, teacher, and friend of JEB. Pledger’s letter press copybook (dated 1875-1879) includes faint copies of letters written to various Georgian politicians and Republicans, including John Emory Bryant, Henry McNeal Turner, E.R. Belcher, Benjamin Conly, Henry Farrow, M.T. Ackerman, and others. Many of the letters show his urgent attempts to attain employment and describe the discrimination that he faced due to his Republican political activities. In a different letter, he writes, “The Democrats have offered me if I would only leave off indoctrinating ‘radicalism’ into the negros’ [sic] heads that they would put at my disposal any position I wanted. You know I can not go back on Republicanism though I perish from this uncivilized conduct.”[11]

Clipping from newspaper with the title "The Negro Must Be Recognized"
Clipping from Pledger’s scrapbook. The clipping describes a visit from Pledger in which he “suggests that the President ought to know that the Negro is the balance of power in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, New York, Connecticut and West Virginia, and the Southern Democracy should not be allowed to dupe the President into the belief that the Republican party can get along without the Negro. He says the Western and Eastern Negro will never agree to anything that leaves his Southern brother in the cold.”

Pledger’s letters and scrapbook also show his engagement with social and political organizations, such as the Grand Fountain of Georgia (also referred to as the “colored Good Templars”), a black temperance organization.[12] Pledger was the Grand Worthy Master of the State in Georgia in 1876 and was credited with increasing the membership from 2000 to 8000.[13] These types of fraternal organizations were often at the heart of segregation battles that would go on to define the Jim Crow South. In a newspaper clipping, Pledger writes to the editor about a dispute within the Grand Fountain between the white and “colored” lodges, and he explains how the matter has been settled in his favor by the organization’s supreme court in England. Another clipping from 1878 describes “Emancipation Day,” which “was held in the First Congregational Church on Collins Street on Tuesday night, January 1st to celebrate the anniversary of Emancipation.”[14] There, the Emancipation Proclamation was read aloud and speeches were given, including one by Pledger. It is clear that Pledger was highly active in the public sphere. In The Way It Was in the South: The Black Experience in Georgia, author Donald Grant describes Pledger as being at the center of Republican politics: “he was a delegate to every Republican national convention from 1876 to 1900 and remained on the state Republican committee until his death in 1904.” In 1879, “smoldering black resentment against the white leadership of the Republican party resulted in a revolt by the blacks, who elected a new state committee of twenty-four blacks and eight whites. Black leader William A. Pledger led the revolt and replaced John E. Bryant as party chairman.”[15] During this period of Reconstruction, there was an internal struggle in the Republican Party against the lily-whites (those who wanted all-white leadership) and the black-and-tans (a coalition of blacks and whites). Three years after Pledger was elected chairman, he was “ousted” and “replaced by a white, Alfred E. Buck.”[16] Another important shift during this time was African-American disenfranchisement. During this moment in Reconstruction, black voting and participation were at their height: “In 1876, 53 percent of the eligible black males voted. The white vote was only slightly higher.” However, due to poll taxes, the Populist defeat, the lack of secrecy of ballots, the barring of black voters from primaries (called the “white primary”), intimidation and violence, and other disenfranchising efforts, black voting hit its nadir in Georgia in 1904 at 4 percent.[17]

Pledger was also a journalist and newspaper publisher. He founded The Athens Blade in 1879 “with the credo: ‘The Arm of justice Cannot—Will not Sleep,’” and he was very engaged in the debates of the time, such as the plan for African Americans to emigrate to Liberia.[18] Pledger also helped organize the Afro-American League (which later became the Afro-American Council) in 1890 in Chicago, and he was known for fighting against lynching. He “once led armed blacks to the Athens jail and successfully defied a mob bent on lynching two prisoners.”[19]

Altogether, Pledger’s papers show someone who seized upon the political momentum of the time to fight for a Republican platform that was built on equal rights for African Americans.

