Category Archives: Archival Research

“What’s An Archivist to Do?”: An Exercise in Appraisal

By Violet Caswell

Graduate students enrolled in Professor Marilyn Morgan’s “Introduction to Archives” class do a lot of reading. We read about the history of archives, core archival principles, and about challenges that modern archivists face. And we read theory- lots of theory. Information from books, journal articles, and even blog posts swirl around in our heads as we to get a handle on the essential practices and principles of the profession. The process can be frustrating– like when we have to reread the same dense sentence five times to ascertain its meaning– but it can also be immensely rewarding, especially when we get to apply our knowledge to real-world situations.

Enter Juliana Kuipers, Senior Collection Development Curator and Archivist at the Harvard University Archives.

Guest speaker Juliana Kuipers leading graduate students in the Archives program in a discussion of appraisal based on real experiences.

Juliana visited our class recently, to talk about her experience in the field and also to lead a short exercise in appraisal. A week in advance, we broke into teams and, in addition to reading published articles about selection and appraisal, Marilyn assigned us a document containing five appraisal scenarios drawn from Juliana’s experience at the Harvard Archives. Our task was straightforward: after contemplating the theoretical readings, we were to put ourselves in Juliana’s shoes, and decide whether or not to accession materials for the Archives.

Faith Plazarin, Taylor Finch, and Iona Feldman debate whether or not the Archives should accession the personal papers of an alumnus from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

It didn’t take long for us to realize that this assignment was more complicated than it seemed at first glance. There were all kinds of questions to consider, from issues of provenance to ethical dilemmas to everything in between. Similarly, there were a host of materials involved in the scenarios, including diaries, correspondence, artwork, scrapbooks, and artifacts.  As we weighed the benefits and drawbacks of accessioning each collection, we remained cognizant of the Archives’ Collection Policy, a document which clarifies much but also contains ambiguity.

Juliana Kuipers shares her experience with archival selection.

What did it mean, some of us wondered, that the Archives sought “to gather an accurate, authentic, and complete record of the life of the University”? Did that mean that the institution should purchase or accept any collection remotely relating to Harvard? Were some materials more conducive to this end than others? What about resources? Should collections that require fewer resources (finances, personnel, space) take precedence over materials that are more costly? And if the archivist decided not to accession the collection, what then? Did he or she have an obligation to suggest other avenues for the donor to pursue? The Archive’s Collection policy provided clues, but no hard-and-fast answers.

Grad students Chris Norton, Nina Rodwin, and Maddy Moison, with guest speaker Juliana Kuipers, discussing selection challenges and how to navigate tricky acquisitions issues.

Juliana smiled and nodded as we expressed our uncertainties. In many ways, she told us, uncertainty is one of the hallmarks of the accessioning process. The determinations that archivists make on a day-to-day basis require background knowledge, critical thinking, and even a little creativity. They argue for and against the accessioning of materials whose incorporation into the Archives is in no means inevitable. Juliana encouraged our class to keep working to develop the skills that will allow us to make informed decisions that will enhance the collections of our future institutions.

Our sincerest thanks to Juliana Kuipers for sharing her time and experiences with us. Stay tuned for updates on the ways in which our class continues to learn about archives and think as archivists!

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Think Like an Archivist: A Public Historian Processes the Washington Street Corridor Coalition Collection

By: Caroline Littlewood

Recently, the University Archives and Special Collections in the Joseph P. Healey Library at UMass Boston acquired the papers of the Washington Street Corridor Coalition (WSCC), a local organization committed to transport justice. The WSCC, a community group active in Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, the South End, and Chinatown during the 1980s and 1990s, advocated for adequate replacement of the Elevated Orange Line along Washington Street.

The Elevated Orange Line on Washington Street south from Corning Street, ca. 1908. Courtesy of Boston City Archives. See City of Boston Flickr albums for more historic photos.

The group also facilitated community involvement in the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) planning and development process and orchestrated protests when MBTA service did not meet their community’s needs.

Flyer, produced by the WSCC, announcing a silent vigil to express a sense of community loss over the El’s closure.

Three decades after the Coalition’s founding, the WSCC records provide a treasure trove for researchers interested in community organizing, grassroots activism, and resident resistance to development.

Along with three other collections, the WSCC records were entrusted to the graduate students of Professor Marilyn Morgan’s Archival Methods & Practices class in spring 2017. On the first day of class, I was assigned to process the WSCC collection. I spent the rest of the semester preparing it for researchers and preserving it for the future. To do these things, I needed to produce a finding aid that described the contents of the collection and the value of the story it tells.

A carton of the Washington Street Corridor Coalition collection, in February 2017, before it was processed.

The first time I set eyes on my collection, I confronted a single cardboard box with dividers and papers and spiral notebooks and more papers. Next to the box was a pile of bound reports, inches thick. I wasn’t sure what I was looking at, and I knew next to nothing about the WSCC. I had the urge to research my collection the way one would a person or artifact. But I couldn’t. Nothing had been written yet; the research materials weren’t in an archive or library. They sat in front of me, thousands of pages thick and unprepared for use by the public.

As a public history student and genealogist, I’ve learned how to interrogate a document from every angle, wringing every last drop of evidence. The urge to analyze is so ingrained, it’s practically instinctual. When faced with the WSCC collection, I wanted to pull up a chair and get to reading. However, I would not be assessing and describing every individual item in the collection. This would take too much time and prevent timely public access to the documents. It would be unnecessary and a waste of resources. Instead, I would be describing groups of documents.

To do this, I had to train my brain to work a little differently, to seek different kinds of information. Scanning each document, I had to consider intellectual content. Was it a letter, a memo, a map? Was there sensitive information? A date? What was it about? I also had to consider physical content. Did the document need to be photocopied, moved to the oversize folder, or rid of a rusty staple?

At first, this was an uncomfortable process for me. I couldn’t simultaneously assess the physical and intellectual content. But after practice, I began to see in a new way.

MBTA map showing the Washington Street Elevated route, as it existed from 1938 to 1975. Wikimedia Commons.

I scanned for the names and acronyms of key players, following the gist of their correspondence without reading every word, and understanding the general findings of reports without flipping through every page. By the end of the semester, I knew that the Elevated Orange Line train was a vital transport link which ran along Washington Street, through downtown Boston and neighboring communities.

When the MBTA moved the Orange Line to the southwest corridor and closed the “El” in 1987, community groups came together under the WSCC name to hold the MBTA accountable to their 1973 promise that they would replace it with equal or better service.

Excerpt of a publication concerning the replacement of the El.

I learned that the WSCC had launched an extensive letter writing campaign in support of Light Rail Vehicles and worked with other organizations to hold community dialogues about replacement options. I also knew that the MBTA finally replaced the old Orange Line with the Silver Line, a Bus Rapid Transit system the WSCC deemed neither better than, nor equal to, Orange Line service. And as the Silver Line expanded, WSCC activity waned.

Newspaper clipping reporting on the community reaction to the closing of the EL, 1987.

I was inspired and challenged by this collection. It was my first experience facilitating access to archival material, rather than mining the material, myself. The primary purpose of my investigation was to aid and encourage the investigations of others. This was a new goal for me, but, at the end of the day, it fit. As a public historian, I want to connect people to history and encourage historical thinking. Maybe, with a little more brain training, I can do this from within the archives, too.

