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Her Semester Abroad: Ellie Thackara’s Jaunt in the Dominion of Canada

Posted by: Jean Turner, Digital Library Intern Spring 2011

You may think you have nothing in common with Eleanor Mary Sherman Thackara, the 19th century daughter of the famed General Tecumseh Sherman on whom the Digital Library has many records, but let me ask you this: Have you gone abroad?  When I first sat down to read “A Summer Jaunt in the Dominion of Canada,” Ellie’s published accounts of her traveling in Canada, I admittedly worried I might not be able to relate to someone from such a different time and position.  But traveling has been the only time I have ever had the self-discipline to maintain a thorough journal.  So, while my day-to-day life will depend upon memories, my trips to Italy and Southeast Asia and my time on a small sailboat in the Caribbean are documented in well-weathered notebooks on my shelves.  Quite surprisingly, Ellie’s passages printed in The New York Ledger, like mine, regale the readers with asides about local history, imaginative descriptions of the landscapes, and many anecdotes of the interesting and unique people she meets along the way.  If you’re a student hoping to go abroad, a traveler with journals and memories of your own, or just a student of human nature read on!

In Ellie’s first installation she remembers remarking to a landlady that her “object in coming so far, aside from all the joy of beautiful scenery, was an interest in these foreign parts, their people, and their history.”   She proves this love for history by retelling tales of local importance for many of her destinations, whether it was the long-ago residence of a French martial city and convent or a famed Indian council attended by Champlain and Lescarbot in 1603.  Her satisfaction upon matching these facts to buildings and valleys is much like my own pride at recognizing a piece of history in front of my own eyes, and I don’t think Ellie and I are alone.

In an age where social networking allows us to share our traveling pictures with anyone and everyone, we might overlook Ellie’s attempts to put all of the beautiful sights she encounters into words.  Yes, she was prosperous enough to have several photographs taken and included in her accounts.  Despite this trailblazing technology, she further honors the uniqueness of each of her experiences by attempting to keep the scenery alive with her own pen.  From the decks of one boat, Ellie wrote, “The moon is a russet orange, from which the great bear must have had a bite, and long lines of clouds streak its face.  It is close upon our stern horizon, and before many moments will go down into the liquid darkness.”  Unable to snap a picture of every gorgeous sight she sees, Ellie includes many descriptive passages in her account to remind herself and share with others the landscapes one sees while traveling in Canada.

A look at several scenes Ellie came across.

It wouldn’t be a travel journal, at least it wouldn’t be like mine, without a cast of kooky characters that one meets along the way.  Ellie’s three pieces include tales of a guide who answered every question with his two-word vocabulary, “Yish, um,” and “Naw, um,” a Scotch-faced steward aboard one of her ships with an interesting “checkered double-visored cap” and lastly a “most artistic tramp” that she finds lying on a hillside as she disembarks from a boat.  Travelers everywhere meet those who wish to play a trick on tourists and this self-proclaimed blind man was such a person.  But after his farce was exposed and they knew they had been fooled, the newcomers begged for a photograph of the actor with his bald head and tattered garments “stuffed here and there with straw.”  As he knelt for them he dramatically exclaimed, “My name is George, G-O-R-G.  You are quite welcome.”

A look at the beggar George!

Not all of our travel memories are destined for publication or kept in the holdings of Villanova’s or any other university’s special collections, but it’s likely that they contain similar stories to those you’ll find if you read more of Eleanor Mary Sherman Thackara’s accounts.  After all, aren’t many of our reasons for traveling, whether for school or vacation or adventure, also the joy of beautiful scenery and an interest in foreign places and their people?  Read some more of Ellie’s accounts or explore the pictures in any of her three articles, all named A Summer Jaunt in the Dominion of Canada, found in the Sherman Thackara Collection of Villanova University’s Digital Library.


Shakespearian “Sex in the City”, 19th century edition.

  • Posted by: Michael Foight
  • Posted Date: February 23, 2011
  • Filed Under: Sherman-Thackara

Posted for David Burke:

Within the large assortment of letters and photographs comprising the Digital Library’s Sherman-Thackara collection is an untitled draft of a play written by Eleanor Sherman Thackara (the daughter of Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman).  It features four characters, each named after a heroine from one of Shakespeare’s plays: Rosalind (As You Like It), Desdemona (Othello), Katherine (Taming of the Shrew), and Viola (Twelfth Night).  They have been moved to nineteenth century New York and given prominent careers, but their dialogue frequently quotes actual lines from Shakespeare’s plays.  And they spend the time discussing romantic relationships—in short, a Shakespearian Sex in the City in the nineteenth century.

