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Archive for the ‘College History’ Category

You may know from an early blog post, that here in the Archives & Special Collections we are conducting a shelf-by-shelf review of our collections.  This has prompted us to look through collections that do not get the most consistent use or that we aren’t as familiar with.  Recently, I surveyed the William P. Bigelow (AC 1889) Papers, a small collection of personal and professional papers of an Amherst College alumnus and professor.

William P. Bigelow was born in 1867 and was a lifetime native of Amherst.  While a student, Bigelow was active in the Amherst College Glee Club and other musical organizations on campus before graduating in 1889.  He went on to study music in Germany, France, and England before returning as Amherst College’s first instructor in music.  Bigelow became a full professor of music in 1906 and founded the Music Department at Amherst.  Professor Bigelow compiled and edited Amherst College Songs, published in 1926.

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Bigelow and Jane Ball were married in 1909 and settled in Amherst.  William P. Bigelow taught at the College until his retirement in 1935.  He died in 1941.

This collection contains materials documenting the professional and personal life of Professor William P. Bigelow including correspondence, photographs, manuscripts, partial memoirs, translation work, music programs, and essays.  The papers include correspondence between Bigelow and his family, members of the Amherst College faculty, and professional acquaintances.  The collection also contains some material relating to Jane Ball Bigelow.

While small in scope, this collection does give insight into the professor largely responsible for advocating for and founding the Music Department at Amherst.  The William P. Bigelow (AC 1889) Papers can be accessed in the Amherst College Archives & Special Collections.

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A pounce of cats.  A crash of rhinos.  A gaze of raccoons. A prudence of vicars.  A strength of Snells.

Whenever I think of the Snell family of Western Massachusetts, I think of collective nouns, especially the entertaining “terms of venery.” The Snells are such a distinct unit that they seem to demand their own term.  There are a lot of them, so there are many lives to follow and stories to be told.  And they’re tight-knit.  Something —  maybe it’s from those early days as a big family in North Brookfield – bound them together, even when some of them ended up on the other side of the country.  So there’s a strength to them as a group, and that suggests their term, a “strength of Snells.” It’s not as colorful as “a murder of crows,” but it certainly describes the Snells.

The Snells are of particular interest to us because of their links to Amherst College.  If you’re even a little familiar with Amherst’s early history, you’re likely to have heard of Professor Ebenezer Strong Snell (1801-1876), known to his family as Strong.  Strong was about 14 when his father, Reverend Thomas Snell, a trustee of Williams College, was meeting with other trustees to discuss whether Williams should move to Hampshire County, and Strong was a student at Williams College during the September 1818 “Convention of the Congregational and Presbyterian Clergy,” when his father participated in discussions about an institution of higher learning in Amherst.  To make a long, complicated story short, a new college was finally formed in Amherst and Reverend Snell’s old friend President Zephaniah Swift Moore of Williams was chosen to lead it.  Shortly thereafter, in September 1821, Strong Snell and a small group of students accompanied Moore from Williams College to Amherst to open the new institution.

Strong’s senior year therefore took place at Amherst College. Many decades later, he reminisced, “I was the first individual ever admitted to Amherst College. For Dr. Moore, having heard my examination at Williams College, received me, without requiring another examination, which was the case with no other.”* Strong was one of two students to graduate in the first class (a third having left before the end of the year). His father, Reverend Snell, continued to support the new college by participating in President Moore’s inauguration ceremony and serving for 33 years on the Board of Overseers of the Charity Fund, 15 of them as Secretary.  Given this history, it would not be surprising if both Strong and his father were deeply attached to the College and if Reverend Snell regarded it as one of his children.

Reverend Snell’s children – the human ones – numbered ten. Thanks to a 2017 gift of 24 daguerreotypes and an accompanying genealogical chart, we can see this founding family of Amherst College as they were in the early era of photography. There are even daguerreotypes for the houses occupied by each of the married Snell couples.  The gift was from Susan Burr Snell, a great-great-granddaughter of Reverend Snell’s youngest son, William Ward Snell, who was born in April, 1821, as the first Amherst College building, South College, was being completed and in the year Amherst College opened its doors. What makes the gift even more extraordinary is the fact the daguerreotypes were taken by William Snell. In the two photographs below the genealogical chart halves are arranged against the corresponding daguerreotypes:

 

A founding family. Note that nos. 9 and 22 are the same daguerreotype (numbered 9); that there is no daguerreotype for one member of the family (Sarah) who died before photography was available; and that #19, the daguerreotype for Lewis Thorpe, is missing. There were also two sons, Samuel and Edward, who died early.

