In college, one of my favorite ways to relax—and also begin research—was to go to the library and skim the shelves. Even if I were armed with a printout listing books I needed to pull, there was always a discovery waiting. Archives filled with rows and rows of uniform boxes rarely present this same serendipity; there are no brightly colored book spines to catch the eye or give context to what one might find inside.
Answering questions that researchers submit to the AskUs Form for the Reference Services Department, however, does allow me to look broadly across the collections of the Archives of American Art. Our department fields over 2,500 inquiries annually from all over the world. While generally pertaining to the visual arts, these questions cover any and every topic you could imagine. I frequently find myself making notes to go back to items in the collections which pique my interest but are unrelated to the task at hand. Stumbling across notable items while travelling through collections is something a colleague describes as being an “accidental tourist.”
The Arthur Sinclair Covey papers offer many such delights. In 31, generally thin, folders of correspondence there are many holiday greetings, some of the most charming of which were sent by the architect William Adams Delano. Delano, along with Chester Holmes Aldrich, is best known for designing Kykuit (John D. Rockefeller’s estate in Hudson Valley, New York), several buildings at Yale University (including the Sterling Divinity Quadrangle), and the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.
Delano had a habit of writing holiday messages in verse, and some years he printed small pocket calendars which were illustrated by artists and served as his annual Christmas card (three examples of which are found in Covey’s papers). His verses tend to be short and humorous—they very much remind me of Ogden Nash—though, living through world wars and the era of the atomic bomb, he did not leave more serious subjects untouched (his 1952 calendar was titled, A Caustic Calendar for a Worried World). Leading into 1945, the year World War II ended, he wrote:
The verses for 1945 were all animal themed, though, he took note of the war in October: The Geese are foolish fowl — BECAUSE / They taught the German Army Corps / That step so splendid on parade, / So useless fleeing from a raid.
In later calendars, there is a more reflective tone in Delano’s short poems, with ruminations on nature and the role of humankind in the world. June 1950’s verse offers: The search for truth leads far — BECAUSE / Some sceptics [sic] will uncover flaws / In many precepts long believed / And tell the world it’s been deceived. In the poem for August of the same year—five years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and two months since the start of the Korean War—Delano gives an illusion to the atomic bomb: The atom baffles us — BECAUSE / The more the scientist explores / The more we wonder whether it / Brings mankind woe or benefit.
In one of his last holiday greetings before passing away in 1960, Delano abandoned his printed pocket calendar and instead typed a short note to Covey:
This year my muse is on vacation but, before leaving, she charged me to send a word to all the kind friends who remember me at this season; so, obediently, I send my thanks and my best wishes for 1957.
And in typing out those wishes, he reminds us that even when he wasn’t rhyming he still served his muse.
Elizabeth Botten works in the Reference Services Department at the Archives of American Art.