Hair Relics and Victorian Death Culture

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By Katrina L. Gallegos, M.A. Candidate Museum Studies Graduate Assistant Armstrong Browning Library and Museum Origins This blog post is in conversation with and inspired by a mini exhibit, And It Was All Black featured last semester in the Hankamer … Continue reading

A Browning Pilgrimage

by Rachel Jacob, Armstrong Browning Library Graduate Research Assistant

Part of my duties as a graduate research assistant at the Armstrong Browning Library involve looking through our collections to answer research questions people ask. A recent question related to the Armstrong tours caused me to look through the unprocessed collection of the tour company which Mary Armstrong, Dr. Armstrong’s wife, ran for many years. In researching this collection, I stumbled across the Browning pilgrimage which the Armstrong Educational Tours company created.

Brochure for the first Browning pilgrimage.

In 1926, the Armstrong Tour company offered an exciting tour of Europe highlighting areas of the Browning’s lives. The tour was infused with literary references and readings. The tourists, or “pilgrims”, would even have literary lectures given by Dr. Armstrong and European Browning scholars at various stops on the trip. Dr. Armstrong himself described the tour:

“This pilgrimage to the shrines of the most virile poet of the Nineteenth Century is a spontaneous growth, out of the minds and hearts of Browning Lovers of America. The tour will include all the interesting features along the usual path through artistic and literary and historic and scenic beauties of Europe. But, in addition to these, there will be excursions along the trail of the Brownings. This means charming excursions in out-of-the-way corners of Europe, which lend to this tour peculiar and gripping interest.”

Photograph of the Browning pilgrimage tour at Fano.

On the tour, the group visited important places in Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s story including their home at Casa Guidi, Barrett Browning’s house at 50 Wimpole Street, the church where they were married, and the burial spot of Barrett Browning. The group also visited the Baths of Luca where Barrett Browning presented her Sonnets of the Portuguese to Browning. Another literary stop relating to the Browning’s works was the Piazza S. Lorenzo where the Old Yellow Book, the inspiration for the Ring and the Book, was found. The pilgrims even followed the trail of Pompelia and Caponsacchi while they were traveling. They were also able to visit Fano to see the Guardian Angel, for which Browning wrote his eponymous poem. During the trip, the pilgrims met significant people like Prince Fabrizio Cigala, the Governor of Calabria, professors at the University of Naples, and various Browning scholars and supporters.

 

Brochure for the second Browning pilgrimage.

The first tour must have been a success because in 1930 Armstrong Educational Tours offered a second Browning pilgrimage. This second pilgrimage had 19 pilgrims join on an even more expansive 5-month tour. The new additions to the tour included a trip to Ravenna to place a wreath on the grave of Dante and visit Ferrara which was associated with My Last Duchess. During their celebration in Rome for the fourth of July, the pilgrims met Contessa Zampini-Salazar, Count and Countess Vanutelli, and Donna Olivia Agresti-Rosetti, the niece of Christina and Dante Rossetti. While on the trip they even met the pope.

In discussing the second Browning pilgrimage, Dr. Armstrong remarked, “of all the twenty-odd tours I have made to Europe, this one was by far the most memorable.”

Although there was no documentation in this collection that shows the Armstrong tour company ever leading another Browning pilgrimage, Dr. Roger Brooks resurrected the trip in 1991. Dr. Brooks, the then director of the Armstrong Browning Library, offered a scaled-down week-long version of the trip. During the trip, Dr. Brooks participated in the wreath-laying ceremony at Browning’s grave in Westminster Abbey.

Going into this collection, I only expected to find an answer to the original research question, but instead, I was able to witness the dedication and impact of the Brownings that is still seen to this day.

Reflections from a Graduate Assistant: On Fall 2020 & Browning Societies

By Rachel Jacob, Armstrong Browning Library Graduate Research Assistant

Beginning graduate school is an intimidating endeavor. There are questions swirling in your mind such as whether or not you can make it through, if this graduate school was the right choice, and if you will enjoy the work when it actually becomes your job. I was fairly confident that I would be able to handle the academic requirements of graduate school. It was my graduate assistantships that concerned me the most. I could not be sure that I would be good at my job. Of course, it was not expected for me to already be experienced and know what I was doing. The point of a graduate assistantship is to give you that experience and that practical knowledge. But still, I had questions which needed answering.

