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You are Invited: Celebrate West Virginia Day and Birthday of WVU with the WVRHC on Tuesday

Jane Metters LaBarbara
June 19, 2017

Blog post by Lori Hostuttler, Assistant Director, WVRHC.

June 20th is a special day here at the West Virginia & Regional History Center.  Every year we honor the anniversary of the creation of our great state through a speaker’s forum, exhibit opening, poster giveaway, and of course – birthday cake!  This year is an especially significant celebration as we recognize 150 years of West Virginia University history.

Tomorrow, Tuesday, June 20, beginning at 9:00 a.m., you are invited to enjoy a continental breakfast in the Milano Room in the Downtown Campus Library before the keynote address. Our featured speaker, Dr. Ron Lewis, Professor Emeritus in the WVU Department of History begins his talk at 10:00 a.m. Dr. Lewis is the foremost expert on the history of the University and is the author of Aspiring to Greatness:  West Virginia University Since World War II, published by the WVU Press in 2013.

Dr. Ron Lewis Cover of book "Aspiring to Greatness"

Following the talk and time for questions, the festivities will move up to the West Virginia & Regional History Center on the sixth floor of the Downtown Campus Library.  A new exhibit, Flowing Outward and Beyond: West Virginia University, will officially open.  The exhibit showcases WVU history through records and artifacts found in the Center’s collections.  Attendees will receive a commemorative poster that features a painting of the WVU campus and Monongahela River.   Birthday cake will be served in the Library Atrium around noon.


Preview of WVRHC's 2017 WV Day poster

A preview of the complementary poster – wouldn’t this look great in your office?

To pique your curiosity, here’s a sneak peak of a few items in the exhibit.


Pages of a ledger

Ledger of the “Agricultural College of West Virginia,” WVU’s original name, opened to an agreement signed by incoming students, September 1867.


Two photos in an old student scrapbook

Scrapbook belonging to student Leonard Hall, ca. 1900.


Screenshot from film showing students using microscopes

Vintage film footage of West Virginia University, 1951.


WVU band uniform corner

1970s era WVU Marching Band uniform jacket.


Happy West Virginia Day and Happy Birthday WVU!  We hope you will celebrate with us!


"Passed From Death Unto Life" Finding Major Eugene Blackford and His Final Resting Place

Jane Metters LaBarbara
May 30, 2017

By Jarrad Fuoss, Masters Student at West Virginia University and Seasonal Ranger at Gettysburg National Military Park.


Full body portrait of Major Eugene Blackford in uniform

Major Eugene Blackford[i]


The shrill sound of rusty hinges creaked as we passed into the graveyard of St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church on the outskirts of Baltimore, Maryland. Unable to contain my excitement I immediately scoured the first row of graves looking for his name. For nearly eight years I had been on the tail of Eugene Blackford’s centuries old story. Through countless hours of research and thousands of words written, the incredible story of an individual who came of age during America’s most divisive crisis emerged. Filled with adventure, heartache, and turmoil Eugene’s life read something like a modern movie script, and I was the closest of anyone yet to finding his final resting place. 

My adventure into the story of Eugene Blackford began at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania during the summer of 2010. To this day, a short walk up the main street of Gettysburg reveals buildings riddled with bullet holes and remnants of a deadly contest juxtaposed with 150 years of commercial development. Curious about the urban story of the battle one afternoon I wandered into the Shriver House Museum on Baltimore Street. Here I heard the harrowing tale of a family devastated by war and forced to flee when the battle of Gettysburg literally lapped at their doorstep. Enthralled, I listened as our guide described how Confederate sharpshooters occupied the attic garret during the battle and how their blood still soaked the attic floorboards 145 years later. That afternoon, I launched into a flurry of questions. I wanted to know everything, however, large gaps existed in the historiography. Nobody knew who the sharpshooters were, nor whose blood stained the floorboards. As an aspiring academic, the task of uncovering the mysterious sharpshooters was a welcome challenge. Aided by my family I jumped into the pursuit of the story by scouring available resources. Within months, my research led to the account of a young officer who commanded a battalion of sharpshooters near the house I had visited. His name was Eugene Blackford. Day by day I pieced together small bits of information that began to resemble a larger narrative, however, undergraduate work at the University of Pittsburgh in 2012 caused my Gettysburg trips to wane. For a short time Blackford was put on hold and I was haunted by the reoccurring wish to study the Civil War.


