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Thursday, September 19, 2013

Printmaking 101: Lithography

Wooden type (photo: Bettina Smith)
Hi, my name is Bettina, and I am a print history geek. A visit to the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, Germany is my idea of a good time. I've been to print history summer camp. I was even crazy enough to hand-print my own wedding invitations. So believe me when I say that I love prints. (Coincidentally, I also love Prince, but that's a different blog post entirely.) I don't get to deal with them as often as I'd like in my archival cataloging work, but there are some excellent pieces scattered throughout the collections of the Archives of American Art.

Color separation proof book, circa 1890. Louis Prang papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
One of my favorites is this color separation proof book of lithographs from the Louis Prang papers.
Prang was a printer and publisher in Massachusetts in the 19th century whose firm L. Prang and Company specialized in chromolithography. But before we go any further, I should probably explain what a lithograph is. A lithograph is a print made by drawing an image onto the flat face of a stone with an oily crayon. The stone is then made wet, and ink is applied. The ink will adhere only to the areas where the crayon is resisting the water. A sheet of paper is pressed to the stone and you have your print. In chromolithography, the process is repeated multiple times, layering different colored inks on the same sheet of paper until the desired effect is achieved. The Louis Prang proof book shows a print that takes 16 different colors to build a nuanced image of a bottle. The image above shows the final print, but the fun part is watching the print take shape as the colors are added.
Print after two colors have been applied, a cream background and the first image of the bottle

Four colors, showing the first addition of green

The sixth color, gray, adds nuance and the bottle's shadow

In each example, the image on the left-hand page shows a print of a single color, and the image on the right shows that print layered over all the other colors that have already been applied. This breakdown showed Prang all the steps and allowed him to tweak any if he wished. A note on the inside front cover reads: "Accepted except take out table and shadow of bottle, print this with n.102, see remarks on proofs," which confirms that Prang (or whoever wrote this note) nixed the shadow portion of the gray color layer. You can look through the entire proof book here. To see more lithographs from across the Smithsonian, try the Collections Search Center.

Bettina Smith, Digital Projects Librarian
Archives of American Art

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

No Time Like the Present: Dorn C. McGrath Jr. Slide Collection

Dorn C. McGrath Jr., image taken by Rob Crandall, 2013
In the archival world it is a rare that you get to interview the creator of a collection. Either archival collections are deposited after an individual has passed, or interviews are not possible because of the time it takes to process the volume of materials an archive is tasked with preserving. There have been many times in my work as a documentation archivist at The New Zealand FilmArchive (NZFA) that I have lamented the opportunity to speak to those individuals whose legacy I seek to preserve. If only there were more hours in a day, or I could recruit more interns to assist with the ever waging war against time, we could set a richer context for collections.

It was the opportunity to work with the Dorn C. McGrath Jr. Slide Collection and its creator, Professor McGrath, which inspired me to take a three-month sabbatical from my job at the NZFA and join the Archives team at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum. I have spent my time here re-housing and cataloguing the collection as well as corresponding and interviewing Professor McGrath about his extensive slide collection. Professor McGrath took the 1,889 slides that comprise the collection between 1969 and 2006. They document both the built and natural environment of the Washington, DC, Anacostia neighborhood. According to Professor McGrath, “The city had done zero planning for Anacostia…and was not likely to do it”. In an effort to redress this gap, Professor McGrath and his George Washington University students surveyed the Anacostia area. The Dorn C. McGrath Jr. Slide Collection is a result of this survey.

Dorn C. McGrath Jr., Slide Collection, original housing, 2013
In my interview with Professor McGrath, I was lucky enough to learn more about this collection, Anacostia, and the connection between Professor McGrath and the Anacostia Community Museum. He told me that the Anacostia Community Museum “used to be down on Martin Luther King Avenue” and that on “the second floor of the theatre looking out on the marquee was Kinard’s office” where he and Mr. Kinard (the founding director of the Anacostia Community Museum) spent much time discussing Anacostia and its needs. One perceived need was a survey of the Anacostia area.

View of Navy Yard from Anacostia, Southeast Washington, DC, 1981 (acma_mcgrath_137)
The slides were originally presented to the Anacostia Coordinating Council and Anacostia residents at community meetings. McGrath recalls “Kinard…assembled a group of people, maybe fifty or sixty, they all…sat there and we presented our findings…we went through our song and dance and told them what they should do and they did it.” Several decades on from these presentations, a number of the slides are now digitized. These images along with those not yet digitized, papers and an audio interviews with Professor McGrath are available for consultation by appointment at Smithsonian's Anacostia Community Museum.

