Friday, June 14, 2024

Cornelia Meigs: A Wildly Successful Experiment

Cornelia Meigs. The Recipient of the Newbery Medal in 1933 for her children’s book Invincible Louisa, a biography of Louisa May Alcott. Even if you were to Google her, her accomplishments as a fiction writer and English professor dominate. What you might not know about her is that Meigs was also a dedicated cryptographer who decoded enemies’ messages during WWII. Rauner holds many of Meigs’s cryptography workbooks, lesson plans, letters, and applications from this time in her life.

With the increased need for manpower and military men in WWII, women were encouraged to take their place in the production line and step outside the bounds of traditional domestic work. Countless women stepped up and worked behind the scenes (and on the battlefield), helping the U.S. bring back a victory, too. And they did this work not just in factories; women flew planes and became cryptographers like Meigs.

Yet, even with this need for workers, Meigs’s example shows that women at the time still faced pushback. In December of 1941, Meigs applied for a job as an Information Specialist in the Research and Writing department, as she was an English professor and a writer. In 1944, already an experienced cryptographer, she applied under the Bureau of Facts and Figures. However, she checked the “Male” box for gender on the application form. Given that cryptography is fundamentally a profession focused on small details, it’s difficult to believe that she made such a blatant error and reasonable to suggest that she is responding to the discrimination she certainly faced as a woman entering a field traditionally dominated by men.

One particular document from her training, “The Introduction to the Cryptography course in the Navy for Students,” provides insight into cultural attitudes towards women taking over male tasks, such as cryptography. The second paragraph calls Meigs’s cryptography class “experimental” and ends with the statement that “cryptanalytic work has usually been done by men in the previous years. Whether women can take it over successfully remains to be proved…”

However, Meigs proved that women can, indeed, succeed as a cryptographer: she completed the class and became a talented crypto-analyst during the war. We have many of her exams, all with high marks; as shown by this featured test, Meigs frequently earned a perfect score. 

Meigs can inspire women who, even today, face pushback as they break into predominantly male spaces. Between her Newbery Medal and her cryptography work, Meigs shows us that women can–and did–do it all.

To see Meigs’s cryptography coursework, ask for ML-41, Boxes 28 and 29.

Friday, June 7, 2024

Singing the Song of Himself

Walt Whitman's Books poster
Walt Whitman was never shy about self promotion. He famously wrote anonymous reviews of his own Leaves of Grass (think what he could have done on Amazon...) and made sure Emerson's quote, "I greet you at the beginning of a great career," was stamped on the spine of the second edition. Here we see him singing the song of himself by selling his books with a poster he had printed for booksellers. Not a lot of copies survive, but we are fortunate to have acquired one recently. We were particularly excited to see him trumpeting his recent "As a Strong Bird on Pinions Free," which he calls the "Commencement Poem delivered at Dartmouth College." That is sort of accurate, as we have chronicled in a previous post, he came to Dartmouth to deliver a poem in 1872, but it was at the invitation of the students on Class Day, not actually at Commencement. They paid him $17.50 but he made some hay from the honor in this advertisement.

So many typefaces! So much hype! So expansive! So Walt Whitman!

Stop by and take a look by asking for Broadside 001475. And there is plenty more if you are into Whitman!


Friday, May 31, 2024


The cover of a pamphlet titled "Shark Sense," featuring a cartoon man screaming in the water as a small fish nibbles his toes, with a speech bubble showing a large shark.
"Men who know most about sharks are the men who fear them the least... landlubbers will believe any shark story they hear, provided it is gory enough." In March of 1944, the U.S. Navy issued an illustrated pamphlet called Shark Sense, filled with information for the unfortunate sailor who might come into contact with sharks in tropical waters. The main gist of the piece is to assure readers that sharks are highly unlikely to actually attack uninjured humans and to offer some general facts about the animals. The problem with that latter part is that, according to Shark Sense, scientists just haven't devoted much attention to understanding them yet. 

The publication pads its sparse but sensible advice with legends of the shark's supposed ferocity, culminating in an account of the development of the first horror film to feature them. This apparently resulted in "an epidemic of shark pictures," a funny idea to consider thirty-one years before Jaws would be released. Our copy was apparently sent from its writer, Roark Bradford, to George Matthew Adams 1931. His inscription reads "Dear George: This is the little number I did for the Navy about our long-toothed friends of the briny -- Brad."

