This article also appears in the current issue of the Library of Congress Magazine.
When a Library collects more than 171 million objects over the course of a couple of centuries, odds are that some unusual items will filter into the mix. Along with traditional library fare such as books, maps, manuscripts, magazines, prints, photographs, movies and recordings, the Library has … other things.
Like a piece of the World Trade Center and a piece of cake from Gen. Tom Thumb’s wedding (now nearly 160 years old). Here’s a secret Vietnam War POW list, written on toilet paper, and there’s a 1,000-year-old postclassic Mayan incense burner in the shape of a diving bat. We have an unidentified lock of hair from Clara Barton’s diary, and the whiteboard upon which astronomer Carl Sagan sketched out the plot to the movie “Contact.” Here’s a set of dessert plates hand-decorated by Rudyard Kipling, and there’s a map of the Grand Canyon made entirely of chocolate. Burl Ives’ custom-made guitar, anyone? Walking sticks of Charles Dickens and Walt Whitman? An Oscar for “High Noon” or Leonard Bernstein’s vanity license plate (“Maestro”) from his Ferrari?
All of those are real. But it is not true, no matter how delightful the rumor, that the Library has a very small stash of Sigmund Freud’s cocaine. We have a very small stash of Freud’s friend’s cocaine.
Also, we have a tuft of Canadian “muskox wool” from the collection of — did you doubt this? — Teddy Roosevelt.
“It is a capital misfortune,” Roosevelt wrote in 1918 to the explorer who sent it to him, “that the muskox has not been tamed.”
These are all eyebrow-raising exceptions to the rule of what the Library collects. The Library is home to the national narrative, the papers of presidents, politicians, artists, inventors and everyday citizens. The Library’s mission is to serve Congress and preserve the nation’s story, along with a good bit of world knowledge. It’s not an artifact-filled museum and does not double as a collector of oddball ephemera.
But it would also be a capital misfortune if the nation’s library did not have a scattering of such delightfully offbeat and wholly original items. These items came in as part of larger collections and we kept them because the Library is also a history of us, of humankind, and that messy history can’t all be contained on paper, vinyl, film and tape. These are some of the items that help give the tactile sense of bygone people who were about our size and height, who lived with the same phobias and desires that we do today. They offer a bit of needed spice, of raw humanity.
Take Whitman’s walking stick. Put that and his haversack in hand and you can take the measure of the man himself. Along with a bronze cast of his hand (we have that, too), you get the sense of what a big-boned man he was, no matter the delicate nature of his poetic lyricism. If he shook your hand, you’d remember the grip.
Or consider lipstick kisses. Wives and girlfriends puckered up onto pieces of paper and sent them to their boyfriends and husbands in World War II (if not before), as the Veterans History Project documents. The colors are still vibrant.
“Darling, I really did kiss the paper and it was quite without a kick,” wrote Norma Brenner to her husband, Joseph, an Army corporal serving in Europe, on June 10, 1944, on a bright pink sheet of stationery designed for such smackers. “I’d much rather it were your lips.”
Aviators in World War II also signed currency for one another, sometimes stringing bills together into long strips. They were nicknamed “short snorters” after shots of whiskey, and the Library has a few. The toilet paper, a list of American POWS kept among themselves, including a young John McCain, is from the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” in Vietnam. Combined, these pieces give a visceral sense of the passions of war.
The contents of Abraham Lincoln’s pockets the night he was assassinated give us insight into the everyday aspect of the man’s life. They are touching and, in their way, almost impossibly sad. His brown leather wallet, containing a Confederate $5 bill and eight newspaper clippings. An embroidered linen handkerchief. A watch fob. Spectacles, mended with a piece of string. A pocketknife.
These are not the belongings of an immortal icon, striding through history. They are the belongings of a self-educated man born on the frontier of a rough nation, Robert’s father, Mary’s husband; perhaps a slightly distracted man who went out for an evening of comic relief at a theater and never came home. The items he carried show his life arrested in stop motion. They were not displayed at the Library until 1976, when then-Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin thought they would give a human touch to a president who was “mythologically engulfed.”
The Library captures lives around the world, too.
In Vienna in the early 1880s, at the city’s General Hospital, we meet a neuropathology lecturer named Sigmund Freud. He’s not yet famous, but he’s got big dreams.
Meg McAleer, the historian who oversees the Freud collection, explains that Freud and fellow doctors were experimenting with the pharmaceutical benefits of cocaine. Such a sense of calm! No anxiety in social situations! And what a feeling of strength! Freud even sent a vial to his fiancé. He published on the potential therapeutic uses of cocaine (depression, pain management, exhaustion, morphine addiction) in June 1884.
But then Carl Koller, a physician in his circle, began to experiment with cocaine at Freud’s urging. Koller subsequently made a breakthrough of using it as an anesthetic during eye surgery that same year. It made him world famous, much to Freud’s chagrin. Freud wrote to his fiancé on Oct. 29, 1884: “The cocaine business has indeed brought me much honor, but the lion’s share to others.”
Koller, meanwhile, put a tiny bit of the excess cocaine he’d used in that groundbreaking surgery in an envelope and tucked in his files. More than a century later, when his daughter donated a collection of his papers to the Library, staff members came across the envelope during processing. The FBI verified that the “fine, white, slightly yellow powder” was inert. It was returned to a vault.
People in South America, the native ground of the coca plant, had been chewing its leaves for thousands of years before Freud came along, and the Library also has rare coca bags from Mexico that are more than 2,000 years old. Alongside those is a green stone bead, also more than 2,000 years old, that still has a piece of necklace cord or twine running through it. This would have been suspended around the neck of a Maya, Nahua or Olmec noble.
“It’s not just a piece of stone but also an example of a complex interaction between an ancient craftsperson and their environment,” says John Hessler, curator of the Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Archaeology and History of the Early Americas. “Here we find not only a piece of material culture but also the preservation of a moment in time, of a person just being in the world.”
As Hessler points out, in items like these there’s the indescribable magic, the gasp-inducing sense of touch. When we hold the things of those who went before us, it shows us that his hand went here. Her pen moved along the page just there.
It is as close to touching ghosts as we can come.
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