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James Thornton and The Syracuse State School

By Aisha Pierre, Reference Assistant

As students 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.

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.

White page with a list of entries on top of tan folder.
A school receipt including entries for bacon, pork, and cider.

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:

“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?

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

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.

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.

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.

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:

Phobia by John Vassos.

Paul Barfoot, Library Technician

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.J

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

Jim Meade, Audio Preservation Engineer

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.

Liber Chronicarum by Hartmann Schedel, 1493.

Colleen Theisen, Chief Curator

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.

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

Grace Wagner, Reading Room Access Services Supervisor

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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. 

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.


Ninth Street Women and New Books at SCRC

By Grace Wagner, Reading Room Access Services Supervisor

Every year, Special Collections incorporates new books featuring research and materials from SCRC collections into its own collections. This past year, author publications touched on a number of different subjects, ranging from illuminated manuscripts to a biography of the art collector and businessman Archer Milton Huntington. One of the books that joined our collections this year is Ninth Street Women by Mary Gabriel, an immersive look at the post-war modern art movement from the viewpoint of the women who helped shape it.

Gabriel’s book takes on this subject by focusing on the lives and work of five artists: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler. Gabriel’s research stretches far and wide, incorporating documents and testimony from a number of archives and eyewitnesses. One of the sources Gabriel draws upon is the Grace Hartigan Papers, a manuscript collection held at Syracuse University. Gabriel employs Hartigan’s diaries, correspondence, photographs and other writings from this collection to help tell Hartigan’s story and the story of the Abstract Expressionist movement in her book.

The five artists, or protagonists, of the story, encompass the range of years of the modern art movement, from 1929 to 1959, and Gabriel brings in each new character in the order she naturally appears in the course of the art movement historically. Because Gabriel’s scope is broad — five artists and 30 years of history, she chooses to take a ‘horizontal’ rather than ‘vertical’ approach to the history and focuses on the intersections between these five artists and the movement as a whole, rather than extensively covering individual backgrounds, upbringings, and lives post-1959, when the movement had largely come to a conclusion (xvi). This approach helps keep her 700-page bright yellow tome moving at a surprisingly brisk, easy pace.

Lee Krasner and Elaine de Kooning dominate the early pages of the book, detailing the early years of the art movement in the 1930s and Krasner’s involvement with the WPA, and “second generation” Abstract Expressionists Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler, both formally educated in art schools and programs, appear towards the latter part of the movement in the early 1950s. Sandwiched in between the two groups, and, in some way, acting as a bridge between, Grace Hartigan’s story is told. Hartigan’s work is informed both by her Great Depression upbringing and her early married years which took place amidst the United States’ involvement in World War II. Hartigan experienced her first taste of the art world at this time, working at an aeronautical factory in New Jersey in the drafting department.

Hartigan struck out on her own at 26, separating from her husband and leaving her son with his grandparents in New Jersey. She began to negotiate how she would become an artist on her own, first traveling west and taking art classes and then living and working among other artists in a freezing apartment building in New York City for a decade, working as an artists’ model to support herself and using flimsy pretexts to keep from being evicted from her living space. Gabriel underscores Hartigan’s complicated journey and transformation into an independent artist with reference to Hartigan’s changing wardrobe, from peasant blouses and skirts to jeans, army fatigues, and work boots.

Even as the story focuses on the women of the movement, gender dynamics are never entirely absent from the narrative. The book takes its name from the Ninth Street Show, a 1951 art exhibit that marked the first time the five central painters all exhibited work together. Ninth Street also refers to the area where these artists lived and worked together, frequenting the same bars and cafes, notably including the dingy, and later famed Cedar Bar located between 8th and 9th streets. At the time of the 1951 exhibit, however, Grace Hartigan, taking her cues from writers George Eliot and Georges Sand, was exhibiting her work under the name “George Hartigan.” She was not hiding her identity as a woman (most artists, buyers, and writers were aware that Grace was behind the works exhibited), but her choice underlined the difficulties women faced as artists in a largely male-dominated field.

