As promised from last week’s Instagram teaser, I’d like to highlight this wonderful collage of Wilhelmine Kirby. My predecessor, Curator of Permanent Collections Nicole Stribling, unearthed this in a Library storage room and decided to hang it in her office, which, after she left, is now my office.
It’s not a huge office. In fact, it’s an old storage room that Nicole converted into office space when she started at the NSLM in 2013. I’ve made it my own but have retained much of the decoration Nicole acquired, including the collage. I can’t get to my desk without walking by it, so I’ve literally passed it thousands of times. Each time, I glance at it and wonder, who was Wilhelmine Kirby?
I was able to glean some information from that reliable source: the internet. She was born in 1914 to parents Wilhelmine Stewart Dunn-Claflin and Gustavus T. Kirby and attended Miss Chapin’s School in New York City and Fermata School in Aiken, SC. The family lived at Tanrackin Farm in Bedford Hills, NY. (A quick note: I generally refer to people by their last names in blog posts, but I really love the name Wilhelmine, so even though I will refer to her very casually, it is with the upmost respect.)
The New York Times turned up a few articles in their archives, some regaling society parties that Wilhelmine attended. Also making an appearance at one of these parties was Primrose Whitfield, a portrait of whom was recently included in NSLM’s Leading the Field: Ellen Emmet Rand exhibition (proving that it really is a small world). But also discovered were a few articles that highlight the two milestones in a young affluent woman’s life in the early 20th century: her society debut and her wedding announcement (after the fact, interestingly!). Wilhelmine’s official “coming out” as a debutante was held on December 20, 1931. The Parisian-themed fête included costumed waiters, a midnight dinner with dancing until 2 am, accompanied by the Blue Devil musicians, who were dressed in uniforms similar to those worn by the French infantry of the same name. Her marriage on April 7, 1942 to Thomas Waller was a very low-key affair with no bridal attendants and no reception as her mother had recently passed away. Wilhelmine’s associations were listed and included such illustrious groups as the Daughters of the Cincinnati, the Colonial Dames of America, and the Colony Club of New York.
Sidenote: to share another Times article, something I found interesting, but very unrelated, was that in 1979, Wilhelmine recognized the name (though not the photograph) of a man suspected of murder.
Back on track: Further articles, though, attest to her skill as a horsewoman. Several mention ribbons and awards she won at various shows and competitions, like “Miss Kirby’s Gelding Also Takes Hunter Honors in Rockwood Hall Event.” In an October 2, 1937 article announcing, “Awards Made at Horse Show,” Wilhelmine’s name comes up no less than four times.
The articles in the collage provide better headlines: “It’s a Perfect Jump! Miss Kirby Clears Fence at Piping Rock Horse Show.”
Perhaps my favorite description is “the most accomplished equestrienne in metropolitan social circles at Aiken, S.C., current capital of the American horse-loving world.” That sums it up nicely, doesn’t it?
Regarding the collage itself, it’s still unknown who made it or how it ended up at the NSLM. We don’t even know when this was created.
There aren’t many dates on the collage and the few that are included exhibit quite a range. The earliest date provided is from a National Horse Show Association Exhibitor badge in 1933 with Wilhelmine’s name neatly written on the line. The latest date is a 1951 National Horse Show Association program that lists her father “Gustavus T. Kirby” as the Head Timing Judge.
In an effort to establish more firm dates, I’ve attempted to marry the online articles with the collage cut-outs. I’ve been able to match exactly one (possibly?): a Camden Horse Show article from March 12, 1938 announcing the blue ribbons her chestnut, Royal Reveler, received.
Stay tuned because this will clearly be an on-going endeavor. It represents this woman’s life and shows what was important to the creator of this collage. I’d like to point out that there aren’t any of Wilhelmine’s dance cards here, but the telegram congratulating her on her winning horse is.
The New York Times did provide one last announcement for Wilhelmine and that, of course, was her obituary. She passed away at Tanrackin Farm at the age of 90 on April 7, 2004, her 62nd wedding anniversary. Her husband had predeceased her in 1990. She appears to have led a full life being involved with her church, as well as president of the Bedford Garden Club and the Garden Club of America.
The collage hangs behind me and stares at my back all day. The perspective must be an interesting one. Wilhelmine watches me as I conduct research and go down Herring print rabbit holes or get excited when a shipping estimate comes in under budget. She, in all her incarnations, watches as I constantly trip over my trash can or peruse my files. Goodness knows what she thinks when I start talking to myself. But she has kept me company these last few years and I’m happy she’s here.
If you are familiar with Wilhelmine Kirby or her family, I’d like to hear from you. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lauren Kraut is the Collections Manager at the National Sporting Library & Museum. Her primary focus is to maintain and preserve the works of art in the collection and on loan. Email her at lkraut@NationalSporting.org