Jeannette Mirsky: In the Words of an Archivist

“In drawing on the letters and unpublished personal narratives, I have taken the liberty of letting the story run along without denoting ellipses; the pages filled with dots looked unseemly… I have utilized whatever books and articles would carry the story ahead fully and honestly and so obviated the repetitiousness of an archivist’s bibliography.”

-Jeannette Mirsky, from the Preface of Sir Aurel Stein: Archaeological Explorer


Last month I referred to Barnard alumna, author, and world traveler, Jeannette Mirsky, as “the coolest person I never heard of until last week.” Considering that her personal papers, recently acquired by the Barnard College Archives, remained unprocessed until this week, it is not surprising I had not encountered Mirsky previously. Last week I completed processing Jeannette Mirsky’s personal papers and reading her book, To the Arctic! Having spent so much time with her collection, and because there is so little information online about her, I found it fitting to pay her a brief tribute by sharing a few words about Mirsky and her work.

Jeannette Mirsky was born in New Jersey in 1903, and raised in New York City where she went on to earn her A.B. from Barnard College in 1924. From 1935-1938 Mirsky did graduate work at Columbia University, where she studied under Franz Boas and Margaret Mead. Mirsky’s academic records from this time and a notebook from a 1935 Anthropology course entitled “Social Organization,” are included among her papers.

As Mirsky embarked on her graduate studies, her inaugural book, To the North! was published. This time period is documented by extensive correspondence with publishers, manuscript drafts, and a collection of maps, illustrations, and photographs to be considered for inclusion in the publication. To the North! recounts the history of Arctic exploration, utilizing primary source materials to detail Arctic journeys in the words of the explorers themselves. To the North! begins: “Not so long ago there was a custom among sailors that accorded to all those who had sailed round Cape Horn the right to put one foot on the table after dinner, while those who had crossed the Arctic Circle could put both feet on the table. Here will be found the stories of those men who have both feet on the table, told whenever possible in their own words.”

Despite Mirksy’s extensive research and utilization of primary source documents, To the North! was controversial for largely discrediting Frederick Cook’s claims of discovering the North Pole. Mirsky wrote, “Cook was an extraordinary figure. It is impossible to dismiss him simply by calling him a liar. Rather it may be said that he was a great teller of stories, a fiction-writer who on a certain amount of fact built a vivid and absorbing yarn. For a man of his ability and experience he harbored too puissant an imagination…The story told in Cook’s My Attainment of the Pole is exciting and well written, but it nevertheless appears to be mainly fiction.”


Jeannette Mirsky outside a bar

To the North! subsequently went out of print for a number of years due to a lawsuit by Cook, but was re-released in 1946 under the title, To the Arctic: The Story of Northern Exploration from the Earliest Times to the Present. In addition to English, the book has been published in German, Spanish, and French. Although the book is largely remembered for the controversy ignited by Mirsky’s assertion that it was Robert Peary, and not Frederick Cook who first reached the North Pole; the vast majority of To the North! is interested in what happened prior to the so-called attainment of the Pole. Near the end of the book, after devoting a chapter to the North Pole claims, Mirksy concedes: “It has been many years now since the Pole was reached, and viewing Peary’s exploit from such a vantage-point, it would seem fair to say that if any man were to reach the Pole, that man would be Peary…But like all deeds whose import is self-contained, it seems a strange goal on which to have lavished so much energy and planning and money. Like so many grand gestures, when seen in retrospect, it does not seem to matter greatly.”

 Mirsky expressed a lifelong interest in travel and exploration. Her personal papers are full of her research on explorers, letters and correspondence from around the world, and boxes of postcards and photographs documenting these pursuits. Her years of research culminated in a number of publications, which includes The Westward Crossings, The World of Eli Whitney, Elisha Kent Kane and the Seafaring Frontier, The Great Chinese Travelers: An Anthology, Houses of God, and Sir Aurel Stein: Archaeological Explorer.

Prior to Barnard’s acquisition of Mirsky’s personal papers, the extent of our knowledge ended with her non-fiction and anthropological writings. It is my hope that with the availability of the Jeannette Mirsky collection that interest is sparked and a biographer of Jeannette Mirsky will emerge to tell her story, in her own words, just as she spent her life doing for others.