Conclusion

As archivists, when we preserve, organize, and describe manuscript collections, sometimes it is tempting to try to decide whether someone like John Emory Bryant did more good in the world than harm. To complicate matters, it is unclear how much significance to attribute to the correspondence, ephemera, and artifacts left behind by historical figures (e.g., we wonder whether these papers represent the whole person). In this case, widening my gaze beyond John Emory Bryant to his broader context and networks helped me address the issues at the center of this collection of papers, such as the Republican social and political fabric during Reconstruction, and, in particular, it illuminated the testimony of those fighting for equal rights, especially people of color. To give credit where credit is due, much of the work to describe this collection had been done by previous catalogers and researchers. My work benefited from the detailed description in the old card catalog, which highlighted contributions by Pledger, Turner, and others. In my revised collection guide, I built on the work that came before me, updated the language, and edited out descriptions that may have tried to pigeon hole Bryant as a self-interested Carpetbagger. Most importantly, widening my view helped me to make choices in my description of the collection, ultimately placing less focus on Bryant’s eccentricities and more focus on making a variety of voices discoverable. For instance, previously, the KKK disposition had been relegated to a “Miscellaneous” folder and was not described. Now, it has its own folder and is discoverable in the collection guide. This is not to say that now—fifty years after we acquired this collection—the description is finally complete. It can always be improved; and perhaps fifty years from now, archivists and researchers will take a new approach to this collection.

Emma sitting for a portrait.
Photograph of Emma Spaulding Bryant.

As an addendum, I would like to address the fact that all of the people mentioned in this blog post are men. John Emory Bryant, while being a supporter of equal rights for men of color, did not support women’s suffrage or equal rights for women. However, there is copious correspondence in the collection between Bryant and his wife, Emma Spaulding Bryant, which is deserving of a blog post of its own. Emma Bryant often pushed back against ideas of male dominance and superiority. We have digitized a small portion of her correspondence that documents a particularly passionate response to John, who apparently objected to Emma seeing a male doctor about “uterine difficulties” without John’s permission or presence. Thanks to historian Ruth Currie-McDaniel, you can find a published collection of Emma Spaulding Bryant’s correspondence in Duke Libraries’ general collection: Emma Spaulding Bryant: Civil War Bride, Carpetbagger’s Wife, Ardent Feminist.

You can find out more about collections at the Rubenstein relating to Reconstruction by visiting our Emancipation and Reconstruction Eras LibGuide. Also, you may be interested in this blog post: https://blogs.library.duke.edu/rubenstein/2013/11/12/the-african-americans-rubenstein-recap-3/.

[1] Card catalog entry for the John Emory Bryant Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

[2] Ruth Currie-McDaniel, Carpetbagger of Conscience: a Biography of John Emory Bryant (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987), 182.

[3] Eric Forner, “The New View of Reconstruction,” American Heritage 34, Issue 6 (October/November 1983): 10-15.

[4] Daniel Bromfield letter, 1866, John Emory Bryant Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

[5] Deposition describing Ku Klux activity in Alabama, Florida, and Georgia, 1870s, John Emory Bryant Papers, David M. Rubenstein Library, Duke University.

[6] William Woods Holden Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

[7] Henry McNeal Turner letters, 1866, John Emory Bryant Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

[8] United States, The Statutes at Large, Treaties, and Proclamations, of the United States of America, from December, 1865, to March, 1867 (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1868), 27.

[9] Charles R. Edwardes letter, 1869, John Emory Bryant Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

[10] William Anderson Pledger letter press copybook, page 23, John Emory Bryant Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

[11] Ibid., 145. Emphasis in original.

[12] William Anderson Pledger scrapbook, John Emory Bryant Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

[13] “United Order of True Reformers,” Savannah Tribune (published as The Colored Tribune), February 5, 1876.

[14] Pledger scrapbook.

[15] Donald L. Grant, The Way It Was in the South: the Black Experience in Georgia (Athens, Georgia: University of Gerogia Press, 2001), 131.

[16] Ibid., 132.

[17] Ibid., 200-201.

[18] Ibid., 258.

[19] Ibid., 166.

Rubenstein Library Test Kitchen: The Joys of Jell-O (1962)

Post contributed by Lucy Dong, Middlesworth Social Media and Outreach Fellow

The Nicole Di Bona Peterson Collection of Advertising Cookbooks is a frequent source of test kitchen projects, featuring members of the Rubenstein staff documenting their attempts to create delicious and sometimes very odd recipes. We were inspired by the popularity of Buzzfeed Tasty and Bon Appetit cooking videos, however, to show a test kitchen that was fast and digestible. With their simple captions, overhead angle, sped up chopping, and quirky music, the cooking videos trending on social media are made to grab your short attention. And what better attention grabber than a triple tiered Jell-O cake and a Jell-O salad?

