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Displaying items by tag: books

Thursday, 14 October 2021 18:25

A very curious book

Way back in my early days at the Historical Society, I came across this book:

adams book

Now, it looks very similar to many books in our collection, books that usually contain minutes or accounts of an organization or business, but this one was different. The front half of the book contained copies of letters, mostly to or from John Qunicy Adams during the years 1809-1812. Adams was the American ambassador to the Russian Empire during this time.

You might remember from history class that this was the time of the Napoleonic Wars and the Continental System, an embargo Napoleon tried to enforce against British ships in continental Europe. Russia was an ally of France at this time (before the disastrous invasion), and the United States was neutral. So, British ships would pretend to be American by buying official papers from American captains. That was the main issue covered in the letters.

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J. Q. Adams by Gilbert Stuart, 1818 (Wikicommons)

The second half of the book was a series of written depositions from J. Q. Adams in relation to a lawsuit. It was hard from the depositions to understand what the lawsuit was over or how Adams related to it.

I took some photos of the book and sent them to the Massachusetts Historical Society which houses Adams’ papers. We emailed back and forth a bit, but ultimately they said they didn’t know what the book was.

letter JQA

Well, I had hundreds of feet of undescribed archives and thousands of uncatalogued books, so I put Mr. Adams back in his box, and got on with it.

Recently, however, I looked through it again, and found the page that explained it was part of a lawsuit between Levett Harris and William D. Lewis. This page was in the middle of the book, so it wasn’t obvious the first time I examined it. I found a few mentions of Harris and Lewis in Adams’ diary (which you can read online at the Massachusetts Historical Society), but he doesn’t give any details.

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The page identifying the book as part of lawsuit

Then I found an article in the American Archivist (which I’m sure everyone knows is the semi-annual publication of the Society of American Archivists) that explained a lot, but not everything.

In 1953, a Bridgeport boy named Jesse Sohoski found four old volumes under a piece of sheet metal in the woods around King of Prussia. He seems to have held on to them for several years before writing a letter to President Kennedy about them in 1961. Three volumes contained official correspondence between the US ambassadors to Russia and the State Department. The fourth volume was a book of depositions from John Quincy Adams about the Harris v. Lewis case.

AHA! That was our book. Except it wasn’t our book. At the end of the article, the author, James Rhoads of the National Archives, writes that the three volumes of correspondence were determined to be federal records and taken back to Washington. The volume of depositions (i. e. “our volume”) was deposited with the Prothonotary of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Then why do we have it? Well, I think we’re talking about two copies of the same book. Our copy seems to have been with us a long time. It has two labels attached, which are handwritten. Both the labels and the handwriting appear all over our collection on items dating to the early 20th century. Both sides of the case would have had copies of the depositions, so one copy could be Harris’ and one Lewis’ (if you want to read the details of their case, you can do so here). They were both Philadelphia men, so the copies might have stayed in the area, one winding up at the Historical Society and one in the woods.

I could be totally wrong. Most items from that time period are marked with a stamp and usually there’s an accession number written on the inside of the cover. This book has neither. My guess is that the book wasn’t actually donated, but loaned or left here for safe keeping. And if that was the case, we’ve at least done our job.

Published in Found in Collection
Thursday, 16 September 2021 18:01

Family Bibles

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Jones family records

 

Here at the Historical Society of Montgomery County, we have a robust collection of family Bibles. A large family Bible was often the only book a family owned, and it was passed down through the generations. Originally, families used the flyleaves or endpapers of the book to record the family's births, marriages, and deaths (flyleaves are those blank pages at the beginning and end of a book, the endpapers are the thicker sheets that are glued to the inside of the cover).

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Title page of a 1791 Collins Bible, owned by the Jones family

By the 19th century, publishers were producing Bibles specifically to be family Bibles. They came with extra pages between the Old and New Testaments to record family events. The first American to print such a family Bible was Isaac Collins of Trenton. We have two copies of his 1791 family Bible in our collection.  In his Bibles the extra pages are left blank.  Later Bibles would have decorated pages often with color illustrations. 

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The marriages page from the Corson family Bible (J. W. Bradley, Philadelphia, undated)

Family Bibles were very popular in the 19th century, a period of increasing literacy and consumerism. They were often sold by traveling salesmen.

