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June Wrap Up

By Grace Wagner, Reading Room Access Services Supervisor

This June, we are celebrating the accomplishments of several SCRC staff members. First, congratulations to Brett Barrie, Assistant Catalog Librarian, Acquisitions and Cataloging and Nicole Westerdahl, Reference and Access Services Librarian, who were promoted from Assistant Librarian to Senior Assistant Librarian status. And a hearty thank you to Courtney Asztalos, Plastics and Historical Artifacts Curator, who served as the chair of the promotion committee this year.

Further congratulations to the seven recipients of Dean David Seaman’s 2020 Commendation Awards, including two members of SCRC’s staff:

  • Nicole Westerdahl, Reference and Access Services Librarian for Special Collections Research Center, on the support of research, digitization, and copyright for Forever Orange.
  • Courtney Asztalos, Plastics and Historical Artifacts Curator for Special Collections Research Center, for making the plastics collection much more prominent on campus and an important teaching tool in the chemistry and Visual Performing Arts programs.

Congratulations to all!

Call for Submissions

A reminder that the Syracuse University Archives is seeking to record and preserve the personal responses of Syracuse University students, faculty, and staff during the COVID-19 pandemic. Take a look at our website page on this project for more information.

Looking Back at June Events

  • 6 June 2020. Frederick Douglass letters from SCRC’s collections are referenced in an article from the Colorado Springs Gazette that considers the future of America and the Black Lives Matter movement from an archival lens.
  • 10 June 2020. A Geneva company plans to renovate the former Syroco facility in Van Buren and turn the space into a plastics recycling plant. Brief history of Syroco provided through SCRC. Our blog post on Syroco can be found here.
  • 15 June 2020. Breuer architecture drawings from SU Libraries referenced in article on dramatic beauty of Brutalist architecture.

Newly Processed Collections

Highlight from Social Media

90 years ago this week, on June 8, Hendricks Chapel was dedicated. With seating for 1,450 people, it was the third…

Posted by Syracuse University Archives on Thursday, June 4, 2020

June Blog Roundup

The image featured in the header of this post is from our Syracuse University Commencement Reference Collection (Syracuse University Commencement Reference Collection, Special Collections Research Center, University Archives, Syracuse University Libraries), part of the Special Collections Research Center’s University Archives collections.


Rehousing the American Book Company Illustrations

By Sebastian Modrow, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts

From 2016 to 2017, Syracuse University’s Special Collections Research Center engaged in a massive preservation project. The task was to rehouse and increase the intellectual control over approximately 17,000 plates used as textbook illustrations by the American Book Company, one of the leading American schoolbook publishers of the 19th and early 20th centuries. This illustration material comprises drawings, paintings, photographs, and prints that are mostly glued down to large pieces of acid-bearing illustration board, with handwritten annotations, captions, and corrections. The 931 original packages containing the oversize plates were in storage for over three decades. In 2016, SCRC decided that something had to be done no matter how daunting the task.

Moses in a basket
Example of a plate with original artwork mounted on illustration board

The American Book Company and its Illustration Collection

The American Book Company proper came into being in 1890 after a merger of four publishing companies: Van Antwerp, Bragg and Co., A.S. Barnes and Co., D. Appleton and Co., and Iveson, Blakeman and Co. The major focus of the company was pedagogical textbooks on everything from accounting, agriculture, and art to civics, foreign languages, history, music, science, literature, mathematics, penmanship, and various levels of reading primers. Its most successful product was the McGuffey Readers, a series of school primers that sold 120 million copies between 1836 (under Van Antwerp, Bragg and Co.) and 1960 (under the American Book Company). One result of the company’s long success story was an archive of book illustration plates.  While some plates contain line art or “stock” photographs, many contain original artwork, the artist list of which reads like a Who’s Who of early American illustration history, featuring names such as Winslow Homer, Norman Rockwell, Frederick Remington, Thomas Moran, just to name a few of the most illustrious ones.

As impressive as the number and quality of the original illustrations in Syracuse University’s American Book Company Records are, they still represent only a fraction of the total artistic output of the publisher and its various predecessors: A warehouse fire in ABC’s Broadway location around the year 1900 destroyed most of the 19th century illustrations and engravings. Other parts of the ABC illustration collection were donated in 1949 and 1950 to the New York Public Library and became part of its Picture Collection.