Written by: Heather Lember, Barnard College Archives Graduate Assistant


What the Well Dressed Girl is Wearing

Barnard girls as a well-heeled chorus line, directing their siren song  at the Columbia boys across the street.  From the 1930 Mortarboard.  Image courtesy of the Barnard College Archives.

Barnard girls as a well-heeled chorus line, directing their siren song at the Columbia boys across the street. From the 1930 Mortarboard. Image courtesy of the Barnard College Archives.

Woman’s colleges and fashion magazines rose to prominence simultaneously; Barnard was founded just three years after Cosmopolitan.  Though the career driven girl produced by the Seven Sisters is easily placed in opposition to the doe-eyed models of Harpers and Vogue, commercial fashion and for-profit education both found their most eager customers in the female college student: they were young, wealthy, impressionable, and eager to grow up.  Serious student publications in these early days were broken by ads promising minks, hair ribbons, silk stockings, and high heels.  The Barnard girl of the early 20th century was a creature caught between the lure of easy elegance and desirability promised by the fashion industry and no-nonsense denouncement of frippery in favor of scholarship.

Students dressed up for senior week in 1931.  Image Courtesy of the Barnard College Archives.

Students dressed up for senior week in 1931. Image Courtesy of the Barnard College Archives.

As rationing instituted during World War I metamorphosed into thrift necessitated by the depression, Barnard students were ostensibly on a budget.  But they also were momentarily allowed to be girls instead of women working for the war effort.  The children of the wealthy, they spent hundreds of dollars trolling the big department stores for furs, shoes, and pearls.  In 1930, students organized a budget fashion show to demonstrate ready to wear wardrobes at different price points.  By spending only $100 on clothes for a single school year, girls could purchase “a coat, two silk afternoon frocks, one woolen dress, one wool crepe, a combination dinner dress and evening dress, a sports sweater and skirt that can be worn with innumerable combinations, a leather coat, and an evening wrap.”  While these modes captivated the audience, photographs from the time show students violating these suggested sumptuary laws and struggling under the weight of capacious furs or dressed in various couture evening gowns for college dances.  The Junior Prom was extremely popular in the 20s and 30s.  For a night, Barnard girls could abandon their sensible shoes and transfer their sorority pins from their cardigans to gauzy chiffon wraps.  Like Beauty, they were transformed from inkstained scholars into smiling dress models made radiant by silk that fluttered above the ankle.

Members of the theatrical club "Wigs and Cues" in the 1934 Barnard Mortarboard.  Image Courtesy of the Barnard College Archives.

Members of the theatrical club “Wigs and Cues” in the 1934 Barnard Mortarboard. Image Courtesy of the Barnard College Archives.

Students conformed to the broad styles of the time, and various campus organizations fundraised by holding combined afternoon teas and fashion shows; still, the taste and glamour cultivated for special occasions didn’t always seep into everyday dress.  There were a few collegiate staples in the fashions of young Barnardites.  Students wore caps and gowns for formal teas and dinners, sorority members sported tiny gold broaches with their Greek letters, “bear pins” were awarded to seniors based on merit, and athletes had jackets with various patches.  Aside from this, students wore whatever they could lay hand on at 7 am before they had to be at the greenhouse.  A 1936 issue of the Barnard Bulletin records student opinions on campus style:

“When I was a freshman I thought they all looked terrible. Now I look terrible too.”

“Yes, I think the large majority of them are well dressed.”

“Personally, I don’t approve of high heels and nailpolish for college.”

“The dorm students dress like pigs and the day students dress like they’re going to the opera.”

“Now I know what the weird sisters in MacBeth look like.”

“What do I care? Ask Columbia.”

The flippancy of these responses suggests that the majority of Barnard students–though flash with furs and satin in their yearbook photos–were most often seen dashing through the jungle to Milbank with mis-buttoned cardigans and remnants of that morning’s dippy eggs bedewing their blouses.  As it was then, so it is today.

-Johana Godfrey, ‘BC 13

A Brief Overview of the Barnard Course Catalogues

When Barnard College opened on October 7, 1889, the College offered six courses of study: Greek Language and Literature, Latin Language and Literature, English Language and Literature, Mathematics, and Botany. Parts of the syllabi of these subjects were the “Seventh Book of Herodotus,” “Higher English Grammar,” or “Latin Prose Composition.” Today, the curriculum for each major is not so standardized, giving the Barnard student more room to pursue their specific interests. This, and the fact that there are more classes offered now than there were 30 years ago, makes the process of choosing classes a long one. With the end of the semester approaching it is again that time of year to craft our new schedules. Out of curiosity, I delved into some of the old Barnard Course Catalogs in the Barnard Archives to create an overview of the highlights.

