Tag Archives: diaries

Peeking at Paris in 1841: The Private Journal of Thomas R. Spencer

There’s something satisfying about reading a journal, and I don’t think it has much to do with the fact that a lot of journals try to discourage readers from exploring their contents, either. Instead, what I think appeals to me about journals is the familiar and candid tone of an author writing to him or herself. It’s thrilling to feel like the secret confidante of someone whom you’ve never met. There’s a lot of honesty in a journal, and that honesty transcends time to resonate with people totally outside of the context of the author’s life.

I’ve been privileged to work with the History of Medicine Collection in the Rubenstein Library this semester, and in the course of my project came across the journals of a young American medical student living in Paris, France in the early 1840s. Before I had really been able to familiarize myself with the contents of the journals – barriers mainly being Spencer’s handwriting – I imagined that the writing would be fraught with tales of the revolutions and political upheaval that characterized French politics in the 19th Century. What I found instead, though, was a window into the daily life of a bright, detail-oriented young medical student living in beautiful and romantic Paris, France even before the iconic Eiffel Tower was built.

The first entry in the journal is almost 30 pages long and describes a tour of Parisian monuments. Spencer starts with a jaunt around the grounds of the Palais des Tuileries and ends with a visit to the Arche de Triomphe on the Champs Elysées. When I said detail oriented, I was referring to things like the fact that Spencer recorded in yards the length and breadth of the Palais des Tuileries and described the arrangement and structure of the gardens there, too. The level of attention to detail, while surprising for a modern reader like yours truly, is likely because outside of recording the dimensions himself, Spencer would not easily be able to either recall or discover that information elsewhere. Another thing to remember is that photography hadn’t been really popularized yet, though it existed. 1840 is approximately contemporary with the birth of the Daguerrotype, an early photographic process. In 1840, if you wanted to remember something, you had to take down the facts yourself.

Even though it’s hard to imagine a Paris without the Eiffel Tower, some things in Spencer’s journals make him really accessible. For example, I was happy to find that he had an appreciation for puns; Spencer hearteningly described a fête happening down by the river as the “Seine of the action.” I totally LOL’d in the reading room at Perkins for that one, but then I do love a good pun.

The tidbits that make Spencer seems so contemporary exist right alongside descriptions of things that make his experiences totally foreign. He writes about doing rounds with a physician and watching amputations. As you might imagine, the practice of surgery has changed rather a lot since 1840. From Spencer’s descriptions, amputation was a considerable part of a surgeon’s practice at that time. Spencer also describes a side-show that he saw in Paris in terms of the various medical ailments that were afflicting the performers. Spencer recorded his ideas about what was wrong with the four-legged man and the level of approximate curvature of the spine of a man with dwarfism. I thought it was fascinating to see these people through the lens of his medical training. The journals also hold some botanical specimens that Spencer collected during his time in France. One of them makes an appearance in the image posted here.

The History of Medicine Collection has another later manuscript by Thomas Spencer, too. We learn from it that upon his return to the United States, he took up practice as a pathologist in Philadelphia, PA. The records from Spencer’s practice are taken with the same careful attention to detail and in the same beautiful script as his journals.

The journals tell what Spencer saw. They are his carefully collected memories from the two years he spent based in Paris. His experiences, which are so different from our own, lay out the scope of history, but his personality, humor, and opinions make him seem like a peer.

Nathalie Baudrand was the History of Medicine Collections Intern for Spring 2012 and is a graduate student at UNC’s School of Information and Library Science.

Discovering Winter Watercolors

Like most everyone else, I’ve been enjoying our beautiful spring weather. However, part of me still yearns for the winter I never experienced. So I’m returning to a manuscript I cataloged last year that contains illustrations I now associate with the chillier months.

Surgeon Major A. F. Elliot served several tours of duty with the 2nd West India Regiment in West Africa, primarily in Sierra Leone, Guinea-Bissau, and Ghana. He maintained diaries for six of those tours, from 1866-1881, and used calligraphy for all month titles. There are also watercolor paintings, photographs, and charts.

I don’t read manuscript volumes I’m cataloging in their entirety or I’d never be able to keep pace with the new acquisitions arriving. Duke Alumni Magazine had also published an article on this volume. After I finished my catalog record, I reviewed the volume again to see if we had missed anything. That’s when I came across this title for September 1874.

September, 1874: The men stayed in Elliot’s tent because of rain.
Surgeon A. F. Elliot’s diaries, 1866-1881, contain his calligraphic headings for each month. This 1874 heading was painted by his friend, Lieutenant Bale.