In terms of what American society was like at the time, Thackara’s imagination is quite radical.  First, the characters are not just housewives but have full-fledged careers, including a lawyer and stock broker.  Furthermore, the discussion the characters have comes out of Desdemona’s desire to divorce her husband—still a rare and scandalous event for the time.  Furthermore, she wants the divorce because her husband (Othello, of course) keeps losing large amounts of money through bad investments and refuses to help with the child-rearing.  Viola, on the other hand, takes great pride in having remained single, exclaiming, “What fools you women are to marry!”

The play ends with the women citing lines extolling the virtues of love, seeming to end on a happy note—though it is not clear Desdemona has agreed to call off the divorce (or even if the play is definitively finished).  The draft is hand-written, and there is no evidence the play was ever performed.  But written on the last page, Eleanor wrote a final, hopeful message, “May be.”


Pugilists, poetry, and prose for Black History Month

Black History is not a particular focus of our Special Collections department, but we do have a few noteworthy items with which I was able to put together a small exhibit on the first floor of the library. Only one of these books is available in our Digital Library, but the others are available through the Internet Archive. Here, then, is a brief look at some of these historically interesting books.

Peter "Black Prince" Jackson.

The portrait gallery of pugilists of America and their contemporaries by Billy Edwards (Philadelphia: Pugilistic Pub. Co., 1894) profiles many of the noteworthy boxers of the late nineteenth century. Although the majority of pugilists included in the book are white, the book gives a good view of the racial tensions in boxing at the end of the nineteenth century. One of the black boxers profiled in the book is Peter “Black Prince” Jackson (1861-1901). The descendant of a freed slave, he was an Australian heavyweight boxer who had a significant international career, although the Australian Dictionary of Biography Online notes that “Jackson was one of the finest boxers never to fight for a world championship: John Sullivan refused to defend his title against a black and [James J.] Corbett avoided Jackson once he gained the heavyweight crown in 1892.” For more on Jackson’s career as “a black fighter in a white world,” see the full article here.

Hampton and its students by two of its teachers, Mrs. M.F. Armstrong and Helen W. Ludlow (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1875), tells of the founding of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in 1868, shortly after the conclusion of the U.S. Civil War, by black and white leaders of the American Missionary Association. The roots of this school went back further, however, to a “simple oak tree” on a former plantation that served as a gathering place for former slaves who sought refuge there with the Union Army in 1861. One of the school’s earliest students was Booker T. Washington, who arrived in 1872 at the age of 16, and later became a renowned educator and author. Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute shortened its name in 1930 to Hampton Institute, and in 1984 it was accredited as Hampton University.

Photo illustration from "Poems of Cabin and Field."

Poems of cabin and field by Paul Laurence Dunbar (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1900) includes poems in dialect by Dunbar paired with photographs from the Hampton Institute camera club. Dunbar was the first African American poet to win national acclaim. He was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1872, to former slaves. Dunbar’s work included poems in dialect as well as standard English, essays, short stories, and novels. His work often described the difficulties faced by African Americans as they tried to achieve equality. To read more about Dunbar’s life and work, see the University of Dayton’s Paul Laurence Dunbar Website.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (Cleveland: J. P. Jewett & Company, 1852) is one of the most widely-known novels about slavery. Published in 1852, this novel focuses on the character of Uncle Tom, a long-suffering slave, around whom the other characters’ stories revolve. The novel portrays the reality of slavery while also emphasizing that Christian love can overcome anything, even the enslavement of fellow human beings. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century, selling 300,000 copies in the United States in its first year of publication. The novel was heavily criticized by those who supported slavery, especially in the South, while it received praise from abolitionists. In response to such negative criticism, Stowe produced A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Boston: J. P. Jewett & Co., 1853) one year after Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Stowe maintained that she based her novel on the stories of fugitive slaves she encountered in Ohio. This book was also a best-seller.

Uncle Remus, his songs and his sayings: the folk-lore of the old plantation by Joel Chandler Harris (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1881) was a collection of animal stories, songs, and other forms of oral folklore that were compiled into written form by Harris, who remembered hearing them from slaves while he worked on a plantation as a young man. The stories are rendered in Harris’s version of a Deep South slave dialect. Br’er Rabbit is the main character of many of the stories. He is a trickster, often getting himself into scrapes with Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear. The stories often convey a lesson, much like Aesop’s Fables.

