Katsushika Hokusai as Book Illustrator

19th century print with a large blue wave rocking two long boats.

The Great Wave off of Kanagawa.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) was a Japanese painter and ukiyo-e printmaker whose Great Wave off Kanagawa print from his series Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji (1829-1833) is one of the most recognizable Japanese works of art around the world. While Hokusai’s paintings and full color prints are collected in art museums, Hokusai made many kinds of prints over the span of his career, including illustrated books.

Ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world,” refers to Japanese art that flourished from the 17th-19th centuries focused on the life in Edo’s pleasure districts with themes such as beauty, poetry, nature, spirituality, love, and sex. Ukiyo-e artists were painters and woodblock printers, often working fluidly between the two forms. The paintings and prints would reference imagery, styles, techniques, and coloring in dialogue with the history of painting in China and Japan. Therefore, there is a complex relationship between painting, printmaking as fine art, and book illustration, which Julie Nelson Davis explains:

Other genres also employed the technology of woodblock reproduction, and, as was the case with painting, these designers participated in a larger visual and literary print culture. Indeed, the history of of ukiyo-e printed material is also derived from and participated in the history of the book in Japan” (Davis p. 6).

Around 1811, Hokusai changed his professional name to Taito to indicate that he began a new stage of his career making designs for illustrated books alongside other work. Hokusai’s popular books, whether created for artists or for a lager public, were printed and reprinted throughout the nineteenth century:

“Under the name Taito, which Hokusai assumed in his fifties, he turned to illustrating books that detailed painting methods and served as guides for his many students and followers, as well as other artists and craft designers. Some of the manuals contain beautiful color printing that emulates painting while others are collections of small sketches that demonstrate different linear styles or samples of treatments of various subjects, such as birds seen from different angles” (Yonemura p. 2).

There are several examples of Hokusai’s illustrated printed books and books from his apprentices here at the Special Collections Research Center that demonstrate a range of types. One example is Hokusai Gafu, (1800-1900? date unknown) with “gafu” indicating that it is dedicated to one artist, in this case, Hokusai’s, work. Aside from a brief introduction, the rest of the book is entirely comprised of images that stretch across both pages, showing works that if they were printed in full color are essentially ukiyo-e prints. This is likely the earliest example of Hokusai’s work in SCRC’s collections, and likely the only one printed during the artist’s lifetime.

The cover of Hokusai Gafu, Katsushika Hokusai’s artist album

Interior pages from Hokusai Gafu

image of a book opening with a woodblock image that takes up both pages and has a man walking through a landscape with a pole over his shoulders that supports two hanging basekets

When an artist created images for illustrated books, the plates were cut by another artisan, and were printed by yet another. The publisher owned the images and could have them printed and reprinted from the same blocks. Therefore, it can be difficult to pin down a date for popular books that might continue to be reissued.

The example below, the first volume of a multi-volume work titled Shoshoku hinagata Hokusai zushiki (1882), is a much later book, published almost 30 years after the artist’s death. It is a smaller, pocket-sized book in a horizontal format, presenting samples of his treatment of various themes. Unlike the full two-page spread images in the earlier gafu example, this book included up to four images on each small page, on many different subjects, maximizing the number of examples an interested fan of the arts could learn from in one handy book.

A small horizontal book with a well used red cover.

Shoshoku hinagata Hokusai zushiki (1882)

a page divided into three images, one of flowers, one of leaves, and one with a boat on water much like in the iconic "Great Wave" print

Interior pages

A page divided into four sections with Interior pages with scenes of natural landscape

Interior page scenes of natural landscapes


It was customary for pupils to take on a name similar to their master to continue to be associated with them and work in their style, so in 1819, Hokusai passed on the name Taito to his apprentice. Called a Banshoku zukō (1850), meaning Designs for All Artisans, this example from the new Taito is printed in two colors.
images of samurai

Images of samurai

Decorative sword guards

Decorative sword guards

The volume includes a section of examples of single page images of samurai in action poses, as well as pages of designs for sword blades and guards formatted into collections of 2-3 examples per page.


a page divided into four small examples of landscape images

Kachō sansui saiga zushiki (1864)

a page with three overlapping designs for hair combs

A page dedicated to designs for hair combs

A further example of work from another of Hokusai’s pupils is a book titled Kachō sansui saiga zushiki (1864) by Katsushika Isai with pages laid out with multiple examples of landscapes and other painterly work as well as sections with examples for the design of everyday items like hair combs.

