Susan Dwight Bliss (1882-1966), collector, philanthropist

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Recent recovery of her card catalogue sheds new light on the reach of her generosity toward libraries as well as the full scope of her book collection.


Susan Dwight Bliss was born in New York City on January 16, 1882 to George T. Bliss and Jeanette Atwater Dwight Bliss. Her father was a member of the banking firm of Morton, Bliss & Co. and a large shareholder in several corporations, such as Phelps Dodge. Her mother inherited substantial wealth from her father, Amos T. Dwight, a cotton merchant (New York Times, 10 Feb. 1926).

Never marrying, she lived many years in the family mansion at 9 East 68th Street (1906-07, architects Heins and LaFarge, see library plans, part of the originals for entire house held by Princeton), first with her widow mother (her father dying in 1901) and then on her own after her mother’s death in 1924. (Photographs of the interior are available from the archives of Bowdoin College. See: http://coburn.bowdoin.edu:8180/luna/servlet/view/all/who/Bliss,+Susan+Dwight/when/1943/

There she maintained and continued book, manuscript, and art collections tracing back to her father and mother. Bliss_9E68_NYC_2ndFlr_library_alcove_interior2.jpg

She was known for her philanthropy. “She was a founding member of the social service executive board of St. Luke’s Hospital and served for many years on the hospital’s Auxiliary. Besides her work with St. Luke’s, she was active in many other organizations concerned with the social and medical welfare of children and of psychiatric patients.” [ Biographical note provided by Health Sciences Library at Columbia University]

She made numerous donations of art to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1959, she gave 42 acres of green-space to the town of New Canaan, Connecticut (New York Times, 2 Oct. 1959). At her death in 1966, she bequeathed approximately $2 million to Yale University for establishing professorships in epidemiology and public health as well as a scholarship in the field.

The libraries of Bowdoin, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale received major benefactions, as did the Bibliothèque nationale de France. The most spectacular is that to Bowdoin. Named the Susan Dwight Bliss Room shortly after her death, it consists of the interior carved paneling (18th century French) and furnishings of her mansion’s library together with more than 1200 specially bound rare books for its shelves. See: http://library.bowdoin.edu/arch/exhibits/Bliss/index.shtml

In 1967, Harvard received her bequest of a collection of autographs of French royalty, deposited in 1957-58. (According to the New York Times, 10 Feb. 1926, a number of these first belonged belonged to her mother.) See: http://oasis.lib.harvard.edu/oasis/deliver/~hou01258

Yale was given a collection documented in the article “Royal Association Books in the Bliss Collection,” in the Yale University Library Gazette 40:30 (January 1966), pp. 160-167.

Her gift to Princeton first arrived as a deposit in October, 1957, with two provisos: that it be anonymous and that it was an intended gift. In June 1964, the entire deposit was converted to an outright gift. The following articles detail the contents, mostly festival books, making up this gathering: • [Alexander Wainwright], “An Anonymous Gift” in the Princeton University Library Chronicle XIX, 3 & 4 (Spring & Summer, 1958) pp. 209-211 [full text] • Dale Roylance, “Illustrated Books” in the Princeton University Library Chronicle XX, 1 (Autumn, 1958) pp. 53-56 [full text] .

In 1927, she presented to the Bibliothèque nationale de France, her mother’s collection relating to Mary, Queen of Scots, consisting of 113 manuscripts, 687 printed books, 627 prints, and 22 medals and other items. See: Bibliothèque nationale. Collection de manuscrits, livres, estampes, et objets d’art relatifs à Marie Stuart, reine de France et d’Écosse (Paris, 1931).

• Recovery of her card catalogue
Bliss.catalog.jpg
The catalogue originated in her home at 9 East 68th Street. Several years ago it was discovered in a Connecticut barn among items remaining from the estate of the executor of the will of Susan Dwight Bliss. A relative of the deceased executor brought it to the attention of staff here a Princeton. This relative has courteously allowed digitization of the cards.

The catalogue consists of approximately 18,000 cards and can be viewed at http://libweb2.princeton.edu/rbsc2/Bliss/.
The digital version essentially maintains the original order which fell into the following groupings:

Main listing, A-Z (6 drawers) plus 1 drawer of cards arranged by subject heading. Most cards are unmarked for location in the house, so it is assumed that these were in the library. Occasionally there are markings on the cards, such as “Hall, cab. 3” “Table.” A number of the cards state “collated on large card.” These were 5x8 cards maintained for especial rare books such as the ones she gave Princeton. This link is an example.
• Seven drawers comprising a group labeled “Given away to Bowdoin, 1949-1963.”
• Four drawers comprising a group labeled “Given away, All but Bowdoin.

Among the “all but” group are: American Museum of Natural History, Amherst College, Birmingham College, Brooklyn Museum, Brown University, Cooper Union, Frick Art Reference Library, Fryeburg Academy, Grolier Club, Hudson River Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of the City of New York, New York Public Library, Portland Junior College (now part of the University of Maine), Wilson College, and others in addition to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.

Keyword searching of the cards is available, thus allowing convenient exploration of names of binders, details of association copies, names of former owners, and other bibliographical notabilia. For example, enter “Stikeman” to return cards for books bound by this New York City binder.

Search only Susan Dwight Bliss catalogue


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