After a series of mergers, the American Book Company K-12 assets were sold to D.C. Heath and Company in 1981, which marked the end of the American Book Company imprint.

Moving to Syracuse

In 1964, as part of a larger acquisitions campaign, Syracuse University Library’s Manuscript Administrator H.L. Applegate approached the American Book Company about a potential transfer of its records to Syracuse University. An agreement was reached and the greater part of the material from Cincinnati and New York City was shipped to Syracuse University’s Special Collections in 1967-68.

Preservation Issues and Measures

Despite Applegate’s more than optimistic promise to ABC’s Senior Vice President “to make the processing and arranging of the American Book Company archives a major summer project” [emphasis added], the processing of a collection of this scale and material diversity proved to be a far greater challenge than anticipated. Excluding the drawings, the contents of the collection, consisting of general correspondence, calendars, business records, books, miscellanea, illustrations, and study charts, were processed by 1978. The still unprocessed artwork amounted to 931 packages of plates, all still in their original acidic wrapping paper in the Special Collections backlog. But how to tackle almost a thousand packages?

With a collection of this size, the only viable option appeared to be to rehouse and interleave the boards. The use of archival quality oversize boxes and of acid-free interleaving paper and their transfer to Syracuse University Libraries’ state of the art storage facility will now at least slow down the degradation of the original artwork.

The job occupied two SCRC staff members almost full time for over a year. By the project’s end, the original artwork series of the American Book Company Records spread out over 1,200 oversize boxes, bringing the total collection size up to 3,313 linear feet of shelf space!!

Empty archival boxes
The artwork’s new home: A part of the 1,200 archival quality empty oversize boxes ready to be filled

But what about access?

One issue that rehousing alone would not alleviate is that of access to the material. In order to provide access efficiently, you need a certain level of intellectual control over a collection. The rehousing project offered the unique opportunity to check the actual content of the packages against the old high-level inventory list in order to reestablish the plate number sequence where it was disturbed – by use of enormous sorting shelves – and to create a new more accurate inventory spreadsheet listing the individual plate numbers contained in each oversize box and the respective topic or genre of the material (e.g. United States History, Science, Reader, Primer, etc.). These updates would offer both researchers and staff at least some guidance when browsing the material in the finding aid.

Two challenges remained, however: First, how could a researcher preselect the relevant plates and avoid ordering large quantities of oversized boxes from an offsite facility? A lack of detailed description not only places a strain on a researcher’s time but also increases the wear and tear on the collection overall, as it forces each researcher to physically handle large quantities of material in order to find the few items relevant for a research project.

Brittle edge of illustration board
Over the years, the acidic illustration board has become incredibly brittle

Second, when the rehousing team began unwrapping the original artwork, they found the majority of the plates in such a fragile state that access restrictions would seem to be the only way to prevent this collection from being ‘used to pieces.’ The only feasible solution in the midst of a rehousing project of this magnitude was the addition of ‘quick and dirty’ digitization to the workflow. In order to do this, the team set up an impromptu photo lab in the warehouse on one of the processing tables. Each plate, after being freed from the old acidic wrapping paper, and before it was interleaved and put on the sorting shelf, could be photographed with minimal investment of time and without any extra wear and tear to the material.

Man standing at table photographing document
SCRC staff member Paul Barfoot at work in the impromptu photo lab

The result of this thorough rehousing and quick and dirty digitization project is a complete photo-documentation of the original ABC artwork at Syracuse University’s Special Collections Research Center. While the lighting in the warehouse and the process of the rehousing project photography did not allow for the creation of publication quality images, the results of this ‘quick’ makeshift solution were actually not that ‘dirty’ after all. The images were produced at a resolution high enough to answer most of the questions a scholar or course instructor might have, without needing to handle the fragile originals. This simple and not-at-all invasive or time-consuming modification of the rehousing workflow created a potential for virtual research and instruction that the fragile originals would never survive.

