Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Hymns, Primers, and Cures, Oh My! Exciting Developments in the Skinner Museum Print Collection

Rare and vintage books from the Skinner Museum’s collection are currently being inventoried and put into the larger catalogue system-- soon they will be available and easy to find for researchers on campus!

The Joseph Allen Skinner Museum, located just down the street from Mount Holyoke College, is a treasure trove of curious collections from around the world. Scrimshaw carvings, rare gems and stones, painted porcelain, weaponry and armor, historic American farming implements and furniture, Native American material culture, and souvenirs from places as far away as China and Egypt are housed in the former church on Route 116. There are almost 7,000 objects in the collection overall.

Some of the most fascinating objects that Mr. Skinner collected, however, are just now being catalogued. The immense book collection that was bestowed to the museum is now being preserved and inventoried by members of the Skinner Museum, and Digital Assets and Preservation Services branch of LITS, and the Archives and Special Collections. The Skinner Museum is administered by the MHC Art Museum.


Many of the books are religious in nature, including Christian parables, hymns, and daily prayers. However, there is a wide variety of other subjects, including medical handbooks, fiction, scientific publications, and educational primers or schoolbooks. A small sample of these includes The New England Primer, The Homeopathic Domestic Physician, and Village Hymns for Social Worship.


The New England Primer is a charming little book, measuring only 12x8.5 cm in size. However ancient this book seems to us now (this edition was printed in 1904), it is actually a “facsimile reproduction” of the original, printed sometime between 1785 and 1790. It is also written in the beginning of the book that the original copy would have been covered with strips of wood, ⅛ inch thick, veiled in cloth; the edition in our collection has a common pasteboard cover. This popular book went through many editions-- indeed, the foreword claims that the NEP “was one of the greatest books ever published” and that it “contributed, perhaps more than any other book except the Bible, to the moulding of those sturdy generations that gave to America its liberty and its institutions.” Inside the primer is all manner of information that would have been deemed essential for a child of the era to know: the alphabet, common words and syllables, catechisms, and didactic poetry.


Next to a page of practice letters for copying is the verse, "Good Boys at their Books": "He who ne'er learns his A,B,C, Forever will a Blockhead be; But he who to his Book's inclin'd, Will soon a golden Treasure find." Notice the long or descending s: what to us looks like "foon" in the last line is a holdover from Roman cursive and was commonplace in writing and printing in the early modern era.

These charming woodcuts illustrate the alphabet for beginning readers.


The Homeopathic Domestic Physician is a diagnostic manual for all manner of ailments and afflictions. Compiled by Charles J. Hempel, M.D. of New York in 1846, it lists cures for a wide variety of illnesses.
Homeopathy is a branch of medicine that prescribes small amounts of substances that may otherwise create the symptoms of illness in otherwise healthy individuals.
Also known today as green coffee or coffea cruda, a diluted form of coffea may also have been prescribed for sleeplessness.

Village Hymns for Social Worship is a hefty little book full of hymns and Christian scripture that was intended for use in communal prayer.
Title page.

Sample of a verse describing a sinner's encounter with death.
These three books are just a few examples among many. The Archives encourages researchers as well as those interested in rare and vintage books or American culture to seek out this incredible collection when it becomes available. In the meantime, the Archives and Special Collections has many more texts available in the reading room and Rare Books Room, including our Dante collection, Mount Holyoke Seminary textbooks, children's literature, and illustrated manuscripts. Make an appointment or drop by during our open hours, we would love to see you around!

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