Chart showing chilling times for different Jell-o consistency
Guide to chilling times

Lucky for us, many people have abandoned their fish molds of kitchens past, and my cooking partner, Sonia Fillipow, was able to find one easily at the Durham Scrap Exchange. The triple tiered molds were harder to find so we settled on a recipe that could look colorful and exciting in one layer. Old recipes often use unfamiliar jargon or lack specifics, and test kitcheners have sometimes had to do some educated guesswork or extra research. The recipe book we referenced, “Joys of Jell-O Gelatin Dessert” (1962) includes a very helpful graphic for how long you should chill your Jello to achieve your desired consistency. Our molds held much more Jell-O than the recipe created, so we had to do some math. Getting the Jell-O out of the molds was a whole other ordeal that we were not prepared for–we decided to save you from our failed attempts in the final cut.

Vintage Jell-o advertisement, showing a woman with an old-timey telephone. The text reads "Yes, Jell-o, please, all seven-flavors."
Cover of an early 20th-century Jell-O promotional book.

Along the way, we got to learn some of the history of Jell-O. The Nicole Di Bona Peterson Collection of Advertising Cookbooks spans the years 1851-2005 and covers promotional materials addressed to cooking and kitchen arts. Materials in the collection were used to educate consumers and promote the use of a variety of foods. “Joys of Jell-O Gelatin Dessert” (1962) was one such educational recipe book that served marketing purposes.  As seen in this early 20th-century when the owner of Jell-O, Otto Frank Woodward, invested in advertising that proclaimed it to be ‘America’s Most Famous Dessert’, marketing was crucial to getting the gelatin product into American kitchens. Woodward published recipe books, handed out Jell-O molds to immigrants, and aired a jingle on the radio. The brand’s messaging towards women has changed over the years, but perhaps the one thing that hasn’t changed its aesthetic potential. As the New York Times reports, “queer and female artists are now revisiting Jell-O as both subject matter and material, creating work that challenges society’s fixations on traditionally feminine realms and behaviors.”

We lack the artistic talent to make stunning Jell-O art worthy of fashion campaigns, but thanks to a lot of patience, and some YouTube tutorials on removing Jell-O from Jell-O molds, we ended up with a ‘cake’ and a ‘salad’ that looked great (and the Crown Jewel cake even tasted okay).

Recipes:

Crown Jewel Dessert / “Broken Window Glass Cake”

“A spectacular dessert that fits busy schedules–the gelatin for cubes may be made on day, remainder of dessert can wait until the next day.”

1 package (3 oz.) EACH of 3 different flavored (and different colored) Jell-O
3 cups boiling water
2 cups cold water
1 cup pineapple juice
¼ cup sugar
1 package (3 oz.) Jell-O Lemon Gelatin
2 envelopes Dream Whip Dessert Topping Mix or 2 cups whipping cream

  1. Prepare the three flavors of gelatin separately, using 1 cup of boiling water and ½ cup cold water for each. Pour each flavor into an 8-inch square pan or tupperware. Chill until firm, or overnight.
  2. Mix pineapple juice and sugar; heat until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and dissolve lemon gelatin in the hot juice; then add ½ cup cold water. Chill until slightly thickened.
  3. Prepare dessert topping mix as directed on package and blend with slightly thickened lemon gelatin.
  4. Cut firm gelatins into ½ – inch cubes. Layer cubes in Jell-O mold with cream/gelatin mixture so that the cubes are relatively dispersed throughout. Chill at least 5 hours or overnight.
  5. When removing dessert from mold, submerge the bottom of the mold in a bowl of hot tap water for 5-10 sec. Separate the gelatin from the edges of the mold either by running a knife/spatula between the dessert and the mold or gently pulling at the edge with the flat part of the fingers. Place a plate (or a clean cutting board) on top of the mold and invert. Other tips from the book pictured below. You can also use this video for reference.

Vegetable Salad

“Your favorite vegetable can be used in this very versatile salad”

1 package (3 oz.) Jell-O; any citrus flavored gelatin like lemon or lime
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup boiling water
2 tablespoons vinegar
2 teaspoons grated onion
1 dash of pepper
1-2 cups of any 3 vegetables, chopped finely

  1. Dissolve Jell-O Gelatin and salt in boiling water. Add cold water, vinegar, grated onion, and pepper. Pour into fish mold and chill until very thick.
  2. Chop vegetables into matchsticks or florets.
  3. Fold chopped vegetables into thickened gelatin and chill overnight.
  4. Unmold

Houdini: Magician, Escape Artist, Collector

Post contributed by Steph Crowell, Trent History of Medicine Intern

While searching through Duke’s Parapsychology Lab materials, I uncovered some evidence that Houdini himself had at one point contacted J.B. Rhine. As an amateur magician and great fan of the folks over at the Rhine Research Center, I had to know more.