Front of the Shriver House Museum

The Shriver House Museum. One of many buildings occupied by Confederate Sharpshooters during the battle of Gettysburg.[ii]


Interior of the attic garret of the Shriver House

The attic garret of the Shriver House. During restoration of the building, crews discovered port holes knocked into the home’s brick walls by the sharpshooters, cartridges stuffed under the floor boards, and blood residue pooled under the port holes.[iii]


In 2014 I spent three months studying away at Gettysburg College in a life-changing program that set the foundation of my future academic endeavors and allowed me to research the sharpshooters who occupied the town. What follows is the drastically condensed story I uncovered of a young man who grew up during the American Civil War.

Born in 1839, Eugene was the second youngest of five siblings, and supposedly the favorite of his family and mother. Raised in a deeply religious household, Eugene was taught to “hate slavery and love the union,” as his father was a Federal diplomat to Bogota, and his mother a self-proclaimed abolitionist. Only twenty-two years old at the outbreak of the civil war, Blackford found himself in a peculiar situation when he moved from his family home in Lynchburg, Virginia to teach in Clayton, Alabama. [iv]

With clouds of secession on the horizon during the fall of 1860 Eugene found life in the deep south very difficult to acclimate with. He wrote to his mother on November 9, 1860, “…they are a different people from us, and show it by their living and conversation. They are all violent Fire Eaters, and are for dissolution to a man, and speak of anyone who professes the smallest love for the Union as a traitor to his country, namely the South.”[v]

For weeks Eugene attempted to avoid confrontation with the locals over his personal beliefs; however, the attack on Fort Sumter changed his situation drastically. Within days Virginia seceded; and when a call for volunteers spread to put the rebellion down by force the Blackford family found themselves in a difficult position. Their loyalties stretched to the extreme, the family’s support ultimately fell to their home state of Virginia, resulting in all five sons enlisting to serve the Confederacy. Determined to fight, Eugene transported a local company of militia north by rail to Virginia, where they were designated Company K, (New Co. A) 5th Alabama Volunteer Infantry.[vi] Quickly, Blackford became fast friends with the regiment’s commander Robert Rodes and as the conflict progressed Eugene frequently wrote letters home to his family telling about the hardships of the war. Amazingly Blackford persisted through numerous campaigns and a dangerous bout of sickness, which plagued him for the rest of his life. During the winter of 1862-1863 Eugene’s story thickened when newly promoted General Robert Rodes instructed Blackford to craft a specialized battalion of Sharpshooters for the first time in the Army of Northern Virginia. While sharpshooter units existed before, Blackford’s training revolutionized how skirmishers and light infantry would be used in combat.[vii]  Thus, at the age of twenty-three Eugene Blackford came to command the most elite unit of Confederate Infantry during the American Civil War.

Blackford’s command excelled at the forefront of daring military operations for the remainder of the war. At Chancellorsville in May 1863 the sharpshooters led Stonewall Jackson’s surprise attack and in July they occupied many homes in Gettysburg. After the battle of Cedar Creek in October of 1864, Blackford faced a general court-martial, launched by officers jealous at his accomplishments and determined to drive him from the service. Enraged by the injustice committed upon their commander, Eugene’s men personally petitioned Confederate president Jefferson Davis for his reinstatement. The petition worked and Eugene was reinstated, however, health problems plagued his military career. Suffering from poor blood circulation in his legs while on campaign, Blackford finally returned home just before the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House in 1865.

Studying at Gettysburg College in 2014 allowed me to devote the research time needed to uncover the story of Eugene and his sharpshooters at Gettysburg. I scoured primary source documents, official records, letters, and published works about Blackford and his detachment of sharpshooters. Compounding the difficulties of the monumental task, I quickly discovered that Blackford’s (Rodes Division) Sharpshooters did not exist as an official military unit. Composed of highly trained men from numerous regiments, Blackford’s sharpshooters emerged on an as needed basis to act as sharpshooters. As a result, tracing their history during the battle of Gettysburg became comparable to chasing a ghost. Bits and pieces of information lay scattered through 151 years of history. Driven to uncover the truth and establish a rock solid narrative my research produced an extensive paper detailing the movement of sharpshooters through Gettysburg and determined the positions of troops during the battle using primary sources to tell their story.


