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Guide to the James Thomas Powers Papers, 1860s-1945 and undated

Abstract

Comic actor, songwriter, playwright, and vaudeville comedian based in New York City.

Most of the collection pertains to James T. ("Jimmy") Powers' career as a comic actor, songwriter, playwright, and vaudeville comedian from the 1890s to the 1930s; there are also materials relating to the acting career and family of his wife Rachel Booth Powers. The materials are arranged into the following series: Correspondence, Financial and Legal Papers, Photographs, Printed Materials, Rachel Booth Powers Papers, Sheet Music, Volumes, and Writings. The Photographs are the most substantial series of the collection, containing over 260 images, including tintypes and albumen prints dating from approximately 1860 to the early 1940s. The rest of the collection covers nearly all aspects of Powers' professional life and provides a rich look at the society and culture of the theater in New York City during his career.

Descriptive Summary

Repository
David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University
Creator
Powers, James T., 1862-1943.
Title
James Thomas Powers papers 1860s-1945 and undated
Language of Material
English
Extent
6.25 Linear Feet, Approximately 1280 Items
Location
For current information on the location of these materials, please consult the Library's online catalog.

Collection Overview

Most of the collection pertains to James T. ("Jimmy") Powers' career as a comic actor, songwriter, playwright, and vaudeville comedian from the 1870s to the 1930s. There are also materials relating to the acting career and family of his wife Rachel Booth Powers. The materials are arranged into the following series: Correspondence, Financial and Legal Papers, Photographs, Printed Material, Rachel Booth Powers, Sheet Music, Volumes, and Writings.

The Correspondence and Financial and Legal Papers Series deal mainly with professional matters, including contracts and letters of thanks for Powers' involvement in charity efforts during both world wars. The Printed Material Series contains scripts of plays, clippings relevant to James and Rachel Powers, autobiographical material, and theater ephemera. The collection contains a separate series for the writings of Rachel Booth Powers. Included here are several essays she wrote while in school, her teaching certificate, two autograph books dating from 1876 and 1877, and a diary kept in 1897. There is also a scrapbook containing newspaper clippings of poems written by her older sister, Alice Booth. In the Sheet Music Series one can find numerous popular pieces dating from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including some songs for which Powers wrote the lyrics. The Volumes Series consists of twenty-four undated notebooks belonging to James Powers that contain, in no immediately discernible order, ideas for plays, rough versions of what seem to be vaudeville skits, lyrics for songs, reminiscences of his career, and other miscellaneous notes. Finally, the Writings Series contains scripts of plays that Powers authored as well as some prose material. Of note in this series is a script that Powers intended to turn into, in his own words, a "motion picture play."

The Photographs Series, the most substantial in the collection, contains over 260 images dating from approximately 1860 to the early 1940s of James Powers, Rachel Booth Powers, their families, and various stage personalities; there are also related clippings and theater programs mentioning either Powers or Rachel Booth. Formats include one ambrotype and 21 tintypes, followed by many late 19th and early 20th century albumen prints and early modern gelatin silver prints. The professionally-taken photographs of persons and theater scenes are particularly rich as a resource for studying vaudeville and Broadway during Powers' life. In addition, this series contains a rare albumen print of John Wilkes Booth, a distant relative of Rachel Booth Powers, likely taken in the late 1850s or early 1860s.

Administrative Information

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Collection is open for research.

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Please contact Research Services staff before visiting the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library to use this collection.

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Contents of the Collection

Contains letters both written to and by James Powers and Rachel Booth Powers. Major subjects include discussions of theatrical performances, letters of thanks for Powers' charitable work during both World War I and World War II, and reviews of and feedback on Powers' autobiography. In a particularly amusing undated letter Powers sarcastically examines the merits of Einstein's theory of relativity.

1888-1939
Box 1
1939-1945 and undated
Box 1

Contains several receipts for items as well as legal agreements of employment; there are also oversize legal and financial papers housed separately.

