Calligraphy Version of Washington Irving’s Poem “The Wife”

Curator's Choice tells the stories behind prized objects and artifacts from the collections of historical organizations and cultural institutions in Pennsylvania.

Amy Matilda Cassey, the wife of affluent African American abolitionist, businessman, and community leader Joseph Cassey, was active in the Philadelphia Female Antislavery Society, local black literary and debating societies, and reform movements of the day. Her greatest contribution, however, may be an album she compiled that spans nearly a quarter-century.

From 1833 to 1856, Cassey filled her beautiful album – one of only four to have survived intact – with poetry, sketches, essays, calligraphy, watercolors, and autographs which illuminate and document the active and intimate connections of nineteenth-century Philadelphia’s black leaders to a larger network of activists and reformers. Among more than fifty notable contributions are entries from Sarah Mapps Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Margaretta Forten, and Frederick Douglass. “I never felt more entirely out of my sphere than when presuming to write in an Album,” Frederick Douglass noted in his 1850 entry.

Cassey’s album offers an entry into a private circle in which its members displayed their accomplishments for each other’s pleasure and amusement. But it was more than merely enjoyment. Radical gentility in action, Amy Cassey and her colleagues challenged slavery in public meetings and defied public opinion with their racially integrated organization, published antislavery pamphlets, held fundraising anti-slavery fairs, and petitioned the Congress for abolition. They helped form the first women’s independent political organization, the Antislavery Conventions of American Women. Within their ranks the fundamental arguments of the women’s rights movement were first articulated, and from their numbers came participants in the 1844 Seneca Falls Convention, launching the women’s rights era.

Perhaps the most visually striking component of Cassey’s album are samples of floral artistry practiced by upper­class African American women of the day – possibly the earliest known signed paintings by African American women in existence. Amy Cassey and the women in her circle studied drawing manuals, instruction books, decorative floral works, women’s periodicals, and the “language of flowers” literature. Combining art and literature, Patrick Henry Reason, one of the few commercial black engravers of the 1830s and 1840s, contributed a stunning calligraphy version of Washington Irving’s poem “The Wife”. Reason’s elegant curving and unusual shading makes the piece appear as an elaborate engraving.

The album was recently acquired by the Library Company of Philadelphia for its internationally recognized collection of black Americana, with a grant from the William Penn Foundation. Founded in 1731 by Benjamin Franklin, the Library Company is the cow,try’s oldest cultural institution; it is open to the public free of charge. For more information, write: The Library Company of Philadelphia, 1314 Locust St., Philadelphia, PA 19107-5698; or telephone (215) 546-3181.