Map Tracking Civil War Sharpshooters

Maps that I created while at Gettysburg College. This particular map kept track of which buildings had accounts of sharpshooters in. [Click for larger image]


Although my research discovered that Eugene’s military career is compelling, his personal life was also fascinating. Raised as a wealthy Virginia aristocrat young Blackford exemplified antebellum privilege. Aside from Eugene, the most interesting member of the Blackford family was his mother Mary Minor Blackford. Mrs. Blackford was a devout Episcopalian and self proclaimed abolitionist. While Mary’s favorite pastimes included teaching her children to “hate slavery and love the union,” the family’s paradox was immense. Mary was a highly vocal member of the Virginia Colonization Society, and thus far distant from what modern historians would call a fervent abolitionist. Throughout their lifetime the Blackford family faced bankruptcy numerous times when Mary used the family’s capital to purchase slaves and their family’s freedom, however, the Blackford’s always retained one slave named Ma’am Peggy. In 1866, Mary concluded her Notes Illustrative of the Wrongs of Slavery stating, “March 1866, A new era has dawned since I last wrote in this book. Slavery has been abolished!! Too suddenly for the real good of the Slaves, as they were not prepared to enjoy and appreciate the great boon of rational freedom after being kept so many years in abject slavery and profound ignorance…”[viii] Almost a stereotypical example of Southern slaveholding hypocrisy, Mary’s final thoughts about a topic that consumed her life during the antebellum period highlight the complexity of clashing ideologies over race and freedom which plagued African Americans during the reconstruction period.

When examined in historical context, Eugene’s story is compelling. His letters home before, during, and after the war paint the image of a young man caught in a rapidly changing nation and struggling to determine his personal moral stance about issues of politics, race, and religion. Coming of age in country torn apart, Eugene was still a young man who enjoyed playing cricket with his friends, talking politics, and writing love letters (behind his mothers back) to his future wife Rebecca Gordon. The opening lines of Eugene’s diary in October 1860 highlight this humanity and his masterful writing skills; “I may as well state, for my information hereafter, that I am also at these present entirely heart free, not having seen any young lady for the three years past who has in any wise disturbed my dreams- Save one- a Miss Rebecca Gordon of Balt.”[ix]

After the war, Eugene and Rebecca married before moving to Pikesville Maryland where they had several children. For the remainder of his life Blackford held numerous occupations including teacher, post-master, land surveyor, and dairy farmer. Still plagued by complications of disease he acquired during his service, Eugene passed away on February 4, 1908 at the age of sixty-eight.

In recent years, at least one book has been published about Blackford’s elite unit of sharpshooters, and another book containing a collection of his early war letters came out last fall. Regardless of the interest in Eugene’s story, his family’s graves have been elusive locations to track. Two years ago I contacted the gentleman who published Eugene’s letters and we both concluded the location of his grave was somewhere near Pikesville, Maryland. This author had in his collection a single obituary published by the Baltimore sun that placed Eugene’s grave in a local veterans cemetery, however, database searches of the cemetery and those surrounding revealed nothing.

As a student at West Virginia University in 2017 I used the tools provided by the University Library to renew my search for Eugene’s grave. This quest produced many fruitful leads, including another obituary published in an obscure German newspaper from Baltimore.[x] [Editor’s note: this obituary and many other pieces of history can be hunted down in the many newspapers digitized and available to search online as part of the Chronicling America project.] After translating the newspaper I came to realize it gave an entirely different location all together. Armed with new research, I made a trip to Baltimore in February to discover a small but beautiful Episcopal Church tucked off the beaten path. After scouring the cemetery with two close friends for nearly an hour we stumbled upon their lots. In a small section of St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church Graveyard near Owings Mill’s, Maryland we found them all; Eugene, Rebecca, and their children.


Exterior of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Baltimore Maryland, with gravestones

St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Baltimore Maryland.


Eugene Blackford’s Gravestone

Eugene Blackford’s grave. The stone reads “Passed From Death Unto Life.”


The gravestones of Eugene Blackford, Rebecca Gordon Blackford, and William Gordon Blackford

The graves of Eugene Blackford, Rebecca Gordon Blackford, and William Gordon Blackford. Outside of this picture the family is surrounded by many of Eugene and Rebecca’s children.


