Letters to Coca-Cola: Mary Tompkins Correspondence, 1918-1937

Lehigh’s University Libraries Special Collections contains a collection of diverse information.  One recent example is the Mary Tompkins Correspondence, which reflects a variety of research topics including: social commentary, business, genealogy, and transportation. This collection features letters written to Mary Frances Reid Tompkins (1908-2004) in the years between the World Wars by three generations of family members (1918-1937).  The letters from the Great Depression era are especially poignant in the family’s repeated requests to Mary Tompkins for financial aid. These letters also provide a rich source of information about how a formerly aristocratic Southern family coped with the devastation of their wealth and societal standing resulting from the Civil War.  Apparently, Mary Tompkins was one of the few people in her family with a secure and steady job, which was at the Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta, Georgia.  Coca-Cola was one of the very few American businesses that thrived during the Great Depression.  In an era when most companies cut back on advertising, Coca-Cola ramped theirs up.  In the early 1920s, Prohibition shut down bars that served beer and liquor.  In response, Coca-Cola came up with the slogan “The Pause That Refreshes” as a popular marketing campaign which associated drinking Coke as a part of the American way of life, promoting its consumption as a popular way for people to be sociable.  To further promote its product, Coca-Cola maintained the 5 cent price per bottle for 50 years, from 1909 to 1959, and developed the innovative six-pack cardboard carrier, which promoted buying multiple 5 cent bottles.  (http://www.coca-colacompany.com/history)

Mary Tompkins letter sent to Atlanta, Georgia.
Letter sent to Mary Tompkins in Atlanta, Georgia.

Many of the letters also had their envelopes included, which offered clues to Mary’s consistent address at Coco-Cola in Atlanta rather than a frequently changing residence.  Mary was very popular, having many friends and interests.  The letters requesting aid were sure to reach her at her business address.

 

A large portion of the letters requested financial aid, some letters from her grandmother, Mary Frances Reid Reese of Carrollton, Georgia, outlined the family’s former wealth and prominent Southern roots. This included the family’s relation to the Sallie Fannie Reid Guards Confederacy army unit, Governor of Georgia John M. Slaton (1866-1955), and Atlanta architect J. Neel Reid, who owned the well-known Antebellum house Mimosa Hall.

Among the envelopes is an unusual one: a commemorative issue from the Canal Zone noting the First Air Mail Express Flight.

Cristobal, Canal Zone to United States, May 1, 1930, Col. Charles A. Lindbergh, Pilot.
Cristobal, Canal Zone to United States, May 1, 1930, Col. Charles A. Lindbergh, Pilot.

The envelope is postmarked May 1, 1930 7 A.M. Cristobal, C.Z.  F.A.M. 5, and was sent from Peter W. Reese, an electrician for the Panama Railroad, who was a relative inviting Mary to visit him in Panama.  The F.A.M.-5 was a U.S. Post Office (Foreign Air Mail) designated contract airmail route flown by Pan American Airways that inaugurated the route from Miami, Florida to Central America. When combined with F.A.M.-6, this route would become known as the :Lindbergh Circle,” with flights circumnavigating the Caribbean. (see The Cornell Daily Sun, v. XLIX, n. 92, 7 Feb. 1929)

Letter sent to Wilmington, DE
Letter sent to Mary Tompkins in Wilmington, DE

In July 1934, Mary moved from Coca-Cola’s Atlanta headquarters to the bottling plant office in Wilmington, Delaware.  In the move, Mary met Lowry S. Danser (1912-2007) who worked for E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Co. as a chemical engineer.  Lowry S. Danser earned a degree in chemical engineering from Lehigh in 1933, where he was involved with the Delta Tau Delta Fraternity and the swim team.  Mary and Lowry would eventually marry in 1939. Lowry Danser went on to have a successful career with DuPont, holding a U.S. patent for copper removal from chloroprene.  He and Mary lived abroad during numerous assignments for the company, including three years in Japan where they began collecting oriental art.  Lowry and Mary, were generous benefactors of Lehigh, gifting artwork and pottery to the University’s Art Gallery.  They were members of the Asa Packer Society and the Tower Society.  In 2004, Mr. Danser established the Mary T. and Lowry S. Danser ’33 Gift Annuity.  On his death in 2007, the Danser estate gift to the University established the Mary T. and Lowry S. Danser Distinguished Faculty Chair in Chemistry. They are buried in the Carrollton (Georgia) City Cemetery, the city postmark featured on many of the envelopes.  In death Mary Frances Tompkins Danser returned to her Southern roots.

