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From the News column of the January 2004 Perspectives

Photographs of Historic Gravestones Put Online

AHA Staff, January 2004

Thanks to a collaboration between the American Antiquarian Society (AAS) and David Rumsey (a member of the AAS Council), a unique collection of photographs of historic gravestones has been made available online. The collection can be found at http://www.davidrumsey.com/farber/.

More than 13,500 images documenting more than 9,000 gravestones, most of which were made prior to 1800, made up the Farber Gravestone Collection. The AAS converted the photographic collection to digital form, and now, with help from Cartography Associates, a digital publishing company that David Rumsey owns, the collection has been made available for free public access online.

"We are thrilled to have the Farber Gravestone Collection online, so people have the opportunity to freely explore the rich early history of our country and its founders, many of whom are memorialized in the grave markers that make up this fascinating collection," said AAS President Ellen Dunlap.

The Farber Gravestone Collection reflects the work of the late Daniel Farber of Worcester, Massachusetts, and his wife, Jessie Lie Farber, who photographed historic gravestones for more than 20 years. Others whose work is incorporated into the collection include Harriette Merrifield Forbes, who worked in the 1920s mainly in Massachusetts, and Ernest Caulfield, who documented Connecticut grave markers.

These gravestones are a significant form of artistic expression and also serve as precious records of biographical information. In their inscribed narratives of death and in their very design, the stone memorials record a social history, both of the individual and of the community.

In a description she wrote of the collection, Jessie Lie Farber said the digital images of the gravestones show "the sternness of the Puritan seventeenth century, replaced by the 'Age of Reason' of the eighteenth century, and that in turn replaced by the nineteenth-century's extravagance, love of nature, and free expression of sentiment. The 20th century, punctuated by two world wars and a depression, is by comparison secular, straightforward and business-like. Death has become more distant."

The collection provides some insight into the private lives of historical figures, such as Paul Revere, Sr., the father of the legendary silversmith who warned of the coming British. The collection also confirms that John "Grizzly" Adams is not a work of fiction. A carving of a hunter with a bear appears on his marble gravestone where he is interred in Charlton, Massachusetts.

David Rumsey says the unique nature and rich history contained within the collection inspired him to donate the resources needed to bring it to the Internet. Rumsey's own historic map collection is available for free public review online, and he has supported Internet access to other important cultural heritage resources, including a collection of historic Japanese maps from the East Asian Library at Berkeley.

The data accompanying the photographs in the online collection includes the name and death date of the deceased, the location of the stone, and information concerning the stone material, the iconography, the inscription, and—when known—the carver.

The launch of the Farber Collection online reflects AAS's commitment to use technology to make historic resources more widely available. This is in keeping with the tradition of the society, one of the first research libraries to use microfilm to preserve and provide wider access to important historic works.

The AAS library's collections document the life of America's people from the colonial era through the Civil War and Reconstruction, and include some three million books, pamphlets, newspapers, periodicals, broadsides, manuscripts, and other items. The society has an online presence at http://www.americanantiquarian.org.