Here are a few interesting articles and pieces we found around the web this week. If you come across something that other intellectual historians might enjoy, please let us know in the comments section.
From the Brussels diary of Hugh Swinton Legare (1797-1843), while US chargé d’affaires there:
24th May : Nothing remarkable; stretched off on a sofa today in the salle-à-manger, while my valet-de-chambre reads to me the preface to Erminier’s Philosophy of Law; and a soothing air breathing all the sweets of my little garden, and whispering in my ear where he stole them. I determined to let my friends in America know how well I am learning to do without them, and to paint in the most glowing colors the charms of the elegant epicurean existence I am leading here. (Mary Legare, ed., Writings of Hugh Swinton Legare (Charleston, S.C.: Burges and James, 1846)
Legare regularly griped that his diplomat’s salary couldn’t sustain life in Brussels, capital of Europe’s newest state when he arrived in 1832. He had left a somewhat comfortable existence as South Carolina’s attorney general and editor of his Southern Review (1828-32), a short-lived but unabashedly literary journal based in his native Charleston, which showcased his expertise in the Classics. Later that year, he fumed privately about his $500 yearly discretionary fund, “the niggardly, and, what is worse, (I suppose,) narrow-minded and foolish policy of thus attempting to circumscribe contingency, and reduce their diplomatic representative to the condition of a broker’s out-door clerk!” (Diary, 22 August 1832). Legare kept this diary during the first of his three-year stint in Brussels, before returning to political life in the US, where before his early death he would assume a crucial role as US Attorney General in President Tyler’s unsettled administration. (Then, not as now, diplomatic postings were a reliable stepping stone to higher office; as Legare arrived in Brussels, future president Martin Van Buren was departing his ministership in London, and James Buchanan beginning his in Saint Petersburg.) He catalogs mornings of bookish leisure and evenings of opulent ennui among the titled, lettered, and moneyed elite of the capital.
Anti-Nullification Lithograph by Endicott and Swett (1833) in New York Public Library Digital Collections. Before he departed for Brussels, Legare had ardently opposed the movement in South Carolina to “nullify” federal tariff legislation deemed disadvantageous for the state. His vocal opposition gained him favor with the Jackson administration, helped secure the posting in Brussels, and granted him a respite from that rancorous political crisis.
Legare’s grumble about paltry State Department support is a refrain that echoes from US consular and diplomatic posts throughout the Atlantic in the country’s first half-century. Consuls— unsalaried and numbering nearly 150 during Legare’s tenure—had long been expected to get by through their own, sometimes suspect, commercial endeavors (this would change only in 1856). As consulates burgeoned from the 1830s, they became outposts of the federal spoils system, eagerly sought by many, bestowing a scintilla of authority, but granting only a tenuous lifestyle. Diplomatic posts remained relatively underpaid, legacy of the early republic’s suspicion of the value of “diplomatists” and their relevance for US geopolitical interests.
Yet given Legare’s salary of $4500, the light duties imposed by his office, and his well-heeled company, we might be unimpressed by his complaint. As he mines the city’s cultural resources, learns German, and flirts with European aristocrats, his diary is indeed a catalog of disaffection: he finds constant fault with his domestic servants, whom he accuses of dereliction and theft; he grows tired of the physical and social climate; he complains about import duties on his wine and hosts’ poor choices of Chinaware and weak Belgian oratory, and he positively bristles at the slightest imputation against the United States and ongoing Nullification crisis in South Carolina. He skirts Frances Trollope—“the Trollope”— like a blight during her visit to Brussels, following the publication of her excoriating Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832). Perusing his diary and personal correspondence, one does suspect a pervasive depression–recurrent “blue devils,” he names them. In a broader sense, though, this is all a recognizable performance of expatriation. At a moment of teeming national confidence, European travel became available to far more Americans, and with it a fairly narrow traveler’s script. Along these lines, Legare consumes the language, literature, and prestige of Europe at the same time that he asserts his distinctiveness from it; he suffers his solitude abroad while vaunting the experience to his American correspondents. As a highly learned South Carolinian doubly diminished vis-à-vis New England literary culture and Europe, the new, fragile Belgian state provided an especially welcome foil for his lifelong exercise in literary regionalism and nationalism.
Épisode des journées de septembre 1830, Gustave Wappers (1834). Legare was the first US diplomat to Belgium, once the dust settled from its rupture with the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Legare ushered forward the first commercial treaty between the US and Belgium.
