Stephen Austin and the colonization of Texas

One of the things that you learn working in the field of archives and special collections is how powerful artifacts and historical resources are in illuminating the past in new and dynamic ways. Beginning a journey with a primary source helps position us to understand the context of past culture and societies in ways we might not have otherwise done. Written by the so called “Father of Texas,” Stephen Austin, and printed in November of 1829, the Translation of the laws, orders and contracts on colonization : from January, 1821, up to this time, in virtue of which Col. Stephen F. Austin has introduced and settled foreign emigrants in Texas, with an explanatory introduction., is an 85 page monograph (which is a fancy term for a specialized piece of writing on a single subject), that provides insight into the development of Texas, both in terms of its economic growth as well as its social structures.

Figure 1. From the first Congress of the newly independent Mexico, 1821.

Austin’s ‘Translation of the laws, orders and contracts on colonization’’ is one of many sources for Mexican history at the Sutro Library, that help tell the story of Mexico’s development under Spanish rule, the Empire that followed, and finally the Republic that was born.  The Mexican collection contains manuscripts, maps, over 30,000 pamphlets and broadsides, some of which don’t exist elsewhere, and monographs. The Sutro also has an extensive collection of British and American pamphlets, Civil War source material, and parliamentary debates on slavery.

Figure 2. Broadside 1821 with summary of Indulgences with official seals.

Colonization of Texas 1821-1829

Stephen Austin wrote the ‘Translation of the laws, orders and contracts on colonization’ to provide information to potential settlers on the legality of Austin’s colonization project. Prior to 1821, Texas, then on the northeastern borderland of New Spain, was an unstable and sparsely populated frontier.  There was little, if any, support from Mexico City, and the perils faced by Tejanos (cultural descendants of Spain) who lived in the area in what was called Tejas now Texas were many: lack of infrastructure, starvation, floods, droughts, and settlers intruding onto lands owned by Native Americans. Most Tejanos lived in abject property. To underscore how dire their situation was, in San Antonio in 1810 most settlers didn’t even have shoes.

Tejanos sought to improve the economy and were thus eager to support colonization from the United States. In 1821 Moses Austin (Stephen Austin’s father) was officially granted a contract by the government in Mexico City to settle in Texas.  He, along with his son Stephen Austin were to recruit 300 families to relocate to Texas and be given land to cultivate. However, Moses Austin passed away that same year and so the contract was given solely to Stephen Austin. Translation of the laws, orders and contracts on colonization is part of this history.

Figure 3. “Austin’s Settlement,” Daily National Journal, August 10, 1829.

Historians sometimes talk about immigration in terms of push and pull. What events ‘push’ people to leave their homes to go to a different country, and what is the ‘pull’ of the country to which they are emigrating to. And what motivated Anglo Americans to leave and become Mexican citizens in the early 1820s was a recession followed by a market that prevented most from buying land. The pull was the fertile grounds near and close to the cotton trade center of New Orleans, as well as a global explosion in the demand for cotton. Stephen Austin used newspapers and advertising to entice Americans and had others attest to the opportunities to be had.  He wanted to show he had legal sanction to settle colonists, United States citizens, with huge tracts of land for plantations that were near several rivers, and adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico’s Atlantic trade centers.

Figure 4. From collection of Civil War envelopes at Sutro Library.

Cotton Markets

“The primary product that will elevate us from poverty is Cotton and we cannot do this without the help of slaves” – Stephen Austin, 1824

Along with sugar and tobacco, cotton was one of the first luxury commodities.  Austin knew the land in Texas would be fruitful for growing cotton, and along with its close proximity to trading ports along the Gulf Coast, made it highly enticing.  The phrase “Cotton is King” was one that communicated cotton’s growth as a global industry, becoming the first mass consumer product.   The importance of cotton in the early part of the Industrial Revolution was twofold:  its comfort and its affordability. These factors created high demand for the textiles that were being produced from Great Britain.  “English mill owners, as a result, began buying as much of the fiber as they could (British imports soared from 56 million in 1800 to more than 660 million by 1850) as the plant became one of the most valuable commodities in the entire Atlantic world.” 

However, as leading scholar Andrew Torget noted,

“at precisely the same moment the cotton revolution made slave labor more profitable than ever, the rising power of global antislavery forces put that labor system under sustained  political attack for the first time in human history.  That remarkable confluence, in turn, produced a series of escalating battles between pro- and antislavery forces that polarized politics within the United States and drove an ever-widening divide between the northern and southern halves of the country.” 

Figure 5. Circa 1824
Figure 6. Broadside Sutro Mexican collection. Santa Anna was a key figure in Mexico’s revolutions and political upheavals.

Mexico Empire to Republic

Political instability marked 1820s Mexico. After Mexican Independence from Spain was achieved in 1821, Mexico became an empire ruled by Don Agustin de Iturbide. This constitutional monarchy was dissolved in 1823, and the First Mexican Republic was established, lasting until 1835. The first republic was set up as autonomous states governed by a constitution.  Mexico was transformed again under General Santa Ana, and became the Centralist Republic of Mexico.  During this pivotal moment in Mexico’s history, the project of colonization was being undertaken by Stephen Austin, and he had to lobby leaders in Mexico City to allow him to continue his settlement of Americans in Texas, and to also be able to have these settlers bring their slaves. Tejanos fought to allow slavery into their constitution in order to improve the economy and establish trade with the United States, but to no avail.

Figure 7. From collection of Civil War envelopes at Sutro Library.
John Bull is the British version of what Uncle Sam means in the United States. They represent the personification of the government and the country.  The Civil War crippled the English textile industry and these images reflect the fear of Northerners that Britain might support the Confederacy.
Figure 8. From collection of Civil War envelopes at Sutro Library.

Debates over Slavery, 1824-1830 

In 1827 Article 13 of Mexico’s Constitution dealt the final blow to Austin, his Anglo colonists, sympathetic legislators, and Tejanas, who wanted a system of slavery in the settling of northeastern Texas. It stated that black children born on Texas plantations would be free citizens at birth, making Stephen Austin’s goal to settle more families and increase his own wealth almost impossible.

Figure 9. Article 30. from the Colonization Law of 1823 printed in Stephen’s Austin’s ‘Translation of the laws, orders, and contracts on colonization.”

This monograph provides insight into Mexico’s turbulent 1820s as itstruggled to define what it was that made them a free republic. Debates on centered in Mexico’s political arena were solidly anti-slavery and the Enlightenment’s ideals of liberty and freedom were counter to allowing slavery to exist in Mexico. Stephen Austin introduced slavery into Mexico at a unique moment in the history of cotton and labor.  His ‘Translation’  gives us a unique opportunity to discuss the intersection of culture, cotton, international trade, slavery, and American westward expansion.

Figure 10. From Sutro pamphlet collection.
Figure 11. From Sutro pamphlet collection.

The Wonderful World of Indentures!

[The following entry is from guest blogger and SF State University undergraduate, Jack Prunty, who volunteered for the Sutro Library before he graduated in May. He supplied all of the text and images that follow.]

Most of you are probably wondering what an “indenture” is. It sounds whimsical enough, and it is, to some level of degree! For those who do not know, an indenture is a legal form or agreement between parties, with some agreements involving up to two or three separate parties alone. While researching the Sutro Library’s collection of indentures, I was on the lookout for any document that might be related to “servitude,” specifically, anything relating to the early forms of labor in the United States. In the last three months, I reviewed thirty documents in this previously uncatalogued collection and described each indenture—many having not seen the light of day in quite some time.

When opening the map carrier that held the documents, I released a wave of historical background that has gone untouched for quite a long time.

Map carrier case used to transport historic indentures to the reading room.

Many of these documents are hand-written on “vellum” (which is animal skin and was a common way to hold deeds of business between parties). Many of these legal documents contained extremely valuable information about how transactions worked. For example, to whom would “witness” said transactions between parties.

Example of witness signatures from one of the Sutro Library’s many indentures.

