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Introduction: Treasures of Americana

by Ronald D. Patkus

The term “Americana” has acquired a broad meaning, and today can refer to a variety of materials that in some way relate to, or were produced in, the Americas: books, manuscripts, objects d’art, and so on. In the world of books and libraries, the term has usually referred to printed items, or unpublished manuscripts. Unless expressly noted, Americana is to be distinguished from American literature, which would include works by Americans that do not in any way relate to America or other Americans. When using the term, many people think of the United States, as opposed to other parts of the hemisphere; the phrase U.S.iana never achieved general acceptance. Of course certain subcategories of Americana exist, such as “Western Americana.”

Even when limiting use of the term to the United States, it will become clear to anyone venturing into the field that this is truly a vast area of collecting. The proper beginnings of Americana extend back to the late fifteenth century and continue on into our own times (although for many years special attention was given to items dating before 1830). The earliest item of Americana is generally recognized to be the “Columbus Letter,” a document written by the navigator which describes the West Indies and his landing. From the first appearance of this letter, to the 1640 printing of the Bay Psalm Book—the oldest surviving object printed in the United States—to myriad other examples of later centuries, the “literature of American history,” as it has been called, is extensive indeed.

Interest in collecting Americana extends back to the early eighteenth century. Two notable figures in this area hailed from Massachusetts. The first was Rev. Thomas Prince (1687-1758), who developed what he called a “New England Library” to document the history of the region. Prince gathered such things as Governor William Bradford’s manuscript of History of Plimmoth Plantation, as well as several copies of the Bay Psalm Book. He gave his library to the Old South Church, and most of it was later deposited with the Boston Public Library. The second important collector from this period was Rev. Jeremy Belknap (1744-1798), who in 1791 founded the Massachusetts Historical Society. Under his direction, the society actively collected material relating to the Bay State and other parts of the country. The society thus acquired many important items relating to the revolutionary period.

The libraries of several prominent nineteenth century Americana collectors provided key holdings for particular organizations or institutions. Isaiah Thomas (1749-1831) made his fortune as a great printer; he then turned his pursuits toward gathering Americana, especially in the form of newspapers and ephemera. In 1812 he founded the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts, which today has the largest collection of colonial printings. James Lenox (1800-1880) was a wealthy New Yorker who was especially active at mid-century; his books were placed with the New York Public Library. John Carter Brown (1797-1874) was Lenox’s chief competitor; his collection was expanded by his son and later formed the basis of the John Carter Brown Library in Providence, Rhode Island. George Brinley (1817-1875) of Hartford, Connecticut collected deeply and widely in Americana; he ordered the sale of his library, but gave several institutions funds to purchase particular books. Hubert Howe Bancroft (1832-1918) was a San Francisco publisher who assembled a significant collection of Western Americana (65,000 books and 100,000 manuscripts) and sold it to the University of California, Berkeley.

Of course other institutions built up Americana collections during this period. The Library of Congress emerged as an especially important repository. In 1832 George Cochin Washington sold personal papers of George Washington to the library. Six years later the library made the first of several purchases of James Madison material from Dolly Madison. In 1848 the library acquired papers of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton from their respective families. During the later half of the nineteenth century Ainsworth Rand Spofford, the Librarian of Congress from 1864-1897, acquired such collections as the revolutionary papers of the Marquis de Rochambeau and the Peter Force Collection of Americana, which featured 429 volumes of manuscripts on the Revolution and the founding of the Republic.

Nor has the twentieth century been without its own individual and institutional collectors of Americana. In the early 1900s Henry Huntington established a trust which led to the creation of the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. Today the library has significant holdings of Americana, especially in the area of manuscripts and early American imprints. At mid-century Thomas W. Streeter (1883-1965) became a key collector of early imprints; like George Brinley, he had his collection sold, but provided funds for purchases to various institutions. Closer to our own times, the Marian S. Carson Collection of Americana, focusing especially on Philadelphia and the years from 1776 and 1876, was donated to the Library of Congress. Finally, one may mention New York’s Michael Zinman, who in recent years assembled one of the greatest collections of printed Americana dating before 1800. This collection was sold to the Library Company of Philadelphia, which was originally established by Benjamin Franklin and others in 1731.

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Since its establishment in 1861, Vassar College has built up an impressive collection of research material in its library. Many of the books and related items are rare, and provide unique research experiences for students, faculty, alumni/ae, and others. In the specific field of American history, the library houses significant materials. Many of the special collections of Americana date from the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These include papers of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Paulina Wright Davis. Today Vassar is known widely for its historical collections relating to women’s suffrage, in addition to holdings on modern women writers and other subjects.

At the same time one must note the presence of earlier examples of Americana, especially those dating from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Indeed, books from this time form part of the personal library of the college’s founder, Matthew Vassar (1792-1868). Among these books are biographies of political figures, such as George Washington and Thomas Paine; histories of the United States, including Timothy Pitkin’s A Political and Civil History; and works on agriculture, such as John Adlum’s A Memoir on the Cultivation of the Vine in America and T.G. Fessenden’s The New American Gardener. Vassar’s library was given to the college, and today it forms part of the Department of Archives & Special Collections.

Other collections or libraries have been acquired that include Americana. The Henry Justice Collection on the Periodical Press includes hundreds of examples of books, printed pamphlets, and newspapers that relate to the history of the United States before 1830. Equal rights activist and Vassar alumna Alma Lutz donated a number of works dealing with early American women. The Lasker Collection of Maps and Atlases includes several cartographic items dealing with British North America and the early United States. In addition, the library’s collections of rare cookbooks, household manuals, etiquette, and children’s courtesy books all include early American imprints.

