Finding Aids to Personal Papers and Special Collections in the Smithsonian Institution Archives
Record Unit 7081
Rhees, William Jones, 1830-1907
William Jones Rhees Collection, circa 1878-1907
William Jones Rhees was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1830, the only son of Benjamin Rush Rhees and Margaret Grace Evans Rhees. Dr. Rhees was a prominent physician and one of the founders and first faculty members of Jefferson Medical College; he died in 1831, and William lived with his grandmother for much of his childhood. He had many educational advantages in his early life and graduated from Philadelphia's Central High School in 1647.
After graduating he went to Meadville, Pennsylvania, and took a position as clerk and draughtsman for the Holland Land Company; three years later he moved to Washington, D.C., and was appointed a clerk in the Census Office in the Department of the Interior. Although only twenty years old, he had charge of the Division of Social Statistics and a large force of clerks under him. While at the Census Office he acted as secretary to the Executive Committee of the United States on the Industrial Exposition in London in 1851, the first great World's Fair.
When Rhees moved to Washington in 1850, he carried with him a letter of introduction to Joseph Henry from his uncle, Nicholas Murray, who must have been acquainted with Henry at Princeton. Henry acted on Rhees' behalf when his position at the Census Office was terminated in 1853, but Rhees let it be known that he had been reinstated only on a temporary basis and would appreciate a position at the Smithsonian if one opened up. Later that year Rhees was hired as a "general assistant" and private secretary to Joseph Henry, and by 1855 he held the position of chief clerk. He left the Institution in 1870 to pursue the stationery business in Springfield (state unspecified) but was gone less than a year. He continued as chief clerk under Spencer F. Baird, and by a special act of Congress served as secretary of the Institution when Baird was absent. After Baird's death and Samuel P. Langley's appointment as secretary, Rhees was asked to take the position of the first keeper of the Archives in 1891.
Although Rhees' job titles may give the impression that his work was limited in scope, an examination of his job description proves otherwise; among the sixty-six duties he lists are: opening and directing all mail; furnishing any information or data called for by the Secretary; preparing all contracts, finances, and estimates for appropriations; reading proofs of Smithsonian publications and supervising drawings, engravings, and illustrations; acting as secretary to the Board of Regents and preparing a Journal of Proceedings; and having charge of the Archives. After the completion of the National Museum in 1881, he gained additional responsibilities as a liaison between the Museum and the Smithsonian Institution.
Rhees was a prolific writer and editor of Smithsonian history. He wrote An Account of the Smithsonian Institution in 1857, which briefly described the history and organization of the Institution and served as a guide to the National Museum. Rhees also produced editions of the Account in 1858-59, 1863-66, and 1869. His Visitor's Guide to the Smithsonian Institution, published in 1880-87, 1889, and 1891-92 served a similar function but contained fewer details of the Smithsonian's history. He traced the ancestry and life of the Institution's founder in James Smithson and his Bequest (1879), and the next year edited The Scientific Writings of James Smithson (1880). Acting as secretary to the Board of Regents, he edited The Smithsonian Institution: Journal of the Board of Regents, Reports of Committees, Statistics, etc. (1879). His Manual of Public Libraries, Institutions, and Societies in the United States and British Provinces of North America (1859) recommended guidelines for the construction of library buildings, classification of volumes, and local organization and exchanges. The list of libraries included in the volume was often reprinted.
Rhees' work with Smithsonian publications produced List of Publications of the Smithsonian Institution (1874, 1879, 1896, and 1903) and Catalogue of Publications of the Smithsonian Institution (1882, 1886, and 1889). He followed the network of academic associations with the Institution in List of the Institutions, Libraries, Colleges, and other Establishments in the United States in Correspondence with the Smithsonian Institution (1872, 1886).
Rhees' most significant contributions to Smithsonian history came later in his career. He compiled and edited The Smithsonian Institution: Documents Relative to Its Origin and History (1879), which included Smithson's will, Congressional records of debate over the acceptance of the bequest and the organization of the Institution, and other documents important to its early history. The second edition of the Documents book, published in 1901, contained documents through 1899 as well as a revised version of the 1879 volume. He also contributed to The Smithsonian Institution, 1846-1896: The History of Its First Half-Century (1897), edited by Assistant Secretary George Brown Goode. His chronology, "Principal Events in the History of the Smithsonian Institution" appeared as an appendix to the book, and his biographical sketches of the Regents were printed in the chapter on the Board of Regents.
In addition to his responsibilities at the Smithsonian, Rhees was actively involved in other organizations. He helped found and served as president of the Young Men's Christian Association of Washington, and was active in its philanthropic work during the Civil War. He was a member and officer of the District chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution and compiled the Register of the District of Columbia Society of the Sons of the American Revolution (1896) and its Yearbook (1897). He retained his interest in public schools, serving as a trustee in the District for eight years. At the time of his death, he was also a member of the Anthropological Society, the District of Columbia Historical Society, the National Geographic Society, and the Pennsylvania Historical Society.
Rhees served as a correspondent on special topics for many national and local newspapers, and his strong association with the press is evidenced in the number and variety of newspaper clippings in this collection.
Little is known of his family and personal life. He was married to Laura O. Clark, with whom he had a daughter, Fannie Augusta. After the death of his first wife he married Romenia F. Ellis, and they had five children: William Henry, Charles Frank, Grace Margaret, Flora Gertrude, and Benjamin Rush.
