“Ian Fleming, best known for his James Bond series, also authored what popular children’s book?” “Which flamboyant, bon vivant author arrived at New York customs and stated, ‘I have nothing to declare but my genius.’” “Which legendary basketball player has published fan fiction about Sherlock Holmes?”
These are just some of the fun facts I’m learning this year as I work my way through my Bookworm Trivia page-a-day calendar. So far, my favorite discovery was on the page for January 7, when the subject of the day was Grip.
Grip was a talking raven who was the adored companion of Charles Dickens until the bird died from eating a paint chip. The raven’s last words were, according to Dickens, “Halloa, old girl!” Upon Grip’s demise, Dickens had him stuffed, and he now resides in the Rare Books Department of the Free Library of Philadelphia.
I filed that fun fact away, adding Grip and his new home to the ambitious itinerary I
designed for myself while in Philadelphia. So it was with great anticipation that I finally boarded the PHLASH, the bus that makes frequent stops at historic and cultural destinations in a continuous loop throughout Center City Philadelphia, for the Free Library of Philadelphia’s main branch, known as the Parkway Central Library.
The grand Beaux-Arts building on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway opened in 1927, 36 years after the Free Library of Philadelphia was founded in 1891 as the city’s first public library system. Free tours of the building and its collections are offered daily.
After passing by the music department, home of the world’s largest lending library of orchestral music, on the first floor, my fellow tour-goer, Alison, and I descended to the children’s department on the ground floor. There, we discovered posters promoting the library’s annual Children’s Book Week…
Upstairs, we learned about the library’s collections in social science, history and genealogy; business, especially strong in patent materials and small business resources; literature and arts; a culinary arts collection named for Julia Dannenbaum, who headed a cooking school in Philadelphia and wrote cookbooks and magazine columns about cooking; and its Automobile Reference Collection, the second-largest collection of auto manuals in the United States.
Our guide also pointed out the remnants of the pneumatic tubes, conveyor belts and teletypes that were once used in fulfilling patron requests for items.
In the hallway gallery of the Print and Picture Collection, we admired Fur and Feathers: A Cautious Pairing of Cats and Birds, an exhibition on view through September 9. Chromolithographs from the Julius Bien edition of John James Audubon’s Birds of America are displayed alongside prints, drawings, posters, photographs and advertising trade cards depicting images of cats and birds.
Library staff created an animation of Eadweard Muybridge’s 1877 collotype of a “Cat trotting, changing to a gallop,” as well as coloring pages of Jacques Hnizdovsky’s Cat and Ben Shahn’s Phoenix that you can download here and share on Facebook or Instagram by using the hashtags #ColorOurCollections and #PixFurAndFeathers.
We continued our tour with an hour-long visit to the Rare Book Department, where we had the opportunity to see and handle examples of its fine collections. These include over 2,800 cuneiform tablets (symbols impressed into clay), illuminated medieval manuscripts, incunabula (books printed before 1501), letters written by presidents of the United States, and fine examples of Pennsylvania German Fraktur.
We touched papyrus from the Nile River, took a close look at an Egyptian Book of the Dead that was written in Horatic script circa 1200 BC, held a thumb Bible from 1811, and marveled at a volume of Pliny that was embellished with a double fore-edge painting, featuring two scenes of the coast of Rhode Island painted on the edges of the book’s pages.
I was thrilled to see hornbooks that were donated by Elisabeth (Betty) Ball, a family member of the Ball Brothers Glass Company canning jar manufacturing fame who was best known for her extensive collection of rare children’s books.
A special capsule exhibit commemorating Beatrix Potter’s 150th birthday displayed her original manuscript and watercolors for The Tailor of Gloucester and Little Pig Robinson.
Or Else: Cautionary Tales for Children, an exhibit which concluded on July 23, highlighted moral lessons in children’s literature as depicted in Rare Book Department collections. For example, Heinrich Hoffmann’s German children’s classic, Struwwelpeter, came to America as Slovenly Peter in 1849, and later as Slovenly Betsy in 1911.
The archive of Munro Leaf, the author and illustrator who wrote The Story of Ferdinand, Wee Gillis, and the Watchbirds cartoon series commenting on misbehaving children that was first published in 1938 in The Ladies’ Home Journal. Leaf also wrote and illustrated a similar cartoon for the classroom, Checkaway, for Highlights for Children magazine in the mid-1950s.
We learned that Grip appeared in Dickens’ novel, Barnaby Rudge. At the time, Edgar Allan Poe was earning his living as a book reviewer in Philadelphia, and he thought that the raven’s “…croakings might have been prophetically heard in the course of the drama.” It is believed that it inspired Poe’s 1845 poem, The Raven; both Grip and the only known copy of The Raven written in Poe’s hand are part of the Rare Book Department’s Richard A. Gimbel Collection of Edgar Allan Poe.
Something else proved to be just as fascinating as Grip: the actual physical library of rare book collector William McIntire Elkins. The 62-foot-long paneled Georgian library appears just as he had it in his home, Briar Hill, in Whitemarsh, Pennsylvania, before his death in 1947. Engravings by Paul Revere hang on one of the wood-paneled walls, and books line the shelves in the exact same order Elkins imposed. But his collection of letters, manuscripts, books and memorabilia associated with Charles Dickens is best of all0. Highlights include Dickens’ writing desk, marked with a carving reading “CD,” and the set of parts for Pickwick Papers inscribed by Dickens to his sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth.
Free tours of the Parkway Central Library are offered Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 2:00 p.m.; Tuesday and Thursday at 10:00 a.m.; and Saturday at 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. Rare Book Department tours are given Monday through Saturday at 11:00 a.m. For more information, click here.