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The Story Behind Their Book

Archives exhibit reveals a chapter in world - and College - history and an accompanying trove of eclectic treasures.

By Maria Healy

Lois Hamill and Mark SavolisCurrently on display on the second floor of Dinand Library, The Fatherless Children of France: “Their Book” exhibit is a rare event. Given to the College by Mrs. David Johnson in 1953, the collection was a gift in memory of her husband, who from 1891-1893 attended the Holy Cross Preparatory School, which was affiliated with the College until 1909. The collection contains autographed messages, manuscripts, photographs and artwork from the greatest political and military leaders, writers and artists of the World War I era. The items were originally assembled for a fund-raising auction to benefit the Fatherless Children of France Society, an organization founded in 1915 by American women to help French war orphans.

The auction items range from autographed poems by Robert Frost and Edith Wharton, to a 1918 autographed musical score for “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” by John Phillips Sousa; from signed messages and photographs of President Woodrow Wilson, King Albert of Belgium and Queen Marie of Roumania, to a sketch by Enrico Caruso, the famous Italian tenor. Spanning the humanities, the collection is a profound record of the Great War that evokes worldwide hope for a new generation.

The number of people who died in World War I was staggering, beyond anything the world had seen up to that time. There were almost 900,000 war orphans in France. The story of the orphans is one of the most tragic in modern civilization, and the response on the part of the world was an emotional one: a desire to thank France for its great sacrifice and to offer support for the “fatherless” children. Relief from America during the war and reconstruction was substantial and flowed from government agencies, private individuals and families that sent money to relatives in the war areas.

The Fatherless Children of France Society sought to cultivate ties between orphans and American “godparents,” who assisted 300,000 children in the aftermath of the war. In total, the Society collected $10 million dollars in aid. Within the Society, there were 200 committees spread across the country; Johnson was the speaker of the Boston committee.

From the end of the war through 1920, Johnson was responsible for soliciting contributions and collecting all the pieces that make up “Their Book”–“objets d’art from the most renowned artists, authors and politicians of (the) time.”

The original plan for the collection was to mount each contribution on a uniform-sized page, bind the pages together into one book and sell it for the cause. However, because the contributions were so eclectic, not all of them proved suitable for inclusion in this manner. In the end, the original concept proved infeasible. It was then proposed that the Society sell the items one by one. But not wanting to split up “The Book,” Johnson bought the entire collection herself and donated the purchase price to the war orphans effort.

Mark Savolis ’77, head of archives and special collections at the library, says that the Fatherless Children items are not only unique on their own, but also because they represent the premier art collection of the College.

Most of the work of the archives and special collections departments’ is devoted to Holy Cross records and a retrospective cataloging of things that have long been in storage at the College. But when the two departments were combined in 2000, one of the goals was to redouble efforts to show off the College’s collections.

“We decided to create a new gallery,” explains Savolis, “on the second floor of the library.”

Previous exhibits have concerned Holy Cross history—from the construction of campus buildings, to graduates who served in World War II. The “Their Book” exhibit is an artifact of a world well away from the College but with thematic ties to its fundamental mission to guide its students to use their education—in whatever discipline and perspective—to help others and better society.

The exhibit, which opened in September, will run through the end of the spring semester. Fifty-seven pieces from the catalog are displayed, a rare showing of items that have only been seen a handful of times. In 1921, “Their Book” was displayed at the Library of Congress, the American Art Gallery in New York, the Boston Public Library and the Widener Library at Harvard University–all to raise awareness of the exhibit and the fund-raising intention behind it. After Johnson bought the collection, it stayed in her possession until she donated it to Holy Cross. It was not displayed again until 1955, when the College loaned it to the Worcester Art Museum.

According to Lois Hamill, assistant archivist and special collections librarian, she and Savolis—along with staff and work-study students—chose which items to display, with each person answering questions such as, “What’s interesting? Who have you heard of? What catches your eye?”

“Since the show is such a testament to the liberal arts,” says Hamill, “we looked for balance, picking from all the categories.”

The responses so far are as broad-based as the collection, with English, history and art faculty and students all visiting the exhibit, drawn by different pieces.

“When people take the extra flight up the stairs in the library to compliment the exhibit,” says Savolis, “you know they like it. Many are connecting with famous names, such as John Singer Sargent or John Philip Sousa—individuals whom students have studied. It’s often a thrill when they realize that there’s an original work of these artists up on the wall right here in the library.”

Visual Arts Professor Virginia Raguin plans to take the students from her “Introduction to Art” class to the exhibit—not only to expose them to some great works of art, but also to introduce them to the idea of an exhibition, a collection of pieces put together with a particular intent.

“The students’ final project will be to sketch out what they think is an ideal exhibition,” says Raguin. “Why do people group things in a certain manner? What’s the intention? How might they take an idea they care about and bring it across?”

For Raguin, who has been involved with several exhibitions at the Cantor Gallery, the most fascinating aspect of any exhibit is the convergence of a historic context and the motivation behind the actual collecting.

“In the case of ‘Their Book,’” she says, “what makes it so interesting is the participation of literary as well as visual artists, including artists we now call illustrators, and photographers who have produced images that might not be considered ‘a work of art,’ but are historic documents of individuals.”

Those documents include a mesmerizing amateur photograph of the author Joseph Conrad—taken while he was in detention in Poland at Zakopane—with a note that it is the only print and that the plate had been destroyed. The drawings and sketches of people are moving as well—especially American portrait painter Joseph De Camp’s original pencil drawing of a woman in profile, her features shadowy in grief. And then there are the images of famous leaders, such as a portrait of Woodrow Wilson.

“The fact that this exhibition collects that kind of information makes a statement that art has to be true to itself,” says Raguin. “The artists were encouraged to speak for themselves. This is not meant to be a collection of propaganda.”

Meant to raise money at a time when there were not the social network and government relief agencies that exist today, the “Their Book” collection is a testament to a belief in the power of the human spirit as it ranges through the military, politics, the arts and the humanities.

“It also inadvertently speaks to the arts of communication,” says Raguin, who found the signed letters very compelling. “We don’t see people’s handwriting anymore.”

“Collected almost a century ago,” Raguin points out, “the exhibit is an artifact of a time before we had television. Certainly before we had widespread use of cameras by the average person and nothing close to digital imaging. The book was the primary mode for communication and the exhibition reflects the reading and seeing habits of those accustomed to the book. All of the sizes of the illustrations are book-based concepts. It’s entirely appropriate for the library.”

The original auction catalog for The Fatherless Children of France: “Their Book” collection—copies of which are available at the exhibit—exemplify Raguin’s point and is an evocative treasure itself. Designed by the American Arts Association in 1921, the catalog is made of octavos, bound in paper with pages that feature deckle edges. Black and white plates and facsimiles of the autographed messages, musical scores, handwritten poems and etchings are tipped-in, compelling as fossils. The “Their Book” catalog is a pleasure to hold in one’s hands, to rest on one’s lap. It induces reflection—and commemoration—not only of the contents, but also of the creative enterprise of good will that brought it into being.

The Fatherless Society of France : “Their Book” exhibit is free and open to the public during normal library hours. It will remain on display through the end of June.

 Maria Healy is a freelance writer from Northampton, Mass.

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