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Putting Public History Into Practice: The Industrial School for Girls

By: Sarah K. Black

When I entered the public history graduate program at UMass Boston, my experience in the field of history was strictly academic. One can only imagine how anxious I felt when I received the syllabus for HST 625, Interpreting History in Public: Approaches to Public History Practice. Under the instruction of Professor Jane Becker and in partnership with Joe Bagley at the Boston City Archaeology Program, my colleagues and I were tasked with uncovering the history of those who lived and worked at the Dorchester Industrial School for Girls (ISFG) during the 1860s and delivering those stories to the public in a way that was both appealing and accessible.

ISFG map
Map depicting the Dorchester Industrial School for Girls, 1889.

The ISFG was established in 1853 by several women who sought to educate and train destitute young girls in the field of domestic service. Once deemed ready by the staff, the girls would be placed in homes to work as servants. Our class was required to connect our biographical sketches with artifacts retrieved during Bagley’s excavation of the site in Summer 2015, and construct a website to ensure our interpretations could reach the widest possible audience. I was extremely intimidated by the project because, unlike writing a paper, we were working with a client (Bagley) and producing a tangible product. Who knew that the ISFG project would become the most exciting, informative, and meaningful experience of my entire academic career.

There were two main phases of the project—the first of which required each of us to conduct extensive biographical research on one staff member and one student. But how do we construct narratives for women who spent much of their lives on the fringes of society? And what does the middle ground of meticulous research and writing for a popular audience look like? These were just a few of the many questions we had to grapple with when we began producing these histories. We had to learn how to effectively weave facts and relevant context into a story that was both informative and accurate, as well as include elements that readers could connect with.

Hasson card
Record of Margaret Hasson, an ISFG student  who later became “inmate #13430” at Bridgewater Almshouse. Courtesy of the Massachusetts State Archives. Photograph by author.

Like several of my classmates, the beginning of my research was defined by countless hours working with genealogy sites and other online resources. Once we made it through the initial frustration of uncovering subjects so elusive in the historical record, we found that each had a unique and captivating story to tell. Some narratives featured immersive details of mischief, international travel, and death, while others concluded with more questions than they started with.

While conducting my research, I was fortunate enough to travel to the American Baptist Historical Society, located at Mercer University in Atlanta. There I found a collection of letters written by the ISFG matron, Mary S. Daüble, while she served as a missionary in India. Whether working as a missionary in India or a matron at multiple institutions, Mary devoted her life to education and religious teachings. After some intensive genealogical investigation, I was able to shed light on Daüble’s life and experiences. I even located a blueprint of her home and added her to my own family tree on ancestry.com.

Blueprint of Mary Daüble's house.
Blueprint of Mary Daüble and her husband’s house. Courtesy of the American Baptist Historical Society.  Photograph by author.

The story of Margaret (Maggie) Hasson was quite different. An Irish orphan who entered the institution at just 8 years old, Maggie found herself placed as a domestic servant in 10 different homes between 1860 and 1864. Mischievous to say the least, she ran away several times and even eloped with an African American Civil War soldier. After a police officer located and returned Hasson to the Industrial School for Girls, the school sent her to the Bridgewater Almshouse.

The second phase of the project was centered on group work. Our class was divided into three groups: website design and introduction, social media and marketing, and annotated transcription the ISFG’s 1860 annual report. As a member of the introduction group, I was responsible for contributing to the overall design of the website and drafting the text for the site’s landing pages.

Screen shot of ISFG website.

Once again, we were met with challenges: How do we create an interface that is both informative yet engaging? How can we stand out against the plethora of webpages that characterize the digital age in which we live? Just as it was difficult to condense hours of biographical research into 1000-word narratives, our team struggled with determining what information was essential for each of the site’s main pages. These sections had to be brief enough to capture and maintain the reader’s interest, but also paint the fullest possible picture of the school, the archaeological dig, and the project.

This experience gave my peers and me the opportunity to develop and improve skills in biographical research and historical interpretation in a digital age. We also learned the value of collaboration—not only with one another, but also with our professor, our client, and other cultural institutions. And finally, the project prompted us to retrieve voices that may have otherwise remained silent, gave us the chance to tell history from the bottom-up, and helped us to see the extraordinary value in uncovering the “ordinary.” The ISFG project proved to be the perfect introduction to turning public history theory into practice.

Sarah K. Black is earning her M.A. in History with a specialization in Public History. She currently also works as an editorial assistant for The New England Quarterly.

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Hidden in Plain Sight: African Women’s History Beyond the Archive (Part II)

By: Heidi Gengenbach        (Second of two parts. Here’s Part I)
 Wuxaka ra tinhwari hi ku handza swinwe.                            (Kinship among partridges comes from scratching in the soil together).[1]

Archives and oral traditions hold little information about rural African women’s history. How do rural women themselves keep track of the past? In Magude, a Shangaan-speaking district in southern Mozambique where I conducted research in the 1990s, women’s histories reside in places long invisible to scholars, but in plain view in everyday life.

(“Typical Thonga kraal in Gazaland”): A. M. Duggan-Cronin, The Bantu Tribes of South Africa: Reproductions of Photographic Studies (Cambridge, U.K.: Deighton, Bell, 1935), vol. 4, Henri P. Junod, The Vathonga (The Thonga-Shangaan People), plate 24.
Colonial-era anthropologists’ photos often captured women’s group activities (here, food preparation) as mere backdrop for “tribal” life. This photo (“Typical Thonga kraal in Gazaland”) appeared in H.P. Junod, “The Vathonga (The Thonga-Shangaan People),” in A. M. Duggan-Cronin, The Bantu Tribes of South Africa: Reproductions of Photographic Studies (Cambridge, U.K.: Deighton, Bell, 1935), Vol. 4.

Through their performance of tasks culturally defined as women’s work, rural women and girls carve out feminine social spaces where they create historical records with female actions at center stage. Using skills honed over centuries of specialized labor—as mothers, farmers, healers, artisans—they memorialize experiences that archives and formal oral traditions disregard. Academic historians have overlooked the evidentiary value of women’s “remembrances” (Shangaan: switsundzuxo), which take unconventional forms, defy disciplinary norms, and challenge the masculinist thrust of “official” stories. But without these sources, we not only lose the opportunity to glimpse rural women’s pasts; we also accept versions of history whose “truth” requires the exclusion of their knowledge.

As in the rest of southern Mozambique, men in Magude have been migrating to South Africa in search of mine work since the late 1800s. Known in precolonial times for its agricultural prosperity, droves of cattle, and bustling trade, Magude became in the 20th  century an increasingly impoverished labor reserve, whose patrilineal kinship and marriage rules pressured women to remain on the land and sustain communities in men’s absence. The limited archival evidence on these women falls into one of two categories: it either depicts them as powerless, dutiful appendages of their husbands and male kin, or it vilifies the minority of women who “abandoned” their marital homes and fled the countryside to live in town. Free from the “misery” and (according to European commentators) moral constraints of rural life, so-called “town women” earned money on the margins of the colonial economy, making their way as market traders, food vendors, prostitutes, or—for the fortunate few—low-paid factory labor. In the records of the colonial state as in scholarship relying on archives alone, rural women are the faceless, unchanging background to these events, toiling on in worsening poverty and helpless to improve their lot.

Lili Xivuri with her grandson, Tlhongana, Phadjane (Magude district), January 1996.
Lili Xivuri with her grandson. Phadjane, Magude district, January 1996.  © Heidi Gengenbach, 1995. Courtesy of author.

