The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Women's History Month
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
As we begin Women's History Month, I wanted to focus on another group of women documented in the Archives collections, those women in the field of humanities. Humanities studies how people interpret and record the human experience, or in other words the study of human culture. Areas of study could include languages, literature, philosophy, religion, musicology, history, art, and archaeology among others. Just as women in science at the Smithsonian make and contribute to the research and activites at this Institution, so do women in the humanities.
Some examples of women in the humanities represented in our collections are:
Margaret Brown Klapthor
Margaret B. Klapthor (1922-1994) was born in Henderson, Kentucky. She graduated from the University of Maryland, B.A., 1943, and shortly thereafter was employed by the Smithsonian Institution as a scientific aide in the Civil Section of the Division of History, United States National Museum. Klapthor was assigned to restoring the First Ladies' dresses, the collection of White House gowns, which eventually became the First Ladies Hall exhibition at the Museum of History and Technology in 1964. Her positions later included Assistant Curator, 1947-1948, in the Section of Civil History, Division of History; Assistant Curator, 1949-1951, and Associate Curator, 1952-1957, in the Division of Civil History; and Associate Curator, 1957-1970, Curator, 1971-1983, and Curator Emeritus, 1984-1994, in the Division of Political History. Klapthor published many articles and several books during her tenure, including The Dresses of the First Ladies of the White House and Official White House China: 1789 to the Present.
Claudia Brush Kidwell
Claudia Brush Kidwell started her career at the Smithsonian as an intern in the Division of Textiles at the Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History) in 1961. After completing her undergraduate study at the University of Maryland and afer receiving her master's dregree from Pennsylvania State University in 1964, Kidwell returned to be a Curator in the Division of Costume. She would come to serve as Chair of the Division of Cultural History and would later serve as Acting Director of the Museum of History and Technology.
Mary S. M. Gibson
Mary S. M. Gibson a curator at the Cooper Union Museum (now the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum) from 1904-1945.
Dr. Lillian B. Miller
Dr. Miller was a historian of American culture and editor of the Peale Family Papers at the National Portrait Gallery. She started at the Smithsonian in 1971 and published five volumes on the Peale Family Papers as well as organized the traveling exhibition, "The Peal Family: Creation of a Legacy, 1770-1870" which included works produced over a century by 11 members of the Peale Family. She was the first member of her family to get a college education, graduating magna cum laude from Radcliffe College in 1943, having worked her way through school as a secretary to the astronomer Harlow Shapley. At first she had aspirations of persuing literature, but ultimately felt the pull of history. She attended graduate school at Columbia University to study American history, receiving her master's degree in 1948 and her doctorate in 1962. Her dissertation, "Patrons and Patriotism: The Encouragement of Fine Arts in the United States, 1790-1860" was published in 1966 and she was an associate professor of history at the University of Wisconsin before coming to the Smithsonian. In addition to her work at the Smithsonian, Dr. Miller was a professorial lecturer at George Washington University; served on the Council for the Institute for Early American History and Culture in Williamsburg, Virginia; and on the executive board of the American Studies Association.
These women are just a small representation of those who contributed to the exhibitions, research, publications, and public programs put forth by the Smithsonian. They also just so happen to not have Wikipedia entries.
Please join the Archives for Women's History month as we share a series of blog posts on the women in our collections.
- Women's History Month at The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
As we celebrate Women’s History Month at the Smithsonian, you might ask who was the first woman to secure a paid position at the Smithsonian? Jane Wadden Turner (1818- 1896) was appointed a library clerk in 1857 after being trained by her brother. The Robert Wadden and Elizabeth Jameson Turner family immigrated from England in 1818, with three children, Susan then ten, William Wadden then seven, and Jane Wadden only three months old. The family had some resources, but their father died in 1821 and their mother died in 1828, leaving the children to fend for themselves. Despite the challenges, the close-knit family stayed together and made a remarkable life for themselves in their new home. Susan, the oldest, always stayed at home and kept house for her two siblings, giving them the freedom to pursue intellectual careers and a life devoted to books.
William Wadden Turner (1811-1859) became a noted philologist and was trained as a librarian at Columbia College in New York City. He moved to Washington, DC, in 1852 to organize the library of the Patent Office and soon became a close friend of the Smithsonian’s Assistant Secretary Spencer F. Baird. His sisters soon followed and the household now included William’s wife and a growing family. The entire Turner family spent their Sundays and holidays at the Baird’s, part of the warm network of young scholars that Spencer and Mary Churchill Baird created in their home. In 1857, Baird asked William to assume responsibility for the Smithsonian library, and William delegated the task of preparing the catalogue to his sister Jane.
Family connections were one of the ways women were able to enter professional positions in the 19th century, and Jane Turner is a great example of that pattern. She was appointed a library clerk in 1858, and after her brother's early death in 1859, was placed in charge of the library. Secretary Joseph Henry wrote of her that she "vindicates by her accuracy and efficiency the propriety of employing her sex in some of the departments of the government."
After a devasting fire in the Smithsonian Castle in 1865, Henry transferred the Smithsonian Library to the Library of Congress in 1866. Jane Turner then served as assistant to A. R. Spofford, Librarian of Congress. She also was clerk in charge of the Smithsonian’s International Exchange Service from 1866 to 1869. Turner oversaw the distribution and exchange of scientific publications with 1,744 institutions in twenty-six countries. Turner's position, however, did not entail supervising men. When the Institution recruited another person to handle the ever growing International Exchange Service in 1885, one Smithsonian administrator wrote: "I have a full appreciation of the merits, business capacity, and efficiency of women, as is shown by the fact that our present librarian is a 'female of that sex'; but the place I refer to may grow to be a controlling one, covering several extensive departments which could not well be subordinated to a woman." The glass ceiling was cleary put up early in Smithsonian history.