Many of these documents would also contain “stamps” such as an “embossed” and or a “wax” stamp or seal, and these would be the “official” ways to record the indentures credibility.

An example of a wax seal found on one of the Sutro Library’s indentures.

Also, to note, many were signed by those who were recording said documents, such as stewards or legal court representatives. Unfortunately, I did not find any indentured servant records, as many of the said transactions were about land deeds, and many occurred in Great Britain and at various times (mostly 1700’s and 1800’s).

There were exactly two documents that I found extremely noteworthy of interest that I believe people should hear about, because personally, both are not only fascinating, but also worth attention to analyze and looking at for their information.

The first, is from Washington D.C. and is dated in the mid-1800’s. This caught my attention immediately because of the D.C. mailing stamp with first President George Washington on the cover and seeing the name “George H. Williams”[1] on the cover, was indeed quite fascinating:

Close up of George Williams’ indenture.

Going even a step further, it is important to note that Williams was paying off a specific branch of a bank known as the “Freedmen’s Savings Bank”[2]  (which at the time was a part of the Reconstruction Era, helping freed slaves have a banking system). And this raised more questions than answers for me: Why was Williams (a white politician from Oregon) paying off a loan he himself received from the Freedmen’s Savings Bank? Much of the research is easy to find about Williams  and will detail his political support for Reconstruction and the rights of now freed slaves, but the question is still raised: why would a privileged white man in Reconstruction society have taken a loan from a bank that only works for the benefit of those that actually need the funds? I myself still question, why was he paying off the Freedmen’s Bank?

The second indenture that I wish students would come to see doesn’t look like an indenture at all, rather a piece of art sent from Heaven itself:

A large handwritten and illuminated indenture made of vellum.

The historical background behind it is little known (due to all the text being in Latin) and the names described–at least to me–were difficult to distinguish between vast importance or on the lower chart of society. A hand-drawn illustration of Jesus Christ on the Cross with his followers looking up, and behind Jesus, was almost a man surrounded by clouds with a white beard (this is not Santa Claus but rather an interpretation of what God is supposed to look like):

A close up of the indenture’s cartouche featuring Jesus Christ on the cross surrounded by his followers.

On the sides of the indenture were drawings and sketches of objects (one being an actual grape and vines):

 It’s not even so forth put on a piece of “vellum” or “paper” but rather looks like a brown canvas that an artist would use, not something of legality for an indenture, and has more artistry than just a legal formality.

I myself gathered that it was vellum, due to the distinguishable signs between the two examples. From the evidence that I gathered, it was both “legality” with “religion”, which shockingly, most indentures are of that time period. But this, feels different, you feel holiness behind it. You forget that it had at one point been a legal document. This evidence suggests to me that it was from Spain or from other Latin-speaking country that could fluently write about the indenture itself. I myself couldn’t even find or trace the date on this legal document, but overall a great piece to ask questions such as how was religion and law blended so effortlessly in the past? What does that tell us about indentures generally going forward and what similar themes are present throughout all the indentures at the Sutro Library?

I found this work extremely fascinating for several reasons. One, I learned about how legalities were performed in Europe in the 1700’s and the United States in the 1800’s, and these indentures are exemplary of this kind of knowledge. I also learned about the different ways that legalities were carried out, such as how documents were filled out, to what kinds of printing materials—either vellum or paper–they would use. Furthermore, I found it truly unique how stamps were used as proofs of legality— just as much as “witnesses” were–to really prove that these documents were in fact, real and not forged. Personally, I was pretty happy with the knowledge I have learned, and hope many get to come visit the indentures at Sutro Library as soon as possible!


[1]   For more information on George H. Williams, reference Wikipedia article, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Henry_Williams.

[2]   For more detailed information on the Freedmen’s Savings Bank, reference Wikipedia article, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedman%27s_Savings_Bank.

Tiny but Mighty

Back in late April of this year, the library staff at Newmarket Library, in Suffolk, England, returned to work after the building had been deep cleaned only to discover that the cleaning crew had reshelved the library’s books based on size. While James Powell of Suffolk Library, told the BBC that staff “saw the funny side” of the situation, it would still take a “bit of time” to correct. The story was shared on social media over 5,000 times and created a much-needed chuckle among most librarians, including staff here at the State Library.

Having worked in special collections for almost two decades, I had a different take on the story. In my mind, the cleaner’s actions were completely logical and in line with standard industry practice for materials found in our part of the library profession.  Unfortunately, the cleaners were working in a public library setting where such reorganization was not needed.

And the news story brought up a fundamental question: how does one arrange a library? One would think that the most-used books should be all placed together, like the modern-day reference collection. Other people would argue that the prettiest or most valuable books should all be in one place. Many would support storing similar formats together, so that all the DVDs are in one place for example.  While others advocate simply putting every item in Dewey Decimal System or Library of Congress call number order, like what you encounter in your public or university library. 

While all these approaches are correct and make sense, for a rare books/special collections library, shelving decisions are often driven by a range of factors, including fragility, rarity, size, format, ease of paging and protection of the item itself.  According to the Northeast Document Conservation Center, incorrectly storing rare materials can be just as damaging to the item as poor care and handling:

“Storage and handling methods have a direct impact on the useful life of collections and the accessibility of information. Damage to collections can be avoided by preventing overcrowded, careless, or haphazard storage conditions.”[i]

When I arrived at Sutro Library in early 2016, I noticed that the library’s established shelving practice for its rare books, archives, and ephemera was more in line with how public libraries shelve their circulating books rather than how special collections and archives store rare and unique items.

Almost all the rare items, with notable exceptions, were shelved without regard to any other criteria except call number order. This approach increased the likelihood of damage to many items of unusual formats (e.g. miniature and limp vellum bound books, ephemeral items, and manuscript materials):

“…books arranged strictly by LC call number would result in miniature books (under 2.5”) being placed between average-sized books, thus allowing a miniature to incur damage and possibly be pushed to the back of the shelf unseen. Pamphlets might sit between miniature books and face a similar situation.”[ii]

Shelving like-sized books and materials together is a common practice in special collections. For example, many libraries have a folio section where large books are stored together or map drawers where large, flat, single maps, blueprints, drawings and other oversize items are stored safely. The Northeast Document Conservation Center states, “As much as can be managed, shelve books by size since small volumes cannot adequately support larger ones.”[i] Following this practice prevents unnecessary damage and loss and is helpful to paging staff as well.

Since we already had an elephant folio and folio sections, we turned our attention to Sutro’s small books since they were frequently falling behind the gap between the shelving ranges. Additionally, they were hard to see and account for when reshelving a bigger book next to it.  Thus, in the fall of 2016, we made the decision to create a safe environment for our small books, and it would be the first step in bringing the Sutro Library’s shelving practices for rare materials back in line with professional standards.[ii]  We created a Tiny Town.

After: the same book safely lives among its peers in Tiny Town.

But first, we needed to establish some criteria. We researched the criteria other libraries used to classify their books as miniature or tiny. The National Library of Scotland for example, defined miniature books as, “by the generally accepted definition, a miniature book is one whose height and width do not exceed three inches, that is 7.5cm.”[iii] According to the Miniature Book Society, a miniature book in the United States is usually no more than three inches in height, width, or thickness. Outside of the United States, however, books up to four inches are often considered miniature.[iv]

When staff reviewed this information to see if it would help determine the project’s criteria, the 7.5 cm (three to four inches) height requirement for true miniature books would not achieve our primary goal of material safety. Thus, the staff made the decision to set the height limit for Sutro books at 12 cm (4.72 inches) but after a month staff soon realized that there were still too many books left behind in the stacks that needed protecting. The height limit was revised again and set at 13.99 cm (or 5.507 inches), which is where it remains today.

Next, we needed a location. Ever since the Sutro Library’s relocation into its current space in 2012, there has been an empty wall of shelves that would fit our needs perfectly. Additional shelves stored in Sacramento were brought back to San Francisco in early January 2017.

