Category Archives: From Our Collections

Happy 213th Birthday, Abraham Lincoln!

Post contributed by Naomi L. Nelson, Associate University Librarian and Director, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, in a one-room log cabin in Kentucky, which was on the western frontier of the young United States. His father was a hardscrabble farmer who moved his family several times in search of better opportunities, but the family never escaped poverty.

Lincoln was an avid reader from an early age. He grew up in Indiana and later remembered that he had less than a year’s schooling there—total. He was ambitious and learned by reading. Over his lifetime, Lincoln is known to have read in many disciplines, including the Bible, law and legal history, classical literature, world and American history, and political economy.

In an address to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society in 1859, Lincoln noted “A capacity, and taste, for reading, gives access to whatever has already been discovered by others. It is the key, or one of the keys, to the already solved problems. And not only so. It gives a relish, and facility, for successfully pursuing the [yet] unsolved ones.”

These are words to warm a librarian’s heart. David M. Rubenstein’s Americana Library includes many of the books that Lincoln is known to have read. He has loaned Duke a number of these titles for the exhibition “To Stand by the Side of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the American Nineteenth Century,” now on view in the Rubenstein Library and online.

Interested in learning more about Abraham Lincoln and his place in American history? Please join us on February 16 for “Abraham Lincoln and the American Experiment: a conversation with David M. Rubenstein and Thavolia Glymph.”

Dispatches from the Nuremberg Trials: The Robert P. Stewart Papers

Post contributed by Elliot Mamet, Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at Duke and Archival Processing Intern at the Rubenstein Library.

What does it feel like to be a fly on the wall at the Nuremberg Trials? The papers of Robert P. Stewart, recently donated to the Rubenstein Library, provide an answer.

Stewart was an attorney and Duke alumnus who served as a legal aide to Judge John J. Parker at the Nuremburg Trials in 1945 and 1946. There, 24 Nazi political and military leaders were indicted and tried with waging aggressive war, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. 19 were found guilty, and 12 were sentenced to death.

An overriding theme of Stewart’s correspondence is the emotional toll that the evidence of Nazi crimes took on the jurists. His letters tell of film evidence taken by the U.S. army when they first encountered the Nazi concentration camps.  “It really was an awful pictorial display of what the Nazis had done—and it upset Judge [Parker] a great deal. The English judges could not even eat.”[1] Judge Parker, Stewart says, became depressed from hearing so much terrible evidence.[2] Compounding this emotional toll was the homesickness felt by the American legal contingent.

A four-page handwritten letter from Robert P. Stewart to Mary Moss, dated December 2nd, 1945. The letter's addressed airmail envelope is also included.

Also in Stewart’s letters is discussion of the secret 1939 non-aggression pact between Nazi Germany and the USSR—an agreement first disclosed at Nuremberg. Writes Stewart, “perhaps the most interesting bit behind the scenes lately is the way one of the defense lawyers is trying to introduce a document which purports to be a photostat copy of a secret treaty between Germany and Russia in 1939.”[3] That non-aggression pact paved the way for the Nazi invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939.

Outside of court, Stewart encountered colorful characters during his service at Nuremberg. For instance, he lunched with General Dwight Eisenhower at Eisenhower’s Frankfurt villa, calling Eisenhower “a remarkable man—strictly down to earth,” and noting it was “probably the first time during this war that anyone so lowly as a major sat down to break bread with him.”[4]

Some 35 years after returning from the Nuremberg Trials, Stewart reflected on his service in a profile in The Asheville Citizen. “The most dramatic part of the trials,” Stewart said, “was the evidence on the persecution of the Jews. The films shown and the stories told were horrendous, unbelievable. If I hadn’t been there I would never have believed it.”[5] He was there, and his papers at the Rubenstein help us feel what it was like.