But rather than just another elite wanderer or beneficiary of the ballooning federal spoils system, Legare allows us an insight into a different type of diplomatic and consular history, which can both add more depth to that field of study and suggest a broader, more complex context for understanding American literature during this period.
Legare’s account of an evening’s exchange with Lieut. Col. Jeffreys, a West Indian planter, is suggestive of the multiple roles performed by diplomats and consuls. It was months before Britain’s 1833 abolition of slavery in the islands, and dreading a post-emancipation future in the Caribbean, Jeffreys planned to immigrate to the US rather than Europe. Seeking “renseignemens,” he came to Legare, who records:
…he has no hope of Europe, and, as a West-Indian, very little feeling of amor patriae for England…besides his West-India cidevant property, he can scrape together £23 or £24,000, of which a good deal is in American stocks now. I lend him a number of the Southern Review, containing an article on Flint’s Valley of Mississippi…Advise him, by all means to go; that it is the only country which has an avenir, and the world might well be divided thus,—Europe for bachelors and their suite; America for family men and theirs. (Writings, 17-18)
Here we encounter the intersection of the geopolitical and literary, a recurrent phenomenon in many small moments of diplomatic and consular life. Two large themes deserve attention. The first is Legare’s promotion of American expansionism and stark dichotomy between the fates of the Old and New World, whatever his anxieties about the ongoing nullification crisis. Matthew Karp has recently depicted a new, compelling context to read this spare comment in This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (Harvard UP, 2016): despite popular narratives of southern opposition to federal power, in the antebellum decades Southerners wielded its foreign policy apparatus to bolster slave-based economies in the Western Hemisphere. Legare’s tenure preceded the focus of that story, and though a former slaveholder, he was hardly a missionary for its expansion. But in this rhetoric and his anxious efforts to make slow-churning Belgian administration ratify an advantageous bi-lateral trade deal, he certainly promoted an ambitious version of his country’s future dependent on slave labor.
More to my point, however, Legare furnishes a copy of his literary journal the Southern Review, which included an article on the Mississippi, where Jeffries could presumably reinvest his capital and continue his slave-based agriculture. It is a small gesture that links the US’ geopolitical aspirations, as it cleared the Southeast of its indigenous populations, with Legare’s literary labor, as he presented his Southern intellectual production to European critique. Legare’s time in Europe is interesting in itself because the exchange between Europe and Southern writers in this period has received far less attention than transatlantic relations with New Englanders. But Legare also represents the broader constellation of US diplomats and consuls who acted as cultural intermediaries with Europe, well before public diplomacy became an institutionalized practice. Like Legare, they frequently distributed US periodicals and literature to Europeans, circulated European writings among themselves, and forwarded them back to US audiences. Meanwhile, they acted as literary agents, expediting books and archival documents to writers in the US. For instance, as minister and consul to Madrid, respectively, Alexander Hill Everett and Obadiah Rich dispatched materials to Boston historian William Hickling Prescott, which would inform his colossal works on Spanish empire (including The History of the Reign Ferdinand and Isabella in 1837 and History of the Conquest of Mexico in 1843). Meanwhile, consuls and diplomats helped to publish US books for European audiences, such as long-serving consul to London Thomas Aspinwall, who facilitated the publication of such works as Washington Irving’s biography of Christopher Columbus in 1828. Their reflections on life abroad were diffused in the US press and were crucial in elaborating US perceptions of an increasingly interconnected world, including James Fenimore Cooper’s series of European sketches, published in the 1830s following his (mostly absentee) consulship in Lyon.
Legare played his small part in this story, in which the inchoate foreign policy infrastructure of the state also served the literary projects of an expanding nation shaking off an ingrained sense of cultural inferiority vis-à-vis Europe.
The fieldwork expeditions of William Beebe (1872- 1962) and the Department of Tropical Research aimed to “bring the laboratory to the jungle.” Beebe, an ornithologist affiliated with the New York Zoological Society (now known as the Wildlife Conservation Society), founded the Department of Tropical Research in the early twentieth century. From the beginning the DTR was part of a lineage of expeditionary, exploratory science after the model of Theodore Roosevelt and the safari-style collectors of the American Museum of Natural History and the Explorer’s Club. The New York Zoological Society poured resources into DTR expeditions to the Sargasso Sea, the Humboldt Current, the Galapagos, Haiti, Bermuda, and elsewhere around the world.
