American Collections blog

8 posts from December 2015

24 December 2015

Tun Tun: a Venezuelan Christmas carol

Aguinaldo is a popular type of Christmas song sung in many Latin American countries at this time of year, thought to have derived from the villancicos imported from the Iberian Peninsula during the second half of the sixteenth century. Perhaps the most celebrated composer of villancicos is Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, whose words were set to music by Antonio de Salazar in the late 17th century. Although villancicos often made reference to secular themes, they were encouraged – or at least tolerated – by the Church hierarchy as far as they were seen as useful tool in the drive to convert the native populations to Catholicism.

As the popularity of villancicos declined from the 19th century onwards, aguinaldo – a much more folk-inflected art form – began to take their place. Today, aguinaldo are performed by people in groups called parrandas, who wander from door-to-door sharing their songs in much the same way as carollers do in the UK. This wonderful recording of an aguinaldo from Venezuela is a far cry from the baroque villancicos of the 17th century, though it does illustrate how the form mixes the sacred with the everyday, as we hear the celebration of the birth of Christ played out as an commentary on neighbourly relations.

Listen to Tun Tun (performed by Federico Reyna and family)

As far as we have been able to identify, this recording of Tun Tun was performed by Federico Reyna and his family for a BBC radio programme entitled Folk Music of Venezuela. It was broadcast on the Third Programme on 2 September 1962, and introduced by A.L. Lloyd, with production by Douglas Cleverdon.

Like many good folk-songs Tun Tun is a self-satirising comment on the form itself. In the song the parranderos pay a visit to their neighbour to share their goodwill, though he becomes increasingly exasperated and eventually demands to be left alone: “Que el diablo se los lleve a mí dejenme en paz!”

Folk songs of the Americas

The recording is part of the A.L. Lloyd collection, which contains material collected by the folklorist throughout his life. Lloyd also edited Folk Songs of the Americas (shelfmark: HUS 789.202242), a great resource for those interested in folk-music from across the continent.

More sound recordings from the British Library’s collections can heard at BL Sounds.

– Laurence Byrne

22 December 2015

Mark Twain's Scrapbook & Earworm

More scrapbooks, this time adverts for Mark Twain's scrapbooks at the end of his Punch, Brothers, Punch! and Other Sketches (New York: Slote, Woodman & Co, 1878).

Here it is:



And here's a close up, which show the scrapbook's USP: pre-gummed paper.


Twains patent scrap book

Punch, Brothers, Punch! is also (but not only) notable for the title story of the collection, which recounts an early 'earworm', or jingle that is impossible to get out of your head: the lines 'Punch, brothers! punch with care!/Punch in the presence of the passenjare' were read 'in a newspaper a little while ago... they took instant and entire possession of me.  All through breakfast they went waltzing through; and when, at last, I rolled up my napkin, I could not tell whether I had eaten anything or not.'  The narrator manages to break the curse by passing on the jingle to a  'into the eager ears of the poor, unthinking students'.

Also in the volume, and I include this in case it proves useful, is this handy, and much-praised, map of Paris, which dispenses with picturesqueness and replaces it with 'geographical reliability'. The reader, Twain advises, 'will find it well to frame this map for future reference, so that it may aid in extending popular intelligence.'  He also suggests contemplating the map 'on his head or hold it before a looking glass' as he engraved it back to front and upside down in a fit of forgetfulness. Printing is hard (and you may not that the reversed offset has partly done the work of the reader for us).


update: as well as the two books mentioned yesterday, we have been reminded on Twitter of Ellen Gruber Garvey, Writing With Scissors: American scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

Matthew Shaw



21 December 2015



Scrapbooking may have been eclipsed by adult colouring books, but as a subject of academic study, they seem to be growing in importance (See for example Jessica Helfand, Scrapbooks: an American History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008) or The Scrapbook in American Life (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006)). However, as any avid scrapbooker knows, a decent scrapbook is essential, and a certain amount of consideration has to be given to the bindings or the pages; otherwise, as the pages fill up with cuttings and other scraps, the whole codex starts to bulge in the most unwieldly fashion.

Here's one possible solution. In 1876, Bernard J. Beck patented his 'improvement in scrap-books' (patent 175,327, dated 28 March 1876), and consisted of a scrapbook 'made of one of more thicknesses of paper folded with reverse folds like a fan, but parallel, and having the saw-cuts for the binding-cords corresponding to the saw cuts in the folded sheets, whereby the filling-pieces of the back are prepare for use separately from the sheets, and the two are put together in sewing up the book. By this construction the book is made much stronger than heretofore'.  You'll have got all that, but in case it's a bit opaque, here's his illustration from the patent:


Which in the flesh looks like this:


Our copy, which we acquired relatively recently, is still awaiting a bit of conservation.  It's a material example of the popular vogue for collecting among men and women alike, and which offers a worldview into the domestic or personal space of the Victorian era, as well as showing how this overlapped with consumption and print culture. This copy was produced as a salesman's dummy, pre-pasted with some of the wonderful chromolithographs that could be purchased and carefully stuck in, according to theme or interest. 

