Lost and Found: Society Discovers ‘Treasure’ of Books | Story
BRIAN CARLTON special to the register and the bee
It all started with a donation from Stratford College.
Before closing in 1974, the institution donated all the books in its library. Twenty-five boxes of these books went to the Danville Historical Society.
Many of them were out of print, some were in French, and almost all were in poor condition. Due to their damaged condition, members of society at the time put the books away and forgot about them.
Almost 50 years later, the company moved to its current location at 406 Cabell St. That meant taking things out of storage and moving them to the new headquarters. And for the new board and staff, that meant opening those Stratford boxes for the first time in decades.
What they found was amazing.
“There was a lot of screaming,” historical society director Robin Marcato said. “Each discovery was like a winning lottery ticket.”
What have we found so far? There was an illustrated edition of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” from 1884, as well as an author’s edition of PT Barnum’s autobiography. There were books from the 1600s, including one on the history of Provence, France, written by Nostradamus’ son. Six volumes of the work of French philosopher Voltaire were included, along with a miniature first edition of Black Beauty. Add in editions of Don Quixote and Arabian Nights from the 1800s and you’ve just scratched the surface.
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Before we focus on books, let’s look at where they come from. Although Stratford College only existed from 1930 to 1974, its history began almost a century earlier in another part of the city.
Danville Female College opened in 1854, on the corner of South Ridge Street and Loyal Street. But a combination of civil war and subsequent reconstruction created problems, both with enrollment and finances. In 1877, the school was struggling with debt, so it closed. However, not everyone was ready to let the operation die. Eleven of the school’s first trustees filed a new charter, and in 1883 they started Danville College for Young Ladies, at the intersection of West Main Street and South Main Street.
This operation lasted 14 years, before becoming a satellite campus of the Randolph Macon Institute, a preparatory school for young girls. RMI suffered from an event completely beyond its control, as did the original Danville Female College. When the Great Depression hit, the already struggling school was forced to close. In 1930 they put the buildings and everything in them up for sale, including the library.
And that’s where Stratford College comes in. A group of Danville residents came together and bought the RMI buildings, turning it into a women’s college named after Robert E. Lee’s farm, Stratford Hall. It remained in operation until 1974, when these books were donated to the historical society. Today, the operation at 1111 Main St., now called Stratford House, serves as an independent seniors’ residence, managed by Commonwealth Senior Living.
This is not a simple, one-size-fits-all solution when storing old books. Do you remember the editions of Don Quixote and Arabian Nights that were in the Stratford box sets? These copies were both printed on mechanically ground wood pulp paper. Why is this important? Because, as the staff of the historical society point out, the paper has a high acid content and can quickly discolor and break if it is not kept in the right conditions.
This is why preserving books takes planning and effort.
“Older books need to be handled in a certain way based on their age,” Marcato said. “So all the books have been unpacked and are being gently cleaned. Many books have no damage inside; backs and covers are another matter.
Some of the preservation methods are as simple as how you store books, and that applies just as much to those in your home library as it does to those older editions. For example, large folio-sized books, those 15 inches or longer, are best stored flat.
Since these books tend to be larger and the text blocks can be quite heavy, the weight of the text block may cause it to separate from the spine of the book if stored upright for long periods of time.
For smaller books, you can keep them upright at a 90 degree angle to the shelf surface, supported on both sides by books of a similar size. This helps prevent the blankets from warping. Even for the books on display, the way they are arranged is done to help preserve. If you see a book in a display case, open to a specific page, it’s not fully open. The reason for this is that if you fully open an older book, it can flatten the spine and cause serious damage.
So what do we know about books? A book written by Nostradamus’ son earlier was mentioned earlier. It is “The History and Chronicle of Provence” or “The History and Chronicle of Provence”. Written by Cesar de Nostradamus in 1613, it is a detailed account of the region’s history, beginning with Roman occupation and extending through medieval times. It was a family project, originally started after Provence became part of France in 1486. Putting this together, Caesar was primarily revising and reworking the work of other family members, including a unprinted document written by his uncle, Jean. There is no evidence that Caesar’s famous astrologer father was involved in this.
The Stratford boxes also included an illustrated version of Poe’s “The Raven”, which has stood the test of time better than most. Poe published the poem in 1845 and over the years several versions have been illustrated, but this one is special. The graphics were drawn by French artist Gustave Doré, famous in the 1800s for his illustrations of the Bible and the works of William Shakespeare, Byron and Dante. This rendition of “The Raven” was also Doré’s last creation. The self-taught artist died shortly after completing the illustrations, and the book came out nearly a year after his death in 1883. It contains 28 illustrations by Doré, depicting scenes from the poem.
“When we open boxes like this, I’m reminded that I get paid to do it,” said Danville Historical Society staffer Joe Scott. “I feel so lucky.”
Later this year, local residents will have the chance to see some of these books up close, along with other artifacts from the society’s collection. Although no date has been set, the company plans to hold an open house at its Cabell Street headquarters in late summer or early fall.
Learn more about danvillehistory.org.
Brian Carlton’s work has been featured by The Associated Press, the BBC, Public Broadcasting’s 100 Days in Appalachia project and Policygenius, among others. The 20-year veteran journalist also spent 10 years as a newspaper editor in Waynesboro and later in Martinsville.