Press "Enter" to skip to content

Author: Julia Blakely

Julia Blakely is a Rare Book Catalog Librarian at Smithsonian Libraries. She has undergraduate and master's degrees in art history from the George Washington University and a M.S., with a specialization in rare books, from Columbia University. For many years she was a lab instructor at Rare Book School at the University of Virginia (formerly at Columbia) and currently serves on its William T. Buice Scholarship Committee. She is the Libraries' representative for the Smithsonian's Material Culture Forum. Julia wrote the bibliographical descriptions for An Oak Spring Flora (1997) and has worked with several other private collections.

What’s in a Name? The Related Talents of Mark Catesby and Gertrude Jekyll

The Catesby Commemorative Trust launched the publication of The Curious Mister Catesby with a program at the National Museum of Natural History this past April. Smithsonian Libraries’ own Leslie Overstreet, a contributor to these various perspectives on Mark Catesby’s The natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama islands (London, 1729-1747), spoke on that work’s long, complicated printing history. Another speaker, E. Charles Nelson, presented his research into the naturalist’s biography. His mention of the author’s maternal family name, Jekyll, caught my attention˗˗could this early 18th-century Englishman, who produced the great study of the flora and fauna of colonial America, be related to the later renowned horticulturist, influential garden designer and wonderful writer Gertrude Jekyll?

Computers and Washington

Last fall, I marked the season for the harvesting of grapes to honor John Adlum, the little-known “Father of American Viticulture.” The origins of the first commercially viable vine in the American wine industry can be traced to the District of Columbia.

Now, with the great interest in Alan Turing, the recent auction sale of this English mathematician’s 56-page notebook for more than a million dollars, and the success of the movie, “The Imitation Game,” let’s look at another (and earlier) computer pioneer genius, Herman Hollerith, and the importance of his Washington invention. Hollerith was, as stated in the title of his principle biography, “The forgotten giant of information processing.” Again, it was the beginning of a huge industry—surprisingly but not at all incidentally—in the nation’s capital.

Celebrate the Rhubarb

Rhubarb, that harbinger of spring for many, is honored in the United States on January 23rd with National Rhubarb Day. Having let National Rhubarb Vodka Day (first Saturday in December) pass without note, I wanted to bake a pie in preparation. Thanks to the generosity of a neighbor and his bountiful garden last spring and summer, I had plenty set by. Rhubarb does freeze well. Inspired by the scholars transcribing, as well as cooking with and blogging about, culinary manuscripts dating from 1600 to 1800 in the University of Pennsylvania collections (recently profiled in The Washington Post), I turned to the Smithsonian Libraries for my commemorative effort.

Wine and Washington

"Vendemmia" (Harvest). Manuscript miniature from Tacuino Sanitatis, 1350 (Biblioteca Nazionale Austriaca, Vienna)
“Vendemmia” (Harvest). From the manuscript Tacuinum Sanitatis, ca. 1350 (Biblioteca Nazionale Austriaca, Vienna)

Now that the time of harvesting grapes for wine in the Northern Hemisphere is coming to a close, let’s raise an appreciative glass and toast John Adlum, known to a few as the “Father of American Viticulture.” The history of wine making in the United States is involved, to say the least (see Pinney’s magisterial work on the subject*) but it was Adlum who nurtured the first commercially viable vine in this country. And he did so, surprisingly but not incidentally, in the nation’s capital.

Surf’s Up in Rare Books

Ellis 1831 v4.FullPgWhile cataloging Polynesian Researches during a Residence of Nearly Eight Years in the Society and Sandwich Islands (London: 1831-1833; DU510 .E47 1831 SCNHRB), a transfer from the Department of State’s library to the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History, I was intrigued by the title page vignette in the fourth volume of the set. Depicted in this little engraved scene is a group of surfers riding a break on narrow planks. Wondering if it was an early representation of the sport, I naturally turned to Google, where a search turned up the information that it is often cited as the first illustration of surfing, at least in the Western Hemisphere.