Never Done

Research Opportunities in the Lisa Unger Baskin Collection

Elizabeth Campbell Denlinger

A wood engraving by Benjamin Fawcett after Mary Ward's drawing depicting Donati's Comet, from Ward's Telescope Teachings (1859). Ward studied the stars after tucking her children into bed. (view fullsize version)

Man labors from sun to sun,
A woman's work is never done.

The collection of books, manuscripts, artifacts, and ephemera brought together with great care and a tireless eye by Lisa Baskin from the mid-1960s to the time of this writing is a verb, not a noun. That is: this collection acts politically by showing to the world the work that women have done over the last five centuries. Its work, like that of the women it represents, is never done, and as long as it has users it will keep on; for a collection of women at work has to be a working collection.

You might imagine the collection as an unending demonstration by thousands and thousands of women. They are painting Judith and Holofernes, collecting caterpillars, fashioning artificial violets, posing taxidermied bears in credible positions. They are teaching in every conceivable capacity, delivering babies, offering abortions, mapping the stars, blowing glass, mining coal, reefing sails, taking in boarders, making violins, selling china, hair, fancy leather goods, Green Mountain Balm, and their bodies. They are toiling in cotton mills, tending to patients, preaching sermons, flying airplanes, sharp-shooting, weaving baskets, and looking into the future. All of this hardly scratches the surface, and it omits the two areas of women's work best represented in the collection: the book trades and politics, both understood in their widest possible meanings. So the demonstration continues: at Duke's Rubenstein Library, Florentine nuns are setting type, Parisian printers are suing over poor paper quality, Emily Faithfull is publisher and printer in ordinary to Queen Victoria, Gloria Cardew is coloring illustrations alongside Maria Sibylla Merian, who also drafted and engraved the exquisite visual records of the 186 species of insects she gathered in European woods and meadows. Marie Briot engraves birds on copper plates while Phoebe Anna Traquair calligraphs, drafts, and illuminates Tennyson's In Memoriam, her work so gorgeous that it compels the aged poet's unwilling admiration and signature; Clemence Housman is engraving her brother Laurence's illustrations on wood and thinking, perhaps, of the work on women's suffrage banners that takes so much of her time. Sarah Prideaux designs an elegant binding in gold, not too much of it, while Sybil Pye tools something more exuberant. May Morris might be editing one of her late father's myriad works, or she might be embroidering angels on a blue silk bag as a token of love. Nor, of course, are women working only on the material aspects of books: Lucretia Civitalis is translating the piece of wisdom literature known as Cato's Distichs; Laura Bassi is defending her thesis at the Palazzo Publico in Bologna; Sojourner Truth is dictating her memoirs; Emma Goldman types an article for Mother Earth; Sophia Foord in Northampton, Massachusetts, describes the fugitives arriving via the Underground Railroad to a fellow-thinker in Rhode Island; Charlotte Brontë critiques a case of domestic abuse to her friend Ellen Nussey; Louise Bourgeois (the obstetrician, not the sculptor) pursues her study of sterility, fertility, and the dangers of childbirth. Everywhere in this collection women are writing, writing, writing. And everywhere they are marching, demanding, on thousands of occasions, the vote, an end to the enslavement of Africans and African Americans, an end to lynching, to Jim Crow laws and unjust courts, to segregated schools and housing, to all of the ways in which the lives of people of color have been derailed. They demand control over their money, their bodies, their work, their whole lives. This is where the Women's Social and Political Union, Emma Goldman, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Millicent Fawcett, Sylvia Pankhurst, Ida B. Wells, Emily Wilding Davison, Margaret Sanger, and all their comrades shine through, and this is the work that is farthest from being done. Hard as we have fought in the past, there is much to do right now. This collection can aid us in that work. It offers help to women young, old, and in the middle who need to learn about their past to understand and transform the present.

Left: Trade card for Mrs. Westron, importer and dealer in paper mache goods (East Boston, Massachusetts). Center: Ticket to a performance by Madame Nora's Troupe of Glass Blowing Workers and Spinners, 18 February 1888. Right: Label for Susan J. Lawrence's Green Mountain Balm (Burlington, Vermont).

Before I turn to specific components of the Baskin Collection and the paths on which they might lead researchers, some less fanciful description seems in order. The collection has clear boundaries: in space, it's limited largely to Western Europe, Britain, and the United States; in time, from the Renaissance to the death of Emma Goldman in 1940. It's not a collection of literature, but keeps its feet firmly in the non-fictional world, with the occasional novel or book of verse by way of illustration. Even with these boundaries, its scope and ambition is hugely impressive. "How could I bite off five hundred years?" the collector asked herself at lunch one day in the early twenty-first century.

