Special Collections & Archives Blog

During March 2012...

A Curious Herbal, By Elizabeth Blackwell (1739)

Wednesday, March 28, 2012 3:37 pm

A genteel English woman of the 18th century had few resources to fall back on if her husband proved unable to support her financially. A girl’s education generally emphasized elegant accomplishments like drawing, music, and fine needlework, rather than practical skills. So when Elizabeth Blachrie Blackwell’s neer-do-well husband landed in a London debtor’s prison in 1736, leaving her with a baby to support, few would have blamed her if she had abandoned him and gone back to her parents in Aberdeen. But Blackwell was more resourceful than most.

Elizabeth Blackwell was skilled at drawing, and her husband Alexander, who had once worked as an unlicensed physician, was knowledgeable about the medicinal properties of herbs and plants. They came up with a plan to produce a new Herbal – a book with illustrations and descriptions of various plants.

Herbals had been important reference works since ancient times. They were widely circulated as manuscripts and, with the advent of printing, as books. Many herbals existed in England in the early 18th century, but Elizabeth Blackwell realized that there was a need for a new guide that included many species of plants discovered in the Americas.

 

In her entry for the “Coco-nut” (i.e. Cacao) tree, Blackwell observes that “The Kernels of the Nuts is what we make the Chocolate of, which is now so much used for Food; being accounted nourishing, restorative, fatning & provocative.”

In 1736 Blackwell took lodgings nearby the famous Chelsea Physic Garden. This botanical garden on the bank of the Thames was founded in 1673 as a nursery for medicinal plants and a training ground for botanists and apothecaries. The garden cultivated many species of plants imported from all over the world, including the Americas. Blackwell drew illustrations of the various plants cultivated there, then wrote descriptions of their attributes and medicinal properties in consultation with her husband and other experts and reference works. After receiving encouragement from Sir Hans Sloane and Dr. Richard Mead for some preliminary drawings, Blackwell undertook to create a comprehensive, illustrated guide to the plants in the garden.

Blackwell created the original drawings and watercolors, then engraved the illustrations on copper plates. An unusual feature of her herbal is that the entire pages are engraved- text as well as illustrations. Blackwell also hand-colored the plates for some copies of her publication.

A Curious Herbal was published first in parts. Between 1737 and 1739 Blackwell published four plates per week, for an eventual total of 500 engraved illustrations.

In 1739 publisher John Nourse printed two large folio volumes containing all 500 of Blackwell’s engravings. ZSR Library owns a copy of this first collected edition.

Alexander and Elizabeth Blackwell negotiated favorable terms with their publisher. And with the endorsement of many well-known physicians and scientists, the book sold well.

With profits from A Curious Herbal Elizabeth Blackwell was able to pay off her husband’s debts and free him from prison (Alexander did not reform his ways, however, and was executed in 1747 for his participation in a Swedish political conspiracy). Elizabeth died in 1758. But her book, the first English herbal by a woman, remained popular and was reprinted several times throughout the next two centuries.

 

 

Wake Forest Writers’ Archives on Exhibit

Thursday, March 22, 2012 10:43 am

In conjunction with the Words Awake celebration of Wake Forest writers, the spring exhibit in the Z. Smith Reynolds Library Special Collections and Archives features six Wake Forest authors whose papers reside in the archives and manuscripts collections.

Laurence Stallings, Harold Hayes, John Charles McNeill, W.J. Cash, and Gerald Johnson received their undergraduate degrees from Wake Forest. Maya Angelou was awarded an honorary doctorate and is a member of the WFU faculty. Each collection is a fascinating record of the author’s life and career.

A writer’s published works are the end products of a long process of thinking, researching, drafting, and editing. The material on view in Writers’ Lives illustrates this process. In one letter Harold Hayes tries to interest Gerald Johnson in writing an article for Esquire on the hypothetical result of the South winning the Civil War. In another Laurence Stallings describes the trials and tribulations of rehearsing a Broadway musical with his collaborator Oscar Hammerstein. W.J. Cash’s typewriter sits next to his annotated typescript of The Mind of the South. John Charles McNeill’s college notebook contains manuscript versions of poems published in Wake Forest’s Student magazine. An early draft of Maya Angelou’s screen adaptation of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is handwritten on notebook paper.

All of the archival materials in these collections were donated to ZSR Library by the authors themselves or by their family members and friends. The Special Collections and Archives department now makes them available to researchers all over the world.

The Writers’ Lives exhibit will be on view in the library’s Special Collections Reading Room (Reynolds Wing, 6th floor west) through June 2012. Special Collections is open Monday through Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. For more information or to make an appointment to view the exhibit after hours, please contact Megan Mulder at 336-758-5091 or mulder@wfu.edu.

New class in Book History offered Fall 2012

Thursday, March 8, 2012 1:25 pm

In the fall of 2012 ZSR Library will offer a new class called History of the Book, 1500-2000 (LIB260). Taught by Special Collections Librarian Megan Mulder, the 1.5 credit class will introduce students to the exciting interdisciplinary field of Book History.

Book History (sometimes called History of Print Culture) combines history, literary studies, and bibliography. Its purpose, as set out by Robert Darnton in his seminal 1982 essay “What Is the History of Books?,” is “to understand how ideas were transmitted by print and how exposure to the printed word affected the thought and behavior of mankind during the last five hundred years.” While it is impossible to cover the whole scope of book history in one semester, this course will give students an introduction to the field and provide them with the theoretical and practical tools to pursue further study in the History of the Book and its many related disciplines.

The course will begin with the premise that we can approach printed texts as objects of study in three major ways: 1) as material objects with artifactual value, 2) as vehicles for text, and 3) as social constructs and agents of social change. Beginning with the first approach, students will learn to examine books as physical objects and to understand the processes by which they were created. In the process students will gain a basic vocabulary of descriptive bibliography, a necessary starting point for further study in the history of print culture. Our studies will also incorporate the other two approaches to the study of print culture, considering the role of books in the societies that produced them and the ways in which print conveys and shapes texts.

The class will meet in the ZSR Library Special Collections reading room. In each class meeting students will examine materials from the Rare Books Collection that illustrate concepts under discussion. They will learn how books were made during the hand-press period and will construct a small book of their own in the library’s Preservation Lab. As a final project each student will select one book from the Rare Books Collection and write its “biography”. This will provide practical experience with bibliographic description and with other techniques of book history research, including provenance research and reader analysis.

This class will meet weekly on Wednesdays 3:30 – 4:45 p.m. for the entire fall semester. It is open to anyone with an interest in books and their histories. For more information, contact Megan Mulder at mulder@wfu.edu or 758-5091.


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