The genealogical information in family Bibles is gold to a researcher, but otherwise the Bibles are pretty much the same (sometimes they’re exactly the same). They’re very large books, obviously meant to be kept in a place of honor. At three or four inches in width, it’s easy for this archivist to work through a shelf of Bibles in a couple of hours. On the other hand, they take up a lot of our limited shelf space for 2 or 3 pages of information. For that reason, we no longer accept family Bibles (though we do accept photocopies or scans of the records).

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Hetrich family records in German (Langhoffschen Buchdruckeren, Hamburg, 1828)

I hope to finish cataloging these Bibles soon. Once I do, I’ll post of list of the family names on our website with the archival finding aids.

Published in Found in Collection
Thursday, 09 September 2021 20:21

The Great Art of Light and Shadows

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The Great Art of Light and Shadows may sound like the latest YA to hit the shelves of Barnes & Noble, but it’s actually a work about the physics of light from the 17th century. I found it yesterday among the family Bibles, collections of sermons, and other religious books. How did it get shelved there?

I have a couple of theories. First, it’s in Latin, which people tend to associate with Roman Catholicism. Second, the author is Jesuit priest named Athanasius Kircher, so earlier librarians might have assumed it was a religious work. But, remember, Copernicus was a priest, too. Kircher was a polymath of the late Renaissance who wrote about many topics including Egyptian hieroglyphs, magnetism, and yes, theology. Finally, the book is really big and really old, and most of the really big and really old books in our collection are Bibles.

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The moon

Kircher was a German from Thuringia, born in 1601 or 1602. He became a Jesuit novice in his teens and was ordained in 1628. He served as a professor of ethics and mathematics in Würzberg, but he left Germany in 1634 in part to escape the Thirty Years War. He was sent to Rome and from 1634 until his death in 1680, he taught math, physics, and several languages at the Jesuit College.

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A moon dial

Now, what has this to do with Montgomery County? Nothing, yet. The book is really cool though. Here’s a Jesuit horoscope (literally “marker of the hour”) with the phrase “From East to West praiseworthy is the name of our Lord“ in 34 different languages including Scottish, Chinese, and Dalmation! It also lists all the Jesuit missions around the world and how to tell the time at each one.

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The Jesuit Horoscope and a close-up showing the phrase in English

And this is actually an illustration of Saturn. According to the Wikipedia article on the book, when the first edition was published (1645), Saturn was assumed to have two close satellites that caused it to look bulged when seen in a telescope. Galileo had described them as “ears.” By the time of the second edition, Christiaan Huygens had published his theory that Saturn had rings, but Kircher didn’t update the illustration.

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But, Montgomery County? Well, the book itself doesn’t have anything to do with our fair county. What’s interesting is how it came to be here. It was published in Amsterdam. There’s an inscription on the title page and a book plate that mark it as the property of a Dominican convent’s library. I did a Google image search on the bookplate and found that it comes from a convent in Augsburg. The plate itself dates to the eighteenth century, but the book could have been there earlier.

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I don’t know how it crossed the ocean, but it came to the historical society in 1897. A sheet of paper tucked inside the book explains that it was found during the demolition of a house on the corner of Basin and DeKalb. But it wasn’t just in the house, it was hidden in a secret spot near the top of the chimney. This paper was written by our librarian, Rudolf Hommel, and he did some research into its likely owner. Written on the inside cover is the name George W. Allen, and a George W. Allen is in the 1867 city directory living at corner of DeKalb and Basin, but in the 1870, he appears at another address. Another man, Horatio S. Stevens, lived in the house for several decades according to the directories. So it seems Allen hid his book and moved out without retrieving it.

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A chameleon in a discussion of how it changes color

“The problem,” Hommel concludes, “Is to find out who this G. W. Allen was.”

Indeed. I did my best to find some evidence of Allen. There’s a George W. Allen in Norristown in 1870 census, but that George W. Allen, a lime dealer, is listed with a wife, two children, and a servant. An 1868 deed has him buying property in Norristown, which explains the address change. He sold that property in 1874, and in the 1880 census he’s in Philadelphia and listed as a real estate agent. I don’t know for sure that it’s the same man who owned the book, but there aren’t any other George Allens in Norristown at the time.