This experience has encouraged me to incorporate depositor interviews into my archival practice where possible. It has also taught me that, although there is not enough time for me to process every archival collection, spending time assisting colleagues with their processing work is certainly worthwhile. There is no time like the present to do so!

Kiri Griffin, Summer Intern 2013
Anacostia Community Museum Archives

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Picture Day Take Two

Entomological Staff, c. 1905, SIA, SIA2011-0103
It’s that time of year again when teachers and kids head back to school.  Backpacks and lunchboxes are filled and picture day is just around the corner. Picture day is always filled with a mix of excitement and anxiety. You need to make sure you have the greatest outfit, a sweet hairdo, and never forget to double-check the form before handing it to the photographer to make sure that your chosen background, whether neon pink laser or forest scene (popular when I was in school), is absolutely perfect. After you nailed that part of the day, the next challenge is the class picture. It is very important to make sure you get a good spot with your friends and not be too close to the teacher.  Though that is not as much of a concern for Smithsonian staff, we have certainly taken our fair share of class pictures over the years.

Anthropology Staff, 1904, SIA, NAA-42012
A few years ago we shared some of our favorite Smithsonian staff class pictures with you.  And though we may not get a pop up bulletin board to act as our backdrop (at least not all the time), we still have to figure out who gets to stand where and who gets the coveted seat option, and we have some really neat backgrounds!  So, for your viewing pleasure check out the fun photos of Smithsonian staff throughout the years and see if you get some outfit inspiration for you own memorable look.
Zoo Employees, c. 1920,
SIA, 2003-19492
SI Photographers at Vietnam Veterans Memorial,
1986, SIA, 86-12516-3

National Collection of Fine Arts
Staff, c. 1965, SIA, 

National Museum of the American Indian Staff,
New York City, 1990, by Karen Furth,
SIA, SIA2011-1103

Smithsonian Staff, 2010, by Eric Long,
Smithsonian Institution

Monday, September 9, 2013

How a 51 Year Old Field Notebook Triggered an Investigation at the Smithsonian

the cover of the Travelog for this South American Expedition
The travelog
On December 3rd, 1962, a scientist named Doris Mabel Cochran set off from New York on a Pan American jet plane. She was headed into South America to collect frog specimens on an expedition funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

As the first female curator for the Division of Reptiles and Amphibians at the Smithsonian, Cochran collected over 3,000 frog specimens from Brazil, Columbia, Peru and elsewhere. When she died in 1968, many of Cochran’s papers were passed to the Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA), including a travelog documenting collection events, descriptions of local flora and fauna, and daily activities of that trip in 1962.

Some 50 years after this grand expedition to South America, our innocuous travelog became involved in an entirely new adventure.

Who Really Authored the Travelog?

Earlier this summer, with the launch of the Smithsonian Transcription Center, we invited the public to come explore and contribute to our vast and rich collections from across science, art, history and culture.

The travelog was amongst the collected papers of Doris Mabel Cochran. The book never indicates directly who authored it, and in the official object description at SIA, it is simply noted that this travelog described events that occurred during the trip, and that it was a part of her papers. Professional archivists are always careful not to assume authorship, simply because some paper is part of a collection. People often save items authored by others in their own collections of papers -- most commonly we see letters from other people, but a journal could have been a gift or temporarily in Doris' possession at the time of her death.

However, in preparing the project description in the Transcription Center, we accidentally suggested that it was in fact Doris’s book by including the phrase “help us … by transcribing her travelog.” One of our volunteers, Miguel Torres Barrios, had made significant contributions to the Travelog project and noticed some inconsistencies between the notebook and this assumption of authorship, and he sent us this feedback:
“The TRAVELOG OF 1962-1963 SOUTH AMERICAN TRIP is not of Doris Cochran as it is noted. It does tell of her trip to South America, but this travelogue is of someone named Mildred, or so I assume, because it is made out to her, from "Mildred and Wanda", and since both Doris and Wanda are referred to in the third person, and there is no mention of Mildred as someone else. It would be beneficial to the project, and to give due credit to the author of the writings if this author were to be identified and named in the summary of the project.”
I was quickly advised that the Smithsonian Institution Archives did not assert authorship; however, they agreed that it was an important question that might be resolved by looking at other Doris Cochran papers. Doris was a common name in the 1960s, so it was possible that there was another Doris on the trip.