 

A camera obscura. Image from the “American Cyclopaedia” vol. 3 (George Ripley and Charles A. Dana).

So how did young William Snell (visible in daguerreotype number 15) come to be a photographer in an era where photography was still new? His biography has not been written – it exists in pieces here and there — and he has been entirely unknown to historians of photography.**

Several sources (listed below) have brief entries for William, including one or two that quote him. From these sources, we know that William spent time (maybe a year or so) working at Otis Tuft’s machine shop in Boston.  Since Boston had several practicing daguerreotypists who taught others, he most likely learned the art there. The influence of his older brother was probably involved as well – we know from a letter of April, 1829, that Strong had a camera obscura that William had access to.

Strong Snell to his family, April 1829: “One thing more, and I must stop for want of time. I should like much to have at Amherst the principal parts of my “Electrical Machine,” and my “Camera Obscura Box”…The Box (Camera Obscura) is one, and I should be glad of the whole.”

 

An as-yet unpublished “Rushford History of Churches, Schools, and ‘Movers and Shakers’” provides some important details and is the most specific source for the years of William’s travel as an itinerant daguerreotypist:

“At age 22 he learned the newly discovered art of photography, and being in delicate health [this is borne out by the letters in the Snell Family Papers], became an itinerant daguerreotypist.  In this capacity he traveled for three years [1843-46] visiting nearly all the states in the Union, but devoting the greater part of his time to Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama and Carolinas.”

In an e-mail about the gift of daguerreotypes, Susan Snell, William’s descendant, wrote that William “took photos of southern belles so that they could be shared around the neighborhood in hopes of finding a husband.”  In fact, Susan’s gift contains a daguerreotype of a Southern girl that William retained from among those he took for customers, along with an explanatory note.  The note, from an interview in 1900 between William and his son William Emerson Snell, records that the daguerreotypist was offered ten slaves by the girl’s mother if he would marry her.  “I relinquish my claim when you make yours,” the mother told him.  As an abolitionist, the note says, he was shocked at the offer.  Since he remembered it more than 50 years later, the occasion clearly made an impression.

“A Southern girl.” This daguerreotype shows a backdrop that would be very typical for an itinerant daguerreotypist. The tablecloth shown here appears in a daguerreotype of a family member (not included in this post), suggesting that Snell carried this particular tablecloth with him and that its pattern could be used to identify at least some of his daguerreotypes. Note that there are several different cloths in the daguerreotypes of family members shown above, some specific to a couple and probably from their own homes.

The Rushford History continues: “In 1846 he returned home with improved health taking charge of a garden near Boston for two years [a letter in the collection suggests that it was his sister Tirzah’s in Brookline], then entered into a machine shop at Lawrence, and became a machinist by profession, as he was by the strong bias a mechanical genius. William has been credited with the invention of the principle of the mechanical knotter or twine binder, which he sold to Appleby who made improvements and revolutionized American agriculture.”

A letter from Strong to his sister Tirzah Emerson in spring of 1847 confirms that William was back in Massachusetts but was still trying to determine what he would do for work – by this time he had decided he didn’t want to farm. Working as a machinist seems to have been a temporary solution for him, but he still felt unsettled.

At the same time, the Snell family was approaching the celebration in 1848 of Reverend Snell’s 50th anniversary as pastor of the North Brookfield Congregational Church. There were plans for family members to gather for the occasion, and it seems likely that many of the daguerreotypes above were taken during this period. However, evidence in Strong’s letters suggests that the Porters in Illinois couldn’t attend the celebrations, so the daguerreotypes of the Porters were probably taken toward the end of William’s earlier travels and after March, 1845, when the Porters moved to Hadley, Illinois. One or two others – such as the Rushford cabin — must date from even later since William only moved to Minnesota in 1855. During all the time that he was a daguerreotypist he seems to have used the same camera lens, one more suited to portraits than to landscapes.

In late 1850 William married Jane Fay of Vermont, and in the spring of 1855 he left for Minnesota, where he staked a claim to land in the new town of Rushford.  Jane followed him there a short time later. In Rushford, William found the preacher in himself, no doubt reaching back to what he learned from his father. The family remained in Minnesota until the late 1880s, when they moved to California. William Snell died there in 1901.

