Magazine Feature

Living history on display in books based on Penrose archives

exhibit photo

Books like these will be on display in Penrose Library beginning Sept. 29. Photo: Martin Mendelsberg

There’s the history of nations, the history of kings, the history of wars — all of it written down in textbooks and taught to generations of school kids.

Then there’s the history of people, of individual lives in all their mundane, complex glory. You find it in diaries, old letters, newspaper obituaries and family photos — and to some scholars it’s infinitely more interesting than all those names and dates they had to memorize in high school history classes.

At DU, a major source of such information is the Ira M. Beck Memorial Archives, a repository of Denver Jewish history located in the basement of Penrose Library. Among the treasures stored there are more than 10,000 patient records from the Jewish Consumptives’ Relief Society (JCRS), a Denver-area tuberculosis sanatorium that opened in 1904 on a site that now houses the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design (RMCAD).

Enter the shelves, open a box of file folders and you’ll find stacks of hospital forms with the usual data — name, age, date admitted, nearest relatives — but you’ll also find unexpected glimpses into patients’ lives: letters from home, poems, songs, photos, stories, plays and other materials that give a fuller picture of the men and women who spent time at the JCRS.

“One of the most exciting things about the JCRS records is that they offer us an intimate window into the everyday lives of tuberculosis patients,” says Jeanne Abrams, a DU Judaic studies professor and curator of the Beck Archives. “During the late 19th and early 20th century, tuberculosis was the leading cause of death in the United States. It played havoc with the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. The JCRS records reflect the challenges the patients faced emotionally and physically, and what daily life was like in a sanatorium.”

Over the years, the JCRS files at DU have served as rich sources for historians, sociologists, ethnologists and more — even a literature professor from New York University who recently journeyed to campus to study the noted Yiddish poets who spent time at JCRS.

One of the most innovative uses of the archives is the brainchild of Martin Mendelsberg (MFA ’72), a DU art grad who now teaches graphic design courses at RMCAD. He brings his students to Penrose at the beginning of each semester and lets them loose in the JCRS files, challenging them to find a personal connection with a patient — same hometown, father with the same occupation, whatever resonates. Using the files as raw material, the students use their design skills to produce short books about the patients, incorporating typography, pictures, illustrations and other printed material.

An exhibit of 25–30 student books from the past five years will be on display at Penrose Sept. 29 through the end of fall quarter.

“The first time I looked at the files I thought, ‘Here’s some gold.’ And I can’t tell you how these kids’ lives are transformed,” says Mendelsberg, a Denver native whose grandmother was treated at the JCRS. “You’re going through these dusty old folders and you find typewritten pages, you find handwritten letters — most of us are used to living in front of a computer monitor or in front of our laptop. But when you see real handwriting that’s 50, 60, 80 years old, it makes quite a difference.”

In its heyday, the JCRS served 300 to 500 patients per year and one was of the country’s best-known TB sanatoriums. Colorado’s dry air was thought to be part of the cure for the disease, and sufferers from around the country came to the state for copious doses of fresh air, healthy food, rest and exercise. The JCRS was one of more than 40 sanatoriums in the state.

“Probably more people came to Colorado in search of health than came in search of wealth,” Abrams says. “We think of the gold and silver boom — but one reporter wrote that by 1925 probably as much as 60 percent of Denver’s population were here because they or a family member had had tuberculosis.”

In the five years he’s been working with Abrams and the JCRS archives, Mendelsberg has seen students incorporate photographs, song lyrics — even a play written by a former patient — into their books. Students will track down relatives and research hometowns for their nonfiction books, or use a patient file as a starting point for a work of fiction.

“It’s mind-boggling to me that art students are able to use this,” Abrams says. “My favorite was a woman who found a patient who was here and he left his fiancée back east and they corresponded. She was able to track down the descendants and got permission to use letters and pictures.

“They’re not saved here for us to hide in a little corner,” she says of the archives. “It’s extremely gratifying to see young people really engaged — this is living history for them, and the books make it come alive.”

One Comment

  1. Susan Zinn Goldman says:

    Delighted to see that these books will be displayed at DU. They are a treasure trove of lives past; the challenges of simply living on a day to day basis.

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