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Newberry to show off treasures for 125th

This 1788 baptismal certificate for  Hans Friedrich Latschembellished with green red parrots pomegranates is Newberry Library's collection.

This 1788 baptismal certificate for Hans Friedrich Latscha, embellished with green and red parrots and pomegranates, is in the Newberry Library's collection.

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Updated: July 3, 2012 12:23PM

Alexander Calder, the famed abstract artist who invented mobiles, went by “Sandy” — who knew? ­— and, also contrary to what you might expect of iconic artists, was sometimes hard up for money.

“As I am short of cash, could you advance me a couple of hundred?” he wrote as the first sentence of a Sept. 28, 1948 letter from his home on Painter Hill Road in Roxbury Connecticut to the Arts Club of Chicago, which had bought his mobile, “Red Pedals,” in 1942.

The letter — actually a thick folder of letters, containing drawings, cut-outs and handmade postcards — is one of 125 treasures that the Newberry Library is assembling from its 2 million item collection for a huge show that will mark its 125th anniversary this September.

But September’s far off and, unwilling to wait, I finagled myself a sneak peek. Being something of a vulgarian, and susceptible to mercantile, auction-house thinking, I naturally assumed that the Newberry would highlight its 125 rarest and most valuable objects, and so was taken aback by some of the items they’ve decided to feature.

“They’re not all treasures in the most conventional sense,” said Paul Gehl, the library’s printing history curator, after leading me through two high-security steel doors into what amounts to a room-sized vault. “What we’re trying to do is to represent the depth of the collection in terms of content — treasures in the sense of rarity — but also treasures in the sense of things people use and how they use them. Because some things are not so much rare and valuable as they are extremely important, from a research point of view.”

To illustrate his point, he opened an archival folder to reveal a gorgeous 1788 baptismal certificate for a certain Hans Friedrich Latscha, embellished with green and red parrots and pomegranates.

“It’s an amazing thing,” said Gehl. “It’s not so much about kinship as about the spiritual value of a child in a family context.”

The certificate also hinted at a darker story — Gehl drew attention to the pomegranates, which can be a symbol of eternal life.

“A lot of these were done for children who were already dead,” he said. “Because the infant mortality rate was so high sometimes the only souvenir they would have of a child would be this kind of memorial.”

Such is the power of an artifact, that it can instantly jar you out of 2012 and make you wonder about whether someone you had never heard of perished in infancy in 1788.

The baptismal certificate is there because the Newberry is known for genealogical study.

“We’re trying to cover all the fields in the library, which is absurd,” said Gehl.

The next document was boldly titled, “DE PAR LE ROI,” a French police order, dated July 11, 1789, forbidding publishing pamphlets.

“We have the largest collection in North America of French Revolution pamphlets,” said Gehl. “This is dated three days before the fall of the Bastille. A little late.”

But a stark reminder of the limits of tyranny.

“We’re putting this piece in the section of politics,” he said, listing the five areas the exhibit as: Families; Religion; Travel; Arts; and Politics & Commerce (it’s very 2012 that the Newberry believes it can mash politics and commerce together into one category — there’s a lot that going around lately.

The show is still being assembled, but what they already have defies summary. An aria, written and signed by Mozart. A letter from a slave to her husband. Shakespeare’s First Folio. Drawings by Native Americans. “Preparing for this has been challenging, enlightening, frustrating, rewarding,” said David Spadafora, Newberry president.

The thing about original materials is, they’re so detailed, details can pop out even at a glance, resonating with the current day. One of the treasures is a run of the Cherokee Phoenix, a newspaper written in English and Cherokee in Georgia in 1828. One story that caught my eye outlines new “Slave Laws” related to not riding with or aiding fugitive slaves. They sounded uncomfortably like laws recently passed in Arizona and Arkansas designed to stop people from helping illegal immigrants.

Another example: click on the “Type” option on the upper left of your computer and it will offer Cooper fonts, and there is a joy in seeing a hand-inked prototype by Chicago’s Oswald Cooper, plus a 1927 promotional sheet illustrating the type with the phrase, “Such strong design inspires absolute belief.”

That it does. Everyone will discover something to fascinate. I got lost in the childhood baseball card collection of James T. Farrell, of Studs Lonigan fame — 1909 tobacco cards, from Sweet Caporal Cigarettes. I found Cubs greats Evers and Chance, but missed Tinker.

“The goal of the show is to surprise people,” said Gehl. “These are not just the same old treasures.” Something to look forward to.

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