The southeastern area (Dakotah territory) of Minnesota. William Snell settled in Rushford, located in the lower right section, a bit below the “t” in “Hokalt.” Map detail from “Chapin’s New Ornamental Map of the United States” (1853) from the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection.

Knowing that William Snell took the daguerreotypes above also demonstrated that he took several of the daguerreotypes that have long been at Amherst College as part of the Snell Family Papers.  These daguerreotypes were taken at the same sitting as the ones we received from Susan Snell, or very close in time. In each of the comparisons in the slideshow below, the additions from the new gift are on the left and the daguerreotypes that have been at Amherst for several decades are on the right. Notice the subtle differences between the daguerreotypes for each individual.  (Click on any image to see the slideshow.)

One of William’s daguerreotypes of Strong is also curious in that it shows him with equipment (as yet unidentified –if you know, please tell us) and two books, one of which supports a section of the unidentified equipment:

Strong’s books and equipment. Image flipped.

As a dedicated nosey parker (or an undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive), it was important to look at the books Snell has with him. Sometimes the books in daguerreotypes can be identified, sometimes they can’t. In this case a little Photoshop work and subsequent investigation in our library catalogue revealed not only the title of the work – they’re two volumes of a four-volume title — but the fact that we own the exact copies that Strong uses in the photograph. How often does that happen? Probably not that often:

Left to right, the volume in the daguerreotype, flipped; the same volume in the Archives and Special Collections, and interior with Snell’s signature.

When we look at all the Snell family daguerreotypes above (and there are more in the Archives than I’ve included here), we can imagine the scenes: William visiting family members; gathering and setting up the backdrop, the chair, the table, the cloth to cover the table and the books or flowers on it; William suggesting poses (“hold still!”), including where the hands should be, and the silence in the room for those long seconds a daguerreotype required. The Snells come to life in this way – you can feel them bustling around the room, moving the props around, or maybe running to change clothing between shots. You can sense the excitement they must’ve felt as they anticipated how the daguerreotypes would turn out. That these images lasted as a group this long – almost 170 years! – is amazing, and a testament to the strength of Snells.

 

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* Amherst Graduates Quarterly, 1947, but originally from Strong Snell’s diary in the Snell Family Papers.

**A daguerreotypist named William Snell operated in Eastern Massachusetts from 1843-1865, but he is not William Ward Snell.

 

Sources that mention William Ward Snell:

History of North Brookfield, p. 755.

The History of the Descendants of Elder John Strong, of Northampton, Mass., p. 62.

Congregational Work of Minnesota, 1832-1920, p. 278.

The Home Missionary, vol. 55, Feb 1883, p. 303.  Snell is also mentioned in several other volumes of this publication.

Minutes of the General Congregational Association of Minnesota, referencing Snell’s “Reminiscences of a Thirty Years’ Pastorate in Minnesota,” [Sept.] 1884, p. 18.

The Christian Union, Vol. 30, No. 21, re “Reminiscences,” p. 502.

“A Tale of Two Valleys,” by Conrad G. Selvig, chapter 2.

Minutes of the Annual Meeting of the Southern California Congregational Conference, 1901, p. 52 (obituary).

“Rushford History of Churches, Schools, and ‘Movers and Shakers’,” unpublished volume; excerpt provided by the Rushford Historical Society.

“History of Fillmore County,” volume 1, 1912.

 

 

 

 

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Morgan Library in “Ballou’s,” 1855

In early 2017 I posted about 25 individual daguerreotypes from the Amherst College Class of 1850 that are part of the Archives and Special Collections. I provided new glass for each daguerreotype, reassembled each unit, and attempted to identify the members of the class. The daguerreotypes were in envelopes, having been removed in the 1980s from a grouping in an old wooden frame, which was apparently discarded. With only two exceptions – Austin Dickinson and George Gould – there were no names attached to the daguerreotypes from a class well known to Emily Dickinson, who often mentioned Austin’s classmates in her letters.  The identifications I proposed in the 2017 post were based in particular on things like a visible fraternity pin in a daguerreotype that could be compared against a list of known fraternity members, or later images of the students that could be compared with their youthful ones. In this way, it was possible to identify everyone at least tentatively. And there the matter rested.

