Find magnificent history just off the Mag Mile

Last week’s Wisch List newspaper column from the Saturday, Dec. 8, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.)


By Dave Wischnowsky

When the Newberry Library first opened its doors to the public on Sept. 6, 1887, Chicago was just six months removed from its 50th birthday.

Within the city, much has changed in the years since then, of course. But inside the Newberry Library, time – in many ways – stands still. That’s perhaps never been truer than right now as the longtime Chicago historical institution stages the final weeks of its “The Newberry 125” exhibition, celebrating the 125 years since the library’s founding.

This eclectic exhibit, which opened on Sept. 6, the Newberry’s birthday, remains open through Dec. 31 and boasts the tagline “You Won’t Believe What’s Here.” For history buffs – Chicago, or otherwise – that’s probably true. And if you happen to be holiday shopping along the Magnificent Mile during the remainder of this month, I suggest swinging a few blocks west to take a stroll back through time.

The free-admission Newberry Library, located at 77 W. Walton not far off North Michigan Avenue, was originally the brainchild of prominent Chicagoan Walter L. Newberry, who died at sea in 1868 while on a trip to France and left a complicated will that eventually led to the establishment of the library nearly 20 years later.

Aboard the ship, Newberry’s body was preserved in a large empty rum barrel before it was returned to Chicago. That keg is not among the items on display at “The Newberry 125” exhibit (Walt is buried at Graceland Cemetery), but plenty else certainly is.

The research library bills its collections as embracing Western civilization from the late Middle Ages to the end of the Napoleonic Era in Europe, from the Era of European Exploration to the Age of Revolution in Latin America, and to modern times in North America. However, the library might be best known nationwide for its genealogical archives. In sum, there are more than 2 million items in the Newberry’s possession, including some 700,000 maps, and each artifact has its own story.

The anniversary exhibition tells 125 of these tales, offering a tantalizing slice of the past that’s almost too much to see in one visit but is also just a fraction of the library’s full collection. “The Newberry 125” exhibit is split up into five subject areas – Families, Politics and Commerce in America, Arts and Letters, Religion, and Travel – allowing visitors to wander among time periods and topics at random.

The library describes “The Newberry 125” exhibit as “Beautiful and downright ugly; handwritten, printed, painted, and drawn; parchment, wood, paper, and leather—this varied, stunning exhibition of 125 maps, letters, paintings, books, manuscripts, photographs, posters and other media best represents the Newberry’s mission, its record of collection development, and the community of learning it has engendered throughout a 125-year history.”

The exhibit, featuring items dating from as far back as late-10th century Switzerland, indeed boasts a wide array of truly fascinating pieces. It includes the first Bible printed in North America. There’s an aria that was handwritten and signed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – when he was only 9 years old. A Shakespeare First Folio is on display along with original artwork featuring American Indians painted by American Indians.

The original printed (and never-bound) instantiation of the French philosopher Voltaire’s classic 1759 satire Candide can be found among the times, as well as rare correspondence between a slave man and his freed wife.

As a writer, my personal favorites were letters from Jack Kerouac and Ernest Hemingway, written to friends before either author had been published. Now the letters are saved for eternity.

But only on display until New Year’s Eve, so don’t miss them.