#BannedBooksWeek 2017: Jane Eyre

  Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë is an excellent classic to take a look at during Banned Books Week (September 24 – 30). Originally published in 1847, Jane Eyre was written at a time when women rarely played a large public role, with restrictions in place for universities, government, and most careers. The women’s suffrage movement which won women the right to vote wouldn’t take off until decades later. Brontë wrote the work under the gender-neutral pseudonym of Currer Bell to avoid additional criticism because of her sex. Initially published as Jane Eyre: An Autobiography, Brontë’s work presented itself as a true story advocating radical feminist ideals and advertising individual expression. These were highly controversial opinions for the mid-nineteenth century, which resulted in the novel being banned in various locations, and cited as dissentious, anti-Christian literature unfit for young ladies. 

  Jane Eyre provides a first-person narrative of the life of a fictional young woman, Jane Eyre, in northern England in the early 1800s. The book begins by describing Jane’s unhappy childhood and stressing her rebellious, outspoken nature. Orphaned from a young age, Jane is brought up by her spiteful aunt, and is sent off to boarding school at age ten. After eight years at school, Jane’s adventurous spirit remains unquenched, and she begins to seek work elsewhere as a governess. Several months later, Jane begins working as a governess for Adele Varens, a young French girl under the charge of the mysterious Mr. Rochester. Rochester and Jane spend time together, often discoursing on a variety of intellectual topics, and each develop feelings for the other. As the novel is written as a narrative, it focuses solely on Jane’s feelings and her brazen approach to love, which is considerably out of place for the time. Rochester and Jane soon plan to be married, but the wedding is called off when it is revealed that Rochester is already married. Jane, proud of her morals, cannot bear to be in unlawful matrimony and flees, endeavoring to make her own way in the world once more. After some time, and a  marriage proposal by another man, Jane begins to pine for Rochester once more. Upon her return, she finds Rochester’s wife dead and him half-crippled, and pledges herself to him with the two eventually marrying.

  For 1847, Jane Eyre presented a strikingly radical opinion on how young women could behave. Jane’s ability to make decisions independent of what everyone else was telling her and stick to her moral convictions cause her to stand out as an impressive fictional role model even today. While progressive for its time, Bronte’s work helped influence future feminist movements and the emergence of more women authors. I believe that Jane Eyre is still relevant and worth reading today – and certainly should never be banned. Jane Eyre showcases individual thought and active questioning, as well as maintaining one’s morals and coming to understand love. This first edition of this powerful book is now on display in Lindeman Library as part of the exhibition: Jane Austen and the Rise of Feminism.  Jane Eyre is also available at Lehigh in older editions held by Special Collections, and in newer editions on Linderman Library’s third floor.

References

  • http://standardissuemagazine.com/arts/jane-eyre-feminist-icon/
  • https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/03/how-jane-eyre-created-the-modern-self/460461/

 

#BannedBooksWeek 2017: The United States v. One Book Called Ulysses

Today, James Joyce’s Ulysses is considered a classic novel with a secure place in the Western literary canon. English professors and scholars around the world praise the novel’s stream-of-consciousness technique and incredible depth. However, the novel was not always readily available to the public, being banned soon after its publication. In fact, when Joyce decided to publish the novel, he could not find an English publisher that would work with him. A French publisher, Shakespeare and Company, finally agreed to publish the novel and it was available in 1922. Despite this successful publication, several English speaking countries of the world banned Ulysses because of its “obscenity.” A series of court battles ensued to determine the legality of selling Ulysses in the United States.

The question of Ulysses’ legality in the United States was heard in the court case United States v. One Book Called Ulysses. In 1933, Random House, a publishing company with rights to publish the entirety of Ulysses, decided to instigate a test case against the ban of the book.  Random House therefore made an arrangement to import the edition published in France and have a copy seized by the US Customs Service when the ship carrying the work arrived. After Customs confiscated the copies of the book, it took the US Attorney’s Office several months to decide whether to proceed further. The office of the US Attorney finally decided to take action against the book under the Tariff Act of 1930, which allowed a district attorney to bring an action for forfeiture and destruction of imported works which were obscene.