A few months later I needed to write a thank-you note to someone who gave us a collection of daguerreotypes by Professor Ebenezer Snell’s brother William Ward Snell (the subject of a future post). For my thank-you, I looked through a collection of note cards in the department and chose my favorite, a photograph showing the interior of Morgan Library in the late 19th century.  I’ve looked at this photograph many times, but this time – with daguerreotypes on the brain – I noticed something I’d never noticed before. Can you see it?

Look closer:

I knew at once that there was a framed group of daguerreotypes on the wall.  Furthermore, it was reasonable to think it was a group of people somehow connected to each other (faculty or students) rather than a bunch of random daguerreotypes framed together (if anyone ever did that anyway). I went to a good scan of the photograph and examined it. The one on the left in the second row caught my eye — I yelped– surely that was Austin Dickinson…  I wasn’t looking for him — he just stuck out in some way, perhaps because I’ve seen his big, doughy face a million times already and I have its template impressed on my brain.

 

My more levelheaded and therefore initially skeptical colleague Chris examined it – and agreed. It then occurred to me that if this daguerreotype showed Austin, was he where he ought to be if the daguerreotypes were in alphabetical order? I counted. He was. The next thing to do was to place the ones with solid identifications in their proper place and then to work down through the list of students. Chris and I had a lot of fun with this part.

In order to do the work, we looked at the daguerreotypes that had some physical aspect that made them stand out – those that showed solarization in the whites that made them glow (like Faunce in the middle of the second row), or that were especially dark; those in which the direction the sitters were facing was a factor; or those that were framed in ovals, which seemed especially visible. These variables allowed us to put the images in place and recreate the framed group that you can see in the library photograph above. So here’s the Class of 1850 in alphabetical order, from left to right, top to bottom. If you want to be a smarty-pants, you could compare them with the identifications in the previous post and see where I was wrong.

Left to right, top to bottom:
Avery, Beebe, Bishop, Cory, Crosby, Dickinson, Ellery, Faunce, Fenn, Garrette, Gay, Gilbert, Gould, Gregory, Hodge, Howland, Manning, Newton, Nickerson, Packard, Sawyer, Shipley, Stimpson, Thompson, Williston (see list of full names at end of post). Daguerreotypist undocumented but most likely J.D. Wells of Northampton.

 

But  – oh no…!

Are you familiar with the expression “sacrifice your darlings”? I remember exactly when I first heard that expression and who said it to me. It’s usually employed (everywhere…tiresomely) as a helpful reminder to edit your writing (good advice, and I attempt to abide by it–I swear), but I also think of it in broader terms to mean giving up something one treasures.  In this case, it meant that my heart must be broken and a darling sacrificed, for it revealed that the photograph below — the same photograph that is my computer’s background– is not Henry Shipley, known to his mates as “Ship,” the brilliant bad-boy of his class who couldn’t stay out of trouble and whose tragic story (see second half of earlier post) has become linked in my mind with this particular photograph:

Instead, it’s Minott Sherman Crosby, a schoolteacher and principal of two schools, the Hartford Female Seminary and then Waterbury High School, and later superintendent of schools in Waterbury.  He lived to 1897 and had three children with Margaret Maltby Crosby.

 

An inconvenient truth. At right, Minott Crosby in “History of Waterbury”

This identification continues to disorder my mind and send up a bristling resistance. I still associate that face with Ship, though sadly now. Instead, the real Shipley is — according to the group order — this fellow:

So I put this guy – this Shipley – as the background on a second computer, where he duels across the room with his alter-ego (aka Crosby) for my affection. But I continue to struggle to accept the truth, which is a strange lesson in sacrificing a darling, and in how hard it is to give up a cherished belief in the face of better evidence — a lesson for every era.

So for now, at least, this should be it for the Class of 1850. Unless something else comes up….