Additional shelves were brought in from Sacramento to create the new home for our tiny books.

Our former LTA, Daisy Ho, put the additional shelving in place, and she and a team of volunteers pulled all the books in the vault that were 13.99 cm and below, regardless of collection provenance.  Tiny Town rapidly took shape. By the end of May 2017, Tiny Town was complete, and a celebratory banner was hung at the entrance of the town.

Daisy Ho, our former Library Technical Assistant, stands in the completed Tiny Town.

The next stage of the project required us to make sure each book’s new location was recorded in the catalog. From May 2017 to September 2019, with the help of volunteer Isabel Breskin, Sutro Library librarians (first Colyn Wohlmut, then Jose Guerrero) worked on changing each book’s location.  Isabel handwrote in pencil a “[t]” on the book and on the book’s paper call slip, so that the book would always be returned to Tiny Town if it was paged. Additionally, items were reviewed for future conservation treatment if needed.

In total, 2,871 items were recorded as having been handled.

Adolph Sutro stands in Tiny Town reading one of his tiny books.

The next steps in our project surround activities that are housekeeping in nature. We need to conduct a shelf read to make sure all the books are in call number order, add barcodes to books that need them and then eventually convert the Dewey call number books into Library of Congress call number schema. The last step will take a few years to complete, but at least we know that our tiny books are safe in their new home. I would like to thank each person involved in this project, most especially Colyn Wohlmut, Jose Guerrero, Daisy Ho, and Isabel Breskin.

This post is by Mattie Taormina, Director, Sutro Library, with photographs provided by Sutro Library staff.


[i] https://www.nedcc.org/free-resources/preservation-leaflets/4.-storage-and-handling/4.1-storage-methods-and-handling-practices. Accessed May 18, 2020.

[iii] .” https://www.nls.uk/collections/rare-books/collections/miniature-books. Accessed May 12, 2020.

[iv] https://www.mbs.org/. Accessed May 11, 2020.


[i] https://www.nedcc.org/free-resources/preservation-leaflets/4.-storage-and-handling/4.1-storage-methods-and-handling-practices. Accessed May 12, 2020

[ii] Herlocker, p. 72

Uncovering a Map Mystery

[The following entry is from guest blogger and SF State University undergraduate, Patricia Tomita, who completed a short research assignment at the Sutro Library in Spring 2020. She supplied all of the text and images that follow.]

When reading history, a source from the past is like a time machine adventure. Thinking to yourself, “I know this story,” and then discovering something else entirely. When analyzing the map inside late 15th-century Dutch book, De Nieuwe en onbekend Weereld: of Beschryving van America en ‘t Zuid-Land, Sutro Library Archivist Mattie and I unknowingly uncovered a mystery about the map’s design. This blog post will introduce the questions we discovered regarding the language(s) of the map as well as analyze the engraved art. More profoundly, we will question the authenticity of the book to its time based on identifying the varying characteristics of the Sutro Library’s copy to other representations of the same map.

Close up of the map’s cartouche.

At first sight, this map depicts what Dutch cartographer Jacob Meurs, believed the appearance and geography of the American continents looked like. The first identifier, or title, of the map was in Latin, “Totus Americae Descriptio.”  We wondered why Latin was used—was it due to the still widespread knowledge of Catholicism and Latin in Europe? However, this theory did not explain the polylingual nature of the map which included languages such as Spanish, English, French, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch. The polylingual map suggests that Meurs was versed in many European languages, but also that he changed the map’s language to reflect where that language was spoken geographically.

California seen as an island.

Another interesting feature of this map is that it presents California as an island.  According to Stanford University Libraries’ online exhibit, California as an Island in Maps https://exhibits.stanford.edu/california-as-an-island , California was illustrated as an island from as early as 1510, as seen in “Las Sergas de Esplandian,” published that year by cartographer, Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo. “This rendering, coming from Montalvo’s imagination, became firmly embedded on maps,” and continued to be illustrated as such throughout the 17th and 18th centuries until the “blunder” was exposed in “a Passage by Land to California” by Father Eusebio Kino, an Italian Jesuit, cartographer, and explorer. The California Island cartography blunder became a phenomenon that “defied the science of mapping.”  The closest European power to California was the Spanish Colonies – I question if California was depicted as an island an attempt to allude to a potential area of colonization or achieve a political agenda. Stanford Libraries’ online exhibit includes several maps with the California Island blunder[1]: French “Planisphere Representant Toute L’etendue Du Monde”[2] by Louis Renard engraved in 1715, Latin “Nova Orbis Terraquei Tabula Accuratissime Delineate” [3] by Aa Pierre Vander (of German descent) in 1713, and “Novissima Totius Orbis Tabula” [4] by Carel Allard (of Dutch descent) in 1683. Maps, as we have discovered throughout history, are not just used for navigation, but as an explanation of global political power and prestige.

Hand-colored map featuring Poseidon in the upper left and cartouche at the bottom (this image is not from the State Library’s collections)

Returning to the Dutch map at the State Library, there is a cartouche engraving of Native Indians and colonists in the bottom left corner of the map. In this image (shown above), the centerpiece is a Native Indian woman who is pictured naked – sexualizing of Native women as seductive and temptations of sin were consistent throughout European art of the time. The snake sitting next to her in the cartouche, is often a symbol of temptation in the Christian faith. Europeans pursued colonization as a means of Christian evangelical missions for saving the “uncivilized man.” The cartouche’s other elements depict native men as primitive characters (seen on the left) when juxtaposed against their European counterparts (seen on the right) who are collecting goods and staking their claim on the land.

Coat of Arms for Sir Anthony Ashley-Cooper, Earl of Shaftsbury

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this map is upper left-hand side. In the original Dutch, first edition of this book there is a cartouche at the top left corner featuring Poseidon, the Greek god of the Sea accompanied by mythological sea creatures, angels, and goddesses.  But oddly, we discovered that other copies of this exact book did not contain the Poseidon cartouche in the upper left-hand corner. In fact, we consulted the State Library’s English translation of this book and discovered an entirely different image in the upper left hand corner: the coat of arms for Sir Anthony Ashley-Cooper, Earl of Shaftsbury.  Nevertheless, we continued to search for a copy of the map with the Poseidon cartouche, and came across a German copy of the book that included the map with colored aspects to the entire map.[5]

Why are there two different versions of this map in the different translations of this published book? One reason for the English map cartouche being different could be that Sir Anthony Ashley-Cooper could have been a financial contributor to English voyages to the New World or to the printing of the book. Another theory we considered is that the original first edition Dutch book held at the State Library does not hold the original map that was supposed to accompany the book. The research that led to the development of this postulation begins with finding that the only other copy with the same map featuring Poseidon was inside a German copy of the book. Additionally, the State Library’s map’s paper is different from the rest of the pages of the Dutch first edition book. These aspects suggest the map was inserted into the book at a later date, thus introducing the question of why and who had tampered with the book? Was it bought this way? I asked about a possible paper trail we could follow to gather more evidence to our theory – but there was none since the book came to the Library long ago.

There are more questions than answers about this map, more theories, and discoveries to be made about how maps skewed and bent the European perspective of the Americas. I hope to continue my research with the Sutro Library and dig deeper into this mystery.

Works Cited

[1] Stanford University Libraries, https://exhibits.stanford.edu/california-as-an-island

[2] PLANISPHERE REPRESENTANT TOUTE L’ETENDUE DU MONDE. DANS L’ORDRE QU’ON A SUIVI DANS CE LIVRE. NB. LES CHIFFRES SE RAPORTENT AUX CARTES ET AUX PAGES DES DESCRIPTIONS, https://exhibits.stanford.edu/california-as-an-island/catalog/zn845sh3664

[3] Nova orbis terraquei tabula accuratissime delineate, https://exhibits.stanford.edu/california-as-an-island/catalog/sh513mv2843

[4] Novissima totius Orbis tabula, https://exhibits.stanford.edu/california-as-an-island/catalog/rn092zx5076

[5] 1671 Jacob Van Meurs Rare Original Antique Map of America – Island of California https://www.classicalimages.com/products/1671-jacob-van-meurs-rare-original-antique-map-of-america-island-of-california

“S. Jacto. O.P.”

