OBSCURA DAY TOUR OF SOME OF THE MORE OBSCURE OBJECTS IN THE WOLFSONIAN LIBRARY
This past Saturday, in celebration of Obscura Day: An International Celebration of Unusual Places organized by Atlas Obscura, I led a “behind the scenes” tour of The Wolfsonian museum and revealed some of the stranger artifacts housed in our rare book and special collections library. After walking through parts of the museum not usually open to visitors to see some of the artwork installed on the administrative office floors, the group came up to the library to look over a display of rare books and odd ephemeral items.
Given that we were celebrating Obscura Day, we began our review with a rare volume of the aptly named Camera Obscura published in Haarlem in 1901. This book, which came to us as one of a couple of thousand books from a private library collection assembled in The Netherlands, had not been acquired for its intellectual content, but rather for its beautiful binding. Designed by C. A. (Carel Adolph) Lion Cachet (1864-1945), the white vellum binding was printed with a Nieuwe Kunst (or Art Nouveau) image employing a Batik technique and reflecting the cultural influences of the Dutch East Indies (The Netherlands’ colonies in Java and Indonesia) on the mother country.
In addition to some 50,000 rare books, our library holds more than 50,000 ephemeral artifacts (or small format print materials) in a variety of formats, including hidden image works, postcards, mechanical works, games, novelties, keepsakes, models, and stereographs. One such hidden wonder in the library collection includes Philips’ Planisphere, a mechanical work designed to reveal all the constellations visible in the sky on any given night of the year—something that today can only be appreciated here in South Florida in the heart of the Everglades as so many of the stars have become obscured by artificial city light.
To illustrate the point that one could find strange things even in the most common of objects, I held aloft what appeared to be an ordinary sheet of blank paper. As I moved it in front of a light, the group could see the outlines of an equestrian portrait of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) in the watermark!
Some of the more amusing moments of the tour came from our review of Victorian era postcards originally donated to the museum by Silvia Ripstein. Many of these humorous postcards have moving parts, wheels, or levers designed to reveal the fantasies (as well as the hidden trials and tribulations) of courting rituals and marriage at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries.
Another mechanical postcard in the collection employed a simple wheel device to get across its political message. Turning the pin wheel on the verso of the postcard implicitly criticized the long-serving sovereign Victor Emmanuel III of Italy who, the card alleges, swapped hats, crowns, and helmets as often as the political winds dictated.
Although the media has changed from paper to internet, similar kinds of tactics have continue to work well in the negative campaigns ads used to attack rival presidential candidates for “flip flopping.”
Finally, I thought it appropriate to end today’s blog post with a quirky object from the Century of Progress International Exhibition in Chicago, 1933-1934, that epitomizes my own definitive of “progress” and also relates to one of the Victorian postcards we have seen earlier. Let me know if you can make the connection!