 

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Full list of the graduates of the Class of 1850:

William Fisher Avery (1826-1903)
Albert Graham Beebe (1826-1899)
Henry Walker Bishop (1829-1913)
John Edwin Cory (1825-1865)
Minott Sherman Crosby (1829-1897)
William Austin Dickinson (1829-1895)
John Graeme Ellery (1824-1855)
Daniel Worcester Faunce (1829-1911)
Thomas Legare Fenn (1830-1912)
Edmund Young Garrette (1823-1902)
Augustine Milton Gay (1827-1876)
Archibald Falconer Gilbert (1825-1866)
George Henry Gould (1827-1899)
James John Howard Gregory (1827-1910)
Leicester Porter Hodge (1828-1851)
George Howland (1824-1892)
Jacob Merrill Manning (1824-1882)
Jeremiah Lemuel Newton (1824-1883)
Joseph Nickerson (1828-1882)
David Temple Packard (1824-1880)
Sylvester John Sawyer (1823-1884)
Henry Shipley (1825-1859)
Thomas Morrill Stimpson (1827-1898)
John Howland Thompson (1827-1891)
Lyman Richards Williston (1830-1897)

There were also 15 non-graduates in the class, all of whom departed Amherst long before the daguerreotypes were made.

 

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Letter to Zephaniah S. Moore, first president of Amherst College.

This week, I’d like to draw your attention to a fascinating collection that was recently digitized and made available in Amherst College Digital Collections: the Amherst College Early History Manuscripts and Pamphlets Collection.

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A map of South College from the first year of the college’s existence, 1821/22, showing the students living in each room.

This is a small collection of documents that were donated to the archives by Edward and Ethel Mellon in 1921 (see the finding aid here). The majority of the items in this collection date from the first fifteen years of Amherst College’s existence and they reveal a lot about what the institution was like during this formative time. The college was very small: admissions, financial aid, discipline and the day to day business of the college where executed in a personal and paternal manner by the President and the Board of Trustees. There are many letters in the collection regarding students wishing to attend the college. Admission was often as simple as a letter of introduction sent to the President and a letter of acceptance in return. The college having been founded for the express purpose of educating indigent young men of piety, there are also many inquiries about financial aid.

Dana Clayes letter to President Heman Humphrey, June 21, 1824

“He wishes to ascertain the principal expenses, (viz.) the price of board, firewood, etc. and likewise what assistance can be afforded to pious indigent students who possess the requisite talents.” Dana Clayes letter to President Heman Humphrey, June 21, 1824

The college was also rigidly paternalistic in its early years – absolute obedience and unquestioning respect was required of all students and the faculty, president and trustees of the college dictated most aspects of student life. The eleven items relating to student discipline illuminate this dynamic very well. Ethraim Eveleth, class of 1825, was suspended for implying that the faculty had displayed favoritism in student appointments, the collection includes his signed retraction and a statement by the trustees reinstating him as a student in light of same. Another suspension was given to Joseph Goffe, Jr., class of 1826, who left campus without permission and then had the temerity to say that a student has the right to disobey the authority of the College when he thinks his request has been unreasonably denied.

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Charles Upham Shephard apparently made “an opprobrious inscription upon glass + circulating it in the Chemical Lecture room” received an Admonition from the president.

Some of the offenses that student received discipline for make more sense to a modern mind: Charles Upham Shephard, class of 1824 and later a respected professor of Natural History at the college for many decades, was admonished by the president and faculty for what we would now call bullying.

“The Faculty cannot close without expressing their decided disapprobation of every attempt to bring a fellow student into disconduct or make his college life uncomfortable by applying to him any opprobrious epithet whether directly or indirectly, in conversation or in writing. The Faculty wish to have it distinctly understood that no such violation of the laws of kindness and good breeding can be tolerated in this institution.”

Edward Dickinson, class of 1823, who would go on to be a respected lawyer, treasurer of the college and the father of Emily Dickinson, was involved in an incident in November of 1821 with an oyster supper, cherry rum, gin and a “great disturbance in and about the Institution”.

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The Charges: “-that after supper they had cherry rum and gin -that they drank to excess – that about 12 0’clock they all of them came to the Institution – that they there behaved in a very indecent and riotous manner, and made great disturbance in and about the Institution, to the extreme annoyance of those residing in it til one o’clock or later.”

