Public History majors at Stevenson University are exploring the history of the book in a unique upper-level history course entitled: Mulberry, Mummies, and Marshes. Taught by Professor Kevin Wisniewski, a Stevenson grad himself, the course examines the history of the book from the time of ancient Sumer and its clay tablets through the Enlightenment, linen paper, and the Gutenberg press. The name of the course uses references to three separate cultures (Chinese, Egyptian, and European) and their distinct approaches to making paper. Chinese and Japanese cultures preferred mulberry paper, the Egyptian culture preferred papyrus which grew as reeds in Nile's marshes, and "mummies" refers to an advertisement in a US newspaper in the mid-19th century. Experiencing a rag shortage at the time, a local papermaker advertised that they imported Egyptian mummies, stripped them of their exterior cotton wrapping, divested themselves of the mummified remains, and used the linen wrappings as part of their rag paper manufacturing process.
Caption: "Mummy Paper." From the Brown University Collection (Courtesy of www.strangeremains.com)
As part of Stevenson Public History's commitment to hands on learning, the course involved "history labs" during which students gained experience and developed skills in practical areas of the art. Generally taken for granted as a commodity, few students have explored the origins of paper and the skills necessary to make paper. This area was explored by our majors as they took an evening to make their own paper.
Caption: PHIST majors Scott Jenkins and Alex Henry work on their own unique brand of paper.
Caption: A close up of the process
Caption: Their finished product.
Another popular "history lab" was "Letterpress Night." That evening guest instructor Ursula W. Minervini, a partner of Pellinore Press in Baltimore, provided our students an incredible learning experience that covered the fundamentals of letterpress printing. Our majors were introduced to selecting individual type "letters" from a type case, placing them on a composing stick, then transferring those to the type galley. Using this method our majors built the text for their broadsides that would be printed later in the evening. Along the way they learned about the origins of English phrases such as, "mind your Ps and Qs," "upper and lower case," and "out of sorts."
Caption: Learning about type and the type case.
Caption: Composing the next line of type.
Caption: It all comes together in the type galley.
Caption: Under the watchful eyes of an expert, PHIST major Andrea Marquez prepares to print her best seller.
Caption: The final product.
The story behind our masthead photo is the hard work performed by PHIST major Alex Henry in composing the perfect letterpress shot. Trust me-- it was way more difficult than any of us would have thought. Thank you, Alex!!!
Caption: Alex composes the type for the masthead photo.
One of the great strengths of Stevenson's Public History Program is our ability to draw upon the resources of the University, our alums, as well as the surrounding community. Baltimore is an incredibly exciting place, and for those of us who live nearby there are opportunities to learn that rival the great cities of the world at only a portion of the price. Having an adjunct professor like Kevin Wisniewski is a joy. With a background steeped both in American History and American Literature, Kevin is a leader within the field of the Digital Humanities. When asked whether he could develop this course if added to his already too full plate, his response was one of excitement. His excitement has been in evidence throughout the course, and our students draw energy from his teaching and become excited themselves. Similarly, Ursula Minervini has an incredibly busy schedule through her work as a professor in the area as well as her day job at Pellinore Press. However, when asked by Kevin if she could provide a workshop for our students she graciously gave of her time and incredible talents. Reaching out to her colleagues at Stevenson's School of Design, Ursula was able to gain access for the class to Stevenson's letterpress lab where the workshop took place. As Department Chair I can have ideas about what our Public History Program can do to create peak student experiences. To bring those dreams to reality, however, requires faculty crazy enough to want to be part of the experience, support from other schools within the University, friends within the community, and students willing to "nerd out" on our unique form of history. Here at Stevenson we are blessed to have just such a team of supporters. Thank you all.
Public History--We are the fun historians!!!