Improved Access and Preservation for the Lincoln Prints and Ephemera Collection

When imagining an artist’s rendering of the sixteenth president, you might first envision something like George Peter Alexander Healy’s famous 1869 painting Abraham Lincoln that depicts the seated, contemplative statesman, or perhaps Norman Rockwell’s 1964 Lincoln the Railsplitter portraying a young beardless Hoosier with axe in one hand and a book in the other. What might not immediately come to mind is something like Midwestern meat processor John Morrell & Co.’s 1963 Pictorial Autobiography of Abraham Lincoln, a commemorative calendar featuring colorful renditions of Lincoln’s life by Isa Barnett for each month. That’s just one of the nearly nine-hundred items from the IHLC’s Lincoln Prints and Ephemera Collection (MS 1045) to be available for patron use upon our reopening to the public (pending state and university regulations for managing the COVID-19 pandemic).

from John Morrell & Co.’s 1963 calendar, Pictorial Autobiography of Abraham Lincoln, featuring artwork by Isa Barnett.
from John Morrell & Co.’s 1963 calendar, Pictorial Autobiography of Abraham Lincoln, featuring artwork by Isa Barnett.

Acquired over several years from multiple sources, this collection contains an incredibly diverse array of graphic art, prints, memorabilia, and small artifacts that in some way depict or represent Abraham Lincoln or his life, times, and contemporaries. Ranging in date from the 1850s to the present, MS 1045 includes fine art like paintings by early twentieth century artist John W. Norton. It’s likewise rich with local prints such as the Sangamo Insurance Company’s 1865 memorial broadside entitled The Home & Tomb of President Lincoln.

While these materials have been accumulated over the years, they haven’t always been as easily accessible as we’d like them to be. A little over a year ago, IHLC staff determined that the collection should be fully organized and inventoried for the creation of a finding aid to help patrons search its contents. This proved to be a multi-step process for staff, beginning with an examination of each individual item from which staff recorded metadata—information like title, creator, publisher, physical dimensions, and date. Using widely-accepted standardized terms from the Library of Congress and the Art & Architecture Thesaurus, staff also assigned each item descriptive subject headings to group and locate objects by their artistic or historical subjects, such as the particular people or places an object depicts. At the same time, staff wrote conservation notes for items that described their physical conditions. This information helped us ensure that we could preserve them by considering each item’s specific needs.

C.W. Hotchkiss. Image of The Home & Tomb of President Lincoln, from 1865. Published by Sangamo Insurance Company. Engraving on poster. 32.1 cm x 24.3 cm.
C.W. Hotchkiss. The Home & Tomb of President Lincoln, 1865. Published by Sangamo Insurance Company. Engraving on poster. 32.1 cm x 24.3 cm.

We also enhanced the preservation of the materials holistically by improving their storage conditions. Much of the collection had been stored in an old set of wooden flat file drawers. Wooden storage can emit harmful gases, like certain acids, that can potentially degrade or alter paper materials within the collection. Rehousing the collection meant finding the appropriate archival quality containers specially designed to slow degradation of paper materials, photographs, ribbons, posters, and other artifacts of MS 1045.

So why preserve seemingly ordinary items like postcards, posters, or calendars? It’s precisely those kinds of objects that capture people’s experiences, ideas, and beliefs. For instance, the political culture of the Civil War Era manifested materially in many everyday or ephemeral items. One of my favorite examples of this is the patriotic mail envelopes that stationery printers sold in the 1860s, more than twenty of which are represented in this collection. Some bear unique, colorful, and even somewhat bizarre designs—like one by Philadelphia printer Samuel Upham entitled “Star of the North, or the Comet of 1861” which depicts Abraham Lincoln’s upper body as a glowing white comet with a red striped comet’s tail against a starry blue sky.

Abraham Lincoln's head as the head of the comet, followed by a red and white comet tail. Background is a blue starry sky with crescent moon. Image is on half of envelope.
Samuel C. Upham. Star of the North, or the Comet of 1861, 1861. Envelope. 7.8 x 13.7 cm.

Another patriotic mail envelope features the black flag of piracy with the words “J.D., His Marque” inscribed above, criticizing the Confederate government’s April 1861 decision to grant Jefferson Davis the right to issue letters of marque authorizing privateers to wage naval warfare against the United States. Others envelopes tell citizens to “love and obey the Constitution,” and “obey the laws,” as well as glorify Lincoln’s adolescence. It’s clear that many mail envelopes from this era speak to the sociopolitical issues and historical events engrained in their production.

As you might expect, the Lincoln Prints and Ephemera Collection is also a vast resource for studying evolving print culture and the use of the Lincoln name or image over the past 150+ years. Furthermore, it has much to explore for those interested in the development of regional heritage tourism and historically themed advertisements. Of this collection’s nearly 900 items, more than 230 are vintage (and a few modern!) postcards mostly depicting (and implicitly advertising) Lincoln-related heritage sites in Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, DC, and beyond. These postcards can show researchers changes to the built and natural environments over decades. Through their depictions and the notes that senders wrote on the back, they speak to the popular perceptions of cultural icons and to social values of the day. Postcards can even tell us about changes in photography and printmaking as methods evolved over time for producing printable images from negatives or hand-coloring pictures.

All of this is just a small taste of what this collection has to offer. Whether you’re interested in a carte-de-visite from Ulysses S. Grant or an original oversized Emancipation Proclamation lithograph, a Spanish La Flor de Lincoln cigar box label or a Champaign Centennial Stephen Douglas button and ribbon, there’s a good chance you can find it in MS 1045. From nineteenth century to the twenty-first, from Orville Hickman Browning to Carl Sandburg and Barack Obama, there’s much more than just Lincoln to be found in the Lincoln Prints and Ephemera Collection. To explore for yourself, take a look through our recently published finding aid.

Wooden fence on the left side and top of envelope. Abe's portrait lies at the angle where the fence meets. In type, "The Fence that Uncle Abe Built," just below the top fence.
The Fence that Uncle Abe Built, circa 1860s. Published by Magee. Envelope. 7.8 cm x 14 cm.
IHLC Resources:

MS 1045: Lincoln Prints and Ephemera Collection. Finding aid and collection information:

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