Other items of interest and importance in this collection include:

  • Five letters between the Anti-Slavery Society and the Trustees from 1834 regarding the Trustees’ order that the Society disband and the Society’s protest of that decision. These letters and the history of the Society more broadly are explored in another post on this blog, the Amherst College Anti-Slavery Society.
  • In February 1822, students presented a petition to President Zephaniah Swift Moore expressing their dissatisfaction with tutor Lucius Fields and their request for a different tutor. In response the faculty passed a resolution that the petition was slanderous and should not be granted. Regarding punishment for the students who brought the petition, the faculty decided to treat the students with “paternal tenderness” but should there be any further disorder or disrespect to the officers of the Institution, the faulty would proceed with all the severity required.
  • A letter from Cyrus Grosvenor to President Moore in 1823 discusses his travels in the South Carolina and his attempts to raise money and recruit students for the college there.
  • In 1841 or 1842, 10 sophomores agreed to work on the college hill for 10¢ an hour to pay their debts. Presumably this meant manual labor to grade the hill or maintain paths or roads.
  • My personal favorite is a letter from the senior class to the president expressing their concern for his health and their willingness to forgo all the rest of their classes with him this term so that he can rest. A wry note by the president is written at the end of the petition indicating that they continued to have class for the rest of the term.

If you enjoy this material, keep your eyes peeled for the Early College History Collection, which is being digitized and will be going up on ACDC in the coming months!

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A crowd sits on a grassy hill, and watches two figure skaters perform a dance on the ice rink. The pair wear matching sweaters, and are holding hands with their left arms extended.

Phyllis (Schroeder) Forney and her husband Martin Forney perform an ice dancing routine.

Grab your skates!

The Walter S. Orr Rink opened 63 years ago this month—dedicated on January 15, 1955. The dedication ceremony, led by Dean Eugene S. Wilson (Class of 1929), included speeches by Trustee Francis T. P. Plimpton (Class of 1921), President Charles W. Cole (Class of 1927), and Walter S. Orr (Class of 1912), the rink’s namesake and major donor. The formal ceremony was followed by two figure skating performances and an Amherst College vs. UMass Amherst hockey game (which Amherst lost, 5-4).

National champions performed the two inaugural figure skating routines. Dick Button won Olympic gold in both 1948 and 1952 with two historic “firsts” in competition. In 1948, he landed the first double Axel, and four years later, he landed the first triple jump (a loop).[1]  Ice dancing pair (and spouses) Phyllis and Martin Forney would compete in the 1955 World Figure Skating Championships.

A male ice skater, dressed in black, lifts his foot and extends his arms as he twists his body to the right. Spectators in winter coats stand behind the wooden fence at the rink edge, and on the hill rising behind the rink.

Dick Button, Olympic gold medalist, begins a turn during his performance on the ice.

Despite the cold (the Amherst Student noted that it was below freezing), a substantial crowd gathered for the dedication. The speeches tended to humor, with Dean Wilson introducing President Cole as “one who is long-experienced in skating on thin ice,” and Trustee Plimpton hoping that the co-educational weekends would benefit from the new recreational opportunity.[2]

Two ice hockey teams skate on the ice. A crowd watches, with people sitting in bleachers or standing around the rink on snow-covered ground.

Amherst College ice hockey game, sometime between 1955 and 1965.

Perhaps people were tired of braving the cold, because Orr Rink was enclosed just ten years later in 1965. It was completely renovated in 1997, and is now home to both men’s and women’s ice hockey teams. Recreational skating is available to the Amherst College community (see the Athletics site for hours) from November through February; lace up and have some fun!

Notes

1. “Richard BUTTON – Olympic Figure Skating.” International Olympic Committee, February 1, 2017. https://www.olympic.org/richard-button.
2. “Plimpton, Button Help Dedicate New Orr Rink.” Amherst Student, January 17, 1955. Amherst College Archives & Special Collections.

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On Saturday, October 28, Amherst College was honored to host Massachusetts Congressman Joseph Kennedy III who delivered an address on the steps of Frost Library as part of a day-long celebration of the legacy of President John F. Kennedy. You can watch his speech and read more about the event here: JFK 100: Of Poetry & Politics.

President Kennedy’s visit to Amherst College on October 26, 1963 is well known; he gave an important, and frequently quoted, speech about the role of the artist in society before participating in the ground-breaking ceremony for the Robert Frost Library. We recently made more images of that event available through Amherst College Digital Collections:

Amherst College Photographer Records: JFK at Amherst
Kennedy Convocation Collection: Color Slides

Audio of Kennedy’s address is freely available through the Kennedy Library & Museum in Boston, and this small web exhibition includes scans of many documents held in the Archives.