The top and bottom edges of Sutro’s copy of Jose Sigüenza’s biography of Saint Jerome (La vida de S. Geronimo dotor de la santa iglesia. Madrid: Tomás Junta, 1595) carry a legible firebrand: “S.Jacto.O.P.” The Catalogo Colectivo de Marcas de Fuego identifies it with the Dominican convent of San Jacinto in Mexico City.[1] Founded in the early 17th century, the convent was a stop on the long route connecting Spain to Asia.

Tatiana Seijas notes in Asian Slaves in Colonial Mexico that “San Jacinto stands apart from other religious institutions for its large number of chino slaves and for the way they were employed.” Seijas continues that their roles were not only “as servants to attend to the traveling men and also to upkeep the rest home,” but also “cultural intermediaries” used for “introducing friars to foreign traditions” (126). Transiting the western-most fringes of the Spanish empire, missionaries studied both books in libraries and the people whose forced labor maintained the facilities. This book, flung through history, remains with us as evidence of these encounters and an embodiment of the workings of empire.

Let’s consider just the book’s covers which are made of vellum, animal skin specially treated to be tough and smooth but still very flexible, perfect for a library whose contents would be at the disposal of many studious but weary travelers. Look closely and just beneath the vellum cover is what appears to be text. Sheets of printed waste—recycled pages from another printed book—have been used as endpapers to protect the main text and attach it to the covers. Whatever text visible on the waste sheets was not meant to be read but only provide support for the physical structure of the book.

If the firebrand tells us that this book was once lodged, literally and figuratively, into colonial Mexican society in a place where European and East Asian cultures mixed, what might we learn about the time and place in which this book circulated by examining the printed waste end papers?

Only fragments of the recycled text are visible. Among vellum’s qualities is its naturally off-white translucence. Shining a light through the rear cover I could see what was pasted down on the other side of the illustration of Saint Augustine. Though barely legible, the page layout told me that it was the title page. The main giveaway was the imprint statement at the bottom, which reads in part:

Viuda de Miguel de Ortega en los Portales de las Flores, 1727

From consulting Jose T. Medina’s Imprenta en Puebla de Los Angeles, 1640-1821, I learned this printer was active in Puebla, Mexico, in the 18th century. The “viuda’s” (widow) name was Manuela Cerezo and she belonged to a prominent family of printers. It was common in Europe and the Americas at this time for widows to carry on the business after her husband’s death. Interestingly, the details of this book, such as place of publication, year, printer, or content—it’s presumably a novena, a sort of guide to devotional practice which became popular in eighteenth century Mexico, dedicated to Saint Augustine—do not match any entries in Medina’s bibliography, nor does any library report holding a complete edition in OCLC’s Worldcat database. These eight pages (of which only 6 can be read unaided) appear to be all that remains of what would have once been a commonplace text.

There are many ways to approach a book. The very legible firebrand contrasts with the novena fragment, which was not meant to be read and whose survival seems almost to be complete chance. By focusing on these two aspects (which are literally on the periphery of the book) we broaden our understanding of the materials, institutions, and practices that supported the circulation of texts in colonial Mexico.

Jose Guerrero, Cataloging & Metadata Librarian, Sutro Library.


[1] The brand is an abbreviation of “San Jacinto Ordinis Praedicatorum [Order of Preachers],” the Latin being the official name of the Dominican Order.

Manifest Destiny on the High Seas

[The following entry is from guest blogger and SF State University undergraduate, Jason Castillo, who volunteered at the Sutro Library in Spring 2020 before he graduated. He supplied all of the text and images that follow.]

The idea of interfacing with an archive like the Sutro Library is likely to come with a bit of apprehension. Professors, students, or even the general public might not be entirely sure of the enrichment a public resource like the Sutro Library can provide. A professor might not have a clear understanding of exactly how an archive can be utilized to supplement topics they have covered in lecture. A student writing a paper might not have a clear understanding of how to navigate the California State Library’s (CSL) database to see exactly what is available. The public might not be aware that they too are able to request viewing of items of interest.

What follows is an account of a project that I finished at the Sutro Library for a History Department professor who incorporates a class trip to the Sutro into her courses. Her utilization of the library as a classroom fosters an environment for her students that includes hands-on experience with historic materials such as maps, books, and newspapers that both reinforces the topics covered in lecture as well as develops her students’ ability to apply critical thinking to complex historical topics. She recently asked the Sutro Library director to develop a hands-on primary source analysis that can expand upon an assigned class reading by author Jason W. Smith that equates the United States’ pacific exploration of the mid 1800s as a nautical continuation of Manifest Destiny. In his 2018 book, To Master the Boundless Sea, Jason W. Smith approaches the United States’ scientific exploration of the Pacific in the 19th century as a means to expand its political, economic, and cultural influence beyond its national borders. The book focuses heavily on the United States Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842 (frequently abbreviated as U.S. Ex. Ex. and also known as “The Wilkes Expedition”) in which a U.S. Naval Lieutenant, Charles Wilkes, was tasked by Congress with commanding a fleet of vessels to explore and survey all regions of the Pacific Ocean. This was not a typical naval mission, as it included a comprehensive group of scientists along with the normal crew of sailors. This group included a pair of naturalists, a botanist, mineralogist, conchologist, and philologist among several others; an outfit well equipped to “extend the bounds of science” all while “promoting…the great interests of commerce.”

An excerpt from the Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition (1845) showing a portion of the instructions given to LT Wilkes by the U.S. Department of the Navy.

These topics: Manifest Destiny, the Wilkes Expedition, and the Pacific Ocean—enable us to focus on the history of Hawaii as a place where all three of these vast ideas converge.

When I searched the State Library’s catalog for materials about Hawaii, I received over 200 results. That seemed to be quite a bit to wade through, but I quickly connected the dots that they were all written by non-indigenous peoples with differing experiences with the islands: missionaries, tourists, wealthy people with homes on the islands, government officials, etc. Approaching the islands in this manner allowed me to further break down the results–“let’s try to get representation from each of these categories of authors.” Not only would it allow me to see the diversity of experience in the travelers to this portion of the Pacific, but perhaps it would add some variation to how the natives and their culture were represented. As a History Major, I would be remiss if I didn’t illustrate the all too frequent lack of voices that would allow us to glean a more mutual understanding of the world’s past. For example, I was fairly certain that I would not find any first-person accounts from the island’s indigenous peoples; if that was what I was searching for, I would have to try to find their voices via indirect sources.

Choosing a few books from American missionaries, wealthy tourists, and government officials provided insight into not only the islands of Hawaii, but also the motives and opinions of the authors who documented their travels. I found that despite their backgrounds, two common threads seemingly ran through all of their works. The first one was that they all took the stance that the indigenous population would be “better off” if they submitted and assimilated to the ways of European and American people. An example of this comes from William Bliss, a wealthy American, who sailed to the islands in the 1870s to escape from a “northern winter” and took the stance that despite some general cultural improvements via missionaries, there was “great room” to improve upon the natives’ “moral and physical condition.”  

The second thread among writers at this time was the constant consideration each author gave to potential crops which always included insight into the labor required to harvest those crops, as well as the economic benefit of doing so. An example of this can be seen in table of contents of the writing of James Jarves’, a New Englander who spent five years living on the islands, and devoted almost an entire chapter in his book to agricultural pursuits.

Left: An observation on assimilation from Paradise in the Pacific: a book of travel, adventure, and facts in the Sandwich Islands (1873) by William Bliss. Right: An excerpt from Scenes and Scenery in the Sandwich Islands, and a trip through Central America: being observations from my note-book during the years 1837-1842 (1843) by James Jackson Jarves

In addition to books written from the vantage point of wealthy, non-native male tourists, the Sutro Vault contains several books that reflect the work and voices of non-native female missionaries and tourists. For example, one can find an illustration of a female missionary attempting to convert the island’s natives and another female author who offers her insight after spending six months on the main island “for health reasons.”

