At the start of the Spring 2017 semester, Leah Niederstadt, Assistant Professor of Museum Studies & Curator of the Permanent Collection, purchased two boxes of items from Skinner Auction House. Lot #1325 in the Irresistible Unreserved online auction originally intrigued her because it had been identified as containing materials related to the Harlem Renaissance. (Objects related to African and African-American material culture are a current acquisition priority for the collection.) Instead, the boxes contained World War II ephemera, family photos, and other personal effects once owned by Herbert Putnam Lear, a Salem, MA native who passed away in 2002 at the age of 87.
Mr. Lear was a World War II veteran who served in the Army Air Corps, attaining the rank of Private First Class. The boxes contained materials relating to: Mr. Lear’s time in the army; family items, such as photos, postcards, and letters; and numerous newspaper clippings of World War II news and political comics. Niederstadt asked two of her work-study students – Christine Evers, an History of Art and History major and member of the Class of 2019, and Rebecca Maitland, a French Studies major and member of the Class of 2017 – to catalog the contents of the boxes. As Collection Assistants, both young women help Niederstadt care for the Permanent Collection. The project proved to be time-consuming but ultimately fulfilling. Thanks to the staff at Skinner’s, Niederstadt’s request for information about Mr. Lear was forwarded to the consigners, who turned out to be his daughters. After weeks of working through the materials, writing descriptions of every photograph, and flipping through hundreds of newspaper clippings, Rebecca and Christine welcomed Mr. Lear’s daughters to campus. Janice Wollinger, Roberta Crowell, and Deborah Lear, as well Roberta’s husband, Steven Crowell, visited Wheaton to discuss the project and to help tie up loose ends about their research. In addition, they met with Audrey Spina, Class of 2017, to learn more about the ways in which collection objects are used in teaching at Wheaton, as Audrey has taken several courses with Professor Niederstadt and also works as a Collection Assistant.
During their visit, we learned that following their mother’s passing in 2010, the sisters sorted through the hundreds of items in their parents’ house. After their marriage, Mr. Lear and his wife Carrie “Frances” Lear (née Lendall) had moved in with Mrs. Lear’s parents, so the family home contained objects and documents tied to both sides of their family going back several generations. The sisters decided to consign some items to Skinner’s, hoping that someone would appreciated their historical value.
The materials varied greatly in age and condition. Christine and Rebecca were excited to find a campaign button from Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 presidential campaign, featuring ferrotypes of Lincoln and his running mate, Hannibal Hamlin. The sisters reported having found it at the bottom of a flower vase! Rebecca’s favorite items included class photos from Mr. Lear’s school days and other snapshots of his childhood. Due to her interest in history, Christine was fascinated by the newspaper articles pertaining to World War II. Having previously studied the period, she found that the language of these articles offered an immediate reaction to many well-known events, as opposed to the retrospective accounts offered by textbooks. One of her favorite newspaper clippings was an account of a riot that broke out over butter during a period of rationing in Lynn, MA.
As Rebecca and Christine cataloged the collection, they began to gain a sense of Mr. Lear’s personality. Among other items, they discovered hand-written notes, jokes saved from a magazine, matchbook covers from the airfields at which he served, even the menu given to occupants of the station hospital in which he stayed when injured. They began to feel like they knew Mr. Lear, especially after his daughters filled in details about their father’s life. For example, he was hospitalized during the war, but the reason for his hospitalization was unidentified in the documents they found. His daughters explained that while stationed at the airfield, Mr. Lear had broken his back when a car he was working under fell on him; eventually, this led to his medical discharged from the army. Happily, the sisters were enthralled by the work that had been done and loved touring the Permanent Collection Storage Room where they were able to view several objects, including Wheaton’s collection of French World War I posters. Audrey also participated in the tour and explained the provenance narratives she helped uncover as part of class assignments in Professor Niederstadt’s courses.
Through Mr. Lear’s photographs and other belongings, Christine and Rebecca were able to piece together much of his story. It was incredible to be so close to a stranger’s personal life, especially one who had passed away when they were in grade school. What started as some misidentified boxes sold at auction turned into an opportunity to meet three incredible women and to explore history on numerous levels. Mr. Lear’s items will soon be transferred to the Marion B. Gebbie Archives & Special Collections where they will be appreciated and studied by students and professors for years to come.