But rural women’s own accounts tell a surprisingly different story. In Lili Xivuri’s version of her family history, for instance, she refashions the Shangaan tradition of the clan praise song to foreground beer-drinking, marriage choices, soil selection, and common household objects (baskets, mats, awls), instead of the usual themes of chiefly politics or war.[2] The designs female potters “write” on their clay vessels, on the other hand, document women’s experiences of long-distance overland travel and trade.

Magude potters once used naturally-occurring red ochre to make colored glaze.
Women used to dig locally for red ochre (an earth pigment) to make pottery glaze. Here, a potter uses black glaze made from the manganese oxide powder inside a manufactured C-size battery. Facazisse, June 1995. © Heidi Gengenbach, 1995. Courtesy of author.

In the early 1900s, women such as Cufassane Munisse walked for days at a stretch to exchange her pottery for baskets of grain (or vice versa), visiting female kin and friends spread throughout southern Mozambique and in neighboring South Africa. In the course of this regional trade, potters also spread new vessel styles and decorating techniques, defying European stereotypes of rural women’s passivity, home-boundness, and resistance to technological change.

By the 1940s, female body-marking practices show that women in Magude were anything but passive victims of male migrancy and Portuguese rule.

Example of women’s cicatrized tinhlanga from early 20th-century southern Mozambique.
Example of women’s cicatrized tinhlanga from early 20th-century southern Mozambique. Source: E. Dora Earthy, “On the Significance of the Body Markings of Some Natives of Portuguese East Africa,” South African Journal of Science 21 (1924): 586.

Tinhlanga, the cicatrized patterns with which girls and women had adorned their bodies for centuries, offered a powerful medium for contesting the colonial hierarchies that threatened to divide women in new ways. Whether it was Christian missionaries offering literacy in exchange for rejecting “uncivilized” customs such as body-marking, or manufactured consumer goods accessible only to the most successful migrant workers, girls and women appropriated the power of these intrusions by incorporating them into new tinhlanga techniques and designs.

Incised tinhlanga popular in the 1940s-50s mix old and new designs: museve, the ancient chevron pattern; xitlhangu, the shield used by 19th-century Gaza Nguni conquerers of southern Mozambique; xinkwahlana, gecko or lizard; xikero, metal scissors.
An elderly woman’s remarkable array of body art includes geometric cicatrizations along with needle-ink designs depicting the Blue Cross logo, manufactured flower pots, writing, and instant coffee (“Coffe,” the name of the person who gave her this tattoo).

Older women who had once cicatrized girls’ skin with sharp stones or acacia thorns and ash took up imported shoe polish and sewing needles to create tinhlanga depicting the new commodities trickling into the countryside: scissors, flower pots, tins of Blue Cross condensed milk.

Surely aware of the irony, schoolgirls used the blouses and skirts missionaries insisted they wear to conceal prohibited tinhlanga, risking corporal punishment.

Valentina Chauke, Facazisse (Magude district), March 1996.
Valentina Chauke, Facazisse (Magude district), March 1996.

A few, such as Valentina Chauke, rebelled more openly, inscribing the letters of their xilungu (European) name on their forearms.

Unconcerned with missionary rules, adult women flaunted the “modern” images emblazoned on their skin, declaring that they were “civilized” too.

The memories women inscribed in their crop fields entered a higher-stakes public domain. Agricultural labor occupies most women here from dawn to dusk, and provides the bulk of household food supply. Although traditional land tenure rules give men the authority to allocate plots, in practice most women choose their own farming sites, and they lend, borrow, and transfer land among themselves as needed. They document these informal transactions in the boundaries (mindzelekana) they “scratch” in the soil around their fields—faint, squiggly lines whose location everyone can guess, but only adjacent field owners know with certainty. As long as there is enough land for all, this system causes few problems. But during the civil war (1976-92), when the stationing of government troops in Magude town (the district capital) made the area a magnet for displaced families, competition for land intensified. By the mid 1990s, acute land scarcity and the diminishing size of subdivided plots drove some desperate women to “steal mindzelekana,” surreptitiously redrawing boundaries to increase their cropping area.

A typical field border in Facazisse, a rural community outside Magude town where land competition became especially fierce in the early 1990s.
A typical field border in Facazisse, a rural community outside Magude town where land competition became especially fierce in the early 1990s.

Victims’ threatening response to this transgression—“I will bury you in the border!”—and the death by poisoning of several suspects made clear that mindzelekana were far more than just lines in the dirt. Field boundaries recorded agreements among women for whom every inch of cultivable ground was a precious resource, with life-or-death significance in wartime. Erasing these negotiated divisions undermined female authority and the bonds of women’s “cultivating kinship,” while challenging mindzelekana’s important memory work: reminding women of their shared responsibility for community survival.

Magude women’s practices of record-keeping preserve and pass on facts of the region’s past that would remain unknown to historians if we neglected the world of evidence beyond archives and official stories. But is such evidence relevant to researchers outside southern Mozambique? At the very least, it proves that historians don’t always need a paper trail; that important history-telling can happen without writing, even without words; and that gendered people leave gendered traces of their lives, if we know where to look.

Heidi Gengenbach (right), Assistant Professor of History.
Heidi Gengenbach (right), Assistant Professor of History.

Heidi Gengenbach is Assistant Professor of History at UMass Boston. Her doctoral dissertation received the Gutenberg-e Electronic Book Prize from the American Historical Association, and was published by Columbia University Press (Binding Memories: Women as Tellers and Makers of History in Magude, Mozambique) in 2005. Her second book project, Recipes for Disaster: Gender, Hunger, and the Remaking of an Agrarian Food World in Central Mozambique, 1500-2000, will be published by Ohio University Press.

References

[1] Armando Ribeiro, 601 Provérbios Changanas (Lisbon, 1989), 116.

[2] Interview with Lili Xivuri, 29 June 1995, Phadjane, Magude District.

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Hidden in Plain Sight: African Women’s History Beyond the Archive (part 1)

By Heidi Gengenbach            (First of two parts. Here’s Part II)
Avavumbeli mbita eku cukumeta.
(Potters don’t fashion clay into a pot just to throw it away.) 
[1]

How do historians study people who left no written traces of their life, no paper trail hinting at who they were or what they accomplished? Questions of “truth” and “fact” suddenly dominate American politics and news media. But debates about how we know what we know, about the reliability of the evidence behind claims we make about the world, are as old as history-telling itself, and they haunt historians every day. It is difficult enough to reconstruct someone’s past from the documentary fragments we unearth in public and private archives. When no such records exist, when people leave no evidence behind, can—or should—historians pay attention to their lives at all?

Map of Africa, 2011.
Political map of Africa, 2011.

Today, in the 48 nations of sub-Saharan Africa, over 50% of adult women ages 15 and up—nearly 250 million women—lack basic literacy skills.[2]

During the millenia of human history before 1900, when most African cultures relied on sophisticated oral rather than written forms of communication, the number of writing women was truly minute. As happened during the peaceful spread of Islam into Africa from the 7th century on, European missionaries and colonizers brought writing skills to the parts of the continent they occupied or conquered between the 15th and 20th centuries. In the 18th and 19th centuries, some liberated African slaves who had converted to Christianity in the Americas similarly introduced literacy when they returned to Africa, sometimes as missionaries themselves. But African girls had limited access to the Quranic and Western-style Christian schools these men established. And because the colonial state ignored “native” women unless they broke the law, appeared in court, or engaged in political protest, neither European officials nor the male African clerks who did much of their record-keeping documented women’s ordinary activities or opinions.