By the 1909-10 school year, the curriculum had expanded considerably since the College first opened. Barnard now offered classes in physiography (considered synonymous with geography by the college examination board) and music. The pre-requisite for the music appreciation class was having a “general knowledge of the lives and environment of at least ten composers.” Classes expanded even more by the 1925-26 Announcement, but still left something to be desired. The history department offered sixteen classes about European (French and English mostly), Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and American pasts. Only one class, “Nationalism and Imperialism in the Near East,” strayed from the study of ancient or Western worlds. Departments continued to expand and by the 1934-35 school year the Anthropology Department was well-established, showcasing two classes that caught my eye in the announcement: “Primitive Social Life” and “Problems in Anthropology.” The first class would make modern anthropologists cringe and the second would make them nod their heads knowingly. Ah, the still unresolved problems in anthropology that make me question my major every day. At the same time the physical education department offered this class: “Sports, games, rhythmic fundamentals, dancing, individual gymnastics, and other activities.” The 1934-35 Announcement states that the activities vary according to a student’s “health grade [and/or] her defects.” The Announcement of 1944-45 does not present many more classes, however, the class “Problems of Race,” seems to promise to shake things up. Part of the course description outline says: “The nation and the melting-pot. Composition and distribution of world populations and their significance….The basis of prejudice.” Professor Gladys Reichard taught the class; in fact she taught all the anthropology classes at that point, making the department somewhat of a one-woman show. Also noteworthy is the music class “Harpsichord Instruction.” 

We continue our look through the Barnard course catalogs with 1954-55. Now, the anthropology department no longer offers “Primitive Social Life,” instead of offering one class that lumps together “Oriental Art,” the Art History Department taught several covering “Persia, India, and Indonesia,” China, and Japan. A hygiene class entitled “Modern Living” is mandatory for all Freshmen and transfers. Transfers have the opportunity to take an exemption test; however, I wonder how one would be tested in hygiene and “Modern Living.” In the 1970s, the Anthropology Department lost its “primitive man” terminology, offering classes on “Peoples of the Pacific” or “Peoples of Europe” instead. In 1974-75, the history department offered “Afro-American History” and “Black Urban America.” Other intriguing courses that year included the particularly melancholy class “The Concept of Death” and “Electronic Music: Its Evolution and Techniques.” I hope no student overlooked the P.E. department’s offering of beginning and intermediate classes in “European Folk Dance” that year. The classes offered in the 1984-85 Announcement show the great range of studies present at Barnard: “History of Mental Illness and its Treatment,” “The Invisible Woman in Literature: The Lesbian Literary Tradition,” “Religious Ethics: War and Peace in Jewish and Christian Thought,” and even “The Art of Medieval Manuscript Illumination.” We now jump to the 1994-95 Catalog that offers classes in the Pan-Africa Studies Program, now Africana Studies. In the category of “classes with appealing titles” are the first-year seminar “The Teratological Text: Representations of the Other as Monster” and the history class “Telling about the South: Southerners and Southerness in History and Literature.” As far as I know “southerness” is not really a word, but a town in Scotland, however it does add a wonderful whimsy to the title. Finally, we come to the last course catalog of our survey: 2004-05. It offers such varied (but possibly not very useful) courses such as “Mafia Movies: The Godfather to The Sopranos,” “Chivalric Narratives in Popular Oral Tradition: Sicilian Puppet Theater and the Tuscan-Emilian Maggio,” and “What is Philosophy, Anyway?” I must admit that I have not mentioned any math courses because I would not know an engaging math course from a dull one. For example, the class “Differential Geometry” sounds quite benign to me, but I understand little from the description: “Local and global differential geometry of submanifolds of Euclidian 3-space. Frenet formulae for curves. Various types of curvature for curves and surfaces and their relations.” 

One can really get a feeling for the evolution of Barnard by looking through the course catalogs. The offered majors have grown from botany, Greek, and Latin to Jewish Studies, Race & Ethnic Studies, Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies, Physics & Astronomy, Neuroscience & Behavior and that is just to name a few.


