American Collections blog

What's on the mind of Team America?


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

14 June 2017

George Washington’s Legacy of Liberty 

I recently had the great pleasure of spending time at the George Washington Library at Mount Vernon, where I both researched for my new book on Benjamin Franklin –  the subject of my Eccles Centre Makin Fellowship – and contributed some new material to the  George Washington Digital Encyclopaedia.  Another joy of Mount Vernon is the house tour.  This is not just because of the interest of the house itself and the glory of its position overlooking the Potomac, but also due to the warmth of the regard of the American visitors for Mount Vernon’s most distinguished owner. The Americans are proprietorial in the nicest possible way: not nationalistic, but personal.  Stories about Washington abound, as they talk of him as a greatly-admired ancestor.  That of course, as the “Father of his Country”, is what he is.

Washington is seen as part historic figure and part icon.  Emanuel Leutze’s painting ‘Washington Crossing the Delaware’ depicts a general truth above individual details. Certainly, the actual boats used in Washington’s famous river crossing were more steeply sided and higher in the water.  The ice in the river did not resemble arctic icebergs and even the men’s clothing was rather different.  However, the portrait was painted as a propaganda piece, three quarters of a century after the event, by a German American who hoped that the campaigners for reform in  the country of his birth would take inspiration from America’s own liberation.  Yet it is the iconic image of Washington that grabs the attention – and rightly so.

The image is iconic because the Washington characteristic that the Leutze portrait conveys so strongly is his leadership. Washington’s solid stance and foot thrust forward dramatically reflect his  ability to inspire. He is the still calm centre of the painting, anchoring the frenzied activity of all those moving urgently around him, while serving his and his new nation’s purpose in mounting a hazardous raid following a succession of defeats.  

The success of the crossing, and victory in the Battle of Trenton that followed, rekindled belief among the American patriot forces and provided a turning point in the War of Independence. The key to Washington’s success was that he was able to withstand  that run of defeats and to appear steadfast until the tide of the war turned, when Benjamin Franklin secured the support of the French and when the Battle of Yorktown was won.  The authority Washington  gained never left him.  It served him well as President of the Constitutional Convention:  he was crucial in reconciling the substantial differences between the States.  It perhaps latterly served him too well, as he was persuaded to serve a second term as President and reluctantly but dutifully did so. 

It is partly that sense of Washington’s authority that accounts for some of the appreciation of him by those visitors to Mount Vernon, but there is more to it than that. Like the Roman general Cincinnatus, he gave up retirement on his farm to take up arms and return to public service once more.  Unlike Cincinnatus he was unable to return to private life after a season, but had to wait for more than quarter of a century before he could finally, and gratefully, do so.  He thus astounded the   European monarchs who expected him to be like them and to die in kingly state.    The Cincinnatus story was well-known at the time, hence the foundation of the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization for officers who served in the Revolutionary War, with Washington as its first President.  But that was in 1783, well before Washington became President of his nation.     

It is perhaps the fact that Washington was determined to limit his power as President that is responsible for his reputation today. This was made clear by his actions, but the key to his approach is outlined in the most precious book in the George Washington Library -- one acquired by the Library at vast cost and added to their already extensive collection of George Washington’s books.   It is Washington’s own copy of The Acts of Congress including the United States constitution, marked up with his own notes on what he was empowered and not empowered to do.  It is evidence of a very happy conjunction of man and measures and why, both in America and around the world, there are so many statues to Washington and constitutions based on the American model.    It is also, of course, an important ongoing guide to executive action for his successors as President.   


George Washington’s  personal copy of The Acts of Congress containing the US Constitution and his own annotations on the extent and limits of presidential power



The Rare Books Vault at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon with The Acts of Congress in pride of place. The Library, opened in 2013, is centred around the books and legacy of George Washington, every bit as much as the British Library has the Library of George III, Washington’s great opponent, at its centre. 



George Goodwin sharing George Washington’s view from the porch at Mount Vernon 


George Washington’s annotated version of The Acts of Congress  is available online

George Goodwin is the author of Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of America’s Founding Father (see British Library catalogue) and 2017 Eccles Centre Makin Fellow at the British Library

Further Reading at the British Library:

Douglas Bradburn, The Citizenship Revolution: Politics and the creation of the American Union, 1774-1804  (Charlottesville & London, University of Virginia Press, 2009) [m09/.28708]

Ron Chernow, Washington:  A Life (New York, Penguin, 2011;  London, Allen Lane, 2010) [YC.2011.a.12554]

Joseph J. Ellis, His Excellency, George Washington (New York, Vintage; London, Faber 2005) [YC.2008.a.3908]

Flora Fraser: George & Martha Washington:  a Revolutionary Marriage  (New York, Knopf; London, Bloomsbury, 2015) [DRT ELD.DS.72252]

John Rhodehamel, George Washington:  The Wonder of the Age (New Haven & London, Yale: 2017)  (Soon available from )

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 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


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