The last, but essential and more time-consuming, piece in this discovery-and-access puzzle is, of course, the creation of descriptive metadata. Without this, the newly created terabytes of artwork photographs would remain as inaccessible as the originals. Since 2018, the Special Collections Research Center has been offering descriptive metadata internships aimed primarily at Library Science, Museum Studies, or Art History graduate students, helping them develop a skillset that is in high demand in their respective fields today. During the internship, students populate various metadata fields in SCRC’s home-grown METS Manager interface, including a standardized content description narrative and thereby – one image at a time – create the access points needed to turn this photographic documentation into a virtual research and teaching resource. Previous internships, as well as the research of SCRC’s former Chief Curator Andrew Saluti, have already brought to light some amazing early artwork of later-to-be-famous American artists Norman Rockwell, Thomas Moran and others.

Explorer pointing to ships in the distance
An early Rockwell ‘unearthed’ from the collection by SCRC’s former curator Andrew Saluti
Black and white illustrations
A Thomas Moran identified by an intern during the metadata creation process
Black and white illustrations
A closeup of Thomas Moran’s signature on the identified drawing

So far, 2,674 of the approximately 17,000 images have been described, an ongoing process that is still years away from being completed. What started out as a daunting rehousing project will, when completed, provide the academic community and the interested public with an incredible virtual research and teaching collection related to America’s history of illustration and public education. Fingers crossed!

The American Book Company Records (American Book Company Records, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries) are part of the Special Collections Research Center’s manuscript collections.


A Perfect Recipe for Conservation

By David Stokoe, Associate Librarian, Conservator of Rare Books and Paper

In 2008, SCRC acquired a manuscript cookbook written in French and containing no named author or title. The contents were immediately identifiable as a mixture of diary entries and recipes probably written in the early 1880’s.  The book came to be known as the “French Chef’s Diary.”

The book is part of the Kay Shaw Nelson Papers. This collection covers a variety of current and historical topics relating to food and travel. Per the collection’s finding aid:

“Born in Hanover, New Hampshire, Ms. Nelson graduated from Syracuse University in 1948 with a degree in Russian studies and journalism. She worked as a reporter for several New Hampshire newspapers before taking a job as an intelligence officer for the CIA. Beginning in 1951, she and her husband Wayne, also a CIA intelligence officer, spent many years abroad in the Middle East, the Far East, Europe, Africa, North and South America, and the Caribbean. In 1997, she wrote an introduction entitled “How to go from spies to pies: Operation Gastronomy” for the best-selling cookbook, Spies, Black Ties, & Mango Pies: Stories and Recipes from CIA Families All Over the World. The author of numerous cookbooks and hundreds of articles in national publications, such as the Washington Post, Gourmet, Woman’s Day, and Family Circle, she was also a newspaper columnist and culinary historian.”

Kay Shaw Nelson Papers, Biographical History

There were multiple condition issues readily apparent on the first viewing of the cookbook, but fortunately, the text was written using water stable ink with only a few additional drawings using color pigments that can be extremely unstable in water or other aqueous based treatment solutions.

 The cookbook was written on very acidic paper with no remaining binding structure other than some weak sewing securing the pages to two linen tapes across the spine. Many of the page corners and edges were broken off, and the paper was so fragile it was almost impossible to handle or read without causing more damage. The book was brought straight to the conservation lab for appraisal and possible treatment!

Damaged manuscript pages
Detached and damaged pages. French Chef’s Diary, Kay Shaw Nelson Papers.
Pages of a 1800s French recipe book.
Text block sewn on 2 tapes. French Chef’s Diary, Kay Shaw Nelson Papers.

In consultation with curators, it was decided to undertake a full conservation treatment of the book to ensure its long-term preservation and access.

The plan was to disassemble, dry clean, test inks and pigments, wash, deacidify, and repair the paper before rebinding the book in a sympathetic and protective style.

Testing the current condition and chemical makeup were the first steps on the road to recovery for this damaged book. pH tests were conducted to assess paper acidity levels, inks and pigments were tested for water fastness, and all fragments numbered lightly in pencil prior to disassembly.  Pigment testing revealed some water-solubility issues with the colored drawings, so those pages were de-acidified using an alcohol-based spray instead of a water-based treatment. Water immersion is more effective than alcohol-based spray at reducing paper acidity, so it is the preferred method of de-acidification. All text inks were stable in water, so they could be immersed without fear of fading or ink density loss.

Where possible, the paper was dry cleaned using soft brushes and vinyl erasers, fragile areas were not cleaned to avoid further damage. Once disassembled, the loose pages were interleaved between sheets of open weave spun polyester to support and protect them during the aqueous treatments of washing first in filtered water and then a deacidification solution to reduce the acid levels and deposit an alkaline buffer for future protection.  These processes also reduce surface dirt and staining, as well as rejuvenating the paper. The pages were dried between blotting paper sheets and reassessed for damage and weakness.

