THE BRITISH LIBRARY

American Collections blog

What's on the mind of Team America?

Introduction

Find out more about our Americas Studies collections on the Americas blog, written by our curatorial team and guest posts from the Eccles Centre writers in residence. Our collections cover both North and South America, as well as the Caribbean. Read more

02 May 2017

Women in the California Gold Rush

I’m using my 2017 Eccles British Library Writer’s Award to research and write my second novel, Catspaw, which follows two women from Chicago to the Sierra foothills during the California Gold Rush. Women are largely excluded from the mythic-historic narrative of the Gold Rush. Those that do appear are marginal, stereotypical characters: the long-suffering, godly pioneer mother (Sarah Royce), or the savvy prostitute (Belle Cora). I want to tell a story of two women who don’t conform to these stereotypes.

Helen Carpenter Hannah blog

Portrait of Helen Carpenter (Courtesy of the Edward E. Ayer Collection, the Newberry Library, Chicago), from Ho for California!: Women's Overland Diaries from the Huntington Library, edited and annotated by Sandra L. Myres. San Marino: Huntington Library, 1980 Shelfmark: 80/24701

Women were in the minority in the 1849 migration west; but they were there, and they encountered difficulties and opportunities that were unimaginable back east. I wanted to understand the experiences of these women in their own words. Sarah Royce’s renowned memoir, A Frontier Lady (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1932; shelfmark 010409.ee.40) left me with more questions than answers. Written at the urging of her philosopher son Josiah Royce, it tells the story he wanted her to tell—one of Christian fortitude as foundational to California. It left me wondering how she really felt as she left Iowa with her somewhat hapless husband and toddler daughter, bound for the unknown. John Irving wrote that "all memoir is fiction"; but I wanted to read female first-hand accounts that weren’t so starkly in service of a higher narrative.

Mary Jane Megquier small

Portrait of Mary Jane Megquier, from a daguerreotype about 1853, from Apron Full of Gold: The Letters of Mary Jane Megquier from San Francisco, 1849-1856. Edited by Robert Glass Cleland. San Marino: Huntington Library, 1949. Shelfmark: W.P.9803/40

The Eccles Centre’s bibliographical guide, Women in the Trans-Mississippi West, 1840-1900 (London: British Library, 1999; shelfmark YC.2000.a.575 ), helped me locate these accounts. From the letters of the outspoken Mary Jane Megquier, with her longing for "a line" from home and her good-natured complaints of "jiggers in [her] feet, a small insect that lays its eggs in your flesh"; to the witty journal of Helen Carpenter ("there is nothing in sight to merit the name Rocky Mountains—no rocks"); to the letters of Louise Clappe, with her sheer enchantment with "this solemnly beautiful wilderness"—these first-hand accounts are invaluable in helping me develop the voices of my female protagonists. I can’t imagine writing my novel without them.

Hannah Kohler

References: Apron Full of Gold: The Letters of Mary Jane Megquier from San Francisco, 1849-1856. Edited by Robert Glass Cleland. San Marino: Huntington Library, 1949. (Shelfmark: W.P.9803/40); California in 1851: The Letters of Dame Shirley, introduction and notes by Carl I. Wheat. San Francisco: Grabhorn Press, 1933. 2 vols. (Shelfmark: YD.2004.a.1634 & YD.2004.a.1493); Ho for California! Women's Overland Diaries from the Huntington Library, edited and annotated by Sandra L. Myres. San Marino, CA: Huntington Library Press, 1980. (Shelfmark: 80/24701

25 April 2017

Resources for Film Studies and Movie Merchandising in the British Library

In addition to its enormous social and cultural impact, the American movie industry is big business with its films and associated merchandising generating annual multi-billion dollar revenue streams. Despite its modern pre-eminence however the origins of the movie merchandising industry remains obscure. The British Library may be situated several thousand miles away from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, yet its varied collections contain significant material for those interested in film studies and the history of movie merchandising.

In nineteenth century Europe the postage stamp medium was adapted for non-postal purposes by businesses to create a new advertising medium known as poster stamps since they are essentially mini advertising posters.  This advertising format spread to America and at its height prior to the First World War, collecting poster stamps actually eclipsed philately as a hobby with hundreds of thousands of them being issued to commemorate events and sell products.  In 1913 designers Oscar Wentz and Winold Reiss emigrated from Germany to New York hoping to make their mark on the American advertising industry.

Image 1A horizontal strip of six perforated advertising stamps for Wentz & Co New York-Berlin, c. 1914

 By 1914 Wentz and Company had signed contracts with most of the major movie studios to provide poster stamps depicting actors, actresses and serial movies. Designed by Wentz and Reiss, these were to be sold with accompanying albums by the movie studio to cinema owners, who would sell them or give them away as promotional material to entice audiences back each week. The Campbell-Johnson collection in the British Library’s Philatelic Collections possesses sixty one poster stamps produced by Wentz and Company as well as others depicting prominent actors and actresses from the silent screen.

