Spring 2021

News of the Mercantile Library

175th Anniversary Exhibition
by John N. Hoover, Executive Director

Beginning this spring the Mercantile Library will launch a year-long celebration of its 175th Anniversary with publications, virtual talks, tours, presentations, and other events that will hopefully culminate in a large dinner celebration; where our supporters and members--generations in the making--can finally be with each other face to face. 

The 28-starred American flag, ca. 1846.
Collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library at UMSL
The centerpiece of the anniversary is one of the largest exhibitions the Mercantile has ever presented in a distinguished series designed to mark the special nature of the vast and diverse holdings of this storied and beloved institution: A Nation, a City, & its First Library: Americana as a Way of Life at the St. Louis Mercantile Library for 175 Years. Through eight galleries and intertwined chapters, the Library presents its most treasured collections on Native Americans; on the 1840s era of our founding; on first and significant American history printings, especially those printed west of the Mississippi for the first time, such as the first book, newspaper, almanac, sheet music, map, atlas, poetry, novel, play, and many other items printed in St. Louis and elsewhere; on American narratives and activities-- from rail, river and fur trade history, to individual achievements on the national level, to the struggle for freedom-- in our city of St. Louis, and often intersecting with the history and collecting interests of the Mercantile Library; on art of Missouri in the collection; on manuscript collections—in short, an examination of the core collections which have made the Mercantile a well-used and needed national and local historical resource from its beginnings, when it opened its doors to a frontier metropolis on April 9, 1846. The Library celebrates its venerable role as the oldest cultural institution in St. Louis and one of the first cultural institutions chartered by the state of Missouri. 
S.A. Mitchell, A New Map of Texas, Oregon, and California, 1846.
Collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library at UMSL
Despite the pandemic, the past year has been one of our busiest and most active in serving students and researchers, and we are proud to offer this retrospective look at the Library’s history in this way. Please watch your mailbox and email for special events and keep your April 2022 calendar open for an anticipated gala dinner program. Come celebrate with us!
Recent Acquisitions: 
Artwork of the Leopold Gast & Brother Lithograph Company, St. Louis
by Julie Dunn-Morton, Art Museum Curator
New acquisitions are always exciting, but particularly when they enrich multiple Mercantile Library collections. Such is the case with an archive of over 60 drawings, lithographs, and photographs from the L. Gast & Brother Lithograph Company that was active in St. Louis in the mid to late 19th century. With original drawings by three local artists and lithographic proofs from one of the company’s most iconic prints, this collection is a treasure trove of St. Louis history and art. 
In 1848 brothers Leopold and August Gast immigrated from Germany, bringing their families and their lithographic press.  After living briefly in New York and then Pittsburgh, the two families settled permanently in St. Louis. In 1852 they opened the firm Leopold Gast & Brother Lithograph Company which Leopold ran until he sold his shares to August in 1866. Leopold was both artist and manager for the firm that hired several local artists including his son John Gast (1842-1896) and long-time St. Louis resident Paulus Roetter (1806-1896).

John Gast's artistic career extended beyond lithographic work. In 1872 he was commissioned to paint an interpretation of Manifest Destiny which he titled American Progress. This drawing of a tree is one of two works in the collection signed by John Gast and was made two years prior to his leaving for Germany to study art. The firm also employed Paulus Roetter (1806-1896), a German-born artist who had arrived in St. Louis in 1845, and who became known for his work as an instructor in art and modern languages. He was among the artists included in the inaugural exhibition of the Western Academy of Art in 1860 and at the 1864 Mississippi Valley Sanitary Fair. 
Subjects depicted in the drawings and lithographs document St. Louis businesses, some overtly in identified buildings such as the People’s Savings Association Building, and some only hinted at as in this detailed drawing of a stove. These works of art that provide such a fascinating glimpse into our city’s business, artistic, and immigration history, are an exciting addition to the Mercantile Library collections.
Staff Spotlight: Alyssa Persson
by Brittney West, Library Assistant
Alyssa Persson is the Aubash Collections Access Librarian at the St. Louis Mercantile Library. She earned B.A. degrees in History and Secondary Education from Augustana University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and her MLIS from Simmons University in Boston, Massachusetts. She is originally from Alexandria, South Dakota, but now calls Downtown St. Louis home. She enjoys exploring the city with her dog Millie.

In recognition of Alyssa’s one year anniversary of employment at the Mercantile Library, she generously obliged us with the following interview... 
Q: What work were you previously doing before you started at the Mercantile? What skills from your previous position helped ease you into the work you do at the Library now?