Elliot’s first entry for the month states “Rain & drizzle in the morning—Bale has drawn the heading this month[,] emblematical weather—rain all day.” I continued my perusal. October’s heading was fun, but November’s was stunning in both its design and detail.

The watercolor paintings by John Edward Bale in the volume are 7”x3” in size.
The watercolor paintings by John Edward Bale in the volume are 7”x3” in size.

My student assistant, Sophia Durand, and I recently did a little research and found that these watercolors were painted by Elliot’s friend John Edward Bale, who was a member of the 1st. West India Regiment. Bale was promoted from Lieutenant to Captain during the months he created these paintings, and his signature changed accordingly. He retired from the Army as a Major, continued painting in both oil and watercolors, and several of those works have been sold at auction houses.

Do you see “December?” Hint: If this was a painting of Perkins Library, look at the Gothic Reading Room windows.
Do you see “December?” Hint: If this was a painting of Perkins Library, look at the Gothic Reading Room windows.

At the time I admit I was a tad disappointed that Bale painted only an accompanying illustration for Elliot’s December entry, rather than incorporating the month into it. To compensate, it pleased me that the church looks somewhat like the original Perkins Library building we are now in the process of renovating.

Imagine my astonishment when I discovered I was wrong about the absence of the month in the painting. I only became aware of it after I took a digital image of it for this blog post. Do you see “December”?

I’ve showed the paintings to my colleagues in Technical Services, and many of us rank these watercolors among our most amazing discoveries made while processing a manuscript collection.

Post contributed by Alice Poffinberger, Archivist/Original Cataloger in the Technical Services Dept..

Dear Diary, I’m a woman.

Perhaps I just run with the bibliophiles, but when I tell people I work in a library, they usually say, “You’re lucky, you get to read books all day!” For most of my colleagues this is probably not the case, but I am one of the fortunate few for whom it is true. I am responsible for cataloging small or single-volume collections. They generally arrive with little or no description, so I must read the material to some extent in order to provide access to it. I also train others to catalog these collections, and I urge them to verify any information accompanying a new acquisition. In particular, I ask them to confirm the sex of any journal or diary author. Those describing these items before they reach our library still tend to assume that creators are male rather than female. Here is a case in point.

Travel Diary of unknown woman
"Journal of our Tour through Italy in the spring of 1861. (A faithful record of facts, impressions and memories.)"

According to the description provided to us, Rev. James Lee-Warner of Norfolk, England, was the author of this travel journal. I needed to confirm this. The wrinkle was that, although I’ve often deciphered 19th-century handwriting in both quill and pen, this hand was rather difficult to read. With a little persistence I was able to read passages, including the one that provided the confirmation I was seeking.

In the entry for Friday, March 15, the traveling party joined a crowd of 10,000 people waiting at St. Peter’s to see Pope Pius IX. The author noted that “[The pope] did not arrive punctually, so we had ample leisure to look round on the vast crowds…,” then went on to describe what happened later that day:

Pages of the diary, which sometimes include glued-in small albumen photographs of artwork or tourist attractions...
Pages of the diary, which sometimes include tiny albumen prints of artwork or tourist attractions.

In the afternoon we drove with the [W?]abryns to Santa Maria della Pace where the braid of my dress formed an attachment to a tin bucket full of water—and I found myself, unconscious of the impending disaster, calmly descending a flight of steps into the church. The graceful sweep of my dress gradually tightened as I descended, and in another moment with a terrific crash down came the unfortunate bucket [tolling?] down the steps into the church with a small cataract of water preceeding [sic] it and announcing to all the world the melancholy nature of the catastrophe. The Sacristan good-naturedly rushed to the rescue with a somewhat dilapidated broom and swept back the torrent with great promptitude.

I searched the journal and found no one else’s handwriting, so the volume’s sole author was a well-educated woman. Unfortunately, despite consulting entries for the Lee-Warner family and their relations in Burke’s Peerage and his Landed Gentry, I have not been able to identify her, although I am more certain that at least some members of the traveling party were Lee-Warners. To learn more about this journal and its content, visit our library’s catalog record.

Post contributed by Alice Poffinberger, Archivist/Original Cataloger in the Technical Services Dept.

D is for Diaries, Drama, and Dracula

Buck and his chewing gum.

I’m lucky. As a volunteer at the RBMSCL, I’ve been creating finding aids for small manuscript collections—collections such as love letters and travel diaries from the 19th century—which can be more compelling than any historical novel. One in particular I found to be especially memorable is the John Buck Diary.