Since my time at Gettysburg College, I often return to Eugene’s story and conduct more research. In total the paper I wrote about his sharpshooters at the battle of Gettysburg has grown to 57 pages in length and become the basis for a future book project. Although one question has been answered, many more have been asked. Clearly, there is much to learn about the life of Eugene Blackford and his contributions to the historical narrative.


[i] “1309060_orig.jpg (123×332),” accessed May 25, 2017, http://fredspoteducation.weebly.com/uploads/2/2/0/5/22052324/1309060_orig.jpg.

[ii] “Copy-of-Shriver-House-Museum.jpg (505×337),” accessed May 25, 2017, http://www.shriverhouse.org/_media/img/medium/copy-of-shriver-house-museum.jpg.

[iii] “Snipers-Nest.jpg (550×367),” accessed May 25, 2017, https://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/media/photo-s/0a/86/1a/71/snipers-nest.jpg.

[iv] Bell Irvin Wiley, Introduction in L. Minor Blackford, Mine Eyes Have Seen The Glory: The Story of a Virginia Lady Mary Berkeley Minor Blackford 1802-1896 Who taught her sons to hate slavery and to love the Union (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1954), ii.

[v] L. Minor Blackford, Mine Eyes Have Seen The Glory: The Story of a Virginia Lady Mary Berkeley Minor Blackford 1802-1896 Who taught her sons to hate slavery and to love the Union (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1954), 145-46.

[vi] Fred L, Ray, Shock Troops of the Confederacy: The Sharpshooter Battalions of the Army of Northern Virginia (Asheville, NC: CFS Press, 2006) 42.

[vii] Fred L, Ray, Shock Troops of the Confederacy: The Sharpshooter Battalions of the Army of Northern Virginia (Asheville, NC: CFS Press, 2006) 48.

[viii] Mary Minor Blackford as quoted in L. Minor Blackford, Mine Eyes Have Seen The Glory: The Story of a Virginia Lady Mary Berkeley Minor Blackford 1802-1896 Who taught her sons to hate slavery and to love the Union (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1954) 249-250.

[ix] Eugene Blackford, Memoir in Civil War Miscellaneous Collection, United States Army Military History Institute. Carlisle, PA

[x] “Der Deutsche correspondent. (Baltimore, Md.) 1841-1918, February 06, 1908, Image 5,” February 6, 1908. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045081/1908-02-06/ed-1/seq-5/



America First Day, 1922

Jane Metters LaBarbara
May 24, 2017

Blog post by Lori Hostuttler, Assistant Director, WVRHC.

Recently, I was using the Harvey Harmer Collection to answer a research question and I came across a file labeled “America First Day – 1922.”  The research question was unrelated, but I was intrigued by the contents of the folder.  In 1940, the “America First Committee” was the leading group arguing against entrance into the second World War, but this was a much earlier use of the slogan.  So I wanted to investigate it further.


Harvey Harmer seated with four pumpkins in 1914

Harvey Harmer and his pumpkins in 1914.  Harmer (1865-1961) was a layer, local historian, and state senator from Clarksburg in Harrison County.

In May 1922, Harmer was asked by Edwin Keatley of the American Constitutional Association (ACA) based in Charleston, West Virginia, to be chairman of America First Day in Harrison County. A group of 150 West Virginia businessmen formed the ACA in 1920 as a response to coalfield unionization efforts and the West Virginia Mine Wars.  The group was concerned about radicalization and wanted to emphasize patriotism.

Keatley wrote to Harmer, “We are passing through one of the most critical periods of our history.  There is unrest and discontent on every hand. Bolshevists, I.W.W.’s [Industrial Workers of the World labor union] and other radicals are preaching overthrow of this government.”  America First Day, Sunday, July 2, 1922, was intended to “arouse interest in patriotism and love of country.”  The day had also been observed in 1921 and “more than a thousand patriotic meetings were held in different sections of the state,” according to Keatley.

After Harmer accepted the chairmanship for Harrison County, Keatley sent him a list of suggestions for planning America First Day activities and other materials.  The goal was to have “a patriotic meeting held in each community and as far as possible in every church in the county.” The ideas included requesting that local ministers prepare a special sermon and have their churches decorated with flags on America First Day; asking local mayors to issue America First Day proclamations; working with local organizations including the American Legion, the Daughters of the American Revolution, Rotary Clubs, Kiwanis and others to cooperate in observing the day by holding special programs or attending church as a group; asking everyone to wear a small American flag in his buttonhole; and promoting the day through newspapers, window display cards, and running slides during movies.


