Margaret Jane Mussey Sweat: Author, Patron, Reformer

November 29th, 2012 by Cathleen Miller

Over the last few weeks, prompted by a visit by a researcher, I have worked on rehousing the Margaret Jane Mussey Sweat collection.  Periodically, this kind of work allows me to get to know a collection, and gives me the opportunity to assess the condition of materials.  In this case, I knew that many of the volumes had leather covers that were deteriorating.  What I found was that a large portion of these covers were splitting because of the age of the leather.  Since this collection has received a good deal of attention over the last few years, I am going to have some of the volumes conserved.  It seems, too, that this collection is an excellent candidate for digitization.

The travel diaries in this collection chronicle Sweat’s journeys across many continents; some, like the journal from Mexico above, contain fading photographs of the locales that she visits.   In one of the early entries to the Mexico journal on March 7, she describes the scene in towns through which her party travels.

“The group of  shop umbrellas shone white in the sunshine at one of the way stations + the slender stock of wares did its best to attract our attention.  At every pause in our journey there is something picturesque, beautiful or grotesque + novel.  The foliage is unlike our own, the sunlight is more vivid, the towns more huddled.”

She goes on to make all sorts of judgements about the people in the towns, writing, “Children + dogs + hens give a lively effect to these otherwise forlorn shelters.  I fancy no native ever invents anything or develops any improvements in his surroundings no matter how devoid of comfort they may be.  They all seem to accept privation + filth as necessary + inevitable human conditions.  The mortality among them is frightful, chiefly from lung diseases__”

While these entries offer little to admire in her attitudes toward the villagers in the towns through which she travels, the diaries chronicle a way of seeing the world that was characteristic of her class and time.  They help us understand a certain way of being in the nineteenth century,  and, when contrasted with other diaries in our collection by women of ordinary means in Maine, we can begin to see the fuller picture of life in that time.


The Maine Women Writers Collection acquired the Sweat collection in 1964 and 1965–the first acquisition is listed in the administrative files of the Collection as a purchase, the second is listed as a gift from the Portland Society of Art.

These two newspaper articles describe the collection as “a most valuable acquisition” and “a valuable addition to its collection of manuscripts.”  This is true because the collection so richly documents Sweat’s life and her varied activities, including the founding of the Cobweb Club, which later became the Washington Club, “a woman’s literary club of much prestige.”  The Sweat collection continues to garner interest from researchers both in Portland and across the country.

Sweat’s novel Ethel’s Love Life, published in 1859, is a piece of interest because of its outspoken depiction of love between women.  As I’ve met more people researching Sweat, this is one of the points of conversation that inevitably arises.  For more on this, see Cliff Gallant’s recent article in the Portland Daily Sun:

She is an intriguing figure, and one who seems to be getting more and more attention.  We will be working to make her papers even more accessible to researchers outside of Maine, and I will certainly post updates as that process gets underway.

Politics, Civil Rights, and Current Affairs

November 5th, 2012 by Cathleen Miller

This week, I have spent a lot of time reviewing documents that we scanned from the Donna M. Loring papers, in preparation for our just-launched website with access to digital samples from the collection.  In the process of creating these images, Catherine has scanned and labeled each image with metadata to help us reference the document in the physical collection.  What appears in the file names is a kind of shorthand for the content in folders, many of which simply say something like “LD 2239”.  Not much there for description, especially given that the LD numbers actually are used in multiple legislative sessions.

Anyway, I was revising text for the website and wanted to have an accurate picture of what our sample of images represented in terms of content, so I started perusing the file names to check against my text.  One group of documents had the tag “gay rights,” which stopped me in my tracks because I didn’t remember processing material on “gay rights.”  So I pulled the file on LD 2239 (2000) to check it out.  What I found is interesting, especially given the current state of politics and the pending vote on Question 1 regarding legalizing same-sex marriage in Maine.


In Maine’s 119th Legislature, An Act to Ensure Civil Rights and Prevent Discrimination was reviewed. This bill sought to  include sexual orientation as a protected status under the existing civil rights act.  It was not the first hearing this bill had seen, and the authors outlined very specifically how it had been amended since its last introduction, including the notation in the bill “Nothing in this chapter confers legislative approval of, or special rights to, any person or group of persons.”


The one folder on LD 2239 in Donna Loring’s legislative files contains the testimony of Senator Joel Abromson who had originally introduced the bill in the 118th legislative session.  Abromson’s testimony gives the background on the bill’s history; its defeat by a Peoples veto; and his discussions and negotiations with interested groups, including the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland.  Near the end of his testimony, Abromson appeals, “…I ask the committee … to remember that we have a significant proportion of our fellow citizens who do not enjoy all the civil rights many of us…be we Jewish, Christian or Muslim; healthy or disabled; native born or immigrant, married or single; male or female enjoy. We must join the other five New England states in correcting this inequity.  That is why I am here…again.”

We have scanned documents with arguments for and against the bill, including testimony of the Maine Lesbian Gay Political Alliance (MLGPA), letters and testimony from citizens, the City of Portland Public Health Division, the Family Planning Association of Maine, the Christian Coalition of Maine, and the Calvary Bible Church, among others.












This snapshot of the intensity of debate in the legislature is just one of many issues represented in the Donna Loring papers.  No matter your political affiliation or outlook, these materials give great insight into the legislative process in Maine.  And tomorrow, we vote, which will offer another view of the political process in Maine and across the U.S.