Works like Gabriel’s highlight the complexity of individuals like Grace Hartigan and provide context for unexplored historical perspectives. One of the most exciting parts about facilitating the research of scholars and writers in the archives are the articles, books, and publications that are produced from this interaction. Incorporating works that touch significantly on collections in our holdings ultimately makes our collections, and our understanding of them, richer.

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

Recent Publications using SCRC Material:

  • Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art by Mary Gabriel, including research from the Grace Hartigan Papers.
  • Transatlantic Networks and the Perception and Representation of Vienna and Austria Between the 1920s and 1950s by Waldemar Zacharasiewicz, including research from the Dorothy Thompson Papers.
  • Archer M. Huntington by Patricia Fernandez Lorenzo, including research from the Archer Milton Huntington Papers and the Anna Hyatt Huntington Papers.
  • Hacia El Centenario by Carolina Rodriguez-Lopez, including research from the Anna Hyatt Huntington Papers.
  • Manufacturing Modernism/Transitional Moments by H. Reynolds Butler, including research and photos from the Marcel Breuer Papers.
  • Titian, Friendship, and the Vienna Ecce Homo for Giovanni d’Anna by Alison Luchs in Artibus et historiae an art anthology, including research from illuminated manuscript 7, Book of Hours.

September News Wrap Up

By Colleen Theisen, Chief Curator

September and October are the busiest months of the year for classroom visits in the Special Collections Research Center. Pictured above, a group of students from James Watts’ HNR 340 class taking a look at plates from Description de l’Egypte, printed from 1808-1829, which is one of the largest books in SCRC.

New Exhibit Opened:

Sept 14, 2019. “A Legacy of Leadership: The Chancellors and Presidents of Syracuse University,” which was curated by Vanessa St. Oegger-Menn, is now on display in the first floor exhibition case in Bird Library.

The University Archives has opened another exhibition to celebrate SU's sesquicentennial! Curated by Assistant…

Posted by Syracuse University Archives on Monday, September 23, 2019

New Acquisitions:

 Josef Albers’ “The Interaction of Color.” 1963. You can read more about this acquisition in last week’s blog post here.

Ehon fuji no yukari: Illustrated selection of poems from the Tale of Genji with woodcuts by Mitsunobu Hasegawa from 1751.

Recap of Public Events:

Sept 5, 2019. Hosted “150 Years of Tradition at Syracuse University” exhibit opening reception. The exhibition continues through the spring semester.

Sept 6, 2019. Hosted a Preservation Fair for alumni as part of Orange Central weekend.

Sept 7, 2019. Hosted alumni exhibition tours as part of Orange Central weekend.

Newly processed collections and additions:

The University Archives is pleased to announce that Chancellor Flint and Chancellor Graham’s records and papers have been newly processed as part of Syracuse University’s Sesquicentennial celebration!

Other newly processed collections:

Mentions in the News:

Sept 3, 2019. ‘150 Years of Tradition at Syracuse University’ showcases student memorabilia

Sept 4, 2019. Students Should Learn About SU’s Legacy

Sept 30, 2019. Review: Graham Nolan’s “Monster Island” 20th Anniversary Edition

A Highlight From Social Media:

Built in 1900, Winchell Hall Dormitory for Women was the first dorm constructed on campus. It stood at the corner of…

Posted by Syracuse University Archives on Thursday, September 26, 2019

New Acquisition: Josef Albers’ Interaction of Color

By Colleen Theisen, Chief Curator

The Special Collections Research Center is excited to announce the acquisition of a 1963 copy of The Interaction of Color by Josef Albers.  The set was originally a limited run of 2000 sets of prints with an accompanying book that outlines a sequence of color exercises. The work comprises 80 silk screened prints that demonstrate how the eye perceive colors differently when set next to other colors. For example, the print in the image to the left has brown/tan squares surrounded by orange, yellow, and blue so that one brown square appears darker than the other, despite the two squares being exactly the same shade. The video at the bottom of this page demonstrates the effect of revealing that the two brown squares are the same by lifting a flap.

Josef Albers (1888–1976) was an influential teacher, writer, painter, and color theorist. He began his career teaching at the Bauhaus before moving to the United States, and was an influential figure in 20th century modernism. From 1950 to 1958, Josef Albers was chairman of the Department of Design at the Yale University School of Art. There, and as guest teacher at art schools throughout North and South America and in Europe, including here at Syracuse University, he trained a whole new generation of art teachers, designers, artists, and industrial designers.