Flyer, "America First Day, To the Pastors and Sunday School Superintendants [sic] of Harrison County"

Harvey Harmer followed these directives.  His collection includes this flyer which was given to pastors and Sunday school teachers in Harrison County. It reiterates some of the ideas from the ACA.


America First Day program, first and second pages

Harmer’s papers also include a suggested America First Day program printed by the state Sunday School Association and the ACA and distributed to Sunday school leaders across the state.  Above are the first two pages of the four page program.


Newspaper clipping, headline "America First Day Program is Announced"

This press release is likely clipped from a Clarksburg newspaper – the specific date and the name of the paper are unknown, but it probably dates from June 1922.


Letter from pastor of Salem Baptist Church to Harvey Hamer

A local pastor wrote to Harmer confirming the Salem Baptist Church’s participation in America First Day and lamenting the lack of patriotism on July 4th saying, “it is a picnic day, a pleasure day…”


For more information about the American Constitutional Association and America First Day, read historian John Hennen’s The Americanization of West Virginia: Creating a Modern Industrial State, 1916-1925.


"One of the best known cooking experts in the United States" and The New Calendar of Salads

Jane Metters LaBarbara
May 15, 2017

Blog post by Jessica Eichlin, Photographs Manager and Preservationist, with editing, insight, and additional salad-making by Stewart Plein, Assistant Curator for WV Books & Printed Resources & Rare Book Librarian


We are always looking for new ways to share items in our collections, so when we found out that May is National Salad Month, we knew we had to find something to share.  Although the West Virginia and Regional History Center has an entire section of cookbooks which feature recipes for salads, we thought it would be more fitting to share an entire book devoted exclusively to salads.  The New Calendar of Salads features a full 365 recipes for a variety of salads–one for every day of the year–as well as a variety of dressings and sauces.  Written by Elizabeth O. Hiller, the New Calendar of Salads debuted in the 1910s.

For someone who has authored at least 14 different cookbooks, Mrs. Elizabeth O. Hiller is surprisingly difficult to pin down.  During the course of our research, we were unable to find any concrete information about her.  Nevertheless, Hiller likely lived in Chicago during her active period.  Advertisements in Good Housekeeping indicate that she founded the Chicago Domestic Science Training School.  The school offered “plain and advanced cookery, carving, dining room service, training of butlers and waitresses, and sickroom cookery.”  A note in the “News and Notes” section of The Boston Cooking-School Magazine of Culinary Science and Domestic Economics, Volume 5 from 1900 indicates that invitations for the opening day are being acknowledged and that “Mrs. E. O. Hiller, class of ‘98, is principal of this school.”

Hiller also spent time traveling around the country, performing cooking demonstrations to audiences of “two to four thousand per day.”  A search on Chronicling America, a digital archive for American newspapers, yielded a number of advertisements featuring Mrs. Hiller’s approval.  Products such as Cottolene (a beef tallow and cottonseed oil alternative to lard), Fruited Wheat and Fruited Oats, Pike’s Peak Self-Rising Flour, and Tone Spices were all endorsed by Hiller in newspapers.


Mrs. Elizabeth Hiller endorsement ads for Fruited Oats and Pike's Peak Self-Rising Flour

The Fruited Wheat and Fruited Oats advertisement on the left was found in The Washington Herald, February 3, 1919. The Pike’s Peak Self-Rising Flour advertisement was found in the Las Vegas Optic, May 15, 1914. Both advertisements located using the Library of Congress Chronicling America newspaper database.

Hiller even wrote cookbooks for companies to help them market their products.  Her book Left-Over Foods and How to Use Them: With Suggestions Regarding the Preservation of Foods in the Home, was written for McCray Refrigerators and offered in newspaper ads as a free book.


Advertisement for McCray Refrigerator Company

McCray Refrigerators advertisement from Washington, D. C.’s Evening Star, May 1, 1910.


Between teaching, writing sponsored cookbooks, and performing cooking demonstrations around the country, Hiller still managed to write several recipe calendars.  These calendar cookbooks contained 365 recipes, one for each day of the year.


