Women & Wilderness on Exhibit in Texas

Scout’s honor--here’s an exhibit to see: OK, I’ll Do It Myself: Narratives of Intrepid Women in the American Wilderness, Selections from the Caroline F. Schimmel Collection. A long-time book collector (and native New Yorker), Schimmel has spent decades collecting women’s wilderness experiences, from a bitter letter by Myra F. Eells, writing from the Oregon Territory in 1840, to Calamity Jane’s studio photograph, to an extra-illustrated first edition of Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine.

do-it-myself-exhibit.jpgIt’s a collection, Schimmel writes in the catalogue’s introduction, “assembled mostly before the internet ... through chance, through travel, and through the kindness of astute book dealers.” There was no bibliography to work from, and few collectors or booksellers were yet interested in the material when she began collecting. As she writes in the description of her copy of Harriet Martineau’s Retrospect of Western Travel (1838), “Harriet was one of the few ‘Lady Travelers’ whom book dealers had heard of when I started collecting in the 1970s.” That has changed, she said during a recent interview, with the rise of women’s history departments in universities. Prices have increased in relation, such that a collection of its size and depth would be difficult if not impossible to duplicate. Recalling the words of her husband, fellow collector Stuart Schimmel, she said you remember the items you didn’t buy and now it’s two digits more. “So at that point, your head explodes or you pivot and you go into a new field.”

Schimmel has fun with her item descriptions, which are sassier than what you find in run-of-the-mill exhibition catalogues, brimming with witty asides and personal anecdotes. As she writes in the entry for Juliette Gordon Low’s How Girls Can Help Their Country, Adapted from Agnes Baden-Powell and Sir Robert Baden-Powell’s Handbook (1917), “Long, long ago, during a rainstorm as I sat on the dirt in a pup-tent at Girl Scout summer camp in Philadelphia, I realized my own keenest desire while in the wilderness - was to not be there.”

Screen Shot 2018-02-14 at 9.18.11 PM.pngStill, she feels a kinship with the women who did ‘go West.’ She has amassed thousands of books, manuscripts, photographs, pamphlets, and ephemera, collecting the voices of colonizers, captives, and natives alike. Distilling that collection into an exhibition of 144 items was “agony,” she said. Her collection also includes related memorabilia, including Elizabeth (Libby) Custer’s two-piece mohair and cotton dress and Annie Oakley’s gloves. “You need shiny baubles, to catch the layperson’s eye, to engage them,” she said. Annie Oakley’s rifle is her holy grail; she’s been outbid at auction more than once, she said.

Putting her collection on exhibit now was the idea of Russell Martin, assistant dean for collections and director of the DeGolyer Library at Southern Methodist University, seconded by John Hoover, executive director of the St. Louis Mercantile Library Association at the University of Missouri. The exhibition opened at the St. Louis Mercantile Library last fall. It then traveled to SMU’s DeGolyer Library last Calamity Jane.jpgmonth, where it remains on view through March 29. In the fall of 2018, the exhibition reappears at the University of Pennsylvania, Schimmel’s alma mater and the owner of her “Women in the American Wilderness” fiction collection. These three venues combined equal about nine months of exposing her collection to light, Schimmel said, which is more than enough.

When initially contacted for an interview, Schimmel was driving around Dallas, hitting as many Half Price Books as she could in her rental car, still in search of women whose stories were forgotten. In the end, she purchased about one hundred books that day--“things I didn’t have,” she said. “So there’s still the unknown unknown out there.”

Images: (Top) Exhibition catalogue for OK, I’ll Do It Myself; (Middle) Annie Oakley’s gloves and related ephemera; (Bottom) Life and Adventures of Calamity Jane. By Herself (Livingston, MT, 1896), second edition, original pink wrapper, engraved portrait on front cover & studio photo by R. L. Kelly, signed by Calamity Jane in the plate. Courtesy of Caroline Schimmel.

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