I was hopefully thinking about transitions and inaugurations and first ladies and somehow I ended up admiring Abigail Adams’ yellow kid slippers in the Smithsonian. I can’t really retrace my steps as I was kind of in an election coverage daze. But here are the slippers, which were donated by Miss Susan Elizabeth Osgood of Salem. They prompted a #SalemSuffrageSaturday post, as I’m trying to look at Salem women’s history with the widest possible lens, as well as every possible filter. It’s been clear to me for some time that the collection (in both its active and preservation meanings) and curation of Americana is an important Salem topic, and one in which women played many key roles.
Abigail Adams’ Slippers!
The First Ladies collection at the Smithsonian was conceived by two Washington society ladies, Cassie Mason Myers Julian-James and Rose Governeur Hoes, a great-granddaughter of President James Monroe, in 1912-1913; their gallery of items collected from presidential families opened to the public on February 1, 1914. Their emphasis was on “costume” but the collection expanded in scope and scale over the next century and is one of the Smithsonian’s most popular exhibits. An absolutely great source, the successive Reports on the Progress and Condition of the U.S. National Museum for 1913-1914, gave me the Salem story: in the latter year, the Report reported that “Mrs. Julian James and Mrs. R.R. Hoes continued, with their customary zeal, their self-appointed task of securing materials for the period costume collection, and during most of the year they were closely occupied in arranging the interesting fabrics and other articles which had been received. The results of their labors, successful and most brilliant in effect, have already been described, and there only remains to be accounted for in this connection the many and valuable contributions of the year. Of costumes of ladies of the White House, forming the central and most prominent feature of the exhibition and including some accessories, six were received, [including] a dress, kid slippers, and fan and pearl beads, worn by Mrs. John Adams, received from Miss Susan E. Osgood, of Salem, Mass.”
The items which once belonged to Abigail Adams which were donated to the Smithsonian Institution in 1913 by Salem’s Susan Elizabeth Osgood: the dress is navy blue, and shown by itself and in “company” (far right); the “pearl beads” are actually glass—so Mrs. Adams was well ahead of Jackie Kennedy and Barbara Bush with her faux pearls!
It took me a while to figure out how Susan Osgood came to be in the possession of these items: there was no readily apparent connection to Abigail Adams and I am no genealogical researcher! Miss Osgood was one of those maiden ladies from established Salem families who seldom shows up in the newspapers: the rule was birth, marriage and death only and since she was unmarried that left a large gap (especially as she lived a long life, from 1832-1920). The only time she really “appears” in public is in reference to her famous garden at 314 Essex Street. I chased down a few family connections and finally found the link: her uncle, the Salem historian Joseph Felt, was married to Abigail Adams’ niece, Abigail Adams Shaw, the daughter of her younger sister, Elizabeth Shaw Peabody. As Mr. and Mrs. Felt had no children, I’m guessing that the Adams items were passed down to their niece, Susan, after their respective deaths and were stored in Susan’s Salem house until the Mrs. Julian-James and Hoes put the word out. There are a few references to Salem sculptress Louise Lander playing an intermediary role in this story, but I couldn’t really substantiate them: she was living in Washington at the time, however. If my explanation of the Abigail-Abigail-Susan connection is accurate, that means that Mrs. Adams is connected to Salem through both of her sisters. Her older sister, Mary Smith Cranch, and her husband Richard lived in Salem for a time, during which both Abigail and John Adams visited occasionally. I presume (again) that the Adamses were introduced to the work of Salem artist Benjamin Blythe on one of those occasions, and commissioned their famous pastel portraits from him.
Abigail Adams by Benajmin Blyth, circa 1766. Massachusetts Historical Society.