Opaque sheet over manuscript pages.
Pages interleaved with spun polyester support sheets prior to washing. French Chef’s Diary. Kay Shaw Nelson Papers.

 Although washed and de-acidified, the paper was still very fragile with many detached edges and corners. Repairs using lightweight Japanese tissue (JT) and wheat starch paste work very well but can cause stress and weakness around repaired areas. I decided to completely line all pages with Tenjugo Thin (3gsm), a very thin JT to give uniform support, and use a thicker JT for infilling missing edges, all done using a reversible wheat starch paste while each dampened page sits on a flexible plastic sheet over a light box to illuminate the work. The repaired pages were dried flat between release sheets and carefully trimmed, folded and collated.

JTs are ideal for this type of work for many reasons, chemically inert with long cellulose fibers, available in many colors and thicknesses, and flexible and durable. Wheat starch paste is reversible in water, chemically stable and has excellent adhesion properties when used with paper, cloth, parchment, vellum and leather.  

Once reassembled, endpapers were constructed and page gatherings (or signatures) were guarded with protective JT along the spine edge to separate the original paper from spine liner and adhesive, just in case the book is ever disbound again!  JT guards were also used inside the signatures to prevent sewing thread from damaging interior folds. Once the sewing was completed, all JT guards were carefully trimmed down to a minimum. Loose ephemeral paper documents were guarded onto JT stubs and sewn onto the front of the text block.

Repaired binding of 1800s cookbook.
Signatures sewn on 3 linen tapes with JT separation guards. French Chef’s Diary, Kay Shaw Nelson Papers.

The repaired and resewn text block was “case bound” (a very simple construction easily removed) in archival buckram book cloth with acid free boards and custom boxed using the libraries’ bespoke box making equipment.

Full book conservation treatments are time consuming and intensive, so each book is assessed by various criteria including historic importance, collection relevance, life expectancy, chemical stability, uniqueness, academic value and many other factors.

Green book binding
Case bound in archival buckram. French Chef’s Diary, Kay Shaw Nelson Papers.
Final binding post-conservation treatment.
Binding showing title page with ephemeral items guarded on Japanese paper stubs. French Chef’s Diary, Kay Shaw Nelson Papers.

The French Chef’s Diary was selected for many of these reasons, but its fragility was the deciding factor from a conservator’s viewpoint. As physical handling is the primary cause of deterioration, the book could not be consulted without immediately risking further damage to the brittle acidic paper.

 The ethics of archive and library conservation dictate several criteria including reversibility of processes and minimally invasive repairs.   Unlike art treatments, library conservation work needs to allow public access while ensuring the item can withstand careful physical handling.

The French Chef’s diary featured in this post is part of SCRC’s Kay Shaw Nelson Papers (Kay Shaw Nelson Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries), part of the Special Collections Research Center’s manuscript collections.


“Durable and Elegant”: Mary Edwards Walker and Dress Reform

By Grace Wagner, Reading Room Access Services Supervisor

“Dr. Mary Walker may be eccentric, but she is no fool. On election day, she offered her vote in Oswego; and it was refused on account of her sex. A bystander remarked that, if Mary was allowed to vote, ‘they might as well dress up all their women-folks in men’s clothes, and bring them down and vote them.’ To which Mary indignantly replied: ‘I don’t wear men’s clothes, I wear my own clothes.’ Exit the masculine voter.”

Vineland Independent, 1880

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker achieved national recognition in the 19th century for her service as a surgeon in the army during the Civil War. She was awarded the Medal of Honor for her service in 1865, the only woman to receive this honor to this day (the award was revoked in 1917 and restored in 1977). Despite her accomplishments in this arena, in later years she was known largely as an “eccentric” to the majority of the United States population, an impression that followed her until her death in February 1919 at the age of 86. This impression of eccentricity, as the above account indicates and confirms, was awarded to Walker not solely (or even primarily) because of her work as an army surgeon, but largely due to the “men’s clothes” she exclusively attired herself in at this point in time. Although Walker did not outfit herself in waistcoats and trousers until later in her life, dress reform was a battle that she had been waging from the early days of her life.

