“She knew something about seeds” – A Tribute to Celia Thaxter

A casual conversation about favorite gardening books led us to browse a copy of Celia Thaxter’s An Island Garden from the University of Vermont’s Rare Book collection. We discovered that our copy is especially interesting for content that was added after the book was printed and for the connection that brought it to UVM.


Sarah Wyman Whitman used a simple floral motif for An Island Garden’s cover.

An Island Garden Becomes a Memorial Album

Celia Thaxter was a popular poet and artist during the nineteenth century. Her family operated a fashionable summer resort on the Isles of Shoals off the New Hampshire coast that attracted distinguished artists, writers and musicians. Despite the challenging soil and climate, Thaxter added to the natural beauty of rocky Appledore Island with a luxuriant flower garden. The garden was the subject of her last book, An Island Garden, which came out in the spring of 1894. She worked with the American Impressionist painter Childe Hassam, a friend who painted scenes and people at the Isles of Shoals for many years,  to illustrate the book.

The UVM copy of An Island Garden originally belonged to Evelyn Benedict. A talented pianist, Benedict was part of the circle of prominent artistic and literary figures who gathered for Thaxter’s summer salons. Benedict’s correspondence with Thaxter and other visitors, including Henry and Clara Rogers, J. Appleton Brown, William Mason, and Henry Alden Mills, indicates how important the Isles of Shoals summers were to all of them. (Benedict’s correspondence is part of the Henry Munroe Rogers papers housed at the Houghton Library, Harvard University).

Benedict visited the island several times during the 1890s, and became close to Thaxter, who addressed her as “my little Benedict” in an 1891 letter. After an August 1892 visit, Thaxter wrote Benedict, “I have done nothing but lament your departure ever since you went. Never was there such an exquisite summer, never such good times of Shoals kinds and sorts.”

Evelyn Benedict

Childe Hassam painted Evelyn Benedict at the Isles of Shoals in 1890.

In March 1894, Celia Thaxter thanked Benedict for “all the kind things” she said about the garden book that Thaxter had sent her. In that letter, and in subsequent letters written in May and July, Thaxter encouraged Benedict to come to the Isles of Shoals. Sadly, Thaxter died that August. It’s not clear if Benedict was on the island then, but other guests attended the poet’s burial on the island.

During the year after Thaxter’s death, Benedict created a memorial album of sorts in her copy of An Island Garden. The landscape painter J. Appleton Brown was the first to write in the book. In Boston on April 17, 1895, he transcribed Shakespeare’s sonnet, “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought,” on a blank page. A few days later, Clara Kathleen Rogers, a composer, singer, writer and educator, filled another page.


Painter J. Appleton Brown’s contribution, dated April 17, 1895.

Henry Alden, the editor of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, added a tribute to Celia Thaxter in June. He wrote, “She knew something about seeds—and to us, in this garden of God’s love, such knowledge leads to an interpolation of the mysteries of life and death.”

The last two tributes were written in August. A round robin letter sent to Henry and Clara Rogers confirms that twelve of Celia Thaxter’s friends gathered at Appledore Island on the first anniversary of her death, including Benedict, William Mason and Childe Hassam. Mason, a pianist and composer, transcribed bars from the score for Robert Schumann’s Romance in F-sharp Major under Hassam’s painting of the island ferry Pinafore at sunset. Hassam wrote “Nocturne Seafire,” a reflection on the sights and sounds of a summer night by the sea, on a blank page opposite one of the floral headpieces he designed for the book.


Musician William Mason’s tribute, added on August 21, 1895.


Childe Hassam wrote about the sea at night on August 21, 1895.

Evelyn Benedict’s UVM Connection

The accession number recorded on the inside front cover indicates that An Island Garden was one of a number of books that Evelyn Benedict donated to UVM in 1943. Although Benedict was born in New York City, and lived most of her life in New York, Boston, Italy, and Newport, Rhode Island, she was a member of a prominent Burlington, Vermont family.

Evelyn’s grandfather, George Wyllys Benedict, taught at UVM from 1825 to 1847. Benedict and his son George Grenville ran the Burlington Free Press, and both served on the UVM Board of Trustees. In 1908, Evelyn’s father, Robert Dewey Benedict, retired from the practice of admiralty law in New York and retired to Burlington with his family. City directories list Evelyn at the family home on South Williams Street until 1920, when she moved to the Beacon Hill section of Boston. She died in Newport, Rhode Island in 1967 when she was 99, but was buried in Greenmount Cemetery in Burlington.

The Vermont Alumnus acknowledged in 1942 that “Miss Evelyn Benedict, formerly of Burlington, now of many places, has given the University, dozens of pieces of dinnerware from her family sets and from collections she has made abroad,” but did not mention her donation to the library.

By 1943, Benedict’s friends from the Isles of Shoals were long gone and perhaps her memories of the Isles of Shoals summers had faded. The tributes she collected in the UVM copy of An Island Garden, along with the letters preserved at the Houghton Library, provide an enduring record of just some of the friendships that flourished on Appledore Island under Celia Thaxter’s cultivation.