Financial papers, 1920-1921
Box 1
Legal papers, 1884-1905
Box 1
Oversize financial papers, undated
Box 8
Oversize legal paper, 1887
Box 8

Photographs Series, circa 1860s-circa 1940s

(4 boxes and oversize material)

Contains six subseries, described fully below: Ambrotype and Tintypes; Postcards; James Thomas Powers Photographs; Rachel Booth Powers Photographs; James Thomas Powers and Family Photographs; and General Photographs. Note that James and Rachel Powers are also depicted on the cover of the sheet music in this collection, "Dem White Pants at a Swell Cake-Walk."

All of these early images were professionally taken in a studio setting. Some display hand tinting of the subject's cheeks. The single ambrotype in the collection is an image of James Donnellon, the grandfather of James Thomas Powers. The rest of the subseries consists of 21 tintypes. The first three folders contain images of Rachel Booth, especially as a child and teenager. The next two folders contain images of Rachel Booth posed with her mother Cecilia Booth and her sisters Jessie and Alice Booth. The last folder contains two images of James Powers with Rachel and Cecilia Booth, one childhood image of James Powers with his brother Gus McGovern, and one image probably of Jessie Booth.

Ambrotype of James Donnellon, grandfather of James Thomas Powers
Box 5
Tintypes of Rachel Booth (3 folders)
Box 5
Tintypes of Rachel Booth with family (2 folders)
Box 5
Tintypes of James Powers with Rachel and Cecilia Booth, James Powers with Gus McGovern, and Jessie Booth (?)
Box 5

The 19 postcards contained in this subseries depict both professional studio portraits (such as in promotional postcards for James Powers as a "leading artist of the American stage") as well as outdoor photographs from various vacations. Subjects include James Powers, Rachel Booth Powers, and a vacation to Fort Benton in 1937. The James Powers postcards are particularly noteworthy. In addition to the promotional photographs, other postcards depict Powers as a clown for an unnamed production, in costume for the production Havana, and as a guest of honor at the Daschund Club of Cleveland, Ohio in 1912. Of note in the set of postcards from Fort Benton is an image of a Native American wearing a traditional headdress with a Western suit and tie. Some of the postcards in this subseries contain brief correspondence to various recipients.

James T. Powers postcards, before 1910-circa 1930s
Box 6
Fort Benton postcards, 1937
Box 6
James and Rachel Booth Powers, undated
Box 6
Unnamed individuals, undated
Box 6

Contains 64 black and white albumen and gelatin silver prints that range the entirety of James Powers' life. There are 52 small and medium sized prints, of which the albumens are mostly cabinet cards (4 x 5.5") and cartes de visite (2.25 x 3.5") while the gelatin prints range up to 8 x 10 inches. The vast majority of the photographs are undated. Most were taken in a studio setting. One photograph from 1888 depicts Powers with other actors portraying professional baseball players at the Polo Grounds. Other notable images are photographic duplications of hand-drawn depictions of Powers in various costumes. There are also 12 larger prints ranging up to 11 x 14 inches.

Small to medium prints
(52 items, 10 folders)
Box 6
Oversize prints
Box 11
Oversize prints
Oversize Box 3
Oversize prints
Oversize Folder OC:I:2

Houses 37 albumen and gelatin silver prints, chiefly black and white, covering most of Rachel Booth's life. There are 32 small and medium sized prints, of which the albumens are mostly cabinet cards (4 x 5.5 inch print) and cartes de visite (2.25 x 3.5 inch print) while the gelatin prints range up to 8 x 10 inches. Some of the albumen prints, particularly of Rachel as a child, are significantly smaller than cartes de visites. The vast majority of these photographs were taken in a studio setting; many of them depict Rachel in costume for various productions. Notably, the first photograph is Rachel at the age of 2 as Hanny in Uncle Tom's Cabin. There are also five larger prints ranging up to 11 x 14 inches, including three photographs of Rachel as Carry Story in A Tin Soldier, one of which is fully colored. One photograph of note depicts Rachel's high school graduation.

