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

15 February 2019

Witch-hunts and the iconographic power of fear

Lost among other headlines, today brought news of a fascinating discovery in the Cresswell Crags in the British Midlands: approximately 1000 apotropaic markings, also known as witches markings.  Research is ongoing by Historic England to understand more about this latest discovery at the Crags, but it seems as though they belong to a rich history of markings made to protect against witches.  Typical markings include "the double 'VV' engravings, which may make reference to Mary, Virgin of Virgins and PM is Pace Maria.  Other designs are believed to be devices for capturing ‘evil’. These include diagonal lines, boxes and mazes and could be a response to a period of unexpected sickness, death or poor crops".

Given this latest witch-related discovery, it seemed appropriate to introduce readers to a new acquisition by up-and-coming New York based illustrator and book artist Normandie Syken, "Little Red Witch" which shall be available in the reading rooms very shortly.  This rather large yet exquisitely detailed book is a contemporary re-telling of the infamous Brothers Grimm tale, with a twist: the story is set in Salem, Massachusetts during the 17th Century witch trials that saw 185 people accused of witchcraft in a one-year period, resulting in 59 trials and 19 executions.  By far the vast majority of the accused were women, and where men were accused it was most often by-association with a female witch (usually a family member).

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This is, then, clearly not going to be your average fairytale.  Our witch heroine is sent from Salem to her witch grandmother's cottage in the woods to wait-out the anti-witch hysteria overtaking Salem with her loyal companion, an unnamed black cat.  

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En route, she enjoys the freedoms offered by the woods to celebrate her true witch nature, along with new-found woodland friends with whom she shares a midnight dance around a fire.  Amongst the revellers is a wolf of whom our heroine is far-from intimidated, recognising in him a fellow in the dark arts.

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Nonetheless, the wolf betrays her confidence and so the book returns to the more familiar narrative of 'Little Red Riding Hood'. 

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"What big teeth you have"

However, this only lasts a short while before further twists on the narrative are introduced.  Notably, there is no wood-cutter to save the day.  Instead Little Red and her grandmother apply their witch-knowledge and cunning to save themselves from their seemingly terrible fate.  

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Brewing a wolf-potion

What is particularly interesting about this retelling is how a number of themes that emerged from the Salem witch trials are integrated into the narrative.  Some of these, such as the ever present black cat, broomstick, and cauldron are now instantly recognisable elements of the popular imagining of witches.  Others are less iconographic: single women, particularly spinsters; inherited inter-generational witchcraft; an ability to commune and speak with animals; familiarity with herbal remedies; speaking with the Devil; causing harm through poppets (doll-like effigies); the power of words to curse, and of course the symbols of witchcraft which were reclaimed as protective markings in the Cresswell Crags.  While some of these may not have appeared in a 'Family Fortunes' list ('Family Feuds' for our US readers), they are nonetheless all uncannily familiar.  Such is the power of historic narratives to traverse centuries, particularly those that invoke fear of the unknown and suspicion of difference.

It should come as no surprise then that all of the above can be found in the historical record as anecdotal evidence used to accuse people of witchcraft, both in witch-hunts in Britain and those that took place in the American colonies.  The imagined threat of witches clearly posed a very real danger to individuals and society in the early modern period. Estimates of numbers of people who were killed during European witchhunts vary from 40,000 up to 500,000 over 300 years.

Of course, much of the 'identifying' characteristics of witches were heavily gendered: women's work and women's words were read through a sinister lens.  As Carol F. Karlsen groundbreaking sociological history of the Salem witch trials details, "witchcraft played a critical role not only in shaping, maintaining, and describing [the social structure of New England], but in reconciling men's feelings about women with the demographic, economic, religious and sexual changes of the time."  They are words that are important to reflect on, particularly considering that witch-hunts continue to be a present threat in some areas of the world where women continue to be at highest risk of persecution.

Read in this light, 'Little Red Witch' reclaims the negative connotations of witchcraft, which Normandie Syken uses to carve her very own mischievously dark fairytale, and a formidable heroine in 'Little Red'.

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Witches' ally, cuddling wolf-poppet.

 

NB: The author gifted several prints from the book upon acquisition.  As these are contained within the book, and with the author's permission, we felt it appropriate to donate these to another home where they have the opportunity to be seen by a wider audience.  We are pleased that the Glasgow Women's Library will shortly be the new home to these prints, together with a spare copy of Karlsen's book to provide a little more context.

 

Images on this page are all reproduced with permission of Normandie Syken, with whom copyright remains.  We kindly ask that you please respect this.

References

Carol F. Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England. British Library shelfmark YH.1988.a.422 

"Witches' Marks Discovery 'Largest in Britain'.  Historic England: https://historicengland.org.uk/whats-new/news/witches-marks-discovery-largest-in-britain 

- F.D Fuentes Rettig

13 February 2019

A man of his word: Abraham Lincoln and the Proclamation of Emancipation

Abraham Lincoln was born on 12 February 1809 so we're taking a moment to shine a light on the 16th president of the United States of America through a new acquisition.

