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American Collections blog

12 posts from January 2013

31 January 2013

Oil, Ambergris and the Grand Ball of the Whales

2013-01-07 14-55 vanity fair 1861 page #12
Public Domain Mark

This work (Grand Ball given by the Whales), identified by The British Library, is free of known copyright restrictions.

There was a certain amount of spluttering over the porridge this morning, as the Today programme's John Humphrys discussed reports of discovery of whale vomit on a Morecambe beach, and speculated briefly on the possibility of somehow farming sperm whales for this valuable commodity, more pleasantly also known as ambergris. Long-sought-after for its rarity and use as a base for perfumes, this lump of grey waxy emission is a reminder of the special status of whales and their relationship to human culture.

The early connection can be seen in this folio from the British Library Catalogue of Medieval Manuscripts:

Birthwort and Ambergris

Egerton 747, f. 7, 'Birthwort and Ambergris'. Guidance on use of this image.

But a more recent - and American - reminder can be found in the cartoon at the top of this post, taken from Vanity Fair in 1861, and which we hold at the Library.  'The Grand Ball given by the Whales' depicts a celebratory pod of whales, who are heartily cheered by the the striking of 'rock oil' at Drake's oil well in Pennsylvania.  No longer, the sperm whales believed, would their precious spermaceti oil be hunted for use in candles and lubrication of the delicate machines of the industrialised north. 

It tool a while for oil to become established as lighting and heating fuel and a propellant, but against the backdrop of the Civil War, a startling, and massive, infrastructure was put in place (extraction, refinement, distribution, sales...), and the American talent for marketing was put to work inventing and explaining how the new fuel could offer brilliant light for homes, offices and factories.  At one point, U.S. consuls were provided with details of newly-designed kerosene lamps and instructed to advertise them in the capitals of the world.  Oil tankers were invented, removing the need to rely on leaky oil barrels (which stripped the poor horses that pulled them in carts of their hair), naval engineers began to speculate on converting warships to petroleum, rather than relying on great coal stations, and vast new docks and sumps were constructed.  Legislation had to be passed in both countries after a series of fires at oil merchants and their warehouses (there was also a relatively well-founded scare about the inflammatory properties of oil lamps). 

And, unlike the potential olfactory use of ambergris, all of this smelled pretty bad.

[M.J.S.]

24 January 2013

Let's Emigrate! To Canada

Come_To_Stay
'Come to Stay' by Henri Julien, printed in the 'Canadian Illustrated News' [1880, copy in the BL newspaper collection]. Image from Wikipedia, courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.

It's that time of year again, when many of us start to think about what it would be like to live in a climate of year-round warmth. Oddly though, it's usually around this time of year when my mind meanders onto the large selection of British Library materials detailing the possibilities of emigrating from Britain to nineteenth century Canada.

While the Library's collections document, sometimes inadvertently or in passing, the migration experiences of the many different populations who moved to Canada it is in illustrating the opportunities for English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh families (and individuals) that it provides the richest source. Particularly for the mid-nineteenth century the collection holds many items that document the potential of Canada as well as alluding to some of the push factors causing people to consider taking a risk on the empire.

Locating this material takes a little doing, not least because, as with the above illustration, a number of interesting sources are articles or depictions that form part of a larger holding. However, there is a large cache of items that can be found using the search terms 'emigrate British North America' or 'emigrate Canada' in Explore (you can also do this by province). Items returned from this search include, 'Shall we Emigrate' [1885, BL Shelfmark: 10411.bb.25(5)], 'Emigration Practically Considered' [1828, BL Shelfmark: T.1244(7)] and 'North America Viewed as to its Eligibility to British Emigrants' [1848, BL Shelfmark: 1304.a.12], to name a few. There is also a large sub-collection of microfiche material provided by the Canadian Institute for Historical Microreproductions which can be found using a subset search in Explore.

The Library also holds a few notable facsimile reprints, such as a 1971 version of Catherin Parr-Traill's, 'The Canadian Settler's Guide' [BL Shelfmark: X.955/2390]. As well as notes on the climate and agricultural prospects of Canada, which are common to many of the accounts (with varying decrees of politeness), Parr-Traill's account also includes notes on home-making, Canadian society and the opportunities for leisure. Such detail is perhaps why Parr-Traill is one of the best remembered writers in her field but the many other accounts found in the collections are worth looking at for their many details on the who, how and why of migration to Canada.

