But we ourselves must not decline the burden of responsibility, nor take counsel of unworthy passions.Abraham Lincoln, speech at Bloomington, May 29, 1856.
In the last twenty years we have been privileged to examine numerous collections. Most specific to Lincoln; others we saw consisted of general Americana that included Lincoln. Some represented lifetime holdings being prepared for sale. Other collections were privately shown for our delight. Without exception each possessed a unique and different dimension – a personality of its own. And each was more than a worthy passion.
What an individual chose to collect, how material was sourced, the rarity of pieces in the collection… each aspect shaped the personality of what we saw. Accompanying stories on where items were “discovered,” later research to provide historical context, documentation on past owners, not to mention how the collection was exhibited, rounded out that character. But the collections we felt most memorable shared a similar trait: they spoke to the owner.
Fifteen years ago, celebrating our first anniversary, we had the honor to exhibit the Lincolniana collection of the late Dr. John K. Lattimer. A massive and special assemblage, this was the first time his collection had been put on public display. With an emphasis on relics and assassination-related documents, John’s pieced-together “story” enjoyed tremendous verve. Now it has all been sold – item by item – to other collectors. Many pieces from that assemblage enjoy significant pedigrees – a chain-of-ownership back to the greats: William H. Lambert, A. E. Fostell, John Burton, John Scripps Little, Oliver R. Barrett, William H. Townsend, Justin Turner, Philip Sang, and Dorothy Meserve Kunhardt. These are names forever linked to the pursuit of collecting. Now, the responsibility of new owners is to remember this association while adding the name Lattimer to the provenance and patina.
Lincoln’s admonishment that we shouldn’t heed the “counsel of unworthy passions” doesn’t apply here; we know our quest is worthy and laudable. But we hope you appreciate the corollary burden of responsibility.
We often discuss the responsibility of conservation. This frequently requires reversing what earlier collectors thought appropriate. I cannot tell you how many times we have found masking tape or acidic Scotch Tape used to “mend” tears on documents and silks. Numerous “old-timers” did not hesitate to affix non-archival labels with inventory numbers or ink-stamp their names to documents forever impacting the integrity of an item. Certainly we are far more deliberate … more thoughtful on such matters today. When a rare print or photograph is found in an old frame with non-archival backing, we immediately know to “bust it out” and take steps to properly house the piece. But our responsibility goes further. We have an obligation to retain records explaining where consequential items originate and their significance. Meeting that burden requires these records be easy to fathom by those who follow. If a detailed history isn’t properly kept with an object, such they can be “married” together and fully appreciated, it’s pointless. Sad to say, the number of important relics that passed into later hands only to be discarded – the artifact’s original history having been lost with the passage of time – is heartbreaking. We assisted in the dispersion of Dr. Lattimer’s collection. John kept files on everything; sadly they were not always kept such they could be tied to the objects they represented. At the end of the day there were numerous relics – pieces of fabric, hunks of wood, bullets and nails – that John could have easily told us about. ‘With his passing, unable to find the correct paperwork they just became hunks of wood, pieces of fabric. They once possessed historical significance. We simply could not fathom what. ([his same sensibility should be shared with friends who don’t collect. Whenever possible, provide the simple counsel that they have living relatives identify old family photographs – write identification information on the verso in pencil. I wish I knew the subjects in photos found in grandpa David’s effects … particularly one with a rather fashionably-dressed group posed in front of a brand-new Model T!)
So … the story created by each collector eventually gets disassembled … and will travel into different holdings to help tell so many more stories. Each item sent to a different collection embellishes a new narrative. With the disbursement of an individual’s treasures we celebrate the man who was – and the provenance that forever remains. Hopefully, there will be an accompanying transfer of responsibility … we know the new owners cheerfully accept their burden.
“Printing is but the other half, and in reality the better half, of writing; both together are but the assistants of speech in the communication of thoughts between man and man. ” -A. Lincoln, on Discoveries and Inventions, Springfield, February 21, 1859.