Albers’ interest and dedication to the study of visual perception was key to his work as an artist and teacher. In the introduction to The Interaction of Color, Albers discusses his views saying, “In visual perception a color is almost never seen as it really is—as it physically is. This fact makes color the most relative medium in art. In order to use color effectively it is necessary to recognize that color deceives continually.”

After its initial publication, The Interaction of Color proved to be such a valuable resource for artists that it was printed in many smaller and cheaper formats throughout the 20th century, finally even becoming an iPad app.  The SCRC staff are very excited to offer this opportunity to view the original prints for a work that is so focused on the integrity of color, without screen resolutions or mass produced paper quality creating variations. A special collections setting in the Reading Room or classroom gives our users a unique opportunity to open and manipulate the frames of these prints. Continuing the spirit of Albers’ teaching, SCRC would especially welcome campus class sessions interested in comparing the work across printed editions and the app to contact Colleen Theisen, Chief Curator, to arrange a class session with this work (cmtheise@syr.edu).

The Interaction of Color by Josef Albers is part of the Special Collections Research Center’s rare books collection (Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries).

Additional Source:

“Artists Biographies.” The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, 2019, https://albersfoundation.org/artists/biographies/.


It’s No Wonder…That They’re Called Little Wonders!

By Jim Meade, Audio Engineer

What sound disc is 5 inches in diameter and carries sound on one side only? A compact disc, or CD, would be a good answer, but not quite what we’re thinking of. Here we look into one of the more curious corners of the Belfer 78rpm Collection: Little Wonder discs. Belfer holds a collection of 106 Little Wonder discs, which were digitized in 2016.

Little Wonders are 5 ½ inches in diameter and single-sided. They have narrow grooves on one side (compared to regular 10 and 12 -inch double-sided 78rpm discs), with one to two minutes playing time.

A casual observer might assume from their appearance that these are children’s records, due to the figure of an infant conductor sometimes appearing on the label, combined with their small diameter. However, they are actually popular titles of the day. Little Wonder later gave rise to Bubble Books, a series which did combine discs and books for children. Little Wonder records were hugely popular between 1915 and 1923, selling an estimated 40 million over the life of the label.

These records were manufactured under contract by Columbia and often featured Columbia recording artists. Because artist credits on Little Wonder records are rare, identification of performers is often an educated guess by experienced collectors. Some famous voices have been identified on Little Wonder recordings including an uncredited Al Jolson.

Little Wonders are acoustic recordings with a low production value, sold initially without a paper label or a record sleeve to lower costs.

This may also have been a deliberate strategy to distinguish them from regular priced records and not eat into profits from Columbia’s more up-scale discs. At a time when regular records cost $0.75 to $1.00, Little Wonders were priced at $0.10 to $0.15 cents, making them an instant, large scale success. Little Wonders were retailed through 5 and 10 cent stores such as Kresge’s and Woolworth’s, as well as through the Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward mail-order catalogs. By the mid-1920s, the price of regular, full-length records decreased to $0.50, a shift that created competition in the music market and may have ultimately led to loss in popularity for the Little Wonders.

The success of these little discs turned the record industry on its head by aggressively reshaping the price structure. With Little Wonders, records became a truly affordable mass medium that everyone could enjoy.

Little Wonders (Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries), are part of the Special Collections Research Center’s Belfer Audio Archive.


American and Soviet “Truth”: Pravda in Special Collections

By Natasha Bishop, Reference Assistant

SCRC is home to the collections of many prominent twentieth-century American cartoonists and journalists, some of whose works deal with one of the century’s most omnipresent forces: the Soviet Union. Three of these figures, Communist activist Earl Browder and political cartoonists Bill Crawford and Don Wright, engaged with the Soviet Communist Party’s daily newspaper, Pravda in their articles and cartoons. In doing so, the three men showcase the distinctly different ways propaganda and bias emerged in Soviet and American presses at this time.

