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Finding Your Voice: The Many Mediums of Expression – Rare Books and Special Collections

What, exactly, does it mean for someone to find their voice? What avenues exist for discovering and for sharing a voice? Surely, a voice is defined as much by those who receive it as it is by those who express it? And as diphthongs and gutturals are exchanged, relationships develop, ideas are shared, and communities grow! Whether through writing, music, sports broadcasting, travel, or philanthropy, CLP-Main’s current Special Collections exhibit, Finding Your Voice: The Many Mediums of Expression explores these ideas through sharing some of the wonderful voices from our collection that have made Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh.

The material on display from our Rare and Vintage book collections provides a peek into our Special Collections and a glimpse into the lives of two exceptional Pittsburghers, while exploring the mediums through which they shared their voice and created spaces for others to find their own.

Photo of a woman in fancy dress from 1895 and a photo of a building with columns
Elise Mercur and the Juvenile Department from Pennsylvania at the Cotton States and International Exposition, 1895 and Home Monthly, 1900, respectively

One unexpected voice that became influential in late 19th and early 20th century Pittsburgh was Elise Mercur (1869-1947), widely celebrated as Pittsburgh’s first female architect. Though much of her work has been forgotten today, our exhibit features material from the Architectural Collection, including Economy of Old and Ambridge of Today, which documents the history of Ambridge, as told by Mercur, as well as an article about Mercur from “The Home Monthly,” April 1898 and photographs of some of the buildings that she designed, courtesy of our historical photograph collection, which is available upon request at CLP-Main. A quote from Mrs. Mary Temple Jamison in “The Home Monthly,” 1898, shows Mercur’s dedication, “…she goes out herself to oversee the construction of the buildings she designs, inspecting the laying of foundations and personally directing the different workmen from the first stone laid to the last nail driven, thereby acquiring a practical knowledge not possessed by every male architect.” The exhibit also features a program from an early meeting of the Pittsburgh Architectural Club, of which Mercur was a member. During their first years, this group would often meet at CLP-Main in what is now the Music, Film, and Audio department.

Black and white photo of a smiling middle aged white woman in a hat with a fancy net
Vira I. Heinz portrait from Pittsburgh Photographic Library

The exhibit also provides a unique opportunity to view some of the wonderful and rare books in our Vira I. Heinz Collection, located in CLP-Main’s Rare Book room. Heinz (1888-1983), like Mercur, was a trailblazer, attaining and maintaining status, wealth, and a charitable disposition both before and after her marriage to Clifford S. Heinz.

The books on exhibit from the Vira I. Heinz collection present a small sample of some of the treasures that exist within our larger rare books collection. Beautifully illustrated editions of “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte, featuring lithographs by Barnett Freedman, and the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge speak to Heinz’ love of the classics. While a small press edition of “A Place on Earth” by Gwen Frostic, and “A Lady’s Travels Round the World,” 1852, by Ida Pfeiffer, hint at her desire to empower women to take on life’s great unknowns.

I suspect that the courage and power of Pfeiffer’s voice and experiences may have inspired Heinz as she found her own voice as a leader. How can one not be inspired by Ida Pfeiffer, who, as a young girl, turned her back on a celebrating Napoleon as he paraded through her native Vienna and whose accounts of the Victorian world through which she travelled, “…have often the merit of containing entirely new facts in geography and ethnology, or of correcting the exaggerations and errors of previous accounts.” (See A Biography of Ida Pfeiffer in The Last Travels of Ida Pfeiffer: Inclusive of a Visit to Madagascar, 1861).


Books on stands for an exhibit
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge from the Vira I. Heinz Collection
Book opened up on a stand for an exhibit
A Place on Earth by Gwen Frostic, from the Vira I. Heinz Collection
Page of a book, signed by the author
Not So Deep as A Well by Dorothy Parker, Limited Edition, signed, from the Vira I. Heinz Collection


Heinz used her voice, acumen, and wealth to establish the Vira I. Heinz Program for Women, Non-Binary, and Transgender Global Leaders. Today this program spans 14 institutions across western Pennsylvania, each giving three scholars a chance to travel abroad and participate in Leadership training. This program has provided dozens of individuals with opportunities that were extremely hard to come by during Pfeiffer or Heinz’ lifetimes. This year’s program has an application deadline of November 1st, and more information can be found on their website: Vira I. Heinz Program.

Open notebook with handwriting and a pen
Share Your Voice!

Take a moment while visiting our exhibit to jot down and share your own stories about how you developed your Voice, how travel has impacted your life, who are YOUR Voices of Pittsburgh, or simply what you think of the exhibit!

Smiling young white man with long hair and beard, standing in front of a glass and wood display case
Nick Gittins, Rare Books Library Assistant at CLP
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What would you like to find?