The John Frederick Lewis Collection of Cuneiform Tablets

John Frederick Lewis (1860-1932) was a Philadelphia collector of writing examples: he was interested in the history of the written word and amassed some of the most significant collections in the United States. A man of modest means who could not afford to go to college, Lewis became a lawyer (passing the bar was the only requirement at the time) and married into a wealthy family.

In addition to the cuneiform tablets, it should be noted that Lewis also collected “Oriental” manuscripts (manuscripts from the Middle and Near East, as well as from Africa) and European manuscripts, of which he collected over 200 codices and over 2000 leaves and cuttings.  While his widow, Anne Baker Lewis, donated Lewis’s manuscript collections to the Free Library of Philadelphia after his death, Lewis himself gave the cuneiform tablets to the Library: he personally brought groups of tablets to the Library in installments.  At one time, tablets in the Lewis collection were made available for check out by individuals who might be able to translate them.  Of course, the tablets do not circulate now!

The Free Library of Philadelphia’s Rare Book Department is very grateful to Grant Frame, Ph.D., and Richard Zettler, Ph.D., both of the University of Pennsylvania, for all their help in identifying and placing many of these pieces. The Department is also grateful to Maria DeJong Ellis, Ph.D., the Cotsen Family Foundation, and Caroline Waerzeggers, Ph.D., for allowing us to use their scholarship and insight.


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