As Mark Dion, Katherine McLeod, and Madeleine Thompson–the curators of the Drawing Center’s exhibition “Exploratory Works: Drawings from the Department of Tropical Research Field Expeditions” (at the Drawing Center in Soho until July 16, 2017)–made clear in their introductory notes to the exhibition’s catalogue, the expeditions were the investigative aspect of the DTR’s project. The DTR’s ultimate goal was to communicate the ecology of both tropical jungle and oceanic environments to broad audiences. In a remarkable presentation, the curators site the drawings generated by the expeditions within their own ecology, giving a sense of the the network of diverse actors (scientists, technicians, assistants, local guides, sailors, etc.) that produced the beautiful drawings on display. The exhibition space is divided into realms, such that half of the room covers the jungle expeditions and the other half covers the ocean expeditions, with a map in the middle tracing the geographic context.
Installation of Exploratory Works: Drawings from the Department of Tropical Research Field Expeditions, Courtesy of The Drawing Center, Photo by Martin Parsekian, 2017
The rooms of the exhibition are concentric framing devices for the scientific images. In these rooms, viewers are immersed in the DTR’s world. The exhibition design drops the viewer into the biography, geography, material and visual culture that composed their world. To heighten the experience, the galleries provide their own aural dimension, through the evocative music composed for the exhibition.
Installation views of Exploratory Works: Drawings from the Department of Tropical Research Field Expeditions, Courtesy of The Drawing Center, Photo by Martin Parsekian, 2017
The Beebe expeditions were supposed to bring the objectivity of the laboratory into the space of their investigations. The environments themselves would become the source of objective knowledge through scientific collecting, testing, and research. Beebe and his collaborators produced narratives of exploration that drew heavily on the sense of adventure and excitement that surrounded earlier, “romantic” naturalist traditions. The beautiful drawings that are the center of the exhibition were made in this context. The Drawing Center exhibition restages the groundbreaking, work done by this romantic and enterprising scientific research group within a highly aestheticized space.
Recreation of an artist’s workbench, Installation of Exploratory Works: Drawings from the Department of Tropical Research Field Expeditions, Courtesy of The Drawing Center, Photo by Martin Parsekian, 2017
Visitors enter an exploratory space that evokes a mix of different figures and aesthetics, from Jacques Cousteau, Maria Sybilla Merian, and Alfred Russel Wallace to Wes Anderson’s fictional Cousteau doppelgänger, Steve Zissou. Curatorial attention to the environment surrounding the expeditions highlights several issues currently in conversation in the History of Science: women in science; science and colonialism; representation in images and science communication.
All of these elements have been a part of the drawings’ world since they were put into circulation, however this exhibition adds a critical dimension to their presentation of the material. The curators show that women artists, scientists, and technicians played a central role, and that women were hired because of their aptitude and experience. They also argue that the gendering of expedition participants’ roles reinforced the explorative masculinity of the enterprise and of William Beebe, since he wanted “adaptable scientific students who fall in with my plans” on his expeditions. The curators also highlight the colonial nature of the DTR’s scientific enterprise through comments and other materials by DTR scientists and artists. A map detailing the DTR’s sites of scientific practice reinforces the colonial context that both framed and enabled the group’s work.
George Swanson, “Euchromid on Moss,” Rancho Grande, Venezuala, 1954. Watercolor on paper, 11 1/2 x 14 1/2 in. (29 x 37 cm). Courtesy of the Wildlife Conservation Society. Photograph by Martin Parsekian.
The artwork produced by the DTR was clearly both a tool for research and a means for communicating and disseminating findings about the ecology of the ocean or jungle.
Helen Damrosh Tee-Van, “Snapping Shrimp and Family,” Bermuda, 1931. Watercolor on paper, 14 1/2 x 11 1/2 in. (37 x 29 cm). Courtesy of the Wildlife Conservation Society. Photograph by Martin Parsekian.
At the beginning of the twentieth century these drawings provided a clarity of form and color that photography was unable to convey. But not all of the drawings were produced to satisfy the standards of scientific illustration. DTR artists occasionally took creative liberties, and some of the drawings, such as George Swanson’s Leaf-like Mantis, include jokes. In Swanson’s drawing, a mantis dances around the lower half of the page following the movements of ballet. However, Swanson retained the representational conventions of scientific illustration, and the repeated drawing of poses on this page is exactly like those elsewhere sketched by the DTR artists to record the movements of other animals, such as fish. The joke of a mantis performing ballet looks just like the record of fish as a specimen for future study. Parsing the differences between a joke and scientific illustration thus requires both a certain expertise and knowledge, and familiarity with both the drawing’s context and its community.
