Before I start gushing about how awesome these scrapbooks are, I want to tell you a bit about the person who compiled them. Mabel Townsley French, born May 30, 1887, was a student at the University of South Dakota from 1894-1899. After graduation, she spent a few years teaching at country schools in Hartford, SD and Keystone, SD. Then Townsley returned to Vermilion and became an English instructor and later, a registrar at the university. In 1910, she married Dr. Harley Ellsworth French, a professor of anatomy and bacteriology at USD. The couple had two children and lived happily in Vermilion for several years.
When one encounters a historical photograph it is often easy to forget that the photograph’s subject was once a real person. Historical images and portraits can have an air of formality and even, stuffiness about them; it can be difficult for the modern person to empathize with stern-looking women in hoop skirts or grim-faced frontiersmen. Intimate and filled with personality, Mable Towsley’s scrapbooks do not give one this view of history. The photographs depict people laughing and picnicking in the summer. The drawings are whimsical and humorous. Townsley herself embellished the pages with poetry and doodles.
In addition, the scrapbooks are also unique because they contain images that appear to be cyanotypes. It is important to note that the Cyanotype Process is an early photographic printing process that produces a Prussian blue print. This process is still widely practiced as an art form today. To view a selection of modern cyanotypes, check out the “Vermillion in Blue” exhibition on the second floor of the library. It runs through May 6. (Click photographs below to enlarge.)
–Information gathered from the Mable Townsley Collection