By: Kevin Grace
They are the fruit of our archival world, those strange objects, quirky provenance discoveries, and odd functions that lend surprise to the workday. For example, while attending a conference just last week, I was working one afternoon in a research library to delve into a few early documents related to our UC holdings. Taking a break and wandering down a dark hallway, I saw a partially-opened door, poked my head in, and saw two shrunken heads in bell jars. Not what I was looking for, but certainly more interesting than what I had been reading!
So it wasn’t unexpected at all when I returned home and saw that the Archives & Rare Books Library’s own anatomical oddity is in the public eye, something we’ve anticipated for the past several weeks. In its January issue, Cincinnati Magazine has a feature called “Artifact,” for which they used the jawbone of a mule from our Stephen Foster Collection. Having the mandible in the collection isn’t as bizarre as it might seem. The Foster materials were compiled by former UC president Raymond Walters during his tenure from 1932 to 1955. Walters was a Foster scholar of sorts and acquired the collection as part of his research, eventually donating it to the Libraries. There are the typical items in the Foster material that you would expect, such as sheet music, songbooks, images, and recordings. And the jawbone fits right in with these items because it is actually a musical instrument, used for percussion in the antebellum minstrel shows that traveled up and down the Ohio River, stopping in towns like Cincinnati to perform their songs and dances. A stick would be used to rasp up and down the teeth to provide the rhythm. But how and when Walters acquired the bone is a mystery.
Walters was keenly interested in Foster’s Cincinnati connection. Born in 1826, Stephen Foster came here in 1846 to work as a bookkeeper in his brother’s steamboat shipping business. During the few years he worked along the waterfront, he composed a few songs, including “Oh Susannah.” His many compositions are an important part of America’s musical legacy, and of course even today we always hear “My Old Kentucky Home” sung at the Kentucky Derby. His poignant lament, “Hard Times, Come Again No More,” is even currently adapted for the stage by Irish American musician Larry Kirwan, who transplanted it from a cabin setting to one of immigrant tenement life in New York City. Tragically enough, New York is where Foster’s own sad story ended. Mired in poverty and despair, and sick with fever, Foster was living in the American Hotel in 1864. He fainted from the fever and fell, breaking the wash basin and cutting himself badly on the neck. A maid discovered him and called for assistance. Foster was taken to Bellevue Hospital, where he died on January 13. There was a sole scrap of paper in his billfold, and scrawled upon it were the words: “Dear friends and gentle hearts,” and that is all.
Raymond Walters’ interest in Foster’s life was so strong that for many years there was a room dedicated to the collection in the old Main Library (we know it now as Blegen Library, of course). Murals depicting Ohio River life and Foster’s time in Cincinnati covered the walls. Unfortunately, when the building was renovated in 1983, the murals were lost. But we do have some black and white photographs of them. And, the piece of terrazzo wall that contained the words “Stephen Foster Room” was re-purposed above the doorway for Room 405. The gold lettering was removed but you can still see the shadow of the words, albeit upside-down.
The Foster collection remains intact, however, in the Archives & Rare Books Library, accession number US-93-01. In addition to Walters’ own account of the composer, Stephen Foster: Youth’s Golden Gleam : A Sketch of His Life and Background in Cincinnati, 1846-1850 (call number C.U.801 .W32 st), ARB also holds Walters’ extensive diaries that he faithfully compiled during his UC presidency, http://rave.ohiolink.edu/archives/ead/OhCiUAR0261
To learn more about the holdings of the Archives & Rare Books Library – or to see the jawbone – call 513.556.1959, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit us on the web at http://www.libraries.uc.edu/libraries/arb/index.html.