When John Chambless was rummaging through a pile of old books at his mother’s home in Newark, Del., one mammoth album with an ornate and intertwined “WU” stuck out. Curious, he opened it up and discovered an album containing more than 50 black and white hand-laid photos of students, staff and campus buildings dated 1873.
Intrigued by the mysterious book that lacked attribution, Chambless began a series of internet searches in attempt of finding the book’s origin.
“The ‘WU’ reference on the cover was the only clue I had initially, so I Google-searched Washington University, but none of the buildings on their website matched the ones in the book,” he says.
Chambless, of Wilmington, Del., then examined a photograph of downtown, and saw a partial name of the former Middletown Savings Bank.
“But the clincher was found in a photo of the gravestone of Civil War General Joseph Mansfield, which a quick Wikipedia search revealed that he was buried (at the Indian Hill Cemetery) in Middletown, Connecticut,” he says.
Mystery solved. “WU” stood for Wesleyan University.
Chambless contacted The Wesleyan Connection staff, and offered to donate the book back to Wesleyan. Valerie Gillispie, assistant university archivist in Olin Library’s Special Collections and Archives, received the volume on Jan. 5. She mailed Chambless a formal acknowledgment of his gift in the mail, and thanked him for his generosity.
Special Collections and Archives already owns about 150 Wesleyan “class albums” from the 1850s to 1890s, assembled individually from a list of photographs. This is the fourth 1873 album preserved in Wesleyan’s archives.
“Each one is different, so we love to discover new ones,” Gillispie explains. “This particular album is in splendid condition and several of the photographs look ‘new’ to us. That is, we have not seen them before.”
The album, embellished with gold-stamped decorations and lettering, features a dozen students with ’73” insignias on their shirts as well as individual photos of students and professors.
At the time, students could “build a book” by selecting which photos they wanted their album to include. According to a 1870s brochure, class pictures were 25 cents each and campus scenes and group shots were 35 cents each. Students had the option of choosing photographs of the president’s residence, a rear view of the college, Dr. Fisk, General Mansfield and Dr. Olin’s monuments, “Lover’s Walk,” the railroad bridge, interior views of Judd Hall and the former Rich Hall, among several other options.
Gillispie says the class albums were expensive, but students valued having photographs to remember their college days.
“I knew this album was an unusual item since the photos are glued onto the pages individually. It was rather labor intensive,” Chambless says. “There are photos of a rowing crew, several of the main campus buildings, a distant photo of the whole town, one street scene with a store and bank, and one staged photo of the 1873 class living it up with a corn liquor bottle … Rather risqué for a school with roots in John Wesley’s teachings!”
Gillispie noted that the book’s spine was embossed with the name “Arthur T. Neale” and with a check on his biographical information in a Wesleyan Alumni Record, she found information on the book’s original owner. Neale, who was born in 1852 in Middletown, received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Wesleyan and worked as an assistant in the chemistry department in 1874-76. After Wesleyan, he worked as a chemist for the State Agricultural Experimentation Station in New Jersey and as a director for the Delaware College Agricultural Experiment Station in Delaware until his death in 1917.
“It doesn’t say that he had any heirs, so it’s quite possible that his estate was sold off and that’s how the album ended up floating around,” Gillispie says.
Chambless believes his mother – a lifelong book collector – acquired the book at an estate sale in Pennsylvania or Delaware in the 1970s.
“She had no idea what it was and hadn’t seen it in decades,” Chambless says. “We are both thrilled that that huge old book has gone home and will be of some use.”