When most people think of the Boston Public Library, they think books, books, and more books. But the venerable institution, founded in 1848, has collections of many other curiosities, although they usually don’t see the light of day. After all, there’s only so much of the library’s vast collection that can be exhibited. But you can see almost anything you want if you just ask. Here are a just a few of the delights that await at the Copley main branch.
A Houdini scrapbook
The BPL has all manner of scrapbooks in it collections. But perhaps the most remarkable is one related to Harry Houdini (1874-1926), the premier magician and escapologist of his time.
Compiled over 20 years by his close friend, Quincy Kilby, a Brookline resident and Boston theater impresario, the scrapbook includes personal letters, photographs, programs, and newspaper clippings. Houdini would actually send Kilby things specifically “for your Houdini scrap book.”
The scrapbook also contains letters from people challenging Houdini to escape from one thing or another. “We hereby challenge you to escape from a large cask after we have filled the same with our famous ‘Half Stock Ale’ and our men have locked you inside the cask,” says a letter from the James Hanley Brewing Company of Providence.
Houdini was undaunted. “I accepted and escaped,” he noted at the bottom of the letter in his own handwriting, humorously adding, “And I do not drink. HH”
“The Houdini scrapbook provides a fascinating glimpse into not just Houdini’s public life, but his private one as well,” says Susan Glover, the BPL’s Keeper of Special Collections.
“What needs to be kept in mind, however, is that Houdini knew that his friend . . . was gathering, collecting, and keeping not only the information that he himself could find on Houdini but the material that Houdini was sending him personally. Knowing this, Houdini was able to shape even this view of him — ever the showman.”
Pictured, one of the many pieces of Harry Houdini memorabilia collected by Quincy Kilby of Brookline that are now at the BPL.
Our boys of summer
The BPL also has lots of cool stuff related to baseball, including photos that came from the Associated Press and the old Herald Traveler. There are images of baseball greats Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, and Joe DiMaggio. And there’s the original 1908 sheet music for “Take Me Out to the Ball-Game.”
But there’s something more thought-provoking in the library’s baseball collection. It was April 1945 when Jackie Robinson tried out at Fenway Park for the Red Sox. But the future Hall of Famer never heard back, and instead signed that year with the Brooklyn Dodgers organization. (He made his debut April 15, 1947, breaking baseball’s color line.) It wasn’t until 1959 that the Red Sox finally got around to fielding a black player — Elijah Jerry “Pumpsie” Green — making it the last team in all of Major League Baseball to racially integrate.
The BPL has some great historic photos of Green. Among them is one of him taking a sweet swing at bat. In another, he’s talking with teammate Earl Wilson, the second black player in a Red Sox uniform. A third one is of Green talking with Williams: The slugger is pointing to Green’s batting grip, perhaps giving the rookie infielder some sage advice.
“We’re very proud to have such an extensive collection of baseball photographs for fans to enjoy, and the ones of Pumpsie Green are particularly special,” says Jane Winton, of the BPL’s prints department.
Pictured, Ted Williams with Pumpsie Green, the first black player on the Red Sox.
“Mr. and Mrs. Mallard were looking for a place to live. But every time Mr. Mallard saw what looked like a nice place, Mrs. Mallard said it was no good.” So began Robert McCloskey’s much beloved 1941 children’s classic, “Make Way for Ducklings,” which tells the charming story of a mallard duck family’s trip through busy Boston traffic, before they eventually take up residence at the Public Garden.
Not only did McCloskey write the book, he did all 32 illustrations for it. In preparation, he did a series of about 100 preliminary sketches to help him create a finished product.
Sometime in the 1960s, McCloskey gave the BPL his four sketchbooks containing his preliminary drawings. “What he did is buy some ducklings in a market and take them home so he could observe their movements so he could accurately portray them,” Winton says. “We don’t know the eventual fate of the ducks.”
The BPL also has hundreds of eye-catching posters of all types — travel, circus, war, magic.
“But they have one thing in common: Although they were often done for commercial purposes, they are now considered to be works of art long after their original advertising purposes have disappeared,” Winton says.
The library has more than 350 striking vintage travel posters, most dating from the ’20s to the ’40s. They were intended to entice people to use new and evolving modes of transportation to see the country and the world.
Winton shows a visitor some of them. “Hong Kong: The Riviera of the Orient,” proclaims one. “Travel round the globe, but see Ireland first,” implores another. Back home, a poster encourages skiers to take the Boston and Maine “Snow Train” on “Sundays and Weekends from North Station.”
Such posters were never meant to be saved.
“Travel posters, for example, were intended to be displayed in places such as travel and ticket offices and then discarded,” Winton says. “So it’s amazing that these and all the other posters we have in our collection have survived for people to delight in.”
There are also about 40 colorful vintage circus posters in BPL’s collection. “The . . . latest and greatest thriller/The Balloon Horse Jupiter in his Sensational Ascension Act with a Gorgeous Pyrotechnic Display,” proclaims a Barnum and Bailey poster for, of course, the “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
BPL’s more than 500 World War I and II posters are perhaps the most thought-provoking of all the library’s poster collection.
“The government recognized that posters would be a good way to convey information about the war to its citizens,” Winton says. “World War II posters were really part of an advertising campaign to convince those back home to do their part in support of the war — a visual call to arms, so to speak, with simple and direct messages.”
The war posters were displayed in schools, libraries, town halls, factories, places of worship, bus and train stations, and commercial establishments. Common themes were the need for secrecy, conservation, and looking for the support of women while the men were off to war.
Winton shows a visitor some of her favorites. “A careless word . . . A needless sinking,” warns one poster depicting a sinking ship and sailors in a lifeboat a short distance away. “Plant a Victory Garden/ A Garden Will Make Your Rations Go Further,” advises another. And “Pitch in and Help/ Join the Women’s Land Army of the U.S. Crop Corps” shows women working in a farm setting in support of the war effort.
If you want to see some fascinating old globes, checking out the Leventhal Map Center at the BPL is a must. There you will find, for example, a 12-inch globe from 1879 whose mounting has two vertical rings that demonstrate the changing daylight, twilight, and nighttime hours anyplace on earth.
“These changes can be observed through the seasons by turning the globe’s base in relationship to a pointer representing the sun’s vertical rays,” says Ronald Grim, the curator of maps at the center. This novel feature was patented by Ellen Fitz, a Canadian governess who was the first woman involved in the design and manufacture of globes.
The map center also has a steampunky-looking Trippensee Planetarium, circa 1908, that demonstrates the movements of the Earth, moon, and Venus relative to one another and the Sun.
The list of other non-book items in BPL’s collection is seemingly endless. There are John Audubon and Winslow Homer prints, Revere postcards, and Boston matchcovers; there are charming Louis Prang chromolithographs of children and old photographs of the American West; there are daguerreotypesof famous people and oil paintings of “Ships Through the Ages.”
A small portion of BPL’s special collection can be viewed at www.flickr.com/photos/boston_public_library/collections. But if you want to lay your eyes on the actual items — a much different experience — call 617-536-5400 for an appointment. (Some items may not be available because of their fragility.)
You might also visit www.bpl.org/collections.
“In the good old days, we used to make it very difficult for people to look at things,” says Glover, the Keeper of Special Collections. “You used to have to really jump through hoops. But what we’ve been trying to do is just make it as easy as possible for people to view our collection.”
Pictured, one of the globes to be found at the Leventhal Map Center.