An image from A Residence of Twenty-One Years in the Sandwich Islands (1849) by Hiram Bingham showing a female missionary describing the benefits of conversion to Christianity to a group of native Hawaiians.
An excerpt from The Hawaiian archipelago: Six Months among the Palm Groves, Coral Reefs, and Volcanoes of the Sandwich Islands (1882) by Isabella Bird addressing issues of safety.

As the 19th century came closer to its end, we see works in the Sutro Vault that convey America’s a more direct, calculated, and forceful stance in its relationship with Hawaii. Not unlike the ways in which Manifest Destiny drove settlement in the western part of the continental United States, we can find publications that portray an extremely pointed attitude towards Hawaiian settlement, policy, and even resource extraction. Notable examples of this can be seen in the 1894 writings of U.S. Minister to the Kingdom of Hawaii, John L. Stevens (also in the Sutro Vault) noted below.

Two excerpts from Picturesque Hawaii: A charming description of her unique history, strange people, exquisite climate, wonderous volcanoes, luxurious production, corrupt monarchy, recent revolution and provisional government (1894) by John Leavitt Stevens, U.S. Minister to the Kingdom of Hawaii.

This source is notable because in 1894, Hawaii had yet to be annexed by the U.S.

In regards to the original argument by Jason Smith, one could argue that the culmination of all these efforts concerning Pacific exploration, from the U.S. Ex. Ex to the work of the missionaries, can be seen in a book published by the Department of Foreign Affairs immediately after the islands’ annexation, The Hawaiian Islands: A Handbook of Information (1899)–also part of the Sutro collection. This book was published after the federal government was inundated with requests from the public about settling and establishing businesses in the newly acquired territory. It reads very much like a “how-to” guide to help Americans settle, form businesses, attract labor and otherwise thrive. It was mailed back in lieu of answering each individual inquiry.

Title page from The Hawaiian Islands: A Handbook of Information (1899) published by the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Although I have learned a lot through this process of curating a collection of materials for a SFSU professor and her class, I am still left with many questions. Will the professor’s students feel that Jason Smith’s argument is appropriate? Will they be inspired by portions of Smith’s work and be able to expand upon his argument? Will they dismiss his argument and advance one of their own?

There is a reasonable likelihood that any of these could come to fruition. That is the beauty and importance of an institution like the Sutro Library: it provides the opportunity for all people to explore, embrace, and challenge historical developments of the past.  I truly hope this article encourages you to think about the ways in which you could engage with the  sources of Sutro Library.

A Place to Call Home: Researching Your Orphan Ancestor

Today’s post is written by the Sutro Library’s Genealogy Librarian, Dvorah Lewis.

Several years ago when I first started my genealogical research, I only knew a few sentences about my great great grandmother, Ida (Gross) Cohen: she immigrated to America (Philadelphia to be exact) from Russia by herself with her family’s locket stitched in her skirt to prevent it from being stolen (this locket is now under my mother’s guardianship); she sang in the Yiddish Theatre (still trying to prove this one); and she died from an abortion — her four children becoming orphans. The term “orphan” usually refers to someone who has lost both parents, but it has changed to encompass children with only one deceased parent. Even though Ida’s husband was still alive at the time of her death, he could not provide care for the children and admitted them into a Jewish orphanage.

Orphanages have been a part of American history long before the country declared its independence. Nuns founded the first orphanage in 1729 after many adult settlers were killed in the Natchez Revolt located in modern-day Natchez, Mississippi. [1] In response to illness, poverty, urbanization and immigration, more orphanages were established in the mid-nineteenth century. Prior to that, there were reformatories known as poorhouses or almshouses which sheltered everyone who had suffered from poverty including criminals, the sick, and orphans. Because of the poor conditions and the minimal rations of food, diseases spread quickly. Another option that was considered in handling the cities’ orphans was the orphan trains where children were transported from overpopulated cities on the East Coast to the Midwest and picked by potential foster parents. Orphans were usually given to Christian families, so if the child was Jewish then conversion was inevitable. [2]

This leads to the reason Jewish orphanages were created: to help foster and preserve the children’s Jewish heritage. For this very reason, Rebecca Gratz (a well-known Jewish Philadelphian and philanthropist) co-founded the first Jewish orphanage in America: the Jewish Foster Home and Orphan Asylum. Later known as the Foster Home for Hebrew Orphans, it’s this same orphanage where my great grandmother and her siblings were admitted in 1927.

By now, you might be wondering: how does a researcher continue tracing their family history if an ancestor was an orphan? For my personal research, the first document I came across was the 1930 Census which confirmed that my great grandmother and her siblings lived in an orphanage, and it identified where in Philadelphia it was located.

Another place to start is to look at local histories or city directories (which sometimes have mini-local histories in them) and learn about how the poor, specifically the children, were being taken care of. In the slideshow below, is a local history on Philadelphia from 1868. While the Jewish orphanage isn’t mentioned (perhaps it wasn’t known by the author at time of publication) there are quite a few other homes mentioned in the text along with illustrations of the different city buildings and business ads, which are always fun to see.  

For city directories, you might just get a confirmation of the address. In the case of my family, the 1927 Philadelphia City Directory lists the orphanage in the business pages at the back of the directory under “Homes, Asylums, and Day Nurseries” in the second column (second image below). It’s also listed in the alphabetized section under “Jewish” (third image below).

Apart from local histories and directories, Sutro Library has other resources that can help get you started on your search. While we don’t focus on one particular orphanage, we do have works on a variety of different institutions and sometimes we are the only library in Northern California, or in some cases all of California, to have a copy, which means these are ineligible for InterLibrary Loan and can only be viewed in the Reading Room.

Some examples include:

After you’ve exhausted your search at your local genealogical library or online through a genealogical site, the next best place is to identify local history organizations where this orphanage was located and which repository might have the original records. If it does not come up in a google search or by searching through archival finding aid (aka inventory) catalogs like Online Archive of California or ArchiveGrid, then the local genealogical and historical societies may be able to point you in the right direction. In my case, Temple University houses the Philadelphia Jewish Archives Collection which has the records of the orphanage my ancestors grew up in.

The next part of this post will show examples of the different types of records that may be available to you once you are able to locate them:

  1. Admission and discharge records – Ledgers from the home can contain information on when the child was admitted, their birth date, reason for admission, and date of discharge from the home.  Along with these admission records are court report summaries which provide similar information as the ledger, only the main difference is it gives the address of where the father lived, and presumably where the children lived prior to admittance in the home (first image below).
Summary of court report committing Dorothy and her siblings to the orphanage. It also lists an address of where they lived prior to admittance into home. (Courtesy of Philadelphia Jewish Archives Collection)
Orphanage’s admission records were not tiny. (Courtesy of Philadelphia Jewish Archives Collection)
Page in admission ledger that listed Dorothy Cohen and her siblings along with birth and discharge dates. (Courtesy of Philadelphia Jewish Archives Collection)

2. Annual reports – While these may not provide information of genealogical value, these will provide contextual information and allow you to understand the current state and goals of the institution. Keep in mind that one of the functions of an annual report is to increase funds so it might not provide the most accurate representation of the home.

3. Newsletters – Records may also exist from the perspective of the residents of the home. The Jewish Foster Home offered many clubs for their children, and some of these clubs created records of their own. For example the Journalism Club published a newsletter. The content of these newsletters included pages on the occurrences within the home from new residents and birthdays to interviews with the staff or even gossip columns. If your ancestor is no longer in the home during the time of publication, there’s a chance they might be mentioned later on because this newsletter often provided updates on residents who had been discharged from the home.

