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Object of the Month #3: A Well-Traveled Doll

Object of the Month #3
A Well-Traveled Doll
Korean Rag Doll (2013.01.118)
December 2014

This month’s object is a female rag doll from Korea, early-mid 20th century. The doll is made of cotton or silk: peach colored for the arms and face, white for the body and legs, and black for the back of the head. The doll’s hair, made of plaited dark brown human hair, is sewn to the head with the black fabric camouflaging gaps in coverage.

She is wearing traditional Korean dress, possibly that of a middle class woman. Her clothing is made of patterned silk in various colors, consisting of a light pink jacket (juhgori), light green pleated skirt (chima), fur lined purple vest (jokki), white pants under the skirt (sokbaji), and green shoes (taesahye) with red stitching. The shoes are fixed to the feet with straight pins through the backs of the heels. A rectangular fabric label on the front hem of the skirt reads, “Made in Korea.”

The doll doesn't show signs of heavy wear, although her clothing is significantly faded, especially on the front. Lesser fading on the back, taken into account with a horizontal crease across the front of the skirt suggests she had been propped against a wall in a seated position for some time. In other words, the doll was on display rather than used for play.

While the doll itself, with her expressive face, is interesting, what sets this Object of the Month apart is that we actually know the name of the donor. Found with this doll and six others in Dolben Library on the Northfield campus was a foxed index card with the name “Olivette Swallen.”

There is so much information about Olivette and her family, in fact, that I can only cover part of her story here. Olivette Roanna Swallen was born in 1893 to missionary parents in Seoul, Korea (now South Korea), and lived much of her childhood in Pyongyang (now in North Korea). Her father, the Rev. William L. Swallen, came by the education that allowed him to become a missionary almost by accident. The youngest child of a large farming family in Ohio, his schooling was minimal until a broken finger kept him out of the fields, allowing him to spend more time in school.[1] He ultimately went to college. In 1892, in the space of less than a year, he graduated from seminary, married a young widow named Sallie Willison Fisher, and moved to Korea to begin his life’s calling. Olivette was born there less than a year later.

By 1899 William and Sallie were parents to three young children, had moved from Seoul to Wonsan (now in North Korea), and then moved again, this time to Pyongyang. William described the approximately one hundred mile journey as a “6-day trip overland by sedan chair, pack-pony and I on my bicycle.”[2]

When Olivette was fifteen (by now the oldest of five siblings) she applied to Northfield Seminary. Her parents were interested in the school for a few reasons, writing to Evelyn Hall, principal of Northfield, in 1909, “We have one boy, and four girls. These we hope to provide with a good college education. But we are not able to do it at an expensive school… And the strong point for Northfield with us is the Christian influence and instruction which they will get there.”[3]

After attending Northfield and college, Olivette returned to Korea to begin her own missionary work in Seoul, and then Pyongyang. Later she became the principal of the Soong Eui Girl’s School in Pyongyang. The school still exists today, although it relocated to Seoul in 1953. The school participated in the resistance movement against the Japanese occupation in 1919, and closed its doors completely from 1938 to 1953, when its students would have been required to worship at Shinto shrines.[4] The unsettled times also required the Swallen family to leave Korea for the duration of the war.

Olivette retired in 1959, but didn’t return to the U.S. until probably the mid-1960s. This range of dates corresponds nicely with other information indicating a date for the donation of the doll. The index card bearing her name, found with the dolls, was written with a fountain pen. This seemingly minor detail turns out to be very useful. Ballpoint pens became ubiquitous around 1960, largely replacing fountain pens, which suggests a terminus ante quem for the donation. Terminus ante quem is a common archaeological term meaning “limit before which,” that indicates a boundary for the latest date an event could have happened.

Researching this doll turned out to be a gateway into the story of a fascinating alumna. I learned more about Olivette and her family than could possibly fit, so feel free to drop by the archives if you want to hear more.

