Mortimer Rare Book Room History

Ruth Mortimer: Curator and Scholar

In 1975 Ruth Mortimer assumed the duties of full-time curator of rare books at Smith. During her tenure, Smith’s collections of books and manuscripts grew exponentially both through gifts and with purchases from endowed funds, the first of  which was established just two years earlier in 1973. Mortimer also negotiated for faculty status for the curator’s position; she was a lecturer in the Art Department. The Composition of Books (Art 261a) was a trailblazer in teaching book and illustration history to undergraduates using original materials. This seminar was offered from 1978 through the fall of 1993, just two months before Mortimer's death on January 31, 1994. The Rare Book Room was named in her honor before her death.

portrait of St. Catherine of SienaBibliographer Thomas Tanselle has noted that in the second half of her career Mortimer had less time for the sustained work of scholarship and writing that resulted in the Harvard catalogues. Yet, in addition to overseeing collection development, exhibitions, researchers, and teaching at Smith, Mortimer produced “a considerable number of exemplary essays, reviews, and lectures.” Her passion for iconography led to A Portrait of the Author in Sixteenth-Century France (1980), and to a posthumously published monograph on printed Italian sixteenth-century portraits. Ruth Mortimer notes that the portrait of St. Catherine of Siena shown here is “of special interest for students of typography rather than iconography” because the printed words on the book and on the heart mark the first appearance of the publisher Aldus’ new italic type.

Ruth Mortimer. The Author’s Image: Italian Sixteenth-Century Printed Portraits. With an introduction by G. Thomas Tanselle. In Harvard Library Bulletin. Summer 1996. PRESENTED BY JOHN LANCASTER. [Click on image to enlarge]


verses by Harriet Prescott


Ruth Mortimer had interests beyond the Renaissance. She collected letters and verses by the Victorian writer Harriet Prescott Spofford (now in Smith’s manuscript collections). She was particularly intrigued by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; in 1976 she acquired a three-volume first edition (printed in 1818) for Smith. She wrote “Frankenstein: A Publishing History,” one of four essays printed in the 1983 Pennyroyal Press edition of Frankenstein, and she amassed her own collection of modern editions of the novel, many of them illustrated paperbacks. Her Frankenstein collection of books and ephemera, now in the Mortimer Rare Book Room, is used extensively by classes here.

Harriet Elizabeth Prescott Spofford. Autograph letter, 24 May 1894, to Mr. Bowen. With “Flag Song,” verses written to the tune of Yankee Doodle. Mrs. Spofford wrote these verses for the July 4th celebration at Roseland Cottage in Woodstock, Connecticut. The Gothic revival cottage was built in 1846 for Henry Chandler Bowen as a summer home and is now operated as a museum. PRESENTED BY JOHN LANCASTER. [Click on image to enlarge]

Frankenstein Paperback editions
Mary W. Shelley. Frankenstein. Paperback editions published in 1961, 1973, and 1985.
PRESENTED BY RUTH MORTIMER, CLASS OF 1953 [Click on image to enlarge]

Bronze cast of illustrator Barry Moser’s hand


Bronze cast of illustrator Barry Moser’s hand for the 1983 Pennyroyal Press Frankenstein. PURCHASE. [Click on image to enlarge]