Ulysses was considered obscene because of Episode 13. In this part of the novel, Leopold Bloom and Gerty have a sexual interaction in which Gerty exposes her legs and underwear to Leopold Bloom while she lays on the ground, watching fireworks. Leopold Bloom presumably masturbates as a result of Gerty’s actions as he “puts his hands in his pockets”. The scene’s climax occurs when the fireworks end with a firework in the shape of a “Roman candle bursting in the air.” This moment conveys Bloom’s orgasm and ends his sexual interaction with Gerty.

 

Judge John M. Woolsey presided over the trial of the United States v. One Book Called Ulysses and he decided that Ulysses was not pornographic. To make this decision, Judge Woolsey spent weeks reading Ulysses, which he described as “not an easy book to read or to understand,” and “a heavy task” (United States v. One Book Called” Ulysses”). The judge ultimately found that the novel was serious and that its author was sincere and honest in showing how the minds of his characters operate and what they were thinking. Therefore, Ulysses was not legally considered obscene and a decade after it was published, it was legally allowed to be sold and obtained in the United States.

Since the uplift of the ban on Ulysses, James Joyce’s novel has been enjoyed and celebrated by millions of Americans. It has been labeled a “literary masterpiece” and entered the American literary canon. The book is so highly praised because of its stream-of-consciousness technique. James Joyce popularized this technique and it is a literary technique that attempts to portray the complexity of human ideas and thoughts through literature. The novel’s attempt at showing the complexity of human thought has made it difficult to read and scholars have argued over the meaning of the novel since it was published. However, an important lesson to take away from Ulysses is that novels must be protected and allowed to be sold and circulated. Novels have the distinct ability of conveying important lessons and messages. Without protecting their legality, their messages will simply fade into oblivion. It is important to preserve the legality of books like Ulysses to ensure that their messages live on. Lehigh Special Collections holds three different editions of Joyce’s Ulysses: the first edition published by Shakespeare and Company, the Limited Editions Club version with artwork by Henri Matisse, and a facsimile copy of the manuscript.

References

United States v. One Book Called” Ulysses”, 5 F. Supp. 182 (S.D.N.Y. 1933).

#bannedbooksweek 2017: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Banned Books Week, spanning September 24th to the 30th in 2017, is a time when libraries around the country celebrate the freedom to read and raise awareness of censorship. Since 1982 more than 11,300 books have been challenged, with this novel included in that number.

Cover of the Limited Editions Club The Great Gatsby
Cover of the Limited Editions Club publication of The Great Gatsby

     

Frontispiece and title page from the Limited Editions Club The Great Gatsby
Frontispiece and title page from the Limited Editions Club publication of The Great Gatsby

 

Published in 1925, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald depicted the society result from the end of the Great War in the 20s. Fitzgerald uses the main character, Jay Gatsby, to take the reader through the roller coaster that was life in the 20s, and still today, consisting of poverty, wealth, love, pain, and death. Nick Carraway, the narrator from the midwest and Daisy Buchanan’s cousin, makes his way to New York where he becomes the neighbor of the mysterious Gatsby. With Nick’s help, Gatsby is reunited with the love of his life, Daisy, after five years apart. Gatsby and Daisy maintain an affair until her self-righteous husband, Tom, finds out. Gatsby tries with everything he’s got to win Daisy over, but she refuses to say that she never loved Tom. Turns out Tom is also in an affair, but this discovery has an entirely different outcome. Daisy, blinded with rage, runs Tom’s mistress, Myrtle, over with her car. When Tom tells Myrtle’s husband, George, that Gatsby was the one who did the job, he shoots Gatsby in his pool before killing himself as well. Daisy moves on with her “perfect “ life, pretending as though Gatsby never even existed, and Nick journeys back to the midwest in search for genuine people.

Cover of The Great Gatsby Russian translation
Cover of The Great Gatsby Russian translation

 In 1987, the Baptist College in Charleston, SC challenged The Great Gatsby, arguing that Fitzgerald’s novel contains immoral “language and sex references” (Penn State). Although this was a heavy-handed opinion, there are many other interpretations of The Great Gatsby that provide reasons for why the novel should be made available and be taught in schools. Some even believe it is entirely necessary because of the way it can be used to teach valuable, historical lessons about the jazz age, mainly concerning prohibition. People were gluttonous, money was thrown around like candy, providing people with empty and temporary happiness in the form of superficial parties and booze. By Gatsby’s first-hand experience as a man who was only adored for his outrageous parties, his character along with the reader learne that money cannot buy you true friends that will be by your side to the end. None of Gatsby’s so-called friends even showed up to his funeral. The only people that attended were his father, the man with the owl eyes, and Nick. Despite the occasional inappropriate “language and sex references” (Penn State), this novel can be used to better understand the cultural context of the 1920s, rather than mundanely reading about it in a textbook. Such literary experiences can provide deeper meaning and understanding. A 1980 Limited Editions Club printing of this novel, featuring an introduction by Charles Scribner III and illustrations by Fred Meyer, can be found in Special Collections.  Several other editions can be found on the 3rd floor of Linderman Library, including the Russian translation pictured here.

