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A Puzzle in Parian.

September 21, 2017

Wednesday, October 4th is #AskAnArchivist Day on Twitter. Each year archivists use this hashtag to answer questions about their collections or about the work that an archivist does.  Last year we posed a question of our own…

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This lovely gentlemen has been part of the library for as long as anyone can remember. Once he was probably part of a collection of busts that were housed in early reincarnations of the library. This early picture of the Virginia Union University library circa 1908.

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It was quite a fashionable thing to do at the time. To fill your place of learning with the busts of high-learned men. The Library of Virginia (then situated in Capitol Square) had a similar set-up at the time.

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Courtesy of the Library of Virginia

Only a few books from the early days of Virginia Union University still exist and it would seem that only one of the many busts remain as well.

The one that remains currently sits in the Archives stacks, unseen by many but if one is working back there he stares at you for hours at end. Archival work can sometimes be a lonely business, sitting in the back, working through papers in generally what is a windowless and cold room (so light and humidity don’t harm the papers) so I became very attached to our busty friends in the back room. And yet sad that I did not know this one’s name. Luckily there were clues to lead the way, a maker’s mark on the piece informed us that the bust was made by a British company, Copeland, around the mid to late 1800s. Copeland made many busts and small statues during that time period. Allegorical figures, members of royalty, and even some popular celebrities such as the singer Jenny Lind (see below). Have a post of your favorite movie star in your room now? Maybe then you would have had a bust of your favorite opera singer.

 

 

These busts were called “Parian busts” after the material they were made out of. Parian ware is a type of porcelain that looks like marble, allowing middle class people to decorate their houses and institutions with imitation pieces that looked reminiscent of expensive marble statuary. Copeland mass produced popular busts and figurines making them both accessible and popular.

But despite finding this information on the internet and looking through pages of pages pictures of Copeland Parian Busts, I could not find our staring friend. His draped clothing seemed to suggest a Roman or Grecian figure but we soon learned that this was part of the look of these busts. Many of the “modern day figures”, meaning those of the late 1800s were styled in a manner that evoked the great Greek and Roman philosophers. Might it have been made specifically to honor a specific patron of the university? If that was the case I lost all hope of figuring it out after it failed to look like any of the pictures of the early Board of Trustee members.

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But there is this wonderful thing called ILL. What is ILL? ILL stands for Inter-Library Loan. Just as your library has an agreement with you that allows you to borrow items, libraries have agreements with other libraries. If there is a book you want and we don’t have it at Virginia Union University, let a librarian know because another library might be able to let us borrow it.

We were able to use ILL to borrow a book from Washington and Lee University, a catalog of Copeland statuary and busts. And there finally, staring back up at me (always staring), was his face…

Whose face? Who did the early administration of Virginia Union University believe was important enough to display a bust of?

Daniel Webster.

If you are a little rusty on your early American History, Webster was a member of both the House and Senate, held numerous government positions, and (unsuccessfully) ran for president three times. Although in the beginning of his political career Webster spoke out about slavery. However, after about 30 years into this political career, in an attempt

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A copy of Webster’s speeches from VUU’s Special Collections

to forestall the Civil War, Webster signed on to the omnibus bill which came to be known as “The Compromise of 1850” which included such legislation as the tougher enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act. His constituents in Massachusetts were appalled and forced him to resign, though later he served a second term as Secretary of State.

So how might the students of Virginia Union University felt about seeing his face every day?

While we will never know for sure, we definitely know they were cognizant of who he was. Although students tended to focus their essays on more prominent abolitionists such as Abraham Lincoln, Charles Sumner and Frederick Douglass or on theological issues, Webster pops up every now and then.

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One of several monuments to Webster

In his essay “Representative Men”, Richmond Institute (a forerunner to VUU) student, Roger M. Harrison listed Webster, along with Lincoln, Washington, and Garfield as men representative of the American character. Another student, Alfred Chisholm, in his essay “The Men We Need”, cites Webster as one of the great orators whose produced “great works on language”.

It wasn’t all glowing praise though, John W. Jackson mentions Webster in his essay on Charles Sumner only to point out that Sumner, being far greater than Webster, will have no need of a huge monument to make sure people will remember him such as Webster has.

I, for one, am glad to have a name for my working buddy. But what do you think? Do you think its a good likeness?

 

 

They got the creepy staring, that’s for sure.

If you want to see what questions we tackle this year, join us on Twitter at @VUULibrary on October 4th or follow the hashtag #AskAnArchivist to see what cool stuff Archivists are working on around the world.

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