What did Abraham Lincoln really look like? Even in his own day, people wanted to know.
So just a few weeks before Lincoln was nominated for President in the spring of 1860, he agreed to let a sculptor make a plaster cast of his face and hands. Lincoln had to sit quietly through the whole process, breathing through tubes in his nose, while a mass of plaster slowly hardened on his face.
The experience, he said, was “anything but agreeable.” Yet the final casting gives us a remarkable face-to-face impression of the prairie lawyer—just as his family, friends, allies, and political rivals knew him.
Lincoln’s full-size face and hands are just some of the fascinating objects on view in a new Special Collections exhibit, Our Lincoln: Bicentennial icons from the William E. Barton Collection. The exhibit marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Lincoln on February 12, 1809.
On display, among other items, are a page from Lincoln’s “sum book” with the earliest example of his handwriting; metal farm tools used by Lincoln’s father; a lengthy letter that Lincoln wrote to his wife, Mary, giving her the latest Washington gossip; floorboards from the bedroom of the Lincolns’ house in Springfield, Illinois; an angry anti-Lincoln campaign poster that charges Lincoln with bringing “Anarchy” and “Ruin” to the nation; and a presentation copy of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Lincoln.
All of these Lincoln artifacts and many others were collected by the Rev. William E. Barton, an Illinois clergyman with an intense interest in Lincoln. Barton acquired every Lincoln document, book, and relic he could find or buy. He also amassed thousands of Lincoln books and manuscripts and purchased the Lincoln collections of other Lincoln collectors.
In the middle of the Great Depression, when reverence for Lincoln was particularly high, Barton’s entire Lincoln collection was acquired by the University of Chicago. Some of the Lincoln materials were put on display at the Century of Progress Exposition, the world’s fair hosted by Chicagoin 1933-34.
Later, the Lincoln collection was installed in a dedicated museum room in Harper Memorial Library. Today it is one of the highlights of the Special Collections Research Center, and its books and manuscripts remain important original sources on Lincoln, his life, and the Civil War era.
Our Lincoln: Bicentennial Icons from the William E. Barton Collection is on display in the Special Collections exhibition gallery from January 14 to February 27, 2009.