Footnotes:

[1] Letter from Robert P. Stewart to Beverly G. Moss, December 2, 1945. Folder 2, Robert P. Stewart papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

[2] Letter from Robert P. Stewart to Plummer Stewart, January 12, 1946. Folder 2, Robert P. Stewart papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

[3] Letter from Robert P. Stewart to Plummer Stewart, May 30, 1946. Folder 3, Robert P. Stewart Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

[4] Letter from Robert P. Stewart to Plummer Stewart, November 7, 1945, and letter from Robert P. Stewart to C. C. Gabel, November 7, 1945. Folder 1, Robert P. Stewart papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

[5] Tony Brown, “Stewart Had Important Role at Nuremberg,” The Asheville Citizen, September 8, 1981, pg. 9. Oversize Folder 1, Robert P. Stewart papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

Exhibit Opening: “Our History, Our Voice: Latinx at Duke/Nuestra Historia, Nuestra Voz: Latinas/os/es/x en Duke”

Date: Monday, February 21, 2022
Time: 4:00-6:00 PM
Location: Chappell Family Gallery, Perkins Library
Contact: Meg Brown or Amy McDonald

Please join the student and faculty curators at the opening of their new exhibition, “Our History, Our Voice: Latinx at Duke/Nuestra Historia, Nuestra Voz: Latinas/os/es/x en Duke.”

Over the past year, Dr. Cecilia Márquez’s Latinx Social Movements courses and Professor Joan Munné’s Spanish for Heritage Learners courses canvassed the collections of the Duke University Archives and conducted oral histories to create this first-of-its-kind exhibition exploring the complex story of Duke’s Latinx community.

The exhibit curators will make brief remarks at 4:30 PM and offer guided tours of the exhibit afterwards.

We encourage you to register for this event. Registration is not required, but will help us to plan the event safely. Masks are required in the Duke University Libraries.

If you’re unable to join us for this event, please check out our online exhibit!

Photograph of the "Our History, Our Voice" exhibit. The exhibit's title appears on the far wall, which is also lined with colorful exhibit panels and exhibit cases. Two exhibit cases display materials in the center of the room.

Santa and Me!

Post contributed by Rick Collier, Technical Services Archivist for the John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History.

A child in a dark sweater and shorts smiles while sitting on Santa's lap. A Christmas tree with tinsel stands behind them.For many towns and cities in 20th century America, the holiday season officially began just after Thanksgiving, which was established as a fixed national holiday in 1941. Frequently festivities included a parade that involved local dignitaries, youth clubs, business and social organizations, a Miss Something-or-Other pageant winner, high school bands, fire engines, culminating in the arrival of Santa Claus in some ostentatious conveyance. Town folk stood in yards and sidewalks, sometimes for hours in freezing weather, to witness the spectacle. To this day, even, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade ends with the Santa Claus float.

Afterwards, Santa generally installed himself in one or several of the local department stores, meeting children, hearing their wishes, and sometimes posing for photographs. In all it was a wonderfully odd synthesis of folklore, consumerism, and technology. How did it begin?

It is generally accepted that Macy’s Department Store featured the first in-store Santa Claus character beginning in the 1860s.  Perhaps the first in-store Santa Claus that we might recognize, the rotund and jolly old man inspired by the stories of Washington Irving and illustrations of Thomas Nast, was James Edgar who posed as Santa as a promotional act in 1890 at his dry goods store in Brockton, Mass. The idea caught on and soon Santas were featured in department stores across the country. In the early 1940s, photographers and studios such as Art French in Seattle and Kiddie Kandids, based in the Midwest, began photographing Santa posed with children. What started out as a way to make money in what might otherwise be an off-season became a way to create mementos of childhood.

Recently the Hartman Center acquired a small collection entitled “Santa and Me!”, named for a promotional campaign conducted by Kiddie Kandids, a chain of photograph studios that apparently began in St. Louis and expanded to include over 2,000 studios located in major and regional department stores throughout the United States. The photographs, taken between 1946 and 1948, depict Santa with children on his knee, as well as some other themed settings such as Alice in Wonderland and the circus. There are also shots of Santa on a department store stage with the photographer’s booth hidden in a wall, as well as some images of how the camera was set up to capture the moment of Santa and child.

A man dressed as Santa Claus sits on a gilded carved chair in front of drapery. A Christmas tree stands on either side. He's seated on a platform with entrance and exit ramps and railings.

Accompanying documentation describes how to conduct an “Operation Santa Claus” campaign: instructions on pricing; how to match the children to their photographs; distribution; how to set up the camera and process the flow of children. There are even recommendations on processing children through the experience: “This is a candid photograph and the children can be taken as fast as Santa wants to move them along. At the rate of 300 per hour, 2,000 to 3,000 is not unreasonable.”

