Special Collections & Madison Memorabilia
Bolgiano, Special Collections Librarian
Once upon a time, long before personal computers, there was a
Cage. It consisted of a metal screen around a corner of the fifth floor stacks. Carefully out of public reach on the shelves were
658.5 inches of books labeled "Cage" plus all manner of uncatalogable (and therefore uncataloged) items: gourd bowls from
someone's trip to Africa, a collection of cartoon caricatures, an encyclopedia of classical archaeology in Polish, reproductions of
political posters of the late 1800s, Anthony Seeger school lunch reports, and an assortment of flower vases. Only dust bloomed in
them. The Cage was rarely cleaned. In 1982, I was caged in the
Cage for a sinus test of my ability to become the first Special Collections Librarian. I was found adequately capable of sneezing.
The addition to the original (1939) Library had just been completed, and a room in the old part was cleared out for Special
Collections. Using my old manual typewriter brought from home, I
began to inventory and evaluate Cage materials. Buried under piles of old ILL forms were two large boxes. One was labeled
"Madison gun and spyglass." The other was a cache of curious
artifacts, including a quite disreputable looking pocketknife with most blades broken, another odd device with a blade (lancet), a
sort of glass bowl (salt cellar), and several parchment documents signed by JM, one of them assuring the world that "Samuel Gragg, A
Citizen" was the true inventor and patent holder of a pretty but otherwise perfectly ordinary looking "Elastic Chair."
A typed, yellowing 6-page paper titled "Items in Madison Collection" gave the only clues. Not everything on the list was
in the boxes, and some items in the boxes were not on the list.
For those items listed, very little provenance was given. Slowly it became clear that after 1938, when the State Teachers College
became Madison College, there must have been a (very small) movement to acquire items related to James Madison. The Alumnae
Chapter in Culpeper apparently wooed a descendant of JM, Miss Corrie B. Macon Hill, and many of the items in the Madison
Memorabilia Collection were donated by her. With the advent of
the web, SC inventories went out to cyberspace. Last fall, a curator at Winterthur Museum (endowed by the Duponts in Delaware)
contacted me with such excitement he could hardly talk. "The elastic chair!" he finally managed to say. "It's legendary! It's
the jewel in the crown of American decorative arts! Can we borrow it?"
Madison Memorabilia lives on.