That still doesn’t explain why he hid the book. As parent, I can’t help but wonder if it was just to keep the kids from touching it. And maybe he just forgot about it. How did he even wind up with it in the first place? I can make an educated guess that the book left its convent about 1802, when the convents were secularized (the Bavarians were inspired by the French Revolution), but it’s just a guess. There’s no other indication of where the book has been.

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The world from the north pole (I made this one upside down to better show North America)

One more thing about the book, there’s another note in it. This one is handwritten by William Reid and dated 1913. The note says that the frontispiece seems “evidently” to be an illustration of the mixture of Mithraism and Christianity in the 4th century. Apparently, Reid’s Latin was even worse than mine, but that note might be why it was shelved with religious works.

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The frontispiece, a Renaissance allegory for knowledge

Published in Found in Collection
Thursday, 26 August 2021 20:06

Mennonites and their books

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An undated cyanotype of the Salford Mennonite Meeting House

A couple of months ago, I talked about some of the old and rare books in the Historical Society’s collection. Well, I’m still working my way through them, and it’s been interesting to see how the books in our collection reflect the history of our county.

This book, Eine Restitution, oder eine Erklarung einiger Haupt-puncten des Gesetzes (A Restitution, or an Explanation of Some Principle Points of Law) was written by Bishop Heinrich Funck of Franconia.

Funck

Funck came to Pennsylvania in1717 probably from the Palatine in Germany. He was descended from Swiss Mennonites who had been thrown out of Bern in the previous century. He eventually settled in Franconia Township and was a founding member of the Salford Mennonite Meeting. Funck also owned and operated a mill on Indian Creek. His son, Christian was also a Mennonite bishop, who broke away from the Franconia Mennonite Conference because he was in favor of paying taxes to support the American Revolution.

Funck was also involved in the production of another book in our collection, The Martyr’s Mirror. This was translated from the Dutch at Ephrata. Funck and his colleague Dielman Kolb oversaw the translation, reading each page as it became available.

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Frontispiece from our 1748 edition of The Martyr's Mirror

Another interesting book in our collection is Christlish- und erbauliche Betrachtungen (Christian and Uplifting Reflections) by Jakob Denner. This is a large collection of Denner’s sermons. Now, Denner never came to Pennsylvania, he was a Mennonite preacher in Germany. His sermons were widely attended by members of different Protestant sects, and his books were widely read.

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Denner died in 1746, but new editions of his work continued to be produced. When the 1792 edition was released, to men from Franconia traveled to Germany to buy copies for their community. Johannes Herstein and Johannes Schmutz brought 500 copies of the book back to Pennsylvania and sold them all quickly. Is this book one of those copies? I don’t know if there’s a way to be sure, but I like to think so.

denner2

Published in Found in Collection
Thursday, 17 June 2021 17:54

Some of our earliest books

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The oldest of old, printed books are called incunabula and by definition date to before 1501. For reference, Gutenberg printed his first Bible in 1455. The historical society doesn’t have any incunabula, at least I haven’t found any yet, but we have some very old books indeed. Now, if you ever took Western Civ, you might have learned that the printing press was hugely important in the Protestant Reformation. I think the books in our collection demonstrate that.

They are mostly Bibles and mostly in German, but the oldest book that I’ve found so far, is a commentary on the Bible by Caspar Schwenkfeld von Ossig. It was printed in 1566, just 5 years after Schwenkfeld’s death. For a book that is over 450 years old, it’s in pretty good shape. It’s bound in leather with raised bands on the spine, and the two clasps are intact.

Schwenkfeld book

 

book cover

Another really old biblical commentary in our collection is this 1575 book by Martin Luther. It did not survive the centuries as well as Schwenkfeld’s book, but was rebound in 1855 by a Norristown bookshop. Published in Luther’s adopted city of Wittenberg, it has a woodcut showing Luther and his patron the Elector of Saxony, Frederick III, at the cruxifiction.

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The Welsh were also early settlers of Montgomery County, and we have two examples of Welsh books in our collection. This Welsh Bible is missing its title page, but is marked as having been published in 1654.

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You can see how it was passed down through a family.

welsh bible

We also have a Welsh language catechism from 1719.

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Sometimes, the most interesting part of the book is not the text itself, but what readers have added to it. Books were expensive, and a Bible might be the only book an individual owned for his or her entire lifetime. This German Bible was owned by Maria Kolb, who illuminated the front end papers.