Rosalina Malungana and her great-granddaughter Nestacia, weeding Rosalina's field, Facazisse (Magude district), March 1996. © Heidi Gengenbach, 1996.
Rosalina Malungana and her great-granddaughter Nestacia, weeding Rosalina’s field, Facazisse (Magude district), March 1996. © Heidi Gengenbach, 1996. Courtesy of author.

The lives of rural women, especially, escaped the notice of Europeans, who lumped them together derisively as “peasants” or “beasts of burden.” In colonial eyes, rural African women were less troublesome than their sisters in the urban “educated elite,” but less deserving of attention too.

In other words, the vast majority of sub-Saharan African women in the past possessed neither the means to write about their experiences, nor the power to be represented fairly in the written archives of their place and time. And while the continent’s wealth of oral traditions—performed narratives that recount past events and are transmitted across generations—offer another body of evidence, women seldom appear as speakers or subjects in these histories either.

There are some exceptions, but in most African oral chronicles women’s voices and deeds are sidelined by patriarchal cultural norms and a gender division of labor that assigns women the arduous work of subsistence, leaving them too socially marginal (and too busy) to challenge the public histories their menfolk tell.

Map of Mozambique
Map of Mozambique.

Given women’s absence from traditional written and oral accounts of Africa’s past, it might seem that their lives—and African women’s history as a whole—must be hopelessly beyond our reach.

In the rural communities of Mozambique where I have been working since the 1990s, the devastation wrought by Portuguese colonial rule (1895-1975) and protracted independence and civil wars (1965-75, 1976-92) further complicates research on women’s history.

In addition to the spottiness, racism, and sexism of colonial archives, and the androcentrism of oral traditions, the scars from nearly 30 years of violent displacement and traumatic loss—of family, belongings, homes—can make it exceptionally difficult to interview women about their experiences.

Battle-scarred shell of a commercial building outside Mapulanguene (Magude district), September 1995. © Heidi Gengenbach, 1995. Courtesy of author.
Battle-scarred shell of a commercial building outside Mapulanguene (Magude district), September 1995. © Heidi Gengenbach, 1995. Courtesy of author. Returning refugees blamed the absence of roofs, doors, and windowpanes from most abandoned structures in Magude on Renamo soldiers, who were said to have stripped buildings for useful materials when they occupied Mapulanguene during the war.

Too many elders did not survive the civil war, leaving a generation of youth bereft of the knowledge their grandparents would have taught them.

Memories of brutal conflict, particularly the atrocities committed against civilians by Renamo rebels, can be too painful to speak aloud.

Magude residents accompanying author to Renamo base camp at Ngungwe (Magude district) to visit displaced relatives, November 1995. Author photo.
Magude residents accompanying author to Renamo base camp at Ngungwe (Magude district) to visit displaced relatives, November 1995. © Heidi Gengenbach, 1995. Courtesy of author.

Girls and women suffered both wars in distinctly gendered ways, including rape and sexual enslavement but more commonly by shouldering the burdens of food provisioning, childcare, care for the sick and elderly, and ritual mourning of the dead—often while on the run as “internally displaced persons” or refugees in neighboring countries.

Government tank burned by Renamo forces in a 1987 battle near their Ngungwe base camp, on the South African border, November 1995. © Heidi Gengenbach, 1995. Courtesy of author.
Government tank burned by Renamo forces in a 1987 battle near their Ngungwe base camp, on the South African border, November 1995. © Heidi Gengenbach, 1995. Courtesy of author.

A person’s understanding of the past can’t help but change in such harrowing times. Post-war grief and nostalgia, and the urgent need to rebuild shattered communities, also raise the stakes of remembering “correctly,” while discouraging memories—of injustice, victimization, betrayal—that distract from the business of moving on. How does one analyze women’s testimony in these circumstances, let alone separate “truth” from nightmare?

Part II explores these questions next week.

Heidi Gengenbach (right), Assistant Professor of History.
Heidi Gengenbach (right), Assistant Professor of History at Umass Boston, teach in the field, 2008. Courtesy of author.

Heidi Gengenbach is Assistant Professor of History at UMass Boston. Her doctoral dissertation received the Gutenberg-e Electronic Book Prize from the American Historical Association, and was published by Columbia University Press (Binding Memories: Women as Tellers and Makers of History in Magude, Mozambique) in 2005. Her second book project, Recipes for Disaster: Gender, Hunger, and the Remaking of an Agrarian Food World in Central Mozambique, 1500-2000, will be published by Ohio University Press.

References

[1] Henri P. Junod, The Wisdom of the Tsonga-Shangana People (3d ed. Braamfontein: Sasavona Books, 1990), 162-3.

[2] Literacy data from the World Bank which currently estimates the population of Sub-Saharan Africa as 974.2 million, with women comprising 50% of the total. http://www.prb.org/Publications/Reports/2016/economic-growth-equity-ishrat.aspx

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The Peaceful Gardener: Rose Standish Nichols & the Peace Movement (Part II)

By Corinne Zaczek Bermon

To learn about how her family and tutors influenced Rose Nichols, read Part I.

In this second post exploring the world of Rose Standish Nichols, we begin with those who impacted her life and end with her tutelage in landscape architecture.

Rose Nichols was highly influenced by her parents, Arthur Howard Nichols and Elizabeth Homer Nichols, and her two younger sisters, Margaret and Marian, as they grew into adulthood.  Arthur Nichols grew up in Boston’s North End; he graduated from Harvard College in 1862 and Harvard Medical School in 1866.  Arthur Nichols did not grow up in a Brahmin family, but rather as part of the well-educated middling class.  His entrance into Harvard College allowed him to enter into the upper class, by facilitating his marriage into such a family. Arthur Nichols loved to travel in Europe, a passion he passed onto Rose, and as a single man, he continued his medical studies in Paris, Vienna and Berlin.  In 1869, he married Elizabeth Fischer Homer from the prominent Homer family in Roxbury Highlands,

The Nichols House Museum in Beacon Hill
The Nichols family home, now a museum.

Massachusetts.  Arthur became a renowned holistic doctor in Beacon Hill, practicing in the family home at 55 Mount Vernon Street and for several decades was the “summer doctor” at Rye Beach, New Hampshire, where the family spent their summers before buying a home in Cornish, NH.1)B. June Hutchinson, “Macdaddy Doodadle, Doodadle Macdade, Mactaddy Doddadle Day” The Nichols House Museum and Archive. http://www.nicholshousemuseum.org/pdf/nichols_family/macdaddy_doodadle.pdf.

Aside from her parents, Nichols tutors in landscape design also influenced her social activism.  Nichols was only eighteen when her family bought their summer home and from the very beginning, Nichols’ uncle, the famous sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, pushed his favorite niece to take up garden design after admiring the walled

garden she created at the Nichols’ Cornish, NH summer home, dubbed Mastlands, in the Cornish Colony.  In 1889, after the family had purchased Mastlands, Saint-Gaudens introduced Rose to Charles Platt, a self-trained architect and landscape architect. Platt was one of America’s most influential 20th century designers and was influential in the emergence of the style Beaux-Arts, which Nichols favored throughout her career.2)Cynthia Zaitzevsky, Long Island Landscapes and the Women Who Designed Them (New York: WW Norton &Company, 2009), 200-203.  Along with Saint-Gaudens, Platt encouraged Nichols to travel the world and study gardens in many European countries. Studying with Platt led Nichols to study drafting and lessons in horticulture from Benjamin Watson at the Bussey Institute at Harvard, located adjacent to the Arnold Arboretum in the neighborhood of Jamaica Plain.  At the Bussey Institute, Nichols was encouraged to study in Paris at Ecole des Beaux-Arts.