4. Personal accountsAnother way to understand life in the home is to hear it, or read it, straight from them. Maybe even from someone who lived in the home with your ancestor? Oral histories, or even published accounts, may exist. In my case, I had the opportunity to interview my great Aunt Essie (the youngest daughter of Ida and eldest member of my family at the time). Another helpful source was an account of the home written by another alum, Jules Doneson in his Deeds of Love: A History of the Jewish Foster Home and Orphan Asylum of Philadelphia — America’s First Jewish Orphanage.

Dvorah interviewing Aunt Essie about her life, especially in the home, while eating some lox, cream cheese, and pumpernickel bread. (Spring 2012)

Alongside annual reports and newsletters, memories of the home make it possible to analyze and compare the ideals of the home with the realities and help to contextualize my family’s experience.

5. Alumni recordsResidents often kept in contact long after leaving the home and even created an alumni organization to stay in touch after they were discharged. For the Jewish Foster Home, it went by a few different names: Home Guys; the Pop Weiser Group; and 700 East Alumni Association. The Philadelphia Jewish Archives Collection recently made their finding aid available for this collection and in it includes a roster, mailing list, correspondence, video and photos from the home etc. Whenever I return to Philadelphia, this is definitely a collection I’d want to consult!

6. Other relief organization recordsSimilar to many immigrants during this time, my great great grandparents struggled to support their family. Fortunately, organizations existed to help immigrants. If your ancestor ended up an orphan, there’s a chance they or their parents needed financial assistance prior to admittance into an orphanage. Because of this, it’s important to look into other aid organizations that might have existed during this time. The Philadelphia Jewish Archives Collection also houses these records for the local Jewish relief organizations. For my ancestors, it was the United Hebrew Charities. In one of their collections was a case file relating to my family that is nine pages long and is one that I constantly go back to and reread as it has tremendous genealogical value. It was created when concerned neighbors (or perhaps family or friends) requested the UHC to get involved and provide assistance. Meticulous notes were taken documenting each time the agent interacted (or tried to) with the Cohens.

Whenever a name was mentioned, an address was often tagged along with it. On the first page of the file (see image on the left), I find the addresses of family, an employer, and a landlord. There are more included in the rest of the file. All of these names allow me to expand Ida’s “FAN Club.”

This is a term coined by renowned genealogist and author Elizabeth Shown Mills and means:

  • Family/Friends
  • Associates
  • Neighbors

When we expand our search to include the above list of associated people, we often find out more information about our ancestors. For example, the summaries written on 4/27/20 and 4/28/20 of this case file mentioned an aunt by the name of Mrs. Israel in Camden, New Jersey. Because this document is dated for 1920, I then searched the 1920 census hoping to find a match, and I did! The address in the census matched the address in the blurb for 4/28/20. This find, like many others from this file, led me to other documents regarding Sarah’s relation to Ida.

Finding this case file as well as other records might not have happened if I hadn’t consulted with the archivist of the Philadelphia Jewish Archives Collection. On my own, it was hard to wrap my head around all of the mergers and name changes that happened between the various relief organizations. Because of this, many different finding aids exist. The archivist (or librarian in some cases) will help you navigate their finding aids and may be able to point you to what other collections may be of genealogical value. Similarly, the librarians at Sutro Library are here to assist you in any way. Feel free to reach out to us via email at sutro@library.ca.gov or give us a call at (415) 469 – 6100.

To summarize, here are the steps to researching your orphan ancestor:

  1. Start your research with the census, especially if your ancestor lived at an orphanage during a census year;
  2. Find a city directory or local history and learn more about how the children were cared for;
  3. Once you have identified the orphanage, try googling or searching archival catalogs like ArchiveGrid, in order to locate the orphanage’s records;
  4. Contact local genealogical and historical societies if you need further assistance;
  5. Once the records have been located, don’t just look at admission records. Also look at records that may not be of immediate genealogical value like annual reports and newsletters;
  6. There’s a high probability other relief organizations provided assistance to your family prior to your ancestor becoming an orphan so consult with your local archivist to identify those records too.

All of these examples are just a few of the records you may be able to use when researching an orphan ancestor, leading you one step closer to learning more about them and the place they once called home.

Share in the comments below what resources you have found helpful in your own orphan ancestor research!

For further reading on:

  1. Tracing orphan ancestors, check out Jessica Naeves blog post “How to Research Your Orphan Ancestors”

2. The history of orphanages in America – Second Home: Orphan Asylums and Poor Families in America by Timothy Hacsi (1997)

3. Jewish orphanages – These are Our Children: Jewish Orphanages in the United States, 1880 – 1925 by Reena Sigman Friedman (1994)

4. The Jewish Foster Home (later known as Foster Home for Hebrew Orphans) in Philadelphia:

5. Philadelphia Jewish Archives Collection at Temple University:

Please note: If any of the Sutro Library’s materials state the location is in the “Vault,” we ask that you please give us at least 2 business days advance notice before your visit by emailing us at sutro@library.ca.gov or calling us at (415) 469 – 6100.   

Footnotes

[1] Orphanages: An Historical Overview by the Family & Children’s Services Division of the Minnesota Department of Human Services (March 1995)

[2] Second Home: Orphan Asylums and Poor Families in America by Timothy Hacsi (1997)

Citations for images:

Ancestry.com’s United States Census Collection

1927 Philadelphia City Directory on Microfilm located in Sutro Library Reading Room (MF290). This year is not available online through Ancestry.com’s City Directory collection.

Temple University’s Special Collections and Research Center Philadelphia Jewish Archives Collection:

  1. Association for Jewish Children Records SCRC 37 (orphanage records)
  2. Jewish Ys and Centers of Greater Philadelphia, Neighborhood Centre Branch Records, SCRC 22 (UHC case file)

Concurring Histories in Hawaii

Did you know that the Sutro Library has over 2,000 biographical dictionaries in its collection (such as Who’s Who publications) from all over the United States as well as internationally? These useful sources can help provide the historical context for your ancestor’s life.  In this blog post written by one of our volunteers, Ryan Dickson, Ryan explores the kinds of information found in these types of publications. If you are interested in finding these sources at the Sutro Library, try searching the catalog by combining your geographic area of interest (country or state) and the word “biography.” If you need help, feel free to contact us at sutro@library.ca.gov or via the Ask a Librarian service on the California State Library website.

Browsing the book stacks here at Sutro Library I am struck by the plethora of biographical sketches from across the globe and time. As an English professor, these collections spark my interest because they show how print media concretizes the atmosphere of a given era.

One such collection, Men of Hawaii particularly stood out because of its bold black cover and golden embossed lettering shining outwardly. [1]

This reminded me that Edward Said, who coined the word orientalism and wrote a controversial book on the subject, defines it as the process of restructuring another’s land, especially when that reconstructing comes with the heavy hand of colonial bureaucracy. And it is in Men of Hawaii, where editor George F. Nellist focuses his attention on men who have made the Islands a career rather than promoting Hawaiians themselves.

Similar books, Who’s Who in the World for example (4th, 5th, and 7th Editions all in Sutro Library’s Reading Room), include selected individuals as well as those who paid to appear in the collection and wrote their own sketches too. Therefore this collection offers a glimpse into what some of the men of Hawaii thought of themselves, along with a look at who believes that appearing in such a collection is important.

These sketches are part of a longer series also published by Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Ltd., including The Story of Hawaii and Its Builders, which is also housed in the Sutro Library stacks. In its foreword, Riley H. Allen writes that these collections provide a “standard reference work and record of men who deservedly occupy a high place in the industrial and cultural history of the Hawaiian Islands.” [2] This reflects the dominant theme of books published during this time period to take indigenous culture and reframe it on how it relates to the incoming culture.