-Alice Griffin, BC ’15

And the Miss Barnard title goes to…

Here you are, a heterogeneous group of individuals with a variety of educational and social backgrounds. Having been exposed to the same physical educational background for several months, you are not quite as heterogeneous as you were in September 1941. That is one thing which physical education should do—give you a “common denominator,” so to speak.         

Educationally, you represent public and private schools, cities and towns and rural districts as well as [10] foreign countries.

No two of you have the same background or are the same.

Each has a certain physique, certain emotional characteristics, a certain personality, certain skills as well as certain intellectual equipment- which sets you apart as an individual. Because of this, some of are you are destined to succeed and some to fail. We hope that we can help decrease the latter.

One of you will be Undergraduate President in 1944-45.
Another will be the Athletic Association President.
Three of you will be Class Presidents.
One will be Greek Games chairman next year.
Many of you will lead in lesser ways.
Some will be dropped from college or will drop voluntarily.
Some of you will live these college years richly and deeply, giving as well as taking.
Some will lead neutral, colorless lives and give little.

You really are “war babies”—the war class—and you have a chance to make history.

Imagine living in a world where beauty trumped brains and physicality ruled the fairest of them all. Well, if you happen to be a “war baby,” you might have experienced just that (and if you are reading this post, then I doubt you’re a 90 year old member of the class of ’45—no offense, but you classy ladies were amazing in your own way)!

It’s the beginning  of autumn 1945 and once again, the Barnard College physical education instructors have called upon the senior class to assess the incoming first years. At that time, during the height and aftermath of World War II, Barnard women were treated very differently from those of earlier graduates. The wartime era had affected everyone in the country, and a rise in feminine inspiration, work ethic, and patriotism were evident results of this long and costly ordeal. Women as a whole needed to stand up and face men in the working field, to work side by side creating American-made artillery, equipment, and much more! In retrospect, they needed to maintain their “perfect” image as well. So here comes the dilemma, how can a young industrial girl both keep up with changing times but also keep to the traditional values of beauty and homemaking? By going to Barnard and taking physical education classes of course (a very serious answer to a very rhetorical question)!

Barnard had an image of the perfect girl—someone with a specific height, weight, bra cup size, hip size, shoulder length, skin complexion, “normal” medical conditions (and by normal, I mean steady heart, lung performance, and menstruation cycle—yuck! how do you define steady?!), posture and social charm. The 1940s birthed a new type of Barnard girl, the Miss Barnard girl, the idealized conception of what a suitable girl attending a prestigious liberal arts college would look like. Of course Miss Barnard could have any color hair and any color skin in theory, but she was contracted of an image serving the whole of the Barnard class—a fictionalized attempt to compile a Wonder Woman of all Wonder Women. Barnard physical education instructors gathered the image of Miss Barnard to be the average of all the girls in one graduating class, meaning the perfect combination of all physical and social characteristics, as well as all health and educational attributes. Miss Barnard 1945 was one such example of an impeccable girl, and I wonder how many Barnard women strove to be like her? How healthy was it for adults to conceptualize womanhood and define it as a standard of living? It’s quite surprising to see how the traditional mores of one American era carried on throughout further generations to uphold the affirmation that yes, a woman was supposed to be brought up in one way and that yes, society was meant to shape her. Hmm, I don’t know how Rosie the Riveter would feel about this.

The rigor to uphold a well-mannered and well-structured Barnard woman has deep roots within Barnard College history. Despite Miss Barnard being a “mythical” figure, she was still a large part of the central physical education classes. The Miss Barnard phenomenon may have only lasted a decade but its spirit carried on through more modern years. For example, the prominence of certain classes like posture date back much earlier than the 1940s (starting in the early 1900s) and continue well into the late 1960s (the last mandated posture exam was offered in 1972, in years subsequent that students were only recommended to take posture classes as an elective). Posture classes helped students to maintain their bodily shape and figure and in addition gave young women the confidence to carry themselves out in public. There were Do’s and Don’ts exemplified in these classes and such behavior would have been ideal for Miss Barnard. The purpose of these classes was to properly educate young women how to maintain themselves as they were socially meant to be and while I wish Barnard kept posture classes for the purpose of helping body structure, I would not have liked to be one of the hundreds of previous Barnard women scrutinized for not knowing how to walk properly! It’s one thing for my mother to comment on my gait but for my administrators and professors to do so?! I can’t imagine!

