Online Archive Provides a Window on Progressive 19th Century Movements

The University of Rochester recently launched an online archive of manuscripts from the Post family, Rochesterians who were near the center of many of the national movements of the 1800s that helped define their city as one of American’s most progressive.

“Rochester was an epicenter of progressive causes,” says Michael Jarvis, an associate professor of history. As activists during this heady period of reform, the Posts knew well and corresponded with a surprising number of national leaders, from Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony to Sojourner Truth, Harriet Brent Jacobs, and William Cooper Nell.

“They were the Kevin Bacon of the 19th century,” says Jarvis, referring to the famously well-connected Hollywood actor so useful in playing the “six degrees of separation” game of association.

In the early 1840’s the Posts became deeply involved in the anti-slavery movement, using their house at 36 Sophia St., now N. Plymouth Ave., as a very active station on the Underground Railroad, says Lori Birrell, manuscript librarian in Rare Books and Special Collection who has served as co-project manager along with Melissa Mead, director of the Digital Projects Research Center.

“They supported Douglass’s newspaper, the North Star, Amy Post attended the first woman’s rights convention in Seneca Falls in 1848 and introduced fellow Rochesterian Susan B. Anthony to the woman’s rights movement,” says Birrell. “The Posts also participated in the controversial Spiritualist movement in the late 1840s. Begun by the Fox sisters here in Rochester, followers believed that through mediums (Isaac Post eventually believed himself to be a medium) they could communicate with the dead.”

To celebrate the launch of the online archive, scholars and students who have worked with the collection will discussed its significance to local and national history during an event on Thursday, Sept. 13.

The papers cover a full century, from 1817 to 1918, with the majority of the material falling during the nearly 50-year span from 1823 to 1872. They include extensive resources related to the Post’s activities in the abolitionist, Spiritualist, and women’s rights movements. Other topics for which there is significant material are: agriculture, the anti-tobacco movement, childbirth, Chinese immigrants, the Civil War, domestic servants, education, the Friends of Human Progress, freed slaves, Indians, medicine, Quakers, the Reconstruction Era, slavery, and the temperance movement.

The Post papers contain 2,089 letters, manuscripts, newspapers, and other material, and the initial online launch will feature a selection of more than 200 letters. Each letter has been scanned, transcribed, and annotated, a project made possible through the generosity of Randall B. Whitestone ’83 and Lisa T. Whitestone. Eventually the library plans to digitize the entire collection.

To date, students have performed all of the painstaking preparation of the transcriptions. “I had each student select a letter, transcribe it, and do research to explain who is being discussed–and what events,” says Jarvis, who uses the archive as a tool for training graduate students about primary sources. “The students have provided a reader’s guide to make the content of the letter more understandable and useful.”

Margarita Simon Guillory, an assistant professor of religion, also incorporates the collection into her class on Spiritualism. Reading and transcribing these private letters, she says, “humanized” historical figures for the undergraduates in her class. “It was amazing for them,” she says. For example, letters from the Fox sisters, reveal how the famed and widely traveled Spiritualist mediums, were also teenaged girls and sometime lonely. “[A]h how I do wish that you were here,” wrote Catherine Fox to Amy Post in this letter from 1850. “[Y]ou know we always loved you.”

But the collection’s importance extends far beyond the classroom. Guillory uses the archive in her own research on Spiritualism and scholars around the world will find these papers a rich source of social history, she says.

For example, Amy Post was one of the early influences on Susan B. Anthony, encouraging and supporting her in entering the struggle for women’s rights. An organizer of both the Seneca Falls and Rochester conventions in 1848, Post was also an editor of the convention Proceedings published in 1870. In this letter from 1861, Anthony urges Post to gather the names of prominent businessmen, lawyers, and judges for a petition, tells of her visit to their mutual friend and women’s rights activists Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and updates Post on gatherings in Auburn, Boston, and Albany.

Many of the letters are from leaders of the abolitionist movement. For example, Sojourner Truth, an abolitionist and former slave, dictated in this letter sent to Amy Post her experience of being assaulted in Washington, D.C. for trying to ride on a public train. Harriet Jacobs, a former slave and author the first slave narrative to detail the sexual abuse of female slaves, discussed the difficulty of writing about such a sensitive topic in this letter to Post. “[T]here are somethings [sic] that I might have made plainer I know- woman can whisper- her cruel wrongs into the ear of a very dear friend- much easier than she can record them for the world to read.”

Students Delve Deeper into the Divine Comedy

Univ. Communications – On a Tuesday afternoon, a small group of students huddled around several rare print editions of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy in the Rare Books and Special Collections Library at the University. The books dated as far back as the sixteenth century and featured delicate engravings and woodcuts produced through a variety of technologies.

For the first time in the history of the University, a course has been developed purely for the purpose of exploring the visual culture surrounding Dante’s magnum opus. Offered by the Department of Modern Languages and Cultures, the Dante Multimedia Lab, led by Associate Professor of Italian Donatella Stocchi-Perucchio, is designed for students to engage with the text of the Comedy, study the history of the book as an object, and also to evaluate the cultural impact of the work through art.

“The reoccurring point of inspiration for me is the realization of how deep of an impact a single medieval story had on Western art, theology, and literature,” said Beau Reynolds ’12, a political science major. “Dante is so influential in Western thought that the majority of time his influence is so subtle that it goes unnoticed. We are really focusing on discovering how deep that impact goes. It is as much a study of humanity and society as it is of art and literature.”

