Mortimer Rare Book Room History

Early Book Studies at Smith

As interest in the arts of the book spread through the U.S. in the 1930s and 1940s, a number of New England colleges and universities introduced the discipline to undergraduates. In 1939 President William Allan Neilson invited Helmut Lehmann-Haupt, noted bibliographer and curator of rare books at Columbia University, to teach a new course at Smith on the history of the making of books and books as works of art. Lehmann-Haupt made use of a collection of rare books that was then housed in the Browsing Room of the Library (not named for Neilson until 1946). The typographic and rare book momentum continued with an international conference on typography in 1942 organized by Clarence Kennedy, noted photographer, typographer, and professor of art, and in 1945, with the return to Northampton of Eunice Wead, class of 1902.

Eunice Wead, 1940Eunice Wead (1881-1969) taught “The History, Technique and Art of Book Production,” as a visiting lecturer in art from 1945-47, utilizing original materials from various college departments (papyrus, clay tablets, and parchment), examples of which are now housed in the Rare Book Room, as well as medieval and illuminated manuscripts and printed books from the 15th to the 20th centuries. Two letters shown here reveal Wead’s preparations for her course. On September 20, 1946, she wrote to Mary MacPherson, Smith College Librarian, that she was “poking about the bookshops in New York,” seeking appropriate books to add to Smith’s rare book collection. She concluded: “I will try to get to Northampton some day next week, as I want not only to get all this book business settled, but also to set in order the many slides which the Art dept. has let me order for the course.” On October 3, she wrote to “Miss Johnson,” identifying desirable books from a rare book dealer’s catalogue. Margaret Johnson was the librarian at Smith 1949-1968; she oversaw the 1962 additions to the library which included the present rare book room.
 

Eunice Wead from the Smith College Archives
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Eunice Wead, 1957

 

Wead’s teaching at Smith came after nearly thirty years as curator of rare books and nearly twenty years as professor in the Library School at the University of Michigan. Soon after her graduation from Smith, she worked at the Library of Congress for three years, first returning to Smith as a member of the Library staff from 1906-1911. Eunice Wead also visited in 1957, probably for her 55th reunion. She is shown here with Mary Patterson McPherson, class of 1957, who later served on the Smith board of trustees from 1998-2008.

Photo from the Smith College Archives
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Eunice Wead letter 1946

 

 

 

 

 

 

Letter from Eunice Wead, September 20, 1946
from the Smith College Archives
[Click on image to enlarge]