But she did, and this collection is marked everywhere by Lisa Baskin's taste just as it was formed by her knowledge, persistence, and tenacity. The fact of its being a collection formed by an individual rather than an institution is significant in a number of ways for researchers. One is that many of the holdings in the LUB Collection are humble in and of themselves, not especially rare, and this is one of the best things about it—it is the opposite of a high spot collection. That is: although—crucially—there are extraordinary early books and rich holdings of unique materials, as a true research collection it also includes hundreds of commonly held titles about women's histories in all their diversity. All of these, unique, rare, and common as the earth, gather new value and new meanings by being pointed together ata single question: what can we know about the work women have done? This collection begins with outstanding single items, but it is deeply, intrinsically democratic. Many of these works are in the public domain and available digitally through the HathiTrust; you need not travel to Duke to have access to these. Duke itself has an energetic digitization program, and one of the largest manuscript collection in the LUB Collection, a group of Emma Goldman letters, has already been digitized, and is thus also available anywhere there is an internet connection.

Another consequence of the LUB Collection's having been formed by an individual rather than an institution is that Lisa Baskin was free to choose special areas of focus, entities and people whose importance stood out to her, such as, in addition to Emma Goldman, the Women's Social and Political Union (the militant branch of the women's suffrage movement in Britain), the Ladies of Llangollen (Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler, who with their maid Mary Carryll lived in a very public private retirement in Wales from 1780 to 1831), the American suffrage movement, and the life and work of Sojourner Truth, who lived for some years in Florence, Massachusetts, Baskin's neighbor across time. Baskin collected from the start as an intersectionalist, so the collection also includes the literature of the abolitionist and early twentieth-century anti-racist movements, the latter focusing on the fight against lynching but extending to all aspects of the struggle. These choices are not surprising; they represent sound judgments of the most important political movements led by women during the period of the collection. And they are obvious choices for researchers, so I will be focusing on some of the less salient holdings.

What is surprising is the combination of historical and sociological materials with the very strong emphasis on women in the book trades that spans the entire collection. An institution is unlikely to have made such a con- nection, but that is one of the great strengths of this mass of materials—the number and kind of connections it makes possible. With this in mind let me turn to an apparently opposite tactic and look at some of the separate components of the collection with the aim of looking at possibilities they afford for research, beginning with the oldest and most extraordinary.

Stereograph portrait of Martha Maxwell standing in one of the exhibits at her Rocky Mountain Museum in Boulder, Colorado. Published by Chas. Weitfle, Central City, Colorado, ca. 1879.

The earliest item in the collection—preceding the Renaissance—is a grant from Pisa in 1240, on vellum, conveying a walled garden adjacent to the Church of the Trinity to the proprietor of a hospital for "reformed" or "repentant" women of Pisa ("mulierum repentiarum de pisis")—but reformed from what? Repentant about what? We aren't told. "Hospital" then meant something closer to a refuge, often for the indigent, but this may possibly imply a home for former prostitutes, or women whose sexual activity contravened conventional marriage in some other way. One of the three donors named on the deed is Ugolinella, widow of Marcus Dalivo. The collection begins, then, by pointing at women who own land, women who give to charity, and women who take care of other women. The difficulty of the language suggests that for a legal historian, or for a historian of medieval Italy, this might reward further investigation.

The next earliest materials are incunabulae—books from the earliest days of printing in the West, the rarity of which makes them intrinsically valuable to researchers. Among these in the Baskin Collection are two copies of Incominciano Le uite de pontefici et imperadori Romani, known in English as Lives of the Popes and Roman Emperors, printed in 1478 by the press at San Jacopo di Ripoli, a convent at which some of the nuns—drawn from the best families in Florence—worked as typesetters. One copy has a witty manicule that snakes up the page at the entry for Pope John VII, Joannis Anglicus, and points to a marginal note reading "Questo papa fu femina" ("This pope was a woman"). Sadly, it has long been clear that Pope Joan was, in fact, fictitious, but it is true that these volumes contain some of the earliest evidence of women working in the book trades.