While multiple newspapers were published in the Soviet Union, none was more far-reaching than the Soviet Communist Party’s central organ, Pravda (Russian for “Truth”). The publication powerhouse ran under Communist control from 1912 to 1991 and, at its height of circulation, reached 11 million people daily. Through Pravda, the party disseminated official policy while also presenting a strictly controlled image of communism’s reception abroad.

In efforts to present an image of widespread international support for the Soviet Union, Pravda employed American writers and cartoonists living abroad as foreign correspondents, some of whose collections are now held in SCRC. Noted American radical artists William Gropper and Fred Ellis, for example, both worked for the newspaper while living in Russia in the 1920s and 1930s, respectively. And in 1966, SCRC acquired the papers of one of Pravda’s most prominent American correspondents, Earl Browder.

The Earl Browder Collection contains the activist’s manuscripts, correspondence, memorabilia, and photographs, in addition to over 1,350 titles from his personal book and pamphlet collection. It is a critical collection because Browder was the General Secretary of the Communist Party USA from 1930 to 1945 and a two-time U.S. presidential candidate. He was a seminal party member until being expelled in 1956 for promoting a peaceful coexistence between socialism and capitalism. Browder continued to write for Pravda in the years after his excommunication and remained a committed socialist until his death in 1973.

SCRC holds a number of articles Browder wrote for Pravda, all of which are exaggerated accounts of socialism’s influence in the United States. A potent example of this is the 1939 article, “Lenin and his Influence in America,” which Browder begins by declaring: “Fifteen years after the death of Lenin, the influence of his ideas in America has grown to the proportion of a major factor in the life of the country…Lenin’s penetrating vision revealed the many affinities existing between the people of the Soviet Union, land of socialism, and the people of the United States.” This faithfully reflects the serious manner in which Browder wrote his Pravda reports, amplifying the Soviet Union’s impact on the American general public.

Being a state-run political apparatus, the heavily regulated and serious Pravda existed solely to push Communist policy. SCRC’s issues of Pravda contain few images and no cartoons; the editors clearly prioritized policy over entertainment. Through Browder and other foreign correspondents, it kept the Soviet public abreast on American news, although always biased in favor of the Communist party.

Conversely, the American public maintained an awareness of information being circulated by Pravda throughout the twentieth century, as evidenced in two works in SCRC collections by prominent cartoonists, Bill Crawford and Don Wright. While Soviet news contributors wrote from a serious standpoint, American cartoonists could afford to be more glib in their presentation of foreign matters. No major periodicals were controlled by political factions and because the American press operates within the free-market economy, its news publications have always had the dual task of informing and entertaining to attract readers. Rooted in comedy, the cartoon remains a staple of American newspapers. It is an effective tool wielded to deliver sharply critical commentary made more palatable through humor.

Crawford’s cartoon, published sometime between 1952-58, shows Josef Stalin holding a mask in his right hand. “‘We are devoted to strengthening peace and cooperation with the U.S.’…New Soviet Ambassador Zarubin,” assures the mask to the American audience. Meanwhile, Stalin faces the opposite direction and speaks directly to the Soviets (as quoted in Pravda) “‘U.S. Ambassador is a slanderer disguised as a diplomat’…Pravda”. This showcases the deep cynicism of what Americans believed were false promises being made by the Soviets. Its message was clearly that the Soviets were not to be trusted, which stoked the flames of fear being nurtured during the Red Scare era.

 Although less explicit than Crawford’s cartoon, Wright’s still plays into the fearmongering aspects of anti-Soviet propaganda. This undated cartoon published in the Miami Herald shows a dejected man at his newsstand in Moscow selling three publications: Pravda, Izvestia, and the Wall Street Journal. The paranoia-imbued message Wright delivers says that the Soviets were closely monitoring the American economy.

The American and Soviet presses would keep their readerships informed on the current events of each other’s countries throughout the Cold War. Their delivery styles were markedly different due to the nature of state-run versus free-market publications, yet similarities are found in the biased and propagandistic nature of their foreign news content.

The William Gropper Papers (William Gropper Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries), Fred Ellis Papers (Fred Ellis Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries), Bill Crawford Papers (Bill Crawford Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries), Don Wright Papers (Don Wright Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries), and Earl Browder Papers (Earl Browder Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries), are part of the Special Collections Research Center’s manuscript collections. Additional issues of Pravda are also available on microfilm at the Bird Library.