They could be Christmas-themed:


Or avian:


Or perhaps canine:



Beck wasn't the only one at it, of course. Samuel L. Clemens also patented his 'improved scrap book' in 1873, and went of to produce over fifty varieties, sold sensibly enough as 'Mark Twain Scrapbooks.' 

In contrast, Beck's literary career remains sadly unknown.

Matthew Shaw


18 December 2015

Isaiah Thomas and A Narrative of the excursion and ravages of the King's troops



Sometimes, we acquire things with the help of the Eccles Centre for American Studies; this was the case in the acquisition of this example of the revolutionary Printer Isaiah Thomas' work, A Narrative of the Excursion and Ravages of the King's Troops (Massachusetts-Bay, Worcester: Isaiah Thomas by order of the Provincial Congress, [1775]; shelfmark RB.23.a.31273). It's quite gruesome stuff, which really catches the flavour of the tumultuous times.  


Just look at how Thomas printed 'BLOOD'.

The colophon also records Thomas' April 1775 escape from Boston to Worcester, which prevented the British from destroying his presses.

Matthew Shaw

17 December 2015

America Answers Lindbergh!

More acquisitions from the last decade or so. Today, the Council Against Intolerance in America, America Answers Lindbergh! (1940; shelmark YD.2005.a.422), from the same dealer's catalogue as yesterday's Kingdom of Flying Men.  The Flying Man in question is the aviator Charles Lindbergh, famous for his 1927 non-stop flight across the Atlantic, and infamous for his flirtation with far-right and even fascist popular politics. Lindbergh provided the engine for Philip Roth's counter-historical novel, The Plot Against America, in which Lindbergh trumps Roosevelt to win the 1940 presidential election, with terrible antisemitic consequences.

In this pamphlet, which originally cost 10 cents, a range of leading figures from churchmen to journalists and politicians respond to Lindbergh's ant-intervention and antisemitic speech at Des Moines, Iowa on 11 September 1940 as leader of the America First Committee.  The mayor of New York's response, included on p. 9,  ran as follows

'Carbon Copy of a Nazi Paper

'Replying to your telegram concerning Colonel Lindbergh's injection of race and religious issue into American life, I can only repeat what I have already stated, that no American should read, at a public meeting at any time, from a carbon copy of a Nazi paper

- F.H. Laguardia'. 


Matthew Shaw

16 December 2015

The Kingdom of Flying Men


For various reasons, I have been looking back at my time in Team Americas, and thought it may be interesting to do some short posts about the items we've acquired since 2004. Looking back at the files, the first thing I ordered was a novel from 1956: Frederic Nelson Litten's The Kingdom of Flying Men (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press; shelfmark YD.2004.a.3998). The bookseller noted that it was 'a beautiful copy' and described it as 'a novel about the hazards & difficulties of the relatively new field of air cargo.' Was I, in my then-new post, drawn to the parallel novelty of a new field of work? Was it the $100 cost that swung it? I passed on the Women in Sports Car Competition (1958) that was offered above it in the dealer's list, a decision that time may not have vindicated, given the research potential such an item clearly has given the growth of sports studies (not to mention gender studies). Still, I saved the Library $85, and may have been put off by the cost and the NF DJ (near-fine dust jacket) which we tend to avoid for our collections.

But back the the Flying Men. It has provenance: there is a bookplate 'From the Books of Elsie W. Hoffman', and a curious publishing history. Westminster is known for its religious publishing, put produced the odd novel to raise funds. This is a rare example of such a thing. And it's true; it is a beautiful, if slightly austere, example of mid-century printing. Good untrimmed paper, and clean boards, and an object that sits well in the hands, asking to be read.

The author, the Foreward reveals, flew for the Army in the 1930s, when the 'sky kingdom' was 'uncharted, little-known'. Today, he writes with only slight hyperbole, 'Time and linear measurement have lost significance; Europe is within commuting distance'. So, as well as an example of US publishing history, the novel offers an insight into aviation, something which has indeed changed the world, and is now a subject of study from a range of perspectives; not least environmental history. Litten himself was a prolific author (born in 1885), specialising in aeronautical tales, many of which were aimed at a younger audience. Here's his Air Mission to Algiers, via HathiTrust. He also published over 600 short stories, at a time when periodicals were a viable outlet for an author. Indeed, he developed the '8-Step System of Plotting', the secrets of which could be add via Frederick Litten Associates for $1, or advice on 'How to Write for a Living' for $2, according to a contemporary advertisement in The Writer magazine. Again, more examples of how mid-century authors got by. He also seems to have done his research, as there is a considerable list of thanks to those he consulted while researching the book. 