After Henry’s death in 1878, the Institution's library began to grow again and Ms. Turner resumed the duties of Smithsonian Librarian in 1882 until 1887 when she resigned after a reorganization of the Library by the new Secretary, Samuel P. Langley. After Turner's retirement, a woman was not appointed Chief of the Smithsonian Library until 1942, during World War II, when Leila Gay Forbes Clark was placed in charge.
- Record Unit 7098 - Biographical Information File, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- In Memoriam - Jane Wadden Turner, Open Library
- Smithsonian Institution Libraries history, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Women's History Month is meant to celebrate notable, influential women who, through their activism in their chosen field, made contributions to history and society. One woman that we here at the Archives would like to highlight is Florence Merriam Bailey, an American nature writer and ornithologist who made significant contributions to ornithology through her participation and work with the National Audubon Society, the American Ornithologists' Union, and more.
As an intern with the Digital Services Division, I worked with the Florence Merriam Bailey Papers for the past seven weeks and learned a great deal about Florence's life and work and its influence on the 19th century scientific community. I have to be honest, before embarking on this project, I had little to no knowledge about the field of ornithology and had never heard of Florence's work. After looking at her various diaries, journals, publications, and photographs, Florence's passion for studying birds became very apparent to me.
Florence was the daughter of Clinton Levi Merriam and the sister of Clinton (C.) Hart Merriam, a famous zoologist who worked for and eventually became director of the U. S. Biological Survey and was first president of the American Society of Mammalogy. C. Hart Merriam introduced Florence to her future husband, Vernon Orlando Bailey, another prominent figure in the field of natural history. Vernon and C. Hart Merriam worked together compiling their research and field work and shared their work with the Smithsonian. Vernon and Florence spent their life together as a perfect team, conducting research together and taking the scientific world by storm.
Florence was born on August 8, 1863 in Locust Grove, New York during the Civil War. At the age of eleven, she wrote a diary detailing her daily thoughts and activities in Washington, DC, where she was living at the time. In her early entries, she speaks of taking walks, attending Sunday school, and learning Latin. She was very literate and well-written by the age of eleven and cared about her studies. "I have finished all of my Sunday School lesson, but of course I will have to look it over every day." She even displayed a hint of adolescent humor in her entries, as on January 6 she states, "I have not done anything today that is worth writing down so I guess I won't say anything." I found this first diary interesting not only because I was able to read about young Florence's life but also because it was really interesting to study the physical differences in the diaries themselves from those of today. Florence also kept other diaries of her life in Washington, and journals from trips to South Carolina, Maine, California, etc. In her California journal in particular, I found that her curly, cursive writing was sometimes hard to decipher and I had to look up the places she was describing. However after working with her collection for the past several weeks, I started to become familiar with her handwriting.
This collection also includes a vast collection of field notes and photographs from her expeditions. One trip in particular caught my eye. Florence's 1898 trip to Mount Hood in Oregon was interesting to work with because it included both field notes as well as photographs. This made it easy to visualize the places and species she wrote about. She also took photos of the mountain itself as well as of the bird habitats in the area, including trees and bushes.
One of my favorite groups of photographs and documents are those from "Homewood." Homewood was Florence's name for the family property in Locust Grove, New York. She documents the house and land via black-and-white photographs. I particularly enjoyed the pictures of "Brownie," a squirrel that was often present in Homewood. Florence seemed to enjoy taking pictures of him, as there are several within her collection of him in a variety of amusing poses.
I enjoyed this collection for its variety of field documents and photographs, both in the field as well as personal ones. Through interacting with Florence's diaries, field books, and photographs I was able to connect at a personal level with this inspiring woman of the scientific community. Florence was not only a researcher of birds, but a promoter of their preservation too. She became involved with the Committee on Bird Protection of the American Ornithologists' Union, and as a result of her efforts and others, the Lacey Act of 1900 was instituted. This act prohibited interstate trade in wildlife that had been illegally taken, transported or sold. Florence Merriam Bailey was a prominent historical figure in the field of ornithology and an inspiring woman.
- Record Unit 7417 - Florence Merriam Bailey Papers, 1865-1942, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 7267 - Vernon Orlando Bailey Papers, 1889-1941 and undated, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Comparing Observations: Vernon and Florence Merriam Bailey, Smithsonian Collections blog
- A Beaver Corral, Fried Owl, and Pueblos: Adventures with Vernon Orlando Bailey, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Women are hiding in archives across the country. While some women's papers make it into archival collections in their own right, many others are swept up with their husbands' papers.
One woman hiding in the Archives is Mary Foote Henderson. Born in 1842, in Seneca Falls, New York, the daughter of a prominent judge, she was educated at Grove Ladies Seminary (now Skidmore College) and Washington University.
She married Missouri Senator John B. Henderson, sponsor of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. It was not as a senator, but as an expert on West Indian mollusks and a member of the Smithsonian Board of Regents that Henderson is represented in Record Unit 7075 - The Henderson Family Papers, 1868-1923.
The pieces of ephemera Mary Henderson left among her husband's papers give a glimpse at the interests of a remarkable woman.
In 1889, after accumulating a fortune, the Hendersons moved back to Washington, D.C., where they built a castle-like mansion on 16th Street called "Boundary Castle" or "Henderson's Castle." Mrs. Henderson bought blocks of land in the Meridian Hill area where she constructed elaborate residences that were sold as embassies. Mary Henderson's interest in the neighborhood led to her unsuccessful campaign to have a new White House constructed there. She was, however, successful in lobbying Congress to support the acquisition of the land and its development as Meridian Hill Park.
- City Beautiful movement, University of Virginia
- Record Unit 7075 - The Henderson Family Papers, 1868-1923, Smithsonian Institution Archives