 

Title page of The Great Gatsby Russian translation
Title page of The Great Gatsby Russian translation

References

  • https://sites.psu.edu/bannedbookscmlit130/2016/04/15/when-books-are-at-war-ft-the-great-gatsby/
  • http://www.buffalo.edu/news/releases/2015/09/047.html

Happy 139th Birthday Upton Sinclair

Today marks the 139th birthday of Upton Sinclair, who gained fame for his “muckraking” work The Jungle. Born in 1878, Sinclair wrote during the Progressive Era, successfully revealing the horrific conditions of various American industries. He went on to write many more notable books including Dragon’s Teeth, for which he won the 1943 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Upton Sinclair early in his career. Image from Library of Congress (LC-B2- 132-11 [P&P])
Sinclair grew up in New York City in extreme poverty with his mother and alcoholic father. He would sometimes visit his wealthy grandparents, which gave him an idea of what it was like to live in both poverty and wealth. This comparison of lifestyles, he claimed, was what created his socialist ideals. Sinclair only went further into poverty once he married and had a child. However, instead of factory work, he chose to pursue his passion for writing.

In 1906, Sinclair’s career was launched with the publishing of The Jungle. The book revealed the terrible conditions of the meat-packing industry and how the laborers were treated. It ultimately led to the passing of certain acts like the “Meat Inspection Act” that helped regulate the food industries.

Special Collections owns a first edition of The Jungle. Notice the note on the inside cover page stating “Sustainers’ Edition. An appeal was published in the Socialist press for advance orders to make possible the publication of this book. About five thousand copies were ordered, of which this is one.”

 

One of Sinclair’s following works, Oil!, depicts the destructive nature of the oil rig. Although it did not have the same effect as The Jungle, it still did bring some attention to the impacts of the oil industry. In fact, it inspired Paul Anderson’s movie There Will Be Blood which also exemplified the dangers of oil.

Linderman Library houses an early edition of Oil!.

Later in his life, Upton Sinclair wrote the book Little Steel to bring focus to the disorganization of the steel industry. It continues Sinclair’s theme of showing the rejection of the workers and the terrible conditions of the factories. 

Special Collections owns an early edition of Little Steel.

Because of his works, Sinclair was labeled a “muckraker,” a term used to describe people who sought to expose the truth about corruption in politics and business.  These authors and journalists were crucial in the implementation of government regulation and labor unions. Upton Sinclair is partly responsible for many of the basic safety regulations we have today.

 

References:

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Upton-Sinclair

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/24/books/review/Essay-t.html?mcubz=3

https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/upton-sinclair/little-steel/

 

Happy Anniversary to Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning!

Today, September 12, 2017, marks the 171st wedding anniversary of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning. Since their marriage in 1846, Elizabeth and Robert have became some of the most well-known poets and writers in history. Born on March 6th, 1806 in Durham, England, Elizabeth Barrett Browning began writing novels at the age of six. She went on to produce one of the largest bodies of juvenilia left by an English writer. Some of her works include Sonnets from the Portuguese, published in 1847, and An Essay on Mind: With Other Poems published in 1826, both of which can be found in Linderman Library’s Jane Austen Exhibit. It is interesting to note that one of Elizabeth Browning’s works held by Special Collections, a supposed 1847 printing of Sonnets, has since been confirmed as a forgery. You can read more about this forgery at the University of Chicago’s library website. The title page of this forged work and its books plates are pictured below:

On the other hand, Robert Browning, born May 7th, 1812 in Camberwell, London, claimed that he learned more over weekends than during his time at school. His father introduced him to Greek literature and drawing, while his mother taught him how to play the piano and appreciate classical music. After being sent home from school on many occasions for making his peers feel inferior due to his exceptional intelligence, Browning’s parents decided to home-school him, which is where his talents flourished. Many of his works are also present in Lehigh’s Special Collections, including an 1855 edition of  Men and Women and The Ring and The Book (1868-69).  

