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Naming Women to Recover Histories

Posted under Research by Guest Author

This summer, Lily Mayfield assisted CHM technical services librarian Elizabeth McKinley in the Abakanowicz Research Center. Mayfield writes about her experience discovering the full names of women featured in the Museum’s carte de visite collection.

How can one study the past without knowing the names of those who came before? That is the question posed by Lily Mayfield, a practicum student from Dominican University’s Master of Library and Information Science program, who spent the summer assisting CHM technical services librarian Elizabeth McKinley in discovering the full names of women featured in the Museum’s carte de visite collection. Many of the women pictured in the cartes de visite are identified by just their husbands’ names (e.g., Blair, William, Mrs.), which can create roadblocks for researchers.

Women assuming their husbands’ names has been a widespread practice for centuries, but when women’s premarriage names are not recorded, their identities and histories are effectively erased. Moreover, there is no standard for the way wives’ names are recorded. “Blair, William, Mrs.,” “Baker, Ed, Mrs. (Mary Furbeck),” Gibson, Mrs. J. M.,” and “Brown, Mary A., Mrs.” are just some examples we encountered.


Carte de visite of Mrs. William Blair (see bib# 31434). Thanks to Mayfield’s research, the catalog record for this photograph is now updated with a heading that reflects Mrs. Blair’s full name, “Blair, Sarah Maria Seymour, 1832–1923.”

How does one recover a name that has been lost to history? In the case of the carte de visite collection, we found several premarriage names handwritten on the front or back of photographs. However, this was not the norm, and, in most instances, further research was required. We referenced photographs of headstones (via Findagrave.com), census records (via HeritageQuest), wedding announcements, and obituaries (via ProQuest‘s historical Chicago Tribune). Google and Wikipedia searches led to useful information as well.

After confirming the full names, we updated the authority records in CHM’s integrated library system, Horizon (accessible to the public via ARCHIE). The most significant update involved changing the original heading (e.g., Church, Thomas, Mrs.) to the variant form, and making the recovered full name (e.g., Church, Rebecca Sherman, 1820–1902) the main heading.


The updated authority record for “Church, Rebecca Sherman, 1820–1902″

In addition to the authority records, sometimes we made changes to the bibliographic records. Any handwritten notes on the front or back of the photos were transcribed and added to the record. If we discovered important biographical or historical information during the research process, we added it in a public note. We also checked the title and physical description to ensure the record matched the physical item.


Carte de visite of Mrs. Thomas Church (see bib# 31924). Thanks to Mayfield’s research, the catalog record for this photograph is now updated with a transcription of the handwritten note, a heading that reflects Mrs. Church’s full name (“Church, Rebecca Sherman, 1820–1902”), and additional biographical information.


Updated bibliographic record in ARCHIE.

The issues stemming from the lack of women’s premarriage names were made even more complicated if a man married multiple times and had sons who were named after him. One such situation occurred when attempting to disambiguate Mrs. Marshall Field. More than one catalog record cited a “Mrs. Marshall Field,” but without a first name, maiden name, or birth and death dates, it was impossible to know whether the records referred to the first or second wife of Marshall Field. After comparing the photographs in the collection with digitized photographs and portraits found online, we were able to correctly identify the women. With the names now clearly recorded (“Nannie Douglas Scott Field, 1840–1896″ and “Delia Macomber Spencer Field, 1853–1937″), future researchers will be able to avoid the same confusion.


[L] Mrs. Nannie Douglas Scott Field, the first wife of Marshall Field I. [R] Mrs. Delia Macomber Spencer Field, the second wife of Marshall Field I. In examining the photographs, we also discovered these cabinet cards had been incorrectly recorded as cartes de visite. We updated the catalog records to reflect this.

This project addressed only a small portion of one photograph collection. CHM’s Research and Access department intends to continue this work and provide full names, where possible, for women featured in all CHM collections. It is an ongoing process that will take time, and we intend to keep researchers informed of our progress. We welcome any questions or comments at research@chicagohistory.org.

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Comments (4)

  1. What a worthwhile endeavor to rediscover these women’s contributions that would otherwise have remained anonymous or attributed to their husbands.

  2. Excellent work!
    Resurrecting these women’s identities is a model step in the right direction for the history of women.
    Kudos to fellow DU alum Lily Mayfield for her research!

  3. Thank you for doing this work! It would be really neat to speak with you about potentially doing a program with CPL to discuss your work with others for Women’s History Month, if y’all are interested.

  4. Wow, Lily! What a fantastic project! I can’t even imagine the dedication it took to accomplish such research. Congrats!

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