Rhees served at the Smithsonian almost until his death in 1907 and was remembered in a memorial resolution of the Board of Regents as a "trustworthy officer," "born archivist," and "model citizen."
- March 13, 1830
- Born in Philadelphia, son of Dr. Benjamin Rush Rhees and Margaret Grace Evans Rhees.
- Graduated from Central High School and went to Meadville, Pennsylvania, for position at the Holland Land Company.
- Came to Washington, D.C., as a clerk in the Census Office of the Department of the Interior; carried letter of introduction to Joseph Henry.
- Served as secretary to the Executive Committee of the United States for the Industrial Exhibition in London.
- Co-founded the Y.M.C.A. in Washington, D.C.
- Appointed "general assistant" and personal secretary to Joseph Henry at the Smithsonian Institution; later became Chief Clerk.
- Named president of the Y.M.C.A.
- Compiled Manual of Public Libraries, Institutions, and Societies in the United States and British Provinces of North America.
- Completed The Smithsonian Institution: Journals of the Board of the Regents, Reports of Committees, Statistics, etc. and The Smithsonian Institution: Documents Relative to Its Origin and History, both of which he compiled and edited.
- Wrote James Smithson and His Bequest.
- Appointed acting secretary in the absence of Secretary Baird.
- Appointed keeper of the Archives.
- Published "Principal Events in the History of the the Smithsonian Institution," and biographical sketches of Smithsonian Regents in The Smithsonian Institution, 1846-1896: The History of its First Half-Century.
- Elected vice-president of the Sons of the American Revolution.
- Completed the two-volume compilation, The Smithsonian Institution: Documents Relative to Its Origin and History, 1835-1899.
- March 17, 1907
- Died in Washington, D.C.
The William J. Rhees Collection consists of the remains of his Manuscript and Newspaper Scrap portfolio files. The dates of the material indicate that Rhees was collecting these papers from the beginning of his tenure at the Smithsonian, but the files were not organized until 1891 when he was appointed keeper of the Archives. The collection is mainly comprised of subject and biographic files, which include manuscripts, memoranda, letters and other correspondence, newspaper clippings, excerpts from the Congressional Record and Smithsonian Annual Report, printed circulars, and publications. Although Rhees generated these files as chief clerk and keeper of the Archives, he collected information that pertained to his own interests as well as those of the Smithsonian. It is likely that he used these files as resources when writing his histories of the Institution and in compiling volumes of documents pertaining to its establishment and operations.
Series 1 comprises alphabetically arranged subject files. A large number of these subject files document the activities and interests of major Smithsonian operations. These include the Bureau of Ethnology, the United States National Museum, the National Zoological Park, the Board of Regents, and the Office of Exchanges. Also included are files with information on the expenditures, finances, document storage, inventories, and other routine activities of the Institution. Especially important is material relating to the publications of the Smithsonian, including works that involved Rhees personally.
The collection also contains material on scientific subjects of interest to the Institution as a whole and to the individual secretaries for whom Rhees worked. These fields include acoustics, aeronautics, archaeology, astronomy, botany, entomology, genealogy, geography, meteorology, mineralogy, and topography.
Clubs and organizations not directly affiliated with the Smithsonian are also represented in this collection. Some of these groups are the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Historical Association, the Carnegie Institution, the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution, and the Y.M.C.A.
Series 2 contains biographical files on almost two hundred individuals. Most of these people were either noted figures in their scientific field or affiliated with the Smithsonian; some were both. Although most of the files are limited to newspaper articles published after the person's death, others contain speeches, papers, and more extensive biographical information. Also included are obituary notices for Rhees himself. These files are arranged alphabetically by subject's last name.
Series 3 includes information on the library and the beginnings of the archives. Files contain letters to and from Rhees on the founding of the archives, listings of library and archival inventories, and indices and journals used for establishing control over archival material. Although these records resemble the assorted indices and journals in Record Unit 64 (Chief Clerk's Records), they relate more to Rhees' work as keeper of the Archives than to his duties as chief clerk. This series contains records of the fireproof vault through 1945, postdating Rhees' death.
Record Unit 7081 is by no means the only record of Rhees' work at the Smithsonian. Record Units 64-67 contain indexed correspondence to and from Secretaries Baird and Langley; forms, circulars, and blanks; and other material that Rhees would have acquired and been responsible for as chief clerk. Given the presence of similar files in Record Unit 7081, it seems likely that Rhees transferred some files from his official records to another location for use on his projects for publication; these transferred files helped form what is now known as Record Unit 7081, The William J. Rhees Collection. Another collection of Rhees papers was sold to the Huntington Library by Rhees' widow in 1922. The documents in this collection were probably of special significance or perceived value for Rhees, since he kept these documents at home rather than among his files at the Smithsonian. Nathan Reingold described the Rhees collection at the Huntington in a speech that was later published as "The Anatomy of a Collection: The Rhees Papers," American Archivist 27 (1964): 251-259. Microfilm copies of the Huntington collection have been placed in the Henry Papers, Record Unit 7001.
This collection is indexed under the following access terms. These are links to collections with related topics, persons or places.
- Reingold, Nathan, 1927-
- Rhees, William Jones, 1830-1907
- Smithsonian Institution. Board of Regents
- Smithsonian Institution. Bureau of American Ethnology
- Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery
- Smithsonian Institution. Chief Clerk
- Smithsonian Half-Century Book Project
Physical Characteristics of Materials in the Collection
Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7081, William Jones Rhees Collection