A Little Book with a Big Impact

This article is contributed to Donor Digest by Grace Dumelle, Genealogy and Local History Assistant at the Newberry Library. Grace has worked at the Newberry for 19 years, helping readers and researchers navigate the library's extraordinary collections.

Your contributions keep our treasures safe and secure, ready to be consulted and connect readers with history. This is the story of one such item and how its creation and subsequent preservation will give visitors to Washington, DC a memorable link to local and women’s history.

On February 7, 2020, I took a call from a National Park Service Ranger. He explained that he works on the National Mall and was gearing up for the Cherry Blossom Festival, an annual event that commemorates the gift of 3,000 cherry trees from Mayor Yukio Ozaki of Tokyo to the city of Washington, DC in 1912. He enjoys telling visitors how the cherry trees first came to the city and is always on the lookout for more details he can share to bring the story to life.

One of the story’s central characters is Eliza Scidmore, the first female trustee of the National Geographic Society, who helped arrange the trees’ safe transport alongside First Lady Helen Herron Taft and world-renowned chemist Dr. Jokichi Takamine. Eliza was a frequent visitor to Japan thanks to her brother George’s position there in the US consular system. By 1912, she had written several books and articles about the country and its neighbors, including an early travel guide entitled Jinrikisha Days in Japan. You can find a copy of Jinrikisha Days and another five of Eliza’s books in the Newberry’s collection.

The ranger explained that he had seen a reference to Eliza and her brother George in the digitized version of Report of the Trustees of the Newberry Library for the year 1928, available via Google Books. According to the report, then Newberry President Horace Oakley had donated a unique autograph album to the Newberry, one previously owned by his relative, George Scidmore:

Mr. Scidmore when a boy lived in Washington, and in 1864, when he was ten years old, received this autograph album as a gift from his mother. He and his eight-year-old sister [Eliza], who received one like it, were in the habit of playing in the White House grounds where they often met and spoke to Mr. Lincoln. So one day these youngsters went into the White House together, and Mr. Lincoln, taking one of them on each knee, wrote his name and theirs in their two new books. In the boy’s book, now given to the Newberry Library by Mr. Oakley, the president wrote: “For Master George H. Scidmore, A. Lincoln, Oct. 24, 1864.” With such an auspicious beginning the lad industriously went the rounds of official and diplomatic Washington and gathered a collection of autographs which makes the little book an extremely interesting relic of the period. Among the hundred or more signatures of prominent men and women are those of Andrew Johnson, U. S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, Clara Barton, “Kit” Carson, James G. Blaine, Benjamin F. Butler, Thaddeus Stevens, Schuyler Colfax, General George A. Custer, Roscoe Conkling, and many other names well-known in the political life of the period.

The ranger was delighted by this discovery and wanted to verify the story before telling it to tour groups. I told him how much I admire the storytelling skills of rangers like him and how impressed I’d been by a ranger at the historic Ford’s Theater, who had made me feel as though I were right there with every move Booth made.

After using our online system to request the item, I went upstairs the following Tuesday to view it in our Special Collections Reading Room. Aside from its Victorian cover, the album has no ornamentation or decoration on its pages — except for a parade of some of the most recognizable names in US history.

Lincoln’s inscription appears just as Oakley stated. Beneath it is Andrew Johnson’s signature, and each turn of the page brings fresh delight. I snapped reference photos without using flash to show the patron.

He replied via email, “This is wonderful! Now, thanks to the Newberry Library and your helpful assistance, I can make a direct connection between the Scidmore family and Abraham Lincoln. I appreciate both your patience in listening to my request and your diligence in searching out the confirmation.”

It’s exciting to know that this little book will help engage visitors about history on many levels.

You, too, can view George Scidmore’s autograph album in our Special Collections Reading Room. Visit our website for more information about how to make an appointment or, if it’s your first time using the library, learn how to get a Reader’s Card.

Take a look at the six titles written by Eliza that the Newberry holds in its collection, also available in the reading room upon request.

Or, contact a Newberry librarian with your own research question!

This story is part of the Newberry’s Donor Digest, Fall 2020. In this newsletter the Newberry shares with its donors exciting stories of the success and innovation made possible by their generosity. Learn more about supporting the library and its programs.