Category Archives: Rare Books Collection

Celebrating 200 Years of Henry David Thoreau, 1817 – 2017

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2017 marks the bicentennial of writer and naturalist, Henry David Thoreau’s birth.

Image of Henry David Thoreau from the 50 cent daguerreotype taken of him in Worchester, MA, 1856. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of anonymous donor.

In celebration, Simpson Library staff created several exhibits throughout the Library and in the process learned a lot about Thoreau and his renowned literary colleagues, all of whom lived in his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts. As with every new exhibit, the creation process presents an opportunity to delve into the Library’s collections to see what materials we have that complement the exhibit’s theme.

For Thoreau, I knew we didn’t have any first editions of his master work, Walden, waiting to be discovered on our shelves but that Special Collections owns an impressive complete set of the Transcendentalists publication, The Dial, from 1840-1844.  Although a financial failure, the magazine under the editorial direction of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller, was the launch pad for Thoreau’s writing career.

It is in The Dial’s inaugural issue, dated July 1840, that Thoreau’s poem “Sympathy” and his essay on the Roman poet Aulus Persius Flaccus were first published.

Two years later in 1842, The Dial published the first of Thoreau’s outdoor essays, “Natural History of Massachusetts.”

“A Winter Walk,” one of my favorite essays and a great read on a Snow Day, is published in October, 1843, establishing Thoreau’s naturalistic writing style.

Take a close look and you will see where our copy shows a former owner’s inscription of the correct pronunciation of Thoreau’s last name “Thorough.” What you can learn from notations! The Dial ceased publication with its April 1844 issue, but in its short run it was responsible for publishing more of Thoreau’s writing than any other magazine of the period.

All the Thoreau-related exhibits at Simpson Library will be on display through September, so stop by and see our exhibits and especially come upstairs to Special Collections to view the journal that gave Thoreau his start.

September 17, 2017

Chained Books

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Chained books are suddenly in the news! Recently the popular Game of Thrones premiere showed the vast fictional Citadel Library’s chained books, and last month in response, the American Library Association newsletter highlighted a real chained books collection in England’s 17th century Hereford Cathedral. The Cathedral is home to the largest surviving collection of chained books with about 1500 examples – all with their chains, rods and locks intact!

Drawing of the chained library in Hereford Cathedral

Drawing of the chained library in Hereford Cathedral.
Source: Libraries in the Medieval and Renaissance Periods Figure 4.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository,

Simpson Library’s rare books collection does not have anywhere near the Cathedral’s volume of chained books, but we do have one example of a chained book, John Foxe’s 1610 edition of Acts and Monuments of Matters Most Special and Memorable Happening in the Church …, commonly called The Book of Martyrs. First published in 1563, the narrative tells the story of the victims who suffered for the Protestant cause. It’s always been my favorite book to show students, as it is a wonderful example of a book from another age when knowledge was only for the privileged and books were so rare and expensive that they had to be either locked away and used under supervision or secured with a chain to a desk close by.

Acts and Monuments of Matters Most Special and Memorable Happening in the Church

Acts and Monuments of Matters Most Special and Memorable Happening in the Church, London, 1610. Volume 2 of the set.
The text is incomplete, starting on page 842 but the volume has a complete set of woodcuts.

How were these books chained? As you can see in the photographs from our copy, a chain was attached at one end to the front cover of the book; the other end was slotted on an iron rod running along the bottom of a shelf. The “check-out” process allowed the book to be taken from the shelf and read at the desk, but not removed from the bookcase as it would remain attached.


The Library’s unique chained volume also has the royal arms stamped in gilt on its covers and an ornate bookplate of an 18th century Duke.
Royal Arms


So if your budget can’t stretch this year to include a trip overseas, stop by Special Collections and University Archives and take a step back to the Middle Ages without even leaving campus!