Small to medium prints
(32 items, 5 folders)
Box 6
Oversize prints
(5 items)
Box 11

This subseries contains 57 albumen and gelatin silver prints whose subjects are either family of James and Rachel Booth Powers or group portraits. Subjects include Anne McGovern (James Powers' mother), Cecilia Booth (Rachel Powers' mother), and Jessie and Alice Booth (later Jessie Booth Church and Alice Booth Clark, Rachel Powers' sisters). This subseries also contains an albumen photograph of John Wilkes Booth from New York, likely taken in the late 1850s or early 1860s. Most of the photographs were taken in a professional studio setting, although some of the family shots are casual snapshots that depict scenes of home life such as the Powers' first automobile and vacations from their second home in Cape Cod. This subseries contains 53 small and medium sized prints that range up to 8 x 10 inches. In addition, the subseries also contains 4 larger prints ranging up to 10.5 x 14 inches with several notable photographs of Cecilia Booth.

Alice Booth (Clark)
(14 items, 2 folders)
Box 6
Cecilia Booth
(4 items)
Box 6
Jessie Booth (Church)
(7 items)
Box 6
John Wilkes Booth
(1 item)
Box 6
Anne McGovern
(3 items)
Box 7
Family group snapshots
(24 items, 4 folders)
Box 7
Oversize prints
(4 items)
Box 11

Contains 65 albumen and gelatin silver prints whose subjects are persons unrelated to James Thomas Powers, and other miscellaneous subjects. There are 59 small and medium sized prints that range up to 8 x 10 inches. Subjects in this group include: J.K. Adams, Mary Anderson, H.C. Babcock, Digby Bell, Laura Joyce Bell, Frank W. Comyni, Eugene Cowles, Peter Donnellon, Willie Edouin, Max Ehrmann, Terry Ellen, Della Fox, Mrs. G.H. Gilbert, Pauline Hall, Evelyn Baker Harrier, Leon Harrier, Sal Harrison, Herbert Kelcey, Wilton Laekayz(?), Fanny Legan, Richard Mansfield, Jon. Mullen(?), Louis Payne, Lillian Russell, Elfie Shannon, Grant Stewart, and some unnamed individuals as well as several group shots. The other general photographs depict urban scenes, vehicles, a house exterior, and interior designs. This subseries also includes six larger prints ranging to 8.5 x 14 inches depicting Lew Fields, Manuel Klein, Jon. Urban, Henry Norway, and other individuals. Most of the photographs in this collection were professionally made in a studio setting although several may have been shot by an amateur.

People
(48 items, 7 folders)
Box 7
Other scenes
(11 items, 2 folders)
Box 7
Oversize prints
(6 items)
Box 11

Arranged in the following four subseries: Autobiographical Material, Magazine and Clippings, Ephemera, and Scripts.

Contains notes for Powers's autobiography entitled Twinkle Little Star: Sparkling Memories of Seventy Years. Also houses reviews of that book from various publications.

Autobiographical material
Box 1

Consists of one issue of Munsey's Magazine, August 1899, that discusses various issues relevant to New York City. The clippings are relevant in some way to James Powers, his family, or his varied theatrical and other projects. In addition, contains several images of Powers and other actors clipped from various sources and 11 oversize items that are housed separately. Arranged chronologically.

Munsey's Magazine, August 1899
Box 1
Clippings, 1800-1896
Box 1
Clippings, 1903-1909
Box 1
Clippings, 1910-1939
Box 1
Clippings, undated
(5 folders)
Box 1
Oversize clippings, 1883-1939 and undated
Box 8
Large oversize clipping, undated
Oversize Folder OC:I:2

Houses promotional materials as well as other materials related to various plays with which Powers was involved. In addition, contains various images of James Powers that do not fit into either the Photographs or Printed Materials series. The oversize pieces include promotional material for the plays The Rivals and Blue Moon.

