This Place in History: Sylvia Bliss



At ‘This Place in History’ we celebrate Women’s History Month with a visit to the Vermont History Center in Barre, Vermont. Executive Director of the Vermont Historical Society Steve Perkins tells us about the life of Sylvia Bliss.

“She’s a fascinating woman. She was a musician, she collected flora and had an herbarium. She also wrote a few articles on psychology and psychoanalysis,” said Perkins.

Amy Cunningham is the Director of Public Programs with the Vermont Humanities Council. In the Library at the Vermont Historical Society she took us through some of the massive archival material available on Sylvia Bliss.

About Sylvia Bliss, Cunningham said, “She’s a Vermonter not many people know about. She was born in 1870 in Iowa, but her family was all here in Vermont. She was a published poet. She wrote articles about psychology. She was a self-taught botanist. She was an accomplished musician. She taught piano lessons and was the church organist.”

“We happen to have a huge range of her papers from throughout her 93-year-long life. I came to see just a few of her letters here at the History Center a couple of years ago and was charmed and amazed at her unbelievable life.”

Even though she was not born in Vermont, Sylvia Bliss often wrote to her grandparents living in the Green Mountain State, expressing her desire to visit early on in her life.

“These are some of my favorite. I think this is her earliest writing we have. She is about five-years-old when she wrote this sweet, little note to her grandparents. She was living in Iowa, her grandparents were in East Calais. Her handwriting advanced rapidly. We have a letter from 1883, she’s 13-years-old. In all these letters, she’s talking about how much she misses Vermont and wants to come back. And we know that some years later, she’s in her teens, the family comes back for good. She lives the rest of her life in East Calais. She wrote an article called ‘Aspects of Dream Life’ that was published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology in 1915,” explained Cunningham.

“I don’t believe she finished high school, so the rest of her education was her own reading and learning. Her biographer indicated that her circulation records at the Kellogg-Hubbard Library were very active. She was checking out lots of books there. She was corresponding with different scholars around the country about psychology and other things.”

“I’m noticing in this article right here, ‘The Aspects of Dream Life,’ unlike the rest of the articles that list the author, all men, this one is the contribution of a woman. The article is published, but she’s not named in the article. That is something. She had one other thing, too. You were telling us about her collection?” asked Perkins.

“She was self-taught botanist and apparently she donated a very extensive collection to the Kellogg-Hubbard Library, presumably a collection of plants from Vermont that was used a reference piece. It was unfortunately destroyed in the 1927 Flood, so we don’t know what that looked like. But there are lots of accounts of it in the correspondence between her and the trustees at the library about the donation of the collection,” concluded Cunningham.

Explore more of Vermont’s history!

For more from our ‘This Place in History’ series, click here.

To view a map of Vermont’s historic roadside markers, click here.


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