Library’s special collections offer more than a human skin-bound book

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by Katherine Ok, courtesy of The Brown Daily Herald

Home to a manifold of rare books, unique statues and special artifacts, the John Hay Library (RI) is the second oldest library on the University’s campus and a popular studying site for students. From cast models of Lincoln’s fists to rows upon rows of tiny British soldier figures, the Hay houses an abundance of remarkable objects.

The Hay came to be the establishment for these collections through Andrew Carnegie, famous American industrialist and business magnate, who donated half of the funds required under the condition that the University would name the building after John Hay, Secretary of State to Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt.

Lincoln Collection

When entering the Hay’s Lincoln Collection rooms, students are greeted with numerous Lincoln portraits peering over 30,000 objects of various mediums.

Originally owned by Charles Woodbury McLellan, the collection was donated to the University by John D. Rockefeller Jr. 1897 in 1923. With original letters, photographs and needlepoint embroidery, the giant collection is a testament to the former U.S. president’s legacy as an almost mythical figure celebrated by the masses for preserving the union.

In the early 20th century, establishing collections of Lincoln memorabilia and artifacts became popular for large universities and institutions. Holly Snyder, curator of the Lincoln and the Hay Collection, elaborated on how the University came to possess the expansive collection.

“The University wanted one of sufficient size and scope, so they went shopping for one, and it took them until 1923,” Snyder said. “At that point, there were about five really great Lincoln collections … but the fifth one came up for sale, … and the University got John D. Rockefeller Jr. to buy it and give it to the University as a gift.”

The guestbook in the center of the room is one of the Lincoln Collection’s prized possessions; visitors from 1929 to today have signed their names in its pages. The book tends to be open to the 1961 section, where civil rights leader and activist Martin Luther King Jr. signed his name as a guest. Another popular researcher who frequented the Hay’s Lincoln Collection rooms was American poet Carl Sandburg. Sandburg, who wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning Lincoln biography, also signed the guestbook in 1931.

The Hay’s Lincoln Collection is also known for its permanent display of two of Lincoln’s life masks, as well as cast models of his fists. One of the common myths about the Hay’s Lincoln Collection is that it contains a death mask, which is obtained through a plaster impression of the individual’s face at the time of their death. “There was such a huge outpouring of grief that it would have been completely improper to do that,” Snyder said. Snyder then detailed the backgrounds of both life masks that the collection houses.

“About the time Lincoln became (a) candidate, … (sculptor) Leonard Volk said to himself, ‘I would like to make a statue of this man,’ … and he prevailed on Lincoln to let him put plaster on his face,” Snyder said. She then went on to describe the arduous process behind the production of the life masks. “This is not comfortable, to do the life mask,” she said. “You had to have straws stuck up your nose so you can breathe during the twenty minutes it takes for the plaster to set.”

One of the most striking features behind Volk’s Lincoln life mask at the Hay is that Lincoln’s eyes are absent; instead, there are two shallow holes. “Lincoln did not like the way that the eyes came out, so Volk says that (Lincoln) put his thumbs in and gouged out the eyes,” Snyder said. Both masks were used as references for a multitude of other sculptures and paintings of Lincoln.

Napoleon Collection

Located on the top floor of the Hay, the Napoleon Collection room houses a multitude of manuscripts, art objects, rare books, miniatures and portraits of French military figure and former emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Donated by the widow of William Henry Hoffman 1884 in 1924, the origins of Hoffman’s deep fascination with collecting Napoleon-alia are difficult to trace.

“This is how we get a lot of special collections at Brown,” Snyder said. “Alumni go off and do quirky and interesting things and give us the results.”

The majority of the Napoleon Collection relates to the iconography of the famed figure. However, one of the artifacts in the collection actually belonged to Napoleon — a chocolate set made of porcelain and designed to serve liquid chocolate. The inscribed ‘N’s on the set indicate Napoleon’s ownership.

“I personally like the chocolate set,”Snyder said . “Drinking chocolate, it’s not the kind of thing you imagine Napoleon as doing. It seems a little too aristocratic, but maybe he had an aristocratic bent.”

