The Erasure of History and the Eerie Face of Smith

Composita of Smith 1886

Composita of Smith 1886

“In the winter of 1885/1886 a group of Smith College women created a tangible symbol of their college friendship.  The forty-nine members of the senior class had their individual photographs taken.  The negatives from these images were then merged at a local photography studio to create a single composite portrait of the class.  Given her own identity/name “Composita”, the Class of 1886 carried the image of this woman and “classmate” with them throughout their long and rich history, until the final member of the Class died in 1964.  What is the story of Composita, and how does this single act of creating an individual identity from many tell us about friendship within the Class?”

“Composita of Smith.” Smith College Archives. 2011. Accessed February 04, 2016. https://smitharchives.wordpress.com/2011/02/04/composita-of-smith/.

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Carter writes in Of Things Said and Unsaid: Power, Archival Silences, and Power in Silence*, “Identity is extremely important for every group, particularly, the marginalized who feel the need to assert a strong identity in the face of the power structures that attempt to stamp them out.” Nothing to me screams this better than Composita. In our Educate a Girl? You Might as Well Attempt to Educate a Cat! reading, Young talked briefly about the photograph that the students of 1886 created and gave an identify to. I thought this was immediately captivating, and sought after the image. I found it on the Smith Digital Archives (citation above, with clickable link provided). The young woman above is the creation of the combined faces of the senior class of 1886. I find this photograph, and the idea behind it, very powerful because students have created this fictional character that combines physical aspects of each of them, as well as combining their emotional aspects, into this unifying figure that they can all connect to and rally around.

Women, especially women who sought after an education during this time period, were continuously fighting agains the odds to advance themselves. By creating a fictional character that they all were a part of, they were creating a history for themselves, and for their cause. With the erasure of women in significant archival spaces, I found that the 1886 class had a made a important, yet silent, message, as the author from the online archive writes, “By taking their composite photograph and imbuing that image with a collective personality, by keeping Composita “alive,” the memories of the Class remained viable and their experiences at Smith validated.” They didn’t use words per say to get their ‘voices heard’, but rather, they used silence- silence in the form of an eerie photograph, standing for unity and a desire for higher education of women.

3 thoughts on “The Erasure of History and the Eerie Face of Smith

  1. So proud to see our Composita being brought into Bryn Mawr’s academic life! I also recommend an article by Kati Curts “Shadowy Relations and Shades of Devotion: Production and Possession of the 1886 Smith College Composita Photograph” found in Sensational Religion: Sensory Cultures in Material Practice, edited by Sally M. Promey and published by Yale University Press, 2014.

    Such an interesting course!

    • I’ll read it- thank you very much for your recommendation.

      It is such a cool course! I’m really enjoying it so far.

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