President Lincoln was responsible for issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation which declared forever free those slaves within the Confederacy in 1863. When a c.1865 edition of the Proclamation recently arrived in the Americas office for cataloguing, it did more than slightly pique the interest of the little historian/wannabe typographer/lover-of-all-things-beautiful inside of me.

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Proclamation of Emancipation with calligraphic portrait of Abraham Lincoln, circa 1865

Designed and written by William H Pratt and printed by Augustus Hageboeck in Iowa, the delicate broadside features the Emancipation Proclamation text in a detailed calligraphic portrait of Lincoln, beard and all (for those hankering for more handwriting goodness, look out for our Writing exhibition later this year). Hageboeck used lithography to create this masterpiece – a process in which ‘lines are drawn with greasy ink or crayon on a specially prepared limestone, which is then moistened with water; an oily printer's ink, applied to the surface of the stone with a roller, is attracted to the image. This is then printed on to the paper under pressure.’ (R J Goulden, Aspects of the Victorian Book, Lithography in the Victorian age)

Is this the epitome of ‘embodiment’? A number of features can be seen within the impeccable writing of the portrait including wider spacing to create a ‘lighter’ effect of the backdrop and Lincoln’s shirt, bold font to create his hair, and a shadow is added to give an even darker result for Lincoln’s suit. Look closer still and extra curvature is added to the lettering to create the effect of the eyes. Interestingly over the eyes, the key words ‘That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three…’ can be seen. Possibly suggesting Lincoln’s looking ahead to a new time in the United States; his vision becoming reality and signifying a monumental shift for the nation.

The observations to pick up are seemingly endless. Further particulars include a banner depicting a rather fierce looking American eagle, illustrated seals of the States, and within the inner circle, the names of the members of Congress who supported the Constitution’s 13th Amendment.

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A contrast of techniques create the details of the portrait including varied spacing between words, bold and shadowed fonts

 

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It’s in the eyes: elaborate shaping of lettering creates the president’s features

 

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Names of the members of Congress who supported the Constitution’s 13th Amendment

 

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Illustrated seals of the States

Possibly produced for propaganda purposes, Lincoln here embodies his famous words. The calligraphic portrait demonstrating a unity between the subject and his work, almost giving more gravitas to the words themselves rather than the hero who issued them. The words quite literally shape the man.

This brief introduction barely touches the surface when it comes to the level of detail to be explored in this telling item. It’s sure to provide an interesting primary resource for researchers intrigued by its history, printing and design techniques, and the story of the man at its centre. We’ll be sharing the shelfmark details as soon as the item is available in the Reading Rooms.

In the meantime, happy belated 210th birthday, Abe.

Suggested reading

Lithography (English version by Julian Snelling and Claude Namy) by Renée Loche. Shelfmark: X29/3642

Typographics: a designer's handbook of printing techniques by Michael Hutchins. Shelfmark: W41/5588

Abraham Lincoln by Louise S Upham. Shelfmark: RB.23.b.7019.(243)

President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. Shelfmark: 1880.d.1.(35*.)

 

Blog by Rachael (still losing herself in the treasures of the Library’s Americas collections)

01 February 2019

The Federal Theatre Project's 'Living Newspapers'

Last month we celebrated the life of Hallie Flanagan, director of the ground-breaking Federal Theatre Project (1935-39). This blog will look at one of the Federal Theatre’s most innovative and controversial accomplishments: the ‘Living Newspapers’. It will also share our realisation concerning the connection between Hallie Flanagan and Mary Eccles, co-founder of the British Library’s Eccles Centre for American Studies.

Flanagan first encountered living newspapers – in which social and political issues were given theatrical form – while visiting the Soviet Union in 1926. Such productions had emerged during the Russian Civil War as a means of promoting a pro-Soviet version of the news to the largely illiterate Red Army troops. Following the Bolshevik victory, this agitprop art form continued developing and expanding. In 1923 the hugely influential collective 'Blue Blouse' was founded under the auspices of the Moscow School of Journalism. By 1928 more than 7,000 Blue Blouse troupes had been established across the nation. Performances typically opened with a parade of ‘headlines’, followed by a dozen or so humorous or satirical  sketches on topics as diverse as trouble in a local factory to religion and international relations. Siniaia Bluza (Moscow, 1924-28; shelfmark ZA.9.d.615) - the irregularly published Blue Blouse periodical - supported these performances, containing suggestions for staging, sets and costumes as well as librettos for skits.  