One of the first substantial jobs I did at the Armstrong Browning Library was to organize materials from Browning societies or clubs across the world. Before my graduate assistantship at the ABL, I had no idea that the Brownings were such monumental figures in literature. I had read some of Robert and Elizabeth’s poetry, but was completely unaware of the devoted fans who follow them and their works to this day. The task of organizing and cataloguing the materials from different Browning societies opened my eyes to this fascination that still surrounds them. Each Browning society met consistently to discuss literary topics, mainly focused around the Brownings. With each society came things such as a yearbook for each year the club was in existence, meeting notices for each meeting, programs for every special event, and newspaper clippings with mentions of the club or the Brownings. The clubs spanned from Waco, to Seattle, to New York, to Manchester England. Certain clubs had materials which spread decades and generations. Some of these club are still in existence today.

At the start of this project, I was processing the yearbooks or meeting notices from different societies. Once I finished organizing and cataloging those, I began work on the New York Browning Society’s materials. This was separate from the yearbooks. In this material there were financial records, meeting minutes, bulletins, and event programs, and other miscellaneous society materials. This portion of the collection was mainly from the 1970’s through the 1990s. Unlike the yearbooks, which needed to be re-homed and catalogued, this material was partially unorganized. This presented new obstacles for archival work. There were certain areas of the materials which were organized with a clear original order. Those materials were not to be rearranged because the original order is kept as intact as possible. However, this whole collection did not have an original order. For the sections which no original order could be determined, it was my responsibly to decide what the best order was for these materials. This required intellectually and physically rearranging these materials to help them to make sense with the original order, while also being usable for research.

Two boxes sitting on a table.

NYC Browning Society Boxes

This whole project not only taught me about the enthusiasm that encompasses the Brownings, but also vital archival skills. Every object had to be arranged chronologically, catalogued, and described before being re-homed in a document box. This is basic archival work which I knew in theory, but was able to receive practical experience in.

The most important thing which this project, and everything I have done at the Armstrong Browning Library this semester, taught me was the answer “it depends”. There were countless times I would ask questions about organizing, archival processes, or the way things were done at the ABL to receive the answer “it depends”. In archival work, there is not always a right answer or an obvious choice. There are many variables that lead to the solution, and often times it is up to the archivist to make the decisions which will lead to the best solution.

Once I began receiving the answer of “it depends” at the ABL, I noticed that questions in my classes were answered with an it depends as well. In the museum field, there may be no right answer, no one-size-fits-all answer. Instead, the classes and the experiences of our graduate assistantships are giving us the information necessary to create our own framework to know how to proceed when the answer is “it depends”. I may still have the questions which I had at the beginning of the year, and this semester may have raised other questions in my mind, but I am in a program and working graduate assistantships which are teaching me how to answer my questions. And I look forward to continuing to learn through my experiences, particularly with archival and conservation work at the ABL in order to continue in their mission to preserve the Brownings in order to encourage the continued study of their works.

Reflections from a Graduate Assistant: On Fall 2020

By Joy Siler, Armstrong Browning Library Graduate Research Assistant

Graduate Assistant Desk and laptop. Stained glass window depicting Robert Browning's Ferishtah's Fancies above desk.

Graduate Assistant Work Space

What are you most proud of?

I am most proud of the collections processing work that I have done for the ABL’s Browning Society Ephemera Collection! Many of these items were inaccessible and disorganized before and now they are reaching a point where they can be easily located. Its important to make sure that all our materials are stored properly and readily available to the next person who needs to use them. Files of correspondence, meeting minutes, announcements, and many other documents will now be preserved and accessible!

What helped you learn the most?

I was very happy to be able to assist Dr. King’s course about the Brownings’ poetry at the library this fall semester! It was a great opportunity to familiarize myself with what the library has to offer, how its resources are organized, and the processes of making those resources available to those who request them. I also learned about handling and preparing some of the rarer materials in the collection to be digitized as the students prepared a virtual exhibit. It was very exciting, and I enjoyed working with the artifacts, books, and manuscripts!

What would you like to do more of?

I would love to continue working with the collections directly and preparing them for researchers! I really enjoy being in touch with developments in the academic community and then providing the resources that they need to learn about their subject. The physical collections we have are fascinating and I enjoy discovering new things every day!

