© 2022 KMUW
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Yale University Library Purchases Civil War Photography Collection


The images of Abraham Lincoln on the penny, on our $5 bills, seated at the Lincoln Monument and the giant Lincoln face carved into Mount Rushmore, are all based on pictures from the same collection. That collection - over 70,000 images from the Civil War era - has just changed hands. The Meserve-Kunhardt Collection of books, maps and photographs has been sold to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. The purchase price has not been disclosed. George Miles is curator of the Beinecke Library and joins us now. Welcome to the program.

GEORGE MILES: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Tell us, how important a collection of Lincoln portraits is this?

MILES: It's the definitive collection. There is no larger collection of Lincoln photographs ever assembled. I think there are approximately 130 to 140 distinct, unique photographs of Lincoln during his life. And Mr. Meserve acquired almost all of them in original vintage prints. And in a few cases, I think, supplemented images he couldn't obtain by making a copied print for his collection.

SIEGEL: Frederick Hill Meserve being Mr. Meserve in this case.


SIEGEL: Of all of these images, so many of which are of the same man, Abraham Lincoln, is there one that is just such a favorite of yours that you can describe it for us?

MILES: Well, the Gardner photograph of Lincoln shortly before his assassination - the last sort of formal portrait - is a haunting one. You can see how haggard Lincoln looks at that point in time. I wonder sometimes what we would have thought of the photograph if he had not been assassinated.

SIEGEL: I've read that Frederick Hill Meserve made a purchase at auction in 1897 of a hundred prints, sight unseen, for $1.10. Even after correcting for inflation, it seems as though photographs were going pretty cheap at that point. Had people not figured out that these were collectibles by 1897?

MILES: I think that people in that period of time limit had reached a point with photography where they weren't certain what it was any longer. The initial blush of excitement and novelty had certainly passed by that time. At the same time, artistic photographers at that time were trying to explore alternative approaches to photography that deemphasized reality. And so the kinds of photographs that Mr. Meserve started collecting were being neglected, and so I think he had the opportunity to corner the market in ways that would be very difficult to do today.

SIEGEL: There's a forthcoming HBO documentary next month made by Peter Kunhardt, Sr., about how and why his great-grandfather Frederick Hill Meserve amassed this collection. And there's a wonderful side to this that part of the point of collecting it was the aim of healing and achieving some family reconciliation. Can you describe that at all?

MILES: Well, in modern terms, I think it'd maybe safe to say that Frederick's father, who was a decorated Civil War veteran, suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome and left the family. So in many ways Frederick grew up an orphan in fact, if not in reality. And he reached out to his father years later to suggest that they find a way to work together on a project in which Frederick would collect images to go with letters and journal entries that his father had created during the Civil War.

SIEGEL: So it was collecting as family therapy here.

MILES: Well, I think it probably was also collecting as a means for Frederick of trying to find an identity and an understanding of where he might have come from him or certainly what his father had gone through. He is, in many ways, one of the first people to begin to think about the ways in which photography stretches across time and can be used to create memories as well as record them.

SIEGEL: Mr. Miles, thank you very much for talking with us, and if you'd like to disclose the purchase price, feel free.

MILES: (Laughter) I'll decline, but thank you very much.

SIEGEL: George Miles is curator of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, which has just purchased the largest collection of photographs of Abraham Lincoln. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.