Now we live in a time where we are told that it’s acceptable to be ourselves and not have to pertain to a definition of who we were designed to be. But is that really true? How many previous Barnard women would have accepted this radical notion? How many future Barnard women can we hope to accept this idea? In the time we have left, I think it’s important to respect one another and our bodies such that we can help alleviate the overarching perfectionist (and societal) view of women as a whole. The (ancient) physical education platform on Miss Barnard should not be looked down upon, rather we should take the opportunity to learn from it and (while preventing the rise of future complaisant feminine molds) decide for ourselves how women should be. Miss Barnard 2013 should have whatever hair color she wants, be whatever weight, height or race; it shouldn’t matter how often she gets cramps or how full her chest is. And above all, she should be beautiful in her own unique way.


Miss Barnard 1945 standards


Barnard 1950s posture class


Barnard student awarded for best posture (1952-53)

Written by Nazia Jannat, BC’14

(Barnard in a time) Of Love and War

7:30am. A solitary ray of red sunlight found its way through the dirty brown curtains of their W106th St. apartment window. The soft sky began to part into a pinkish-blue morning and the clouds stretched up and out, as if to say hello. Birds began to sing their daily alarm. Without warning, the light disturbed the dust in the air and shone upon the clutter of things that was their bedroom. Their messy mattress, their lonely mirror, their leftover food containers, an open closet spitting out blue dresses and worn loafers, a pile of philosophy books, two old lamps, angry letters torn into shreds, and a few pill boxes that looked as though they hadn’t been touched in months. Peter was still asleep, but he would awake now. They would soon eat their breakfast and drink their coffee and put on their individual identities, she knew.

There was a time long ago when women were forced to keep to themselves as mere housewives and live according to boring social laws, thought Linda LeClair. But not today. And certainly not for the past two years of her vibrant life. Today she was ready to fight whatever indictment came in her way. It was as though the mighty officials of her college acted like mortal gods, they deemed her living arrangements offensive and unacceptable. This was not true, and Linda was sure of it. She turned over on the mattress and softly kissed Peter on the nose.

The day was April 16th, 1968 and Barnard College sophomore Linda LeClair was about to present her case to a joint student-administrator judicial committee concerning the implications of her social freedom. Linda had set the stage for a national outburst due to her audacious living arrangements with her then boyfriend, Peter Behr, a Columbia College junior. Barnard’s housing regulations at the time mandated all undergraduate students who lived more than 50 miles away from the college to dorm on campus. However Linda LeClair, the 20 year old brunette originating from a small town in New Hampshire, clearly found a loop around that strict rule.

Linda knew the only way she can get around Barnard’s housing rule was to apply and work as a live-in domestic aid. With the help of an older married friend who posted a fake employment advertisement, Linda was able to fool not only Barnard career development officials but the administrators as well. She soon had an excuse to move off campus and into the (spacious four-room) $100-a-month W106th St. apartment with her boyfriend. Given the intimacy of their relationship, Linda and Peter were able to live off-campus away from the watchful eyes of rigid college officials. However, word of their taboo lifestyle leaked the morning of March 14th ,1968 when the New York Times ran an article about college couples living off campus because of “convenience, security, and sex.”

The New York Times referred to Linda as “Susan” but given the details of the article, Barnard officials were able to piece two and two together to figure out the identity of the missing housing culprit. What emerged was an uproar of dissent coming from parents, administrators, and national newspapers. She became Barnard’s “Kiss-and-Tell Girl” and was the face of numerous broadcasted interviews and hateful opinionated letters. Barnard students however, supported Linda and her decision to get away from an oppressive dorm life (some of whom themselves admitted to living off campus as well after this incident). Linda herself described what it was like to live in the freshman dorms and at first lamented the fact that her boyfriend Peter could go “out into the night to do whatever the hell he wanted to do” while she remained “locked in the tower like Rapunzel.” Students who lived on campus were not given permission to leave past 9:30pm on weeknights (4:30pm on weekends) and could only have male guests visit on Sundays between daylight hours. If a Barnard student had a male guest in her room, she was required to leave her door ajar during the duration of his visit. You can only imagine Linda’s frustration at the time!