Reflections from a Summer Intern – Stories from Victorian Letters: Drawings in Victorian Letters

By Katie Mackenzie, Museum Studies Summer Intern

During my internship, I have discovered that some of my most favorite things to find in Victorian letters are little drawings or sketches. It is especially fun when they relate to and help illustrate the story that the letter is telling. I am so excited to be able to share some of these drawings with you through the blog!

The first drawing that I will share with you comes from a letter written on December 24, 1869 by an Englishwoman named Rose Georgina Kingsley. She writes her letter to her little brother Grenville Kingsley. Rose was living in Trinidad and most of her letter consists of her excitedly describing the fantastic plants and animals that she has seen there. Rose included a drawing in her letter of one of the animals she had found in her room – a spider, drawn life size to the one she saw. On the letter it is almost 4 inches across. Rose comments that, for Trinidad, this giant spider is actually small! Below is an excerpt from the letter on the spider,

I found [letter torn] spider in my room as big as this. But that is considered quite tiny here!!

Letter from Rose Georgina Kingsley to Grenville Kingsley. 24 December 1869. Drawing of a spider.

You will notice that Rose’s drawing does not depict the correct number of legs for a spider, but I still wonder if the spider could be identified. Do you recognize this spider?

The next letter that I will share with you may be especially interesting to those who love music. This letter was between two musicians, from N. J. Heineken to Miss Hodge. The letter is not dated but believed to have been written in the Victorian era. Unfortunately, I was not able to find any more identifying information about the musicians. Heineken writes Miss Hodge to praise her music as well as to offer her advice. Heineken seems to admire Miss Hodge’s music very much. He writes, “I have been much pleased with your truthful and ingenious song.” When referring to particular parts of Miss Hodge’s song, Heineken draws musical notations. It is amazing to see these musical notations, as it could give us clues as to what Miss Hodge’s song sounded like. An example of Heineken’s drawing can be seen below.

Letter from N.J. Heineken to Miss Hodge. Undated. Musical notations.

The last letter I will share with you contains a sketch by the Scottish artist Sir George Reid. Reid wrote to Mrs. Tom Taylor, nee Laura Wilson Barker, on February 18, 1879. Laura was the wife of the English playwright Tom Taylor. One of his most famous plays is Our American Cousin. In his letter, Sir George Reid, describes to Mrs. Taylor how harsh the winter was in Scotland that year. Reid writes,

We have had a trying and tedious winter here. For weeks the snow lay a foot and a half deep – it vanished at last slowly and led me to think that the winter was over. Yesterday and today it is back to the old story – snow has fallen steadily since morning and now lies 6 or 8 inches deep –

Along with his description of the winter weather, Reid adds a sketch of a man he names as Macdonald, whom Reid is painting a portrait of. Reid could have possibly been referring to the Scottish author, George Macdonald, whom Reid is known to have created portraits of. Macdonald is depicted outside sitting in his carriage, bundled up to protect himself from the cold. His face is barely visible peeking out underneath his hat.

Letter from G.W. Reid to Mrs. Tom Taylor. 18 February 1879. Sketch of Macdonald.

These three drawings provide amazing illustrations of the stories the letters tell. They all help to bring to the past to life. Rose’s letter helps us to see what she saw, by depicting a life sized spider; Heineken’s musical notations give us clues to Miss Hodge’s song; Reid’s sketch helps us imagine the bitterly cold Scottish winter in 1879.

This will be my last blog for my internship at the Armstrong Browning Library. I had so much fun discovering all the amazing stories to be found in the Armstrong Browning Library’s Victorian letters this summer. Thank you for letting me share these stories with you!

Reflections from a Summer Intern – Stories from Victorian Letters: The Whittier-Family Autograph Album

By Katie Mackenzie, Museum Studies Summer Intern

In the past few days of my internship I have been able to work on transcriptions for an extraordinary album.

The first thing that stood out to me was the album’s beautiful deep red cover. The gold lettering of the word “Autograph” and the picture of a book and quill that announce the album’s purpose is beautiful.

Front cover of Whittier Family Autograph Album.

Back cover of Whittier Family Autograph Album.

This Victorian era autograph album contains the signatures of many famous people of the day. Most of the dated signatures are from around the time of the American Civil War. It belonged to Elizabeth Whittier Pickard (1846-1902), who was the niece of the American poet John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892). The album was given to Elizabeth by her brother, Charles Whittier (1843-1909).

Lizzie H. Whittier
From her brother
Char.

Autograph. Charles Whittier to Elizabeth Whittier Pickard.