Perhaps the most influential of her landscape design mentors was H. Inigo Triggs in London.  Rose set sail on the SS New England on 27 February 1901 for Liverpool, England with friend, Ellen Cushings and traveled to London to become Triggs’ apprentice.3)Arthur Howard Nichols papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.  Triggs, already an acclaimed landscape architect by the time Nichols joined him in London, had built his career on designing formal gardens and

Copy of the Nichols' first book on gardening, English Pleasure Gardens.
Copy of the Nichols’ first book on gardening, English Pleasure Gardens.

country houses and specialized in historical research to re-create gardens of the past.  During her tenure with Triggs, Rose Nichols finished her research and wrote English Pleasure Gardens, published 19 November 1902.4)Ibid.

It was under Triggs that Nichols began to connect landscape design and city planning to her vision of world peace.  Triggs gave a brief review of the great awakening throughout the world in city development in his book, Town Planning, Past, Present and Possible, which he was working on from the time Nichols apprenticed with Triggs until its publication in 1910.  Triggs gave special consideration to small parks, claiming that peaceful public spaces led to a peaceful state of mind for city dwellers.5)H. Inigo Triggs, Town Planning: Past, Present and Possible. (London: Methuen & Co, 1910), 12-15.  Triggs, himself a pacifist, instilled in his pupil the idea that the promotion of peace did not only have to come in the form of marches and campaigns but through the designing of landscapes, parks and gardens. When Nichols returned from her apprenticeship with Triggs in June 1903, she had adopted this idea, and over the next fifteen years she would use this principle as a way to promote her peace agenda in Europe. In the same year of her return, Nichols became the first woman listed under the heading of “landscape architect” in the Boston City Directory,  and she kept an office at 5 Park Street downtown while she began traveling between New York, Boston and Chicago working on various projects.  Early in her career, Nichols received commissions in Lake Forest, Illinois; Boston; Massachusetts; Long Island, New York; and Newport, Rhode Island. Her reputation grew and she worked in more distant areas such as Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Augusta, Georgia; Tucson, Arizona; and Santa Barbara, California by the 1920s.  Her work was especially valued by her patrons in the Southwest, since her travels to arid Spain in her youth and with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom  gave her a special knowledge in solving problems that were inherent to making a successful garden in a desert.6)Mary Bonson Hartt, “Women and the Art of Landscape Gardening,” The Outlook, vol 88, No 13, (March 28, 1908), 702. https://books.google.com/books?isbn=078648733X

In the next segment, we will learn about Rose Nichols’ work in the Woman’s Peace Party and WILPF during and after World War I.

To learn more about Rose Standish Nichols, visit the Nichols House Museum and take a tour!

Corinne Zaczek Bermon is earning her M.A. in History with a specialization in Archives. She earned a B.A. in American Studies in 2009 and a M.A. in American Studies in 2015 from University of Massachusetts Boston. This series of articles on Rose Standish Nichols represents her award winning research in American Studies. Currently, her work explores the social history of the Otis Everett family living in the South End of Boston in the 1850s. She is designing a digital exhibit that explores Victorian life for the merchant class conducting business in Boston and abroad through the Everett letters.

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References   [ + ]

1. B. June Hutchinson, “Macdaddy Doodadle, Doodadle Macdade, Mactaddy Doddadle Day” The Nichols House Museum and Archive. http://www.nicholshousemuseum.org/pdf/nichols_family/macdaddy_doodadle.pdf.
2. Cynthia Zaitzevsky, Long Island Landscapes and the Women Who Designed Them (New York: WW Norton &Company, 2009), 200-203.
3. Arthur Howard Nichols papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.
4. Ibid.
5. H. Inigo Triggs, Town Planning: Past, Present and Possible. (London: Methuen & Co, 1910), 12-15.
6. Mary Bonson Hartt, “Women and the Art of Landscape Gardening,” The Outlook, vol 88, No 13, (March 28, 1908), 702. https://books.google.com/books?isbn=078648733X

Sailors, Shopkeepers & Scientists: Women of Nantucket Succeeding in a Man’s World

By: Cheyenne Dunham

Women’s history month provides a time to look back on various female role models from our past–women who inspire us, make us think, and perhaps challenge us to question societal restrictions, as they did. These stories of empowerment, leadership, and success don’t always come from the most obvious places.

Nantucket 1792
Map of Nantucket, 1792.

Nearly 30 miles off the coast of southeastern Massachusetts lies Nantucket, a small and unassuming island that hosted an independent and progressive society in which women long played a vital role. In this place, women existed as prominent religious figures, business owners, educators, scientists, and adventurers before the voices of suffrage permeated the political and social dialogue of the late 19th century.

Nantucket thrived as a whaling port until the 1850s. This caused many of its male residents to venture out for years at a time, on voyages across the world, without the guarantee of returning to their home or loved ones. Subsequently, the women of the island were often left solely responsible for their family’s financial, social, and religious well-being.

Women of Petticoat Row circa 1895. Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association.
Women of Petticoat Row ca.1895. Courtesy of Nantucket Historical Association.

Women held a prominent presence in the public and commercial spheres. One group of women managed an entire section of the town business strip nicknamed “Petticoat Row.”

The island has always been relatively small. Its population peaks, both in its whaling days and current tourist seasons, at around 10,000. In the earlier years, this population total included many of those away at sea. Nantucket’s isolation and self-sufficiency, combined with its early history of political and ideological separation from the mainland, resulted in a unique environment where a woman’s capability and voice in society often equaled their male counterparts. In the Heart of the Sea, author Nathaniel Philbrick explains,

“Given the island’s place on a map, you might expect Nantucketers to be an independent bunch, and you would be right. …More than anything else, it is this place, ‘away off shore,’ that has determined who the Nantucketer is.”1)Philbrick, Nathaniel. Away Off Shore: Nantucket Island and Its People, 1602-1890. (New York : Penguin Books, 2011): xiii, xvi.

Nantucket produced a wide range of interesting women and influential female leaders. One of the earliest of these notable women was Mary Coffin Starbuck (1645-1719),  the first woman to marry and have a child on the island.
Excerpt from Eliza Brock's Journal Created Aboard the Ship Lexington c. 1853 Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association
Excerpt from Eliza Brock’s Journal Created Aboard the Ship Lexington ca.1853. Courtesy of Nantucket Historical Association.

She was not only greatly responsible for bringing Quakerism to the Nantucket community, but she successfully ran her family’s trading post as one of the earliest authoritative businesswomen in the town. Unlike Starbuck, who oversaw the family affairs while her husband was away, some women chose to go to sea alongside the men. Two such women, Susan Austin Veeder (1816-97) and Eliza Spencer Brock (1810-99), kept detailed journals of their experiences  at sea which are now archived at the Nantucket Historical Association.

Photo of Painting by Mrs. H. Dassel c. 1851 Maria Mitchell Looking Through a Telescope Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association
Painting. “Maria Mitchell Looking Through a Telescope,” by Mrs. H. Dassel ca.1851. Courtesy of Nantucket Historical Association.

