Ode to the Toad

Last week, we delved into the fascinating world of alchemy at the current , “Through the Glass Darkly: Alchemy and the Ripley Scrolls 1400-1700” exhibit. In our journeys, however, we did notice one thing. Both in history and alchemy, toads get no love.

In alchemy, the toad represents the “prime matter” an alchemist would use at the start of an experiment. Prime matter was the humble, plain, basic, ugly stuff that would eventually transform into greatness. Unfortunately, the toad was chosen to represent this undesirability. As expressed in this natural history book from 1809:

A Natural History of British Quadrupeds, Foreign Quadrupeds, British Birds, Water Birds, Foreign Birds, Fishes, Reptiles, Serpents, & Insects. Alnwick, England. W. Davison. 1809.

Well, this makes us sad. Toads are great! So the Cotsen team dug into the special collections vaults to find some awesome, jolly, and sweet historical representations of toads to share with you today…

Goldsmith’s History of Fishes, Reptiles and Insects & c. Thos. Tegg & Son. ; London. ; Smith, Elder, & Co. 1838.

Sad garden toad : and other stories / by Marion Bullard. New York : E. P. Dutton & Co., c1924.

Toad / by Carol Cunningham. [Mill Valley, Calif.] : Sunflower Press, 1983.

Die Honriche : ein Märchen / von Christian Bärmann. München : Hugo Schmidt, c1923.

Bronze toad coin. Place: Luceria, Apulia, Italy. Earliest date: -300. Latest date: -280


Special thanks to Cotsen intern, Aubrey Roberts, for researching this post :)

Saddle Up and Read

caitlin gooch saddle up and readIn the beautiful fields of North Carolina, you will find some very well-read horses.

They are part of Saddle Up and Read, a non-profit organization founded by Caitlin Gooch. In 2017, Caitlin noticed the low literacy rates in North Carolina and how they disproportionately affected children of color. Concerned, she reached out to her local library and proposed an incentive. If kids checked out 3 or more books, they could spend a day at her father’s horse farm and share a book with an equine friend!

The response, of course, was unbridled enthusiasm. Caitlin’s idea bloomed into a full-scale operation that has earned national recognition as a program of excellence, both on the farm and in the community. Recently, I caught up with Caitlin to learn more about her amazing organization.


Can you take up through a typical day on your farm?

A day on the farm is never the same. My husband and I have four daughters so I plan things around what we can do. Typically I get myself and my children ready for the day. Once that is squared away, I’m either running errands like checking the mail, going to the bank, checking my emails or picking up books. At the farm I am not solely responsible for cleaning out stalls but I will if I need to. I wash water buckets, pick up trash, and check the water troughs in the pastures. Next, I spend time grooming my horses. Sometimes in their stall or out in the round pen. If I am expecting kids to visit, I lay out everything we need. Books, activities, tack and horse treats.

What came first, your connection to books? Or to horses?

Oh! This is a great question. Based on my memory alone (without asking my mom lol) I believe it was my connection to books. I was an early reader. Reading books was something I could do independently. Unlike with horses, kids have to be supervised. We have always had horses but I don’t really remember how often I was at the farm as a kid. I know when I was 6 years old I asked my dad if I could move my bed into the horse stall.


.What are the names of your horses and ponies?

I have 6 horses and 1 miniature horse. Their names are Barbee, Ardent, Ruth, Khaya, BLM Rare Doc Leo, Rainbow and my mini’s name is Man Man. My childhood horse, GOAT just passed away last year. I miss her so much. She was a huge part of Saddle Up and Read.

Tell us a little bit about the readers who come to your programs!

The sweetest and funniest kids you could ever meet! Most of the readers are of elementary age. More so 3rd to 5th grade. They love to lend a helping hand around the farm. As long as horses are involved, they are for it. We have a very diverse crowd of readers. Majority of the readers are Black and Hispanic, need encouragement to read or practice reading, or they love to read. The programs are open to all children but we do emphasize on children of color because statistically they have lower reading scores.

