Buried Treasure: A Fresh Look at a Well-loved Collection Unearths Some Rarely-used Gems

Flat cardboard box with lid removed and placed to the side. The lid has a photograph of post-earthquake Kingston, Jamaica attached to it. Inside the box is a scrapbook with leaves on the cover.

“Souvenir of the Isle of Springs,” Box 15, Joseph J. Williams, SJ ethnological collection, MS.2009.030, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

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.

Close up of scrapbook, showing linen overlay and hand-stitched binding.

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.

Title page of scrapbook. It reads "Souvenir of the Isle of Springs: Some enchanted far-off isle. E. A. Poe". Includes a silhouette outline of the island of Jamaica and a border made of pressed flowers.

The book was lovingly crafted, with a hand-stitched binding covered with a thin linen gauze, which also separates each page inside.

Close up of pressed plant matter, mainly fern-like plants. They are black, green, and silver.

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.

Close up of black-and-white photograph of an adult and child standing on the banks of a river, captioned "Hope River at Gordon Town". The photograph is surrounded by pressed plant matter.

Close up of page with quote reading, "A joyous land/Where waters gushed and fruit-leaves grew,/And flowers put forth a fairer hue,/And everything was strange and new. Browning." Accompanied by a crescent moon made of a leaf or wood and pressed plants.

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.

Close up of page with bouquet of pressed plants tied with a ribbon.

While many of the pages are extremely elaborate, using multiples types of plants arranged in intricate ways, others are simple and understated.

Close up of page reading "Some well-havened isle/Where spices breathe and brighter seasons smile. Cowper," accompaniedby pressed leaf.

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?

Page with black-and-white photograph of man standing on a bridge over a river, captioned "Ocho Rios ... 'Crystal streamlets gently flowing/Western breezes softly blowing'," and signed "Brennan, photo." Quote on page reads: "A sweet little Eden on earth that I know,/A mountain islet pointed and peak'd; Waves on a diamond shingle dash,/Cataract brooks to the ocean run ... And overstream'd and silvery-streak'd/With many a rivulet high against the sun/The facets of the glorious mountain flash/Above the valleys of palm.... That exquisite isle,' Tennyson." Page is dotted with pressed leaves and flowers, including one cut in the shape of a heart.

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.

Page with two quotes: "This Eden of all plenteousness. Tennyson," and "A land beloved by heaven o'er all the world beside;/Where brighter suns dispense serener light,/And milder moons emparadise the night;/A land of beauty ... and most enchanting shores," Montgomery." Surrounded by a wreath of pressed plant matter.

  • Annalisa Moretti, Archives Assistant, John J. Burns Library

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

Located in the original Bapst Library building on Boston College's Chestnut Hill campus, the John J. Burns Library offers students, scholars, and the general public opportunities to engage with rare books, special collections, and archives.
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