Both Harriet Beecher Stowe and Joel Chandler Harris were white Americans who wrote stories about African Americans and slavery. First published in the latter half of the nineteenth century, both authors were praised by their contemporaries for the accuracy of their depiction of African Americans in what was then considered to be a non-racist manner. Although attitudes have changed since then and the stereotypes and dialects of the stories are now deemed offensive, Stowe and Harris both remain important and influential figures. Stowe’s work helped to fuel the abolitionist cause and, according to some, was also an influence leading up to the Civil War. Harris’s Uncle Remus tales were an accurate recording of tales told by slaves, which helped to preserve their folklore for future generations.


Philly and the Railroads of PA – A View From 1875

The Pennsylvaniana Collection in the Digital Library is the perfect place to go if you want a detailed look at the life and layout of 19th Century Philadelphia – in particular a very interesting old book entitled “Philadelphia and its Environs, and the Railroad Scenery of Pennsylvania.” This engaging little volume, published in 1875 by J. B. Lippincott and Co., catered richly to my penchant for poring over street maps, and taught me much about Philly’s geographical development over its multi-century history; and beyond the reports of long-gone former features of familiar locations within the original city bounds, throughout the districts consolidated in 1854, and even into the western and northern suburbs, the adventure stretches deep into the Pennsylvania countryside, illustrating the Keystone State’s unique place in the history of American railroads.

It’s fairly common knowledge that the famous Dock Street, site of William Penn’s original landing, was a winding creek before unsanitary conditions led the city to level and pave it over, but in this book I learned about several other lesser-known bygone landmarks that imparted names to prominent Center City streets: the creek running east to the Delaware which began at a spring at what is now the corner of 6th and Spring Garden; and the eastern terminus of Arch Street, which sunk into a ravine west of Front Street and was crossed at that junction by an arch. (Front Street, which once outlined a river bluff mandated for preservation by William Penn as a public promenade, of course now overlooks Interstate 95.) And did you know that Race Street used to be called Sassafras, and that South Street used to be Cedar?

fountain at Franklin Square

fountain at Franklin Square

Intended as a guide for tourists paying a visit to Philadelphia, the book leads the reader to a host of historical landmarks, buildings, and natural features, many of which – Independence Hall and the Betsy Ross House, for example – are still kept alive in memory today as current attractions; but the perspective of 1875 also brings to life many sleeping giants within present-day Philly. Fairmount Park in particular must have been very beautiful, judging by the detailed descriptions of the parks and monuments at sites like Lemon Hill, and the woodcut illustrations of views from various bluffs above the Schuylkill. This was the eve of the Centennial Exposition, and especially noteworthy is the mention of ongoing construction of the permanent hall, the building that was “saved” in 2008 by the Please Touch Museum. Overall this virtual tour is very thorough; reading this section of the book one gets the sensation of systematically traversing the streets of Philadelphia and experiencing them as they must have appeared in 1875, buildings, parks, railroads and all.

on the grade

A Pleasure Tour on PA Railroads

Also very thorough, vivid, and exciting is the tour given in the second half of the book – an imaginary journey through the entirety of Pennsylvania’s unique and wonderful railways. This author takes you on a memorable ride through the dips and turns of the Delaware Water Gap and the Lehigh Valley, up and down the ingenious locomotive-free switchbacks of the “gravity railroad” at Mauch Chunk, and west into the coal country developed by Stephen Girard (namesake of Girard Avenue), where the grades were some of the steepest in the world, and where horseshoe curves existed such that “engineers going over the road with long coal-trains, on dark nights, have been signaled to stop by a red light on the track ahead, which, on investigation, proved to be the customary signal-lamp on the end of their own trains.” These descriptions held a special interest for me, as I had recently heard mention of these very same areas by Engineering professor Dr. Ronald Chadderton in the course of his lecture in Falvey Library on the 1889 Johnstown flood. And of course, roads closer to the source (Philly) are described in detail which illustrates how much of our surroundings in Southeast PA – the “Main Line”, and the riverside route down the Delaware toward Ridley Park and Chester – were already venerated fixtures of the region even as far back as 135 years ago.

Porcelain Teeth

Porcelain Teeth

And last but never least, a popular publication of the 19th century is always a great place to browse antique advertisements. In this volume, look for Samuel S. White’s Porcelain Teeth, Marcy’s Sciopticon (a primitive projector of some kind), W. J. Wilcox’s Lard Refinery, and Atmore’s Mince Meat (source of the cow on the Pennsylvaniana Collection’s banner image). Point your browser to http://digital.library.villanova.edu/Pennsylvaniana/Pennsylvaniana-00001.xml, and go back to 1875 for a fascinating trip around Philadelphia and Its Environs.



Last Modified: February 8, 2011