The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Cities/Places
As an archival student and volunteer, I have been very fortunate to be able to work with the collections at the Smithsonian Institution Archives. My favorite project so far has been the rehousing and cataloging of the Watson Davis Papers (Accession 13-197, Smithsonian Institution Archives). This collection serves as a fascinating kaleidoscope of scientific information as well as a window into the lives of his many friends and colleagues. I would like to share with you the story of one particular woman who corresponded a great deal with Watson Davis and his wife, Helen Miles Davis, as she journeyed into the wilds of Peru in pursuit of her scientific career.
Hilda Hempl Heller, being one of the few female scientists of the time, lived and worked with much enthusiasm and aplomb, characteristics she shared with the Davis’ and the Science Service community. Her story inspired me because despite the limited access women had to higher education and the scientific field at the time, Heller succeeded and excelled in both. She did not subscribe to the societal norms of what a woman's role should be, but rather forged her own path. Heller is an exceptional example of a person who did not merely see life as it should be, but instead was a person who saw that life held enormous possibilities so long as you were open to the challenge.
According to her unpublished autobiography found in the Watson Davis Papers, Hilda Hempl Heller was born in 1891 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to George Hempl, a professor of philosophy. She studied biology at Stanford University, with a focus on zoology and bacteriology. She went on to study at the University of Michigan, where she spent two years during World War I, traveling as a research fellow in Copenhagen, London, Algiers, and Paris, and finally got her doctorate in 1920 under Dr. Karl F. Meyer at the University of California.
In 1918, she married Edmund Heller, a prolific naturalist who was made famous working as the field scientist for Colonel Theodore Roosevelt on his hunting expeditions throughout Africa and various parts of the world. Between 1921 and 1926, Heller accompanied her husband three times on these expeditions where she participated in the study of the big game animals of Yellowstone Park, a mammal collecting expedition to central Peru, and down the Amazon River. After divorcing her husband in 1949, she went on to pursue her own career by conducting field research in anthropology and natural history by returning to the wilderness of Peru. Her fond letters to Davis and his wife, Helen, detail the triumphs and failures she experienced while on her adventures, including the life and death of a peculiar residential penguin by the name of Poncho.
Hilda Hempl Heller, a woman possessed of a charming, vivacious personality and intelligence, challenged the stereotypical idea of a woman’s role in society during her lifetime. However, the research and field books she may have kept are not at the Smithsonian alongside those created by her husband. It may be that they are being processed or stored at another location. At this time, it is difficult to find information on this amazing woman outside of the Watson Davis Papers. There is a photograph collection at The Field Museum in Chicago, which contains images from her fieldwork and her husband's expeditions. Regardless of whether or not she was formally recognized for her contributions to the scientific field in her lifetime, Heller was a unique character who refused to live by the social status quo, and serves as an inspiration for women today and for future generations.
- Women in Science, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- There Are Prizes . . . and There Are Winners, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Where are Heller's Field Books, Field Book Project blog, National Museum of Natural History/Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 7179 - Edmund Heller Papers, circa 1898-1918, Smithsonian Institution Archives
What is a researcher to do when the historic caption contradicts the information in the historic photograph? Here at the Archives, we encounter this occasionally in our work and have to remember that sometimes people in the past made mistakes. Just because something is written in beautiful 19th century penmanship doesn’t mean it is always correct.
I encountered this issue recently when asked about the caption for an image of the Smithsonian Institution Building or Castle from the 1860s, probably taken by Mathew Brady's Studio. There are several versions of this picture from slightly different angles and the picture is held by the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress, and the National Archives, among other repositories. In one of our two copies, there is a beautifully written caption, "Washington, D.C., April, 1865." This lovely picture, with a sweeping view of the National Mall, shows the Smithsonian Castle at the center. The view is looking east from what is now Independence Avenue, but was B Street at the time the photograph was taken. A few houses along B Street, SW, can be seen to the right. People are standing along B Street, with a fence between the street and the "Smithsonian Park," which had been landscaped according to a plan by landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing. The Castle is nestled among a stand of trees, far different than the stark flat Mall we know today. The Smithsonian’s Magnetic Observatory can been seen within the trees. The US Capitol is in the distance, with downtown Washington behind the Castle.