This small collection provides a glimpse into an aspect of mid-century holiday celebrations and a commercial photographic practice that was only a few years old at the time. The collection is available at Duke’s Rubenstein Library and the collection guide may be viewed here.

Sources:

To Be or Not to Be (Vaccinated)?

Post contributed by Rachel Ingold, Curator for the History of Medicine Collections.

The history of vaccine hesitancy is nothing new. Pamphlets, magazines, and newspapers from the eighteenth through twenty-first centuries feature opposing views of vaccination. Some profess personal liberty and abhor government intervention (i.e. instituting compulsory vaccination); or claim that potential side effects from vaccines are too risky. Others stress that public health and the well-being of communities against preventable, lethal diseases, should prevail through large-scale, or even mandatory, vaccinations.

Does this sound a bit familiar?

The David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library has material, ranging in format and date, that document the long history of vaccine hesitancy. In October 2019, an exhibit Vaccination: 300 Years of Debate was installed in the Josiah Charles Trent History of Medicine Room. When campus closed in March 2020, so did our exhibit spaces. This exhibit became inaccessible at a time when it was becoming most relevant.

Image annoucing that exhibit was closed in response to coronavirus.
Image from Vaccination: 300 Years of Debate, person in bed from Engravings by Clemens Kohl

We are now happy to share the online exhibit for Vaccination: 300 Years of Debate. Take a break from current news to view materials that give context to this ongoing, historical debate.

 

 

 

 

 

If These Saws Could Talk

Post contributed by Roger Pena, MLIS Student at UNC Greensboro and Josiah Charles Trent History of Medicine Intern

“There may come to me fresh blooming flowers, but I’ll love the faded bud best.

For it slept one night in the moonlight, on the sod upon his breast.”

– Winifred Cobb, widow of Benjamin. F. Cobb

I am a little over a month into my internship at the History of Medicine Collections at the Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library. In my short time working in the collection, I’ve been able to handle incunabula (books printed prior to 1501), surgical tools dating back to the 16th century, and a wide range of artifacts preserving the history of medicine, health issues, biomedical science, and disease in a global context.

image showing open amputation set
Amputation set, early to mid-19th century.

A library science degree with a focus in special collections is a career change from my decade of experience working in K-12 education. Being a history teacher for most of my career I had always been interested in battlefield medicine, especially throughout American history and the Civil War(1861-1865).

For most people with an interest in Civil War history, the treatment of wounded and injured soldiers is of particular interest. A search of the History of Medicine artifacts collection will lead you to several surgical and amputation saws donated to the Rubenstein Library.  As I mentioned previously, one of the surgical saws dates back to the 16th century and could require two people to operate while the collection also houses an amputation saw from the late 1890s.

image of tourniquet included in amputation set that show the name of the manufacturer, S. Maw & Son.
Detail on tourniquet showing the name S. Maw & Son, a medical supply company.

Another surgical saw is titled: “Amputation set, early to mid-19th century”.  The set is made up of at least 8 different pieces including a large surgical saw, a tourniquet with leather paddings to make the procedure more “comfortable” and four large knives that more resemble a modern set of kitchen knives than ones used to amputate a soldier’s limb. The set comes in a wooden box with a brass plate and an engraving with initials: B.F.C. Its contents were purchased through S. Maw and Son – a medical supply company operating out of London and featured prominently on the saw and knife handles. The wooden set was donated through the Alphonsus Cobb Collection, son of Benjamin Franklin Cobb.

image of B.F. Cobb
B. F. Cobb

The youngest son of Benjamin F. and Winifred Cobb, Alphonsus moved to the city of Durham around the turn of the 20th century. Throughout his time in Durham, Alphonsus would serve as a hotel manager and local businessman in real estate and insurance until his death in 1935. A look through collection control files revealed a folder with a detailed history of the Cobb family, historical columns written in local newspapers, and a poem written by Winifred, Benjamin’s widow, on the day of his burial. Not much survives of his record in the Confederate Army nor is there much information about Alphonsus, except for information about his business history in Durham.

Dr. Josiah C. Trent, whose original collection of medical books, manuscripts and artifacts helped to establish the History of Medicine Collections, hoped to create a collection that celebrated and studied the history of surgery. No doubt an artifact such as an amputation saw from the Civil War era would be a good fit for the collection.