Illustrations of the Divine Comedy date back almost to the time of its writing in the early fourteenth century. Early manuscripts featured illuminations of the text and by the 1480s the first illustration cycle done by Sandro Botticelli was printed. The tradition of illustrating the comedy continued through the centuries with such prominent artists as Alessandro Vellutello, Gustave Doré, and most recently California-based Sandow Birk. Birk actually rewrote the text of the Comedy to reflect modern jargon and to accompany his reinterpretation of Doré’s illustrations, set in a dystopian Los Angeles. Later in the semester, the class will have a video conference with Birk about his work.

The first section of the course was devoted to a classificatory exercise; the students explored the illustrators and learned about the social, geographical, and historical context in which their work was produced.  This task helps students create a “geographic and historical landscape around the Comedy,” said Stocchi-Perucchio.

All of the students in the class have taken at least one course on Dante previously and are familiar with the text of the Comedy. Only one student is an art history major. At its core, explained Stocchi-Perucchio, “this is a course that interrogates the reader of literature who watches art. And he will watch art from a different perspective than the art historian.”

As the students compare how different artists in different historical contexts represent the same scenes, they are attempting to detect the dialogue between image and text. Dante’s verse is by nature emphatically visual and this is precisely the reason it has inspired so many generations of artists. Images of and inspired by the Comedy can be narrative or symbolic; some artists aim to depict a close reading of Dante, others use the poet’s text to talk about themselves and their time.

“The format of the class is unlike any other I’ve ever participated in. It is both research and discussion intensive … Every class consists of individual presentation and discussion,” says Reynolds.  “It’s very satisfying to see individual input turn into new class objectives and material.”

Indeed the student-driven nature of the course has satisfied Stocchi-Perucchio as well. “I’ve seen the questions rising, I’ve seen the engagement, I’ve seen them excited about doing the course themselves, because I’ve not really taken stage that much so far, and I’ve seen them liking that.”

The course is part of the larger push for research in the humanities within the University.  Through their work the students are expanding the body of knowledge about a sphere of human creative production and also cataloging information for the promotion of further inquiry by others. “Research in the humanities is much less subjective than is supposed,” insisted Reynolds.  “Critical questions regarding intent and motive regarding artwork are becoming more of a natural way of thinking, as opposed to simply enjoying the aesthetics of the work.”

Article written by Maya Dukmasova, a Take 5 Scholar at the University of Rochester and an intern at University Communications. She majored in philosophy and religion and focused her Take 5 year on researching the way American media covers current events in the Muslim world. An aspiring journalist, Dukmasova has freelanced for Rochester Magazine, the Phoenix New Times, and the Daily News Egypt in Cairo. She also maintains two blogs, one devoted to culture and society in Russia ( and the other to photography (


Photos courtesy of Maya Dukmasova.

University of Rochester Launches Online Exhibit of Largest Collection of AIDS Education Posters

Univ. Communications – When Edward Atwater, M.D.,’50 boarded a subway car on Boston’s Red Line in the early 90s he found himself staring at a poster unlike any he had seen before. It showed two hands, a condom wrapper, and text reading Prevent AIDS. Use One. Intrigued by what he saw, Atwater began to track how different societies viewed and responded to the worldwide epidemic through posters and other public messages, eventually gathering together the largest collection of AIDS posters in the world.

The Atwater collection of AIDS posters is now online, providing a visual history of the first three decades of the HIV/AIDS crisis from 1981 to the present. Launched in October during the 30th anniversary year of the identification of the disease, the online exhibit consists of more than 6,200 posters from 100 plus countries in 60 languages. While selections of the posters have been exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and other locations, the online collection provides the first opportunity to view the collection in its entirety.

“I started collecting the posters to chronicle the history of medicine but soon realized that they represent more of a social history than a medical history,” said Atwater, emeritus professor of medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center and a self-professed collector who lives in Rochester. That realization led the now 85-year-old retired physician to donate his collection to the Rare Books and Special Collections Library at the University, with the stipulation that it be digitized and put online. By giving people around the world access to the collection online, Atwater’s hope is to show people the responses from various societies to a deadly disease.

Looked at chronologically, the AIDS posters show how social, religious, civic, and public health agencies tailored their message to different groups. Depending on their audience, they used stereotypes, scare tactics, provocative language, imagery, and even humor. “The posters also show how regions, cultures, and religions influenced the message,” said Atwater.

“The Atwater collection of AIDS education posters tells a great deal about different societies’ understanding of sexuality and raises questions about the politics of visibility over the past 30 years,” said Joan Saab, professor of art history and director of Rochester’s graduate program for visual cultural studies. “When thinking about the history of AIDS, the story needs to be told from every angle. This includes graphic and controversial topics like sex and drugs and the different responses of filmmakers who choose to communicate awareness through public service announcements and artists who lend their voice and work towards the cause,” said Saab.

Using the posters as a starting point, Saab and her colleagues have organized a series of events and discussions to draw attention to the relationship between AIDS and global culture in art, academia, and medicine. Looking at AIDS 30 Years On kicks off on Thursday, Oct. 27 with a talk by AIDS Pioneer Michael Gottlieb, M.D., ’73M who wrote the first report to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in 1981 identifying AIDS as a new disease.

Sponsored by the University’s Humanities Project, an interdepartmental endeavor that supports humanistic inquiry by Rochester faculty, the project’s events are free and open to the public. For more information and a list of upcoming events, visit

To access the Atwater AIDS education posters collection online visit In addition to searching the posters, the site contains research conducted by Rochester students who have used the collections, an introduction to the collection by Alexander Breier Marr, a doctoral student in visual and cultural studies, and links to additional AIDS educational resources.

Article written by Valerie Alhart, University Communications. Photos courtesy of Rare Books and Special Collections Library at the University.