A particularly attractive poster stamp design depicts Mary Pickford (1893-1979), the first great American movie star and co-founder of United Artists Studio with Charles Chaplin, D.W Griffith and her husband Douglas Fairbank in 1919.

Mary Pickford
Poster stamp depicting Mary Pickford by an unknownmanufacturer c. 1914

Another notable individual depicted in the poster stamps manufactured by Wentz and Company is Mae Marsh (1895-1968) one of the greatest actresses of the silent cinema who received critical acclaim for her role as the little sister wearing a fake ermine dress in D. W. Griffith’s infamous and controversial civil war movie ‘The Birth of a Nation’ released in 1915.

Mae MarshPoster stamp depicting Mae Marsh manufactured by Wentz and Company c. 1915

 Cowboy and Western movie aficionados will also find images of interest including depictions of G. M. Anderson aka ‘Broncho Billy’; (1882-1971) widely considered the first cowboy movie star. Appearing as Broncho Billy in around 400 early films including the Great Train Robbery in 1903 and the Bandit Made Good in 1907, Anderson’s contribution to cinema was recognised by the Academy in 1957 when he was awarded an honorary Oscar.

Broncho Billy
Poster stamp depicting G. M. Anderson aka Broncho Billy manufactured by Wentz and Company c. 1915

The Campbell-Johnson collection also contains twenty seven Wentz and Company poster stamps depicting stills from episodes 5-8 and 11-15 of “The Goddess;” six depicting stills from episodes 14-15 of the adventure serial “The Broken Coin;” and finally thirty six depicting stills from episodes 2-3, 6, 8, 10 and 14 of the detective serial “The Black Box,” all released in 1915 by the Vitagraph Company and Universal Studios. In addition to being examples of early movie merchandising these poster stamps are important since the Black Box and Broken Coin are believed to be lost films, the stamps consequently offering a rare visual insight into these films cinematography and structure.

Broken Coin
Poster stamp depicting a still titled ‘After the battle’ from episode of 15 of the Broken Coin manufactured by Wentz and Company, 1915

 

Black BoxPoster stamp depicting a still titled ‘Professor Ashleigh’s apparent terror at the burning of the shed containing the ape man mystifies Quest’ from Episode 3 of the Black Box manufactured by Wentz and Company, 1915

 

The Goddess
Poster stamp depicting a still titled ‘Freddy saves Celestia from the murderous attack of Mrs. Gundorf’ from Episode 14 of the Goddess manufactured by Wentz and Company, 1915.

In addition to poster stamps, the British Library’s printed book collections also include a range of early twentieth century novels which had been adapted into movies and published to accompany the film.  An excellent example related to the poster stamps just referred to is Edward Phillips Oppenheim’s novel ‘The Black Box’ published in New York in 1915.

Black Box
Cover from Edward Phillips Oppenheim: The Black Box, (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1915)

Included within the work are thirty one stills from the film series which along with the text offer further insight into the structure, narrative and cinematography of this lost silent movie. 

Black Box 2
Movie still captioned ‘Quest and Laura change clothes so that Quest may make his escape’ taken from the movie The Black Box and published in the accompanying novel.

Another significant body of material with the library includes song sheets and music books some of which were popularised by famous movies. A notable example from amongst the library’s collections includes the sheet music composed by James Brockman for the 1916 movie series the Girl from Frisco, a twenty-five part series starring the Latina actress Marin Sais (1890-1971) centring around the activities of a cowgirl dispensing justice and humanity in the old west.

Girl from Frisco
Cover for sheet music for the 1916 Kalem Company movie titled ‘The Girl from Frisco’ composed by James Brockman

By Richard Scott Morel

Curator, Philatelic Collections


Sources

The British Library Philatelic Collections: The Campbell-Johnson Collection, Volume 28.

H. Thomas Steele: Lick ‘em, Stick ‘em: The Lost Art of Poster Stamps (Abeville Press, 1989)

Ken Wlaschin: The Silent Cinema in Song, 1896-1929 (McFarland Publishers, 2009).

