Dear Mr. Mudd: Why Do You Have a Piece of a Railroad Track in the Library?

Dear Mr. Mudd,

Why do you have a “cross section of railroad” in your Memorabilia Collection (AC053)?

 

In 1855, for the second time in its near-century of existence, Nassau Hall suffered a devastating fire. At the time, Nassau Hall still served in part as one of Princeton’s dormitories. An undergraduate had gone to Maclean House and a burning log fell out of a stove in his room. As the structure ignited, flames lit up the sky for miles around. The interior of the building was almost entirely destroyed, with even the college bell, which had survived the 1802 fire, left in pieces among the ruins. Fortunately for those of us interested in documenting the institution’s history, faculty and students rushed papers, artwork, and other valuable property to safety before the flames fully engulfed the building. Aside from one student who fell and broke his leg, no one was hurt.

F. Childs lithograph of Nassau Hall, ca. 1860. Nassau Hall Iconography Collection (AC177), Box 1.

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Exhibition celebrates 50th anniversary of University Archives

The richness and depth of the collections of the Princeton University Archives are the focus of “‘The Best Old Place of All’: Treasures From the Princeton University Archives,” a new exhibition at the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library opening Friday, Feb. 20.

The exhibition coincides with the yearlong celebration of the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the University Archives and features some of the most historically significant documents and objects from the collection alongside seldom-seen treasures. It will run through Friday, Jan. 29.

“The goal of this exhibition is to illustrate the University’s long and impressive history and, in doing so, to celebrate and reflect upon the vital role of the University Archives in preserving and documenting that record,” said University Archivist Dan Linke.

Featured in the exhibition are documents, photographs and objects from the University Archives covering the time of the institution’s founding to the modern era. A page from the 1783 minutes of the Board of Trustees contains the trustees’ request that George Washington sit for a portrait so that they might replace the work of King George that was destroyed in the Battle of Princeton. Nearby, a draft of then-University President Woodrow Wilson’s vehement argument on the matter of the location of the Graduate College hints at another battle fought on campus more than a century later.

Many of the objects capture the ever-changing nature of student life and academics at Princeton. Early course examinations, class schedules and a set of handwritten student lecture notes from the time of John Witherspoon (who was University president from 1768 to 1794) exemplify how, though times may have changed, the purpose of the typical Princeton student has remained largely the same. One notable exception to that credo can be seen in the form of a so-called “cheating cuff,” which hearkens back to the days before the Honor Code. Early 20th-century football programs and photographs from Triangle Club shows point to extracurricular pursuits.

In addition to paper documents and photographs, “‘The Best Old Place of All'” draws upon the extensive memorabilia collection of the University Archives. Items such as canes, clay pipes and the Reunion jacket of Adlai Stevenson — the influential politician and diplomat who graduated from Princeton in 1922 — are all a part of the University’s heritage. Other objects such as the discus that 1897 alumnus Robert Garrett threw in the 1896 Athens Olympics and a blackball box used during eating club “bicker” selections represent some of many curiosities that have found their way into the archives in the last 50 years.

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