By Tom Newman, Assistant Director of the Middletown Library Service Center, Connecticut Libraries, February 2008
When Harriet Beecher Stowe researched the experience of slavery while writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she wrote to Frederick Douglas and asked him to recount his personal memories of life as a slave. Her letter to Douglas and many other manuscripts of special interest to researchers in 19th century history are available for study in the Stowe Center Library.
The collection includes more than 12,000 books, 4,000 pamphlets, 180,000 manuscript items, and 12,000 photographs, prints, and other images. It focuses on 19th century women’s history, the Stowe and Beecher families, 19th century African-American history, and Victorian architecture and decorative arts.
The library is located in the Katharine Seymour Day House, next to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s residence in Hartford. Katharine Day, Stowe’s grandniece and famous in her own right as an artist, preservationist, and philanthropist, established the library and museum and provided a core collection. Since then, the center has collected materials related to the world in which Harriet Beecher Stowe was such a major figure.
Anyone who questions Stowe’s importance in 19th century history, in the women’s movement, and in the abolitionist cause, need only look at the 26 volumes of petitioning signatures that she brought back from a visit to Britain shortly after publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Filled with the names of British women moved by her portrayal of slavery, the volumes fill more than a dozen shelves in the center’s vault. This large, climate-controlled storage area houses the bulk of the Stowe Center Library, including an extensive collection of editions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The most treasured edition, of course, is the first printed edition, whose modest and plain appearance belies its great influence on American history.
The library also has first editions of Stowe’s other works, as well as interpretation, criticism, and a variety of 19th century publications written in response (both pro and con) to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Other publications trace 18th and 19th century attitudes toward African-Americans and recount the abolitionist struggle during those years.
Though known for her work on behalf of the abolitionist cause, Stowe and her sisters and friends were active in many important women’s issues of the day, and the library is particularly strong in materials related to 19th century women’s history. Among these are books, letters, and manuscripts from: Catherine Beecher, founder of the Hartford Female Seminary; Isabella Beecher Hooker, founder of the New England Woman Suffrage Association; Civil War nurse Margaret Foote Hawley; freed fugitive slave and abolitionist Harriet Ann Jacobs; children’s library pioneer Caroline Hewins; and poet Lydia Huntley Sigourney. The center also has extensive correspondence from Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.
Various members of the Beecher family, such as Harriet’s father Lyman Beecher and brother Henry Ward Beecher, played major roles in the intellectual and social history of the time. The library has hundreds of letters, manuscripts of sermons and lectures, newspaper clippings, photographs, and other documents that help researchers examine the world in which the Beecher family lived and worked.
Other famous Hartford families of the period are represented in the collections as well, including the Hookers, Footes, and Gillettes. Of particular note is the outstanding collection of letters, manuscripts, typescripts, and play scripts of the actor and playwright William H. Gillette. The Stowe Center continues to receive donations to the collections from various descendants of the Beecher and other famous Hartford families.
As seems appropriate for a library housed in a beautiful Victorian mansion, the Stowe Center Library has collections of research materials for the study of Victorian architecture and design. Holdings include architectural journals, builders’ manuals, manufacturers’ catalogues, and samples of wallpapers, stenciling, and carpeting. There are original drawings, elevations, and plans from local architects, including George Keller, Hartford’s leading architect of the period.
As collections manager, Elizabeth Giard is the gateway to the varied resources of the Stowe Center Library. Giard maintains the collections, does the cataloging and indexing, helps with acquisitions and donations, and provides reference assistance. She will provide a limited amount of research via mail, phone, or email.
Giard has started to digitize parts of the collection and is exploring ways to expand such efforts. Currently, some center materials are represented in the University of Virginia’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture” web resource, and the book collection is represented in the iCONN reQuest catalog. Giard also assists with the exhibition of parts of the collection in the Stowe Center and elsewhere. Graduate students, writers and researchers, as well as some high school and college students make up the bulk of the center’s users.
Located at 77 Forest Street in the west end of Hartford, the library is open to the public by appointment Monday through Friday. All collections are non-circulating. For more information, call Elizabeth Giard at 860-522-9258 ext. 313 or visit the website at www.harrietbeecherstowecenter.org/collections/.