Kolb

This German Bible has no title page or publication data, but a piece of embroidered punched paper tells us it was owned by Maryann Snider in 1856.

sinder

Published in Found in Collection
Thursday, 03 December 2020 19:35

The Mosaic Creation of the Earth

One of my favorite subsections of our library is our small collection of books by local authors. I don’t mean Newbury Award winner Jerry Spinelli, or nineteenth-century bestseller Max Adeler, I mean the weird, self-published books that are sometimes hard to fit into the Dewey Decimal System. A few years ago, I wrote about Pool of Seduction, a novel of the court of Louis XV. If you’ve visited Montgomery Cemetery, you might have seen a small note about Helen Gilbert Slingluff, who wrote of her travels through Germany (and what had been Austria) in 1938-39 and mainly complains about the traffic (oh, that Munich Conference!).

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Today, I’d like to write about another self-published book, The Mosaic Account of the Creation Affirmed and Silent Monitors of the Past Described and Illustrated, with Object Lessons of Each Day’s Part of the Creation… it goes on from there for a few more lines, but you get the idea. It was written and published in 1892 by Jesse King of Norristown.

King goes through the account of creation from the Book of Genesis line by line, explaining their meaning and expanding on them. He is not always literal. For example, he explains that although Moses says that God created the sun on the fourth day, since God created light on the first day, “we unhesitatingly believe that in the morning of the first day of the year one, the sun was created.” What actually happened on the fourth day, he explains, is that the skies clears of clouds and fog, and the sun and other objects in the sky became visible for the first time.

But, it’s not King’s theories or reasoning that makes this book interesting, it’s his evidence. He takes his proof from the local landscape in Montgomery County and the surrounding area. For example, he uses the famous Ringing Rocks of Bucks County as proof of Noah’s flood, and, perhaps, Manifest Destiny. He writes,

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"Some rocks are marked with abrasions of parallel lines from two and half to four inches in width across their faces, much resembling the stripes of our 'national emblem,' which no doubt were made by some prehistoric patriot, prophetic of an era when such emblem would be adopted to proudly float over his country [emphasis in original]; and where he could have left an impression of his imaginative brain more fitting than on those rocks?"

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Many of his arguments focus on proving that Noah’s flood was a real historical event, such as when he uses a local limestone deposit to show the level of the flood waters. He also uses a cave found with many animal bones in Port Kennedy as proof that the animals gathered there in fear during the deluge. King’s book includes many illustrations, including diagrams of the earth and photographs of the local sites he uses for evidence.

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We don’t have any information on Jesse King on our collection, but I found him on Ancestry. He died in 1908, and his death certificate lists him as a salesman. In the 1880 census, he’s listed as a carpenter. So, he was a man of many trades and an interest in geology. He mentions several times that he disagrees with the way geology was being taught in schools, and that seems to have been his motivation. Overall, the books demonstrates King’s passion on the subject of geology, but it’s written in an overly formal Victorian style that can be hard to follow at times.

Published in Found in Collection
Thursday, 02 March 2017 20:22

Tiny Books for Tiny People

The Little Golden Books series turns 75 this year. If you’re like me, you remember the adventures of the Poky Little Puppy and other characters very well.  The Golden Books were sold in 1942 for 25 cents each, and they were meant to be affordable for every family.  Of course, children’s book existed before then, and last week, I found a few in our upper stacks.  They were donated by Mrs. Anna Bergman of Philadelphia in 1955.

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The first group I’d like to share have no publication information at all. I don’t know where or when they were made.  Three give an author at the very end of the text as Edric Vredenberg, a British writer and editor a several children’s books.  He was active as a writer from about 1890 to 1930.  Based on the illustrations in the book, I would guess these were produced during the earlier part of his career.

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Looking inside the books, you can see there is a lot of text compared to modern children’s books. They all have wonderful illustrations in both black and white and chromolithographs, a popular form for children’s books in the 1880’s and 1890’s.

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As you can see the stories all feature cute children and animals.

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In addition to these books we have this tiny children’s Bible from 1834. It was sold by M. R. Wills in Norristown and even has a few small illustrations.  The book was written by “A Lady of Cincinnati.”  The Bible was donated by Martin Connelly in 2001.

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Published in Found in Collection