Outside of the island’s commercial world, women were just as influential in science, education, and social movements. Maria Mitchell (1818-89) was a brilliant scientist and librarian whose accomplishments included discovering a comet, becoming the first professional female astronomer, and eventually becoming a professor at Vassar College. Mitchell became well-known for her influence in astronomy and education on the mainland. However, her early years on Nantucket and her involvement in its progressive community greatly shaped her outlook and future. She attained unprecedented success in her field. By her own successful example, she promoted the potential for all women.  Throughout her life, she advocated for gender equality in any field and encouraged other women to strive for success.

Anna Gardner. Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association.
Anna Gardner. Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association.

Another Nantucket educator also fought for equality but in a different scope. Anna Gardner (1816-91) was a teacher at the African School on the island. Gardner left her position as an educator to protest racial discrimination that had been experienced by one of her students and to more fully dedicate herself to the cause of abolition. She eventually helped organize the first Anti-Slavery Convention on Nantucket and would continue her activism by fighting for both gender and racial equality with organizations such as the New England Freedmen’s Aid Society and the Association for the Advancement of Women, an organization partly founded by Mitchell.

These women represent only a few examples of the many incredible women that can be found throughout the island’s history. As time goes on, authors and historians will undoubtedly uncover more inspirational stories while attempting to interpret the unique role women played in shaping Nantucket since the 17th century. But what was so unique about this place that contributed to such a concentration of powerful figures? Whether it was thanks to situational necessity or progressive and inclusive thinking, this island has produced a legacy of individuals well-deserving of our consideration.

Cheyenne Dunham is earning her M.A. in History with a specialization in Public History. She earned a B.A. in History, minoring in Anthropology, from Eastern Washington University. Currently, her work explores Nantucket’s developmental history alongside the Pacific Northwest’s settlement. She is designing a digital exhibit connecting post-whaling industrial and population shifts on the Massachusetts island with the establishment and growth of Washington State in the second half of the 19th century.

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References   [ + ]

1. Philbrick, Nathaniel. Away Off Shore: Nantucket Island and Its People, 1602-1890. (New York : Penguin Books, 2011): xiii, xvi.

Women of the Past & Present Shaping the Future

by Monica Haberny

In January 2017, half a million people showed up for the Women’s March in Washington DC and over four million people participated in their own marches throughout the country to raise awareness for women’s rights. During my internship at the Boston City Archives in Fall 2016, I came across many female activists who worked tirelessly for change in the past two centuries. The following three women represent just a fraction of the inspiring women whose successes and failures can motivate activists fighting for similar issues today.

Florida Ruffin. ca.1890. Wikimedia Commons.
Florida Ruffin. ca.1890. Wikimedia Commons.

Suffragist, journalist, and anti-lynching activist, Florida Ruffin Ridley (1861-1943) became one of the first black teachers in Boston. She came from an educated background. Her father, George Lewis Ruffin, was the first African American to graduate from Harvard Law School and the first African American to be a judge in the country. Her mother, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, a suffragist and civil rights activist, published the first newspaper for African American women. Ruffin, following in her mother’s footsteps, also worked as a pioneering journalist and activist.

Florida Ruffin's Teacher Qualification Record, 1888, Teacher Qualification registers and index. Courtesy of Boston City Archives.
Florida Ruffin’s Teacher Qualification Record, 1888, Teacher Qualification registers and index. Courtesy of Boston City Archives.

Journalists provide an invaluable service, especially in a digital age where news comes from various sources and is often contested or falsely reported. Florida edited the Women’s Era, her mother’s newspaper. She wrote articles about black history and issues affecting blacks for multiple publications, including the Journal of Negro History and The Boston Globe. She, Pauline Hopkins and Dorothy West all belonged to the Saturday Evening Quill Club, an African American literary group founded in 1925. In addition to her writing career, Florida was involved in co-founding several nonprofits for African American women and was a lifelong political activist.

Application from the Housekeeper's League, January 1913. Courtesy of Boston City Archives.
Application from the Housekeeper’s League, January 1913. Courtesy of Boston City Archives.

Ridley raised awareness about race relations; her contemporary Ida Hebbard pioneered the issue of food safety in Boston. Recent documentaries like Food, Inc. and Cowspiracy have challenged people to think about where their food comes from. Hebbard became a food safety activist over a hundred years ago.

She served as president of the Housekeepers League, an all-female group. During the 1910s, the League lobbied for consumer rights, protesting the increasing prices of household foods. Hebbard led the group in protesting the price of eggs in 1912, as well as the price of potatoes and coal in 1917. Potato prices for consumers dropped from 70 cents to 35 cents a peck because of their efforts. More importantly, she advocated for the Bob Veal Bill. This bill banned the sale of calves weighing less than sixty pounds, preventing them from being slaughtered and shipped to Boston the day they were born.

In November 2016, activists like Ida Hebbard succeeded in passing Question 3 on the ballot, which banned the confinement of farm animals in small cages in Massachusetts. Like the Bob Veal Bill, Question 3 will go on to improve the health of people because it improves the lives farm animals.

Grace Lonergan with fiancee Lee Lorch in 1943.
Grace Lonergan with fiancee Lee Lorch in 1943.

Grace Lonergan Lorch, the third Boston woman featured today, championed civil rights and women’s rights in education. Before 1953, Boston Public School teachers were forced to resign before they married. Thus, in the 1880s, Florida Ruffin left her job to marry. Grace Lonergan Lorch changed that for future female teachers. In 1943, she brought a case against the Boston School Committee (BSC) in an attempt to keep her job after she married Lee Lorch. Although the BSC upheld the rule and Lorch was forced to resign when she married, the publicity surrounding the case forced the BSC to end the ban of married women public school teachers ten years later.

During his service in the military during World War II, Lee became aware of racism. During troop transports, he noted, often the black company had to clean the ship. Discrimination made Lee Lorch, a professor and mathematician, very uncomfortable and his wife shared his views. When the couple moved to New York City following the war, they worked to desegregate their home community, Stuyvesant Town apartments, which had banned black families from living in their complex.

The Lorch family being interviewed in 1949 by New York Times reporters about their work in Stuyvestant Town.
The Lorch family being interviewed in 1949 by New York Times reporters about their work in Stuyvestant Town. New York Times, 2010.

Lee led the Town and Village Committee to End Discrimination in Stuyvesant Town to try to end the ban. In 1949, the Lorch family attempted to find a loophole in the ban and invited a black family to live in their apartment as their “guests.” When their plan backfired, the couple and their daughter, Alice, moved to Pennsylvania, then Tennessee before they moved to Little Rock, Arkansas in 1955.

The couple became very active in civil rights in their new community. Their neighbors were Daisy and L.C. Bates, founders of the Arkansas State Press and active members of the NAACP during the Little Rock Crisis. Alice Lorch became friends with many of the children in their new neighborhood. So, in September 1955, Grace wrote to the local superintendent requesting that her daughter be able to attend the local school. She hoped that Alice would not only be able to attend school with friends, but also promote integration as their neighborhood was predominately black. Although the school board denied her request, Grace continued to be involved in Little Rock’s branch of the NAACP.

The now famous image of Grace Lorch (left) comforting Elizabeth Eckford (right).
The now famous image of Grace Lorch (left) comforting Elizabeth Eckford (right).

On September 4, 1957, Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, found herself alone and surrounded by a mob when she attempted to enter Little Rock Central High School.