Civil War portrait of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker
Oval portrait photograph of younger Walker, left profile, wearing American flag draped over her shoulders, handwritten below is “Mary E. Walker, M.D.” photographed by Paige & Mills, Washington, D.C. Mary Edwards Walker Papers.

Walker did not take the subject of dress reform lightly and she championed practical dress from an early date. Raised by freethinker and abolitionist parents, she and her four older sisters grew up working on her family’s farm and eschewed corsets and other restrictive garments of the day. She was an early adopter of the “bloomer” trend (consisting of a shorter full skirt worn over loose trousers) of the 1850s and she worked with Lydia Sayer Hasbrouck to write for The Sibyl: A Review of the Tastes, Errors, and Fashions of Society, a reformist periodical that focused on dress reform among other issues of the day. Walker wore pants when she married her husband, Albert Miller, in 1855, the same year she graduated from Syracuse Medical College, and she was elected to be president of the National Dress Reform Association in 1866. Modifying the bloomer trend, she designed and created her own medical uniform, consisting of a mid-length skirt over a pair of trousers and a buttoned coat that she wore during her years of service during the Civil War. When she was captured and imprisoned by Confederate soldiers in 1864 for four months, she refused to change into the “women’s clothes” that were provided to her and remained in her own garments. She proudly wore the Medal of Honor that was awarded to her pinned to her chest every day until her death.

Walker operated outside of many of the rules and standards set by the 19th century, but she also seemed to reject some of the standard views of other reform groups. Her approach to women’s rights, in particular, set her at odds with many of the leading suffragists of the day. For one, Walker didn’t believe that an additional amendment needed to be ratified to grant women the right to vote. In her view, the preamble to the Constitution that invoked “We the people” included women in its scope already. She would show up to the voting booth to exercise her right and was repeatedly rejected for this assumption. For another, Walker had divorced her husband after four years of marriage due to his infidelity, a choice that set her at odds with some suffragists. Finally, she was one of a very few women (Hasbrouck was another) who continued to dress in trousers after the novelty of the bloomer trend of the 1850s had ended.

Mary Edwards Walker dressed in men's clothes
Full-length portrait photo of Mary Edwards Walker in men’s attire with a printed list of her achievements below. Mary Edwards Walker Papers.

Dress reform was not a frivolous pursuit to Mary Edwards Walker. She consistently positioned this cause at the center of her reform efforts. In her first book, Hit, published in 1871, Walker devotes her second — and longest — dedication (the first dedication reads in full “To My Parents”) to her fellow dress reformers:

“TO THE PRACTICAL DRESS REFORMERS,

The truest friends of humanity, who have done more for the universal elevation of woman in the past dozen years, than all others combined. You, who have lived the precepts and principles that others have only talked—who have been so consistent in your ideas of the equality of the sexes, by dressing in a manner to fit you for the duties of a noble and useful life. You, who have written and spoken, and been living martyrs to the all-important principles involved in a thoroughly hygienic dress, and thus given to the world and indisputable proof of your unflinching integrity. To You, in a word, who are the greatest philanthropists of the age, this second Dedication is made.”

Hit, Mary Edwards Walker, 1871

Repeatedly, Walker made her arguments for dress reform on the basis of hygiene, health, and greater mobility. She did not see how equality between the sexes could be achieved if women were not able to easily move and thus perform the same, or similar, work as men.

Bystanders, cartoonists, and reporters leveled a steady stream of abuse, jokes, and complaints at Walker for decades for dressing as she did, many of which are recorded in newspaper articles and editorials. By her own account, Walker was regularly harassed on the street and arrested more than a dozen times for the way she dressed. Many individuals thought — and many newspapers of the time perpetuated the narrative — that Walker had been granted special dispensation from the government to dress in trousers, despite the fact that it was not illegal for women to do so and no such dispensation actually existed.

In Walker’s papers and correspondence held at SCRC, some particularly persistent individuals even crafted letters and sent their complaints and corrective dialogues straight to Walker herself.

19th century letter with floral decoration in the corner
The front of Louise Wüste’s letter addressed to “Miss Walker,” featuring a floral illustration from 1870. Mary Edwards Walker Papers.

