“Unusual” American Imprints<br>from David Lesser
By Michael Stillman
David M. Lesser’s catalogues are wonderful lessons in American history. His latest, number 76, is called “A Catalogue of Significant and Unusual Imprints Relating to America.” It is a collection of documents each of which provides a snapshot of a moment in American history. You can’t help but learning more about America reading this catalogue, and since prices are affordable for most collectors, you may find some items that belong in your collection.
There are contradictory elements in America’s character, great kindness and generosity towards those less fortunate, as well as terrible bigotry and intolerance to the same. In Lesser’s catalogue, we find some surprising examples of 19th century generosity of spirit. Item 165 is the Third Annual Report of the Steele Home, for Needy Children. None Rejected on Account of Color. Mrs. Steele, evidently a remarkable woman, had been sent to Tennessee by the American Missionary Association during the 1880s to assist the freed slaves and their families. She found much suffering in Chattanooga, so much so that she determined to build a home for children. However, she received no help in this endeavor from either the Missionary Association or the authorities in Chattanooga. Undaunted, she started the home anyway, relying on contributors, both black and white, from Chattanooga and elsewhere, to support the home. $375.
Despite an antipathy for the institution of slavery, prejudice against African-Americans was widely held throughout the North. There was much resistance to allowing Blacks, even freed slaves, to fight in the Civil War, though they would be helping the North’s cause. On January 29, 1863, John Hutchins and William Kelley spoke in the House of Representatives, calling on its members to permit Blacks to serve in the armed forces. They reported that experiments with black soldiers in South Carolina were completely successful, that General Hunter had said their aptitude for military movement “was equal to that of any white soldiers he ever saw in his life,” and pointing out that black troops had served in the Continental Army. Item 96. $250.
We don’t often think of prison wardens as caring humanitarians, but here’s An Appeal to the Philanthropists of the State of Ohio from D.W. Brown, a former warden of the Ohio Penitentiary over a century and a half ago. Brown calls for “societies for the especial protection and reformation of the unfortunate and friendless.” He recounts a case where “one of the colored convicts, by his prompt and active interposition, save[d] one of the guards from being crushed by machinery” as evidence that convicts can be reformed. Item 21. $350.
Then there are those documents that show the darker side of the American character. An unknown author, writing under the pseudonym “Thomas Theseer” in 1861, announces the real cause of the Civil War in The American Dream: or, the Partial Downfall of Liberty… Seems that it was not caused by slavery, but by the Popery of Rome, “that curse of nations.” This revelation would undoubtedly have surprised partisans of both the North and South. The author claims that Catholics will “rule with a rod of iron” large portions of the United States unless “we Protestants” turn them back. This was at the end of the “Know Nothing” era when some Northerners who were relatively tolerant of Blacks were virulently anti-Catholic. Item 172. $250.