The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Ruth MacCoy Blackwelder is a woman who, even after extensive research, is still very much cloaked in mystery for me. Currently, the only online records of her existence lie in a line or two in various biographies about her husband, Richard, the byline of a book she co-wrote with him, and a newspaper article with details about her estate after her death in 1989. Thanks to the Smithsonian Transcription Center, that is about to change.
Ruth Blackwelder was born in El Oro, Mexico on September 9, 1910 to American parents Frederick and Ella MacCoy. On January 3, 1935, she married Richard Eliot Blackwelder, an entomologist who had just graduated from Stanford with his PhD. Shortly after their wedding, Richard received the Walter Rathbone Bacon Travelling Scholarship from the Smithsonian Institution to conduct research in the West Indies. On June 22, 1935, the pair set sail from New York, and arrived in Kingston, Jamaica five days later.
During their trip to the West Indies, Richard and Ruth Blackwelder kept separate journals of their activities. The majority of Richard's entries relate to his collecting work in the field, whereas Ruth's entries detail the life and experiences of an American woman in a foreign country. Her journals not only provide insight into her daily activities, but they also provide information about current events and shed light on the interests and hobbies of this otherwise unknown woman.
One of the things that Ruth's journals make obvious pretty quickly is her love of stamp collecting. She often talks of the joy of receiving boxes of stamps for gifts, and the many nights she and Richard spent sorting and cleaning them. It seemed that her primary interest was in American and Caribbean stamps, and she often located collectors on the various islands they visited with whom she could trade or purchase additional stamps for her catalogue. After the couple returned to the United States, Ruth Blackwelder enlisted the help of J. F. Gates Clarke, curator in the Division of Insects at the Smithsonian Institution, to secure first run editions of stamps that she could not obtain locally. It is unclear what became of her seemingly large collection of stamps, but it is clear that the collection was something that she was proud of.
The last document we have from Ruth Blackwelder is a letter from July 1940. After that, her name doesn't surface again until she is listed as a co-author on Directory of Zoological Taxonomists of the World in 1961. She passed away on November 27, 1989 in Cape Girardeau County, Missouri, where she and Richard moved after his retirement. Now that Ruth Blackwelder's journals from her trip to the West Indies are in the Smithsonian Transcription Center, what else can you uncover about the life of this mystery woman?
- Record Unit 140: United States National Museum Division of Insects, Correspondence, 1909-1963, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Accession 96-099: Richard E. Blackwelder Papers, 1926-1964, 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.
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