The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
There’s Something About Mary
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