Encountering Margaret Smith

Margaret Smith's papers came to The Filson by way of the Heyburn family; after Margaret's death, the son and daughter in law of her employer, a Mrs. Heyburn, reviewed her personal effects, as she had no other family, and saved her six diaries, along with 18 letters, a scrapbook, various pieces of ephemera, and 22 images.  About 25 years later, the family donated the material to us here at The Filson.  The material was cataloged, and recently I spent quite a bit of time with it preparing for a talk on our twentieth century women's collections.

Two letters from Henry Heyburn to Margaret Smith, circa 1930s.  Margaret Smith Papers.

Two letters from Henry Heyburn to Margaret Smith, circa 1930s. Margaret Smith Papers.

The collection provides one line snapshots of Margaret's life, January-November 1935, in New Orleans, and from 1947 through 1971, in Louisville.  The entries in her diaries alternately discuss what she did for work that day (e.g. "polished silver," "kept kids," "did sewing") or what she did socially (e.g. "went to a party," "got my hair done," "went out with Martin").  The correspondence gives more tantalizing snippets of information - three notes from her mother from 1937, talking about friends and family in Georgetown, Kentucky, where Margaret was born and lived until at least 1910; one letter from her sister in 1957 about an upcoming visit to Georgetown; multiple letters from Henry, the son of her employer, indicating that she wrote to him regularly when he was at camp, on vacation, and away at training during World War II; one letter from her employer, Mrs. Heyburn, at once heaping praise on her capabilities, but also giving exhaustive instructions for how to  unpack parcels.

Unidentified African American man. Margaret Smith Photograph Collection, 012PC46.07.

Unidentified African American man. Margaret Smith Photograph Collection, 012PC46.07.

Unidentified African American woman. Margaret Smith Photograph Collection, 012PC46.06.

Unidentified African American woman. Margaret Smith Photograph Collection, 012PC46.06.

The photos are even more enticing.  Three well-dressed African American women were framed together with "Battle Creek, July 22, 18" written on the back, but no names.  A sharply-dressed young African American man and woman in two separate photographs from the 1920s or 1930s catch the eye, but again are unnamed.  A lack of labels or description is one of the curses of photographic archives.  Were these family? Friends? Images of Margaret and her New Orleans beau, Mr. Martin?  Or perhaps her Asbury Park boardwalk fella, Jae?   Or are these what she means in her diary after her sister dies, writing "Brought Katie's pictures back with me"?  One image, enlarged, colored, and mounted, may have been used during a funeral.  Is it Margaret?  Her sister, Katie?  Her mother, Susan Penn?

Portrait, possibly of Margaret Smith as an adult, mounted to a gold plate possibly used for a funeral.

Portrait, possibly of Margaret Smith as an adult, mounted to a gold plate possibly used for a funeral. Margaret Smith Photograph Collection, 012PC46.02

How did Margaret get from Georgetown, to New Orleans, to Louisville?  How did she meet the Heyburn family, her employers? Sometimes collections raise more questions than they answer! You can learn more about Margaret by viewing the Finding Aid to her collection HERE, view her entire photo collection online HERE, or by viewing her collections in person at The Filson.

Jennie Cole

Jennie Cole is the Manager of Collection Access at The Filson. She has a MLIS with a specialization in Archives from the University of Pittsburgh and an MA in History from the University of Louisville. Jennie’s research interests in the Filson’s collections include women’s history, Camp Zachary Taylor, and Speed family of Louisville.

Leave Comment