Monday, February 7, 2011

Henry D. Cogswell Time Capsule Collection

I’ve just finished the final touches on the collection guide to the delightful Henry D. Cogswell Time Capsule Collection, a revised version of which will soon be available on the Online Archive of California. Cogswell, an eccentric San Francisco dentist with twin passions for dental education and teetotalism, assembled a large time capsule, which was entombed under the statue of Benjamin Franklin – now in Washington Square – in 1879. One hundred years later the capsule was opened and its contents given to the California Historical Society, as Cogswell himself had instructed.

In the universe of ephemera, the Cogswell Time Capsule Collection is the Land of Oz, with endless surprises and enchantments. The wealth of its printed contents – from cabinet cards to newspapers in German, Italian, French, Norwegian, and Chinese – testifies to the quality and diversity of print culture in late nineteenth-century San Francisco, as if in addendum to the large ephemera collections brought to light by the California Ephemera Project. Here is Cogswell’s business card:

The delicacy with which the dental instruments are rendered – the pliers, in particular – only adds to their menace, at least to the dentophobic observer.

Some of the books in the collection include poignant personal inscriptions, messages to the future that bear the cultural and political weight of the past. In a copy of her 1877 book, The Great Geysers of California, Laura De Fore Gordon wrote: "If this little book should see the light after its hundred years of entombment, I would like its readers to know that the author was a lover of her own sex and devoted the best years of her life in striving for the Political, equal, and social and moral education of woman."
But, for me, the most wonderful surprise in the Cogswell time capsule comes at the very end, in the form of an 1879 letter documenting the history of the San Francisco China News, found in one of the last folders in the collection and transcribed in full here:

San Francisco, June 4th, 1879

Enclosed – You will find a copy of the “San Francisco China News” dated February 6th, 1875.

The publication of the China News was commenced in June 1874 by the undersigned and John P. Bogardus. The China News was the first Newspaper in the Chinese language ever published outside of the Chinese Empire. The paper was published and issued by the originators for about one year and a half. No type was used, the matter being written on transfer paper and Litographed [sic]. As a matter of necessity the employees were all Chinese. It took the employees a year and a half to learn to Litograph [sic] and to purchase a press and import Litograph [sic] stones from Germany. When they got ready for business, they issued a paper of their own and not only refused to work any longer for Bogardus and Gordon but prevented other Chinamen from working for them. Since then the paper has been published by Chinese.

Yours Truly,

F.L. Gordon

Accompanied by a copy of the newspaper, dated February 6, 1875, this letter documents perhaps the first Chinese American newspaper venture in California – and the United States – serving as an extraordinary example of Chinese American economic and cultural agency in a time (the 1870s) and place (San Francisco) defined by profound sinophobia. At the same time, it describes some of the technical problems faced by the pioneers of the Chinese-language press in America. Do these documents, buried for 100 years underground, represent a new chapter in California’s rich print culture history, yet to be written?

– Marie Silva, Archivist & Manuscripts Librarian
California Historical Society
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