The Joseph J. Williams, SJ Ethnological Collection is known for its wealth of material about the Caribbean and Africa, including maps, wills, ship logs, and stories of the folk character Anansi. But even the most well-used archival collections can contain some surprises.
While re-processing the Williams Collection, archives staff came across an item with the mysterious title “Souvenir of the Isle of Springs” — which didn’t tell us much about its format or content. At first glance, the object appeared to be a photograph of Kingston, Jamaica after the 1907 earthquake, mounted on a thick piece of worn cardboard. But we soon realized that it was a box, and when we removed the top, a delicate handmade scrapbook was revealed inside.
The book was lovingly crafted, with a hand-stitched binding covered with a thin linen gauze, which also separates each page inside.
The person who made the scrapbook used a combination of pressed plants and photographs, to create striking illustrations for island-themed verses from poets such as Edgar Allan Poe, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, and others. The “Isle of Springs” is Jamaica, known for its many mineral springs. The poetry quoted in the scrapbook seems to have been selected as commentary on the island’s natural beauty.
This very intricate and unique work exemplifies this natural beauty through its use of plant matter as a graphic tool. While pressing plants and flowers was a common hobby in the 19th century, it was usually a scientific rather than artistic endeavor; specimens were kept in books called “herbariums”, with each plant separated and identified. (You can learn more about research herbariums on the Kew Gardens website.)
Sometimes the creator of “Souvenir of the Isle of Springs” used plants to adorn photographs or text; on other pages, the plants are the focus.
While many of the pages are extremely elaborate, using multiples types of plants arranged in intricate ways, others are simple and understated.
The scrapbook remains a bit of a mystery. We don’t know who made it, and we also don’t know when it was made. The photographs are identified as being by “Brennan” — likely J. W. C. Brennan, a photographer operating in Kingston, Jamaica, between 1895-1916. But did he or one of his staff make the scrapbook? Or, more likely, did someone purchase a series of his photographs and use them in their work of art? And why is a work about the beauties of nature hidden in a box with a picture of a natural disaster?
We may never know more about the “Souvenir of the Isle of Springs” and why it was made, but if you’d like to satisfy your curiosity you can view it in person, along with the other material in the Williams collection, at the John J. Burns Library. Check out the new finding aid here.
- Annalisa Moretti, Archives Assistant, John J. Burns Library