Tugging at the Threads

Travelog Inscription
I decided to look into the matter and follow the clues identified by Miguel.  The threads of our conversation started with two pages of the travelog:

  • One of the first pages of the book says “To Doris, From Wanda and Mildred” -- could this book be written by them?
  • The travelog includes an entry that says “This is Doris' birthday & I gave her 2 pr. stockings, which was the only suitable thing I had with me.” It seems strange for Doris Mabel Cochran to refer to herself in the third person. Could there be another Doris on the trip?

The first thread was quickly resolved: We know the trip begins Dec. 3rd since that’s the first date of the travelog, which is after the date signed by Wanda and Mildred. The travelog was probably given blank, on November 16th, 1962, as a gift to the mysterious author.

The second question required more digging. Whoever wrote the notebook was likely a key member of the trip, since the journal covers the entire duration, from the flight out of New York in December 1962 all the way to seeing the cats again in February 1963.

In March 2012, a Field Book Project blog post by Sonoe Nakasone identified this same question. Pamela Henson, SIA Historian, commented that “Doris Mable Cochran often traveled with her friend, Doris Holmes Blake;” however, we still had no real evidence.

Who was on the trip? To answer that question, we’d have to get our hands on some primary sources.

Diving into the Archives

The original travelog is in box 12 of the Doris Mabel Cochran papers, so that’s where our journey started.  I joined Ricc Ferrante, Director of Digital Services and IT Archivist at SIA, on an expedition into the archives.

Ricc pulls box 12 of the Doris Cochran collection
from the archive
Click Image to Enlarge

Ricc puts on white gloves to show me the travelog
Click Image to Enlarge
Ricc got his white gloves on and opened the box up. We got a look at the original 1962-1963 South America travelog, and also found some personal items from that same trip, information about a 1966 composium on animal venom, and a number of papers regarding the National Science Foundation grant that funded the trip to South America.

In that set of papers, we found the original NSF grant proposal for this trip to South America. In reading through it, we found our next big clue: Doris had a travel companion who would accompany her for most of the trip.

NSF grant funding the South America Expedition
Click Image to Enlarge

In the description of the proposed research: “Mrs. Sidney F. Blake, the coleopterist, an Honorary Research Associate of the Smithsonian Institution, will be visiting nearly the same museums at the same time, and it is planned to travel with her during most of this long journey.”

So who was this Mrs. Sidney F. Blake?

Seeing Double

Ellen looks at the digitized
Click Image to Enlarge
Ellen Allers at SIA took on the challenge of discovering the author of the travelog.  Her job, as reference archivist, is to solve mysteries every day. She knows that a woman is hard to track in history because she is often referred to by her husband's name. In any case, the next step was to find out more about Sidney F. Blake.

The first Google result for “Sidney F. Blake” leads us to a record at SIA. Blake was a botanist who studied at Harvard and then worked for 43 years at the USDA. Sidney could not be the travel companion referred to in the NSF grant -- he was not a coleopterist and a man.

Mrs. Sidney F. Blake must have been the wife of this Sidney F. Blake.  Looking further in the SIA record for Blake, we find this key entry:

"Additional materials include...photographs of Blake, his wife Doris Holmes Blake, and family and colleagues."

Aha! Another Doris!

Googling “Doris Holmes Blake” confirms that she was a coleopterist (a person who studies beetles) and almost certainly the “Mrs. Sidney F. Blake” referred to in the NSF grant.

We now have two prime candidates for answering the mystery of who authored this travelog. But which one was it? Doris Mabel Cochran, the herpetologist, or Doris Holmes Blake, the coleopterist?

Reading Between the Lines

Ellen, our reference archivist, came up with an idea: if we could find confirmed writing samples from both Dorises, we could figure out which one of them was more likely to be the author of the travelog.

Once again, our collections came into play. SIA happens to have 37 boxes worth of papers from Doris Holmes Blake, containing letters, diaries and materials from her personal life and career.

And it turns out in this collection there’s a letter written from Doris Mabel Cochran to Doris Holmes Blake. With this letter, we had definitive indication of authorship, which gave us a clear handwriting sample.  In comparing handwriting, archivists look at whether the writer makes heavy or light marks, or have unique flair on particular letters or phrases.

In looking through Cochrane’s letter to Blake, we saw that she had a very distinctive way of writing “to”. The horizontal mark on the “t” is almost diagonal, which appears to be a slash going upward from the “o”. It appears almost like an X.

And when we compared that to a “to” in the travelog, we see a close similarity.

Comparing travelog Handwriting to Letter from Doris Cochran
Click Image to Enlarge

In comparison, Doris Holmes Blake has a very different style.  The SIA records indicate that “An immediately apparent peculiarity of the diaries is that they were written in Old German script. Beginning in 1907, for privacy, Blake began writing isolated phrases and sentences in script; by the end of 1909 most entries were entirely in [that] script, a practice which continued for the rest of Blake's life.”