One of the most interesting of this group of letters, sent to Walker in 1870, is covered in delicate script and a beautiful illustration of a pink rose flanked by morning glories and purple violets (symbolizing modesty and faithfulness). The letter, written by Louise Wüste, a self-described “German lady” and “Artist,” reads, in part:

“Females have Rights in the world like man in some Respects, but not in All...Most ladies have not spirit enough to learn anything, as Doctor[,] Teacher, Bookkeeper, Watchmaker[,] Bookbinder, Clerk in the Post Office[,] Painter, or even Merchanaiging [Merchandizing]; all this places Ladies could fill very well, but she has no business to meddle with politics, to go to Election, to go for the battle field, to smoke, or to dress in man’s clothes — she must not be seen much on the Street! She is and must be a Lady!”

Louise Wüste, excerpted from a 16 May 1870 letter
19th century letter pages
The inside pages of Louise Wüste’s 1870 letter to Walker, featuring her criticism of Walker’s style of dress. Mary Edwards Walker Papers.

Although Wüste asserts that women have the right to work as doctors or painters, she also addresses her letter to “Miss Walker,” effectively discounting Walker’s medical degree and work as a surgeon. Wüste makes it clear that she does not approve of Walker’s presumption to “meddle with politics” and least of all “dress in man’s clothes,” as these behaviors contradict with one’s ability to act as a lady. Read in this light, the delicate flowers on the front of the letter seem to be less a decorative touch from an admirer and more a pointed attack on someone who did not fit the mold of womanhood as the correspondent saw it.

In reading Walker’s letters and documents, however, it is clear that Walker’s preference for trousers did not preclude her enjoyment of fashion or fashionable garments. In the photographs where she is dressed in bloomers or suits, she is elegantly put together and appears to have had a taste for beautiful and rich garments.

19th century letter with fabric samples stitched on back
The front of the letter addressed Dr. Walker sent in 1867 during Mary Edwards Walker’s speaking tour in England. Mary Edwards Walker Papers.

A February 1867 letter affirms this fact, sent to Walker by an Englishwoman, Anne Cooper, just a few years before Louise Wüste’s letter. The years 1866 and 1867 encompassed a transitory time for Mary Edwards Walker. She was still wearing bloomers and the modified uniform of her Civil War years, but she was beginning to move towards the dandified suits she adopted in later years — trousers, waistcoat, and top hat included. She was also riding the height of her Civil War fame. Like others who received a burst of celebrity from the Civil War, she capitalized on this, embarking on a speaking tour in England during this time.

Like Wüste’s letter, Cooper’s letter is also adorned with traditionally female decoration. Unlike the neat, elegant lines of the flowers drawn by Walker’s critic, however, the rich, fraying squares of cobalt blue, royal purple, and gunmetal gray are attached to the back of the document with large, uneven stitches:

“I sent you some patterns of blue to Mrs. Cox’s Hotel having forgotten your address having had no responce [sic] [.] Suppose discord predominates. I here enclose a choice of what I think – durable & elegant colours hoping to see you on Thursday.”

Anne Cooper, excerpted from a letter dated February 1867

These “durable & elegant” choices are offered alongside details of a trip to the Crystal Palace and hints of past and future social engagements. They appear to be the words of a friend.

Mary Edwards Walker in overcoat and top hat
Mary Edwards Walker standing next to building, wearing top hat and men’s overcoat, undated. Mary Edwards Walker Papers.

The pieces of fabric attached to this letter may be the only samples held in the Mary Edwards Walker Papers at SCRC, and while we may never find out if the garments in question were ever made for Walker, or what colors she chose if they were, these small samplings help us to better understand Walker, her beliefs, and the way she chose to present herself to society. Walker was a complicated and a complicating figure and her choices moved her outside of the standards set by society and other reformers. She refashioned a new position in society for herself, one where she could serve as a surgeon and support causes that she loved and where she could dress how it pleased her to dress, deferring only to her own selection, rather than one imposed upon her.

The Mary Edwards Walker Papers (Mary Edwards Walker Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries) are part of the Special Collections Research Center’s manuscript collections.

Additional Sources

Burgess, Anika, “The Unconventional Life of Mary Walker, the Only Woman to Have Received the U.S. Medal of Honor.” Atlas Obscura. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/mary-walker-feminist-dress-reform-equal-rights (accessed June 1, 2020).