[PJH]

18 January 2013

George Catlin's 'Indian Ball'

Catlin 003
'Ball Players', by G. Catlin [plate 21, shelfmark: 74/651.b.8]

Public Domain Mark
This work is free of known copyright restrictions.

Lacrosse was something of an unknown to me until my student days, but given my fondness for most things with an origin in the Americas I've maintained a passive interest in it since. I'm often struck by the fact that many UK-based Lacrosse players are unaware of its origins as a sport played, under various names, by many Native American communities prior to contact with Europeans.

However, I must confess I was somewhat vague on the exact style and form the sport took in Native American communities until I was enlightened earlier this week by George Catlin's, 'North American Indian Portfolio' [1844, BL Shelfmark: 74/651.b.8]. Catlin's work contains a wonderful plate of a game of 'Indian Ball' (to use the author's terminology) in full swing and with hundreds of participants competing on the field of play.

It comes as little surprise that Lacrosse has been much adapted to fit the norms and values of the community it was appropriated to and much of Catlin's account of the games he witnessed illustrates the scale of change. As well as the volume of players the game was also much greater in length (often lasting up to a day) and higher in score (most games ran up to at least 100 goals).

Catlin 002
'Ball Play' by G. Catlin [plate 23, shelfmark 74/651.b.8]

Public Domain Mark
This work is free of known copyright restrictions.

Catlin also notes that the games were an important way for communities to compete with one another and, as a result, individuals were known to find as much fame for their exploits on the sporting field as others found at war (the illustration at the top of the post is a testament to this). Another unique by-product of this import was that wives were also allowed onto the field of play in order to 'encourage' their husbands to defend the honor and possessions of their community more effectively.

I won't claim to know that the Library's collections are a fantastic resource on the history of Lacrosse but Catlin's work provides extensive notes on its Native American heritage. There are also supplementary materials, such as writings by Jean de Brébeuf who is attributed with using the term 'la crosse' when describing the Native American game. An 1877 reprint of 'Hurons et Iroquois' is available at shelfmark 4864.bbb.6 while the work of the Jesuits in Canada is recorded in various items, including a French digest at shelfmark G.4260.

[PJH]

16 January 2013

The Serendipity of Research: the case of Coren, Thoreau and the missing sentence

Andrea Wulf is one of our two Eccles Centre Writers in Residence for 2013.  She will be posting here throughout the year.

The year 2013 started perfectly because the wonderful Eccles Centre for American Studies very generously made me one of their Writers in Residence. Equipped with my new staff pass (and canteen pass), I took my residency in early January — in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room at the British Library.

I’m researching my next book ‘The Invention of Nature. Alexander von Humboldt’s New World’ — a non–fiction book which tells the story of the German scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) and how his visionary ideas of nature changed the way we see the world. On first sight that might not look very North American (i.e., as in the Eccles Centre for American Studies), but it actually is… because I’m looking at his influence on people such Henry David Thoreau, John Muir and Thomas Jefferson, among many others.

And though I read/work/research in the Rare Books reading room about a bunch of guys from the nineteenth century, it doesn’t mean that I’m not finding stuff which could have been written yesterday. Take last week – I had complained to a friend that a newspaper had recently changed a couple of my sentences in my piece without telling me. My friend reminded me of that fabulously outrageous Giles Coren email to his editor at the Times, in which Coren exploded over a deleted ‘a’. The next day I was in the Library, reading Henry David Thoreau’s Correspondence when by sheer coincidence I came across an equally furious letter which Thoreau had written in 1858 to his editor at the Atlantic Monthly.

VII._Rowse
Henry David Thoreau, by Samuel Worcester Rowse (www.walden.org/Institute/Images/VII.%20Rowse.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Having discovered that one of the sentences in his article had been deleted in a ‘very mean and cowardly manner’, Thoreau dashed off a letter that will still delight many writers and journalists today. ‘I do not ask anybody to adopt my opinions, but I do expect that when they ask for them to print, they will print them, or obtain my consent to their alteration or omission’, he wrote. First it seems as if he was still trying to control his anger somehow but by the last paragraph Thoreau explodes into this sentence: ‘I am not willing to be associated in any other way, unnecessarily, with parties who will confess themselves so bigoted & timid as this implies’. And it goes on.  He never wrote for the Atlantic Monthly again (at least as long as the editor James Russell Lowell was in charge). So, a hurrah to Thoreau and to the serendipity of research.

