University of Delaware Library

Special Collections Department


PICTURING DELAWARE:
A NOTE ON THE EXHIBITION
by
Iris Snyder

 

Delaware has often been a subject for exhibitions at the University of Delaware Library. Previous topics have included the Swedish colonization, Delaware's contribution to war efforts, and Delaware Senator John Williams. Picturing Delaware differs from these in both scope and approach, by focusing on visual representations of the state, rather than text, and by including images from different periods in Delaware's history. Inspired by the increasingly interdisciplinary methodology of modern scholarship, Picturing Delaware casts a wide net and includes many types of materials from a variety of sources including illustrated books, photographs, prints, maps, and postcards.

For this exhibition, the subject is the landscape of Delaware as portrayed by artists, photographers, and mapmakers. The subtext, however, is the evolution of the state from predominately agricultural to urban/suburban. The lost world of peach orchards and small town parades seems very distant from the "banking capital" of today. Yet, the changes, particularly in the southern part of the State, are relatively recent. By using images from the past two hundred years, it is possible to see both those things that have changed and those that remain the same.

The exhibition is drawn from the Delaware Collection of the University of Delaware Library. The Delaware Collection is an evolving collection that strives to document all aspects of history and life in Delaware, and all geographic areas of the state, from the prehistoric period and earliest plans for settlement by the Swedes to contemporary life. The collection includes the history, culture, domestic, business, and social aspects of Delaware as documented in books, letters, legal documents, diaries, journals, account books and ledgers, maps, printed ephemera, family papers, business records, archival material, photographs and graphic materials, and miscellaneous items.

While much of Special Collections focuses on collecting antiquarian material, the Delaware Collection has a dual approach. Material from Delaware's past is actively sought, but modern materials are collected with an eye to their future significance. This can be especially seen in two collecting areas. The Library has been proactive in collecting Delaware political papers, including both historical figures such as Senators John J. Williams and Willard Saulsbury, and current leaders such as Senator Thomas Carper. The Department also actively seeks out ephemeral items about Delaware including material on local events, businesses, and political and social issues published in small newspapers, flyers, and brochures that will provide researchers with a multifaceted picture of the state.

One particularly intriguing part of the Delaware Collection is the archive of forty-eight volumes of typescripts compiled and written by the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration for the State of Delaware in 1938 for the guidebook, Delaware: A Guide to the First State. This archive includes hundreds of short essays on Delaware history, buildings, organizations, events, and people. This collection gives readers a clear picture of Delaware in the Depression years of the 1930s.

Related to the Federal Writers Project Archives is a collection of photographs taken for the Guide and for another Federal Writers' Project, the Historic American Buildings, Survey around 1936 by Willard S. Stewart. Stewart is listed in the 1936 Wilmington City Directory as a clerk in the Arthur N. Sanborn Photographic Studios. He later opened his own studio in Wilmington and worked as a commercial photographer. Many of the photographs included in the publication for Picturing Delaware are taken from this collection.

Picturing Delaware includes material drawn from two other significant collections. The postcard images are taken from a collection of more than two thousand postcards of Delaware towns and cities. Published from the end of the nineteenth century until the present, the postcards portray a wide range of locations and activities. Their value lies in their documentation of places and events that no longer exist as well as their ability to convey the "look" of early Delaware.

Many of the maps in the exhibition are drawn from the Pearl Herlihy Daniels Map Collection, which includes more than one hundred historic maps of Delaware and the Chesapeake Bay region published since the seventeenth century. These maps visually chart the state's history. From crude coastal outlines in early explorers' charts to the separation of the lower colonies from Pennsylvania to the establishment of towns, canals, and roads, the maps document Delaware's evolution.

The publication for the exhibition shows only a few highlights from the many images displayed in the exhibition. Picturing Delaware presents viewers with an opportunity to look back at Delaware through the eyes of those who saw it in the past. By looking at the ways in which artists and photographers chose to highlight the landscape in their work, we get a sense of what they found interesting and valuable. As curator, it is my hope that this exhibition can be enjoyed on several levels-as works of art, as representations of a lost landscape, and as a way of better understanding Delaware as it is today.

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Last modified: 12/21/10

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