What is less well known is that the Frost Library ground-breaking was not Kennedy’s first visit to Amherst College, nor was it his first contact with members of the Amherst Community. As I dug into our holdings to prepare an exhibition for the “Of Poetry & Politics” celebration, I turned up some interesting items, such as these two letters from then-Senator Kennedy to Karl Loewenstein:

JFK to Loewenstein 1954

JFK to Loewenstein 1957

German-born emigré political scientist, professor, lawyer, and government advisor, Karl Loewenstein had a long academic career, which began in Munich and continued at Yale (1933-1936) and Amherst (1936-1961) after his emigration to the United States.  He worked as an advisor for the Emergency Advisory Committee for Political Defense of the American Republics (1942-1944) and for the U.S. Office of Military Government for Germany (1945-1946). The Karl Loewenstein Papers are held by the Archives & Special Collections.

In addition to responding to Loewenstein’s letters, Senator Kennedy also reached out to Amherst College President Charles Cole:

JFK to Cole

Charles Woolsey Cole, Class of 1927, served as Professor of Economics at Amherst from 1935-1942 and as the twelfth College President from 1946-1960. In this letter, Senator Kennedy invites Cole to participate in a lunch with himself and “others in the academic, research and related fields” to give him advice on policy.

It is likely that Senator Kennedy met both Karl Loewenstein and President Cole when Kennedy spoke at Amherst College in May 1956. Senator Kennedy’s 1956 visit might have been forgotten were it not for this small piece that appeared in the Amherst Student:

JFK in Amherst Student 1956

I have not found any additional documents related to this visit anywhere in our holdings yet, but we will keep looking.

JFK Inaugural

John F. Kennedy was the first President to invite a poet to participate in his inaugural celebration; Frost supported Kennedy during his campaign and he agreed to recite “The Gift Outright” at Kennedy’s request. Kennedy was unaware that Frost also composed a new poem – “Dedication” – as a preface to his earlier piece. Unfortunately, because of the inclement weather and difficulty reading the typescript, Frost did not read “Dedication” and recited “The Gift Outright” from memory. When asked to comment after Frost’s death in January 1963, Kennedy said:

“I’ve never taken the view the world of politics and the world of poetry are so far apart. I think politicians and poets share at least one thing, and that is their greatness depends upon the courage with which they face the challenges of life.”

But Robert Frost was not the only poet involved in the 1960 inaugural celebration:

JFK to Bogan

Louise Bogan was a poet who frequently appeared in The New Republic, The Nation, Poetry, Scribner’s and The Atlantic Monthly. For thirty-eight years, she reviewed poetry for The New Yorker. Here, the President thanks her for her participation and asks her for any further suggestions she might have for “contributions the national government might make to the arts in America.” The Louise Bogan Papers are held by the Archives & Special Collections.

Kennedy’s connections to Amherst faculty continued into his Presidency, as seen in this letter to Amherst Professor Willard Thorp:

JFK to Thorp

Willard Thorp, Amherst Class of 1920, was a pioneer statistician, economist, domestic and foreign policy advisor, international development expert, and private business consultant. He served as Assistant Secretary of State for Economic Affairs from 1946-1952, he played a critical role in the design and implementation of the Marshall Plan and later held a number of United Nations appointments. Thorp taught Economics at Amherst from 1927-1935 and from 1952 until his retirement in 1965. In this letter, Kennedy thanks him for his work on cultural exchange with Japan. The Willard L. and Clarice Brows Thorp Papers are held in the Archives.

The invitation to President Kennedy to speak at Amherst College for the ground-breaking of Robert Frost Library was sent by John J. McCloy. Here is the President’s letter formally accepting the invitation:

JFK to McCloy

John J. McCloy graduated from Amherst College in 1916 and served on the Board of Trustees from 1947-1989. He thought of himself as a public servant and in his speeches often emphasized the importance of public service. Among his many influential posts, he served as Assistant Secretary of War from 1941 – 1945. He was an advisor to President Kennedy, acted as Chairman of the Coordinating Committee of the US on Cuban Missile Crisis, and was a member of the Warren Commission charged with investigating President Kennedy’s assassination.

In his Convocation address, the President describes the invitation he received from McCloy thus:

“The powers of the Presidency are often described. Its limitations should occasionally be remembered, and, therefore, when the Chairman of our Disarmament Advisory Committee — who has labored so long and hard, Governor Stevenson’s assistant during the very difficult days at the United Nations, during the Cuban crisis, a public servant of so many years – asks or invites the President of the United States, there is only one response.” 

