The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Collections in Focus
My laptop's dictionary illustrates the word "idiosyncrasy" with colorful examples, attributing distinctive modes of behavior to regal figures (a queen who imperiously demands a certain food) or referencing odd places that demand unorthodox responses (how major baseball sluggers exploit the "Green Monster" at Fenway Park). The origins of the word provoke distinctly idiosyncratic daydreams. In Greek, idiosunkrasia referred to one's own private mixture (idios + sun + krasis), to the modes of thought or behavior unique to an individual.
The Science Service collections are, without question, idiosyncratic, but their foibles and oddities are collective as well as individualistic. The mixture unites thousands of different correspondents and ways of seeing the world – all ages, all sorts of motivations, all walks of life.
By the mid-1930s Science Service had become ever more engaged in educational activities directed at young people. That interest stimulated the organization's Science Clubs of America, "Things of Science" projects, and involvement in the Science Talent Search competition. Long before such formal activities, however, students had sought help by writing letters, just as today's students email Smithsonian Institution archivists, historians, and curators.
In 1935, a high school senior Viola Anderson wrote this letter to Science Service:
52 Anderson Avenue
Staten Island, New York
April 13, 1935
For my Senior Speech in High School, I have to select a topic which interests me. I have always been curious about the subject of idiosyncrasies.
Would it be possible to get any information on idiosyncrasies? Unfortunately, I have been unable to secure material, and the extent of my knowledge is my observations. I would appreciate any information you could possibly give me.
As we enter Women's History Month, it would be nice to imagine that Viola Anderson grew up to be a scientist. Such an inquiring mind befits a budding researcher. The letter she sent to Science Service in 1935 is well-written. Perhaps she became an author, a dramatist, a poet, a philosopher. Do you recognize the little girl who knew that observations alone would not suffice and asked for more information?
- Science Service Records at the Smithsonian Institution Archives
Ruth MacCoy Blackwelder is a woman who, even after extensive research, is still very much cloaked in mystery for me. Currently, the only online records of her existence lie in a line or two in various biographies about her husband, Richard, the byline of a book she co-wrote with him, and a newspaper article with details about her estate after her death in 1989. Thanks to the Smithsonian Transcription Center, that is about to change.
Ruth Blackwelder was born in El Oro, Mexico on September 9, 1910 to American parents Frederick and Ella MacCoy. On January 3, 1935, she married Richard Eliot Blackwelder, an entomologist who had just graduated from Stanford with his PhD. Shortly after their wedding, Richard received the Walter Rathbone Bacon Travelling Scholarship from the Smithsonian Institution to conduct research in the West Indies. On June 22, 1935, the pair set sail from New York, and arrived in Kingston, Jamaica five days later.
During their trip to the West Indies, Richard and Ruth Blackwelder kept separate journals of their activities. The majority of Richard's entries relate to his collecting work in the field, whereas Ruth's entries detail the life and experiences of an American woman in a foreign country. Her journals not only provide insight into her daily activities, but they also provide information about current events and shed light on the interests and hobbies of this otherwise unknown woman.
One of the things that Ruth's journals make obvious pretty quickly is her love of stamp collecting. She often talks of the joy of receiving boxes of stamps for gifts, and the many nights she and Richard spent sorting and cleaning them. It seemed that her primary interest was in American and Caribbean stamps, and she often located collectors on the various islands they visited with whom she could trade or purchase additional stamps for her catalogue. After the couple returned to the United States, Ruth Blackwelder enlisted the help of J. F. Gates Clarke, curator in the Division of Insects at the Smithsonian Institution, to secure first run editions of stamps that she could not obtain locally. It is unclear what became of her seemingly large collection of stamps, but it is clear that the collection was something that she was proud of.
The last document we have from Ruth Blackwelder is a letter from July 1940. After that, her name doesn't surface again until she is listed as a co-author on Directory of Zoological Taxonomists of the World in 1961. She passed away on November 27, 1989 in Cape Girardeau County, Missouri, where she and Richard moved after his retirement. Now that Ruth Blackwelder's journals from her trip to the West Indies are in the Smithsonian Transcription Center, what else can you uncover about the life of this mystery woman?
- Record Unit 140: United States National Museum Division of Insects, Correspondence, 1909-1963, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Accession 96-099: Richard E. Blackwelder Papers, 1926-1964, Smithsonian Institution Archives