Nor is it the only such evidence: there is a strong presence here of the widows, who, possessing greater legal authority than wives, carried on their husbands' printing or bookselling businesses. You will find Charlotte Guillard in Paris, a printer for more than fifty years; her peer Yolande Bonhomme, in 1526 the first woman to print a Bible; their fellow Parisians, la veuve Debour, printing in the 1760s and la veuve Métoyer in the 1820s. Further south, la veuve Rouzeau-Montaut sold books in Orléans, and so, further south still, in Madrid, did la Viuda da Corradi. To the northeast, la veuve de Bastiaan Schouten printed in Leiden; Katharina Gerlach ran a printing house in sixteenth-century Nuremberg, while Anne Griffin printed in seventeenth-century London. These are just the printers and booksellers; there are also engravers, illustrators, translators and writers before the eighteenth century to be found here.

Among these early women in the book trades I will single out one, Maria Sibylla Merian, because she is not usually considered in this light, although that aspect of her work is important to Lisa Baskin as a collector. The beauty of her engravings of the metamorphoses of caterpillars and other insects is justly celebrated, but in addition to being a scientist and artist, she was also the moving force behind the production of her books, engraving plates and coloring the printed images afterward, finding engravers when the work became too difficult for her after a debilitating illness in Suriname, and engaging business contacts in Britain to advertise in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society to enlist subscribers—among other tasks that helped to make a place in the world for her books. Merian has certainly not lacked scholarly attention, but there may be new things to learn about her business life, especially in the context of the work of other women artists and engravers in the German and Netherlandish book business of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

Left: Label for Bertha Lind’s Crystallized Mint Leaves by Ethel Parsons, copyright 1923. Right: Business card for Mrs. Churchill's Psychological House (Boston, Massachusetts). ". . . the poor attended Gratis."

One other group of materials from the book trades and arts deserves particular notice: the materials falling under the general rubric of the Arts and Crafts movement. These include bookbindings by members of the Guild of Women Binders, a response from women in and around London at the turn of the nineteenth century to their exclusion from the all-male unionized bookbinders. And they include works like Phoebe Anna Traquair's manuscript of Tennyson's In Memoriam done in the late 1890s, a work that she wrote and decorated in tiny figures like those of William Blake and colors of supernal beauty; the volumes whose illustrations Gloria Cardew painted in watercolors; the blue silk bag that May Morris embroidered for her beloved at the time, a man named John Quinn; the cache of letters and papers from Morris and her sister; and finally, the larger collection of papers from the organization Morris founded in 1907, the Women's Guild of Arts.

The Baskin Collection leads down many other paths. There is a mass of nineteenth-century material on women's work prospects in the United States, to be found, for instance, in anthologies such as Virginia Penny's encyclopedic works: Five Hundred Employments Adapted to Women, with the Average Rate of Pay for Each (Springfield, Massachusetts, 1868), or its succeeding volume, How Women can Make Money: Married or Single, in all Branches of the Arts and Sciences, Professions, Trade, Agricultural and Mechanical Pursuits (Boston, 1870). Or you could begin with Louisa May Alcott's lesser-known novel, Work, a Story of Experience (Boston, 1873, opening with the heroine's sprightly declaration, "‘There is plenty of work in the world, and I'm not afraid of it; so you'll soon hear good news of me.'" The researcher could then move back in time to one of the great loci of writing about women's work in the United States: Lowell, Massachusetts. She will find titles such as The Factory Girl, (Warren, Pennsylvania, n.d., but early 1840s?), in which a young woman begs her father to let her go to Lowell where she learns the value of SELF-DENIAL and saving, despite the taunts of her friends; The Factory Girl, or Gardez la coeur (Lowell, 1847), dedicated to "the intelligent and highly respectable class of female operatives in New England," in which a young woman avoids losing her honor; Mary Bean, the Factory Girl, or The Victim of Seduction, a Tale Illustrative of the Trials and Temptations of Factory Life, and Founded on Recent Events (Boston, 1850), in which the heroine, based on a young woman named Berengara Caswell, is not so lucky. These three titles alone point to the competing and contradictory views of factory girls, and when the researcher wants to see what the young women had to say for themselves, she can turn to the well-known periodical written and edited by female factory operatives, The Lowell Offering, and later works such as Harriet H. Robinson's Loom and Spindle, or Life Among the Early Mill Girls: with a Sketch of the "The Lowell Offering," (New York, 1898) or Lucy Larcom's An Idyl of Work (Boston, 1875), remembering her time at Lowell through rosy lenses.

Left: Front cover of Mary Seacole's Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands (1857), the first autobiography by a black woman in Britain. Seacole was a nurse during the Crimean War. Right: Frontispiece from Margaret Bryan's Compendious System of Astronomy (1799). This portrait of Mrs. Bryan and her daughters was engraved from a miniature painted by Samuel Shelley.