The John J. McCloy Papers are one of the most heavily used collections held in the Archives.

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Amherst College’s records are filled with names that would seem unusual today, like Preserved Smith (grandfather – 1828, grandson – 1901), or Heman Humphrey (2nd college president, 1823-1845). It’s less common to come across a name that stands out because it sounds modern to our ears. I was surprised when I found letters to a Crystal Thompson, curator of the Zoological Collection—written in 1923.

At first, I thought that the name might be an example of a name’s gender association changing, as with the name Leslie1, because the first letter, from Feb. 20, 1923, was addressed, “Dear Sir.”

Milton Bradley Company, Springfield, Mass. Feb. 20, 1923 Dear Sir: We have your favor of the 15th and believe your trouble can be corrected by loosening up the screw, which goes through the adjusting button on the left hand side of the rule, and taking an ordinary carpenter screw, laying it against the straight blade, square up your rule. Be sure the rule sets in position when you tighten the screw in the cam button. We enclose herewith direction card. If this should not overcome your trouble, please advise us further. Very truly yours, G. Falek.

Instructions for fixing a troublesome paper cutter, from Milton Bradley Company

However, the second letter (sent Mar. 13, 1923) was addressed to Miss Thompson. Now I was very curious.

Springfield, Mass. Mar. 13, 1923 Miss Thompson, The Zoological Collections, Amherst College. Dear Madame: We are today returning to you the Monarch Cutter. This machine has been thoroughly overhauled, and we are sure you will find it does the work you require in a satisfactory manner. We are enclosing circular showing the other sizes we manufacture. Awaiting your further favors, we remain Very truly yours, G. Falek. Milton Bradley Company.

This following letter, to Miss Crystal Thompson, reports the successful return and repair of the troublesome paper cutter.

Here was someone even more unusual—a woman working as curator of Amherst’s natural history collections. These letters are in the Department of Biology collection, with others concerning laboratory and museum supplies and material orders.

The Amherst College Biographical Record, which lists alumnae/i, college administration, and faculty, had no listing for Crystal Thompson, but the Amherst College Catalog for 1919 shows Crystal Thompson, M.A. as Curator of the Zoological Collection (as well as one Harriet Oakes Rogers, B.S., as Curator in the Chemistry Laboratory).

With a bit more research in the Board of Trustees’ Minutes, I found that Crystal Thompson had come to Amherst from the University of Michigan.  Their online yearbooks and other digital collections revealed that she had received her B.S. in 1909, her M.A. in 1910, and worked as an assistant in the Zoology Museum from 1911-1919. She co-authored several publications on regional reptiles and snakes, and their archives (via the Bentley Historical Library Image Bank, which is a digital library like our own Amherst College Digital Collections site, ACDC), has this 1918 photograph.

A young woman wearing a camp shirt, khaki pants, and field boots, sits on a tree stump in the woods.
Crystal Thompson, in woods of North Carolina, 1918. Image HS14930. University of Michigan Library Digital Collections.

She worked here at Amherst from 1919-1927, then returned to Michigan to be the curator of visual education when they opened a new museum building. She spent the rest of her career at Michigan, retiring in 1958.

There’s a lot that remains unknown about women employed here at Amherst College, especially before the 1940s. The first woman hired to teach was Madeleine Utter, as an interim French instructor just for the 1918-1919 academic year. Crystal Thompson was hired as curator the next year, along with Harriet Rogers for the Chemistry Laboratory.

As World War 1 was underway, there may have been a relative shortage of male candidates available, creating opportunity for these women at Amherst. Thompson’s arrival could also have resulted from the hiring of Professor Otto Glaser (who had been at the University of Michigan) as Chair of the Biology Department in 1918.

From around 1914 or so, the secretary to the President and other administrative positions are listed in the college catalogs, and names like Gertrude and Esther begin to appear. A systematic listing has not been created, but the catalogs are always available for anyone who is curious.


1. In 1900, Leslie was the 91st most popular boy’s name, while in 1997 (the last year it was within the top 1000, it was 881. As a girl’s name, Leslie was 646 in 1900, jumped sharply in the 1940s to the top 200, and remained there (hitting 56 in 1981) until 2010, when it began falling in popularity. You can search for any name at “Popular Baby Names.” Social Security Administration, 2017.

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