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  • Writer's pictureLinda Borromeo

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

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

The Possibilities of a Handwritten Name

Sunlight streamed into the children's room as the librarian handed my older sister her first library card. Patrice checked out a pile of colorful books using 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. That week, my father printed out the letters of my name for me. I practiced for hours until I could master the yellow pencil and all the movements needed to write my name.

The marks must have been all over the place (I remember they took up an entire page), yet the children's librarian bestowed upon me that little card. The card opened the door for me to become the temporary guardian of a whole possibility of stories, gathered in my name. And after the books were returned each time, the stories stayed with me.

One of my early childhood favorites: "That Donkey" by Georgiana; illustrated by Dorothy Grider.
I discovered this classic story on the library shelves and it became a childhood favorite: "That Donkey" by Georgiana; illustrated by Dorothy Grider.

The Possibilities of Writing

There's power and a world of possibilities in writing a name. Seeing long-ago authors' own handwriting in manuscripts makes them come alive in my mind. Is the handwriting more slanted or heavier in places? Was the author feeling angry, inspired, or worried as she wrote?

Like the determination represented in each letter of my earliest 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 of 633 acres, 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 named George Washington Gale Ferris Jr—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 by Mary Cassatt (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 reveal, “...[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]. How did they make their way to this great library?

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 became an impressive tribute to women's literary work.

Rare and Priceless Manuscripts

Included in those 8,000 volumes were precious manuscripts sent from England. I discovered a hint that there might have been a handwritten manuscript of Jane Eyre in the library. I wanted to confirm the story, and I discovered two clues. I found the first in Maud Howe Elliott's book written 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

I spotted the second clue in World’s Fair authors Norman Bolotin and Christine Laing's book. In researching my own mystery story set at the Fair, I often rely on their expertise to settle difficult questions shrouded in the past. They confirmed the library contained “a rare manuscript of Jane Eyre." [5]

What must it have been like to view Jane Eyre written in Charlotte Brontë's handwriting? Examing her letters in the illustration above, I imagine a writer in a hurry, facing sorrows and challenges.

As a book and history nerd, I’d love to climb into a time machine and walk into the library in the Woman's Building. There, I'd see a spectacular and never-repeated collection of books, including pages written by a strong and determined author “in her own hand.”

Is your favorite classic book included in that long-ago library? You can see a list of all the books here >


At the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, Melina searches for the truth about her vanished father. Linda Borromeo's book, Mystery Fair, was named a finalist in the Cascade Writing Contest. Learn more about Mystery Fair here >

References for "In Her Own Hand":

[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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