The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Keeping in Touch
Over the holidays, many of us receive cards and letters from relatives and friends with updates on their families and activities. This is also a common theme in correspondence found in the Archives, and it's always fun to read these stories to get a glimpse into the personal lives of Smithsonian staff throughout the Institution's history.
Several weeks ago, we received a letter from Frances Eller Holichek Escherich. During World War II, Escherich worked for the FBI and lived in a boarding house in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Her neighbor was Charles G. Abbot (1872-1973), the fifth Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.
Abbot came to the Institution in 1895 as an assistant to Secretary Samuel P. Langley in the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO). In 1906 he was named Director of the Astrophysical Observatory, a position which he held until his retirement in 1944. He became an Assistant Secretary of the Institution in 1918, and served as Secretary from 1928 to 1944. Most of Dr. Abbot's research centered around studies of solar radiation and attempts to determine the relationship between solar variations and the earth's weather.
Abbot befriended Escherich and a number of other women who lived in the house, and many of the women drove to work with him. Escherich recalls, "Dr. Abbot was an inattentive driver and we convinced him it was better for one of us to drive and for him to tell us of his adventures in foreign countries and other accomplishments. He was a great story teller. I remember when he did drive through Rock Creek Park traffic officers stopped traffic for him to proceed, hence our suggestion."
Years after Escherich lived next door to Abbot, she read an article about him and decided to write. With her note to the Archives, Escherich enclosed several letters she received in return from Abbot. They are filled with reminiscences of those years during the War, as well as updates on his activities. In August 1963 (when he was 91 years old), Abbot wrote, "About the time you girls rode to work with me I made a toy solar oven and a model solar boiler shown in the photo. One day I invited 8 little girls among friends of those days. Each one mixed a cake of gingerbread about 4 inches square and baked it in the toy oven....Nothing has come of these patented inventions. Younger men in many countries have now far surpassed me in these lines."
The next year he again wrote Frances with updates on some of the other women from the boarding house, speaking mostly of their whereabouts and children. Abbot remained active in his research until his death in 1973. He writes of himself, "I still work on radiation and weather as many hours a day at home between 8:30 a.m. and 10 p.m. with several naps as I please. I go to the Smithsonian 2 hours on Mondays. I've been connected there 68 years!" And in his last letter to Escherich in 1972, he wrote, "My two wives of 47 and 19 years have loved and fed me to be over 100 years old!"
Thanks, Frances! Your donation has added to our Archives wonderful new tales about Dr. Abbot.