Though many who hear the name Hokusai think first of colorful prints hanging on art museum walls, many master printmakers in the 19th century, including Hokusai, were sharing their knowledge with their followers and a wider art-loving public through various types of illustrated books as well. Anyone with an interest in woodblock printing can find something new by making an appointment to examine these instructive works in the Special Collections Reading Room.

The four books, Hokusai Gafu (1800-1900)Shoshoku hinagata Hokusai zushiki (1882), Banshoku zukō (1850) and Kachō sansui saiga zushiki (1864) are part of our Ryukyu Collection (Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries).

Works Cited:

The British Museum. “Katsushika Taito II.” https://www.britishmuseum.org/, https://research.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database/term_details.aspx?bioId=143539.

Davis, Julie N. Partners in Print: Artistic Collaboration and the Ukiyo-e Market. University of Hawaiʻi Press, Honolulu, 2015.

Yonemura, Anne. Hokusai. Smithsonian Books [and] HarperCollins, Scranton, PA, 2006.

James Thornton and The Syracuse State School

By Aisha Pierre, Reference Assistant

As a student in the museum studies program, we are trained daily to recognize how to handle any object in a museum collection. Watching us examine how to pick up an object makes me think of those robots in car factories, constantly swiveling their heads. When I began working at SCRC, I was interested in gaining some background knowledge in archives, and I will admit I was a little overwhelmed. The complete size of Syracuse University’s holdings are incredible. Every day, I get to learn more about our collections through our numerous patrons that visit the sixth floor.

A school receipt including entries for bacon, pork, and cider.

During one of my shifts, a patron had requested the Syracuse State School Collection and I was excited to see the contents. I am originally from Rhode Island (yes, it is a state) where, as an undergrad, I learned and wrote about State Schools and Asylums every semester. A State School is a facility that cares for mentally disabled children and, in some cases, adults. In 1851, The New York State Asylum for Idiots was founded in Albany, New York and cared for almost 300 students. In 1855, the school moved to Syracuse and went through several name changes. First known as the Syracuse Idiot Asylum, then the Syracuse State Institution for Feeble-Minded Children, the Syracuse State School for Mental Defectives, and finally, the Syracuse State School. The Syracuse State School records are in a small thin box, which contains approximately ten folders, labeled as either receipts or business records. The receipts are a record of the school’s purchases and to me, the receipts demonstrated care by the school’s director, Hervey Wilber, through purchases of winter coats and boots for the Syracuse winter. The school spent money on high-end food options such as salmon, lamb and mackerel.

I was delighted to discover that SCRC also had a collection from a student of the school. James Thornton was a student at the Syracuse State School from 1855 until 1862. According to his collection, he was placed into their care because he was “deaf and dumb.” The collection is a series of letters from the school to his mother, Mary Thornton. The letters are written by Director Hervey B. Wilbur or other members of staff. Here is an excerpt from a letter from Hervey B. Wilbur sent in 1855:

An 1855 letter from Director Hervey B. Wilbur to Mary Thornton.

“Your little boy continues well – he is perfectly happy in his new home and getting on nicely in school matters. He is an affectionate little fellow and all the teachers and attendants are quite attached to him. I hope that you feel quite easy about him for he seems healthy and he is much more in the way of improvements here than he could possibly be at home.”

When I first read these letters, they seemed sincere, but the more I read, the more I noticed the use of similar phrasing. Almost every letter referred to James as an “affectionate little boy” who “seemed well and happy.” I recalled the Willowbrook State School in Staten Island who used their patients from the 1950s until the 1970s for hepatitis experiments unbeknownst to the parents. I wondered if the Syracuse State School was not being as truthful concerning James’ well-being and the care he was receiving from the school as the letters indicated at first glance. Was Mary ever concerned towards her sons care while reading these letters? Did she also notice the repetitive phrases?

Undated letter from E.F. Malford about James Thornton.

One of the undated letters written by E.F. Malford, a member of the school’s staff, states, “[we were] satisfied that he remembers [her] for really I was quite surprised to see him show so much emotion- he actually shed tears.” My initial interpretation of this was James was seen often as a happy boy with a smile on his face. However, when I read the letter again, considering the underdeveloped understanding of mental heath at this time, as well as how the school went through several name changes from the Feeble-minded to the Idiot School, it made me question how staff members might have really viewed James.