You are building a library of books featuring Black equestrians. What are your current favorites?

Yes I am! I started collecting these books around the same time I started Saddle Up and Read. Two of my favorites are Let Er’ Buck! George Fletcher the Peoples Champion and Black Cowboy Wild Horses. From my collection I have created a coloring book series called Color & Learn. The first volume is out now. It is titled Black Equestrian Coloring Book Volume 1: The Trail Blazers. It is available on my website and Amazon.

Can you tell us about one of your favorite moments in this program, big or small?

Wow, I have so many. I wish I had a running list of all the people to thank for supporting Saddle Up and Read. Not just the celebrities like Oprah, LeVar Burton and Soledad O’Brien, but everyone who has taken the time to show love. The power of social media has helped us get a truck, a horse trailer, over 2,000 books, and so many donations.

Picking a favorite moment is hard but I’ll say at the end of any event we have, there is always one child who doesn’t want to leave. Sometimes they are crying, “No, I want to stay here.” It makes me both happy and sad. Happy because it means they are having a great time. But sad because I wish they could stay as long as they need to LOL.


All images courtesy of Caitlin Gooch, Saddle Up and Read. And if you want to see some serious adorableness, check out their Instagram!

Lifestyles of the Rich & Noble

Don’t be sooooo 12th century. Get with the times whilst also enjoying this complementary copy of Medieval Vogue! Katie designed this gorgeous little mag for a massive Robin Hood shindig my library hosted some years ago. If you’d like to browse Medieval Vogue for the newest trends in poulaines this season, here is part 1 and part 2 *. For more about the event, read on!

Robin Hood was the book du jour for Princyclopedia, an annual large-scale event that involved bringing a book to life from all sorts of angles – history, science, music, art, food, performances, live animals, you name it! Each table had either a demo, a hands-on activity, or something cool to take home. The 2-sided event map showed you all the table activities and also matched relevant book quotes or historical blurbs to them.

Medieval Vogue was a free take-home at the “Lifestyles of the Rich & Noble” table. Here, we were delighted to be joined by Rose Fox and Kim Hanley from Medieval Scenarios and Recreation.They brought TONS of clothes and costumes for kids to look at and try on, and answered questions about fashion from this time period.

At another table, we had a different take on wearables. Namely, the armor of Sir John Williams (right) and friend (left), two knights who professionally joust at Renaissance Fairs! They brought all their gear and expertise and were simply amazing.

We had a TON of other activities as well…the chemistry of alchemy, venison chili, musical performances on period instruments, live hawks, the science of stained glass, actual longbows with a kid-safe shooting range, illuminated art, the math of taxation, a big play space with multiple cardboard castles, the science of stained glass, herbal amulets, siege engines, gargoyle sculpting, nature tracking, professional stage fight demos, forest conservation, two free roving court jesters, and more! And yes…a table on all the Medieval jobs you DON’T want.

Another fantastic component of the event is that it was a food drive. Families were invited to bring can and box goods to the event to benefit the Arm in Arm food pantry (formally the Crisis Ministry of Mercer County). We donated almost 500lbs of food!

I’ll finish today’s post by sharing the literacy-based table the Princeton Public Library hosted. Since literacy was uncommon during the Middle Ages, shops typically featured pictures of their goods and/or services on their signs. So we designed a game! First, we selected a bunch of images of Medieval signs. Then, we asked kids to guess what the signs represented. Rothenburg, Germany has some fantastic signs currently in use (it being an actual historic Medieval town, wow!).

Image source Wikipedia

We also wanted kids to make a personal connection, so Katie and I photographed a few local shops. We photoshopped out any words, then asked kids to guess what the signs represented. They were tickled to recognize signs they saw everyday and make a Medieval literacy connection!


* Images used for Medieval Vogue may be subject to copyright. Please contact danas@princeton.edu if you are the author of one or more of images used here and have objection in such a use.