Sara Karz Reid
Assistant Archivist


[1] Swallen, W. L., Rev. “A Brief Autobiography.” N.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2014. 

[2] Ibid.

[3] Swallen, W. L., Rev. Letter to Miss Evelyn S. Hall. 17 Jan. 1909. MS. NMH Archives, Gill, MA

[4] “Stamp Issuance Program: The Centennial of Soong Eui School.” N.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2014.
Object of the Month #2: Noble Footwear

Object of the Month #2
Noble Footwear
Central Asian Ornate Leather Boot (2013.01.138)
November 2014

November’s Object of the Month is a single ornate 19th century leather boot from the Karakoram or Hindu Kush, at the western edge of the Himalayas. In terms of modern political boundaries it may have originated in northern India, or northeastern Pakistan, or eastern Afghanistan. While neighbors, they are not always neighbors on good terms, and border disputes continue to this day.

The boot itself is a marvel. It’s made out of leather, generally intact, and covered with detailed cutwork and embroidery. The design is all geometry and curlicues with no figural representation. Closer inspection reveals shreds of bright cotton in blue, green, and red behind the cutwork, which would have once made the boot look like wearable stained glass. The embroidery may have once been bright gold, although now it’s almost as brown as the leather, and the back part of the boot is folded over, covering the foot opening. When worn, however, that tall back piece would have come to about mid-calf. The boot is constructed of laminated sheets of leather; just two layers for most of the upper, but up to five or six on the sole for durability. Wide leather cord has been sewn into the sole for traction.

It took some doing to figure out the boot’s origin. It was found in a box in the archives with several objects from China, including five more shoes, so my initial thoughts ran to Asia. That upturned toe made me think Mongolia, perhaps, but I couldn’t find any good parallels. Next I considered, among others, Ottoman Anatolia, and the Scandinavian peninsula, wondering if the toe could have been part of a rudimentary ski binding. Then I came across the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto and contacted the curator. The museum confirmed its geographic origin, and that a boot like this would have been worn by 19th century Afghan nobility, or even royalty. The Bata even has a boot in their collection that could almost be a twin of the NMH boot.

An anthropologist would want to interview the shoe’s owner, but in his absence we can only ask questions of the boot itself: an archaeologist’s approach. Make no mistake, this boot was meant to make a fashion statement. Earlier I compared it to stained glass, but you could also compare it to the feathers on a peacock, especially if you imagine the front panel flaring out on both sides instead of collapsed over the arch of the foot, as it is today. Whichever comparison you prefer, both describe something showy. Fashionable, indeed! Footwear like this would have taken both time and skill to create, and it was almost certainly costly to do so. The person (probably male) wearing this boot would have had both status and disposable income, and clothes would have helped broadcast his position. It isn't hard to believe this individual was part of the nobility.

How did this boot end up at NMH? Like last month’s Acoma Jar, we don’t know the donor. Of the five other shoes found in the same box, only two were a complete pair; the other three were all unmatched singles, like this one. While it is possible that the matches may yet turn up, I am more inclined to believe a single donor gave all of these shoes to NMH at the same time, and either kept the matches, or gave them to another institution. With five shoes from eastern Asia, and this boot from central Asia, there would have been quite a lot of travel involved. I would be very curious to know about the trip, wouldn’t you?

Sara Karz Reid
Assistant Archivist
Object of the Month #1.2: Tularosa Swirls

Object of the Month #1.2
Tularosa Swirls
Acoma Polychrome Jar (2013.01.091)
October 2014

October’s Object of the Month (and the first ever) is an early 20th century polychrome jar from Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico. If you missed the introduction to this new series from the NMH Archives, you can find the first part here.

The jar isn’t very big, only 12.4 cm tall and 16.2 cm in diameter (~5” tall and 6.5” diam.), but it has the shape and proportions of a larger object, such as a water jar. It is decorated with a repeating black-and-white design called a Tularosa swirl, above a reddish-orange band. The bottom of the jar reads, “Acoma N.M.” Also on the bottom of the jar is a price ($25.00), written in pencil.