The balanced intellect grasps tradition while accepting innovation. Neither Luddite nor technophile; modernize as necessary hold to convention when appropriate. Mind you, I’ve never been described as “balanced”, but I am fortunate to live a bracketed life. I intentionally surround myself with those a great deal older, and those quite a bit younger. (Sadly the equilibrium skews as the years advance.) From mentors I gain wisdom found in acumen. From interns I appreciate “that is the way I’ve always done it” doesn’t resonate. Change is inevitable and often desirable.
Lincoln spoke of printing at a time when it enjoyed one meaning. Paper, ink, type, presses, binding … one applicable technology. In 19th century America, publishing as an industry flourished. An educated, literate populace gave rise to newspapers and printing houses across the country. In 1860, the metropolitan area that later unified into New York City supported no less than fourteen daily and weekly newspapers – far greater than the number today. Harriet Beecher Stowe redefined the term “best seller” in 1852 with her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin – more than 300,000 copies sold in the United States that year alone. Men of means were often judged by the libraries they assembled.
One hundred years later, a librarian by the name of F. W. Lancaster coined the phrase “paperless society.” He and other futurists envisioned the digital revolution nullifying any need to print on paper. They predicted the paperless society would envelop the new millennium. Here we are in 2010 and that reality still seems far off. But what they envisioned has come true in many respects. Recently, numerous well-established publications, journals with celebrated histories, have disappeared. Others have found alternate ways to continue their mandate and serve their constituency. At this point, you certainly know where this is heading … I hear cries of anguish from the tactile camp, from collectors and libraries everywhere.
After fifteen years, this represents our final printed issue of The Rail Splitter. WAIT – hear us out. We will continue to publish, continue to serve our community, continue to illuminate. This journal will become an on-line publication. We listened to our Editor-of-reason Timothy Bakken’s protest: “printing remains the most durable form for the preservation of human thought.” (Mind you, Tim still listens to vinyl, has film developed, and refuses to trust email.) But reality and pragmatics re-shapes all. Sure, our on-line efforts may not prove lasting or “permanent”. But, to quote W. Somerset Maugham, “Nothing in the world is permanent, and we’re foolish when we ask anything to last, but surely we’re still more foolish not to take delight in it while we have it. If change is of the essence of existence one would have thought it only sensible to make it the premise of our philosophy.”
Our challenge is to not allow changes to eclipse our goals. When Donald Ackerman and I started this quarterly fifteen years ago, the objective was simple: have fun, share knowledge. We found a large community of like-minded collectors and historians, people generous with insight willing to share. This passion remains. But new ways to disseminate information provide sizable advantages. This journal shall continue – bigger, better, with greater reach. The burden of increasing expenses and dependence on printers and the mails prevents reporting news in a timely manner. Not so anymore. Our reports can be immediate, timely, and more relevant. Not just more prolific, content can be found from a wider community. An on-line forum enables more interactive discourse – much easier for voicing opinions on matters of consequence. And, one distinct advantage: much of the material culture we appreciate deserves to be pictured in color – cost prohibitive in our printed format.
So, please be patient. Our on-line presence will grow and take shape within the next few months. It will be interactive and invite your involvement. The entire history of our journal will be made available along with unpublished content we never knew how to handle. Instead of this being our obituary, recognize this as transformative. Everything we sought to do will continue … just differently! As Lincoln succinctly put it “Advancement – improvement in condition – is the order of things.”
A personal note. Last year saw a great deal of change at The Rail Splitter. The Lincoln Bicentennial; our hosting the largest Abraham Lincoln exhibit in the nation; Donald Ackerman’s decision to relocate to Texas … the end of 2009 represents a demarcation point. Rest assured Donald’s out-of-state move will not impact his commitment to this organization. (Sadly, it just means no more late-night editing sessions with take-out from King Wok.) But I must note one additional change – one worthy of recognition because of a man deserving to be honored. Dr. John Sellers retired from the Library of Congress at the end of April – after exactly forty years of service to the nation. John was the Historical Specialist, Civil War & Reconstruction, as well as Curator of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln at the Library of Congress. A man of infinite knowledge, he was described by President Bush as a “national treasure.” John remains one of the most generous people we’re blessed to know; a true “Lincoln scholar” Lincoln himself would appreciate. We express heartfelt congratulations to John and his lovely wife Sylvia – with gratitude for years of friendship that will continue.
– Jonathan Mann, Publisher