Ephemera, circa 1890s-circa 1920s
(2 folders)
Box 1
Oversize ephemera, circa 1890s-circa 1920s
(12 items)
Box 8

Contains copies of scripts of plays with which Powers was involved. Distinct from the scripts held in the Writings Series that are Powers' own works. Arranged alphabetically by title.

The Geisha and The Jewel of Asia
Box 1
The Medal and the Maid
Box 1
The Messenger Boy and The Princess of Kensington
Box 1
The Rivals
Box 1
San Toy and untitled
Box 2

Consists of all of the original writings and personal papers for Rachel Booth Powers. Included are several essays she wrote while in school, her teaching certificate, two autograph books dating from 1876 and 1877 (with the second containing poems written by Alice Booth Clark), and a diary kept in 1897. One oversize box contains two scrapbooks of newspaper clippings. Arranged alphabetically by contents of folders.

Alice Booth Clark autograph book with clippings of poetry, undated
Box 2
Autograph book, 1876-1877
Box 2
Diary, 1897
Box 2
Personal papers, 1875-1901 and undated
Box 2
Writings, circa 1870s and undated
Box 2
Clippings book, undated
Box 10
Clippings book, 1883
Box 10

Contains various popular compositions that Powers wrote for his theatrical productions as well as for his other performances. Arranged alphabetically by title; oversize material housed separately. This material may contain offensive language or negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record.

Another Job
Box 2
Becky Rosenstein
Box 2
Bride Belle
Box 2
Carburetor
Box 2
Chain of Love
Box 2
Cute As Ever
Box 2
Dance With My Wife
Box 2
Frog and Firefly
Box 2
Give Us Peace
Box 2
Grandpa
Box 2
Ho! The Briny Deep
Box 2
Hooray
Box 2
If The Moon Weren't Out
Box 2
If You Want Mary
Box 2
I'm the Gun Man
Box 2
In the Morning
Box 2
Income Tax
Box 2
Jean's Harp
Box 2
The Lickings
Box 2
Lion's Cage
Box 2
The Little Kangaroo, 1922 and undated
(2 folders)
Box 2
Little Willie
Box 2
McCarty
Box 2
March's Wake
Box 3
Michael Feeney
Box 3
Mississippi
Box 3
Mother Dear
Box 3
Oh! Mary
Box 3
O'Scarpano
Box 3
Ringmaster's Gallop
Box 3
The Serenade
Box 3
Soldier
Box 3
Spanish
Box 3
Wall Street
Box 3
Can't You Take My Word
Box 8
Captain Told the Mate
Box 8
Cavalleria Rusticana
Box 8
Dance of the Bobolinks
Box 8
Dem White Pants at a Swell Cake Walk (features the Powers on the cover)
Box 8
Doll's Dust
Box 8
Floradarn
Box 8
For the Old Love's Sake
Box 8
Has Anybody Seen Our Cat?
Box 8
He's My Soft-Shell-Crab on Toast
Box 8
Hero Bold
Box 8
How Did the Bird Know That?
Box 8
I'se A-Workin' I'se A Hustlin': Coon Song and Chorus
Box 8
It Was in a Laundry That I Seen Her First
Box 8
Keep Your Eye on Your Friend Mister Johnson
Box 8
Little Dan
Box 8
The Maid on the 'L' Road
Box 8
Medley
Box 8
Minstrel songs
Box 9
Miss Venus
Box 9
Mother Dear
Box 9
Mother Take Me On Your Knee
Box 9
Mr. Flynn
Box 9
No Moon
Box 9
Oh! Madeline
Box 9
Paddy Stole the Rope
Box 9
Sailor Life
Box 9
The Sign of Love
Box 9
Take My Word
Box 9
Three Little Faces
Box 9
Waiting For Me
Box 9
Waltz Without a Kiss
Box 9
Waltzes
Box 9
Yarns
Box 9
Your Dear Little Demon
Box 9

Houses multiple manuscript volumes kept by James Powers recording potential comedic sketches, ideas for songs and lyrics, motion picture scripts, reminiscences of his life, and inventories of goods. Arranged alphabetically by subject of content.