One of the most intriguing elements of the exhibition, to me, is the question of representation and imagination. The exhibition explores the theme of the imaginative space generated by and for the images. Margaret Cohen has noted the difficulty that Beebe had in communicating the unseen space found beneath the sea, either because the unfamiliar environments were difficult to describe or because it behooved Beebe to use the descriptive difficulty itself as a rhetorical tool. The curators argue that the drawings themselves are mediated and directed artifacts of research rather than direct representations. The drawings served as a link between the scientists and a reading, viewing, funding public, who accessed these spaces of research through popular magazine articles and Beebe’s bestselling books. Equally important, the images were often produced through second-hand descriptions of the phenomena, although this would have been less apparent to the public. For example, William Beebe descended to the deep sea, but the artists who drew the deep sea did not. Instead Beebe described the underwater world to the artist, who then drew it. These drawings relied entirely on Beebe’s textual cues. They are, in many ways, pure products of the artist’s imagination. This is most obviously demonstrated in Else Bostelmann’s Bathysphere intacta (Circling the Bathysphere), which depicts an impossible situation: the artist is situated outside of the protective Bathysphere diving bell, fixed by the eye of a deep-sea creature.
Else Bostelmann, “Bathysphere Intacta (Circling the Bathysphere),” Bermuda, 1934. Watercolor on paper, 18 1/2 x 24 1/2 in. Courtesy of the Wildlife Conservation Society. Photograph by Martin Parsekian.
The imaginative space of the deep ocean is here reflected in the imaginative space necessary to create it. The image compounds–and highlights–the artificiality of the artist’s experience.
The work of William Beebe and the Department of Tropical Research was a remarkable enterprise of the first half of the twentieth century. The images alone would be worth an exhibition, their beauty and color and character are so absorbing. They conveyed the first sense of a completely unknown life in the deep ocean and a further exploratory sense of the jungle or coastline. The curatorial framing of the drawings enables the visitor to see the work of the Department of Tropical Research clearly within its own context. The images are presented as a glorious production of the colorful, complicated DTR community. The group’s participation in the ongoing colonial relationship between the US and South America, underscored by the locations of its field stations, was an inextricable part of the drawings made from fieldwork, as was the group’s the “exploratory spirit” and its desire to know more about nature. The beautiful, striking images, combined with the self-presentation of William Beebe and his work, provide a world for the viewer’s imagination. Their audience found them thrilling because along with scientific knowledge of new and unfamiliar places, they provided a measure of romance as well. The images provided viewers with a means to recreate the experiences of the DTR crew. In their Drawing Center exhibition, the curators expose the distance between the various levels of an expedition’s documentation and self presentation. The exhibition pulls apart the interlocking framework of the DTR’s work to better show the workings of each part. The finely rendered portraits of jungle creatures and underwater life are situated within the material culture produced by the DTR; the sociocultural makeup of the participants of DTR studies is shown alongside the films and visual images designed to communicate their work. This presentation lays bare the assumptions and work that contribute to the scientific representations we have come to take for granted, and if you would like to explore these same questions the exhibition is certainly worth seeing before it closes in July.
“Exploratory Works: Drawings from the Department of Tropical Research Field Expeditions” is on view at the Drawing Center (New York, NY) through July 16, 2017.
Megan Baumhammer is a PhD candidate at Princeton University studying the history of science. She works on representative depiction in early modern science, and science and the imagination.
Here are a few interesting articles and pieces we found around the web this week. If you come across something that other intellectual historians might enjoy, please let us know in the comments section.
Last month I once again attended the Manfred R. Lehmann Memorial Master Workshop in the History of the Hebrew Book at the University of Pennsylvania. This is my fifth year attending the workshop and my second writing about it for the blog. As I wrote about last year, the workshop’s goal is to bring together scholars and professionals working in fields related to the Hebrew book to learn from senior scholars about their methodology and research. This year’s presenter was Joseph Hacker, Professor Emeritus of Jewish History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Dr. Hacker’s research centers on the history of Jews in the Ottoman Empire and the intellectual history of Sephardic and Eastern Jews. At the Workshop, he discussed a newer project, on which he has published several articles, on the history of Hebrew book collecting. While there have been several important studies written on specific collections in the modern and early modern periods there is no history of the subject. Dr. Hacker’s project ties up many loose ends, synthesizes the extant scholarship and paves the way for scholars to begin drawing much broader conclusions about Hebrew book collecting and its evolution over time.