So what could be wrong with that caption? It looks like a Civil War era photograph? However, several things about the buildings tell us it could not have been taken in April 1865. The new dome is under construction on the Capitol – hard to see but just visible when enlarged. The dome was built from 1855 to 1866 and would have been further along in 1865. More important is the Castle itself.
In January of 1865, the Castle was damaged in a devastating fire and. We know from written reports that the roof over the center of the building collapsed, and the caps on the north towers were consumed in the flames. A photograph taken shortly after the fire captures the damage.
The fire pictures are also inaccurate. Photographer Alexander Gardner painted the flames into the photograph he took that day, and he put the flames in the wrong part of the building – set in the east wing, but the actual damage was more in the west wing and center of the building.
The Harper’s Weekly image has the entire building consumed in flames, again inaccurate since the east wing did not sustain much damage.
Going back to our original image, we now know that the Castle would not have had caps on the north towers in April of 1865, and the central roof was still under repair. So we know that this image was taken prior to the caption written on the image, probably 1863. Photo research requires us to compare and contrast the written with the image. A report on the fire detailed what parts of the building were damaged, refuting the fanciful images by Gardner and Harper’s Weekly. Visual information in the first image provides evidence that the image was not taken in April 1865, no matter how carefully written the caption is. While it may seem challenging, such detective work is often the most fun parts of our days, as we track down clues and convict the erroneous caption.
- Record Unit 95 - Photograph Collection, 1850s- , Smithsonian Institution Archives
Tomorrow marks the anniversay of a momentous occasion for children visiting the National Mall; on April 12, 1967, the Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley opened a carousel in front of the Arts and Industries Building.
Some people were concerned at the time that the carousel, along with popcorn wagons, outdoor puppet and musical performances, would lead to the Smithsonian becoming an "ivy-covered Disneyland" ("Some Fresh Air for the Nation's Attic," New York Times, April 9, 1967), but as we can see today, that did not happen.
The first carousel was a 1922 Denzel carousel that was accompanied by a 153 Wurlitzer Band Organ. It is hard to imagine now, but at the time , rides were 25 cents (currently the cost is $3.50).
Due to wear and tear the carousel was replaced in 1981 with a carousel from Baltimore's Gwynn Oak Amusement Park. This carousel is 10 feet larger in diameter and has 60 horses, as opposed to the former which had 33. The carousel was built in 1947 by Allan Herschell Company. The seemingly benign carousel however, has a rich history, best told in Amy Nathan's book, Round and Round Together: Taking a Merry-Go-Round Ride into the Civil Rights Movement. Gwynn Oak Amusement Park was a segregated park and became integrated after a nearly decade-long effort in 1963.
The carousel continues to bring laughter and joy to those who ride it today, many of whom may not know of its place in history, but enjoy it nonetheless.
- Round and Round Together: Take a Merry-Go-Round Ride into the Civil Rights Movement, Amy Nathan
- The Carousel on the National Mall, Washington Post
On March 8, 1903, more than just the animals went wild at the National Zoo. Around noon that day, nine year old Raymond Welty, of 1228 H Street NE, Washington, DC, had a little too much free time on his hands. While trying to ward off boredom, Raymond came across a Mr. Henry Tate's horse and buggy. With no Mr. Tate around and the horse looking oh so lonely, Raymond – not one to look a gift horse in the mouth – hopped into the driver's seat and took up the reins. Careful to avoid his father's house, Raymond took a ride to 15th and M streets, where he convinced his unwitting friend, ten year old William B. Palmer, to come along for the adventure.
