The collector: How one Leeds resident is chronicling 500 years of working women

  • Lisa Baskin, of Leeds, holds a catalog of her exhibition titled “Five Hundred Years of Women’s Work: The Lisa Unger Baskin Collection” at her home, Monday, Jan. 27, 2020. Duke University acquired her collection in 2015, and an exhibit featuring pieces of it is on display at the Grolier Club in New York City until Feb. 8. Books and other items she has collected since 2015 rest on shelves behind her. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Lisa Baskin, of Leeds, holds a catalog of her exhibition titled “Five Hundred Years of Women’s Work: The Lisa Unger Baskin Collection” at her home, Monday, Jan. 27, 2020. Duke University acquired her collection in 2015, and an exhibition featuring pieces of it is on display at the Grolier Club in New York City until Feb. 8. Books and other items she has collected since 2015 rest on shelves behind her. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Lisa Baskin of Leeds holds a catalog of her exhibition titled “Five Hundred Years of Women’s Work: The Lisa Unger Baskin Collection” at her home Monday. Duke University acquired her collection in 2015, and an exhibition featuring pieces of it is on display at the Grolier Club in New York City until Feb. 8. Books and other items she has collected since 2015 rest on shelves behind her. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • “Five Hundred Years of Women’s Work: The Lisa Unger Baskin Collection” was published on the occasion of the exhibition now on display at the Grolier Club in New York City. 1,100 copies were printed of the catalog, top, and 95 signed and numbered editions have been specially bound by Sarah Creighton of Easthampton, front. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • “Five Hundred Years of Women's Work: The Lisa Unger Baskin Collection” was published on the occasion of the exhibition now on display at the Grolier Club in New York City. 1,100 copies were printed of the catalog, top, and 95 signed and numbered editions have been specially bound by Sarah Creighton of Easthampton, front. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • A silk scarf from the Lisa Unger Baskin Collection. Lisa Unger Baskin Collection, Rubenstein Library, Duke University

  • A photograph taken of Sojourner Truth in 1864. Lisa Unger Baskin Collection, Rubenstein Library, Duke University.

  • A hand-colored etching by Maria Sibylla Merian.  Lisa Unger Baskin Collection, Rubenstein Library, Duke University.

  • The 1857 autobiography of Mary Seacole, a nurse. Lisa Unger Baskin Collection, Rubenstein Library, Duke University.

  • Needlework by Charlotte Brontë.  Lisa Unger Baskin Collection, Rubenstein Library, Duke University.

  • Art from the Women’s Printing Society. Lisa Unger Baskin Collection, Rubenstein Library, Duke University.

  • An engraving from a book by midwife Louise Bourgeois Boursier. Lisa Unger Baskin Collection, Rubenstein Library, Duke University

Staff Writer
Published: 1/28/2020 11:43:00 PM

NORTHAMPTON — In 18th-century London, a merchant who went by Mrs. Phillips sold what she called “implements of safety,” otherwise known as condoms.

Some of her advertisements promoting her products read: “To guard yourself from shame or fear/Votaries to Venus, hasten here/None in our wares er’er found a flaw/Self-preservation’s Natures law.”

For decades, she made the condoms and competed with another merchant, Mrs. Perkins, by employing street peddlers to draw customers into her store.

Long before “leaning in” and “having it all” became part of the popular lexicon, women worked but weren’t always remembered by history. And for more than four decades, longtime city resident Lisa Unger Baskin has been collecting evidence of their contributions — thousands of pieces of evidence. A trade card advertising Phillips’ merchandise is part of Baskin’s collection of approximately 16,000 items including letters, drawings, books and photographs from women who were scientists, architects, spies, diplomats, mathematicians and philosophers.

In 2015, Duke University in North Carolina acquired the collection, “Five Hundred Years of Women’s Work: The Lisa Unger Baskin Collection.” And an exhibition featuring many books, manuscripts and other ephemera from that same collection is now on display in the Upper East Side of New York City at the Grolier Club — a society of bibliophiles and graphic arts fans — until Feb. 8. The exhibition has attracted the attention of publications including The New York Times and Smithsonian magazine.

Baskin, 76 and originally from Brooklyn, started collecting the materials in the 1960s. “Our history was not being taught, the history of women,” she said. “Nineteenth-century history was the history that maybe we knew about a little, but I had no idea that there were women scientists and printers and women who were earning a living.”

“Women have been earning a living for a very long time,” she added, “being artists, photographers, printers, booksellers — but that was not particularly obvious.”

The collection includes pottery made at Jane Addams’ Hull House in Chicago, writing by journalist and activist Ida B. Wells, embroidery by writer Charlotte Brontë, a 17th-century book about midwifery by Louise Bourgeois Boursier — midwife to the queen of France — and a signed 1773 first edition copy of “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.” Written by Phillis Wheatley, it was the first book of poetry published by an African-American writer. Interestingly, Baskin pointed out, the copy of the book belonged to a working woman, Melatiah Bent, who ran a tavern in Massachusetts.

A highlight of the collection: Virginia Woolf’s oak writing desk, which the author used for more than a decade and her nephew later painted.

The oldest items include a document granting land in Pisa, Italy, in 1240 for a house for “repentant prostitutes.” Some of the newer items include letters from anarchist and political activist Emma Goldman.

There are also books and artifacts related to science and medicine, including an 1879 biography of Martha Maxwell, a naturalist and taxidermist who “defined the art of creating natural history dioramas with animals displayed in their natural habitats,” the item’s online description reads.

“She was 4-foot-11 and desperately wanted to be a scientist,” Baskin said. “She was probably the first person to display animals in their natural habitat. Not lined up on shelves.”

Baskin also acquired early-1700s hand-colored etchings by entomologist Maria Sibylla Merian who “made the most extraordinarily beautiful images that showed the metamorphosis of insects, butterflies,” she said. Merian earned money by teaching drawing and selling her prints and books.

Some of the items have local ties, such as a number of artifacts connected to abolitionist Sojourner Truth who escaped from slavery and came to Northampton in the mid-1800s to join a utopian, abolitionist community.

Where did Baskin acquire all the items? “Everywhere. All over the place,” she said, adding that some are from flea markets and book sales. And she’s still collecting. “I just got something today,” Baskin said Tuesday — a trade card for a fur trade business owned by a woman in Exeter, England.

Before moving her collection to Duke, Baskin kept it in her New England farmhouse in Leeds. Scholars and students, such as those from Hampshire College studying labor history, would use the collection at her home, Baskin said.

But in 2011, a tornado devastated Springfield, Hurricane Irene dumped water on the Valley, and a freak October snowstorm hit the Northeast, making Baskin rethink keeping the collection at home. “That was the year that I thought, ‘This is not safe,’” she said.

Though sometimes hard to find, women “did leave evidence of the fact they worked,” Baskin said.

“You have to have eyes to see the evidence that exists,” she continued. “It is obscure and hidden. You also have to have an awareness that there might be history that we don’t know about.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.




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