Travels to the Rockefeller Archive Center

A couple of weeks ago, I traveled to New York to visit the Rockefeller Archive Center in the picturesque Hudson River Valley. Spring had arrived in Sleepy Hollow, and the dogwood and redbud trees were in full bloom.

Rockefeller Archive Center

Rockefeller Archive Center

The Rockefeller Archive Center is the repository for the grant files of Rockefeller philanthropies and other prominent charitable and nonprofit organizations, most recently the Ford Foundation. Collections tell the history of philanthropy as well as the development of local, national, and international programs that span the performing arts and museums, environmental and historic preservation, economic development, science and medicine, public health and social welfare, education, and international understanding.

Exploring the archive’s diverse holdings was a great reminder of how primary sources about people, ideas, and programs can be collected and maintained by the entities that funded them, not just by their affiliated agencies or institutions. Like a university archive, individuals have donated their papers to the collection, such as German scientist and Nobel Laureate Paul Ehrlich (1854-1915). Ehrlich had a strong relationship with the newly-founded Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, today Rockefeller University. Still, the Rockefeller Archive Center is unique for the geographic scope and range of subjects found in the archive’s grant files, posters, reports, photographs, etc. In fact, the original Rockefeller Foundation files are arranged by country.

The Rockefeller family’s collection is impressive, too. John D. Rockefeller Sr.’s massive roll-top desk from the Manhattan headquarters of the Standard Oil Company is a highlight of an onsite tour. My personal favorite was something from the vaults — an American Red Cross uniform circa World War I. (View photographs of nurses’ uniforms from the Naval History & Heritage Command.) Such a connection with the history of nursing makes sense; the RAC convened a workshop on “Nursing History in the Global Perspective” in 2012.

To learn more about the Rockefeller Foundation, visit the new centennial website, 100 Years: The Rockefeller Foundation. The website includes a digital library of documents, still images and videos. To search the RAC holdings, explore the online collections and catalog called DIMES.

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With and Without the White Nursing Cap

Trained nurse

“Be a Trained Nurse” Recruitment Poster from World War I with nurse knocking on a door labeled “opportunity” (LOC print)

My latest article on The Ultimate History Project takes a look at the history of field nursing, particularly nurses and health aids who worked for the Office of Indian Affairs, the predecessor of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

As part of the nurse’s or nursing student’s uniform, the white cap often is synonymous with the history of nursing. However, I didn’t see many white nursing caps when I was working with the papers of the Field Nursing Program in Oklahoma, probably because public health nurses who worked “in the field” often wore their regular clothes for travel. This is just one of many details that requires a larger context beyond the confines of a single archival collection.

As a researcher, I often discover the container list or finding aid is not enough to tell me about the historical context of what I’m looking at. By context, I mean background information about the people, places, and events. This lack of information is not surprising. No one who processes a collection can include references to every detail mentioned in the documents, photos, etc. Books, scholarly articles, and digital resources can help both to broaden the story and to offer more specifics.

But where to find the history of nursing, First Aid, and Native American community health in Oklahoma during the interwar years (between WWI and WWII)? Check out the recommended readings at the end of my UHP article “By Paddle, By Wagon, By Car” to learn more.

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