Alice’s Adventures in Philadelphia

In the entry to Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum, signage for the current exhibition, Down the Rabbit Hole, notes “We are all mad here,” quoting Lewis Carroll’s grinning Cheshire Cat.


The Library is keen to share items from our collections with partner institutions around the world – including some of our most iconic treasures. In this guest blog, Judith Guston, Curator and Director of Collections at the Free Library of Philadelphia, writes about the recent display of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground in Philadelphia and the surprising transatlantic connections of Lewis Carroll’s most famous manuscript.

In the entry to Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum, signage for the current exhibition, Down the Rabbit Hole, notes “We are all mad here,” quoting Lewis Carroll’s grinning Cheshire Cat. And, indeed, mad is what we all were for six bustling days, 13 – 18 October, when the British Library’s manuscript, Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, came to visit Philadelphia—for the first time since it left here in 1946—on loan after its summer sojourn at the Morgan Library & Museum.

A brief pop-up display at the Rosenbach brought 1,058 Alice aficionados, couples planning Alice-themed weddings, mathematics instructors, English teachers, museum members, out-of-towners, and the curious and the curiouser. While that total audience number may seem modest for an opening event and five subsequent days, for our intimate townhouse on a tree-lined residential street, it represents a 750% increase in visitation over the same period for our last exhibition—a phenomenal impact and a “mad” display of enthusiasm.

Visitors surely came to see Carroll’s manuscript with its painstakingly neat penmanship and its disarming drawings, but they also had an inkling of the manuscript’s nearly twenty-year history here in Philadelphia that made this display so special. This history is told in a section of the exhibition titled Alice in Phillyland. It tells of Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach (our museum’s co-founder), the famous bookseller and collector known as “the man who bought Alice,” who bought the manuscript twice, sold it once, and saw its return to the British people. And Eldridge Johnson, inventor of the Victrola, who bought the manuscript from Dr. Rosenbach and who designed and made contraptions to display and protect his precious Alice, taking her deep sea fishing on his yacht. And Alice Liddell Hargreaves, who traveled to Philadelphia late in her life to see her manuscript one last time.

When Dr. Rosenbach purchased the manuscript for the second time, that might have been the story’s end, but through arrangements with the U.S. Library of Congress, the manuscript was returned to the British people as a gift from the American people. But the question remains, “Whose idea was this?” The exhibition shows evidence for two possible answers. We hope we are not at the fork in Alice’s road facing a grinning cat, but instead at the beginning of a puzzle we can solve. More when we do….

Judith Guston

Curator and Director of Collections

Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia

Previously published on blogs.bl.uk and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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Photo credit: Istockphoto.com