Comedy and dialogue notes
(2 folders)
Box 3
Comedy sketch of Havana
Box 3
Dialogue and lyrics notes
Box 3
Inventory, choreography, and notes
Box 3
Prose notes
Box 3
Reminiscences, circa 1930
Box 3
Reminiscences
(Folders 1-2 of 4)
Box 3
Reminiscences (Folders 3-4 of 4)
Box 4
Reminiscences and notes
Box 4
Song lyrics
Box 4
Song lyrics and motion picture scripts
Box 4
Song lyrics, letters, and reminiscences
Box 4

Consists of James Powers' original manuscript prose, notes, lyrics (without musical accompaniment), and scripts. Arranged alphabetically within each group of writings.

Lyrics
Box 4
Notes
Box 4
Autobiography excerpts
Box 4
Tin Soldier
Box 4
Act Three
Box 4
The Leading Man
Box 4
The Millionaire: A Moving Picture Play
Box 4
Private Party
Box 4
Why It's Binks
Box 4
A Wife to Order
Box 4
untitled
Box 4

Historical Note

James Thomas Powers (1862-1943) was an actor, playwright, musician, entertainer, comedian, and a general entertainer renowned for his comedic abilities and expressions as well as for his trademark red hair. His wife, Rachel Booth Powers (1862-1955), was also a famous actress in her own right, coming from the Booth family of actors. Powers lived most of his life in and near New York City and, as a result, most of his performances took place on Broadway. Some of the plays in which he performed include: A Runaway Girl, San Toy, A Princess of Kensington, Havana, The Rivals, and The Geisha. In addition to living at the Ansonia Hotel in New York City, and in Richfield Springs, N.Y., the Powers also owned a vacation home on Cape Cod that is depicted in several photographs in this collection.

Chronology

DateEvent(s)
1862Born as James Thomas McGovern in New York; raised on West 12th Street in New York City
1862Birth of Rachel Booth; raised in Rochester, New York
1883After performing in several small productions, Powers moved to London
1885Powers returned to New York and met Rachel Booth while in the Boston production of Charles Hoyt's A Tin Soldier
1892James Powers and Rachel Booth married
1894James Powers appeared in The New Boy, one of his earliest performances on Broadway
1899Joined "The Players" and began to regularly visit club's rooms in Gramercy Park
1901Appeared in and wrote additional lyrics for The Messenger Boy
1909Appeared in and revised Havana, one of his most famous roles
1920Rachel Booth Powers retired from the stage
1935James Powers appeared in Seven Keys to Baldpate then retired from the stage
1935-1939Wrote and published autobiography entitled Twinkle Little Star: Sparkling Memories of Seventy Years
1943 Feb. 11James Powers passed away
1955 July 23Rachel Booth Powers passed away

Subject Headings

Related Material

  • James T. and Rachel Booth Powers Collection [1864]-1948, undated [Search for "Rachel Both Powers"] (The New York Historical Society)
  • Historic American Sheet Music [Web site with access to thousands of titles and digitized images of popular American sheet music held at Duke] (Duke University. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library.)

Preferred Citation

[Identification of item], James Thomas Powers Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University

Provenance

The James Thomas Powers Papers were received by the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library as a purchase in 1976.

Processing Information

Processed by Josh Hager, March 2010

Encoded by Josh Hager, April 2010

Accession 4-30-76 is described in this finding aid.

Descriptive sources and standards used to create this inventory: DACS, EAD, NCEAD guidelines, and local Style Guide.

This finding aid is NCEAD compliant.