Lest the researcher think that the collection is wholly focused on the East Coast, she might, for fun and enlightenment, have a look at Mary Dartt's On the Peaks and Among the Plains; or, How Mrs. Maxwell Made Her Natural History Collection (Philadelphia, 1879), which teaches us that Mrs. Maxwell has "made a collection of the animals of Colorado procuring herself, either by shooting, poisoning, trapping, buying, or soliciting from her acquaintances, specimens of almost every kind of living creature found in that region, skinning, stuffing, or in other ways preserving them." The researcher will find, as well, forty-eight stereographic views of Mrs. Maxwell and her museum. Beyond the books on work, there is another rich source that has rarely been used in scholarly writing: the trade cards, small pieces of printing the size of business cards or a bit larger, advertising a woman's business and address, from the mid-eighteenth century into the twentieth. There are hundreds of these in the Baskin Collection, largely from Britain and the United States. They are not fully cataloged as of this writing; indeed, the collection is still growing. These shards of history are often the only record of a woman's contribution to this world, and collectively they offer myriad glimpses into what women have made possible.

All of the books mentioned above focus on white women. Virginia Penny notices race occasionally, enough to make it clear that her listings are aimed almost exclusively at white women seeking work. Given that the United States was built on labor coerced and stolen from people of color, it is no surprise to find that the resources for African American women, or researchers exploring their history, are fewer than they are for white women, but they are here to find. Individual histories are important: the researcher might turn to biographies and autobiographies. In addition to the memoirs and photographs of Sojourner Truth and other abolitionists, the researcher will find books like The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands (London, 1857), describing the Scottish-Jamaican Mary Seacole's work nursing cholera patients in Panama and wounded British troops during the Crimean War, to whom she also supplied provisions. In the United States, there are lives such as Elizabeth Keckley's Behind the Scenes, or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House (New York, 1868), describing her work as maid and seamstress to Mary Todd Lincoln. There are also works of collective biography like Abigail Mott's collection, Biographical Sketches and Interesting Anecdotes of Persons of Color (New York, 1839), or Hallie Q. Brown's Homespun Heroines, and other Women of Distinction (Xenia, Ohio, 1926), telling the life stories of more than fifty women of color from the history of the United States, including the “California Colored Women Trail Blazers.”

Two of the specimens made by students included in Simple Directions in Needle-work and Cutting Out: Intended for the use of the National Female Schools of Ireland (1850).

Other subjects are ripe for exploration: the history of education, for instance. Just one subject, astronomy, would lead a reader from Margaret Bryan's 1815 Compendious System of Astronomy, in a Course of Familiar Lectures to Arcturus, or the Bright Star in Bootes: An easy guide to science Doneby Catherine Maria Sedgwick, (London, 1865), in which Harry, a curious child, asks his teacher, also his mother, how the return of comets may be predicted. "By means of conic sections," she responds. "Ah! It is too wonderful for me!" says the little boy. This path would take the researcher onward to Lizzie Champney's beautifully printed In the Sky Garden (Boston, 1877), which continues the whimsical tone, though full of real science and dedicated to Maria Mitchell (represented in the collection by three manuscript notes). The Book of the Heavens (London, 1926) by Mary Proctor, FRAS, appeared ten years after women were admitted as Fellows of the Royal Astronomical Society, approaches astronomy with the same seriousness as Margaret Bryan.

The space allotted for this essay is quite filled up; and yet there is much unmentioned. The materials on contraception; the hateful notices of the death of Madame Restell (“the most terrible being ever born”) who offered abortions, abortifacients, and shelter to women for whom these were not effective from her brownstone on Fifth Avenue; the realia, from the Hull House pottery and WSPU tea set to the sanitary sponge that prevented pregnancy to the Simple Directions in Needle-work and Cutting Out [. . .] to which are added Specimens of the Work Executed by the Pupils of the Female National Model School (Dublin, 1850), with its tiny samples of garments and samplers and its pathetic suggestion to the Monitresses that a little kindness is a good thing in teaching these girls. As of this writing, less than half of the collection is catalogued—there is still more, far more, to discover. It seems that the work of the researcher, like that of all women, is never done; but the Lisa Unger Baskin Collection offers new materials, new encouragement, and new energy to all of us to carry it on.

February 28, 2019 – June 15, 2019
Duke University Libraries

December 11, 2019 – February 8, 2020
Grolier Club, New York City