Unique abecedarium showcased in University Libraries’ new exhibit

June 18, 2017

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Starting with something as simple as the “ABCs,” the Penn State University Libraries is presenting “ABC: An Abecedarium from the 15th to the 21st Century,” an exhibit that showcases typography, calligraphy and the re-imaging of letters throughout history. While a traditional abecedarium displays the alphabet in order, this exhibit, located in the Eberly Family Special Collections Library, 104 Paterno Library, University Park, features a mix of items by chronology, style, format and medium. Open through Sunday, Sept. 10, this fascinating exhibit is available for viewing during the Special Collections Library’s operating hours.

Sandra Stelts, curator of rare books and manuscripts, selected examples from the collections that ranged from an early hornbook (a primer for children’s study), pieces of metal type and metal signboard stencils, to medieval manuscript leaves and ornate book chapter initials featuring decorations and images related to the text. For example, one elaborate chapter initial from an 18th-century Italian architecture book features a cherub, coat-of-arms and an imaginary architectural background.

Of the 60 items in the exhibition, some are books opened to a single page with a spectacularly decorated initial and others are paper constructions that show the alphabet in its entirety. Twenty-six items have been identified with a Scrabble letter that enables viewers to engage in a scavenger hunt by locating each letter of the alphabet somewhere in the display.

While the emphasis is on alphabets in English, 10 different languages are represented, including sign language. Items from eight different collections were used for this stunning exhibit: the Children’s Book Collection, Pennsylvania German Fraktur and Broadsides, the Art and Architectural History Collection, the Early Italian Books Collection, the Fine Printing Collection, the Allison-Shelley Collection, the Anderson/Ellis Art Education Collection, and the University Sports Archives. In addition to the items in the display cases, a complete set of scans of Owen Jones’s “One Thousand and One Initial Letters,” described by Stelts as “a glorious example of Victorian design and color printing,” is presented on the walls of the exhibition room.

The oldest printed book in the exhibit was published in Venice in 1476 and features a splendid hand-drawn color initial as well as a drawing of a man in a toga. In addition to three medieval manuscript leaves, there is a complete mid-15th-century Middle English manuscript book, “The Brut Chronicle.” “The Brut Chronicle” was purchased at a London auction in 1981 after an alert cataloger at Sotheby’s Auction House recognized that it was written by the same scribe as that of another 15th-century manuscript already owned by the Special Collections Library, a fragment of “The Prophecies of Merlin.”

One of the most recent additions to the Special Collections Library was a perfect fit for the Abecedarium exhibit — Stelts purchased an ABC book published in four languages, German, Dutch, French and English, from a visiting Dutch bookseller. One of the hand-colored illustrations from the 1816 book, “Gallery of Theodore, with 24 Coloured Engravings,” was added to the exhibit in June. Another item, directly tied to the history of Penn State, is a knitted Penn State varsity letter sweater representing the letter “S.” The sweater, a part of the University Sports Archives’ “relics” collection, was worn by gymnast J. Curtis Hoyt, a 1932 graduate in electrical engineering, and donated by his son, Curtis W. Hoyt, class of 1968.

For more information or for questions about accommodations provided for this exhibit, contact Julie Porterfield at 814-865-1793 or jmp48@psu.edu in advance of your visit.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated June 17, 2020