Barnard’s prominent in loco parentis policies served as the basis for the structural argument against Linda’s living arrangements. While her own parents vehemently disapproved and cut off her monetary allowances, Barnard administrators decided to take the matter in their own hands and determine the consequences of Linda’s lie. Linda faced a judicial committee and argued that her life was “none of their business” and that “Barnard has no right to control personal behavior.” A month after the LeClair affair sprang up the judicial committee sympathized with Linda and did not decide to expel her, only to ban her from campus social events and from the student cafeteria. But the community outside Barnard felt that the verdict was not enough. Barnard president Martha Peterson faced austere disapproval from alumnae and was provoked to expel Linda LeClair. Although she faced minimal punishment, Linda felt as though her time at Barnard was enough and Linda made the decision easy on everyone by deciding to drop out of college along with Peter (who then faced near imprisonment because he denied his draft card). Linda’s decision to stand up for herself and her civil rights showed how the mores of an era were being challenged. It’s often difficult to recall that Linda grew up in a very cultured and traditionalist world, one where it was deemed provocative for young couples to live together unmarried. Her determination to protect her private life against the face of harsh public scrutiny proves how strong she remained under a critical attack. 

The “Linda LeClair affair” set aside for new future housing rules, as to assure no scandal of this nature would ever occur again. To denounce her freedom would be to allow Barnard College officials to dictate how her life would be come, and that was not an option. In the face of a social war between the youth and the aged, Linda came out triumphant. As the 45th anniversary of the long forgotten controversy, think about where Barnard College (and in fact, all college) students would be had Linda not made a stand about oppressive norms. Are we not to progress with the age of modern technology and growing populations or are we meant to uphold the status of our grandparent’s Victorian mores? It is because of phenomenal figures like Linda LeClair that society has accepted the standards of privacy, modern love, and social justice. Linda would agree that today we are all moving up for the better.

(Happy Valentine’s Day!)   

Written by Nazia Jannat, BC’14

Barnard College: “a Most Promising and Attractive Child”

People often question the relevance and role of women’s colleges today. Now that most colleges and universities in the U.S. are co-ed, why do women’s colleges still exist? When Columbia College started admitting women in fall of 1982 a merger was proposed, but ultimately decided against because of bureaucratic complexities and the belief that Barnard College served the community well as a separate institution. And so it has.

Flashback to spring 1915, when Barnard administrators were preparing for the 25th anniversary celebration of Barnard College. Originally planned for November 1914, the event was postponed because, according to a write-up of the event from the Dean’s Office, “there was a common feeling that the grave issues before the civilized world did not permit the occasion to be commemorated with sufficient joy and enthusiasm.” Unfortunately, the events in Europe meant Jane Addams, founder of Hull House in Chicago, had to send her regrets that she could not attend. As national chairman of the Women’s Peace Party, she was wanted at a conference in the Netherlands. This letter, typed up on Hull House stationery and signed by Jane Addams, is one of the many treasures held in the Barnard Archives.

Despite its characterization as “war-belated,” the celebration was a wonderful commemoration of Barnard College, what it stood for, and where it was going in the future. While looking through a box of the Dean’s Office Departmental Correspondence from 1914-15, I came across an article titled “Barnard College, 1889-1914” from the June, 1915 issue of the Columbia University Quarterly. In the left-hand margin of the first page someone wrote “President Butler,” indicating Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University from 1901-1945, as the author, however, it is unclear whether this article is also the address he gave during the 25th anniversary commemorative exercises on April 29th. I expected the article to be a routine address: probably a brief history of the college and an acknowledgement of the trustees and administrators that made it all possible. Instead, it is a beautiful testament to the necessity of higher education for women and therefore the necessity of Barnard College. Butler includes a quote from November 21, 1890 by Rev. Arthur Brooks, Chairman of the Trustees of Barnard College. On that day, the trustees met to go over the events of the first year of the College and Rev. Brooks spoke on behalf of Barnard:

[…]to allow Barnard College to suffer or to languish would now mean the maiming of Columbia College, which, to the pride and glory of New York, is at the present time taking so many forward steps[…].We gladly believe that the bond between the two Colleges is so strong that the parent, old and yet young with new energy, would sadly feel the loss of this, its youngest and most promising and attractive child.

 Characterizing Barnard College as a “most promising and attractive child” might seem a bit silly today, but as a Barnard student who has felt not quite welcome by the Columbia University community, these words are what I have needed to hear for a long time. Butler goes on to write a defense of Barnard College that celebrates its place as a unique institution, but also commends the awe-inspiring backdrop of Columbia University. I must admit the last paragraph of Butler’s piece gave me chills:

Barnard College is nothing so temporary […]. It is a serious and solemn human undertaking which conceives itself as bearing a grave responsibility toward womanhood, toward society, and toward the University whose traditions and unconquerable vitality it shares. […]if it [the College] continue catholic, large-minded, sincere and scholarly, it will increase with each year in power as a builder of character and a shaper of intelligence in that womanhood which is at once the glory and the hope of our civilization.