As you can see, Blake's "to" are quite different. The top line is very long and straight.

Image from a Page of Doris Blake's Diary: note absence of distinctive stroke on "to"
Click Image to Enlarge

The handwriting analysis, combined with the knowledge that both women were on the trip together, provides a strong indication that the travelog was indeed authored by Doris Mabel Cochran. But Ellen had one more idea -- if Doris Holmes Blake was such a diarist, could she have also written about her trip to South America?

She went back to the records. One clue was a reference to “Doris’ Birthday” which was an entry dated to January 11th, 1963. Ellen was able to find Doris Holmes Blake’s diary entry on January 11th, 1963 and lo and behold, it says “71st Birthday.”

Image from a Page of Doris Blake's Diary on Jan 11, 1963: 71st Birthday
Click Image to Enlarge

Boom. Case closed.

The Questions Continue

We started this adventure with a question: “Who wrote this travelog?” which we answered: “Doris Mabel Cochran.”  The “other” Doris was friend and colleague, Doris Holmes Blake.

Doris Mable Cochran holding a snakeDoris Holmes Blake at her desk with her pet lizard on her shoulder
Doris Mabel Cochran
NSF scientist, author of the travelog
Doris Holmes Blake (aka Mrs. Sydney Blake)
Fellow scientist & travel companion

Along the way, we acquired some new questions: “Who are Wanda and Mildred, the women who gifted Cochran the notebook itself?”  We know that Doris wrote to Wanda on Dec. 6, 1962 and Feb. 2, 1963 -- perhaps someone has Wanda's papers with letters from Doris Cochran or maybe Wanda herself is still living and can tell us stories to fill in the gaps of history.

This is the beauty of archiving and the power of our collections. It has been incredible to have digital volunteers uncover history with us together, and who knows what we’ll find next!

If you know anything about Wanda or Mildred, please send us a note!

Please share this story with a friend and tell them about the Transcription Center.

Sarah Allen
Presidential Innovation Fellow

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Dawn of the Century

"Dawn of the Century" by E. T. Paull, published by E. T. Paull Music Co., 1900.
Sheet music from the Sam DeVincent Collection of Illustrated American Sheet Music,
Archives Center, National Museum of American History
As a photographic historian and and general aficionado of all things photographic--especially pre-digital--I'm alway on the lookout for imagery that includes references to photography and its centrality in modern life. The blazing color illustration above, from a sheet music cover published in 1900, extols the wonders of electricity, trains, automobiles, sewing machines, telephones, photography, and other inventions. Their visual representations or symbols swirl around a lovely female figure, probably the goddess Columbia. The view camera on a tripod at the right naturally represents photography, although its form may puzzle young people who take digital photographs with small cameras and cellular telephones. Significantly, the music is a "march and two step." Progress marches on!

David Haberstich, Curator of Photography
Archives Center
National Museum of American History

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Unity, Function, Simplicity, Scale: Thomas Dolliver Church

“A garden should have no beginning and no end” - Thomas D. Church

When you explore a garden that is visually stunning, do you ever stop to wonder about the design, about the decisions and thought that went into planning it? Thomas Dolliver Church (1902-1978) is one of the most well-known and influential American garden designers. In fact, garden historian Toby Musgrave went so far as to assert that Church is the most influential garden designer of the 20th century.

Church is known as the father of the modern California garden, a style that developed from Church’s design philosophy and the influences of the environment, economy, and lifestyle in California. Prior to starting his San Francisco-based landscape design business, Church traveled through Spain and Italy; his exposure to these cultures heavily influenced his approach. Church spent the majority of his decades-long career designing residential gardens. He believed that the garden should be an extension of the home and was known for putting the needs of the client first. A prolific landscape architect who designed more than 2,000 gardens, he also wrote the seminal landscape architecture book "Gardens Are For People", in which he details the four principles of his design philosophy: unity, function, simplicity, and scale. Church’s most well-known garden is El Novillero in Sonoma, California.

El Novillero. Sonoma, California. Photographer: Marion Bottomley.
Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Garden Club of America Collection

 El Novillero. Sonoma, California. Photographer: Marion Bottomley.
Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Garden Club of America Collection

For further biographical information, please see:

The Cultural Landscape Foundation
Indiana Public Media's Focus on Flowers
Thomas D. Church bio and link to the Thomas D. Church collection in the Online Archive of California 

Bella Wenum, Intern
Archives of American Gardens