Robert Whorton: The Master Key Serial: Wentz Master Stamp Set Instalment I in the Cinderella Philatelist, Vol. 54, No. 4 (October 2014)

IMDB Database

12 April 2017

The buck starts here: Early paper money from British Colonial America in the British Library

The currency of the United States is used globally in addition to being a national icon and international cultural symbol. Before the War of Independence (1775-1783) each of the thirteen colonies that eventually established the United States were under British colonial rule and all faced significant challenges regarding their monetary supply. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries various types of currency were used as a medium of exchange. The official coinage was denominated in pounds, shillings and pence, however as few British coins were available in America the colonies were compelled to rely upon foreign specie such as the Spanish Dollar that was much more freely available and explains why the United States eventually adopted the dollar. On occasion there was even a shortage of dollars, forcing colonies to occasionally use commodities like tobacco, beaver pelts and wampum beads as a medium of exchange. Finally, to tackle the shortage of currency the colonies also issued paper money.

Since each colony was a self-governing settlement whose administrators were answerable to the British Crown they each printed their own paper money. The first was the Province of Massachusetts Bay in 1690, four years prior to the establishment of the Bank of England, making it the first authorised paper money issued by any government in the western world. The remaining colonies soon followed suit and by the mid-eighteenth century each had developed a sophisticated paper monetary system. Known as bills of credit they were essentially fiat currency rather than notes which could be exchanged for gold and silver. Depreciation of such notes could and did occur which was harmful to British creditors, consequently the British Parliament passed a number of Currency Acts to restrict paper money issues to circumvent the problem. These Acts like the 1765 Stamp Act soured colonial relations with Britain laying the foundations for the War of Independence.  The British Library possesses five original notes, the earliest being a thirty shillings bill issued by the Colony of New Jersey on 16 April 1764 printed by James Parker depicted in images one and two.

  Image 1_20170301_17282030

 

The obverse face of the note is bi-coloured being printed in red and black inks. It has a complex engraving of the Royal Coat of Arms whilst the lettering is in a variety of typefaces. Theoretically the registration of the two ink colours, varied scripts and complexity of the armorial engraving would require considerable skill, time and money making the notes unprofitable to counterfeit. Being a denomination insignia, the engraved half-sun on the note is another security feature.

  Image 2_20170301_17305083

The design on the reverse face of the note is based upon a security feature invented by Benjamin Franklin for the 1737 New Jersey paper money issue. Franklin developed a method of printing from leaf casts via a copper plate press for transferring a sage leaf image onto the back of paper money bills. Since a leaf is a unique object it theoretically provided complex fingerprint for each bill which would be impossible to counterfeit accurately.

 

Image 3_20170301_17290772

 The second note depicted in the collection is a ten pound bill issued by the Colony of New York on 16 February 1771 with manuscript signatures of Theophylact Bache, Walter Franklin and A. Lott in addition to a unique serial number. Printed in black ink on thin laid paper by Hugh Gaine, the ornamental upper border and arms of New York depicted on the obverse face were actually engraved by Elisha Gallaudet. Like other notes in the collection there is a verbal warning “Tis death to counterfeit.” Curiously, following a spate of forgeries in 1773 the Colonial Authorities authorised that images of the counterfeiters hanging from the gallows could be pasted onto the reverse face of the notes to discourage forgers but this was never carried out.

Image 4_20170301_17295502

Image 5_20170301_17313887

The third note is a four dollar bill issued by the colony of Maryland on 10 April 1764 with manuscript signatures of John Clapham and William Eddis with a unique serial number. Information on designers, engravers and printing of paper money is sporadic at the best of times. However since this note is known to have been printed by Anne Catherine Green and Frederick Green it offer a rare glimpse of the role women played in the Security Printing Industry. Finally as an alternative to watermarked paper this bill was printed on thin paper containing mica flakes to help prevent forgery.

This two shillings six pence bill issued by the colony of Pennsylvania on 3 April 1772 possesses the manuscript signatures of Adam Hubley, Joel Evans and John Mifflin in addition to a unique serial number. It was once again printed by Hall and Sellers in black ink bearing the arms of the Penn Family on special security paper which contains blue thread and mica flakes. Some of these bills bearing this date can contain the signature of John Morton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Image 6_20170301_17332756

Image 7_20170301_17350286

 

The final bill is a twenty shillings note issued in Delaware on 1st January 1776 signed in manuscript by John McKinly and Boaz Manlove with a unique serial number. The note was printed in black ink by James Adams who had once worked alongside Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia

Image 8_20170301_17340981

Image 9_20170301_17352566

Comparison of these notes to contemporary ones issued by Bank of England in Britain shows they are arguably more accomplished in terms of their complex engraving, letterings, use of coloured inks and range of security features. Although less iconic than the modern currency they do display the technical brilliance which helped develop the United States into the world’s leading economic power and banknote printers.

 

By Richard Scott Morel

Curator, Philatelic Collections

 

Further Reading Eric P. Newman: The early paper money of America, (5th Ed, Krause Publications, 2008)

Farley Grubb: Benjamin Franklin and the birth of a paper money economy (Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, 2006)

Images are taken a volume containing a collection of paper money (The British Library, c. 143.d.5)