With Raymond wielding the whip, the boys raced around the city. First, they excitedly steered the horse down Pennsylvania Avenue, careening past some of their favorite spots. They then shot down to the Ellipse, and took the horse through the muddied National Mall. For almost three hours they ran the horse to the ground, but Raymond eventually tired of this and thought it would be great fun to travel up to the National Zoo. He steered the horse towards the Pike and they made their way to Rock Creek Park. Once there, they entered the Zoo at its main entrance and began to tear down the hill. It was raining, and the muddy roads were very slippery. All at once little Raymond was unable to guide the beleaguered horse, and the horse, buggy, and boys flew over a fifteen-foot embankment, and crashed in a giant heap.
Fortunately, an alert police officer R. L. Carroll, of the tenth precinct, witnessed the boys' attempt at reliving the Kentucky Derby, and rushed to their aid when their sport went afoul. Officer Carroll pulled Raymond and William from underneath the buggy, and led Mr. Tate's horse to safety. The boys came out unscathed; but the horse sustained injuries to its legs and chest. Exhausted from the long trek, it was treated by a veterinarian and taken back to the police station to wait for Mr. Tate.
Now apprehended, the two criminals were also taken to the station, while an angry Mr. Tate identified what was left of his buggy. After questioning the boys, William, speechless with terror, received only a summons and lecture about his behavior. However, Raymond – the mastermind of this ill-fated escapade – was sent to the House of Detention where he told authorities that he had the time of his life, explaining:
If the horse had held out, Bill and I'd have had a great time...We wasn't thinking about anything but the animals in the cages at the Zoo. We was driving along pretty fast, down the hill by the main entrance. The horse was going some, too, let me tell you - say, whose horse was it anyhow? I forgot to ask...Was I scared. Say you can't scare me with horses. I like horses.
Not one for remorse, Raymond was kept at the House of Detention for safekeeping, though his father, James Welty, was able to visit his wayward son.
It turns out this was not the first offense for young Raymond. Prior to his jaunt around DC, Raymond was picked up by police on two separate occasions for running away. A 1910 census entry for a Raymond Welty showed that the then seventeen year old was a member of the National Training School for Boys, a juvenile correction institution. Could this be the same Raymond? His rap sheet would suggest it as a strong likelihood.
- Record Unit 74 - National Zoological Park, Records, 1887-1966, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Though none of the three daughters of Joseph Henry, first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, ever married, it seems that Mary Henry, the eldest, had at least one suitor vying for her heart. We found a very beautiful but very mysterious valentine tucked away in a "miscellaneous" folder of Joseph Henry's papers. The secret admirer did not include his name or a date, so we do not know who he may have been, but we can enjoy the lovely lace-cut paper and touching poem he wrote upon it. The poem seems to be original and is certainly very heartfelt:
To Mary Henry
Oh, were I a bird that could sing all the day,
I would fly to her bower to carol my [lay?]!
Or were I a breath of the soft scented air,
I would waft all my sweets to her bower so fair!
Or were I a thought could awaken a smile,
I would rest on her lip all her woes to beguile.
I would make my bright throne in her sorrowing heart,
And each impulse that grew should its pleasures impart.
Oh, were I a strain of some melody sweet,
I would steal to her chamber her slumber to greet.
Or were I a dream could recall to her mind
The pleasures and joys she has long left behind.
I would [hover?] around in the stillness of night
and her visions of sleep should be joyously bright.
I would kiss from her cheek every envious tear,
and guard her fond bosom from sorrow and fear.
Perhaps "Valentine" was one of the scientists who lived in the Smithsonian Institution Building, or "Castle," with the Henry family during the Institution's early years. Rumor has it that some of these scientists, who formed the unofficial "Megatherium Club" and often disturbed the "Castle" with sack races and other drunken antics, frequently sang to Mary and her sisters, Helen and Caroline, which I'm sure did not make their father very happy. So this Valentine's Day why not present a poem (or a song) to your own sweetheart!
- Mary Henry: Eyewitness to the Civil War, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 7001 - Joseph Henry Collection, 1808, 1825-1878, and related papers to circa 1903, Smithsonian Institution Archives
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