In addition to collections of books, Vassar librarians acquired individual American literary and historical works, especially as they appeared in first editions. Today most of these examples form part of the Grille collection. The items in Grille have been obtained via gift, bequest, and purchase. Among the early historical works, titles relating to government and political affairs are especially prevalent. A number of them concern Dutchess County and the State of New York. Also of note are travel books describing tours through one or another of the geographical regions of the United States.

The rare book holdings are complemented by manuscript Americana. Again, the origins of collecting in this field date back to the nineteenth century. Lucy Maynard Salmon (1853-1927), a Vassar History professor, was a pioneer in the movement to bring primary sources into the classroom. In order to support this educational endeavor, she gathered original documents relating to a variety of historical subjects. Items pertaining to early American history, however, are especially noteworthy. Here one finds papers of the Bleecker family, a key Dutch family in Albany, New York; of Jasper Parrish, a government agent who worked with Native Americans in New York State; of the Bullard family, of Dedham, Massachusetts. These and other examples provide a wide range of documentation of the American experience in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The Salmon Collection of Historical Materials provides exciting research opportunities for both students and faculty.

Vassar’s collection of manuscript Americana was substantially strengthened more recently through a bequest from Ruth Sturm. The Ernest Sturm Collection includes several notable items from the period of the Revolutionary War and the presidency of George Washington. The War items feature letters and documents of nearly all of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. There are also several manuscripts relating to the Battle of Harlem Heights in 1776. In addition, one will find correspondence and official documents of Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Henry Knox, and Edmund Randolph—all of the members of Washington’s first cabinet, assembled in 1789. Letters of every president, from Washington through Roosevelt, are included in the Ernest Sturm Collection as well.

One item in the Ernest Sturm Collection deserves special attention: a copy of the first issue of the United States Constitution, as finally agreed, by all of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The document includes a letter transmitting the Constitution to the United States Congress—then assembled in New York—and a resolution of the Congress to send the Constitution to the state legislatures for approval. This version of “We the People” seems to have been published in Philadelphia just prior to the printing of the first official edition of the Constitution. A further characteristic of this copy is a handwritten note by a contemporary at the top of page one stating, “It is a good thing and will be accepted.”

Still other examples of early manuscript Americana are present in what is known as the Autograph Collection. Among the persons represented here are John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, John Hancock, and others. Within the Autograph Collection, and in separate locations in the Department of Archives & Special Collections and the Main Library, are facsimiles of key documents such as early drafts of the Declaration of Independence, New York’s Ratification of the Constitution, and George Washington’s Farewell Address to the nation upon leaving office.

For all of its treasures of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Americana, Vassar’s holdings cannot compare with those of libraries that specialize in this area. Still, though not as extensive as collections of the institutions mentioned in the first part of this essay, the Vassar collection is fully representative, and includes some very unique items that cannot be found elsewhere.

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The purpose of the exhibition “Treasures of Americana, 1760-1830” is to provide a view of what historians have traditionally called the Revolutionary Era (1763-1783) and the Federal Era (1789-1829) of United States history. The presentation of printed and manuscript material highlights political events and developments: the burgeoning movement for independence, the Revolutionary War, the creation and ratification of the Constitution, presidential politics, the War of 1812, and the working out of national boundaries. At the same time, the exhibition is deliberately multi-faceted; in addition to political issues, it touches upon social, economic, religious, scientific, and literary matters. In this way a wider window on late eighteenth and early nineteenth century American life will be available.

Of course many of the figures represented in “Treasures of Americana” are familiar to Americans; as schoolchildren we all learn about the lives of people like Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. The contributions of such men to American life were substantial, and must be noted. Simultaneously, however, there has been a concerted effort to portray the lives and contributions of other less well-known Americans. In the exhibition one will see representative examples of the writings and deeds of women, African-Americans, and Native Americans.

Given Vassar’s historical presence in Poughkeepsie, it is only natural that a number of items selected for display concern the city, Dutchess County, and the State of New York. Books, pamphlets, newspapers, and manuscripts have all been included as examples of local Americana. These items are unique, and provide a direct connection to the past for those who live, or have lived, in this geographical area.

An important characteristic of the exhibition is the inclusion of both printed and manuscript material. Among the books and pamphlets are a considerable number of first editions. Later editions of key works were included, however, when necessary to document a particular topic or theme. By their very nature all of the manuscripts on display are unique. They add to the exhibition not only by the topics they cover, but also by their ability somehow to convey, in a special way, something of the personality of their authors.

With regard to exhibition highlights, one thinks almost instinctively of the first issue of the Constitution as agreed. This document can be seen as the focal point of “Treasures.” Chronologically it lies in the center and in a certain sense the words “We the People” serve as a common theme for all of the items in the exhibition. Still, almost anyone will admit of the difficulty involved in identifying highlights. Examples that may appear as highlights to some may not be as striking to others. In any case, all items were selected for their interest and historical value.

Due to space limitations, some materials from the library could not be included in the exhibition even though they deserved a place there. The exhibition would benefit greatly, for instance, from the presence of one or another of the maps in Archives & Special Collections. We are also aware of limitations imposed by the boundaries of the collection itself. Time constraints made a cooperative effort among several institutions impossible at this time.

Perhaps both items present, and items not present, in the exhibition will have a positive effect. Viewing some of Vassar’s treasures and thinking about other possibilities should be both enjoyable and part of a learning experience. Certainly it is our wish that “Treasures of Americana” will stimulate interest in Americana and early United States history among students, faculty, alumnae/i, and others, and even lead to further intellectual explorations in the future.

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