Blue Blouse 1927

Siniaia Bluza, 71-72 (1927): 32. Moscow, 1924-28. Shelfmark: ZA.9.d.615

Flanagan attended several Blue Blouse productions in Moscow. In Shifting Scenes of the Modern European Theatre (London, 1929; shelfmark 011805.i.61) she notes: 'At Trade Union or Factory theatres, the Blue Blouses, workers by day and actors by night, perform original acrobatic plays'. She particularly recalls attending a production in which ‘three men and three girls glorify workers of the Army, the Navy, the farms, and factories’. [1] Rejecting elaborate props and sets, the actors energetically climbed imaginary rigging, planted imaginary crops and controlled imaginary machinery: 'Each motif reached its climax in a refrain taken up by the audience, a refrain consisting of the repetition of a single word, Comrade – half sung, half shouted: Tovarish! Tovarish! Tovarish! The effect of this exuberance was an amazing impression of having seen, not three men and three girls in an amateur song and dance, but a forest of ships with sailors in the rigging, a battalion of soldiers, a commonwealth of farm and factory hands all linked in a comradeship of work.' [2]

A decade later, in one of her earliest conversations with WPA director, Harry Hopkins, Flanagan suggested the Federal Theatre could produce a series of living newspapers involving many people taking on small parts. Hopkins immediately concurred and the Federal Theatre's principle Living Newspaper Unit was established in New York City soon after. Headed by playwright Elmer Rice – who, like Flanagan, had visited the Soviet Union – the Unit included theatre professionals and out-of-work journalists. From the outset it attracted controversy. Its first production – Ethiopia, about the recent invasion by Mussolini – was issued with a federal censorship order, prompting Rice’s resignation. And its third – Injunction Granted, with its pro-union/anti-big business stance – was criticised by federal government officials and closed early. Several living newspapers were hugely successful, however; most notably, One-Third of a Nation.

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Poster for One-Third of a Nation at the Aldelphi Theatre, New York City, 1938. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Inspired by President Roosevelt's second inaugural address in which he recognised that one third of the nation were ‘ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished’, the play dramatized the living conditions – the crime, disease, and powerlessness – endured by those in urban slum tenements. It also offered some solutions. After being workshopped at Vassar under Flanagan's direction in the summer of 1937, it was staged in cities across the United States, with revisions reflecting local conditions. In Philadelphia, for example, reference was made to a city tenement house that had collapsed two days before opening night.

Everywhere, reviews of One-Third of a Nation were positive. The Detroit Tribune declared it to be: ‘… of vital interest to every Negro living in Michigan’. The New Orleans Times-Picayune called it ‘timely and shrewdly staged’. In San Francisco it ran for nearly two years. And at New York’s Adelphi Theatre over 200,000 people cheered as the life-like slum housing went up in flames and the ‘The Consumer’ cried out to the government: ‘Can you hear me, Washington? Give me a decent home!’

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Photo of the New York set of the Federal Theatre Project's One-Third of a Nation, 1938. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

And it seems that Washington did hear, but in both a positive and negative way. Eleanor Roosevelt believed One-Third of a Nation achieved more than any speeches by her, Langdon Post (Head of the New York City Housing Authority), or even her husband ever could. But numerous senators were offended that their views on housing – taken word-for-word from the Congressional Record – were included in the play.

Flanagan later reflected in Arena: The History of the Federal Theatre (New York: Benjamin Blom, 1965; shelfmark X.900/3282) that: ‘Enemies made by the living newspaper were, I believe, powerful enemies, instrumental in the final closing of the project.’ [3] Yet, she never regretted her decisions. And she never lost her conviction in the power of this art form. Indeed, in 1948 she co-wrote a new play - E = mc2: A Living Newspaper about the Atomic Age - boldly declaring in its foreword: ‘The theatrical effectiveness of the “living newspaper” was conclusively demonstrated in the productions of Power and One-Third of a Nation. This latest edition of the "living newspaper" compares most favorably with the previous ones.' (New York: Samuel French, 1948; shelfmark 011791.c.47) 

Atomic 2

Hallie Flanagan, E = mc2: A Living Newspaper about the Atomic Age.  New York: Samuel French, 1948. Shelfmak: 011791.c.47

Finally, we wanted to share our recent realisation that Mary Eccles – co-founder of the British Library’s Eccles Centre for American Studies – was a student at Vassar College at the very time that Hallie Flanagan established the Vassar Experimental Theatre. Colleagues at the Centre knew about Mary's doctoral  thesis, 'Playwriting for Elizabethans, 1600-1605'. We were also aware anecdotally of her interest in avant-garde theatre. Yet, we had never connected Mary with Flanagan. With hindsight, it seems inconceivable that Mary would not have worked with, and surely been influenced by, this extraordinary, ground-breaking woman. In this vein, we will conclude with this wonderful, scandalous newspaper clipping about Mary (née Crapo) breaking conventions and enjoying a 'healthy drag' on a cigarette during her college years! 

Mary Crapo smoking

References:

[1]. Hallie Flanagan, Shifting Scenes of the Modern European Theatre. London: George G Harrap & Co., 1929, p. 108. Shelfmark: 011805.i.61.

[2]. ibid., p. 109.

[3]. Hallie Flanagan, Arena: The History of the Federal Theatre. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1965, p. 221. Shelfmark: X.900/3282.

Jean Petrovic, Eccles Centre for American Studies