Further pulling on themes of the early twentieth century, namely the patriarchy, believing males are the only noteworthy gender negates indigenous Hawaiian culture. For example, traditional Hawaiian culture recognizes three genders. The third, mᾱhū, possessing both masculine and feminine qualities, or both kapu and noa behavior roles, and often has a higher spiritual position within the community. Furthermore, in traditional Hawaiian culture, like most traditional cultures pre-Western intervention, gender roles were divided, but none were less important than the other, as they all held importance in the community’s prosperity. [3]

Discounting the fact that this collection of biographical sketches rejects any other genders’ ability to reach achievement within the Islands, Nellist affirms throughout the collection that it is mainly Anglo-Americans, and some Japanese, that are noteworthy. Figuring out what is noteworthy about the men sketched here is perplexing by today’s standards. Without a description in the collection stating what the criteria was for notable achievement or inclusion, we end up with legislators next to printers and we are left wondering why. What does a lawmaker have to do with a person who can produce mass media?

Biographical sketches of two men in Men of Hawaii for a legislator and a printer.

This physical manifestation of those deemed men of achievement defines who has status as a real man in the 1930s. This in turn devalues those men and women who are not included in the collection, namely indigenous Hawaiians.

Since many of the men included are born and educated on mainland America, one wonders what precipitated such a move. Possible it is similar to our current need for housing and a job. Colonization of the Hawaiian Islands offered many opportunities to impose the newcomer’s will on the land and people, as is demonstrated by the professional positions held by the entries. It is particularly the inclusion of educators that catches the readers’ attention.

Much like printing, educators reinforce ideological beliefs for their students to follow, societies prescribed notions of right and wrong, as well as failure and achievement (think grading, for example). One entry, W. Harold Loper, notes that with one year at Harvard post-baccalaureate, Loper became a high school principal for 3 years, then instructed summer sessions at University of Hawaii for a few years in an undisclosed discipline. Although Loper’s achievements seem average by today’s standards, the reader can’t help but wonder why he is still included among the “notable.”

Even when native Hawaiians are included, they are couched in terms of their place in the newcomer’s history. For example, Curtis Piehu Iaukea is given the title Financial Trustee, even though he is “a distinguished survivor of the monarchical era” (emphasis mine). Some of his other achievements include acting as chamberlain for the Hawaiian royals to attend Queen Victoria’s Jubilee and a meeting with President Cleveland. No real mentions of his duties, relationships, or achievements outside the Anglo world is given.

Perhaps it is a misnomer that these are men of achievement. Perhaps these are just men of Hawaii as the title suggests. Or perhaps these are the men whose achievements are sanctified by a certain ideology. Whatever it is, Nellist and The Honolulu Star-Bulletin appear to have promoted achievement based on its proximity to Anglo-American society.

Being surprised that a collection of this sort maintains antiquated hierarchies is a bit naïve. In fact almost any collection that attempts to record achievements, whether they are of men, women, indigenous, or newcomer, will exclude someone. However more than being a record of the inhabitants of the Hawaiian Islands in 1930, Nellist and Men of Hawaii define what achievement looks like…

Images of men of “achievement” in Men of Hawaii

…and what achievement is willing to encompass.

FOOTNOTES

[1] Men of Hawaii: A biographical record of men of substantial achievement in the Hawaiian Islands, volume 4, edited by George F. Nellist and published by The Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Ltd., in 1930 and first published in 1917.

Call Number: Sutro Library Reading Room DU624.9 M4.

[2] The Story of Hawaii and Its Builders: An historical outline of Hawaii with Biographical sketches of its men of note and substantial achievement, past and present, who have contributed to the progress of the Territory (1925) published by Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Ltd..

Call Number: Sutro Library Reading Room DU624.9 M41.

[3] “Māhū”. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Māhū

“There’s a snake in my book!”

Sewing is one of those domestic skills that has waned in popularity.  Bravo TV’s reality show Project Runway aside, I rarely if ever hear my peers talking about or engaging in the activity. During my formative years, however, sewing definitely played a role in our household. My mom made my clothes until I was in the 2nd grade. I have vivid memories of going with her to the fabric store, looking at patterns by Butterick and Simplicity, and watching her lay the very delicate tissue-like paper patterns on top of the fabric we picked out and cutting very, very slowly and carefully.

When I grew older, my mom sent me to a sewing class where I learned the basics of the craft; however, I never mastered it like my mother or my grandmother (who was a seamstress for Catalina swimwear). Still, I am relatively comfortable around a sewing machine and can sew a button on or hem a pair of pants.

When it became evident that the Sutro Library needed heavier book weights (or snakes as they are called) for our large, folio books, I thought, “Hey, I can make those!”  For readers not familiar with the handy reading room tool known as the book snake, they are “…designed to help hold open books, freeing up a researcher’s hands to take notes, take a picture, or hold a magnifying glass.” (Readers of this article are encouraged to learn more about how snakes are used with rare materials by reading the Folger Library’s excellent post on the matter found here: https://collation.folger.edu/2019/05/snakes-on-a-book/ ).

Professionally made book snakes for sale by Talasonline.com

What I didn’t know is if I could find the specialized supplies needed to make them at a cheaper cost than what the traditional library vendors offered. We asked a few of our colleagues in the rare book and conservation professions for some advice and learned where to acquire the specialized lint-free cotton tubing needed for the outside of the snake. Next, we needed to find a “filler” that was not cost prohibitive for us. Our colleagues’ advice ranged from lead shot, to beans, to aquarium rocks. Lead is common in book snakes, but it poses a serious challenge to cleaning the snakes in the future. Dried beans are cheap and easy to find, but I was not comfortable with introducing organic matter that could break down over time around our books.

We settled on aquarium rock as our snake filler. It is a natural product, easy to clean, affordable, doesn’t off-gas or break down, and has enough “give” to gently curve over the book’s boards without being too stiff and unyielding.

Aquarium rock found at a local pet store proved to be the ideal filler for our book snakes.

The next step was to fire up my sewing machine, measure and cut the stockings into uniform lengths, and then sew up one side of the snake.

Idle for more than a decade, my sewing machine was up to the task of making snakes.
Careful measuring of the snake lining to ensure as much uniformity as possible.
Sewing up one side of a snake.

Next, I used a small scale to evenly distribute the aquarium rock into plastic bags. This accuracy made sure that all the completed snakes weighed the same and would not be under or overstuffed.

Aquarium rock measured and soon to be used as snake filler.

Once the bags were assembled, I needed an easy way to get the rocks into my limp snakes which proved harder than one would think.  I poured each bag into a measuring cup and then transferred the rocks into a funnel that I held inside the opening of the snake.

Funnel and wooden skewer helped fill the empty snakes with rock.

The rocks were not uniform in size so the funnel opening frequently got blocked slowing the process significantly. To clear the blockages, I used a wooden skewer to keep the rocks flowing into the snake. Once the snakes were filled, I sewed up the open end which made the snakes look like sausages.

Snakes right after filling with rock.

The cotton lining became too thin after stretching to absorb the rocks and I worried they would burst open if they snagged on something sharp in the future. To solve this problem, I “double bagged” them by cutting another sock for the sausages to go into.

Each book snake is “double bagged” in the cotton lining for durability.

The tricky part at this stage was to make each end have a nice seam since, once filled, the snakes became too thick to put through my sewing machine. This last step had to be done by hand which also took some time to complete. Having never made snakes before, I notice that there are some slight variations in length but generally speaking, I believe the finished product turned out fairly well.

Completed Sutro Library book snakes ready for use in our reading room.

Now when readers come into our reading room and need a book snake for one of our large books, these handmade weights are available for their use. While I am confident that my mom did not have book snakes in mind when she sent me to that sewing class all those years ago, I’m grateful to her all the same.

Special thanks to our former student volunteer, Allie Mariotta, and our former Library Technical Assistant, Elise Hochhalter, for their research assistance.

For more information:

If you wish to buy commercially produced book snakes, the following vendors are worth investigating:

This post and all of the images (except image 1) are by Mattie Taormina, Director, Sutro Library.

Crossing the Line on the S.S. Adolph Sutro

[The following entry is from guest blogger and SF State University undergraduate, Carolina Basave, who worked on a small research project at the Sutro Library last semester. She supplied all of the text and images that follow.]