The battlefields of the American Civil War saw nearly 60,000 amputations, roughly 75% of all surgeries performed in the conflict. Used as a method to prevent disease and infections such as gangrene, survival could depend on factors such as the location of the wound and when treatment was administered.  Though rudimentary by today’s standards, amputations during the Civil War were “sophisticated” procedures conducted with patients under anesthesia (chloroform or ether) and  “one of the quickest, most effective ways for surgeons to treat as many patients as possible.” Still, the harsh conditions of performing surgeries in the battlefield hospitals led to the reputation of surgeons and doctors acting more like “butchers” and soldiers fearing the short and long-term ramifications of an amputation.

Detail of amputation saw and descriptive card included in amputation kit.

Our saw’s owner, Benjamin F. Cobb was born into a slave owning family (1830 Census)  in Wayne County, NC in January, 1826 and completed his medical training at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia in 1847. The 1850s would see Dr. B.F. Cobb in a general medical practice with a focus on obstetrics in Duplin Co., NC. In April of 1862, a year into the Civil War, Dr. Cobb was commissioned as a surgeon in the Provisional Confederate Army and would serve across the state of North Carolina until the end of the Civil War. Dr. Cobb was stationed as a Confederate Surgeon in Goldsboro, Fort Anderson, Smithville, Penders Hospital, and Fort Caswell until his capture in March 1865 and eventual loyalty oath in May of 1865. One can only wonder whether the “Amputation set” in the History of Medicine Collections was present as Dr. Cobb attended to wounded soldiers.

surgical knife from amputation set held against a peron's arm for scale
Detail of surgical knife from amputation set. Human arm for scale.

Today, the amputation set owned by Benjamin F. Cobb and donated by Alphonsus to Duke University serves as a hands-on teaching tool for students at Duke University in learning the ways that surgery has evolved over the last few centuries.  When opening the finished and well designed wooden box holding the amputation saw and accompanying instruments, it’s easy to step back in history and imagine a world where physicians grappled with decisions regarding the need for an amputation and  the thousands of soldiers whose lives were forever changed by the war and surgical procedure.

Detail of amputation saw. Human arm for scale.

Franklin Research Center Commemorates 25 Years of Preserving “Black Lives in Archives”

Post contributed by John B. Gartrell, Director, John Hope Franklin Research Center for African and African American History & Culture

The 2021-2022 academic year marks the 25th anniversary of the John Hope Franklin Research Center for African and African American History & Culture. The Franklin Research Center, which is based in the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, will use the theme “Black Lives in Archives” as the thread for a slate of programming and projects that will build upon the center’s mission of advancing scholarship on the history and culture of people of African descent.

The anniversary will begin on September 14 with a virtual lecture by Dr. Emilie Boone, Assistant Professor of African American Studies at New York City College of Technology, CUNY. Her talk will respond to the exhibition James Van Der Zee and Michael Francis Blake: Picturing Blackness in the 1920s, currently on display in the Rubenstein Library’s Photography Gallery. The exhibit highlights resonances between the work of James Van Der Zee and Michael Francis Blake, two African American photographers working in the 1920s at the height of the “New Negro Movement.” Register for this event here.

 

James Van Der Zee and Michael Francis Blake: Picturing Blackness in the 1920s. On display in the Rubenstein Library

 

Emilie Boone will lead a virtual lecture entitled, “Visualizing a Shared Ethos: Van Der Zee and Blake as Peers” on Sept. 14

Additional programs this semester will include a Black Lives in Archives virtual speaker series featuring four scholars who were previously awarded research travel grants to come to the Rubenstein Library and utilize the center’s collections. This “return to the archive” by each scholar will highlight the critical importance of Black collections as a foundation for new directions in the field of African and African American Studies. The tentative schedule includes:

September 22 – Brandon K. Winford, Associate Professor, University of Tennessee Knoxville

October 27 – Lisa Bratton, Assistant Professor, Tuskegee University

November 9 – Erik S. McDuffie, Associate Professor, University of Illinois Urbana- Champaign

December 8 – Emilye Crosby, Professor of History, SUNY-Geneseo

Earlier this summer, the center announced two exciting projects that will continue to drive the work of preserving the Black archives. “Documenting African American Life in the Jim Crow South: Digital Access to the Behind the Veil Project Archive” is a National Endowment for the Humanities grant-funded initiative to digitize and publish the Behind the Veil archive. The Behind the Veil project, which was led by the Center for Documentary Studies 1992-1995, was one of the largest oral history archives documenting the African American experience of living in the American South during the early to mid-twentieth century. The project will digitize analog cassette tapes containing close to 1,200 interviews with African American elders from twenty distinct communities. In Spring 2022, there will be a virtual gathering of Behind the Veil project staff and interviewers to reflect on their work and the impact of the collection.

