25 Jan 2021


Lost Capitol Hill: Copyright Day 2021

Edna Colman

Lost in the events of the past month is that January 1 marked the third year in a row in which a significant number of books went out of copyright. Getting most of the (little) press of this event was The Great Gatsby. However, as I’ve done in previous years, I looked at which books contain some local angle that I can exploit for a column.

While this year’s haul did not yield a novel like two years ago, or Civil War memories like last year, there were some interesting books— three, in fact.

The first is the Greeters’ Guide to Washington: Giving Location and Description of Principal Points of Interest, Public Buildings, etc., etc. A slim (92-page) pamphlet handed out by hotel ‘greeters’ – what we could call a concierge today – this book indeed gives a quick overview of what there is to see in the nation’s capital. For those interested in Capitol Hill, there is unfortunately little. There is of course the obligatory section on the Capitol, the Library of Congress and the Post Office next to Union Station, but that is pretty much it.

In the section of the book dedicated to pointing out lesser, but still important, buildings, under the rubric “Northeast” there is but one entry: The Brick Capitol. While it does mention that Monroe was inaugurated there “on a temporary portico erected in front,” there is not much space for any further explanation. The southeast quadrant is represented by the Varnum hotel at New Jersey Avenue and C Street, and the building in the 200 block of Pennsylvania Avenue that was used by the Supreme Court in 1814. All of these buildings have since been razed.

Beyond that, the guide does mention the Navy Yard, but only to describe its location.

Image of the main reading room of the Library of Congress, from the Greeters’ Guide (Hathitrust.org)

More thorough is volume 27 of the Records of the Columbia Historical Society. In particular, there is a long article about Abraham Lincoln in Washington, which looks at his time at Mrs. Spriggs boarding house next to the Capitol in the late 1840s. Quoting texts written by those who knew Lincoln at the time, the author, Allen Clark, weaves a clear picture of the young Representative.

Allen also paraphrases a reminiscence of Elihu Washburne, Representative from Illinois and later Secretary of State:

Mr. Lincoln when a Congressman borrowed of the Librarian of the Supreme Court some law books. He piled them on a table wrapped them with a bandana handkerchief and through the knot in the handkerchief he ran a stick which he brought for the purpose. He shouldered the bundle. In a few days he returned the books by the same method.

A third book with a Capitol Hill connection was Seventy-five Years of White House Gossip by Edna Colman. While a book focusing on the White House is, almost by definition, going to be light on Hill information, she does write about Capitol Hill during Lincoln’s time as President, mentioning the temporary Capitol and Lincoln’s interest in the Navy Yard.

But far more interesting than the book was the author. Edna Colman (pictured above) was an officer of the League of American Pen Women, editor of their magazine and eventually even that society’s president. On the other hand, the Richmond-born author was also “executive secretary in charge of the committee headquarters” for the Stone Mountain memorial, which means that her legacy is decidedly mixed.

To see if there’s anything of interest to you, go to Hathitrust.org and set the ‘Date of Publication’ in the search engine for ‘Only During’ 1925, then you can do full text searches for anything of interest.

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