Dr Hacker’s workshop traced the history of Hebrew book collecting from the early middle ages to the two decades after World War II using an extremely diverse array of source material. He argued that while the Talmud speaks of batei midrash, houses of study, there is no explicit record of these having been places where books were kept for public use. The first recorded public collections of Hebrew books are in the medieval Islamic world, contemporary with the emergence of the madrassa as a center or textual learning among Muslim elites. For example, in his twelfth century historical work Sefer HaQabbalahAbraham ibn Daoud states that the powerful Jewish vizier of Granada Samuel Hanagid (993-1056) maintained a room of books where others could come to read and copy. Paralleling the term madrassa, such collections are referred to in medieval and some early modern texts by the term midrash, meaning a place of learning. References to midrash are scattered throughout the medieval period in historical works, rabbinic texts and various other kinds of sources that Professor Hacker has collected material from in the course for this and other projects. He argues that the existence of such centers for study and copying calls into question a popular argument, popularized by the codicologist and book historian Malachi Beit-Arie’ that Jews never had a parallel institution to the Christian scriptoria. Dr. Hacker argues that for all intents and purposes these centers were effectively the same thing even as there are fewer examples, especially during the early medieval period.
Collections of Hebrew books began to take on larger proportions during the early modern period, when they began to include printed books. Dr. Hacker demonstrated the existence of communal collections in many major Spanish and Italian Jewish communities based largely on censorial and inquisitorial records. They consisted of volumes of Jewish sacred texts (liturgy, Talmud, Bible and commentaries on all three) as well as works on philosophy, medicine, grammar and more esoteric subjects. At the same time, Christian hebraists began assembling much larger collections of Hebrew manuscripts. The earliest hebraists, many of whom had ties to royal courts that were already collecting Eastern texts forged relationships with Eastern Jews and bought manuscripts from them at a time when they had already begun to replace their manuscripts with printed books. Eastern Jewish communities remained very protective, however, of specific manuscripts held special communal or spiritual value. By the mid-eighteenth century, many Jewish collections of manuscripts had been purchased by hebraists and by the early nineteenth most of the great hebraist collections had been absorbed into state collections such as the bibliothèque nationale and the British and Bodleian libraries. Dr. Hacker ended the workshop by discussing Jewish attempts to form comparably large and encyclopedic institutional collections in the mid-nineteenth to early-twentieth century by institutions such as YIVO in Vilna, the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin, the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem. They all succeeded to various degrees but, when it comes to manuscripts, Dr. Hacker argues, the Hebraists had two centuries earlier succeeded in developing very accurate criteria for determining importance and authenticity and had bought out the best stock. As a result the most important manuscript collections remain those of European national rather than Jewish institutions.
The relatively recently formed collections of institutions such as the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem are an exception to the rule, Dr. Hacker argues, in that they were formed without the legacies of Christian Hebraists and amassed encyclopedic collections despite the destruction of Jewish communal libraries during WWII
Another important and as-yet only partially-told story that Dr. Hacker’s presentation touched upon was the effect of WWII and the Holocaust on European collections of Hebrew Books. It is well-known that the German efforts to destroy the Jewish intellectual legacy harmed many of Europe’s most important Hebrew book collections. I was unaware, however, of the extent to which those collections that survive only do piecemeal. For example, Dr. Hacker cited scholars who have written about the YIVO and Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums collections who conclude that much of these collections were lost. Many Hebrew books were also destroyed in fires to state libraries in Eastern Europe caused by combat and bombing such as one that gutted the Warsaw Library, which had previously held a collection that included many unique manuscripts. Importantly for intellectual historians of Judaism, Hasidic mystical texts seem to have been some of the greatest casualties of this destruction. Dr. Hacker presented original research on the fate of several important dynastic collections of Hasidic courts, most of which were completely destroyed during the war and that all contained original, unpublished texts.