What a relief to know that these words will be preserved in the Barnard Archives, a humidity-controlled tribute to the rich history of Barnard College. 

-Alice Griffin, BC ’15

You Need to Come Look at This!: The Overbury Collection

Dickinson_p1 copy

Letter from Emily Dickinson. Image courtesy of the Barnard College Archives.

We have a lot of stuff in the archives.  There’s often an overlap between trash and historically significant material culture, so anything that seems relevant to Barnard is carefully boxed, labeled, and stacked onto eight foot high rolling shelves.  Most collection items are unknown to the rest of the world, and linger only vaguely in the depths of the archivist’s mind until called into the forefront by a research request.  We have a gym uniform from the 1960s, at least fifteen copies of a poster for a pro-choice rally from the 1980s, a kinetic learning building block set (missing instructions and two pieces)*, two gold rimmed teacups, a stress-squeeze ball, and a nine-pin.  Among this junk on a shelf three rows from the back, there is the Overbury collection, a repository of female American writers’ manuscripts and letters.**  Purchasing and assembling the collection was the consuming, Herculean labor by which Bertha Van Riper Overbury’s (class of 1896) defined her life.  Overbury began to assemble her collection after reading an article in The Colophon called “Some Bookwomen of the Fifteenth Century”; it is a great love letter to the power, profundity, and charm of feminine imagination in an era when male writers like Ernest Hemingway were increasingly attempting to discredit female authors.  The collection retains Overbury’s original alphabetical filing system and her beautifully handwritten biographical cards that flank each authoress’ works.  While Overbury’s prose is overpowered by the strong voices she collected, her admiration and care for the writers is palpable in each meticulously foldered and bound artifact.  By playing the role of devoted collector and curator, Overbury inserted herself into the literary tradition she longed to be a part of.

Not many researchers use (or know about) the collection.  The Overbury Collection’s quiet, unacknowledged existence at the back of the Archives is almost as astounding as Ravenclaw’s diadem being found on a junky bust in the Room of Requirement or the Arkenstone being buried beneath Smaug’s hoard.  Bertha Overbury wasn’t buying Emily Dickinson’s doodles or Eudora Welty’s grocery lists; she was gathering a formidable, coherent portfolio pertinent to any critical interpretation of American intellectual life in the last two centuries.

In one letter from 1807, Abigail Adams writes to her sister on John Quincy’s pre-presidency diplomatic service in Russia:

“indeed, my dear sister, a man of his worth ought not to be permitted to leave the country….it has been the intolerant spirit of party which has induced him to accept this uniform, and the hope of being serviceable to his country, although reduced and vilified by the same intolerant faction.”

In another, Willa Cather discusses her views on modern poetry with William Braithwaite, an anthology editor and publisher:

“I wish I could be as enthusiastic about contemporary verse as you are.  While I was managing editor of McClures I did my best to seek it out, and if I remember, you agreed with me that some of it was good.  But it is one thing to see merit in a poem, another to feel great enthusiasm for it.  Enthusiasm I do not often rise to, about my own verse of that of my friends.  I wish I did.”

The collection also has a prototype of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” a letter from Harriet Beecher Stowe about dramatizing “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” especially for the daughter of an escaped slave to read, and a selection of Gertrude Stein’s prolific correspondence that provides further evidence for a strong stylistic similarity between her literary efforts (consciously produced for posterity) and her personal letters.

Stuck between these well-known names are sheaves of material by forgotten authoresses, stifled by the cool dryness of manila folders and waiting patiently to be shared.  Though I am still in the process of re-discovering the collection, I have already forgotten pieces of it; I read a poem by a woman I did not know and wished that everyone could know her.  Then I forgot her name.

-Johana Godfrey, BC ’13

You should absolutely stop by the current archives exhibition on the Overbury Collection, located by the Admissions Office in Milbank Hall.  To view the Overbury Collection, please contact head archivist Shannon O’Neill.

*Anyone who discovers the missing blocks are encouraged to return them, for the sake of the research of future cultural anthropologists.
**There are also many rare books and first additions, but they’re in storage.