“Dress Reform.” Freethought Trail. https://freethought-trail.org/causes/cause:dress-reform/ (accessed June 1, 2020).

Fischer, Gayle V. 2001. Pantaloons & Power: A Nineteenth-century Dress Reform in the United States. Kent State University Press. 148-154. Google Books.

Potter, William J., and B. F. Underwood. 1880. Free religious index. Boston: Free Religious Association. 299. Google Books.

Walker, Mary Edwards. 1871. Hit. New York: American News. Internet Archive.

“Women in History. Mary Edwards Walker biography.” Women In History Ohio. http://www.womeninhistoryohio.com/mary-edwards-walker.html (accessed June 1, 2020).


Dragnet! A Musical Controversy

By Nora Ramsey, Reference Assistant

Miklós Rózsa (1907-1995), whose papers are held at SCRC, was a Hungarian-American composer known for his dramatic film scores. His career in Hollywood gained him tremendous fame: Rózsa received 17 Oscar nominations and won the award three times for his music for the films Spellbound (1945), A Double Life (1947) and Ben-Hur (1959). Rózsa was a brilliant, multi-Oscar-winning composer, but the only musical motif he wrote that became easily recognizable to the general public was not part of an award-winning composition. In fact, the motif is often not associated with Rózsa at all, since the more popular version is credited to another composer.

Miklos Rozsa holding Oscar.
Miklos Rozsa holding his Oscar for the score of A Double Life in 1948, two years after The Killers was released. Miklos Rozsa Papers.

The famous four-note motif was originally composed by Rózsa for the 1946 American film noir, The Killers. In 1951, the same motif appeared in the “Main Title” theme music for the radio and television drama, Dragnet, composed by Walter Schumann. The music became the subject of a copyright lawsuit when Abeles & Bernstein, lawyers representing Robbins Music Corporation, the publishers of Rózsa’s score for The Killers, sent a cease and desist letter to Schumann’s publisher, Capitol Records Inc., on November 16th, 1953. When Schumann challenged this letter, Abeles & Bernstein informed Miklós Rózsa they would be filing for a copyright infringement on his behalf on January 4th, 1954 for Dragnet‘s “Main Title.”

Music copyright letter from the 1950s.
The cease and desist letter sent to Schumann’s publisher, Capitol Records Inc., on November 16th, 1953, from Rozsa’s lawyers, Abeles and Bernstein. Miklos Rozsa Papers.

During music plagiarism lawsuits, lawyers try to establish that the second composer had an opportunity to hear the piece. In this case, Rózsa’s lawyers argued that Walter Schumann was on the sound stage during the recording of The Killers in 1946. A check procured by Universal Pictures placed Walter Schumann on the set during this time. This evidence was used to establish that Schumann had heard the melody and, consciously or unconsciously, copied the theme. It was at this point during the trial proceedings that Walter Schumann claimed that he received permission from Rózsa to use the motif. He argued that Rózsa gave him permission to use the motif which, with evidence, would be a strong defense against Rózsa’s claim. While the case was in session, the lawsuit and Schumann’s counter-suit received publicity from musicologists who pointed out that the four note theme can be found in several pieces throughout history. 

1953 copyright letter
A letter from 1953 that establishes that Schumann was on the payroll for Universal Pictures during the recording of “The Killers” in 1946. Miklos Rozsa Papers.

Although Rózsa and Schumann’s lawyers argued for their clients on the basis of copyright law, this was not the only factor in the ongoing court case. By the time the lawsuit was filed in 1954, Schumann’s theme for Dragnet had already exploded as a household gimmick. Dragnet began airing television episodes in 1951, but two wildly popular versions of the show’s theme music were released in 1953. First, Ray Anthony’s jazz orchestra rendition debuted in June 1953. Stan Freberg’s parody single, “St. George and the Dragonet” (“Little Blue Riding Hood” was on the B-side) came out in October 1953. Both versions sold well and landed high on Billboard’s charts.

The four note motif became a widely popular theme by the mid-1950s—it was the score’s most memorable effect. People would have hummed the tune for comic effect in everyday life. In becoming an introductory device for one of the most popular television shows of the decade, the motif became distorted beyond Rózsa’s original thematic indication that the “killers” were present in the 1946 movie.