After doing some digging, I found this photo in the Rubenstein’s Picture File:

On the left a photograph of Houdini, wearing a suit, sitting with what appears to be the ghost of Abraham Lincoln. On the right, the back side of the photo with a handwritten note that reads "J.B. Rhine. Best Wishes, Houdini"
Houdini, Harry, 1900s, Picture File, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University. Front and back.

The writing on the back of the photo may be difficult to read, but it says, “J.B. Rhine Best wishes, Houdini.” Armed with proof, I scoured the guide to the Parapsychology Lab Records for the letter that I was sure accompanied this photo.

I soon found this to be much more difficult than anticipated. Although the correspondence folders have been kindly indexed, I saw no entry under Harry Houdini or under his other names (Erik Weisz, Ehrich Weiss, or Harry Weiss). It seemed that The Handcuff King had found his way out of our records.

This is an item that I immediately wanted to share, but I wanted to share it with some context so I expanded my search. As it turns out, Houdini was a great admirer of President Lincoln (you can read more about the quirks of his personality here) and the Harry Ransom Center in Texas has some proof of this in their collection of Houdini’s personal papers. Wondering if perhaps staff had some answers to my question of how this photo came to be at Duke, I sent an email to what I thought was the reference librarian for this collection.

That email address was no longer operational. I then tried to email someone in an admin position in the center to ask them to refer me to the right person, and I await a response.

Even though I didn’t find exactly what I was looking for in time to write this post, I think the things I found during my search are just as valuable. As a long-time fan of Houdini, I had heard stories of his passion for debunking fraudulent soothsayers and mystics but I didn’t realize just how deep his fascination went.

In addition to the collection of personal papers at the Ransom Center, I discovered that throughout his life, Houdini had also been an avid collector of books- to the point that his collection is considered to be one of the largest in the world on the topics of magic, witchcraft, demonology, psychic phenomena, and spiritualism (this post has some great links to see what some of those are).

It’s the biggest collection I’ve never heard of, and it’s remarkable to think that someone who lived on the road like Houdini did had the time, space, and motivation to hunt all of these down- I can only imagine the shock on librarians’ faces when, after his death, the collection was delivered to the Library of Congress.

While I was digging through the Library of Congress’ holdings, I found a digital copy of the photo that started this whole adventure: Houdini and the ghost of Abraham Lincoln. As it turns out, the photo was a result of one of Houdini’s many efforts to debunk a mystical fraud. As the Library of Congress describes, the photograph was created to illustrate “how a photographer could produce fraudulent ‘spirit photographs’ that purportedly documented the apparition and social interaction of figures from beyond. Demonstrating the company he could keep if the right technique were employed, Houdini had himself photographed with the ghost of Abraham Lincoln.”

To tie this back to J.B. Rhine, Houdini’s efforts with the Lincoln photo were published in the read Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, a publication that later declined to publish one of J.B. Rhine’s own papers debunking a medium named Mina Crandon.

Thank you for reading this long post about the beginning of my journey down this rabbit hole, and I hope you’ve found something in it that piques your interest. Houdini and J.B. Rhine were pioneers in the study of psychic phenomena and we’re very fortunate in the Rubenstein to have a wealth of materials on the topic because of the Rhine Center- who knows what might still be waiting to be found in one of those boxes?

Correction: An earlier version of this post had the incorrect name for the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Reserach. Thanks to an astute reader for alerting us.

Rubenstein Library Test Kitchen: Cooking with Duke Power

Post contributed by Ashton Merck, Graduate Intern for the Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising, and Marketing History

In the mid-twentieth century, the Duke Power Company Home Service wished its customers a “Merry Christmas” and a “Happy New Year” with an annual collection of holiday recipes.

Covers of two Duke Power cookbooks. Both feature their mascot, a stick figure made of lightning bolts.
“Merry Christmas,” circa 1950s (Item 1950s-0499); “Recipes,” circa 1950s (Item 1950s-0504)

The John W. Hartman Center has at least two of these pamphlets in the Nicole di Bona Peterson Collection of Advertising Cookbooks. These cookbooks focused almost exclusively on holiday baking. One cookbook included separate sections for cakes, pies, candy, cookies, and desserts, while “salads, sandwiches, and breads” were combined into one category.