Covers of multiple different recipe calendars

New Dinners for All Occasions, New Calendar of Salads, The Calendar of Sandwiches & Beverages, The Calendar of Luncheons Teas & Suppers, New Calendar of Desserts. Photo from Omero online store.


The New Calendar of Salads that we have in our Rare Book Room is accompanied by a storage box and appears to have been lightly used, if at all.  The cover art is vibrant, with pastel colors and a metallic gold paint.


Cover of the New Calendar of Salads book

Cover to New Calendar of Salads, housed in the WVRHC Rare Book Room.


Hiller offers a wide variety of creative salads which, although strange-sounding to our modern ears, were probably standard fare in the mid 1910s, when this book was published.  To celebrate National Salad Month, and to give us a chance to try one of these recipes, we picked the recipe for May 15th to prepare individually.  The recipe for that day is Egg Salad, one of several egg salads or egg-focused salads in the calendar.


Full page and closeup image of "May Fifteenth Egg Salad" recipe


The calendar, luckily, has a section at the back which lists recipes for salad dressings used in Hiller’s salads, including the French dressing and “cooked salad dressing” required for the May 15th dish.  The authors of this post both attempted this dish so that we could compare our interpretation of the recipe and our results.  We found that the most difficult part of recreating this recipe was the vagueness of the recipe.  What is considered “a mound of eggs”?  How do you “mask” something with salad dressing?

Both dishes we prepared turned out to be fairly similar.  Stewart chose butter lettuce while Jessica went with a standard green leaf lettuce.  The recipe instructed to “marinate [the eggs] with French dressing.”  After making the dressing from scratch, Stewart chose to top the eggs with the dressing, while Jessica attempted to marinate the eggs in a bowl and then carefully remove them from the liquid.


Two images of eggs either on or next to lettuce

Stewart, above, topped the eggs with the marinade while Jessica, below, marinated the eggs in a bowl.


The cooked salad dressing was the next step.  Having never made a cooked salad dressing before, neither of us knew what to expect.  Hiller’s salad calendar luckily contained three similar recipes for cooked salad dressing.  The first cooked salad dressing was the one that we both followed to create the fluffy ‘dressing’ made with butter, flour, paprika, egg yolks, and heavy cream whipped until stiff.


Image of halved eggs, topping, and bed of lettuce

After laying the eggs on the lettuce, Jessica began to “mask [the eggs] with cooked salad dressing.”

Image of food preparation showing red bell pepper, chives plant, and mixing bowl

Stewart used fresh chives to top her dish.


When we decided to both create the same recipe from Mrs. Hiller’s salad calendar, we made a point not to discuss techniques or the instructions beforehand.  There were certainly differences in our techniques, but our final dishes looked (and smelled) the same!


Two images of "egg salad" showing eggs and topping on beds of lettuce

Jessica’s Egg Salad is on the left, while Stewart’s Egg Salad is on the right.  Coworkers who tasted Stewart’s preparation of the dish enjoyed the vibrancy of the presentation and commented on the texture of the “cooked salad dressing” on top of the eggs. [Editor’s Note: I can confirm that I was skeptical of the fancy dressing at first, but I sampled Stewart’s salad and it was quite tasty!]

Although Mrs. Hiller’s recipes (the attempted Egg Salad included) are not ones that we would normally prepare in our daily life, we enjoyed trying to recreate the dish.  Mrs. Hiller herself is still somewhat of a mystery to us, but at least her legacy lives on through the archives.


Additional Sources Consulted:

Chronicling America

Google Books



Strike a Pose! Re-enacting Shakespeare

Jane Metters LaBarbara
May 8, 2017

Blog post by Stewart Plein, Rare Book Librarian

"Shakespeare" in fancy text

When Dr. Anna Elfenbein asked if she could schedule a visit to the Rare Book Room for her That’s Amoré group, who had recently returned from a week-long trip to Italy, I was happy to comply.  We scheduled a visit to preview materials on Italian cities and culture, Italian studies, and the country of Italy.  Dr. Elfenbein asked if the class could have an opportunity to examine Shakespeare’s First Folio, the first printing of Shakespeare’s collected plays, as many of them, like Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, and Two Gentlemen of Verona, have Italian settings.  I made a list of materials the class would be using and a request for the history of the bust of Dante in one of the Downtown Library’s historic settings, the Robinson Reading Room.