The second project is a three-year Mellon Foundation funded project entitled, “Our Stories, Our Terms: Documenting Movement Building from the Inside Out,” which extends the partnership between Duke University Libraries and the SNCC Legacy Project through the Movement History Initiative. Our Stories, Our Terms will document how movement veterans from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and today’s activists built their social and political movements. The project will also build capacity for archival practice among current activist organizations and share documentary pieces from inter- and intra-generational conversations among activist and organizer communities.

In 1995, Dr. John Hope Franklin, the James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of History at Duke University, donated his own personal archive to Duke. In his honor, the Duke University Libraries founded the John Hope Franklin Research Center for African and African American Documentation as a designated collecting area specializing in rare book and primary sources documenting people of African descent, with endowment funding from GlaxoWellcome Inc. Franklin’s archive and his scholarship have been the guiding lights of the center’s engagement in public programming, teaching, exhibitions, and collaborations. This celebration of “Black Lives in Archives” will honor the center’s role as a premiere destination for researchers near and far over the last twenty-five years.

Dr. John Hope Franklin (1915-2009)

Taking Flight: The Pan American World Airways Digital Collection and DPLA Portal

Post contributed by Leah Tams, Pan Am CLIR Grant Intern.

For National Aviation Day, the Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History is excited to announce the launch of the Pan American World Airways Advertisements Digital Collection, which was supported with a Digitizing Hidden Collections grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources. The Pan American World Airways Digital Collection comprises over 6,500 advertisements from the Hartman Center’s collections, including the J. Walter Thompson Domestic Advertisements, J. Walter Thompson Frankfurt Office Advertisements, and Wells Rich Greene Inc. The digital collection spans most of Pan Am’s history, beginning with its World War II-era expansion and military involvement, and ending with Pan Am’s 1991 acquisition by Delta Airlines.

1991 Delta and Pan Am advertisement. The ad shows an illustration of Earth with "Anywhere You Want" printed in large type below. Six columns listing Delta and Pan Am's service cities flank the illustration.
Anywhere You Want ad, 1991.

The Pan Am Digital Collection can be searched using free-text keyword searches, as well as through faceted searching by year, aircraft type (under the “Subject” search facet), language, departure and arrival locations, and source collection. Highlights from the Pan Am Digital Collection include:

  • First passenger service across Pacific, Atlantic, to South America, etc.
  • First jet service, including the debuts of the Boeing 707 and 747.
  • Inaugural service between New York and Moscow.
  • Noteworthy campaigns including the Clipper concept, “around the world service,” and the debut of new services such as in-flight entertainment.
An ad showing a photograph of a Pan Am 747 on a runway. The ad reads "The first 747s to Hawaii are flying Pan Am."
The First 747s to Hawaii are Flying Pan Am ad, 1969.

The Pan Am Digital Collection is part of a larger collaboration with the University of Miami Libraries, who hold the corporate records of Pan Am, and HistoryMiami Museum, who hold artifacts from Pan Am. Together, our digitized materials and artifacts serve as the foundation of the Digital Public Library of America’s new aviation portal, Cleared for Takeoff: Explore Commercial Aviation. In addition to showcasing Pan Am’s history and impact on aviation, the DPLA portal also includes materials related to the broader history of other commercial aviation in America and associated airlines. The portal will eventually feature a chronological representation of Pan Am’s achievements and history through an interactive timeline, which is linked at the top of the portal. The timeline curates materials from each grant partner and puts otherwise disparate items in conversation with each other.

The DPLA Aviation Portal will eventually feature a Primary Source Set, curated by members from the Hartman Center, UMiami Libraries, and HistoryMiami. The Primary Source Set is meant for classroom use and focuses on how Pan Am impacted and “shrank” the world, encouraging critical thinking and analysis of primary source documents and touching upon numerous social, political, and cultural issues.

The Hartman Center is grateful to the Council on Library and Information Resources and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for funding this important project, as well as to our colleagues at UMiami Libraries, HistoryMiami, the DPLA, and our colleagues in Digital Collections & Curation Services and Conservation Services in Duke libraries.

NEH Implementation Grant to Duke Libraries Will Increase Access to African American Oral Histories

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

This summer Duke University Libraries will launch a project to provide expanded digital access to the Behind the Veil: Documenting African-American Life in the Jim Crow South oral history collection, housed in the  David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Libraries and curated by the John Hope Franklin Research Center for African and African American History & Culture.  The project, titled “Documenting African American Life in the Jim Crow South: Digital Access to the Behind the Veil Project Archive,” received a $350,000 Humanities Collections and Reference Resources Implementation grant supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

Behind the Veil (BTV) was undertaken by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University (CDS) from 1992–1995 and co-directed by Drs. William Chafe, CDS co-founder and Alice Mary Baldwin Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Robert Korstad, Professor Emeritus of Public Policy, and the late Raymond Gavins, the first African American faculty member in Duke’s Department of History. Chafe, Korstad, and Gavin’s vision for and title of the project refer to the concept of the “veil” introduced by scholar and activist W.E.B. DuBois in his iconic book The Souls of Black Folk (1913). In that work, DuBois discussed the metaphorical concept of the veil as “separating the two worlds of white and black,” designed to protect African Americans who had to balance comporting their lives as subservient and compliant in front of a White dominated society while simultaneously living free in their own community.

Henderson, Larry – Birmingham, Behind the Veil Collection

BTV was a groundbreaking documentary project for its time that recorded and preserved the living memory of African American life during the age of segregation in the American South. Over the span of three summers, cohorts of graduate students and early career scholars from universities across the country received training with the project’s scholarly board and then resided in selected locales for two weeks to conduct oral histories. The team conducted interviews with more than one thousand community elders who shared their memories from the Jim Crow Era of legal segregation. Nineteen distinct communities were identified for interviews: Albany, GA; rural Arkansas; Birmingham, AL; Charlotte, NC; Durham, NC; Enfield, NC; New Bern, NC; LeFlore County, NC; Memphis, TN; Muhlenberg, KY; New Iberia, LA; New Orleans, LA; Norfolk, VA; Orangeburg, SC; St. Helena, SC; Summerton, SC; Tallahassee, FL; Tuskegee, AL; and Wilmington, NC.

 

All of the BTV project files were transferred to the John Hope Franklin Research Center in subsequent years after the project’s completion. The BTV collection encompasses a number of formats including over 1,200 taped audio cassette interviews and 3,000 photographic strips, slides and prints, manuscript project files, training materials, administrative records, and born-digital files. The grant work will focus on the digitization and transcription of the oral histories, scanning of the photographic materials, and sharing the collection’s contents with students, educators, and the wider public through virtual programs and webinars. The digital collection will be published in the Duke Digital Repository, where 410 BTV interviews are currently accessible for research. Funds will also allow the project team to hire graduate level interns for archival processing, digitization, and outreach.

 

John B. Gartrell, director of the John Hope Franklin Research Center and principal investigator for the grant noted, “The Behind the Veil collection is one of the most used collections in the Franklin Research Center. These oral histories truly broaden our understanding of the everyday lives of African Americans during the early-to-mid twentieth century. They represent one of the largest bodies of scholarship on African American life documenting that time, and I’m excited to share the depth of these stories and honor the scholars who recorded them.” Gartrell will be joined by co-principal investigator Giao Luong Baker, who serves as Duke Libraries’ Digital Production Services Manager. Together they will lead the digitization efforts in collaboration with library colleagues over the course of the next three years (2021–2024).