A: I had a winding journey to get to the Mercantile. I was actually a middle school social studies teacher for several years before pursuing my library science degree. I interned in the archives at UMass Medical School, then at the Congregational Library & Archives in Boston. I ended up working as an intern in the archives at Everglades National Park, and from there I came to the Mercantile. Teaching actually helped me greatly during the process of creating our education outreach program. Working in those archives in New England taught me how to identify and handle rare books and manuscripts. And working in the Everglades helped me to learn the importance of adaptability - one day I would be surveying archival materials, the next I’d be prepping museum items for hurricane evacuation. Adaptability has been essential, especially this year during the pandemic.

Q: What are some of your favorite collections to work with at the Mercantile?

A: Historic newspapers are some of my favorite items to work with because they tell so many different stories - some sensational and scandalous, but also the seemingly mundane, everyday happenings. It’s all interesting to me. I think they have the ability to transport you to a different place and time better than almost any other kinds of collection items. I also love working with items from the Dr. Helen Nash Collection. It’s a favorite because it includes incredible, famous authors like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, but I’ve also been introduced to so many new (to me) literary figures who tell such important stories of the Black experience in America. I could go on and on, but I’ll just pick one more favorite; the Christmas Collection, specifically the Victorian Christmas ghost stories. They fascinate me.
Q: So far, what would you consider the most interesting research inquiry or subject you have worked on?

A: I think it would have to be Patience Worth. I stumbled across her story while searching the catalog for someone’s research request and it captured my attention. I was able to write an e-blast about the Ouija board ghost who wrote through the hand of St. Louisan Pearl Curran. I even found a full front page story on Patience which had been written in the St. Louis Republic on Halloween in 1915.

Q: Every staff member of the Mercantile has had a part in helping put together the 175th Anniversary exhibition and catalog; what role(s) did you have in this exhibition process?

A: I was able to digitize many of the items for the catalog, which was a fun experience for me as it introduced me to some of the most incredible items we hold here. It was a great project to have as a new member of the staff, and it gave me an appreciation for the vastness of the Mercantile’s collections. Thanks to Julie and Sara, I even got some experience with exhibit lighting and other aspects of exhibition display which I had never been part of before.

Q: What advice would you have for students who aspire to work in library research and special collections?

A: If it’s something you’re passionate about, go for it. Explore as many special collections libraries as you can when you travel, ask lots of questions, and always be ready to learn.
New Topics in the Anniversary Educational Program
 by Sara Hodge, Pott Waterways Curator
This past October the St. Louis Mercantile Library proudly launched its new Anniversary Educational Series. This free virtual field trip is designed as a tool for K-12 students to expand their research skills and understanding of history. The program guides learners through a series of online videos that teach them about archives and special collection libraries, primary sources, and conducting historical research, while exploring topics aligned with Missouri state learning standards. Since going live, the program has been a tremendous success and is already being used by schools throughout the area.

In the spring we added two new themed presentations to the program, and have several more in development. The first new presentation, titled Bondage and Freedom: Examining American Slave Narratives highlights the importance of studying stories written by formerly enslaved people in order to better understand United States history. Featured prominently are Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, as well as William Wells Brown and Archer Alexander, who both experienced slavery in St. Louis. Students learn about how and why these narratives were written, followed by an assignment in which they compare and contrast the stories of Brown and Alexander. The Dr. Helen E. Nash Collection here at the Mercantile holds many copies of slave narratives, including those of Douglass, Brown, and Alexander. This program is recommended for grades 9-12 and can be explored here.

The second new presentation titled Early American Immigration teaches students how to use primary sources to look past large numbers and statistics to recognize the humanity behind immigration. Students analyze Irish immigrant Robert Campbell’s personal correspondence, German immigrant newspapers and political cartoons, late-19th century railroad land grant promotions, English immigrant Fanny Palmer’s lithographs, and much more, to understand what life was really like for early American immigrants and how their immigration affected the growing nation’s cultural, political, and economic realities. This program is recommended for grades 9-12 and can be explored here.

The library will continue to expand our Anniversary Educational Series, as we explore new innovative avenues for outreach and education. Through this program, the Library looks forward to engaging new generations of learners, while increasing the library’s relevance and impact in our community.

Stay connected to us on social media or
visit our
website for the most up-to-date information.

If you have any questions regarding specific programming please email mercantilelibrary@umsl.edu or call 314-516-7248.

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