One consequence of Dr. Hacker’s research that I found particularly intriguing was that it suggests just how hard it is to be certain as to the complete contents of any collections or even of all the genres a given collection might have contained. Dr. Hacker’s work is based on a twofold approach of working back from contemporary collections and mining the entire corpus of related texts to piece together historical collections. When discussing early modern Jewish collections, for example, he made particular use of censorial records but also cited various contemporary texts in many languages. Dr. Hacker pointed out that in several Italian communities, censorial records showed complete absence of prayer books while in others complete absence of Talmudic manuscripts. He suggests that these communities may have simply decided not to turn in those genres to censors, perhaps because they used them on a day-to-day basis and concluded that their temporary absence would be too great an obstacle to the community’s functioning. Similarly, the inventories of personal collections that Hebraists and some Jewish collectors made up were often survive in only one version and may or may not reflect the final state of collections or even their entire scope. So while Dr. Hacker’s research compellingly outlines the evolution of Hebrew book collecting, the source material it uses for the early modern period at least would not give researchers a conclusive picture of the kinds of books in these libraries. Dr. hacker’s research thus seems to me to present a methodological red flag against researchers making arguments from absence in censorial or inquisitorial records.
Dr. Hacker’s work on the history of Hebrew book collecting is still in progress and the workshop left me with several important questions: One question I found myself coming back to again and again was about Dr. Hacker’s chronology: He sees the absence of records or explicit discussion of midrash-type spaces prior to the middle ages as evidence for the lack of their existence. However, parsing the evidence he cited for the development of the midrash in the medieval period I began to wonder: Dr. Hacker has found references to various important medieval figures such Samuel Hanagid and Isaac Abarbanel having maintained libraries. These references are generally made in the context of biographical (in Abarbanel’s case autobiographical) accounts of those figures. We have no similar historical texts from earlier periods that would tell us one way or another about libraries. Moreover, many scholars believe the ancient Dead Sea Scrolls originally comprised a library for the sectarian residents of the Qumran settlement. Midrashic texts refer to a library as having existed in the Temple, demonstrating that the notion of a semi-public library was at the very least not alien to the rabbis of the Talmudic period. As a result I wondered whether the distinction between the midrash of the middle ages the beit midrash of the talmudic period really held weight.
Another question that Dr. Hacker’s work raised for me and several of my co-participants at the workshop was that since it looks only to collections of Hebrew books it awaits further research to explore the presence of non-Hebrew books in Jewish collections. What kinds of non-Hebrew books did early modern and modern Jewish collectors and institutions own? And what kinds of communities, based on the Hebrew books they had, tended to collect what kind of non-Hebrew books? How did these relations differ from location to location, between Turkey and Northern Italy for example? These are questions that could shed a great deal of light on the intellectual worlds of these Jewish communities. All of these questions make clear, to my mind, that Dr. Hacker’s work is laying the groundwork for many new and promising avenues of inquiry in Jewish intellectual history.
The souvenir is a relatively recent concept. The word only began to refer to an “object, rather than a notion” in the late eighteenth century (Kwint, Material Memories 10). Of course, the practice of carrying a small token away from an important location is ancient. In Europe, souvenirs evolved from religious relics. Pilgrims in the late Roman and Byzantine eras removed stones, dirt, water, and other organic materials from pilgrimage sites, believing that “the sanctity of holy people, holy objects and holy places was, in some manner, transferable through physical contact” (Evans, Souvenirs 1). We might call this logic synecdochic: the sacred power of the holy site is thought to remain immanent in pieces of it, chips from a temple or vials of water from a well.
As leisure travel became more common, souvenir commodities evolved from relics. By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, tourist-consumers had access to a large market of souvenir merchandise. Thad Logan describes china mugs, novelty needle cases, “sand pictures, seaweed albums,” tartan ware, and a wide range of other souvenir trinkets commonly found in Victorian sitting rooms (The Victorian Parlour, 186). Modern souvenirs are not very different. T-shirts from Hawaii and needle cases from Brighton both rely on the logic of metonymic association, as Logan (186) and Susan Stewart (On Longing,136) point out. In order to memorialize a tourist’s experiences, the shapes and decorations of these souvenir trinkets evoke the site where those experiences took place.
