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Vol. LXIII, No. 19
 
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
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“The Best Old Place of All” Remembered in New Mudd Manuscript Library Exhibit

Ellen Gilbert

Climate control is a byword of manuscript repositories where old papers and artifacts have to be protected from the havoc that can be wrought by changes in temperature and humidity. So as the weather heats up, it is good to know that there is a new exhibit at the University’s Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, on 65 Olden Street, that is “cool” in both senses of the word.

“‘The Best Old Place of All’: Treasures From the Princeton University Archives” celebrates the 50th anniversary of the University Archives with a display of documents and memorabilia that captures both rarified (a Board of Trustees’ request that George Washington sit for a portrait) and mundane (an 1817 “special notice regarding laundry” describing the particulars of its delivery to “washer-women”) moments in the university’s history.

More than 5,000 researchers a year visit the archives, which consist of more than 15,000 linear feet of records. Although they document the university from its beginnings, the archives were not officially established until October 1959, by then-President Robert F. Goheen. The exhibit notes that “Despite the passage of time and several disastrous fires in the 19th century, many of the earliest records documenting the earliest years” survive, testifying to the school’s growth “from a small college to a major university.”

Those who associate campus uprisings with the late 1960s may be surprised to learn that rebellious behavior was a familiar response to the strict rules imposed on students in the early 19th century. The minutes of an 1817 faculty meeting recount that “For two days before the 19th of January (the Sabbath) there was some turbulence & noise in going to and returning from supper. Several panes of glass were broken in the windows of the refectory,” and “three or four crackers were fired in the edifice.” Later, “an unusual quiet” preceded the “ringing of the bells and the cry of rebellion & fire.”

An undated, decidedly unofficial “Final Exam in Mathematics” is rife with in-jokes of the day, and includes the question, “Given a bottle of Bourbon Whiskey and Fresh[man?] King … find the curve he describes after drinking it.” In a nearby case, a photograph of four serious-looking, uniformed young men posing with a mighty-looking rope shows the 1886 Tug o‘ War team, while Adlai Stevenson’s (class of 1922) 25th reunion class jacket, replete with buttons at the cuffs bearing the university seal, occupies a place of honor near the library’s front desk.

Letters Home

Typewritten letters home from 1951 exhibited next to 1998 emails to parents document technological changes over the years. Financial comparisons are offered up as well: in 1916 the $276 tab for a semester included a tuition fee of $87.50; “room rent” of $52.50; and board charges of $108. In 2008-2009, tuition was $34,290; room fees were $6,205; and board charges were $5,200, for a total bill of $45,695.

Perhaps the most moving object in the exhibit is the World War II Memorial Book in a separate locked glass case. It contains a page for each of the 355 alumni who died in the war; a sign indicates that assistance will be provided for viewing a particular individual’s page. As designed by Princeton Professor of Architecture Jean Labatut, each aspect of the book is supposed to symbolize the war and Princeton’s relationship to it. The effort required to lift the cover, for example, is meant to be a reminder of the war’s difficult battles.

A special feature of the exhibition, the 1748 charter of the College of New Jersey, rarely taken out of climate-controlled storage, will be on view to the public on May 29 and 30, and October 10. The two-foot-wide parchment bearing the seal of the province of New Jersey is the founding document under which the University operates to this day.

Other Activities

In addition to the exhibition, fall activities planned in recognition of the University Archives’ anniversary include a historical film festival, and an open house and tour. A special issue of the Princeton University Library Chronicle devoted to the University Archives also will be published later this year.

“‘The Best Old Place of All’” will be on view through January 29, 2010. The Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, and until 8 p.m. Wednesday. For the Saturdays that the University charter will be on view, the hours will be 9 a.m. to noon in May, and 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. October 10. For additional information, call the Mudd Library at (609) 258-6345.

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