Contributed by Prudence Doherty,
Public Services Librarian

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Special Collections Faculty Receive Humanities Center Awards

Special Collections faculty members are involved in two initiatives supported by grants from the Humanities Center at the University of Vermont (UVM).

Chris Burns, Manuscripts Curator and University Archivist, is one of five faculty members who received a Lattie F. Coor Collaborative Fellows grant for a proposal called “Visualizing Ideas in the Digital Humanities.” According to an announcement from the Humanities Center, the group is “exploring ways of applying visualization tools, with a particular emphasis on representations of spatial patterns and processes, to humanities questions.” The group is currently investigating classroom, research and digital library applications on campus. To help build support for these efforts, they plan to hold a colloquium on digital humanities in the fall.

The Humanities Center recently launched a new program to support the creation of multi-disciplinary collegial networks and interest groups. Jeffrey Marshall, Director of Special Collections, and Prudence Doherty, Public Services Librarian, received support to create the UVM Book Studies Network. Faculty from Art and Art History, History, English, and the Libraries will explore related teaching and research interests that focus on the book. The group will meet three times this semester to identify shared themes in the study of the book and identify areas where more support for teaching and research is needed. Participants will explore how other institutions define “book studies” and propose a working definition for UVM. They will also consider the potential for a formal book studies program at UVM.


Map created by historian Nicole Phelps, one of the Lattie F. Coor Fellows, for a project on the history of the U.S. Consular Service from 1789 to 1924.


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Unexpected Gifts

People periodically contact Special Collections to ask if we would be interested in acquiring some old Vermont books that they found in an attic or received from an elderly relative. One recent box contained a collection of home economics textbooks used at UVM during the 1920s and 1930s that we were not able to add to either the Wilbur Collection of Vermontiana or the Rare Books collection. Buried beneath the textbooks, however, there were two items that are now part of the Vermont food and cookery collection.

The first unexpected gift is a notebook of weekly cooking lessons, written in a very neat and careful longhand. It appears to provide a record of one of the Ellen H. Richards Clubs for girls that UVM’s first home economics professor, Bertha M. Terrrill, praised at a meeting described in the St. Johnsbury Caledonian on January 13, 1915. Before coming to UVM in 1908, Terrill studied with Richards, a scientist who created the field of home economics.

Richards'  definition of home economics

Ellen Richards’ definition of home economics is pasted on the back of the notebook’s title page.

The first page of the notebook is labeled “The Ellen H. Richards Club,” and is inscribed “Mrs. Leon S. Gay.”   Mrs. Gay recorded 16 lessons offered to the Cavendish (Vermont) Cooking School from November 1914 to March 1915. Mrs. Gay, whose family owned a woolen mill in Cavendish, may have been the instructor. After an introductory first lesson, the second lesson began with a discussion of the home economics movement and the story of Ellen Richards’ remarkable career, proceeded to a lesson about milk, and concluded with a recipe for hot cocoa.

The lessons demonstrated a modern approach to cooking and eating based on science and efficiency. Most of them focused on the characteristics of a single basic ingredient or component, including its chemistry and nutritional value, tips for cooking, and recipes using that ingredient. The lessons covered milk, eggs, cream, batters and doughs, fats and oils, pastry, and vegetables (three lessons). One lesson provided instructions for “laying the table.” Mrs. Gay may not have finished her record, as loose notes and recipes remain between the pages.

In the January lesson, students learned about doughs and leavening agents.

A recipe for Mock Cherry Pie, really a cranberry pie, is included in the pastry lesson.

From the pastry lesson, a recipe for Mock Cherry Pie made with cranberries.

The second item stands in sharp contrast to Mrs. Gay’s carefully ordered and presented record of cooking lessons. An unidentified person pasted recipes and household hints clipped from newspapers and magazines and written on odd scraps of paper into an account book from the 1880s. The account book may be from a sawmill in Shelburne, Vermont, but identifying information on the inside front cover is obscured by recipes for soft molasses cookies, soap, and steamed fruit pudding.

Curiously, the ledger was cut in half before it was recycled. The pages of the bottom half have been completed covered with recipes and tips, but only a few pages of the upper half have been reused. The empty pages and the many loose recipes suggest that the book was still a work in progress when it was abandoned. Judging by dates and news stories on some of the clippings, the recipe collection was assembled during the 1950s and early 1960s.


The 14-inch tall ledger was cut in half before it was reused as a recipe book.

Despite the popularity and spread of cooking and canning clubs in Vermont during the early twentieth century, surprisingly little information about their activities survives, making Mrs. Gay’s notebook an especially significant find. Personal recipe collections are also rarely preserved, and the example from the bottom of the box of old textbooks is a good addition to the published cookbooks, advertising, menus and other manuscripts in the Vermont food and cookery collection.

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