The first installation of Curio features famous writers’ implements found in the collections of Harvard University. Graphite pencil owned by American poet e.e. cummings is pictured at Houghton Library. Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Arts & Culture

The things they carried

4 min read

At Houghton, artifacts from the writing life

We get close to long-dead great writers by reading the works they left behind. But there is another way, which can be just as electric and emotional: to see or touch or just be near artifacts from their writing lives.

Harvard’s Houghton Library makes such proximal resonance possible. Objects from the lives of literary greats, the things that might have lain on their desktops, are housed in the Z Closet Collection and in other places set aside for material oddities that can’t be cataloged in the usual way. Librarians call such objects “realia” and store them in custom boxes.

“We’re good with books and manuscripts, but objects present special challenges,” said Peter Accardo, Houghton’s coordinator of programs. “They demand material expertise and care.”

John Ruskin’s magnifying glass — a gift from Harvard’s Charles Eliot Norton, an executor of Ruskin’s estate — is still kept in a century-old box from Boston jeweler Rand & Crane. But housing that old box is a new one, made of acid-resistant paperboard. A similar modern box is where Houghton keeps a pencil owned by E.E. Cummings. It’s tied inside with a cream-colored ribbon.

Many such objects at Houghton arrived with more conventional literary materials, like books and letters, but were accepted despite having no direct utility for a literary scholar. Said Accardo: “You can’t very well tell a donor, ‘The library is not interested in T.S. Eliot’s Panama hat or Charles Dickens’ walking stick.’ ”

The materials occasionally include fakes, such as the pair of flintlock pistols supposedly owned by George Washington. (They turned out to be inauthentic.) “There’s great traffic involved in objects from literary and historic figures,” Accardo said. But most of Houghton’s artifacts come with proof of origin. An ivory letter opener belonging to Dickens, for instance, is stored with a two-page note from Georgina Hogarth, the author’s sister-in-law and housekeeper.

Nearby, propped in a wooden box, is the tiny brass seal Dickens used for letters. It was the size of a thumbprint, and fixed to a dark wooden handle. Accardo peered at it, and then stood up straight. “This is the kind of thing I love,” he said.

An Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602 graphite pencil owned by American poet E.E. Cummings. It’s embossed “Half the pressure, twice the speed.” (MS Am 2847, Houghton Library, Harvard University)
Quill pen used by Friedrich Schiller to write the 1801 play “Die Jungfrau von Orleans.” It came with a leather case and authenticating document. (MS Ger 310, Houghton Library, Harvard University)
Another view of the 12-pack of unsharpened pencils from “J. Thoreau & Co.” (MS Am 2696, Houghton Library, Harvard University)
A pack of 12 pencils wrapped at both ends with yellow paper and cinched with string. Each pencil is embossed “J. Thoreau & Co.,” where writer Henry David Thoreau was a proprietor. (MS Am 2698, Houghton Library, Harvard University)
This slipcase box, addressed to Houghton Library in 1947 and pasted with postage stamps, contained an unsharpened John Thoreau pencil from donor (and Henry David Thoreau biographer) Henry Seidel Canby. (MS Am 2696, Houghton Library, Harvard University)
The hinged lid of a pocket watch, inscribed “H.E.W.,” part of a crystal inkwell owned by Harry Elkins Widener. (MS HEW 5, Houghton Library, Harvard University)
A crystal inkwell with a set-in silver top, owned by Harry Elkins Widener. (MS HEW 5, Houghton Library, Harvard University)
The removable pocket watch on a crystal inkwell owned by Harry Elkins Widener. (MS HEW 5, Houghton Library, Harvard University)
A brass seal affixed to a handle of dark wood and marked with a mirror image of the initials “CD,” for Charles Dickens. (MS Eng 1747, Houghton Library, Harvard University)
An ivory letter opener, with silver plate, owned by Charles Dickens. “Constantly used by him,” reads an accompanying note. (MS Eng 1748, Houghton Library, Harvard University)
A green-brown morocco case used to house an ivory letter opener used by Charles Dickens. (MS Eng 1748, Houghton Library, Harvard University)
Silver letter opener (paper knife) with pearl handle, formerly belonging to Charles Dickens. (MS Eng 1699, Houghton Library, Harvard University)
From the John Updike Archive, a Carmine Red pencil (above) and a Ticonderoga Checking mechanical pencil. (MS Am 1793, Houghton Library, Harvard University)
John Ruskin’s magnifying glass in a shell swivel case with the initials “JR.” (MS Eng 1704, Houghton Library, Harvard University)
Charles Eliot Norton labeled this little Rand & Crane box “John Ruskin’s magnifying glass — always in his pocket.” (MS Eng 1704, Houghton Library, Harvard University)