As archivists at the Children’s Literature Research Collection, it’s not surprising that most of the materials we work with are children’s book materials: drafts of manuscripts, sketches for story ideas, original illustrations in all kinds of media. But sometimes we come across a few more… unusual items. A promotional matchbook, a papier mache doll used as a banquet dinner’s centerpiece, a charm bracelet. We call these objects “realia,” and they're some of the most interesting objects we have.
The first collection we processed here at the Free Library was the Tomi Ungerer papers. Ungerer gave us hundreds of beautiful and whimsical illustrations, plus a promotional matchbox for his book Allumette (1974). Making the matchbox more clever than bizarre, Allumette was a retelling of the classic Hans Christian Andersen fairytale “The Little Match Girl.” Perhaps we’re biased, but it does seem that promotional items used to be a lot more interesting - we’d prefer an artfully designed matchbox to another branded stress ball any day.
Not all of our unusual favorites are strange promotional items. In the Carolyn Haywood papers, there is a large collection of family photographs. One of the most interesting is a gem photograph – sometimes called a jewel tintype – from around 1900. The photograph, most likely of a very young Haywood and her mother, is set into a jewelry pin about 1” in diameter. While it makes us a little sad that no one accessorizes with family photos anymore, the gem photograph made for a great find.
Another remarkable photograph is from the Marguerite de Angeli papers. It’s a panoramic group portrait from the 1937 reception for the Newbery Medal winners. While panoramic photography is quite common for landscapes, it’s more striking when used for a portrait of a few hundred people. The depth of field is flattened, so that the faces of people in the very back of the reception hall are just as focused as those in the very foreground. While examining this unusual photograph, our Special Collections Archivist focused on a woman who she thought she recognized. Maybe another author whose papers we have? With a closer look, however, we established that it was Eleanor Roosevelt, who apparently enjoyed the reception very much.
If you are a fan of the CLRC on Facebook, you might already be familiar with our recent “Weird Doll Wednesdays.” We have a few dozen dolls here at the CLRC, some more “unusual” than others. One particularly terrifying example is from the Scott O’Dell papers. O’Dell was awarded the Regina Medal Award in 1978 by the Catholic Library Association’s Children’s Library Services. In honor of his most famous book, Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960), the Regina Medal Award reception included a papier-mache doll centerpiece made to resemble the main character.
Unsurprisingly, some of the most fascinating realia in the collection comes courtesy of the Walt Disney Company. In 1938, Disney made a short animated film, “Ferdinand the Bull,” based on Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson’s book The Story of Ferdinand (1936). We’re lucky enough to have both Leaf and Lawson’s papers here at the Library, and along with drafts and art from the book we have a nice selection of Disney tie-in merchandise. There’s a candy wrapper (free of 75-year-old candy, thankfully), fabric swatches, quilt squares, greeting cards, stationery, decorative buttons, a pencil sharpener, and acharm bracelet.
As you can see, it’s not all old papers here at the archives. We’re only able to include three images with our post, but hop on over to our Facebook page to see our album of cocktail-chatter-worthy finds, including some we didn’t have room to tell you about here.
- Caitlin Goodman