I’m in Boston for the Eastern Psychological Association conference for the next few days so I took the opportunity to spend a few hours back at Houghton Library (pictured right) to go through parts of the Dorothea Lynde Dix papers (the last time I was here was in February of 2010 for the William James papers but that was before I began Field Notes).
Things have changed since I was last here: they’ve gone digital. I had to register online before arriving today plus get my photo taken for a fancy ID card that expires tomorrow (pictured left). I also had to request all my boxes online via their website – even when I was sitting in the reading room. It all seemed very fancy.
Dorothea Lynde Dix (pictured bottom right, image from Wikimedia Commons) advocated for improved treatment for the poor, the imprisoned, and the mentally ill during the nineteenth century. She travelled extensively to promote improved conditions in institutions across North America. She also served as Superintendent of Army Nurses during the Civil War. She was one busy woman – and the breadth of her papers reflect it.
The collection at Houghton consists of 29 boxes of material (that’s 9.5 linear feet!), the bulk of which is correspondence. Although I would love to sit and read Dix’s mail, I knew I wouldn’t have time to even make a dent in the boxes with a one-day trip so instead I requested material from the last two series in the collection that contained “mystery” items labelled “miscellany” or “puzzles” or “memorabilia”.
The material was fun to go through: it ranged from handwritten notebooks full of hymns, biblical verses, and poems to a daybook that recorded Dix’s extensive travels, to piles of photographs (of Dix, of soldiers from the Civil War, of friends, family members). My favourite box was filled with odds ‘n’ sods – photos, medals, a heavy pin, some dried flowers, and Dix’s hair.
Yes: Dix’s hair. Apparently Dorothea Dix followed the popular Victorian practice of hair work: the manufacturing of jewellery, wreaths, and artwork out of hair. There were several beautifully braided bracelets plus more envelopes of cut pieces of hair with handwritten notes on the front listing the hair as Dix’s own and providing the dates. It was the last thing I was expecting to find today, for certain, but I was highly amused by it.