Her uncle, John Greenleaf Whittier, as a famous poet, may have helped to fill the album with the autographs of his famous friends and correspondents. There are a few letters that are written to John Greenleaf Whittier included in the album.

There are several types of autographs found in the book. Some of the autographs simply include the person’s name. Some of the autographs are attached to a letter, or cut out of one. But what I found most interesting were the names that came with a quote. When a signer added a quote it was sometimes from their own work.

The autograph from Nora Perry, an American writer, came with a quote from her own poem. The excerpt of her poem “The Love-Knot” reads,

Tying her bonnet under her chin
She tied a young man’s heart within
Nora Perry

Autograph. Nora Perry to Elizabeth Whittier Pickard.

But most often a famous quote came from another source, such as the Bible, and usually contained a moral message.

Very rarely, the quote comes in the form of a unique poem. One of my favorite quotes in the album was a unique poem written just for Elizabeth. This poem was written by the American author and poet Lucy Larcom (1824-1893). The poem reads,

For the name thou bearest
Tender love thou sharest.
Hold it sacred unto death
The dear name – Elizabeth.

Autograph. Lucy Larcom to Elizabeth Whittier Pickard.

Elizabeth probably did hold her name as something very sacred to her, as she was named after a beloved and much admired aunt. This admiration can be seen in a letter that her father, M. F. Whittier, who was the younger brother of John Greenleaf Whittier, wrote to her on December 4, 1864. The letter reads,

As far as your nature will allow imitate the beautiful life of the dear Aunt whose name you bear. Strive to love all God’s creatures as she did. Like her be charitable towards the erring – – remembering that “to err is human – to forgive is Divine.”

                                                                   M.F. Whittier

Letter from M. F. Whittier to Elizabeth Whittier Pickard. 4 December 1864.

Some of the most famous autographs in the album are the type that are simply signatures. Examples include Ulysses S. Grant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Autograph. Ulysses S. Grant. 21 May 1872.

Autograph. Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Autograph. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. 20 February 1874.

I was excited to find Robert Browning’s autograph in a letter he wrote to John Greenleaf Whittier in 1856. Elizabeth Browning must have been nearby as her husband wrote the letter, as Robert Browning writes to Whittier that, “I speak for my wife.” The letter is a thank you note to John Greenleaf Whittier for the kind words he wrote of them in a book. The letter reads,

My dear sir,

On returning to England this summer we found a book of manly and beautiful verse, and our names (I speak for my wife in this letter) written, with a kind and gratifying word of sympathy from yourself, in the first page. We are just leaving England again, but you must take our hasty thanks as if they had been more worthily expressed: they are hearty and sincere, at all events – – since acknowledging that you have thus numbered with your friends

                         Two, proud to be so numbered,

                                 Elizabeth Barrett & Robert Browning

Letter to John Greenleaf Whittier from Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. 20 October 1856.

The autograph letters are some of my favorite because, as well as the autograph, they also included snippets of the everyday life of the person. For example, one of the letters is from John Greenleaf Whittier to Greenleaf Whittier Pickard, who was Elizabeth Whittier Pickard’s son. John writes to his great nephew, telling him that he will collect stamps so that Greenleaf can put them in his stamp album. He also reminds Greenleaf to do well in school. I love letters like this that seem so familiar even to modern eyes. The letter reads,

Dear Greenleaf,

I send a few stamps for thy album, and will try to save more for thee, I hope thee go to school and learn well.

                                                 Thy Uncle,

                                                      John G Whittier

Letter to Greenleaf Whittier Pickard from John Greenleaf Whittier.

This autograph album allowed me to learn about many Victorian people who I hadn’t known before. It was so fun to be able to research all the people inside of the book and to learn their stories.

Reflections from a Summer Intern–Stories from Victorian Letters: John Forster and Percy Fitzgerald

By Katie Mackenzie, Museum Studies Summer Intern

Hello! My name is Katie Mackenzie and I am an intern at the Armstrong Browning Library this summer. One of the projects that I am working on is transcribing and preparing Victorian letters to be digitized. Digitizing these Victorian letters will help them to be more accessible to the world as they will be able to be viewed online.

The first Victorian letter collection that I worked on consisted of nine letters. These letters had been tipped into a green “scrapbook” album, with the handwritten title “Letters of John Forster to Percy Fitzgerald” on its cover.

Cover of John Forster to Percy Fitzgerald Album. 1857-1873.