To read Shark Sense, ask for Val 817 7273 W5.

An open page of "Shark Sense," featuring text and several small cartoons of sharks.

Friday, May 24, 2024

A Pirate Looks at 400

A woodcut image of Gibbs and others throwing people overboard
In April of 1831, Charles Gibbs came clean while awaiting his execution by hanging at Ellis Island. One of the last American pirates of the Caribbean, Gibbs was not actually his real name. Instead, his real name was James Jeffers, and he had been born in Newport, Rhode Island in the late 1790s. Over the course of his short but perversely productive career in pirating, Gibbs claimed to have been involved in the murder of nearly four hundred people. His rationale for so many killings? The sentence for piracy was the same as that for murder, so there was no point in leaving any witnesses behind.

Gibbs' death row confession was preserved by his eager biographers in the form of a chapbook published in Providence soon after his death. In this slim volume, titled Mutiny and Murder, Gibbs reels off an astonishing resume: He claimed to have served on the USS Hornet and USS Chesapeake during the War of 1812, then later became a privateer on the schooner Maria before mutinying against his captain and taking control of the vessel to become a full-fledged pirate. After his villainous crew was decimated by the USS Enterprise in 1824, Gibbs escaped and had further adventures farther asea, first as a commander with the Argentinian Navy during the Cisplatine War and then later as a member of the Barbary Corsairs. Finally, however, his deeds caught up with him. He was captured on Long Island in 1830 after participating in yet another mutiny.

The saga of Gibbs' sordid life was extremely popular well into the mid-19th century: the public displayed a horrid fascination with his sensationalist stories of treachery on the high seas and roving adventures around the globe. As one might expect from a sailor, however, most of Gibbs' confession turned out to be nothing more than one tall tale strung along after the next, the last laugh of an inveterate ne'er'-do-well.

To read the last yarn of one of the last pirates of the Caribbean, come to Rauner and ask for Rare G537.G44 M8.

Friday, May 17, 2024

A Swingin' Green Key

Duke Ellington preforming in Alumni Gym
In the Spring of 1946, Dartmouth was trying to get back to normal. World War II had transformed campus into a training ground for Naval officers and the usual cycle of student life had been utterly disrupted for four years. But with the end of the War, there was a desire to bring back old traditions. One of the first to return was the Green Key Prom so they did it in style by bringing in one of music's biggest stars and among the greatest jazz composers of all time. None other than Duke Ellington regaled the students and their dates in Alumni Gym. As The D reported it:

Dartmouth has been waiting a long time for this one, and tonight Dartmouth will be amply repaid for waiting, when Dartmouth and Dartmouth's girl circle the floor or stand and sway to the mellow golden flow of Hodges' sax or the throaty warble of Kay Davis or the rippling ivories of The Duke himself.

It was a return visit for Duke Ellington and his Orchestra. They had played Green Key in 1937 as well, but this one was special--the specter of war was lifted and folks were ready for party.

To see the coverage, come in and ask for the May 4th, 1946, issue of The Dartmouth.

Friday, May 10, 2024

Theatre of the World

A two page spread showing a late 16th century map of the globe.What did the world look like in 1592? Abraham Ortelius's Theatrvm orbis terrarvum, or, Theater of the world attempts to answer that question. Cited as the first true modern atlas, Theatrvm was initially  published in 1570 in Antwerp, the richest city in the world at the time. Earlier compilations of maps did exist, but this work's combination of the best available maps with textual description lacked precedent.

Our edition is the 19th, with Latin text and a whopping 134 maps. Each map was printed from copper plates engraved by the Antwerp artist Frans Hogenberg and his assistants. While not reflective of global geography as we now know it -- there are, for instance, only five continents in Ortelius's world -- they are a massive artistic achievement, hand-colored and decorated with allusions to Classical and biblical events. We particularly recommend the maps of the Holy Land, Ancient Egypt, and Iceland (which has the best sea monsters).

The title-page for Theatrvm, showing four women representing the continents of Europe, Asia, Africa, and America, and the bust of a fifth woan represnting Terra Australis.Ultimately, this book is worth checking out for the title page alone. It features allegorical representations of the five known continents as women, and those images are just as fraught as the modern viewer might expect. We'll draw your eye to the smallest figure on the page -- only a bust of a woman where the other four have complete bodies. This is Terra Australis or Magellanica, the unknown but plenty theorized continent to the south. Europeans would not reach the (already inhabited) Australian continent until 1606, after which the idea of yet another unknown southern continent would persist until the discovery of Antarctica in the 19th century.

