Skip to main content

Greenville & Hockessin Life

Inside Winterthur’s enthralling and enormous library

Dec 07, 2022 12:35PM ● By Tricia Hoadley
By Ken Mammarella
Contributing Writer

A richly illustrated 1570 treatise on architecture by Andrea Palladio (he of Palladian windows fame), a 1776-77 workbook by student Peggey Clayton solving math problems (and writing beautifully on other pages) and a 1933 Sears catalog (one smart dress, in regular and stout sizes, is just 59 cents) are just some of the treasures in Winterthur’s library.

And there are many, many, many more. Enough to fill 30,000 square feet over five floors: more than 100,000 books; 4,000 collections, which could each include tens of thousands of items; and 4,000 feet of shelving for archives related to Winterthur itself.

So who comes in here? “Everybody,” said Rebecca Parmer, the library’s director since May. “Advanced scholars, international scholars, faculty members, folks writing books, graduate students and undergraduate students working on their own research or participating in a course with us. But it’s also community members who are doing genealogical research, who just want to be surrounded by things that spark creativity and ideas and who want to look at or feel connected to our past.”

In other words, maybe you. If you’re interested, email [email protected].

The genesis of the library goes back to du Pont patriarch Pierre Samuel, whose 8,000-book collection was one of young America’s largest private libraries. When his son E.I. died in 1834, an inventory concluded that his most valuable possession was his library, worth five times his silver.

The concept was supersized when descendant Henry Francis du Pont decided to turn his home into a museum of decorative arts, creating a research lab to study what he owned and an academic program to train experts in material culture.

He sent Charles Montgomery (Winterthur’s first curator) and Frank Sommer (the first library director) to Europe to buy stuff. “It was a book-buying spree,” Parmer said. “With a blank check.”

How it began

“The library would collect architectural pattern books, artisan price and account books, domestic advice manuals, trade catalogues, cookbooks, diaries, travel accounts, fabric swatch books, full runs (with the covers) of the great consumer magazines, dozens of European books – all offering a rare and extraordinary visual catalogue of American history, art and design.” That’s from the introduction to “The Winterthur Library Revealed: Five Centuries of Design and Inspiration,” a volume published in 2001 to mark the library’s 50th anniversary.

Michael Rodriguez (a strategist for LYRASIS, an international nonprofit serving archives, libraries and museums) called Winterthur’s collections “unique and indispensable.”

“Do you know that the Winterthur library holds eminent American artist John Lewis Krimmel’s original sketchbooks, which feature the earliest depictions of a Christmas tree in American art, from 1812/13?” he said. “To see, touch, and experience firsthand these historical items is nothing short of awe-inspiring. The Winterthur library is indispensable for anyone doing research in the fine and decorative arts.”

Kaari Newman, a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Delaware, agrees on the importance of the collection and its potential interest. Her doctoral dissertation explores “aunt figures in periodical literature, specifically the ways in which they either support or challenge Victorian notions of family and kin,” and a Winterthur/UD course on British design history opened her eyes “to the wide wide world of decorative arts. I still draw on the object lessons and material cultural aspects I learned in that course when I’m reading and interpreting my texts.”

As part of her graduate certification in museum studies, she also worked at Winterthur, including curating two exhibitions (the latest, “Playing With Paper,” highlights treasures from the Maxine Waldron Collection of Paper Dolls, Toys and Ephemera) and doing a deep dive into the stacks that uncovered “several fun, creative, colorful or otherwise interesting items that could be highlighted for visitors or on Winterthur’s social media channels.”

“The Winterthur library is a storied and internationally recognized institution,” Parmer said.

Colorful era

Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library is famous for its collection of nearly 90,000 objects showcasing decorative and fine arts made in America from 1630 to 1860. The library collection extends further into the past and further into the future. A recent purchase, for instance, was four 19th century songbooks of Black music that would later be very influential on a lot of American music.

“We’re actively collecting in a way that tries to expand our knowledge and broadens our understanding of who and what makes the American experience,” Parmer said.

Many intriguing items are categorized as ephemera – items that were intended to be used or used up and not saved. Like greeting cards, invitations and labels for boxes.

Take the books that display hundreds of swatches of fabrics made in Norwich, England. “A lot of people tend to think of the 19th century as very drab, but when you look at these historic samples, you realize just how colorful the era was,” Parmer said.

And it’s not just color that can be analyzed. X-ray fluorescence can figure out the elemental composition of the material, without destroying it.

A working library

Some items have also been digitized, to make them accessible to everyone. But digitization is time-consuming and expensive to do and maintain.

The collections also document changing technologies, such as lithography, a cheaper and faster technique to print in color. “This process enabled the printing industry to just explode,” she said.

Those swatches and other manufacturers’s sample books can interest modern businesses. For instance, on the day Parmer was interviewed for this article, the library was also hosting a team from a home furnishings company looking at old wallpapers.

The temperature and the humidity in the library are carefully controlled to help preserve items, and if there’s damage, a world-class conservation crew is nearby. Ephemera is often stored in boxes, which further reduce exposure to dust and light.

But this is a working library, and items are available to be touched – with care. “Everything is meant to be used,” she said. “We balance that with the need for preservation.”

Like what you're reading? Subscribe to Greenville & Hockessin Life's free newsletter to catch every headline