It starts well, with the young pilot Johnny Caruthers returning home from WWI on board the SS Rawlins Victory, writing to the director of Personnel at Trans-American Airlines in Chicago suggesting a scheme employing ex-servicemen as civilian pilots. He, however, needs an airmail stamp, and we are introduced to 'Stormy' Morgan, an injured pilot, who Caruthers persuades to return to skies. Several adventures and 247 pages later, we arrive at the last lines: 'Stormy's vision looked beyond to a sky that was filled with planes. The rolling thunder of their exhaust reached him across the frontiers of the kingdom of flying men.'

Matthew Shaw

12 December 2015

Guadalupe: from Tepeyac to the British Library

In early December 1531, a recent Christian convert named Juan Diego set off from his home of Cuautitlán towards Tlatelolco in the valley of Mexico. As he climbed the hill of Tepeyac, Juan Diego was visited by a magnificent apparition of a woman, who told him she was the Virgin Mary and that he was to instruct the Bishop of Mexico (Juan de Zumárraga) to build a shrine in her honour on the hillside at Tepeyac.

So began the long and tangled story of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, whose feast day is celebrated on 12 December. The shrine, now the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, is one of the world’s most visited Catholic pilgrimage sites, and Guadalupe herself has become not only the most recognisable religious symbol in Mexico, but a political one too. Miguel Hidalgo, himself a Catholic priest, began the fight for independence from Spain with his Grito de Dolores by making explicit reference to Guadalupe (although accounts differ on his exact wording, Hidalgo is generally agreed to have shouted “Long live Our Lady of Guadalupe!” during his speech, and the flags borne by Hidalgo and his insurgents carried the image of Guadalupe).

Guadalupe 1

At the British Library, we are fortunate to have two of the texts that were foundational in establishing and legitimising Guadalupe. Imagen de la Virgen Maria Madre de Dios de Guadalupe, milagrosamente aparecida en la ciudad de Mexico, (1648, shelfmark 1225.e.17; shown above) was the first printed description of the apparition (from which the above narrative derives), authored by Miguel Sánchez, a Catholic priest who became known as one of the four evangelists of Guadalupe. Also in our collection is Huei tlamahuiçoltica (1649, shelfmark 884.k.35; shown below), which was the first account published in nahautl, the language in which Guadalupe is said to have communicated her message to Juan Diego.

Guadalupe 2

– Laurence Byrne

01 December 2015

New Deal Teaching Session


(N.B. This post includes reference to the complexities of racial language of the 1920s). As part of its mission to promote access to and use of the North American collections of the British Library, the Eccles Centre is once again offering research training sessions to both undergraduate and postgraduate students.

On Monday the Centre was delighted to welcome twenty final year UCL undergraduates who are studying the New Deal. As ever, we outlined the best databases for capturing relevant research (America: History and Life for historians, PAIS and Social Sciences Full Text for social scientists), outlined the Library’s US newspaper holdings (including the digital resources we’ve blogged about on these pages), offered a friendly introduction to the somewhat scary world of US official documents (with the promise that there really is something for everyone, once you get over your fear!) and flagged up the Library’s incredible collection of sound recordings, which include Franklin D Roosevelt’s fireside chats.

This particular session also offered a show and tell which was fun for us to put together and hopefully gave the students a better sense of the breadth and depth of the Library’s materials on the Great Depression and the New Deal. Two recent purchases included True Freedom for Negro and White Labor published by the Negro Labor News Service ([1936?], shelfmark YD.2010.b.2858) and a one-act play published by the Education Department of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, In Union There Is Strength ([published between 1930-1939?], shelfmark YD.2014.b.908).



We looked at several items published under the wide-ranging remit of the Federal Writers’ Project, including New York: A Guide to the Empire State (1940, shelfmark 010410.dd.11), New York Nebraska Folklore, 2 vols. (1939-40, shelfmark X.700/21082) and Lay My Burden Down: A Folk History of Slavery (1945, shelfmark DSC 398(73), and highlighted our bibliography of Federal Writers’ Project materials held by the British Library. And we enjoyed the wisdom offered both by Eleanor Roosevelt – in a compilation of her advice columns, If You Ask Me ([1948], shelfmark 8412.aa.57) – and by Alice Roosevelt Longworth, published in her regular column for the Ladies Home Journal (shelfmark HIU.A303).

And in response to a student’s interest in the Harlem Renaissance we included several items by the writer, photographer and patron/champion of the Renaissance Carl Van Vechten: his controversial work, Nigger Heaven (1928, shelfmark 12704.aa.25) and Generations in Black and White (1993, shelfmark YK.1995.b.74). Seeing these works prompted our decision to update the Centre’s guide to the Library’s holdings on the Harlem Renaissance; watch this space for updates.

For more information about these research training sessions, please contact the Centre at

Further reading:

The Federal Writers’ Project: A Guide to Materials held at the British Library (2013) (full text on the Centre’s website under Research Resources or via this link)

Alice and Eleanor: A Contrast in Style and Purpose by Sandra R Curtis (Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, c1994) [YA.1994.b.7184]  

The Harlem Renaissance: A Guide to Materials in the British Library (1997, to be updated soon; full text on the Centre’s website under Research Resources or via this link)