All nine teenagers had planned to arrive at the school together with their parents, but the meeting place changed. The Eckford’s lack of a phone left Elizabeth uninformed and alone. Grace Lorch, after dropping Alice off at school, passed the high school and saw Elizabeth’s predicament. The civil rights activist fought her way through the angry crowd and helped escort the girl home. The rescue of Elizabeth placed a target on the Lorch family. Alice Lorch found herself bullied at school. Someone placed dynamite in their garage, and they were harassed by both press and the people around them. In 1959, Lee accepted a job from the University of Alberta and moved his family to Canada.

By fighting for causes that were important to them, Florida Ruffin, Ida Hebbard, and Grace Lorch shaped the future and women now continue to do so. Originally from Little Rock, journalist, activist, and speaker Liz Walker became the first African American woman to co-anchor a newscast in Boston in the 1980s. Lauren Singer challenges us to think about where our household goods come from and the environmental impact they may have. In India, Rashmi Misra fights for education in rural communities and giving young women entrepreneurial skills, and Maya Wiley works for civil rights in New York. Like Ruffin, Hebbard, and Lorch before them, these women will go on to influence the next generation of women.

Monica Haberny is currently working on her Master’s degree, specializing in Archives. She received her Bachelor’s in History from Montclair State University (2013). Currently, she is working on a digital exhibit on Kathleen Sullivan, the only woman on the Boston School Committee during the start of Boston’s public school integration, for Stark & Subtle Divisions. She has a strong interest in the history of nutrition, activism, and animal rights, and hopes to use these interests in her final capstone project.

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The Peaceful Gardener: Rose Standish Nichols & the Peace Movement Part I

By Corinne Zaczek Bermon

Just outside of Rome in the 1920s, fifty year old Rose Standish Nichols walked through the gardens of Villa Torlonia perhaps thinking about her two favorite topics: landscape architecture and world peace.

Once belonging to Cardinal Albani, the gardens were rented by future dictator Benito Mussolini, who had not launched his campaign to make Italy a world empire yet.

Nichols strolled through the gardens as she researched her third book, Italian Pleasure Gardens.1)Rose Standish Nichols. 1931. Italian Pleasure Gardens. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 191.   Although she did not document if she had a conversation with “Il Duce,” Nichols had a history of visiting dignitaries and enchanting them with conversations about their gardens before moving on to politics. An extraordinary woman, Nichols used her place in society, her profession, and her countless connections, to work for the women’s peace movement that began before World War I. Her story and her role in the international pacifist movement remains mostly untold.     

Rose Standish Nichols was born on January 11, 1872, into an Boston Brahmin family. She lived at 55 Mount Vernon Street in the

Portrait of Rose Standish Nichols by Taylor Greer, 1912. Wikimedia Commons.
Portrait of Rose Standish Nichols by Taylor Greer, 1912. Wikimedia Commons.

prestigious Beacon Hill neighborhood Boston, for most of her life. The eldest of three daughters born to Arthur Howard Nichols, a prominent holistic doctor, and Elizabeth Homer Nichols, a social activist who worked with the Boston Children’s Aid Association and the Boston Female Asylum, Rose enjoyed an extensive education. She showed a lifelong appreciation for beauty and peace, influenced by her uncle, noted American sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and her activist parents who taught her the importance of peace and social reform.  Her father taught her how to question and challenge what she thought was amiss in the world.2) George Taloumis, “Rose Standish Nichols, Sixty Years Ago She Organized the Beacon Hill Reading Club (1896)” Boston Sunday Globe, September 16, 1956. The Nichols House Museum and Archive.

Rose Nichols spent most of her summers traveling, and in Europe she met many new people she counted as friends. Among her acquaintances she included royalty, such as Maria Feodorovna, Grand Duchess of Russia, the Marquess da Frontieira Maria Mascarenhas Barreto, of Portugal and numerous queens, countesses, lords, cardinals and archbishops.3)Margery P. Trumball, “Selections from the Published Writings of Rose Standish Nichols.” (PhD diss., Dartmouth College, 1989). 

Surrounding herself with prominent people gave Nichols a global social circle consistent with her upper class status, and through staying within this network of family friends, she could travel safely to Europe for gardening, social visits, and peace work. This was a time period in which a woman who traveled alone would have her respectability questioned and Nichols rarely traveled alone.4)Sarah Deutsch, Women and the City: Gender, Space and Power in Boston, 1870-1940. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000). Despite being raised in an era when Victorian notions governed women’s place in society, Nichols attended a pilot program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in landscape architecture in the late

Picture taken of the MIT landscape architecture cohort in 1900.
Students in the MIT landscape architecture cohort. Unfortunately, Rose is not pictured here.

1890s and was given the status of a “special student.”  Women students were attracted to the MIT program because it provided excellent opportunities, which they were denied elsewhere.  This pilot program coincided with the 19th century idea that gardening was a hobby suitable for women in their socially constricted environments. Still, women in Nichols’ cohort were not given the status of full-time students because MIT had not fully developed their landscape architecture program and would not do so for a few more years.5)Eran Ben-Joseph et al. “Against All Odds: MIT’s Pioneering Women of Landscape Architecture” http://web.mit.edu/ebj/www/LAatMIT/LandArch@MITlow.pdf.

Rose Nichols had two important influences that led her to work in social reform: her family and her landscape design tutors.  The Nichols family was active in social reform and political movements, such as women’s suffrage, relief efforts and anti-imperialism. Rose Nichols’ landscape design tutors also shaped her thinking that the local would impact the global.  From them, she learned a specific method of using landscape design as an introduction to talking to world dignitaries, which also included viewing design itself as a method of peace.  However, Nichols was unable to accept egalitarian ideals embraced by many of her fellow reformers.  Being raised in the mid-Victorian Era meant that Nichols believed social classes should live in separate parts of town and differed significantly in their attitudes toward politics and religion. Consequently, the upper class was most likely to associate with others who shared their social status, opinions and values. As part of the elite class, Nichols had her own code of conduct and value system, which one belonging to this particular social class had to conform to.

While in general women had few options outside of marriage and childrearing, Rose Nichols chose to do neither.  She, instead, supported herself as a garden designer, traveling across the United States and Europe as she learned and perfected her craft.  She believed in the universalizing power of gardening and was introduced to gardening by her maternal grandfather, Thomas Johnston Homer, who allowed her to cultivate a small corner of his

Bostonians entering a streetcar in the mid-1800s.
Bostonians entering the streetcar.

garden in Roxbury Highlands, a streetcar suburb of the city of Boston at that time. Nichols was not yet ten years old but according to her youngest sister Margaret’s memoirs, Rose Nichols industriously planned and worked in her small plot with their grandfather.6)Margaret Homer Shurcliff, Lively Days: Some Memoirs (Boston: Private Publication by Shurcliff Family, 1965).  Her education further prepared her for entry into the rather exclusively male field of landscape architecture.  Nichols attended private schools in Boston, among them the progressive Mrs. Shaw’s School, which did not differentiate its courses on the basis of gender.  Girls learned woodworking alongside needlepoint and were encouraged to read widely, especially in history and the classics, and to acquire a working knowledge of several languages.  Nichols entered adulthood with the ability to speak Greek, Latin, French, German and Italian, which helped her move into international circles as an organizer for Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and to undertake research for her gardening books.7)Taloumis, 22.