Do these letters and receipts show the full care offered to the children? These records are important because they provide an opportunity to piece together an individual’s experience, in this case, James Thornton’s. His letters open up the question of well-being on an institutional level. If you come to SCRC and pull these records, you will see the purchases made by Hervey Wilbur for the students of the school and the letters written about James Thornton’s experience at the school. These letters and records will continue to be reviewed by researchers who have their own opinions on the records and the type of care offered to children by the Syracuse State School.

The Syracuse State School Collection (Syracuse State School Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries) and James Thornton Correspondence (James Thornton Correspondence, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries) are part of the Special Collections Research Center’s manuscript collections. 

Additional Sources:

“Diet Table.” Dexter Donation and Dexter Asylum of the City of Providence, Providence Press Company, 1879, pp. 72–73.

Gunderman, Dan. “Revisiting the Atrocities That Once Consumed the Halls of Willowbrook State School in Staten Island – WARNING GRAPHIC CONTENT.” Nydailynews.com, New York Daily News, 8 Apr. 2018, www.nydailynews.com/news/national/atrocities-consumed-halls-willowbrook-school-article-1.3030716

“The State Idiot Asylum.” The New York Times, 19 May 1855, timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1855/05/19/87575288.pdf

Special thank you to Shaina “Shay” Weintraub at the Providence City Archives, Providence, R.I. for helping me with research and being a great friend.


Delight in the Mundane: Rehousing the Plastics Artifacts Collection

By Sabrina Unrein, Plastics Processing Intern

A completed new box I constructed, part of the process of rehousing many pairs of glasses

I like to describe my internship as a quotidian treasure hunt. Not all of the items I find are very exciting in isolation, but part of the thrill comes from not knowing what I am going to find next. When going through a box, there is an exciting feeling of discovery, even though logically I know I am not the first person finding these objects. Even knowing that, there is still an air of mystery surrounding what I might uncover next.

I am a second year Library and Information Science student doing an internship in SCRC’s Plastics Artifacts Collection. The Plastics Artifacts Collection is a unique body of objects that capture the history and versatility of plastic. It launched in 2007, and expanded greatly in 2008 when the National Plastics Center and Museum in Leominster, Massachusetts closed and Syracuse University received its collection. The collection includes many everyday items, including many pieces of Tupperware, but it also features a number of unexpected items, such as Chinese IUDs.

Of the many pairs of glasses I have found, this one is probably my favorite

My main responsibility as a processing intern is rehousing objects in the collection. This process involves retrieving a Bankers Box of items, seeing what is inside, making sure all of the items that are supposed to be there are present, and rehousing the items if necessary. In rehousing the items, I am ensuring that SCRC has documented where all of the items are, as well as making sure the items are properly preserved and protected. Some items were previously stored in bubble wrap or Ziploc bags, which are not preservation-friendly materials. I remove items from these types of original storage and re-wrap artifacts in acid-free tissue paper to provide cushioning in the new boxes.

Card game markers from 1874, including the original box they came in

As I’m working in the stacks, I can picture the people that likely owned these objects, and what their lives might have been like. This makes the collection actually quite grounding and informative in terms of history, because it provides a glimpse into more of the commonplace elements of past lives. I think this is one of the most valuable parts of archives and special collections, and a large reason why I am so interested in these spaces. For example, one of my favorite items I have found so far are card game markers from 1874. When I first encountered these game markers, I did not know that plastic was produced so long ago, let alone that it was available in such an accessible way. Without the box, I would not have been able to tell how old they are.

Some of the many new boxes I have assembled in the rehousing process

I have always loved going through boxes and reorganizing clutter, so this is an ideal internship for me. I was really excited about this position because it is incredibly hands-on. Although I have already completed my required internship for my graduate program, I opted to do a second one in place of an elective course because I wanted the opportunity to work with objects and build my archival processing skills.

My internship is already over halfway done, and I will miss working at SCRC when it ends. I am proud of the work I have done so far. There is a unique satisfaction that comes with looking at a box that took a long time to fill completely, or looking at the number of new boxes I have constructed and completed sitting on a shelf together.


The Plastics Artifacts Collection (Plastics Artifacts Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries) is part of the Special Collections Research Center’s manuscript collections. 

