The Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections document the history and culture of 18th-century France through an extraordinary assemblage of rare books, manuscripts, and graphic materials, in the French Revolution Collection, the Lafayette Collection, the Maurepas Collection, the Lavoisier Collection, the La Forte Archive, the Charles X Collection, and the Ben Grauer Collection. Together with the repository's extensive holdings in Enlightenment figures such as Rousseau and Montesquieu, these collections provide a comprehensive view of French political and social history from the Enlightenment through the Revolution, the Napoleonic period, and the Restoration.
The collections are unusual in several respects. Most notable is their depth, with holdings including over 18,000 printed items, 2,000 engravings, and 115 linear feet of manuscripts. Print materials range from books to newspapers, almanacs, and pamphlets, including political speeches, accusations and denunciations, reports, plays, cahiers de doléances, and a wide variety of popular literature. The thousands of manuscripts in the collection include documents and personal letters which chronicle the evolution of legal and social institutions throughout the period, including civil suits, marriage, divorce, inheritance, and titles. They also provide an intimate view of the personal and family lives of key figures such as the Marquis de Lafayette and Antoine Laurent Lavoisier.
Comprised of over 130 different titles, the newspapers range over the entire political landscape and include virtually complete runs of all the well-known papers, including Le Moniteur universel, the Révolutions de Paris, the Révolutions de France et de Brabant, and Marat's L'Ami du peuple, formerly Le publiciste Parisien. Including more than 25 different titles, the almanacs represent the full spectrum of political viewpoints, and vividly document both the upheaval and the elements of continuity which characterize the Revolutionary period.
The collection's extensive documentation of late eighteenth-century popular culture is another of its unique strengths. Satires, diatribes, songs (some with printed music), burlesques, Utopian fantasies, encomia for martyrs to the Revolution, spurious accounts of imprisonment in the Bastille, and salty pronouncements by the fictional Père Duchène provide unique insight into the mentality of the time. This popular literature is supplemented by hand-colored political caricatures from both the Revolutionary and the Napoleonic periods. The Napoleonic prints include an extraordinary album of German caricatures that depict Napoleon variously as a murderer, a small pouting child, and a creature constituted of corpses. In a society where illiteracy was common, these sources are crucial for an understanding of popular perceptions of the age and its players.