We are approaching the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic faster than you can say “Iceberg!” Before you pop in your Titanic DVD, take a look through some of the Archives of American Art’s collections that give insight into the tragic night of April 15, 1912.
Among these collections are the papers of sculptor, painter and first-class passenger on the Titanic, Francis Davis Millet. These papers provide a poignant view of how the sinking directly affected Millet’s family and a larger community of friends and artists. As news travelled throughout the world of the ship’s sinking, mourners sent their condolences to Lily Millet, Francis’s wife. These letters convey hope, despair, and confusion—emotions likely felt by all those who knew the many missing and presumed dead. Artists groups and friends held memorials for Millet in New York, Washington, D.C., and Boston and published memorial editions of newsletters in honor of their colleague.
Permanent reminders of the infamous tragedy appear in our collections, particularly within the Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney papers. Located a few blocks south of the Waterfront Metro Station—and accessible by boat—in Washington, D.C., Whitney’s Titanic Memorial stands as a reminder of the brave sacrifice of the men that gave their lives in favor of women and children. The statue was sponsored by the Women’s “Titanic” Memorial Committee, a group of women aimed to commission and erect a memorial shortly after the ship’s sinking. Serving as the Committee’s Secretary Natalie F. Hammond wrote in the Washington Post on April 25th, 1912:
The feeling of glory and pride in the bravery of those who were lost is universal. To women especially must come the sense of thankfulness that to them has been given the bearing of such men as those who showed they were not afraid to die.
Her impassioned piece sought to receive donations one dollar at a time, citing First Lady Helen Taft as the donor of the first dollar. The Committee hosted garden fetes and benefit shows filled with entertainment, and publicized their cause in newspapers and with women’s organizations throughout the country.
Their hard work paid off and in 1912, Whitney sketched renderings of the memorial in its famous pose. Upon seeing the sketches in 1913, Hammond praised Whitney’s vision and recommended some changes. It is clear both Gertrude and Natalie held their work in high regard. The location of the memorial proved difficult and by 1918, a permanent location had yet to be found and agreed upon by Congress, the Women’s “Titanic” Memorial Committee, Gertrude, and sculptor Henry Bacon who designed the base.
Finally, Helen Taft unveiled the memorial at a dedication in Potomac Park in 1931. It was removed in 1966 in order to make room for the construction of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and found its new home in Southwest, D.C. two years later.
While the Women’s Titanic Memorial received no ceremony when it was reinstalled in 1968, it now receives annual commemoration from a new and impassioned group that is faithful to the statue’s original dedication. Stay tuned until next week when we explore the Titanic Memorial’s significance in today’s D.C.!
Jayna Hanson is a processing archivist at the Archives of the American Art.