The Line Crossing Ceremony certificate earned by army private “L.Gray” in 1943 on board the Liberty ship, SS Adolph Sutro.

The Crossing the Line Ceremony certificate from above reads:

 “CROSSED THE PACIFIC EQUATOR IN THE PACIFIC OCEAN IN THE GOOD AMERICAN LIBERTY SHIP, ADOLPH SUTRO ON HER MAIDEN VOYAGE, ON THE SEVENTH DAY OF JULY IN THE YEAR OF OUR LORD NINETEEN HUNDRED AND FORTY * THREE”

June 4, 1943 the SS Adolph Sutro was completed and launched from Richmond, California. [1]

The S.S. Adolph Sutro was a cargo ship built during World War II, and according to the National Museum of the United States Navy, the liberty ships “were built on a mass-production scale in order to save supplies…[as] the war progressed, the ships were also utilized as troop transports in the convoys.”[2]  Thus the liberty ships were created to help supply and fuel the World War II efforts, and then used to transport soldiers overseas.

Awarded to “L. Gray,” the mimeographed (a duplication process that predates modern photocopier) Crossing the Line certificate represented a long maritime tradition. According to the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, “L. Gray” was Leonard Ray Gray, an army private and 27 years old when he crossed the equator on the Pacific.[3] The Navy Times mentioned that the Crossing the Line ceremony is a traditional initiation ceremony where sailors who have not crossed the equator before and then do for the first time transition “from a slimy pollywog to a trusty shellback during an equator line-crossing.” [4]  A ceremony performed by sailors who have already crossed the equator, the shellbacks, initiate the pollywogs in order to test their ability to, “with[stand] long voyages at sea.” [4] The ceremony is a an all-day performance and hazing ritual that represents the pollywogs initiation into King Neptune’s realm.

 The equator represents the home of the Neptunus Rex or King Neptune, ruler of the deep and guardian of the mysteries of the sea. According to Thomas Wildenberg from the Naval History Magazine, the night before the ship crosses the equator, Davy Jones (a member of King Neptune’s royal court) appears in front of the Captain with a message on behalf of King Neptune, “stating at what time he wanted the ship to hove to receive the royal party.” [5] That same night, all of the pollywogs are subpoenaed from Davy Jones, “to appear before the royal court on the morrow to be initiated in the mysteries of King Neptune’s Royal Domain. Usually, the subpoenas would include a long list of fake offenses the pollywogs were charged with like, “too many captain’s masts, excessive liberty, or seasickness.” [5]

Accompanying the Crossing the Line certificate, is a name card with the same name of the sailor who is featured on the certificate

The rest of King Neptune’s royal court includes:

Her Highness Amphitrite, often a young seaman in a costume of seaweed and rope; the scribe; the doctor; and the barber. Other members often include the royal baby, usually the fattest man in the crew wearing only a diaper; the navigator; the chief bear and his assistants, the latter of whom perform the dunkings; the chaplain; jesters; and the devil. The royals also have a secretary, sometimes known as a clerk, notary, or chancellor, whose job is to enter the names of the candidates to be sentenced by the court.[5]

Once King Neptune and his royal court appeared on deck, his flag known as the “Jolly Roger” appears, and the ceremony would begin. [5] The hazing would then take place and according to the U.S Navy it involves, “embarrassing tasks, gags, obstacles, physical hardships, and generally good-humored mischief”—all of which were meant to entertain the shellbacks and degrade the pollywog.”  It is estimated that the hazing rituals could last for up to 12 hours or more. Once the hazing rituals were completed, the pollywogs would then become a shellback, and a worthy member of King Neptune’s realm. According to research, every ship practiced their own version of the hazing rituals, therefore every shellback’s experience would be unique to them, and according to U.S Navy, the Crossing the Line (or equator) Ceremonies are completely voluntary, and not every ship and crew participates or practices the ceremony.

Image of United States Liberty Ship: SS Adolph Sutro from 1946

After completing the ceremony and hazing rituals, the newly transitioned shellbacks would then receive their Crossing the Line certificates that commemorated their experience.   I discovered most of the Line Crossing Ceremony certificates issued during World War II were incredibly detailed, vibrant in colors, and often had phrases written in Latin with a description of what the certificate signified. Many of them included drawings of mermaids, the ocean, a globe, King Neptune, Dolphins, and various marine life, and other mythical creatures depending on which equator crossing a pollywog passed through. While Leonard Gray’s certificate was a mimeographed copy of a quickly assembled sketch, it nevertheless included significant details like: mermaids, clam shells, a map of the world including the ocean, and even King Neptune’strident. According to the U.S Navy, there are handful of different certificates that all represent different equator crossings based on a specific Ocean or Sea.

The Line Crossing Ceremony certificate earned by army private “L.Gray” in 1943 on board Liberty ship SS Adolph Sutro.

Despite the certificate not being in color like a virtually all other certificates probably due to the fact that Leonard Gray was on board a liberty ship, in the middle of a war, they probably were not equipped with an artisan who could draw out the certificates. Regardless of the lack of color and detail, the certificates are equally as significant as the ceremony themselves. They showed that even during a war, the ships still exercised King Neptune’s long tradition of initiating pollywogs into this brotherhood of men who crossed the equator and earned their rightful place in King Neptune’s world. In 1953, the United States Navy begun to issue incredibly detailed certificates that were made — and continue to be — by the Tiffany Publishing Company in Norfolk, Virginia.[6]

Example of a 1943 Crossing the Equator certificate awarded to a U.S sailor, Harry F. Revers on board U.S.S. Chenango. [7]

Leonard Gray was one of these men who back in 1943 went through the ceremony and joined the brotherhood of shellbacks even during war time proved his loyalty and worthiness to King Neptune. Today that tradition is upheld as countless pollywogs are currently being initiated into that same brotherhood, all connected by their experiences crossing the equator.

Here are examples of recent Crossing the Line Certificates earned by my older brother’s friend, a current submariner YNSN Scotty H.[8]


If you would like to see the Crossing the Equator/Line certificate of “L.Gray” please email the Sutro Library (sutro@library.ca.gov) two days in advance of your visit and mention the following item and call number:

SS Adolph Sutro Equator Crossing Certificate, July, 7, 1943. Place of publication not identified: [S.S. Adolph Sutro Liberty Ship], 1943, call number MISC000346

FOOTNOTES

[1] Photograph of the liberty ship Adolph Sutro at Launching, 1943, Richmond Public Library: Richmond Local History Photograph Collection, Richmond, California. https://calisphere.org/item/ark:/13030/kt7x0nd5z0/

[2] “WWII: Battle of the Atlantic: Liberty Ships,” National Museum of the United States Navy, Accessed. 08 Oct 2019. https://www.history.navy.mil/content/history/museums/nmusn/explore/photography/wwii/wwii-atlantic/battle-of-the-atlantic/merchant-ships/liberty.html

[3] “Display Full Records,” The U.S National Archives and Records Administration, Accessed: 10 Oct 2019. https://aad.archives.gov/

[4] J.D Simkins, “This color footage of hazing during a World War II Line-crossing ceremony does not disappoint,” Navy Times, Aug 21, 2018. Accessed 08 Oct 2019.

https://www.navytimes.com/off-duty/military-culture/2018/08/21/this-color-footage-hazing-during-a-world-war-ii-line-crossing-ceremony-does-not-disappoint/

[5] Thomas Wildenberg, “Neptune’s Band of Brothers,” U.S Naval Institute, December 2014. Accessed 19 Oct 2019. https://www.usni.org/magazines/naval-history-magazine/2014/december/neptunes-band-brothers

[6] “Ceremonial Certificates: Proudly Serving the U.S Armed Froces Since 1953,” Tiffany Publishing Co, Accessed 17 October 2019. https://certificatesbytiffany.com

[7] “Harry F. Revers Short Snorter,” The Short Snorter Project, Accessed 20 October 2019. http://www.shortsnorter.org/Harry_Revers_Short_Snorter.html

[8] The last name has been omitted due to privacy reasons.