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NSG Visit October 7, 2000

150 Treasures

from the Libraries of the University of Rochester


Donovan A. Shilling

On October 7, 2000, members of the New Society of the Genesee were greeted by retired Rare Books Director Karl Kabelac on the ground floor of the Rush Rhees Library building in the center of the University of Rochester campus. Mr. Kabelac filled in this day as elevator operator to get us all upstairs to the exhibit 150 Treasures in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. As we entered the gallery, Melissa Mead, Special Projects Librarian, presented each person with a 35-page listing of the 150 remarkable books, manuscripts and historical objects acquired by the university libraries over the past 150 years.

And here they were, exhibited in cases all around us, each with a detailed explanation of what each was, its age and how it had come to the libraries. Not surprisingly, number one item was the 1850 charter establishing the University of Rochester to be "an institution of the highest order for scientific and classical education." The vellum charter contained drawings by David Vaughan of how the University, then housed in a hotel, might come to appear. There was, also, a photograph of an early class, an 1877 photograph of the faculty, and the hooks used by the first president, Martin B. Anderson, to pull his boots on to his feet.

Each of us moved from case to case gazing at the rare items, often pointing out some feature to friends. Among the oldest, was the Codex saeculi written between 1070 and 1103 in southern Germany, probably in the convent of Reichenau. It is one of the earliest complete manuscripts on music in this country. Sibley Music Librarian Barbara Duncan purchased it in Berlin in 1929 with funds provided by Hiram Watson Sibley. He had told Miss Duncan, "Buy something that we can talk about!" She was able to outbid the intended recipient of the manuscript, the Prussian State Library, because of the terrible inflation at the time in Germany. Miss Duncan wrote in 1945 that she had "felt a little ashamed" that her library could acquire and take the codex from its native land, but observed that in view of later events, perhaps it had been for the best.

The oldest record in the collection must be the Cone of the King, ca. 1900 BC, a Sumerian cuneiform with incised text concerning the construction of an important building in the city of Isin after the king had "established justice in the land."

The oldest printed volume in the River Campus Libraries is an edition of the Summa Theologicae of St. Thomas Acquinas. The folio is the first book printed in Esslingen, Germany and it is an example of the excellent printing that was achieved on simple hand presses. Printed 528 years ago, the ink is still black.

There were several Revolutionary War journals and letters in the exhibit, and two copies, one bound in morocco leather and the other in paper boards, of the Federalist Papers of 1787 containing essays by Hamilton, Madison and Jay.

Then came the first book believed to have been printed in Rochester. Titled Infantry Manoeuvres, it was written by J. Fellows and was printed by Everard Peck and Co. We were all pleased to see this book because its donor, John Topham, had arranged for our tour of the rare books collection this day and was present to show us many interesting objects. We found two more gifts from John to the libraries in the exhibit: One of them is the 1st sheet of Simeon DeWitt's State Map of New-York showing townships in the Military Tract and parts of Tioga, Herkimer and Otsego counties. The other is a six-part bird's-eye-view of Rochester, a lithograph, ca. 1867, John Topham had contributed with four other men. Only one other copy is known to exist.

There was an 1827 woodcut of the Erie Canal aqueduct over the Genesee River; a letter of October 16, 1825, from Nathaniel Rochester regretfully declining, because of illness, an invitation to the opening ceremonies of the Erie Canal; Miss Eliza Davis's ticket to a ball on November 7, 1825, in New York City celebrating the opening of the canal; a Bucks County, Pa., farmer's 1828 description of Rochester; and a police watch book from 1837.

Other New York items included: Patrick Campbell's Travels in the Interior Parts of North America printed in Edinburgh in 1793; James E. Seaver's A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison published in Canandaigua in 1824; the 1827 Rochester edition of William Morgan's Illustrtions of Masonry with its misspelled title; a promissory note from Brigham Young of March 16, 1830; and a first edition copy of The Book of Mormon printed in Palmyra in 1830.

We saw an Underground Railroad "pass" from Frederick Douglas, actually an undated letter to Amy Post requesting, "Please shelter this Sister from the house of bondage till five O'Clock-this afternoon-She will then be sent on to the Land of freedom." Also displayed was a copy of the Pledge of Allegiance in the hand of its author, and U. of R. alumnus, Frances Bellamy.

The exhibit was filled with first editions of famous American and European authors and historic books by philosophers, scientists, explorers, architects, including: Gregory I, Vesalius, Copernicus, Boyle, Milton, Newton, Leeuwenhoek, Swift, Johnson, Cook, Priestley and many others. But Andrea Palladio's 1581 I quattro libri dell'architectura, the four books of architecture, really caught Alan Oberst's eye. Mrs. Mead got it out of the case, placed it atop a pillow on a counter, where we could all gather around, and turned through the whole book page by page for us so that we could all see each of Palladio's monumental drawings.

We saw hand-colored engravings by Pierre Joseph Redouté, a chromolithograph by Dellon Marcus Dewey who had a business in Rochester producing color plates of fruits to illustrate nursery catalogs.

As a special treat for our group, Karl Kabelac had spread out an array of memorabilia from the original Society of the Genesee on one of the long tables in a gallery for all of us to examine. When we had read the Society programs and celebrity letters and were nearly surfeited from perusing rare manuscripts and illustrations we all went to the Danforth Dining Hall for a buffet lunch and lively conversation.

The attending members of the New Society of the Genesee are gratefully appreciative of all the effort by Mary M. Huth, Assistant Director of the Department of Rare Books and Collections, and Melissa Mead, Special Projects Librarian, and by Karl Kabelac to make our visit so enjoyable and informative.

© 2001, Donovan A. Shilling
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