Warning: this post may have an excess of punctuation.
I have had a standing notification for items relating to the Floating University set up on ebay for about, oh, five years. I did this once I realised (too late) that there was quite a bit of ephemera that had been put up for sale and that was being snapped up by someone in the Netherlands. Since then what has turned up has mostly been the same three photographs of a woman on an elephant and occasionally an issue of the student newspaper, the Binnacle (on which more some other in time).
However, a few weeks ago my standing search turned up the JACKPOT! Some dear soul in Pennsylvania had put up for sale Walter C. Harris’ book of Photographs of The First University World Cruise – a handsome leather-bound volume containing more than one thousand pictures (one thousand pictures!) of the 1926-27 Floating University trip.
This was scholarly gold!
Harris was the official photographer aboard the voyage and as the trip progressed, he took orders for prints and postcards which he made up en route in the ship’s “print office” or dark room. The demand for these was enormous, with students wishing to send them back to their friends at home upon arrival in each new port. Sniffing a commercial opportunity, Harris announced that he would publish the entire run of his photographs available at the end of the voyage, and of course orders for these could be placed at any time.
I’d seen the book before, having tracked one of the few remaining copies down to the New York Public Library, but the prospect of actually owning it (ah the material presence of the past, don’t tell me you don’t also have a tendency to be captured by it) was almost too good to be true.
The problem was, I seemed to have an ebay rival who was equally as excited and also flush with cash. Oh don’t worry, I mobilised all the justifications I could, but it was really the extreme enthusiasm and competitive instincts (ok and bankrolling) of my partner that resulted in the book making its way into my excited hands this week (as evidenced above).
It is every bit as brilliant as I remembered. Harris took some beautiful pictures (I give you No. 42, below, taken in the Cemetery in Havana) and they are already proving useful in the writing, writing, writing.
But perhaps best of all was the note from the seller that I discovered slipped inside the front cover (if you are reading this now, Mr Pennsylvania, you’ll know already how happy you’ve made me):