In the spirit of the holiday season, I decided that I would give one of these recipes a try. Quite a few of them looked recognizable as something my great-grandmothers used to make, like “Cheery Cherry Cake” or “Skillet Cookies.” Others, like a “Chocolate Yule Log” – which involved an unholy combination of mashed potatoes, confectioner’s sugar, and shredded coconut – sounded completely inedible. But one recipe, for “Spiced Cherry Bells,” caught my eye. Somewhat inexplicably, the recipe called for ginger and instant coffee, in lieu of the usual holiday spices like cinnamon, allspice, or nutmeg. It also required more advanced assembly than the other cookies or cakes, through the creation of the “bell” shape. It seemed like something that was unusual enough to be worth trying.

Original recipe
“Spiced Cherry Bells,” from “Merry Christmas” cookbook

As soon as I mixed the dry ingredients, it was clear that there was not enough of either the ginger or the instant coffee to overcome the 3 ½ cups of flour called for in the recipe. I took note of that fact, but did not adjust the recipe for my taste, resisting the temptation to add copious amounts of cinnamon and nutmeg. I next realized that the ingredients as mixed was simply too crumbly to form a stable dough that I could roll out, even with the use of a stand mixer. I had to add about another 1/8 cup of heavy cream to get the dough to come together. Even still, it called for so much shortening that it was tricky to roll out to the thickness specified. I eventually managed to get the cookies onto the (mercifully, ungreased) cookie sheet, where I shaped them into something that, if you squint your eyes, could be imagined as “bells.” I then baked them for the allotted time of 15 minutes.

I considered what the small quantity of the “spices” might indicate about the time and place in which this recipe was created, and imagined several possible hypotheses: Perhaps instant coffee or ginger were expensive or hard to come by; or, the far more likely scenario, they were so ubiquitous that they might already be in the pantry anyway. That got me thinking – when was instant coffee invented? Could it have been a new or trendy product at the time?

For an initial answer to these questions, I requested a box from the J. Walter Thompson “Competitive Advertisements” collection. The ads in the folders depicted instant coffee drinkers as married couples engaged in energetic outdoor activities or home improvement projects, like this campaign from 1956:

Vintage advertisement for instant coffee. Illustrated with a picture of a woman pouring coffee for a man. The headline reads "Richer Coffee Instantly!"
“When the Moment Calls for Coffee,” Hot Beverages – Coffee (1 of 2), 1956, Box 1956-15, Competitive Advertisements 1955-1997, J. Walter Thompson Company, Rubenstein Library, Duke University.

Advertisment Martinsons Instant Coffe, featuring "Swedish Beef Puffs"

From looking at these ads, it seemed like instant coffee was one of many “convenience foods” that became tastier and more widely available in the post-WWII era, along with TV dinners and canned foods. I then requested another box from the Alvin Achenbaum collection, which contained several market research studies on coffee. The studies further emphasized that consumers valued instant coffee primarily for its convenience and low cost.

I also noticed that a few ads included recipes that contained small amounts of instant coffee, like this one for Swedish Beef Puffs at right.

But these ads were few and far between. As I perused the market research, I looked to see if the consultants recommended promotion of alternate uses of instant coffee in recipes, or baking, but they did not. Instead, the market researchers were far more interested in carefully segmenting the coffee buying market by their tastes and preferences, rather than by inventing new and creative uses for the product.

So, after this investigation – using Rubenstein collections, of course – it seems that instant coffee was already cheap and ubiquitous by the time it made it into the “Spiced Cherry Bells,” but the choice to use it in a recipe might have seemed as unusual then as it does now.

The Verdict: The cookies were … okay. The flavor of the baked, slightly caramelized maraschino cherry was delicious, and the “filling” mixture which called for pecans, brown sugar, and butter was something of a foolproof combination. But, as I expected, neither the instant coffee nor the ginger came through at all in the final bake.

Ten sort of bell shaped cookies on a baking sheet. They look dry and not particularly attractive.
Unfortunately, they taste as good as they look.

Described by taste-testers as “aggressively neutral” and “a bit dry,” the dough was definitely the weak point in these cookies. “You almost get bored with it halfway through,” one observed. Yet the cookies also had a confusingly familiar flavor to them; there was plenty of room for the individual housewife to give the recipe her own spin enough to call it her own. As another taste tester noted, the recipe is “very much of the era.”