How did synecdoche become metonymy? What changed? To begin to answer these questions, we can consider a test case: wooden souvenir trinkets from Victorian Scotland. These artifacts draw on both synecdochic and metonymic logic. Therefore, they provide evidence about a transitional phase in the history of the souvenir, and in the history of the way we derive meaning from objects. They do not represent a single moment of transition—this evolution was gradual and piecemeal, taking place over decades if not centuries. Instead, these souvenirs provide a useful case study, a point from which to consider a broader history.
These souvenirs were known as Mauchline ware—named for Mauchline, a town in Ayrshire (Trachtenberg, Mauchline Ware22-23). Mauchline ware objects were made of wood, decorated in distinctive styles, and heavily varnished for durability. The earliest Mauchline ware pieces were snuffboxes. By mid-century, tourists could buy Mauchline ware pen knives, sewing kits, eyeglass cases, and many other miscellaneous objects. (The examples discussed in this blogpost all happen to be book bindings.) Some of Mauchline ware objects were decorated with a tartan pattern, immediately recognizable as emblems of Scotland. Equally popular were Mauchline ware objects decorated with transfer images of tourist sites. These trinkets functioned with metonymic logic, as modern souvenirs. For example, the binding below bears an iconic representation of Fingall’s Cave.
But sometimes, manufacturers of Mauchline ware took lumber from tourist sites to construct these souvenirs. Captions on the items would indicate the source of the material. Examples abound: a copy of The Dunkeld Souvenir was bound in wood “From the Athole Plantations Dunkeld” (Burns). The photograph below shows a copy of Sir Walter Scott’s Marmion bound in Mauchline ware, using wood “From [the] Banks of Tweed, Abbotsford.” More gruesomely, the boards on a copy of a Guide to Doune Castle were “made from the wood of Old Gallows Tree at Doune Castle” (Dunbar). These captions present the souvenirs as synecdochic artifacts—not religious, but geographical relics. Their purchasers could, quite literally, take home a piece of Scotland.
These objects were part relic, part commodity. There was a commercial rationale for this combination: the publishers of these books leveraged the appeal of the wood as a relic, but they also transformed the raw material into a distinctively modern, distinctively Scottish consumer product. Contemporary accounts in a souvenir of Queen Victoria’s visit to the Scottish Borders expose some of the commercial logic behind the production process. Publisher’s advertisements in this 1867 book list the “fancy wood work” items its publishers sold in addition to books, and the original source of the wood used in the souvenirs (The Scottish Border 1-2). The binding on this copy states that the wood was “grown within the precincts of Melrose Abbey.” The advertisement provides more detail:
‘Several years ago, when the town drain was being taken through the ‘Dowcot’ Park, […] a fine beam of black oak was discovered about six feet below the surface of the ground. It is now being taken up […] by Mr. Rutherfurd, stationer, Kelso, for the purpose of being turned into souvenirs. […].’ –Scotsman. Messrs. R may state that most of the “fine beam of black oak” […] split into fibres when exposed to the air and dried. Of the portions remaining good they have had the honour of preparing a box for Her Majesty in which to hold the Photographs of the district specially taken at the time of her visit. (2)
The wood was found on ground between Melrose Abbey and the Tweed, exhumed, and transformed into souvenirs. The publisher’s ad actually refers to these souvenirs as “Melrose Abbey Relics” (2). But they do not adhere to the logic of the early relic: these publishers describe the original wood as quasi-waste material that disintegrated into useless “fibres” when exposed to air. By using the wood for Mauchline ware, the publishers not only preserved the wood against further disintegration: they transformed organic waste into a valuable luxury product, rare and fine enough to present to the Queen. The organic source material lends some authenticity, but it was the process of commodification that added value and intellectual interest.
In short, the relic was not wholly abandoned: the relic and the souvenir co-existed, and some souvenir commodities borrowed ancient synecdochic logic. The gradual, piecemeal evolution from relic to commodity was part of the development of modern consumer culture. The publishers behind these Mauchline ware book bindings were scrambling to reach a new market. Their commercial innovations drew on both ancient and contemporary ideas about the relationships between object, place, and memory. Their publications allow us to consider the changing ideas that allow us to derive meaning from these souvenirs, and from objects like them. Of course, the ultimate meanings of these souvenirs were the personal memories they preserved for their owners. Those meanings remain mysterious, and always will.
Tess Goodman is a doctoral student at the University of Edinburgh. Her research explores book history and literary tourism, focusing on books sold as souvenirs in Victorian Scotland. Previously, she was Assistant Curator of Collections at Rare Book School at the University of Virginia.