Illustration by Sir John Leslie of Dr Rosenbach surrounded by characters from Alice in Wonderland

Alice's adventures in a new American wonderland

Judith Guston, curator and director of collections at Rosenbach museum and library in Philadelphia recounts the adventures of the Alice in Wonderland manuscript in America
The Alice manuscript held by the British Library spent nearly a week at the Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia in October 2015 (see my 13 November 2015 blog post for more details of its happy return). It was surprising how few visitors knew that our tiny, treasured guest had such a rich and storied history – both in Philadelphia and right on our very street – for nearly twenty years!  It was my privilege, along with that of our librarian, Elizabeth E. Fuller, to create an exhibition called Alice in Phillyland for the Rosenbach’s sesquicentennial celebration that documents the life of the manuscript over those two decades (1928–1948) in what one newspaper reported as “ a New American Wonderland”.  These are just a few stories from those years.

The Man Who Bought Alice

As the story begins, Dr A S W Rosenbach, well-known bookseller and collector, purchased the Alice manuscript in 1928 when Alice Liddell Hargreaves sold it at auction at Sotheby’s London. The auction would make him world-famous, generating headlines around the globe, and the moniker, “the man who bought Alice” would highlight even his obituaries decades later. As if to assure that both his history and the manuscript’s would be permanently intertwined, he bought it not once, but twice, and he inscribed it, noting that it was “purchased by me”. And, as if his place in the story had been foretold, in the days after the auction, the young son of a friend had already made Rosenbach one of Carroll’s characters.

Dr Rosenbach at Glaslough with Alice in Wonderland characters

Illustration by Sir John Leslie of Dr Rosenbach surrounded by characters from Alice in Wonderland

Dr Rosenbach visits Shane Leslie in the days after buying the Alice manuscript. Leslie's son Sir John Leslie captured his arrival in this illustration.  

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Alice may never have made it to Philadelphia at all. One of our research discoveries was a story Dr. Rosenbach told of his trip home after the sale. After boarding a boat with the manuscript packed securely in his trunk, he noted, “… with instructions to place it in my cabin on the Steamer Majestic ....  Imagine my shock to find … that the trunk was not in my stateroom. Cold chills ran up and down my spine .... Finally after spending a sleepless night the baggage master informed me the next day that the missing trunk had been found under the bed in the stateroom of a prominent banker.” 

Alice Finds a Buyer

Eldridge Johnson, the inventor of the Victrola, is widely known as the man who bought the manuscript from Dr. Rosenbach. Not previously known, however, was that he never intended to. In an unpublished essay, he wrote extensively about his first encounter with the manuscript, saying he had no interest in it, but “[a]s I turned its pages, ... I fell hopelessly in love and decided to buy at any price.” Just as Rosenbach seemed to want to become part of the manuscript’s life, something convinced Johnson to care deeply for this charming little book. Together, he and Rosenbach exhibited the manuscript at major public institutions and several smaller, public libraries. Johnson’s disappointment in limited visitation led him to think that audiences just couldn’t enjoy the manuscript as he did, an observation that led to the creation of the first accurate facsimile in 1936. 

Johnson, too, added to Alice lore. An inventor by trade, he imagined that a page-turning mechanism could show every page to visitors. He wrote to Dr. Rosenbach about his idea, but rejected it because visitors would want to look at the entire book and it would cause crowding. A device that he did construct was a waterproof case, so that he could take the manuscript deep-sea fishing on his yacht (a favorite pastime). We found no evidence of what must be an apocryphal but popular story of a buoy attached to the case with a flag inscribed with the word ALICE!

Alice Returns

With Eldridge Johnson’s death in 1945, Dr. Rosenbach purchased the Alice manuscript again, this time claiming it was for “personal use.” But stories differ. Within Dr. Rosenbach’s circle, it has been written that his friend, collector and philanthropist Lessing Rosenwald, convinced him to allow a circle of associates to finance returning the manuscript to England using the United States Library of Congress as a conduit, making it a gift of the American people in gratitude for the British people’s efforts in the Second World War. An “Alice Fund” at the Library of Congress would reimburse Dr. Rosenbach his costs and the remainder would compensate the Library for the return of the manuscript to London.  

The Librarian of Congress, Luther Evans, in numerous interviews with the London press, said it was his idea. Sick with the measles and hearing about the auction of the manuscript, he reported asking Rosenwald to hire Rosenbach to buy it, offering an agent’s fee. He said he contacted contributors to the Alice Fund and called the manuscript “war reparation” to England. 

The genesis of this plan is undocumented in the Rosenbach’s archives, as the relationship with Rosenwald was conducted in person. The Alice Fund is accounted for in tense letters between Rosenbach and Evans, with Rosenbach expressing doubts about its progress and the ability to capitalise on the publicity of his recent purchase. He turned over the manuscript to Evans in 1946 having received only half the amount he had paid refunded to him. Luther Evans presented the manuscript to the British Museum in 1948. The last $500 contributed to the Alice Fund was paid at a memorial service for Dr. Rosenbach several months after his death in 1952. His estate sent the money to the Library of Congress.

Judith Guston
  • Judith Guston
  • Judith Guston is Curator and Director of Collections at the Rosenbach, a museum and special collections library in Philadelphia, co-founded by A.S.W. Rosenbach, the two-time owner of the manuscript, Alice’s Adventures Under Ground. She and her colleagues steward nearly 400,000 objects, including a collection of rare books and manuscripts with strengths in American history and British literature. In addition to the referenced contribution to the Alice in Wonderland

    sesquicentennial, Judy’s exhibitions have addressed many subjects including an historic Japanese manuscript, early Hebrew books, Philadelphia ironwork, Benjamin Franklin’s almanacs, and the lives and collecting practices of the Rosenbach’s founders. With tenure of over sixteen years, she holds degrees in Classical Languages and Literatures and Classical Philology from Smith College and Yale University, and in Early American Culture from the Winterthur Program at the University of Delaware. She is grateful to Rosenbach Librarian Elizabeth Fuller for her research for this article.