Archivist’s News (Spring 2007)

by Joseph Ciccone

Preserving the Brett and Wood Collections

Eleonora Giampiccolo examines glass-plate negatives from the Brett collection.

While we have taken tremendous strides toward preserving the history of the ANS, the actual work of arranging and preserving individual collections is a time-consuming task. This past December, we were fortunate to have the services of an intern to help us with this effort. Eleonora Giampiccolo, a doctoral student from the University of Catania in Sicily, worked in the ANS Archives through an internship sponsored by the Embassy CES foreign language school. Ms. Giampiccolo’s responsibilities included preserving both the Agnes Baldwin Brett and Howland Wood collections.

Selected images from the Brett collection have been featured previously in the ANS Magazine, in the Summer 2005 issue. Thanks to Ms. Giampiccolo’s help, the full set of images—consisting of more than 440 glass-plate and film-based negatives, as well as an additional 490 photographs—have been preserved in archivally sound containers. Preserving glass-plate negatives is a delicate task. While the glass plate itself is obviously very fragile, the image, which is burned onto one side of the glass plate, is also susceptible to being scratched or otherwise defaced. Ms. Giampiccolo skillfully removed the negatives from their current storage cases and rehoused them in acid-free sleeves and boxes designed to ensure the long-term preservation of these important images. Ms. Giampiccolo also digitized many of the images, which we are adding to a new archival database we recently developed.

In addition to working on the Brett collection, Ms. Giampiccolo also helped preserve our collection of Howland Wood’s papers. Wood, of course, was the Society’s curator from 1913 until his death in 1938. Prior to that, however, he was also very involved in the American Numismatic Association, where he served as a secretary (1905-1909) and chairman of the Board of Governors (1909-1912). The full extent of the collection encompasses more than eight cubic feet of material—about eight standard storage boxes—with each box containing hundreds of letters. The portion Ms. Giampiccolo arranged and preserved included Wood’s personal numismatic correspondence from 1903 through the 1920s.

This proved to be a fascinating lot. Prior to Ms. Giampiccolo’s efforts, the collection was sufficiently disorganized as to effectively render it inaccessible to researchers. We now know that Wood’s collection of correspondence includes a veritable who’s who of the early twentieth-century numismatic world, with correspondents including: A. H. Baldwin, S. S. Heal, Henry Chapman, Thomas Elder, E. H. Adams, George Heath, and Farran Zerbe, among others. Institutions with which Wood corresponded include the British Museum, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the Royal Numismatic Society, and, of course, the ANS.

Howland Wood, undated. (ANS Archives)

Now that Wood’s collection has been organized, researchers can more easily locate pertinent information. For instance, we now know that in 1905 Wood applied for the position of Curator of the Numismatic Collection at the U.S. Mint. (At the time, the collection was housed in the U.S. Mint building in Philadelphia.) A review of Wood’s civil-service examination—the original of which is in the collection—shows that while he did well on the portions of the exam dealing with “nomenclature of coins” and “relation of coinage to the fine arts,” he did much less well on the “care and preservation of coins” and “historic significance of coins,” ironically enough for the future curator.

Wood would not be appointed to the U.S. Mint’s curatorship that year. That honor went to Dr. T. Louis Comparette, with whom Wood would develop a professional relationship lasting until Comparette’s untimely death in 1922. Wood’s correspondence with Comparette makes for one of the livelier series in the collection. For instance, in their initial exchange of letters in 1906, when Wood invited Comparette to join the ANA, Comparette provides an interesting picture of the state of the Mint collection upon his arrival, noting: “As to this Cabinet I wish to say that it has wakened up, and if it is not fully aroused yet, it soon will be. I found the thing dead and decadent and, what is worse, a disposition in some quarters to inter the institution rather than to apply a restorative. . . .”

Although they apparently did not know each other previously, they quickly developed a lasting friendship, with Comparette on occasion addressing Wood as “His August Highness, the Great and only King of Kings, the Anointed Allah, Father of the Faithful (in Numis.), the All-Powerful Sultan of Brookline, or any other line.”