“Where there is no imagination, there is no horror…”

Happy Halloween from SCRC!

In anticipation of the upcoming holiday, here are some staff selected spooky materials from SCRC’s collections:

Paul Barfoot, Library Technician

Phobia by John Vassos.

The illustration for Necrophobia, or “fear of the dead” in Phobia.

The cover of Vassos’ Phobia.

John Vassos (1898-1985) was an American illustrator and industrial designer whose style influenced cinema, theater and advertising. He also wrote and illustrated several books. Phobia, produced in a limited edition of 1500 copies, is a study of some of the fears that affect modern life. The gouache illustrations are in black and white. Vassos wrote in the introduction to the book, “A phobia is essentially graphic. The victim creates in his mind a realistic picture of what he fears, a mental image of a physical thing.”

Phobia by John Vassos (Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries) is part of the Special Collections Research Center’s rare books collection.

Jim Meade, Audio Preservation Engineer

Transformation scene from “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”.

The wax cylinders for the “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” recording.

The transformation scene from R. L. Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, by famous recording artist Len Spencer, 1904. Len Spencer died in 1914. His funeral was particularly spooky in that he himself was the speaker! Spencer recited the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd psalm to assembled mourners from beyond the grave, having recorded them earlier specifically for that purpose.

Transformation scene from “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”(Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries) is part of the Special Collections Research Center’s Belfer Audio Archive.


Colleen Theisen, Chief Curator

Liber Chronicarum by Hartmann Schedel, 1493.

five skeletons dancing

Dance of Death, Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493. 

Hatto II was the archbishop of Mainz from 968 to 970 and some legends say he was eaten by rats.

Hatto II was the archbishop of Mainz from 968 to 970 and some legends say he was eaten by rats.

My go-to book for spooky content is the Nuremburg Chronicle. Since it attempts to depict all of history from the creation of the world to contemporary events in Germany in the 1490s, history is full of destruction, decay, deformity, and death.




The Nuremburg Chronicle (Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries) is part of the Special Collections Research Center’s rare books collection.

Grace Wagner, Reading Room Access Services Supervisor

Bradbury’s “Homecoming,” published with some spooky illustrations, in Mademoiselle.

Homecoming by Ray Bradbury, published in the October 1947 issue of Mademoiselle.

Ray Bradbury began his career as a writer by contributing stories to fanzines and pulp serials, including the Street & Smith publication, Super Science Stories. Mademoiselle, another Street & Smith publication, published Bradbury’s short story “Homecoming” in October 1947 after Truman Capote, who was working as an editor for the magazine at the time, rescued it from the submission pile.

Bradbury received an O. Henry Award for the story about a normal boy’s feelings of estrangement from his family of supernatural beings.

The October 1947 cover of Mademoiselle.

An author index card for Bradbury from Street & Smith.









Mademoiselle (Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries) is part of the Special Collections Research Center’s rare books collection. The Street & Smith Records (Street & Smith Records, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries) are part of the Special Collections Research Center’s manuscript collections.

The main image for this post comes from the cover of Teatr “Letuchai︠a︡ myshʹ” (Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries) in the Special Collections Research Center’s rare books collection.

Shedding Light on Illuminated Manuscripts

By Nora Ramsey, Reference Assistant

A page of music, text, and annotation from the Weiss Antiphoner.

I work as a reference assistant in the Special Collections Research Center on the 6th floor of Bird Library. If you have ever met me, I talk a little too much about how much I love my job. As a reference assistant, I am able to help people from all around the world to explore our collections. By doing so, I am able to familiarize myself with the many interesting and unique collections within the SCRC. Being able to experience history in a multitude of different ways is the best part of my job. Most recently, I have been captivated by our collection of  illuminated manuscripts.

A detailed letter from a page of the Antiphoner.

Illuminated manuscripts are handwritten books that have been adorned with vibrant colors, artwork, and even gold. These embellishments sometimes include small and large illustrations, initials, borders, or other decorative elements. Initially, monasteries created illuminated manuscripts as tools for church services such as prayer books, hymnals and daily devotions.  While many of these manuscripts are religious in nature, there are many different variations that can be used personally or practically. Books of Hours, for example, were personal books meant to inspire these devotions in daily life while antiphoners were practical books for music performance.

