Fall/Winter 2005 Issue of Washington History
"If your friends live out of the city," a December 1885 newspaper ad from booksellers Brentano & Co. suggests, "the nicest and most appreciative present you can make them is a copy of The National Capital, The Finest Book Ever Published About Washington." The ad lists nearly half of the 350-page book's 300 illustrations—"Many of them Full Page"—and the reader is left to deduce that, for all its promised visual wealth, this publication was likely rather shallow, without much of substance to say about life in the federal city.
In title and content, this book was hardly unique. Many D.C. guides, reminiscences, and souvenirs—then and now—share the "National Capital" moniker, and not a few share stories and illustrations as well. Earlier the same year, for example, Stilson Hutchins and Joseph West Moore (better known as the author of the 1880s illustrated guide Picturesque Washington) brought out The National Capital, Past and Present. At 350 pages, it, too, was heavily illustrated with "200 Fine Engravings (nearly fifty of them full-page)." "The most complete work upon the City of Washington ever published," its ads proclaimed. These similarities suggest that Brentano's National Capital was an intentional imitation of Hutchins and Moore's. More important, this duplication points to a demand for illustrated city guides during the decades when D.C. was becoming a world-class capital. "Washington…is always a reflection of the nation," Charles Moore wrote in his version of the title in question, Washington, Past and Present (1929), and picture books, even superficial ones, reflected it back.
Washington History is heavily illustrated, too, but unlike The National Capital, it aims for substance alongside visual appeal. This issue focuses on local yet nationally significant institutions in nineteenth-century Washington. In "St. Elizabeths Hospital: Photos from 150 Years of Public Service," Jogues R. Prandoni and Suryabala Kanhouwa commemorate a century and a half of treatment at what was both the first public mental institution in D.C. and the federal government's only mental-health facility until the twentieth century.
Holly Tank explores the origins of another local institution in her article "Dedicated to Art: William Corcoran and the Founding of his Gallery." Wealthy banker William Corcoran avidly collected art and established a public gallery in the District, after years of effort, which he hoped would function as an "American Louvre," a national collection to inspire artistic knowledge and sensibility among the population. Corcoran's fortune was not based on banking alone, nor his generosity confined just to artistic endeavors. Tank takes us on a visual tour of his business and charitable activities in "William Wilson Corcoran Washington Philanthropist."
In her own way, Margaret Bayard Smith is also a Washington institution. For over a century, the published letters of this prominent socialite have provided historians an important window on social life in the capital's earliest days. In "'A Transcript of My Heart': The Unpublished Diaries of Margaret Bayard Smith," Cassandra Good sheds vital new light on Smith's complex feelings regarding the public and private sides of her life.
Curious readers will find an engraving from Brentano's National Capital and three from Moore's Picturesque Washington in Tank's photo essay. In addition, the drawing "Washington in 1813" that illustrates Good's article, although reproduced here from a loose, unattributed page in the image files at the D.C. Public Library, may be the same "Washington in 1813" listed among the plates in A. Brentano & Co.'s December 1885 ads. "The Finest Book Ever Published About Washington" may have been just a simple picture book, but now, 120 years on, its engravings form an essential part of the new scholarship that Washington History strives to bring its readers.
Michael R. Harrison