— Andrea Wulf, Eccles Centre Library Writer in Residence 2013



11 January 2013

From the collections: Mary Seacole

Hotel in the Crimea
'Mrs. Seacole's Hotel in the Crimea', insert from, 'The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands' [BL Shelfmark: 12601.h.20]

When something from the news catches my eye I occasionally have time to pull some relevant items up from the Library's collections. The recent stories about Mary Seacole's place in the curriculum pointed out to me, someone who didn't have the privilege of learning about Mrs. Seacole at school, that I didn't know enough about someone who had an important place in British military history.

The major work we hold on Seacole is her autobiography, 'The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands' [1853, BL Shelfmark: 12601.h.20]. It is a fascinating little book and many things about it caught my eye, not least the introduction from W. H. Russell (correspondent for the Times in the Crimea, he also covered the US Civil War). This glows about Seacole and notes, 'If singleness of heart, true charity, and Christian works; if trials and sufferings, dangers and perils, encountered bodily by a helpless woman on her errand of mercy in the camp and in the battle-field, can excite sympathy or move curiosity, Mary Seacole will have many friends and many readers.' (p.vii)

Adventures of Mrs Seacole
Cover of, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands' [BL Shelfmark: 12601.h.20]

I have always taken an interest in such dedications as they illustrate something of who took an interest in such books and perhaps say something of the underlying purpose of the publication. As an aside, in earlier works I find subscriber lists to be equally interesting, showing who took an interest in the contents of historically significant works. A good example here is Olaudah Equiano's, 'Interesting Narrative' which counts the Prince of Wales, Duke of York and entrepreneurs such as Josiah Wedgwood among its 9 pages of subscribers [1789, 1st edition; BL Shelfmark: 615.d.8]. I would suggest then that the dedications and subscribers found in these works speak to the importance of these individuals and their publications in their own time, even if we have since forgotten.

Both Mary Seacole and Olaudah Equiano have had much written about them in the intervening centuries and many of these works can be consulted here at the Library. However, for anyone wishing to become aquianted with Mary Seacole, Olaudah Equiano and other historical figures currently being discussed in the news I would recommend viewing their history from their own perspective as a first port of call.

[PJH]

09 January 2013

The Great Comet of 1861 and the Civil War

Stargazing was a great success on the telly and under the skies last night; and Lincoln did very well at the BAFTA award nominations.

As a doff of the cap to these two facts, here's an August 1861 political cartoon from Vanity Fair, 'The Great Comet of 1861'.  Playing on the comet that was visible with the naked eye over the US in 1861 as war broke out (the comet was first sighted in Australia in May, and designated C/1861 J1), it depicts General Winfield Scott, the union general who advocated war as the only means to bring the seceded states to heal.  (Note the bayonets in Scott's celestial tail.)

 

Comet-of-1861

Public Domain Mark

This work (The Great Comet of 1861), identified by The British Library, is free of known copyright restrictions.

Scott's strategy, which aimed to constrict the southern states like a snake, gaven birth to its popular name, the Anaconda Plan, which in turn led to other cartoons:

 

793px-Scott-anaconda
Public Domain Mark
This work (Scott's Great Snake), identified by the Library of Congress, is free of known copyright restrictions.


[MJS]

08 January 2013

Slavery and Abolition in the Caribbean: a new UK Web Archive Special Collection

 

Phil has been helping our office neighbours in the UK Web Archive team by putting put together a collection of websites on slavery and abolition. Since we know these are subjects of interest to our readers, we thought we'd flag up his latest blogpost. You can read his thoughts on web archiving and the selection process here, and you can go straight to the selected sites here.

07 January 2013

Our Great Iceberg Melting Away

Another in our occasional series on the polar regions: we can now reveal that Abraham Lincoln is to blame for global warming.  Or at least James Buchanan change.  (From Vanity Fair, 9 March 1861).

2013-01-07 14-55 vanity fair 1861 page #13

'Our Great Iceberg Melting Away', Vanity Fair, 9 March 1861, PP.6392.eg

Public Domain Mark
This work (Our Great Iceberg Melting Away, by Stephens), identified by The British Library, is free of known copyright restrictions.

[M.J.S.]