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A page of Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium.

The history of America is full of women who were pioneers and explorers, but often their stories were overshadowed – or even erased – by the men in their lives. Caroline Fearey Schimmel, CW’67, has spent 50 years working to change that by focusing her efforts as a book collector and bibliographer on women whose contributions went unrecognized, both as creators of fictional and artistic works and as history makers. Her generous donations of works of fiction on the wilderness theme to the University of Pennsylvania Libraries over the past several years have enabled the Libraries to shed light on these overlooked trailblazers. Recently, a new donation of items valued at more than $1M adds many fascinating works from Schimmel’s collection to the Penn Libraries for preservation, research, and study.

Schimmel donated more than 6,000 volumes to the Penn Libraries in 2014, establishing the Caroline F. Schimmel Fiction Collection of Women in the American Wilderness. She continued to build this collection with donations in 2016 and 2017. In 2018, the Penn Libraries hosted her exhibit, “OK, I’ll Do It Myself: Narratives of Intrepid Women in the American Wilderness,” which included 145 books, photographs, manuscripts, artworks, and memorabilia by 101 women and one man, dating from 1682 to 2015. She then donated the fiction portion of this exhibition to the collection as well.

Now, Schimmel has donated the nonfiction portion from her “OK” exhibit to the Libraries in celebration of the appointment of Sean Quimby as Director of the Jay I. Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts. The new donation is diverse, comprising books, letters, photos, and unique items such as Dale Evans’ cowgirl boots and Annie Oakley’s trunk.  

“Caroline’s collecting interests are vast,” says Regan Kladstrup, Director of Special Collections Processing. According to Kladstrup, Schimmel looks for minor variations among different printings of the same work, and that is reflected in this collection, which includes both popular and rare publications. The items range widely in financial value as well. “I refer to the collection as narratives; each book or work of art needs to tell a story, whether personal experience or not, of women in American wildernesses,” Schimmel says.

Her interest in collecting began with an early job in the book department at Parke-Bernet Galleries in New York, where she was in charge of the Thomas W. Streeter sales. “In the massive collection of Americana, requiring seven sales, it dawned on me that there were only a handful of women,” Schimmel says, “and I realized why: history was told by men for men.” Although women contributed to collections, histories, and biographies, they often were not credited. Schimmel was determined to name these women and credit them for their work. “Curiosity, grumpiness, and my acquaintance with some very kind and equally excited book dealers like Dorothy Sloan, led me down that endless, joyous rabbit hole,” she explains.

Soon she was teaching book and antiquities dealers a new way to look at their shelves. She feels she was able to contribute her unique skill set as a librarian (she obtained a master’s degree in library science from Columbia University) to the women’s movement.

Schimmel feels passionately about her unique collection and believes she is still the only collector focused on this niche: “Yes, there is some crossover with Lisa Unger Baskin's collection of 'women's work, also started at the beginning of the women’s movement she has a better collection of 19th Century taxidermist Martha Maxwell, but I [have] a better collection of female bullfighter posters, so it's a very friendly rivalry,” she says. 

Many of the items feature women’s involvement in aspects of craftsmanship, a rare occurrence in previous centuries: for example, an 1873 copperplate engraving of Honolulu, issued by the Lahainaluna Seminary and annotated by the young missionary Lucia Garratt Smith. In addition to working on the printing press, Smith hand-drew a manuscript key on this copy identifying various points of interest before mailing the engraving home to her mother.

A fun item Kladstrup recommends reading is the autobiography of Mesannie Wilkins, The Last of the Saddle Tramps. After doctors told Wilkins she only had two years to live, she left her home in Maine in 1954 at age 63 and took a trip across the country on horseback. Wilkins travelled with two horses, Tarzan and Rex, and her dog, Depeche Toi (“Hurry Up”), a border collie who sometimes perched atop the saddlebag on the horse too. Photos of the journey bring this unique story to life. Kladstrup notes Wilkins outlived her prognosis by 24 years.  

The collection’s showstopper is a large folio, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, a detailed account, with intricate drawings of the flora and fauna, of the country of Suriname published in 1705. Its author was Maria Sibylla Merian, a German-born woman living in the Netherlands who was an artist, botanist, naturalist, and entomologist. For Metamorphosis, Merian studied insects in their natural habitats – sometimes enlisting indigenous and Black locals to help her find them – and rendered them throughout their various stages of life.

“She was able to draw all kinds of species that had never been seen before,” Kladstrup says. “She would draw them to scale for the most part, and she would always draw them in the environment in which they lived.”

Each drawing was engraved and then hand-painted under the supervision of Merian and her daughters. The first edition contains 60 engraved plates, three of which have so far been determined by experts to have been colored by Merian herself.

“What makes this copy special is that most of the plates are counter-proofs, an experiment by Merian to ‘double-dip’ [by] placing a sheet of paper atop a fresh print while the black ink was still moist, and creating an image in reverse,” Schimmel explains. 

It was appraised in December and valued at $245,000. Kladstrup says a major contributor to the valuation is the rarity of a folio remaining complete; “These types of botanical and biology books tend to get chopped up,” she says.

But even this rare and beautiful work is not Schimmel’s favorite; she holds equal reverence for all items in the collection. “Which is your favorite child?” she says. “Each is dear to me.”

Schimmel’s collecting practice is rooted in discovery and requires patience and a bit of serendipity.  

“There’s a certain amount of detective work required to determine that something was written by a woman,” Kladstrup says – for example, many of these works are anonymous, or use an author’s initials or just their last name. When she’s not hunting for what she calls her “unicorn/holy grail,” a buffalo hide on which Sacagawea depicted her visit to the Pacific in 1805-06, Schimmel continues her never-ending quest to uncover these invisible women.

“Every day I find another wife who worked beside her archaeologist or mountaineer or birder husband, and is 'lightly' if at all credited in his work,” she says. Fortunately, Schimmel will continue finding and naming these women, forging her own path through a wilderness on paper.