August 7, 2017

Poems, on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral

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When the Rare Book Room was first set up in Trinkle Library in 1964, one of the factors influencing its creation was the number of valuable and historic books in the open circulating stacks that needed to be moved to a safer location. Today in our Rare Books Collection, you can quickly spot those early “stacks” volumes as their covers display chalky-white Dewey Decimal call numbers. “Rare” is also distinctly marked on their front covers in the same white ink. Such practices make librarians shudder today but were commonplace fifty years ago when the focus was on making sure that each book would be duly returned to its rare collections designation.

Phyllis Wheatley. Poems, on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, 1816

Among the group of books moved for safe-keeping is notably Phillis Wheatley’s, 1816 edition of Poems, on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Wheatley, the first female African- American poet to be published, was born in West Africa and sold early in her life into slavery. She was sent to North America and sold to a Boston merchant and his wife, John and Susanna Wheatley. The Wheatleys permitted Phillis to learn and receive an education in Latin and the classics.

Title page

Copy of John Wheatley’s letter sent to the publisher.

Simpson Library’s copy of Wheatley’s poetry is actually the third New England printing of her book, preceded by the 1802 Walpole and 1804 Hartford editions. The book’s first printing was in London in 1773 and not reprinted in Philadelphia until 1785. Our 1816 copy lacks the famous frontispiece of Wheatley present in earlier volumes.

Portrait of Phyllis Wheatley by Scipio Moorhead in the highly collectible 1773 edition. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

It does, however, sport an early library card pocket inside its back cover, stating wisely: “To get what you want – Ask the Librarian.”  Sage advice!

Remember April is National Poetry Month so stop in Special Collections and see this wonderful volume of verse.

Source Consulted:

Shields, John C. and Eric D. LaMore, eds. New Essays on Phillis Wheatley. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2011.

April 14, 2017

Autumn Treasures

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The first day of fall, the Autumnal Equinox, arrived today welcoming in cooler temperatures and a new season. In celebration of the seasonal change, I’m highlighting an autumn issue of Harper’s Bazaar from our Rare Books and Journals collection.

Harper's Bazar: A Monthly Magazine for Women, October 1901

Harper’s Bazar: A Monthly Magazine for Women, October 1901

First published in 1867, this well-known American fashion magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, showcased fashion from Germany and Paris in a newspaper design format. In 1901, the year this fall cover was published, Harper’s changed to a monthly issue format. Today the magazine still considers itself to be the style resource for “the well-dressed woman and the well-dressed mind.”

The Library has issues of Harper’s Bazaar dating back to the very first 1867 issue, as well as the  most recent October issue. So grab your most fashionable fall garb and stop by Special Collections and University Archives to view this wonderful early journal collection.

September 23, 2015

Rare Books’ Explorer

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Manicules, volvelles, and quires – oh my! The rare book materials community definitely has its own terminology to describe and catalogue holdings. A fun and scholarly place to begin looking at what these terms mean and view images of how they relate to rare books is ArchBook, “an open-access, peer-reviewed collection of richly illustrated essays about design features in the history of the book.” The site, begun to make the diverse history of the book available to everyone, is now supported by the University of Saskatchewan Humanities and Fine Arts Digital Research Centre.

My favorite parts of the site are the entries and image database sections. The entries give readers the definition and historical overview of a book’s feature and spotlight how that feature transitions in a digital context. The image database is the visual link to the features discussed in these essays.

So if you are interested in knowing more about manicules, marks found in early text margins in the shape of a pointing fist or hand to denote notable passages, you can look here in ArchBook. Or you can stop by Special Collections and University Archives to view President Grellet Simpson’s 1602 copy of The Works of our Ancient and Learned English Poet by Geoffrey Chaucer. This volume has some wonderful examples of manicules, as seen below.

Frontispiece of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Works of our Ancient and Learned English Poet, 1602

Frontispiece of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Works of our Ancient and Learned English Poet, 1602

Page from Geoffrey Chaucer's The Works of our Ancient and Learned English Poet, 1602

Page from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Works of our Ancient and Learned English Poet, 1602


July 10, 2015

A Visit from Germany

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This week we had the pleasure of hosting two archivists from Schwetzingen, Germany.  Schwetzingen, located midway between Frankfurt and Stuttgart, is Fredericksburg’s newest Sister City.  Joachim Kresin is the archivist for the city of Schwetzingen, and Wolfgang Heinz manages the Central Archive of the Protestant Church of the Palatinate.  As part of a larger group of visitors to Fredericksburg, Joachim and Wolfgang toured some of our area’s natural and historical attractions in addition to the University of Mary Washington campus.