The two discussed a wide range of matters. In 1909, Comparette offered this unkind evaluation of the Assay Commission, when he wrote to Wood that: “The Assay Commission is here today. Just what variety of asses compose it I am unprepared to say, but we usually have a choice lot. . . . Our only revenge for their being asses is gotten by serving them with a rotten luncheon here in the Mint. Last year the whole crowd of us was laid by it. Thus we inflict injury on ourselves to knock them out. I presume Zerbe is here.”

In a more serious vein, Comparette would periodically update Wood on issues such as the redesign of U.S. coinage. For example, in 1909, Wood inquired regarding the status of the new Lincoln cent. Comparette responded by reporting that: “There is a lurking suspicion in Brenner’s mind that the people here are not trying very hard to expedite the work, in fact that they seem to be inclined to let the work lag in some hope perhaps that now that a new man is crushing the chair in the White House this project may be allowed to drop. That is inter nos. Whether true or not I cannot say, but anyhow the piece is pretty apt to be coins and before very long too I think.”

Comparette and Wood also discussed the activities of the ANA during that organization’s tumultuous 1908-1912 period. Included in this correspondence is a terrific caricature of the period. It features Farran Zerbe, described as the “King of Armenia,” with Virgil Brand, William Woodin, and others portrayed.

Albert Frey, undated. (ANS Archives)

Comparette was not the only person with whom Wood discussed the ANA. For instance, in the summer of 1908, only a week after the death of ANA founder George Heath, Wood was in communication with the Canadian numismatist S. S. Heal regarding the state of the ANA and the future of The Numismatist. At the time, Heal commented that “I never swallowed Frey’s dislike to Zerbe. Frey could hardly expect to be perpetual Pres. And if you think Zerbe is the man—the fitting man for the job—why let him take it. . . . One thing struck me in your letter—you say you could not afford the time to run N [The Numismatist]. Poor old Heath. I regret my many kicks at him now its too late. He had his profession to attend to and many other duties—and yet he managed it. I am afraid this will mean the breaking up of the A.N.A. as you cannot keep members together without the Numismatist. . . . I was in great hopes that you would run the show. If Heath’s financial affairs are in any how decent order his people may consider the obligation they are under to continue publication of N.”

Of course, Zerbe continued to edit the Numismatist for a number of years, until it was acquired by W. W. C. Wilson and donated to the ANA in 1911, something pictured on the right-hand side of Wood’s above-mentioned caricature, where we see Wilson’s foot kicking Zerbe in the hindquarters. Albert Frey, one of Wood’s other principal correspondents, would complain of Zerbe’s editorship in a 1910 letter, where he opines that “I am really very much disappointed in the Numismatist, as it is getting to be a regular primer. Of course, Zerbe pays the bills & consequently he has a right to put in what he pleases; nevertheless, it is absolutely worthless to me & if it does not improve by the end of the year I shall not renew my subscription. Typographically it is a big improvement on Heath, but the contents give me the impression that every contributor can have so much space & no more. Hence if the contribution is too short the space is filled with an illustration, an ornamental letter etc; but if it is too long the editor reserves the right to cut it down to suit the columns of the magazine. Of this I can furnish absolute proof. Now I’ll be d____d if Zerbe or Zerbe’s brother or whoever edits the magazine is going to tamper with any of my manuscript.”

The earliest ANS-related correspondence in the collection is dated 1903, with Wood corresponding with the Society’s curator, Edward Groh, regarding an article that Wood had recently written for the American Journal of Numismatics. (At the time, the AJN was owned and published by Wood’s future father-in-law, W. T. R. Marvin.) The correspondence increases substantially after Wood joined the ANS in 1909. Of particular interest is the correspondence from 1911 through 1913, where Wood discusses the possibility of his succeeding Agnes Baldwin Brett as curator of the ANS. Wood’s correspondence as ANS curator comprises the remainder of his fascinating collection—a portion we hope to have arranged soon.

All in all, both the Wood and Brett collections contain fascinating and informative materials that will prove invaluable for researchers in the years to come.

Sketch by Wood of the ANA elections, c. 1912. (Howland Wood collection, ANS Archives)