The word, “Acoma,”, the price marker, and the relatively small size of the pot are important clues for understanding both the jar and the history of the region. The prominent identification suggests there was demand for pottery specifically from Acoma. The price indicates the piece was probably made to be sold. Even though it has the shape of a water jar it’s a bit small to be useful as one. Conclusion: this jar was made for the tourist market.

Tourism in the southwestern U.S. increased sharply after the opening of the Santa Fe Railroad in 1859, although the line would not reach Albuquerque until 1880. Trading posts sprang up along the route, and Native American artisans began to bring their goods (pottery, baskets, blankets, rugs, etc.) directly to the tracks to sell. Artisans might travel long distances to meet the train, and tourists also had limited ability to transport large &/or delicate objects. The result was a miniaturization of many traditional pottery forms. This jar probably dates to the first half of the 20th century, although it might go as far back as the late 19th, when the railroad arrived in the area.

A few more details could help pin the date with greater accuracy. Knowing the names of the donor and potter would be very helpful, especially if we could find out when these individuals lived, as well as traveled and worked. This would provide better context for the piece. Incidentally, context is extremely important for archaeologists, too, and for similar reasons, although with repercussions that can affect the dating of an entire site instead of just a single object.

The jar is symmetrical and quite smooth, although it wasn’t thrown on a potter’s wheel. The pot is made of coiled clay (of local origin) built upon a small, molded base. The coils would have been smoothed and polished before the pot was dried, slipped, painted, and fired, probably in a fire pit rather than a kiln.

Even though we don’t currently know who donated the piece to NMH, it is possible to make some very basic guesses. It was probably given by an alumnus/a who traveled in the southwest, although whether for pleasure or missionary work (also a reasonable guess) is unknown. The reason for the donation is also unknown, although people might donate objects for reasons ranging from from altruism to self-promotion. If more southwestern pottery comes to light in the archives, maybe some of these questions will still be answered.

This is just part of the story told by one small jar. Look for the next Object of the Month in early November.

Sara Karz Reid
Assistant Archivist
Object of the Month #1.1: Realia

Object of the Month #1.1
October 2014

This month brings the first of a new series from your friendly NMH Archives! My name is Sara Karz Reid, and I’m Peter’s assistant. You may have seen me in the basement of Schauffler sitting at a table covered with (but not limited to) some of these tools of the trade: needles and thread, linen tape, India ink, fountain pens, rulers, a camera, a tripod, nitrile gloves, poster board, notebooks, a computer, magnets, reference books, a magnifying glass, tissue paper, and boxes. These things help me identify, catalog, and preserve objects ranging from old Pie Race mugs to cuneiform tablets. If you’re curious about anything you see me working on, come over and ask!

Over the years NMH has amassed a not-insignificant collection of objects, many given to the school by alumni. Until very recently, however, there hasn’t been a good record of exactly what we have. And that’s been too bad, because (a) there’s a lot of really interesting stuff down here, and (b) these things are realia that haven’t been fulfilling their destiny (dramatic, but true).

So, what are realia? Simply put, realia are three-dimensional objects in an archival collection that are used as teaching aids. The realia are one lens through which to look at the history of NMH and the people that have been associated/affiliated with it over the years, in all of its many incarnations. You, your teachers, and everybody at NMH gets to have access to these objects to achieve their educational goals. Your teachers might use objects to help illustrate a lesson, or you might come to the archives to research an object as part of an assignment (gmail me at sreid to make an appointment first).

The catalog is a work in progress, with new items accessioned every week. I will be highlighting one object a month as part of this series. If there’s anything specific you would like to see here, or if you have questions or comments about an item that’s been featured, just let me know.

Since this has gotten quite long enough, I’ll save the actual object for tomorrow. But in the meantime, here’s a teaser (see photo below).

Sara Karz Reid
Assistant Archivist