This 1905 letter informs Ty Cobb that the Detroit Tigers had bought his contract for $500. (Steve Perez / The Detroit News)
Admit it — aren’t you just a little curious to see what George Washington’s handwriting looked like?
Or read the actual letter from a little girl in 1860 warning presidential hopeful Abraham Lincoln he’d never win unless he grew a beard over that weak chin?
These are some of the exclamation points you’ll find in the new show at the Detroit Historical Museum, which honors the Detroit Public Library as the venerable institution approaches its 150th birthday in 2015.
“The Detroit Public Library: 150 Years of Serving Detroit and Beyond,” assembled by library staff, is on the Historical Museum’s second floor, and will run through April 13. As always, admission is free.
Unsurprisingly for a library showing off its treasures, a lot of the coolest stuff tends to be old papers.
These range from a pencil manuscript for Mark Twain’s “Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians” — never published — to a note in 1928 in which Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi invites barrier-breaking black tenor Roland Hayes to visit if he ever came to India.
Taken together, these documents underline the tragic decline in graceful handwriting.
Not everything is written by hand, of course. There’s also the 1905 typewritten letter from the Detroit Tigers informing Ty Cobb that they’d bought his contract for $500.
The Washington passage comes from a journal excerpt dated October, 1790, when the Virginian had been our first president about a year.
Washington’s writing is in pencil and microscopic, making it hard to read. It’s clear, however, he had a lovely, slanted hand. One legible bit at the top of the page notes an unidentified individual will “embark tomorrow for Spain” — quite a trip in those days.
The exhibit also traces DPL’s history from its 1865 beginnings in a downtown Detroit courthouse that once housed the state capitol through its move into the magnificent, Cass Gilbert-designed, 1921 Beaux-Artes main branch on Woodward Avenue. (Think the U.S. Supreme Court or the Woolworth Building in New York.)
Amusingly, giant posters of each library director march down one wall. The sensitive may wilt under their stern gaze, but the parade offers a few clues as to the sort of city Detroit used to be. In 1970, for example, Clara Stanton Jones became the first African-American to head a big-city library in the U.S.
There are also small arrangements of artifacts drawn from some of the library’s most important historical collections, including the Ernie Harwell Collection, the National Automotive Collection and the E. Azalia Hackley Collection of African Americans in the Performing Arts, the first of its kind.
Along with photos, scores, plays and recordings, the collection includes a scrapbook devoted to the Fisk Jubilee Singers. That troupe from Nashville’s historically black Fisk University, according to an exhibit panel, introduced African-American spirituals to a wider audience in the late 19th century.
'The Detroit Public Library: 150 Years of Serving Detroit and Beyond'
9:30 a.m. 4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday-Sunday; closed Mondays
Through April 13
Detroit Historical Museum
5401 Woodward, Detroit