Additional Sources:

Dallin, Alexander. “America Through Soviet Eyes.” The Public Opinion Quarterly, vol. 11, no. 1, 1947, pp. 26–39.

Gruliow, Leo. “The Soviet Press: ‘Propagandist, Agitator, Organizer’.” Journal of International Affairs, vol. 10, no. 2, 1956, pp. 153–169.

Moore, Barrington. “The Communist Party of the USA; an Analysis of a Social Movement.” The American Political Science Review, vol. 39, no. 1, 1945, pp. 31–41.

White, James D. “The First Pravda and the Russian Marxist Tradition.” Soviet Studies, vol. 26, no. 2, 1974, pp. 181–204.


150 Years of Tradition at Syracuse University

By Meg Mason, University Archivist

On March 24, 1870, the Board of Trustees of Syracuse University signed the University charter and certificate of incorporation. Over the next few years, the College of Liberal Arts was founded, classes began, the first Commencement was held, the first Chancellor was inaugurated, and the University’s first building, the Hall of Languages, was constructed. All the founding pieces were now in place for the University to begin forming a legacy of traditions, many of which are documented and on display in a new University Archives exhibition, which I am proud to have curated, 150 Years of Tradition at Syracuse University.

Curating this exhibition allowed me to draw upon some of the University Archives’ most historically rich collections, including the Photograph Collection and Memorabilia Collection. These collections document so many traditions, from Commencement to mascots to the Chimemasters. I also jumped at the opportunity to show off some of our most special items. Both a number 44 football jersey worn and signed by Ernie Davis ‘62, the first African American Heisman Trophy winner, as well as the Alma Mater written in the hand of its author, Junius Stevens, Class of 1895, will be on display, though for a limited time to prevent fading. There are also other wonderful pieces, such as old photographs of graduates at Commencements long past and an impressively-sized cheerleading megaphone from the 1960s. All the photographs, printed materials, textiles, and other memorabilia are a testament to the University’s history of traditions that have inspired Orange pride, united the University community, and connected its past with its present.

The tradition I found most challenging to exhibit is the origin of orange as the University’s official color. Although orange was adopted as the official color in 1890, there isn’t an official proclamation in the University Archives, and we don’t hold many materials that have color from that time. I managed to track down a student newspaper article about the impatience of the student body to change the University’s colors from pink and blue to orange. I also included the brilliantly-orange cover of an 1891 Men’s Glee Club program, which is the earliest orange item I could find.

Some of my favorite items in the University Archives are the freshman beanies. They’re just so round and delightful. While I can’t imagine feeling so delighted if I was a first-year student who had to wear one, I’m grateful to alumni who kept theirs and later donated them to the University Archives. We have a nice collection of beanies in all shades of orange (and even green!), and we managed to fit a goodly number of them in the exhibition case.

The beanies are a great example of a tradition that has faded away. When I started curating this exhibition, I had a vague idea of tradition as something timeless and classic. But looking through what is now on display, visitors will see not only traditions that have endured but also those that have fallen by the wayside as well as fairly new ones. Those old, long-gone traditions lost their meaning, and over time the University has picked up new customs and celebrations as they have embraced values and a community that is more diverse and inclusive. So now we have Otto the Orange as our mascot instead of the Saltine Warrior thanks to the late 1970s protests of a Native American student organization, and we have annual, traditional celebrations such as the Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration and International Thanksgiving.

Please join us for the opening reception of the exhibition on Thursday, September 4, from 4:30 to 6 pm at the Special Collections Research Center on the 6th floor of Bird Library. The exhibition is open for viewing through the spring of 2020. If you’re not into the color orange (What?!), the number 44 (How could you?!) or the Alma Mater (Sacrilege!), you at least have to come see all those thoughtfully-curated beanies!

The Syracuse University Photograph Collection, the Syracuse University Portrait Collection, the Syracuse University Memorabilia Collection and the Junius Woods Stevens Collection are part of the Special Collections Research Center’s University Archives (University Archives, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries).