Johns Hopkins curators pick their favorite objects from the collections

Earle Havens calls it a "eureka!" discovery. Two years ago, the curator of rare books and manuscripts at the Sheridan Libraries' Department of Special Collections unearthed something beautiful, rare, and truly exceptional hiding in plain sight. Havens, who is also an adjunct assistant professor of history, was preparing to teach a class session on 18th-century European perceptions of late imperial China. Working alongside Peabody Library curator Paul Espinosa, who was helping him identify primary source materials in the library, Havens came across what he describes as "an inexpensive, nondescript portfolio with no markings on it," whose contents the original 19th-century library accession records billed simply as "Chinese garden prints."

"They are, in point of fact, much, much more!" Havens says. "They are nothing less than a unique and stunningly beautiful suite of original paintings executed circa 1765 by a court painter to the reigning emperor of China in Peking for apparent presentation to the king of France."

The works depict Bishu Shanzhuang (translation: Mountain Village for Escaping the Heat), the extensive landscaped grounds of the major Qing imperial summer palace complex at Chengde. The back of each is stamped "Bibliothèque du Roi Palais Royal," indicating they were once part of the royal French library, likely that of King Louis XV. There is zero information on how Peabody came to own the 28 works, though Havens says such "undercataloging" was not uncommon in the 19th century. The French Revolution saw all manner of royal holdings stripped and scattered to the winds.

He has asked the curator of Asian art at the Walters Art Museum to further examine the works. As for their value? Havens is pretty sure the answer is going to be "priceless." "They are simply masterpieces of imperial 18th-century Chinese art," Havens says. "You just don't stumble upon stuff like that."

Inspired by this dramatic story of lost and found, we got to thinking about all the great "stuff" Johns Hopkins has in its many libraries, archives, museums, and collections. We asked the people who oversee those collections to come up with a short list of their favorite items. Havens' choice was a natural, given the excitement of uncovering heretofore-unknown original artworks from 18th-century imperial China. But his curatorial peers also presented exceptional things as their personal picks—items that, in their own way, have been hiding in plain sight, just waiting for their tales to come to light and their beauty and significance to gain wider appreciation.

"Thebes" Armchair, Circa 1885

James Abbott, Director and Curator, Evergreen Museum & Library

The Evergreen Museum & Library is a Gilded Age time capsule brimming with more than 50,000 objects amassed by two generations of the Garrett family of railroad magnates. Among all the magnificent items—works by Degas and Picasso, a collection of Tiffany art glass, cases of exquisitely carved Japanese ivory—it might be easy to overlook the mahogany "Thebes" armchair tucked in the corner of the mansion's reception room.

"Most people would just dismiss it as an odd piece of furniture and walk by it," James Abbott says of the chair, which is believed to be English and to have been purchased by Thomas Harrison Garrett, the first of the family to reside at Evergreen.

Its sleek, near-black design seems to defy its Victorian-era vintage, a time when much of the furniture was big, brown, and bulky. With a concave seat, gently undulating back, and slender arms, the chair could pass for contemporary. But it is documented as being in the house in 1885, says Abbott. "We've had some people refer to it as Art Nouveau, but that's incorrect as it predates the Nouveau movement."

Although the 19th-century artifact seems to foreshadow mid-century modern design, its design was actually inspired by stools found inside royal Egyptian tombs in Thebes and elsewhere. The Victorians had a growing fascination with the age of the great Pharaohs as more and more archaeological discoveries were made.

"It's beautifully engineered and doesn't appear to have any real stress," Abbott says. Of course, it doesn't hurt that no one is allowed to actually sit in it. And that might be just as well, because for all its aesthetic charms, it's probably not that comfortable, says Abbott. "It wouldn't even be an easy chair to sit in because you could really just slide out of it."

1801 Map of Baltimore

Catherine Rogers Arthur, Director and Curator, Homewood Museum

Seventeen years ago, Homewood Museum's newly hired historic site coordinator, Catherine Rogers Arthur, was browsing the wares at an antique show held at the Baltimore Museum of Art. "I walked into a booth and was like, 'Wow, a Warner and Hanna map of Baltimore! Just what I wanted for Homewood,'" Arthur says. "It was the perfect context piece to show the Baltimore into which Homewood was born."

She asked the dealer to put the 1801 map on hold while she contacted her acquisitions committee to discuss purchasing the artifact, named for the Warner and Hanna firm of booksellers and publishers that created it. The price, she recalls, was "significant, but not an obstacle." However, after Arthur scrambled to get the green light to purchase the roughly 20 inch by 30 inch map, the dealer made a startling confession: The map actually belonged to a local collector who had placed it with him to sell. The owner said that if it didn't sell at the show, he intended to donate the map to Homewood.

And so it became Arthur's first acquisition for the museum. Now hanging in what would have been Homewood's office back in the day, it lays out an infant city, with distinctly marked Old Town and Fell's Point sections, around a body of water just called the "Bason." The Jones Falls is lined with mills, not covered with a highway, and Charles Street only makes it as far north as Saratoga Street.

"It shows a lot of familiar places and street names, and people enjoy looking at it," Arthur says. One name you won't see on it is Homewood. The house was under construction at the time—a gift from Declaration of Independence signer Charles Carroll to his son, Charles Jr.

"It would be better if the map extended about two more inches to the top and it might include Homewood in the image," Arthur says. "But you at least get this sense of all the country houses that sit outside the city of Baltimore."

Usher's Badge from the Opening Ceremonies of the Johns Hopkins Hospital, 1889

Nancy McCall, Archivist, The Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions

A mere eight inches or so long and with a visible liquid (coffee?) stain splattered across the words JOHNS HOPKINS HOSPITAL, the old usher's badge is not much to look at. But this slender bit of ribbon is not only a rare artifact from the hospital's gala opening; it was also worn by a man with a fascinating Johns Hopkins résumé, one James Drakely Leeke (1861–1942). Leeke spent 60 years working at the hospital—nine of them before it even opened.

"He worked as a teenager on the construction of the hospital, and he got a job as chief usher for all the opening events," Nancy McCall explains. "I guess what I love about the badge is its symbolism and backstory. And we don't have that many tchotchkes from the opening day of the hospital."

Leeke's father, it turns out, was the hospital's superintendent of construction who oversaw the 11-year-long process of building the grand brick complex. The younger Leeke was hired on as a carpenter. After ushering at the grand opening— a momentous event full of speeches and brass bands—Leeke put away his hammer and got a job as a clerk at the hospital.

"He rose through the ranks from days doing construction work to eventually become chief accountant, then comptroller of the hospital and chief treasurer," McCall says. "He was obviously a lively go-getter, and he climbed the ladders of opportunity that were available to him."

For the carpenter-cum-comptroller, the climb upward was figurative and, at times, quite literal. Quoting from an article published in the long defunct Baltimore News-Post shortly after Leeke's death, during his carpenter days he performed a key and dangerous act: "He crawled to the top of the great dome to place the weather vane there."

Blossom's Hair

Christine Ruggere, Associate Director, Institute of the History of Medicine, and Curator of the Historical Collection

Blossom was the British bovine that spared untold millions from the deadly scourge of smallpox. This Gloucester dairy cow was the original source of the cowpox that Dr. Edward Jenner—known as the father of immunology— used to develop his vaccine against smallpox in 1796. (The very word "vaccine" is derived from vacca, the Latin name for cow.)

"It was an amazing advancement in the history of public health and infectious disease," Christine Ruggere says. "And this is the cow."

Well, the "this" she refers to is a clump of Blossom's brown hairs preserved in a framed box. It's part of the vast collection of medical books and artifacts donated to the Institute of the History of Medicine in 1932 by Dr. Henry Barton Jacobs, who briefly practiced medicine at Johns Hopkins Hospital and later became a university trustee. He even paid to have a handsome library created at the institute to house the items, replete with stained glass windows honoring a quartet of health care heroes: Laënnec, Jenner, Pasteur, and Osler. (Jenner's window also features an image of Blossom.)

The hairs are presented in their case along with various handwritten notes sketching out their provenance. The Blossom bits changed hands a few times, beginning as a souvenir presented to Dr. Francis Miles, a Baltimorean visiting London's St. George's Hospital in 1870. (If you want to see more of Blossom, that hospital has her whole hide on display in its library.) Jacobs acquired the hair sometime in the 1920s.

"The cow hairs are a crowd pleaser," says Ruggere, who hopes to place them on public display once renovations to her building are complete this summer. "It connects people so directly to Dr. Jenner and the whole concept of vaccination." Another item in the collection is a gold-plated smallpox lance and vaccine vial from Bangladesh in 1977 that commemorates Blossom's triumph: the global eradication of smallpox. "And so we have the beginning, and we have the end of mankind's fight against smallpox," Ruggere says.

