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American Women: Resources from the Manuscript Collections

Artists, Architects, & Designers

Examples of women's artistic expression in the Manuscript Division range from an anonymous hand-painted Shaker greeting card to the more innovative furniture designs of celebrated artist Ray Eames.

The work of women sculptors is especially well represented, beginning with the career of nineteenth-century artist Vinnie Ream (1847-1914), who as a young teenager sculpted a bust of Abraham Lincoln while he met with petitioners visiting his White House office. She later created the statue of Lincoln that now stands in the U.S. Capitol. Her papers (2,500 items; 1853-1937; bulk 1853-1914) relate primarily to her career and her marriage to army lieutenant Richard Leveridge Hoxie, but they also touch upon racial conditions after the Civil War and social life in Washington, D.C., during Reconstruction.

Also located in the U.S. Capitol is the controversial statue of women's rights leaders Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Derisively called “Three Women in a Bathtub” by its critics, this women's suffrage memorial was created by feminist sculptor Adelaide Johnson (1859-1955) under commission to the National Woman's Party (NWP). Photographs and documentation about the sculpture may be found in Johnson's papers (40,000 items; 1873-1947) as well as in the NWP records, which are described in the section on suffrage organizations.

The work of sculptor Helene Sardeau (1899-1969) may be researched in the papers of her husband, muralist George Biddle (3,500 items; 1863-1973; bulk 1916-73), and that of Margaret French Cresson (1889-1973) and Brenda Putnam (1890-1975) in the papers of their respective fathers, sculptor Daniel Chester French (23,000 items; 1850-1968) and Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam (8,000 items; 1783-1958; bulk 1899-1939).

Although the work of women photographers, architects, and other visual artists is usually best researched by consulting the collections in the Library's Prints and Photographs Division, the Manuscript Division has several related personal papers collections. Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952) began as a photographer of national figures and events. She later excelled in garden photography and became known for compiling a remarkable photographic record of southern colonial architecture. All aspects of her career are reflected in her papers (19,000 items; 1855-1954; bulk 1890-1945), including her business partnership with Mattie Edwards Hewitt and her contributions to the emerging role of women in the photographic profession. The Manuscript Division also has small collections of the papers of photographers Toni Frissell (1907-1988) (4,500 items; 1931-1975; bulk 1941-1970) and Alice Rohe (1876-1957) (175 items; 1914-1919), as well as the papers of Florence Owens Thompson (1903-1983) (475 items; 1977-1995; bulk 1983) a migrant worker and subject of "The Migrant Mother" photograph by Dorothea Lange. Related photographs, which are held by the Prints and Photographs Division, are described as part of that division's women in photojournalism collections web page and in the photojournalism section of the American Women: Resources from the Prints & Photographs Division guide.

Additional Frances Benjamin Johnston correspondence may be found in other Manuscript Division collections, including the papers of architect Waddy Wood (2,400 items; 1885-1941; bulk 1913-35), who was involved in the design of several buildings in the nation's capital relating to women, notably the Young Women's Christian Association building, All States Hotel for Women Government Employees, and National Training School for Girls.

Architects Cass Gilbert (9,000 items; 1841-1961), Montgomery C. Meigs (11,000 items; 1799-1968; bulk 1849-92), Louis Skidmore (2,000 items; 1908-76) and William Thornton (3,400 items; 1741-50) also all retained papers relating to female family members or colleagues. Thornton's papers are especially noteworthy because they include correspondence of his wife Anna Maria Brodeau Thornton (1775?-1865), whose own collection of diaries and notebooks (7 volumes; 1793-1863; gap 1816-27) is considered one of the best sources on the social life of Washington, D.C., from the late eighteenth through mid-nineteenth centuries.

In addition to their work in sculpture and photography, women also influenced American art as painters, illustrators, critics, and dealers. Marguerite Thompson Zorach (1887-1968) was a painter and weaver who married sculptor William Zorach (14,000 items; 1822-1974; bulk 1930-68) in 1912. Their daughter Dahlov Zorach Ipcar (b. 1917) also became a painter and writer, and her letters to them are part of the collection, as are letters from art dealer Edith Gregor Halpert, who was William Zorach's agent. The careers of artists Gertrude Quastler (825 items; 1895-1965; bulk 1940-63), Caroline Mytinger (150 items; 1942-46), and Georgia O'Keeffe (157 items; 1929-1957) are documented by small collections. Biographical files, exhibition catalogs, application forms, and other material relating to Caroline Alston, Selma Burke, Blanche Byerley, Katherine Gardner, Lois Mailou Jones, Laura Warine, and other African American artists are in the records of the Harmon Foundation (described in the section on Literature and Journalism).

Another collection documents the multifaceted careers of artist and designer Ray Eames (1912-1988) and her husband, architect and designer Charles Eames. Manuscripts from the collection (131,400 items; 1885-1988; bulk 1965-88) include biographical material, correspondence, research files, scripts, catalogs, drawings, and financial records relating to the Eameses' pioneering furniture designs (including their well-known “potato chip chair”), exhibition designs, and films for corporate and government bodies. Ray Eames's years at the Bennett School in Millbrook, New York, and her studies with Hans Hofmann are reflected in the family papers. Other materials from the Charles and Ray Eames collection are found in the Prints and Photographs Division and the Motion Picture and Recorded Sound Division.

Elizabeth Pennell. Letter to Mr. Kennerley concerning Aubrey Beardsley's 1891 illustrated letter about James McNeill Whistler's Peacock Room. Apr. 3, 1929. Pennell-Whistler Collection of the Papers of Joseph and Elizabeth Pennell and James A. McNeill Whistler. Library of Congress Manuscript Division.
Ray and Charles Eames Working on a Conceptual Model for the Exhibition Mathematica. 1960. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Manuscript Resources Referenced

The following collection titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content, including finding aids for the collections, are included when available.


  1. While helping to support her family as a sixteen-year-old Post Office Department clerk, Vinnie Ream (1847-1914) decided to change course and pursue a sculpting career under the tutelage of Washington, D.C., artist Clark Mills, whose studio in the basement of the U.S. Capitol attracted a steady string of senators and representatives. Within a very short time, the ambitious and charming Ream had begun to cultivate Mills's clientele, sculpting busts of several congressmen and gaining others as lifelong champions who later helped her win two important and controversial congressional commissions—the marble statue of Abraham Lincoln in the U.S. Capitol, which she began shortly after the president's assassination when she was only nineteen, and the bronze of Admiral David Farragut dedicated in 1881 in Washington's Farragut Square. Her supporters also intervened on her behalf to convince President Lincoln to allow her to sculpt this bust of him, on which she worked for five months while he conducted other business in his White House office. Back to text