In 1953, after Anthony’s jazz rendition and “St. George and the Dragonet” were released, journalist Bob Thomas published an article on the craze revolving around the four note theme:

“The opening theme of ‘Dragnet,’ the cops-and-hoodlums TV show on NBC, has become the most famous four notes in America today. They have eclipsed “Dum da dum dum”— the start of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony that was the victory symbol in World War II.”

Bob Thomas, “Four Notes Blare for ‘Dragnet'”

Rózsa must have been aware of the other versions of the song, as the cease and desist letter sent by Abeles and Bernstein in November 1953 directly references “St. George and the Dragonet” and “Little Blue Riding Hood,” which were produced under Capitol Records, the same label as Dragnet. The popularity of the other versions of the song demonstrated both the success of the theme, and the possible monetary value of the work if it could be proved to be solely Rózsa’s composition.

Sheet music from The Killers.
A page of Miklos Rozsa’s compositions for The Killers featuring the famous four-note theme in the first two bars of music. Miklos Rozsa Papers.

In 1955, a settlement between the two publishers concluded the case by allowing both Rózsa and Schumann and their publishers to share the royalties for the four note theme “Main Title,” which was later titled “Danger Ahead.” The “Dragnet March,” which was everything other than the four note theme, remained the intellectual property of Walter Schumann. It took several years for the decision to be enforced, made evident on CDs published after 1955 that list either Walter Schumann or Miklós Rózsa as the composer— but not both.

Music copyright lawsuits tend to be intense legal battles between composers and artists. My copyright class, an elective for my Library and Information Science master’s degree, has taught me new ways to interpret copyright lawsuits. So, how does Rózsa’s case relate to modern musical copyright cases? Most recently, Katy Perry won an appeal against the Christian rapper Flame in a controversial lawsuit claiming Perry’s song “Dark Horse” infringed on an eight-note ostinato, a musical pattern repeated many times in succession, in Flame’s song “Joyful Noise.” Similar to Rózsa’s case, rapper Flame attempted to prove Perry had unconsciously copied the ostinato after having reasonable access to the song. However, by granting Perry’s appeal, the court “upended the long-standing copyright precedent regarding the extent to which access to a song can be used to prove infringement or plagiarism.” The cases of  Miklós Rózsa and Walter Schumann and Katy Perry v. Flame are reflective of the constantly evolving nature of music and copyright law. Maybe in another 60 years, we will be comparing the groundbreaking case involving Katy Perry with a new and more influential musical controversy. Time will tell!

The Miklós Rózsa Papers (Miklós Rózsa Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries) are part of the Special Collections Research Center’s manuscript collections.

Additional Sources

Blistein, Jon. “Katy Perry Wins Appeal in ‘Dark Horse’ Infringement Case.” Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone, March 18, 2020. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/katy-perry-dark-horse-copyright-win-appeal-969009/.

Capitol Records. “Top Popular Records.” Billboard, October 24, 1953.

Grein, Paul. “Chart Beat.” Billboard, November 9, 1985.

Hischak, Thomas S. The Encyclopedia of Film Composers. Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.

Syracuse Special Collections Research Center (SCRC). “Lights, Camera, Music!” Digital Exhibits, Syracuse University, library.syr.edu/digital/exhibits/r/RozsaWaxman/thekillers.htm. Accessed 10 Apr. 2020.

Thomas, Bob. “Four Notes Blare for ‘Dragnet’.” The Washington Post (1923-1954), Oct 11, 1953, pp. 1. ProQuest, https://search-proquest-com.libezproxy2.syr.edu/docview/152582132?accountid=14214.

Thomas, Tony. “JUST THE FACTS, MA’AM.” Los Angeles Times (1923-1995), Jan 23, 1983, pp. 1-o95. ProQuest, https://search-proquest-com.libezproxy2.syr.edu/docview/153335455?accountid=14214.

United States District Court S. D. New York. Robbins Music Corp. v. Alamo Music. 119 F. Supp. 29 (S.D.N.Y. 1954). Court Listener, https://www.courtlistener.com/opinion/2147774/robbins-music-corp-v-alamo-music/ . Accessed 19 April 2020.

Warner, Alan. “DUM-FOUNDED.” Los Angeles Times (1923-1995), Aug 01, 1987, pp. 1. ProQuest, https://search-proquest-com.libezproxy2.syr.edu/docview/809952172?accountid=14214.