In the next post of this series on Rose Standish Nichols, we will explore her groundbreaking profession as a noted landscape architect.

To learn more about Rose Nichols, please visit the Nichols House Museum for a tour.

Corinne Zaczek Bermon is earning her M.A. in History with a specialization in Archives. She earned a B.A. in American Studies in 2009 and a M.A. in American Studies in 2015 from University of Massachusetts Boston. This series of articles on Rose Standish Nichols represents her award winning research in American Studies. Currently, her work explores the social history of the Otis Everett family living in the South End of Boston in the 1850s. She is designing a digital exhibit that explores Victorian life for the merchant class conducting business in Boston and abroad through the Everett letters.

Please follow and like us:

References   [ + ]

1. Rose Standish Nichols. 1931. Italian Pleasure Gardens. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 191.
2. George Taloumis, “Rose Standish Nichols, Sixty Years Ago She Organized the Beacon Hill Reading Club (1896)” Boston Sunday Globe, September 16, 1956. The Nichols House Museum and Archive.
3. Margery P. Trumball, “Selections from the Published Writings of Rose Standish Nichols.” (PhD diss., Dartmouth College, 1989).
4. Sarah Deutsch, Women and the City: Gender, Space and Power in Boston, 1870-1940. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
5. Eran Ben-Joseph et al. “Against All Odds: MIT’s Pioneering Women of Landscape Architecture” http://web.mit.edu/ebj/www/LAatMIT/LandArch@MITlow.pdf.
6. Margaret Homer Shurcliff, Lively Days: Some Memoirs (Boston: Private Publication by Shurcliff Family, 1965).
7. Taloumis, 22.

Drowning in Culture: Women & Swimming in the 20th Century US

In the contemporary US, both boys and girls learn to swim as part of physical education. In the early 1900s, however, many men learned to swim but few women received instruction. Often, women actively shunned the water. When a fire broke out on the steamboat General Slocum in 1904, eyewitnesses reported that women, certain they would drown if they jumped overboard,  “waited until the flames were upon them, until they felt their flesh blister, before they took the alternative of the river.”1)“1,000 Lives May Be Lost In Burning of the Excursion Boat Gen. Slocum,” New York Times (June 16, 1904), 1.

Bodies washed ashore after the steamship, General Slocum, caught fire, 1904. Wikimeida Commons.

Of the estimated 978 women and children aboard the cruise, nearly all died. Most drowned just a few feet from shore in relatively shallow waters.

The New York Times opined, “one of the lessons which the General Slocum horror should bring home to every woman and girl in New York City is the desirability of knowing how to swim.”2)“1,000 Lives May Be Lost In Burning of the Excursion Boat Gen. Slocum,” New York Times (June 16, 1904), 1. While catastrophes like this commanded national attention, thousands of accidental drowning deaths occurred in the US annually. Most fatalities involved women and children.

Why did so few women know how to swim in the early 20th century?

Some physicians and conservatives concluded that women were biologically inferior or incapable of swimming. One common cultural stereotype held that men were innately predisposed to athleticism. Many saw swimming–especially open water swimming–as a masculine sport, far too challenging for women.

Frederick J. Garbit, M.D., “The Woman’s Medical Companion and Guide To Health.” The Josephine Long Wishart Collection: Mother, Home, and Heaven, Courtesy the College of Wooster Special Collections.

Others realized that women’s aversion to water and unfortunate tendency to drown had less to do with biological deficiency than it did with cultural customs.

Louisa Dresel and two women in bathing suits at Mingo's Beach, Beverly, Mass., 1900. Image courtesy of Schlesinger Library.
Louisa Dresel and two women in bathing suits at Mingo’s Beach, Beverly, Mass., 1900. Image courtesy of Schlesinger Library.

In the early 1900s, cultural beliefs required modesty of women. As a result, women’s swimsuits consisted of multiple layers: dark wool tights, knee-length bloomers, a sailor-style blouse with balloon sleeves, a belt, and full skirt. The average woman’s swimsuit used seven to ten yards of woolen fabric depending on the style.

Margaret Wessell Piersol learning to swim, 1896, Courtesy Radcliffe College Archives, Schlesinger Library.

Women ventured to bath houses located along river banks and ocean beaches to cool themselves and allow their children to play in the water. Their long, heavy bathing suits permitted frolicking in the surf. But the full, water-logged skirt often tangled around a woman’s legs and immobilized her. Ironically, the fear of drowning in the swimsuit that cultural etiquette demanded women wear deterred many women from learning to swim.

Even if a woman knew how to swim, the weighted fabric could drag her down. In the summer, each week, newspaper headlines recounted numerous deaths–mostly of women–from drowning at beaches and lakes. Often women drowned while trying to save a child.

The deaths of nearly 1000 women in the General Slocum incident called attention to drowning as a public health and safety issue. Confronted with this threat to safety, municipalities initiated “Learn to Swim” campaigns targeting women. Postcards, posters, and newspaper articles encouraged and warned women to learn to swim as a life-saving measure for themselves and–more importantly–for the nation’s children.

Postcard promoting swimming for girls and women, circa 1905. Personal collection.
Postcard promoting swimming for girls and women, circa 1905. Personal collection.

As cities began offering swimming instruction to women, individuals advocating swimsuit reform–like Lucille Eaton Hill, Edwyn Sandys and Annette Kellerman–began finding audiences receptive.

Campaigns about public safety worked together with advertisements glamorizing swimming for women. They began to dismantle the stereotype that open water swimming was a masculine sport unsuitable for women.

Public safety advertisements successfully persuaded the general public that men and women could (and should) swim together on beaches because men could both safeguard women and teach them basic elements of swimming.

This interaction of the sexes in a sport designated as masculine, like swimming, contradicted custom. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries middle-class propriety delineated appropriate interactions between the sexes in most social settings–especially sports. Swimming pools were often segregated by gender and race but the dangers posed by the surf allowed conservatives to condone mixed-gender swimming, despite the fact that swimming exposed more of the body than other sports.

Mixed-gender swim group in New York, August, 1906. By G. C. Hovey, Mid Manhattan Picture Collection, Library of Congress.

The early 20th century “Learn to Swim” campaign succeeded. Mixed-gender amateur swim groups formed in most major US cities. Soon women began competing against men in open water marathons. Women’s success contradicted cultural beliefs about women’s physical frailty.

Open water swimming race from the Battery to Coney Island, New York, 1908. (George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress)
Open water swimming race from the Battery to Coney Island, New York, 1908. (George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

But the campaign may have had unintentional effects. Early “Learn to Swim” campaigns that targeted women may have inadvertently (or purposefully) reinforced another cultural stereotype: that swimming was a “white” activity.

Today, death by drowning is capturing headlines again. This time, however, the victims are predominantly nonwhites: 70 percent of African-American children don’t know how to swim. They are three times more likely to drown than other children. This begs the question: are our cultural stereotypes killing us?

 

Marilyn Morgan, Director of the Archives Program and Lecturer of History and UMass Boston.

Marilyn Morgan is the Director of the Archives Program & Lecturer of History at UMass Boston. Her first book, a cultural history of open water swimming and swimwear in America is unexpected to be released in 2018. She is at work on a new project on the history of gender, food, and advertising. Check out her blog or follow her on Twitter @Mare_Morgan

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References   [ + ]

1, 2. “1,000 Lives May Be Lost In Burning of the Excursion Boat Gen. Slocum,” New York Times (June 16, 1904), 1.