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  • Writer's pictureLinda Borromeo

In Her Own Hand: What Book Treasures Came to the 1893 Chicago World's Fair?

Updated: Mar 18, 2021

Credit: Evert A. Duyckinck, courtesy of the University of Texas at Austin

The Possibilities of a Handwritten Name

My sister was born almost three years ahead of me. When we were children, that age difference meant my sister enjoyed many privileges before I did.

And then the day came when my sister was handed her first library card. She took her pile of books, wrapped in her arms, up to the library desk. She could check them out in her own name. It was exciting and important. I had to experience that for myself!

Seeing the yearning in my eyes, I still remember the librarian explaining in words to this effect:

"You'll have to wait until you can write your name. That's how we decide when you can have your own library card."

I was probably a couple of years away from learning to write, yet I wanted my own library card above all things. My dad printed out my name for me to see. I practiced for hours until I could master that yellow pencil and the movements.

The marks must have been all over the place (I remember they took up a whole page), yet the librarian bestowed upon me that little card. It was a milestone for me, and it opened the door to become the temporary guardian of picture books in my own name. After the books were returned, the stories stayed with me.

The Possibilities of Writing

There's power and a world of possibilities in writing. Seeing long-ago authors' own handwriting in manuscripts makes them come alive in my mind. Maybe the handwriting is more slanted or heavier in places. What was the author feeling while she wrote it? Was she looking out a window at a green expanse or writing in her kitchen sink (as the heroine did in I Capture the Castle)?

Like the determination shining out from my early handwriting, I find a sense of immediacy and a realization of an author's personality in seeing her handwritten name and the words of her story.

1893 Chicago World's Fair. Credit: Theodore Robinson (Public Domain)

An Extraordinary Place to Visit

It must have been fascinating for visitors at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair to see a wealth of manuscripts and signed copies of famous books. All across the immense Fair there were books. They don't get the attention as other wonders do at the 1893 Fair—among them the marvel conceived by a young engineer: the Ferris Wheel—but there were many book treasures for those inclined to seek them out.

"View of the Woman's Building." Courtesy Chicago History Museum

In the Woman's Building, designed by 21-year-old architect Sophia Hayden, a visitor first encountered two extraordinary murals high up on the walls. One was done by Mary Cassatt. Later, the disappearance of her mural became a baffling art mystery. See the story in my blog here.

After viewing the murals, the visitor might gather her skirts and climb upstairs to see another extraordinary sight: the library.

In Right Here I See My Own Books, the authors write, “...[it was] a unique collection of printed materials written, illustrated, edited, or translated by women from all over the world. Never before had such a collection been assembled” [1].

By the end of the Fair in October of 1893, there were over 8,000 volumes in the library designed by the well-known interior decorator and textile artist Candace Wheeler [2].

The managers of the Woman’s Building, headed by Bertha Honoré Palmer, sent letters across the United States, and to France, Spain, Great Britain, Japan, Peru, China, Greece and many more. Their goal was to form a collection of books by women of “every race and country…from the earliest times to the present day” [3]. The collection fell short of that almost impossible plan, but the library was an impressive exhibit of women's literary work nevertheless.

Rare and Priceless Manuscripts

Spain sent “a treasure of old and rare books and priceless manuscripts.” And included in those 8,000 volumes were other precious manuscripts sent from England. Maud Howe Elliott wrote at the time of the Fair "…among others we may see the handwriting of " Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot and Charlotte Brontë [4].

Charlotte Brontë Portrait by George Richmond

Although accounts vary, World’s Fair experts Norman Bolotin and Christine Laing mention that the library contained “a rare manuscript of Jane Eyre." [5]

As a book and history nerd, I’d love to climb into my time machine and walk into that library display. There, I'd see a spectacular and never-repeated collection of books, including pages by a famous author “in her own hand.”

#Authors #BooksandReading #ChicagoWorldsFair1893 #Libraries

See if your favorite classic book was included in the library. You can see a list of all the books here >


[1] Wadsworth, Sarah, and Wayne A. Wiegand. Right Here I See My Own Books: the Woman's Building Library at the World's Columbian Exposition. University of Massachusetts Press, 2012.

[2] Ibid. [3] Letter from Bertha Honoré Palmer to Mrs. Humphrey Ward, March 19, 1892. Quoted in Wadsworth. [4] Elliott, Maud Howe. Art and Handicraft in the Woman’s Building of the World’s Columbian Exhibition, Chicago, 1893. Paris, Goupil & Co, 1893.

‌[5] Bolotin, Norman, and Christine Laing. The World’s Columbian Exposition : The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. Urbana, University Of Illinois Press, 2002.

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