The Napoleon Collection also contains two of Napoleon’s death masks. Located near a number of portraits, viewers can compare Napoleon’s actual facial impression with artistic interpretations.

“You can see his teeth are a little bit crossed,” Snyder said. “Which doesn’t appear in most images, and Napoleon (usually) doesn’t have an open-mouth smile, so maybe he was a little self-conscious about the way his teeth looked.”

The creation of Napoleon’s death masks is shrouded in mystery. Despite his aversion to having a death mask completed, artists and sculptors raced to impress his face in plaster after his death, which was met with significantly less public grief than Lincoln’s. The historical record remains murky, however, as it is unclear who arrived first to take the first death mask. Another striking feature of Napoleon’s death masks are the seeming gauntness of the figure’s face compared to usual youthful portrayals in portraits. The University’s masks are possibly copies, but the realistic impression of the leader’s face is still astonishing.

“I always found (the death mask) remarkable because it humanizes Napoleon,” Snyder said. “He has certain facial characteristics that don’t come through in painted portraits, (especially) since we don’t have any photographs.”

Other objects in the Napoleon Collection include miniature figures and giant needlepoint scenes of his family on fabric. Within the walls of the Napoleon Collection room, adorned with a French fabric depicting embroidered bees — a symbol of empires — visitors are able to view coins, medals, porcelains and much more relating to the famed figure.

Other Special Objects

The Hay is also home to a number of other rare artifacts and unique objects in the library’s Special Collections. Managed by the Special Collections staff, about 300 different collections are bought and preserved for exhibits and student use, according to the Hay’s website. Open to everyone, the Hay encourages students and other University community members to access their special objects in the Reading Room.

Heather Cole, a curator for the library’s literary, theatrical and musical collections, manages and directs the Hay’s acquisition and preservation of special objects. She elaborated on the myriad of artifacts that the Hay houses, especially the human skin-bound books, which are famed among students.

“There are books in our collections that are bound in human skin; that’s a practice called anthropodermic-bibliopegy,” Cole said. For example, “there was a practice where criminals would give their confessions before their executions, and their confessions were bound in their own skin.”

But the politics surrounding the human skin-bound books can be thorny. “There are issues of consent,” Cole said. “Whose skin is it that gets used? … If it’s a female patient in the nineteenth century without a lot of agency or autonomy, then it becomes a little problematic.”

One particular human skin-bound book is very fragile and is not available for public viewing. “(The book) has become sort of this larger-than-life, grotesque thing for students,” Cole said. “But I think that it is important to remember that it is a person, and you (need to) think of all the circumstances that brought that book into being.”

Besides the human skin-bound book, the Hay Library houses numerous other equally, if not even more riveting, artifacts. The collections include rare, first-edition books and one of the largest comic book collections in the country, which includes a first-edition printing of “Captain Marvel” and “Black Panther.”

In addition, the Hay owns a comprehensive collection of American poetry and plays that was established in the nineteenth century. These literary texts, such as plays from early Chinese theater in San Francisco, include works by marginalized artists of color.

“We have materials by more unknown people too,” Cole added, emphasizing the enormous historical weight of the Hay’s lesser-known objects. “We have a really strong LGBTQ collection that I curate,” she said. “That’s something not a lot of people know about yet. There are papers from trans activists like Kate Bornstein or writers like Caitlin Kiernan. … We have a really large gay pulp collection.”

The Hay acquires its materials either through purchase or gifts. Specific endowments by donors can inform the Hay’s Special Collections staff’s acquisition of certain materials lacking in their collections or that students are particularly interested in. “For example, I decide whose voices are not represented in the collection, so I’ll try to find those to add,” Cole said. Through this process, the Hay tries to create a comprehensive collection of items that represent those who have been also historically marginalized or forgotten, which is one of the library’s objectives.

Students can access information about the Hay’s Special Collections through an online guide. Titled “Fields of Hay,” this student-created website allows other students to learn how to access certain information or materials or discover items that may be of interest to them based on their concentration.