Last month, the Boston Public Library completed a $15.7 million renovation of its Special Collections Department and reopened it to the public. Contents of the collection include rare books, of course, but also photographs, prints, maps, music scores, and much else besides. There are extensive holdings on the antislavery movement, Walt Whitman, world’s fairs, Seamus Heaney, Boston tax records from 1780 to 1821, Joan of Arc, and, well, the list goes on … and on.
Special Collections is in the central library. For those unable to make it to Copley Square, more than 200,000 items from its holdings are available via Digital Commonwealth. Managed by the BPL, the site is an online treasure trove, offering access to the collections of more than 200 Massachusetts institutions, ranging from the Boston Children’s Hospital Archives to Historic New England to the Yiddish Book Center.
With all due respect to those other institutions, Special Collections is the heart of Digital Commonwealth. Here are a dozen items from the BPL that give some sense of how wide ranging, and surprising, its holdings can be.
You want local? It’s hard to get more local than a “Greetings from Boston, Massachusetts” postcard, c. 1940, from the BPL’s Tichnor Brothers Collection. The collection consists of some 25,000 office proofs of color postcards issued by the Boston publisher between 1930 and 1945.
Maybe you want to stay local but would prefer to go to a concert. How about Joan Baez at Harvard Stadium, in 1969? Boston Record American photographer Ray Lussier took the photograph. Its among the more than 25,000 local press photographs, dating from the 1920s through the early 1970s, in the BPL’s Brearley Collection.
There’s no doubt whose side Baez would have been on in the Sacco-Vanzetti case. Italian immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were anarchists charged with murdering two men during an armed robbery in Braintree in 1920 and were later executed. Were they guilty — or were they framed? The case became a global cause célèbre. The Aldino Felicani Sacco-Vanzetti Collection has more than 5,000 items pertaining to the case, including this photograph of test bullets fired from Sacco’s revolver.
It’s not just local items that the BPL has in its Special Collections. It has more than 100 produce crate labels. This one from the 1940s promotes Airline Brand oranges grown by the Fillmore Citrus Association, of Fillmore, Calif.
The BPL’s holdings cover great distances in both time and space. This circular world map, from 1488 to 1489, includes more than 100 place names and geographical features.
There are also maps much closer to home, in time as well as space. This one, showing Chinatown architectural styles, is from 1989. It belongs to the library’s Boston Redevelopment Authority Collection.
Some of the BPL’s treasures really are treasures. It owns several Rembrandt prints, for example. This one, “Self portrait with plumed cap and lowered sabre,” is from 1634.
The library owns two copies of John James Audubon’s “Birds of America.” One is nearly complete, with 433 of 435 plates. The other has 102 plates.
Special Collections Department holdings extend beyond books and works of art. This 1862 US flag belonged to the 20th Massachusetts Regiment. It’s among the more than 6,000 items in the American Civil War 20th Massachusetts Regiment Collection.
There are two men in this photograph. The one on the left you may recognize. It’s Jackie Robinson, the first Black player in Major League Baseball. The one on the right is Sam Jethroe, the sixth Black player in MLB, and first with the Boston Braves. (You did know that that’s where the Atlanta Braves started, here in Boston, didn’t you?) In a sense, there are two other men involved in this photograph. One is Leslie Jones, who took the picture. He was a Boston Herald-Traveler photographer from 1917 to 1956. The BPL has nearly 40,000 of his negatives in its Leslie Jones Collection. The other man is Pumpsie Green, the first Black player with the Red Sox. The Sox were the last MLB team to integrate. Next time you hear someone talk about the Curse of the Bambino, be aware that the Curse of Jackie Robinson is a lot more like it.
The BPL has more than 350 items by or relating to the French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901): prints, drawings, illustrations, posters, photographs.
Rembrandts and Lautrecs are all well and good, but where are you going to find a Boston Matchcovers Collection? You know where. The collection comprises 218 examples of said items. None is as striking as this one, for the Albiani Lunch Company, a restaurant chain that once had a dozen locations in Boston and Cambridge. Which is snazzier, the Deco typography or that use of black and red?
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.