To take a look at Ortelius's world, ask for Rare Book G1006 .T5 1592.

Friday, May 3, 2024

Eugenics Exposed: Peering into the Eugenics Record Office's Archives

Front page of the Family-Tree Folder form from the Eugenics Records OfficeIn the early 20th century, eugenics—or the study of optimizing reproduction to promote “favorable traits” in a human population—took root throughout the United States. The scope of projects relating to the promotion of eugenical philosophies—ranging from forced sterilization to encouraging reproduction between “more fit” individuals—influenced policies and projects at governmental, social, and scientific levels. While most principles regarding eugenics have now been proven false and based in discriminatory principles, they were an active area of study and concern for many decades. Consequently, the public interest in the discipline during this time created several unique programs centered at better understanding familial genetics and heritability.

One of these projects, created by the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Eugenics Record Office (ERO), was the “Family-Tree Folder”. The ERO branded itself as “a repository of eugenic data, with an ‘analytical index’ to allow the study of the hereditary transmission of the ‘inborn traits’ of American families.” (EugenicsArchive) The organization built this archive, containing massive amounts of data, through the general public’s completion of voluntary surveys. Questionnaires were mailed to interested parties, who input detailed demographic information about their family members and then sent their data to the Eugenics Records Office for indexing and storage. This personal data was then used for eugenical research projects until the closure of the ERO in 1939.

A Dartmouth professor, William B. Unger, took interest in the study of genetics and heredity. As an employee of the College for 40 years, from 1925-1965, he taught coursework in zoology. His archives housed in the Rauner Library, however, demonstrate a close personal interest in genetics not reflected in his academic research or teaching. A search revealed a copy of the “Family-Tree Folder” he had completed for his own relatives.

This booklet, sent to him on January 12, 1923, consisted of several components. The first was a pedigree chart aimed at tracking marriages, births, and deaths. Beyond explicit familial relationships, the chart also recommended tracking some of the “hundreds of mental, physical, and moral traits which characterize different families”—including traits like “‘leadership’, ‘talent in vocal music’, or ‘alcoholism.’” This pedigree chart was accompanied by an individual analysis card, where each family member was tracked over 62 characteristics. These included genetically-related traits, such as chronic diseases or hair color, and more subjective traits. Examples included “strength, quality, or register in singing,” any talent in “craftsmanship, carpentry, masonry, or stone cutting”, or “nervous peculiarities - excitability; fretfulness; cruelty conceit; self-depreciation; holds a grudge.”

Close analysis of materials like this reflects the nature of the evidence used to support the claims of the eugenics movement. While some elements of the field eventually translated into legitimate practices—such as genetic counseling, a term coined by Dartmouth alumnus Sheldon Reed '28, referring to risk assessment for genetic and inherited conditions like cystic fibrosis—many data points were collected using practices not scientifically backed, on traits subjectively assessed with little genetic correlation. The ERO, however, largely relied on this mode of data collection to fill their archives. Other materials in the papers of William Unger—including a separate survey titled “Record of Family Traits”—utilized identical practices to collect evidence.

Front page of the Record of Family Traits form from the Eugenics Records Office

The eugenical ideas of the early 20th century have largely been disproven, as their foundations often lie on scientific racism and pseudoscientific methods. Closer analyses of “scientific tools,” such as Unger’s Family-Tree Folder, reveal why the data used to prove once certain conclusions has crumbled under increasing scrutiny. Nonetheless, projects like these informed policies that were used to discriminate against and often physically harm communities of marginalized identities nationally for decades. In hindsight, history serves as a reminder of the perils that arise when bigotry masquerades as science.

To review William B. Unger's eugenical data, come to Rauner and ask to see MS-833, Box 3, Folder 102.

Posted for Manu Onteeru '24, recipient of a Historical Accountability Student Research Fellowship for the 2024 Spring term. The Historical Accountability Student Research Program provides funding for Dartmouth students to conduct research with primary sources on a topic related to issues of inclusivity and diversity in the college's past. For more information, visit the program's website.