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.


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.

The Importance of Physical Objects in Public History


Something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is physical objects in Public History. I’m taking another class where we’ve been talking a lot about the physical monuments in relation to the memory of dead Presidents, and the interplay between the lifeless physical object and the alive passerby. With all of those things bubbling in my mind, it turned me back to Bryn Mawr’s own physical objects- namely Athena.

When my friend Anna Kalinsky class of 2015, a recent Bryn Mawr graduate, came back to campus, one of the first things she wanted to see was Athena. What makes this so? This culture that we have within our own community places value on this inanimate statue. It’s not even the original statue! Since 1996, the ‘real’ Athena has rested in Carpenter library, with a cast taking her rightful spot in Thomas Great Hall. Undergraduates frequently give this cast of Athena ‘offerings’, as if she was a real deity that had some profound impact on the way our lives could play out.

I think that the role of physical objects in public history is fascinating, mostly because the objects are given importance by the society/community in certain contexts/spaces. Otherwise these objects would just remain objects! For example, with our own Athena, no one to my knowledge leaves the ‘real’ Athena offers. The interplay between the space of Thomas Great Hall and the cast of Athena creates this perceived importance that the community responds to. If one of these elements were to be altered, the discourse would change entirely.

Anna Kalinsky '15 and Athena posing for the camera.

Anna Kalinsky ’15 and Athena posing for the camera.