In 1918, Thomas B. Harnard, a literary executor for Walt Whitman, gave to the Library of Congress a 3,000 item donation. This donation included many of Whitman’s possessions such as small, personalized notebooks, and interestingly enough, a small cardboard butterfly. This butterfly can be seen here in an 1877 portrait that Whitman commissioned from Philadelphia photographers Samuel Broadbent and W. Curtis Taylor. The presence of the cardboard butterfly and Whitman’s honesty are put in opposition as he has been quoted telling Horace Traubel (his constant biographer):
“Yes—that was an actual moth, the picture is substantially literal: we were good friends: I had quite the in-and-out of taming, or fraternizing with, some of the insects, animals . . .”
Whitman at one point also told historian William Roscoe Thayer:
“I’ve always had the knack of attracting birds and butterflies and other wild critters.”
Beyond the comedy of this situation is one further baffling that occurred in 1944. During WWII, particularly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Library of Congress shipped off crates of historic documents for safekeeping. In 1944, when the crates returned to Washington one of the crates was missing. This crate contained 24 Walt Whitman notebooks and the above mentioned cardboard butterfly.
In 1995 a New York Lawyer took four of the missing 24 notebooks and the cardboard butterfly to Sotheby’s for appraisal. The were recognized by the vice president of Sotheby’s Books and Manuscripts Department, as a description was circulated of the missing articles 30 years previously. The articles were immediately returned to the Library of Congress for conservation efforts.
These efforts are actually extraordinary, and you can see pictures and essays documenting the process at the LOC’s Poet At Work website. The notebooks and butterfly were actually listed as Handle Only Once items! Digital pictures and scans would be used for further reference material.