Yale University's Beinecke Library announced the purchase of more than 57,000 photographic prints this week, primarily of President Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War, and American life in the 1860s.
The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library acquired the collection, which also includes books, pamphlets, maps, and theater broadsides for a total of over 73,000 items from the Meserve-Kunhardt Foundation.
The collection was built by a single family over five generations, beginning with a Union soldier named William Neal Meserve. His son, wanting to reconnect with his father years after the war, offered to find photographs to illustrate diaries that Meserve had kept during the war.
Meserve’s son Frederick paid $1.10 for a collection of prints that ended up including portraits of Robert E. Lee and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and from there, a family project was born.
In the late 1890s, Frederick became enthralled with the idea of collecting every Lincoln photograph in existence. As he collected, he and his family included a wide variety of images and documents from the 1860s. Frederick’s daughter Dorothy Meserve Kunhardt (author of Pat the Bunny) worked to continue the legacy.
Over a century later, the collection is significant for its demonstration of photography as an emerging American art. Overnight, Yale is now the steward of one of the most compelling portrait galleries in America.
The collection includes not only portraits of Lincoln, but portraits of citizens in the 1860s, including African-Americans, soldiers, scientists, and women. One of the most notable pieces in the collection is a daguerreotype of Susan B. Anthony.
The photographs changed hands in part because of Yale’s unique ability to preserve and care for the collection as it ages.
"Technically, few institutions are as well-positioned as Yale to care for this collection and make it widely accessible to researchers," said E.C. Schroeder, director of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. "The university has the faculty, curators, and conservators to interpret, describe, and preserve all components of the collection, as well as the gallery, library, and classroom facilities to mount exhibitions and make the materials available for scholarship and teaching."
The collection will arrive at Yale in late 2015 and will be available for research by the summer of 2016. Those hoping for a glimpse of its riches sooner than that can tune in for an HBO documentary, “Living With Lincoln,” on April 13.
Or, of course, simply look down at a five-dollar bill. One of Frederick’s collection was used as the model for the engraving.
Ray Hardman contributed to this report. Julia Pistell is an intern at WNPR.