During their visit to Special Collections and University Archives, the archivists viewed some of our German-language holdings from the Rare Books Collection, including a German bible from 1696.

Suzanne Huffman displays pages from a German bible printed in 1696

Digital Resources Librarian Suzanne Huffman displays pages from a rare German bible printed in 1696

We also introduced the visitors to the Library’s Digital Archiving Lab so they could examine our new rare book scanner, which just happens to have been made in Germany.

Visiting archivists excited to see the Lab's rare book scanner

Visiting archivists view the Lab’s rare book scanner

It was wonderful to meet some fellow colleagues from one of our sister cities, and we wish them well as they continue their travels!

June 25, 2015

Happy Friday!

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For your amusement, check out this Yoda lookalike that was recently highlighted by Julian Harrison, curator of pre-1600 historical manuscripts at the British Library.

A hand-drawn figure that closely resembles the Jedi Master, ca. 1300-1340, 'The Smithfield Decretals'

A hand-drawn figure that closely resembles the Jedi Master, ca. 1300-1340, ‘The Smithfield Decretals’

For more information about this interesting fellow, check out this Guardian article where Harrison describes his work with illuminated manuscripts and their growing popularity on the Internet. And stop by the Special Collections and University Archives reading room to see the different monsters that are hiding out in UMW’s own rare books collection!

April 17, 2015

The Raven

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April is National Poetry Month, a time to read and celebrate your favorite poems and authors.   Here in Special Collections and University Archives, we house the first edition and first authorized printing of one of the most famous poems ever written, Edgar Allan Poe’sThe  Raven”.


The Raven in The American Review: A Whig Journal of Politics, Literature, Art and Science. Vol I, No II., pp. 143-45. New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1845

Sold by Poe for only $9.00 to The American Review, the poem was first published in the magazine in February, 1845 under the pseudonym “Quarles,” compliant with The American Review’s practice of publishing poetry unsigned or under a pen name. The poem immediately became popular with the public and was printed often over the century; although its fame did little to improve Poe’s longtime financial woes.

So if the lines:
“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore, …”
beckon you to read further, come see the poem in its original printing in our rare books and journals collections. Other rare poetry volumes can be searched in our catalog.

April 8, 2015

Quirky Treasures of the Rare Book Collection

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This post was written by Rebecca Arm, our Special Collections and University Archives student aide.  Thanks Becca!

One of the major projects that I’ve worked on as a student assistant in Special Collections and University Archives has been making spine labels for the Rare Book Collection. Fragile materials are housed in acid-free boxes. This helps prevent further deterioration, but makes it harder to find the book you need at a glance. To solve this problem, we label the boxes with the title and author in a bold, readable font.

After my fellow student aide Bekka combed through the Rare Book Room for all the books that needed labeling, I took measurements of the boxes and set to work composing and formatting labels. During the process of making labels for over 200 books, I encountered many of the wonderful and quirky treasures of UMW’s Rare Book Collection.

Here are some of my favorites:
The History of Pompey the Little by Francis Coventry. An 18th-century social satire written from the perspective of a lap-dog.
An Historical Disquisition on the Mammoth by Rembrandt Peale. A work recounting the excavation and exhibition of the first mastodon discovered in America.
• Kate Greenaway’s Alphabet (below), a tiny picture book, just 5 by 7 cm, but beautifully illustrated by one of the most famous children’s book illustrators of all time.
Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, a 1929 pamphlet of essays on James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Mostly I just like the title of this one, though it was hard to fit on a label!

Kate Greenaway's Alphabet

Kate Greenaway’s Alphabet, with a quarter for size comparison

All items in the Rare Book Collection can be accessed through the library’s online catalog.  Please come visit us to view some of these wonderful and quirky treasures up close!

March 20, 2015