Elaborate script and comic sketches recount the eight week long vacation in England and Scotland in 1887 of John Buck, an affluent, young American who spent several days in close company with Henry Irving, the famous English actor; the equally famous actress and Irving’s rumored paramour, Ellen Terry; and the business manager of the Lyceum Theatre as well as Irving’s personal assistant, Bram Stoker. Yes, the Bram Stoker who later wrote Dracula. His visit begins with the Royal Lyceum’s performance of another popular demonic tale:

I reached Edinburgh at seven o’clock and was met by Mr. Stoker. He took me to the Edinburgh Hotel (close by the station) where Mr. Irving was staying. . . . Mr. Stoker after fixing me comfortably hurried away to the theatre and I had my dinner served in Mr. Irving’s dining room. The dinner was good but I was so anxious to see some of “Faust” that I left at the end of the third course and jumping into a hansom drove to the Royal Lyceum Theatre, where I found Mr. Stoker “laying” [?] for me. He . . . took me into the only remaining private box. Mephistopheles was just transforming Faust into a young man as I entered the box, so I had not missed much of the play. . . . At the end of the act Mr. Stoker took me around [to the stage] to see Mr. Irving and Miss Terry. . . . While we were chatting and I was being questioned about “home affairs” the scene shifters were building Marguerite’s room around us, and very soon I was compelled to “skip” as the curtain was about to be rung up. . . . Mr. Irving was grand, and he will make a tremendous hit with Faust in America. (pages 67-70)

One of Buck's sketches.

The diary is so extraordinarily descriptive and entertaining; it is as if Buck, who loved the theater, were writing the storyline for his own theatrical play. At times, I could imagine his diary recast as a BBC period drama! Equally remarkable is the extent to which Buck’s personality is so clearly revealed. He was sometimes irreverent and informal, even when visiting the Duke of Beaufort at Badminton House in Gloucestershire, highly competitive, a bit arrogant, and more interested in pretty young women, having fun, and socializing than sightseeing; he seemed so American, and so amazingly like a few modern young men that I have known.

Happy Halloween!

Post contributed by Danielle Moore, RBMSCL Technical Services volunteer.

The Story of the 6,487 Books

On this day in 1800, Congress approved the creation of the Library of Congress (here’s the birthday blog post from the Library of Congress Blog). By 1814, the collection numbered some 3,000 volumes, many of which burned when the British army invaded the capital city in in August.

On 30 January 1815, Congress and President James Madison turned to former President Thomas Jefferson to help rebuild the library’s collection. Jefferson was offered $23,950 for his Monticello library of 6,487 volumes.

That very week, on February 3rd, Francis Calley Gray and George Ticknor arrived at Monticello to pay a visit of a few days to their friend Mr. Jefferson—a visit which Mr. Gray meticulously recorded in his diary, which we hold here at the RBMSCL.

Francis Calley Gray's diary.
Francis Calley Gray's diary. Nice handwriting!

The morning after a welcoming dinner—complete with silver goblets engraved “from G.W. to T.J.”—Mr. Jefferson had prepared a special treat for his guests, both bibliophiles and collectors. As Gray wrote in his diary:

Mr. Jefferson gave me the catalogue of his books to examine + soon after conducted us to his library, + passed an hour there in pointing out to us its principal treasures. His collection of ancient classics was complete as to the authors but very careless in the editions. They were generally interleaved with the best English Translations. The Ancient English authors were also all here + some very rare editions of them. a black letter Chaucer + the first of Milton’s Paradise Lost divided into ten books were the most remarkable. . . . Of all branches of learning however relating to the History of North + South America is the most perfectly displayed in this library. The collection on this subject is without a question the most valuable in the world. Here are the works of all the Spanish [travelers?] in America + the great work of De Brie in which he has collected latin translations of the smaller works published by the earliest visitors of America whose original publications are now lost. It is finely printed + adorned with many plates. Here also is a copy of the letters of Fernando Cortes in Spanish, one of a small edition, + the copy retained by the Editor the Cardinal Archbishop of Toledo for himself, but given by him to the American Consul for Mr. Jefferson.

On February 27, following his friends’ departure, Mr. Jefferson wrote to bookdealer Joseph Milligan (letter provided by the Library of Congress) to request his assistance in transporting the entire collection to Washington, D.C. These 6,487 books, some of which Mr. Gray had the good fortune to see, now belonged to the American people.

Sadly, an 1851 fire destroyed much of the Library of Congress’ collection, including two-thirds of Jefferson’s library. Which prompts us to remind everyone that MayDay is coming!

Thanks to Crystal Reinhardt, University Archives Graduate Student Assistant, for helping with this post.