As for Elizabeth and Robert’s love story, they came to each other’s attention when Elizabeth publicly praised Robert’s poetry in an 1842 journal and a personal poem in 1844. Robert responded to these acknowledgments by posting a letter to her on January 10th, 1845, telling her that “I love your verse with all my heart… and I love you too.” The two continued to exchange letters every few days, and they finally decided to meet in person on May 20th, 1845 at 50 Wimpole Street. Although Elizabeth was very ill and six years his senior, Robert claims that it was love at first sight. The couple ended up eloping on September 12th, 1846 at St. Marylebone Church with only two guests: Robert’s cousin and Elizabeth’s maid. For their honeymoon, they decided to travel for several months to places such as Paris, Avignon, Marseilles, Leghorn and Pisa. After 171 years, the Brownings are still a significant part of literature and deserve to be celebrated in both their love and their work.

Marjorie Stone, ‘Browning , Elizabeth Barrett (1806–1861)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/3711, accessed 12 Sept 2017]

 

Governor of Massachusetts John Winthrop: May 17, 1631

In 1629, John Winthrop joined the Massachusetts Bay Company, after gaining a royal charter to start a colony in New England. Under the condition that the Company and charter be moved to America, Winthrop agreed to sell his estate in England and move to the new colony along with his family. The other members of the Massachusetts Bay Company agreed to these terms and then elected him the first Governor of the New England colony. He was a prominent Puritan and a well liked leader,  who was chosen to be Governor on twelve occasions during his time in New England.

In Winthrop’s A Journal of the Transactions and Occurrences in the Settlement of Massachusetts and the Other New-England Colonies,  From the Year 1630 to 1644, the May 17, 1631 entry states “A general Court at Boston, the former governor was chosen again and all the freemen of the commons were sworn to the government.” Wikipedia has May 18, 1631 listed as the date that John Winthrop took his oath of office, but we were unable to find any references to this date or event. The only other event listed on that date in Winthrop’s journal is a house burning down, with the next entry dated May 27.

John Winthrop was born on January 22, 1588 in Edwardstone, England. He died in office on April 5, 1649 at the age of 61. Winthrop attended Trinity College, Cambridge studying law, after which he served as a Justice of Peace and held a government office and was a country squire at Groton. He had four wives and sixteen children. Winthrop was a highly religious man who devoted himself to scripture and prayer, becoming a devout puritan. By 1640 he became the “custodian of Massachusetts’ orthodoxy”. In 1641 he helped write the Massachusetts Body of Liberties, the first legal sanctioning of slavery in North America.

His push for group discipline and individual responsibility was key to the colony’s success. When Winthrop was not in office as Governor he sat on the Colony Council or the Court of Assistants.

Information for this post was gathered from Lehigh Special Collections’ 1790 edition of Winthrop’s Journal of the Transactions and The Encyclopedia Britannica.

 

Death of John Herschel, May 11th, 1871

1867 Photograph of Sir John Herschel by Julia Margaret Cameron
From the Metropolitan Museum of Art

On this day, May 11th, in 1871, John Herschel died at age 79. Herschel was a knowledgeable Englishman, known for his studies in astronomy, mathematics, chemistry, and various other areas. Herschel was educated in scientific practices at a young age, growing up under the influence of his father, astronomer William Herschel, and his aunt, astronomer Caroline Herschel.

John Herschel studied a variety of subjects, but his most prevalent work was in the field of astronomy. His first major astronomical publication was a continuation of his father’s studies on determining the parallax of a star. This work, published in Transactions of the Royal Society, cataloged systems of double stars and was recognized by the Paris Academy and the Astronomical Society. Today, Herschel is commemorated by a crater on Earth’s moon, named the J. Herschel Crater. See the crater via the following image/link:

J. Herschel Crater, from Google Moon

 

Another significant contribution by John Herschel were his experiments and developments in photography. He was able to produce photographs based on his knowledge and studies of chemical processes, and his studies led to multiple related publications. The term “photography” was coined and popularized by Herschel and he developed the first photographic fixer to preserve photographs.

One of John Herschel’s important publications was his Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy, an edition of which can be found in Lehigh University’s Special Collections. Published in 1931, this book explores the philosophy of scientific research and discovery. Herschel describes abstract science as being “independent of nature,” with artificial systems of creation, deemed to be language, notation, and rational. These systems were designed by humans to analyze and understand our world, and Herschel explains each one with examples in education. Early in the book, Herschel defines science as, “the knowledge of many, orderly and methodically digested and arranged, so as to become attainable by one.”
Lehigh University Special Collections also holds a number of letters and other publications written by John Herschel, mostly related to his astronomical research.