Portrait of William Shakespeare

I believe most people think that a visit to the Rare Book Room is a serious and somber occasion.  We might wear white gloves, speak in hushed tones, and examine centuries of priceless historic volumes.  Sometimes it can be like that.  And then, there are other visits that turn out to be a lot of fun, like Saturday’s visit with Dr. Elfenbein’s That’s Amoré group! 

The group looked at Italian illustrated newspapers from World War I, Dante’s Inferno illustrated by Gustave Doré, a woodcut of the ancient Roman poet, Ovid, in the Nuremberg Chronicle, a book on Roman Antiquities from 1663 with a fold out map of Rome, and much more.

After the class looked at the text of Romeo and Juliet in Shakespeare’s First Folio, I brought out a copy of Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery, a book filled with illustrations from Shakespeare’s plays.  In the late 18th century, publisher and engraver John Boydell capitalized on the popularity of Shakespeare by commissioning well known artists, like Joshua Reynolds, to complete a series of illustrations, engravings and portraits based on dramatic moments in Shakespeare’s plays.  Boydell hung these in a gallery and charged the public admission to view them.  Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery was an enormous success.  People clambered to see, for the very first time, illustrations of Shakespeare’s plays.  As a result Boydell published his gallery images in a book, grandly title, Graphic illustrations of the dramatic works, of Shakspeare; consisting of a series of prints forming an elegant and useful companion to the various editions of his works, engraved from pictures, purposeley painted by the very first artists, and lately exhibited at the Shakspeare gallery. The engraved title page is shown below.

Title page of Boydell's Graphic Illustrations of the Dramatic Works of Shakespeare

As we turned the pages of WVU’s copy of Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery we came across a dramatic image of the three witches from Shakespeare play, Macbeth.  Although this play is set in Scotland, the image appealed to the class and they immediately set about recreating it!  Here’s the illustration from Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery and the photo beneath shows Soofia Lateef, Natalie Marquart, and Dylan Vest as they strike a pose – an on the spot re-creation of Shakespeare!

Dramatic image of the three witches from Shakespeare play, Macbeth

Students reenacting dramatic image of the three witches from Shakespeare play, Macbeth

I think they did a great job!  The book is open to the illustration on the table beside them and they carefully copied the pose.  So, as you can see, we can have lots of fun in the Rare Book Room!  Make your appointment with me today to see Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery and “strike a pose!”

And that bust of Dante – it was a gift from a grateful Italian immigrant.  Here’s the story from the book, The Charles C. Wise Library: A Retrospective:

“While most library donations have been in the form of books, there are a few noteworthy exceptions. In 1896, an 18-year-old Italian named Thoney Pietro crossed the Atlantic to start a new life in the United States. Pietro entered the States with no money and no place to go, but was soon living the American dream. Starting out with only a wheelbarrow and a trowel for laying bricks, he soon amassed a fortune as a skilled and respected contractor. In 1940, the retired contractor contacted Peter Bazzanti of Florence, Italy, to commission a thank-you gift to America for having offered him such opportunity. Bazzanti sculpted a bust of the famous Italian poet, Dante Alighieri. Due to numerous confusing encounters with customs and its temporary holding at the Library of Congress, Pietro’s gift was eight years in transit before arriving at its final resting place at the WVU library. The bust of Dante was sculpted from white marble and rests atop a green and brown marble pedestal. On the day of its dedication, Pietro said, “The gift I am making is only a symbol which I hope for years to come will remind our young people of Italy — not the strife-torn, misguided Italy, but the real Italy, of music, laughter, art, and friendship.” The impressive bust can now be found in the library’s Robinson Reading Room, keeping careful watch over each new generation.”

Woman looking at bust of Dante



Image of Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery title page:  https://www.baumanrarebooks.com/BookImages/69542a.jpg

Image of Shakespeare portrait from the title page of the First Folio:

Photograph of student reenactment by Sundus Lateef featuring Soofia Lateef, Natalie Marquart, and Dylan Vest posing as the three witches from Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth.

Wikipedia:  Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boydell_Shakespeare_Gallery

The Charles C. Wise Library: A Retrospective by Luke Bosco, page 29.

“Poet’s Bust in WVU Library Took 8 Years to Reach Campus,” The Morgantown Post, 21 November 1959.

Photograph of patron looking at bust of Dante: West Virginia & Regional History Center