The book looks to have been recycled from its original purpose as the spine of the book has the title, “Letters of Charles Dickens to Percy Fitzgerald.”

Spine of John Forster to Percy Fitzgerald Album. 1857-1873.

When you examine the album you can see that many of its pages have been cut out. Is it possible that the album once contained letters from Charles Dickens to Percy Fitzgerald?

The letters inside the album are written from John Forster to Percy Fitzgerald and date from 1857-1873. One of the first questions I wanted to know when I looked through this album, of course, was: “Who were John Forster and Percy Fitzgerald?” John Forster (1812-1876) and Percy Fitzgerald (1834-1925) were both writers and biographers of Charles Dickens. Forster’s biography, The Life of Charles Dickens, was published in 1876. Fitzgerald contributed to the magazine Household Words, which was owned by Charles Dickens. He also wrote two biographies of Dickens, Life of Charles Dickens (1905) and Memories of Charles Dickens (1913).  The two Charles Dickens biographers, Forster and Fitzgerald, were also, as we see from the album, very good friends.

When you open the album, the first page has a handwritten title reading “John Forster’s Biographer of Dickens Letters to Percy Fitzgerald.” Lower on the page Fitzgerald writes that Forster was, “The Best friend I ever had and did most for me getting almost a small fortune in my way.”

Title page of John Forster to Percy Fitzgerald album. 1857-1873.

I wonder what the story of the small fortune is. Did it have anything to do with their careers in writing? This is still a mystery.

Transcribing these letters was a challenge, as John Forster’s handwriting is very difficult to read.

Excerpt from letter from John Forster to Percy Fitzgerald. 17 August 1869.

Forster himself hints at the possibility that he found difficulty in reading his own handwriting at one point in the letters. In a letter dated August 17, 1869, Forster mentions that he wrote a wrong address, making the best guess he could at the time. Later, when he figured out the proper address, he writes to Fitzgerald saying that he had better to go to the post office to retrieve his lost letter.

Letter from John Forster to Percy Fitzgerald. 17 August 1869.

This section of the letter reads,

I wrote to you yesterday – addressing my letter to [“Husband”] street – that being my nearest guess to the name which I have since discovered to be [Harbour] St.  Call at the P. O. for the letter if it should have not been delivered to you.

Because of Forster’s handwriting, some of the words are still uncertain.

From the letters we find historical clues about Victorian food, mourning customs, and museums.

Most of Forster’s letters to Fitzgerald are invitations to dine, and from them we can learn some interesting things about Victorian food. In one letter dated February 14, 1872, Forster asks Fitzgerald over to dinner at around 7 o’clock. Forster is careful to ask about Fitzgerald’s dietary restrictions. To ask if Fitzgerald is pescetarian, Forster writes,

and tell me, in your word of reply, whether you are restricted to creatures caught from the watery world?

What a clever way to ask this question!

One mystery regarding food in the letters comes from translating Forster’s difficult handwriting. On May 27, 1872, Forster is replying to an invitation that Fitzgerald gave for dinner. Forster accepts and requests that they eat

the simplest of dinners, a bit of white fish, and a bit of brown mutton. No soup or [—–]!

The last word is a mystery! Have a look at the image below. Do you have any ideas what the other item that Forster did not want was?

These letters also give a glimpse into Victorian mourning customs. While in mourning, Victorians would often write their letters on stationery that had a black border. These borders can be very thick depending on how close the author was to the deceased. Three of Forster’s letters were like this. One, dated May 10, 1873, is in regard to the death of his friend and famous actor William Charles Macready.

Letter from John Forster to Percy Fitzgerald. 10 May 1873.

The letter reads:

My dear Percy,

In my misery (which [still] [overtakes]) I forgot to send you Mrs. Macready’s address “6 Wellington Square Cheltenham

Alys Yours,

J.F.

Lastly, there is mention in one letter of a trip to a museum. I found this letter so interesting, as a Museum Studies student at Baylor University. In the letter, dated May 27, 1872, Forster asks Fitzgerald to meet him at the “S. K. Museum” to see a pottery collection. S. K. stands for South Kensington Museum, which was the name for the Victoria and Albert Museum at that time. The Museum was given the name South Kensington Museum in 1854, and it was finally changed to the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1899.

There are many more Forster letters in the Armstrong Browning Library’s collection, addressed to several correspondents. I am looking forward to learning more about his story in the future!