Early 20th-Century Joke Books Printed in Baltimore

Heidi Herr, Sheridan Libraries Outreach Coordinator for Special Collections and Librarian for English and Philosophy

Q: What's the best way to increase the strength of the navy?
A: Increase the number of berths Ba dum tssh!

Of course you have to imagine the rim shot riff when reading Peppy Jokes, You-Tell-Em, or any of the other pulp-paper joke books Baltimore publisher I. & M. Ottenheimer churned out for a teen-boy market a hundred years ago, some two dozen of which now reside in the Rare Book Room of the George Peabody Library. This exalted archive is home to priceless examples of incunabula (books printed before 1501) and brims with hoary, leather-bound tomes of antiquity and scholarship.

"But I figured, why not the joke books," Heidi Herr says about her selection. "They have these amazing covers, a great connection to local history, and the students absolutely love them."

Ike and Moses Ottenheimer were teens themselves when they began their Baltimore printing business in 1890. Most of the library's two dozen joke books date from the company's guffaw glory days between 1910 and 1927. More than a million such books were printed before the fad waned in the 1930s (and the plates used to print them were melted down as part of a World War II scrap metal drive).

Young owl: To who, to who, to who!
Father owl: How often must I tell you to say "to whom"?

Where did the jokes come from? The stage, mainly. "The Ottenheimers were known for stealing jokes," Herr says. "They would go down to the vaudeville district, and whenever a marquee comedian was appearing, they would have secretaries sitting in the audience and writing down the jokes that went over the best. A week later, they would print the jokes."

Corny, sophomoric, and politically incorrect at times, the slender volumes are a fascinating glimpse into a vanished era. "They provide a sociological view about what people were finding funny about the times that they lived in," says Herr. Take this ditty from the flapper era, in the form of a Q&A with a fashion magazine editor.

Dear editor: What's the latest thing in men's clothes?
Answer: Women Ba dum tssh!

Ancient Roman Lead Curse Tablets

Sanchita Balachandran, Curator/Conservator, Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum

Let him perish miserably. Let him leave life miserably. Let him be destroyed miserably.

So reads an ancient Roman curse tablet at the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum, one of five such poison-pen artifacts in the collection dating to the first century B.C. Talk about an old grudge—this written-in-lead appeal asks the goddess Proserpina (wife of Pluto, king of the underworld) to bring all manner of grievous harm to a man named Plotius, a slave of Avonia. Summon for me the triple-headed hound to snatch away the heart of Plotius, it goes on.

"It's a very intimate portrait of someone who obviously despised Plotius, though we don't know why," says Sanchita Balachandran. "Unfortunately, we don't know anything about what these people did, which makes it all the more scintillating. The text is really quite blood curdling because it's actually asking for the death of this man Plotius."

Ancient Romans could visit special parishioners who would write out their godly pleas for them in secret, scratching them into lead with a stylus. "There were actually many different kinds of texts available," Balachandran says. "There were ones for love spells and they could be for happy occasions, but the curse tablets capture people's attention far more today."

Johns Hopkins acquired the tablets in 1908 as extremely brittle bits of lead wrapped around a corroded iron nail. "The sheets themselves represent the bodies of the people being cursed, and the nail represents the curse being nailed or fixed to the body," Balachandran says. (Defixio, which means "to pin down," is the Latin name for a curse.) It was also the practice to never mention the curser's name, only the cursee, lest the gods get confused.

A graduate student named William Sherwood Fox wrote a dissertation on them in 1911 and pieced the most complete tablet together as best he could. (The others are too far gone.) He was able to translate it despite the many missing pieces because such tablets relied on a certain amount of boilerplate text. He mapped the shards, numbered them, and placed them in envelopes where they sat for some 100 years until Balachandran set about the task of putting the Plotius curse back together in 2011. (It had broken apart even more since Fox's day.)

"While I feel sorry that Plotius has been cursed over and over again, what is very interesting and poignant is that someone is remembering him," Balachandran says. "He does have an afterlife. We have this very personal connection to someone who lived 2,000 years ago."

Brennen Jensen is a Baltimore-based freelancer and the author of local history book Charmed Life.