Manuscript books were created by and for the use of individuals and no two copies are exactly the same. Historians and librarians work from the physical pages themselves to fill in the blank spots of the book’s history. As a student working towards a career in special collections, I find that this is the most interesting part of working with manuscripts. History is embedded into the pages, and the fun lies in the mystery.

A page of the Antiphoner featuring a large repair on the lower right hand side of the page.

The Gradual of Saints, also known as the Weiss Antiphoner, contains liturgical music of the Church which consists of Gregorian chant or monophonic harmony. This music was used to accompany the text of the mass and the canonical hours. The codex is a surprisingly large and evidently well-loved Dominican Gradual of Saints which can be dated c. 1484-1524 most likely originating from Castile, Spain. 

As a musician myself, it is extremely interesting to see early musical notation and how performers approached practice. The Antiphoner’s pages are well worn— evidence of many years of use. Unlike music used for entertainment in later eras like the Romantic Period, this use of music was used exclusively for Church services. Musicians either worked for the church or for the nobility; they did not create music to be consumed by the general public like today. The large and extensive repairs indicate that this text was important enough to preserve its functionality. Also indicative of its practical nature is the size of the original writing. This text can easily be seen from several feet away by a moderately sized choir. In addition to the original text, there are also many marginal notes from the various church musicians using the text. These notes exist in a variety of different handwriting and most often refer to the function of the music. Sometimes, the notes will extend or edit a line of music. Many times, the handwriting is concerned with “naming the saint, time of the calendar or liturgical year, a specific service connected to the chants on the page, and sometimes additional cross references to chants in other books” (Harden). These comments are almost exactly what I would write in my own music, although I doubt that mine will exist 500 years from now.

Although the manuscript was well used, the decoration of the text implies that it was also meant to be elegant— this is the Church we’re talking about after all. The illuminations consist of detailed and intricate designs in red and  blue ink. While there are no miniatures, animals, floral designs or gold leaf, this manuscript was likely an expensive asset to the Church.

A page from Le Louchier Hours featuring elaborate decorations, including illuminated borders and gold leaf.

Comparatively, manuscripts commissioned by wealthy patrons instead of the Church stand out as more personal and remarkably embellished books. For example, within the collections at SCRC, Le Louchier Hours, otherwise known as The Syracuse Hours,  is a great example of personalized details within commissioned manuscripts. The manuscript itself is relatively small, indicating this book could travel with its owner easily, unlike the Gradual of Saints where size was an important factor in its functionality. However, in a Book of Hours, a patron is able to tailor special supplemental devotions to themselves or their family. These books are more diverse in artwork, ranging from a few painted initials to gorgeous illuminated borders and full-page pictures. In manuscripts such as these, illuminators would pound gold into thin leaves that they would then use to decorate pages in the book. The gold leaf in the Le Louchier Hours is extremely evident; there are pieces of gold on almost every page and the book even has gilded edges. The Le Louchier Hours is truly a no-expense-spared codex, evident in the detailed marginalia and gold leaf within the artwork. 

The crest belonging to Le Louchier-De Buillemont family which also incorporates the insignia for the Croquevilain family.

Personalized details in the book are also examples of the extravagance expected from wealthy patrons. This manuscript contains a crest belonging to the Le Louchier-De Buillemont family which also incorporates the insignia for the Croquevilain family. The combination of the crest and insignia imply the union of the families, so the book could have been created after the marriage of Robert Le Louchier (c.1407) and Anne Croquevilain of Tournai (b. ca.1416; d. 1503) in 1435. However, this conclusion is at most only speculation because we have no other sources other than the crest itself. 

The creators of these beautiful books would never have predicted that these two books would ever be in the same room together. As a student at Syracuse University and an employee of SCRC, I count myself lucky that I get to experience these materials in such unique ways. If you are interested in materials such as these, I recommend visiting SCRC to see them yourself.

The Gradual of Saints (Weiss Antiphoner) and Book of Hours are part of our rare books collection (Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries).

Additional Sources:

Stein, Wendy A. “The Book of Hours: A Medieval Bestseller.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/hour/hd_hour.htm. June 2017.

“Gregorian chant.” Britannica Academic, Encyclopædia Britannica, 9 Mar. 2007. academic.eb.com/levels/collegiate/article/Gregorian-chant/38014. Accessed 11 Oct. 2019.

Harden, Jean. “The Weiss Antiphoner.” Paper for IST 509, History of Recorded Information, Syracuse University, July 17, 1990.