 

 

 

 

A Melancholy Skeleton

Post contributed by Roseen Giles, PhD, Assistant Professor of Music and Curator, Duke University Musical Instrument Collections

A white ivory carving against a black velvet background. The carving shows a skeleton leaning against a pedestal with a clock. Symbols of worldly power and wealth--like a crown, a knight's helmet, and flags--are piled at his feet.
Memento Mori, approximately 1650, Rubenstein Library

There is a melancholy skeleton who lives in Duke University’s History of Medicine Collections at the Rubenstein Library. In truly every sense, he is a marvel. Meticulously carved from a single piece of ivory, this piece is crafted with astounding virtuosity by an artist who must have known as much about the science of anatomy as they did of the human condition. The composition dates from the middle of the seventeenth century but the name of the artist and the circumstances of its creation are unknown. It is perhaps fitting that the subject of this skeletal wonder is the greatest mystery of all: death. The remarkable details of the carving suggest that it is a vanitas or memento mori, a genre of artworks that remind us through a series of recognizable symbols of the certainty of death and the fleetingness of life. The skeleton itself represents a human life spent; despite our differences and all the things that mark us as unique individuals we will all one day die, leaving behind ossified remains that are, to the untrained eye, indistinguishable one of from the other.

At the skeleton’s feet are some of the most common symbols of the vanitas genre: traces of earthly pursuits such as warfare, monarchy and, perhaps most importantly, objects which point to the passing of time. This level of detail will be familiar to those acquainted with Hans Holbein the Younger’s masterpiece The Ambassadors (1533), a painting which contains quintessential examples of vanitas, among them a lute with a single broken string. Music and sound can in this case stand in as a metaphor for human life, one that is equally transient and decaying as soon as it is brought into existence. Tucked behind our skeleton’s crossed legs we can see a sickle or scythe, the symbol for the tyranny of time and of its god Saturn. The pedestal upon which he rests his arm contains the mechanical parts of a timepiece, innovative new inventions in the early modern period. The skeleton cradles his own head as he leans upon the ticking pedestal in a striking gesture that suggests both a contemplative and melancholy temperament. Perhaps most astonishing is the detail of the sash that surrounds but does not fully touch his back—as if it had been taken up with a momentary gust of wind that froze it in its movement.

Black-and-white illustration of a skeleton leaning on a shovel. Its skull is tilted back and its mouth is open. There is a mountainous landscape behind it.
Andreas Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica (1543), p. 163

The stick upon which the skeleton rests his right hand does not seem particularly remarkable, but a comparison to two drawings from Andreas Vesalius’s (1514–64) revolutionary anatomical treatise De humani corporis fabrica [On the Fabric of the Human Body] (Basel, 1543) reveals that there may be more to this detail than meets the eye. In one of these illustrations—possibly attributable to a pupil of Titian, Joannes Stephanus of Calcar (c. 1488–1576)— a skeleton turns his head up towards the heavens (Figure 2). The positioning of his neck and torso suggests a depth of feeling: his head is turned slightly to one side as he looks up and he rests his weight on a staff very much like the one in the ivory vanitas. In Vesalius we can see that the skeleton is leaning not on a walking stick but on a shovel, which he will use to dig his own grave. In yet another of the images from the Fabrica we can see the same skeleton looking not upwards but down with one hand supporting his own head and the other resting on a skull—not his own, apparently— which is placed upon a pedestal very similar to the timepiece in our carving. The anatomical accuracy in both the drawings of the Fabrica and of our ivory skeleton is remarkable enough, but their gestural embodiment of human thought and emotion make these works truly astonishing historical witnesses. Their subjects point to the contradictions of lived existence: the unstable dichotomy between the physical and mental, between anatomy and emotion, between scientific and artistic knowledge.

Black-and-white illustration of a skeleton leaning on a tomb. It rests its skull on its left hand and places its right hand on another skull.
Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica (1543), p. 164

The unknown artist who made the vanitas skeleton in Duke’s History of Medicine Collections understood the rhetorical power of the ephemeral made material, when the truths of existence are brought into dialogue with the irrationality of consciousness. The very material they chose is telling of this. Ivory is rare and costly but lends itself well to the intricate detail of the piece’s low relief; it is not human bone but stands in for it in a vivid and arresting way. There are many things that such a piece can teach us about the history of medicine and, more specifically, seventeenth-century understandings of human anatomy and the physicality of emotions. But in reminding us that we will certainly die it can also tell us something about how to live. It represents, in short, a kind of contemplative interaction between the living and the dead, an interaction which suggests that the health of the human body is inextricably linked with our thoughts and emotions. In this way our melancholy skeleton can, even by representing death and transience, help us to understand and to improve the health and well-being of the living.