 

Trial and Execution of Antoine Lavoisier, May 8, 1794

Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/436106

Today is the anniversary of French scientist Antoine Lavoisier’s trial and execution by guillotine on May 8, 1794. Lavoisier is famous for his contributions to chemistry. He made many invaluable accomplishments: the naming of oxygen; analysis of the role of this element in combustion and respiration (instead of “phlogiston”); discovery of the conservation of matter in chemical reactions; and quantitative treatment of organic substances. He even worked on solar energy.

Special Collections at Lehigh University has a first edition of his of “Elementary Treatise on Chemistry” ¹, published in 1789, the year used when the French Revolution when described as the “Revolution of 1789”.   In his study of Lavoisier, Jean-Pierre Poirier², describes the book as “the crowning achievement of his undertaking” (192). Included in this wide-ranging work are “essential points of the new chemistry”; “the first modern list of the chemical elements”; and ”instruments and experimental methods of new chemistry”.  The work contains thirteen plates engraved by Madame Lavoisier. Some of these plates are depicted here.(193-195)

As Poirier notes, Lavoisier was only one of several scientists executed in the French Revolution (385-86).  Eventually, the political revolution ate its own; two of its major figures, Danton and Robespierre, were buried in the same area of mass graves as Lavoisier (382). On one account, “During the Reign of Terror, at least 300,000 suspects were arrested; 17,000 were officially executed, and perhaps 10,000 died in prison or without trial.”3

Lavoisier’s greatest contribution was to a different sort of revolution, one of the mind. Poirier quotes I. Bernard Cohen: “the chemical revolution has a primary place among revolutions in science in that it is the first generally recognized major one to have been called a revolution by its chief author” (197).

The Linderman Library exhibit “Daring Knowledge: Diderot’s Encyclopédie“, features more illustrations and information about 18th century chemistry. While the science of the Encyclopédie predates Lavoisier’s mature findings, it provides a snapshot of how chemistry and scientific study were understood in his era.

References

1: https://asa.lib.lehigh.edu/Record/258721

2: https://asa.lib.lehigh.edu/Record/493513

3: https://www.britannica.com/event/Reign-of-Terror

John James Audubon

Today, April 26th, is the birthday of ornithologist, artist and naturalist John James Audubon. Born an illegitimate child to his French plantation owning Father and Creole mother on the island of what is now considered Haiti, John James Audubon was an unlikely candidate to become one of the most prominent naturalists of his era.

“A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children.” Self-portrait. From “Audubon’s America” by Donald Culross Peattie.

For the first half of his life there was arguably nothing to keep him grounded, quite literally. Upon the untimely death of his servant mother in Saint-Dominigue, he was shipped back to France and adopted by the wife of his father. Quickly, he developed a fascination with the natural world that followed him for the rest of his life. It was in France that he was versed in the knowledge and privileges of a good merchant’s son: art, music, science, history. He was also given ample time to explore the untamed green around him, a separate world that became his source of solitude, healing, wonder, awe and inspiration.

He once said, “In my deepest troubles, I frequently would wrench myself from the persons around me and retire to some secluded part of our noble forests.”

Plate 347: The Smew. Courtesy of audubon.org

During the surge of the Napoleonic Wars in 1803, Audubon, then 18 years old, was relocated again to one of his father’s estates in Mill Grove, Pennsylvania. In time he honed his artistic talents and continued to observe nature, particularly birds. In 1824 he published one of the most influential bird books in history titled “Birds of America.” Subscribers to Audubon’s publications included the likes of King George IV and 7th U.S. President, Andrew Jackson.

 

Turning the pages of Lehigh’s “Birds of America.”

The book itself is a 39.5″ x 29.5″ cover to cover collection of life-size and incredibly detailed paintings of various bird species. The birds are depicted in their natural environment as Audubon might have observed them. Lehigh University is in possession of one of only 120 believed complete collections still in existence. It is on display year-round in the reading room of Linderman Library. View a complete digital exhibit about ornithology and Audubon through Lehigh Special Collections’ Omeka page: Home to Roost: Ornithological Collections at Lehigh University.

The book on display in Linderman Library.

Aptly, today is also National Audubon Day, a day sponsored by the National Audubon Society to commemorate his contributions to the field of ornithology. Use #NationalAudubonDay or #AudubonDay to tag your best bird photos on social media.