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The Underworld Courier and the Blisses in California

Posted On October 17, 2017 | 19:59 pm | by Dumbarton Oaks Archives | Permalink

The Underworld Courier and the Blisses in California

Telegraph from Dumbarton Oaks staff to the Blisses in California, sent by Barbara Sessions, January 7, 1941.

Shortly after the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection conveyed to Harvard University in November 1940, Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss went to their home in Santa Barbara in January 1941 (see post). They intended to spend the remainder of the winter in California and then return to Washington in the spring. However, Robert Bliss’s deteriorating health due to a gall bladder infection kept them in California until May 1942. On August 3, 1941, Bliss underwent a successful gall bladder removal operation and spent the rest of the year in recuperation. Early in 1941, Mildred Bliss wrote of his condition:

The Ambassador has been perfectly miserable since we got out here. And now that he is at last out of bed, his only activity is medical tests twice daily. I don’t despair of a way being found to increase his vitality, but I do fear that he is in for a very long and slow pull uphill. The comfort to me of knowing Dumbarton Oaks is safe and useful is profound indeed.

With the Blisses’ departure, the staff at Dumbarton Oaks decided to write to the Blisses to keep them abreast of developments at the institute. On December 17, 1940, librarian Barbara Sessions wrote Robert Bliss in Florida:

After Christmas, when we have caught up with work a bit, I look forward to sending you frequent letters which will keep you and Mrs. Bliss in touch with the minutiae of daily life among us here. You should have had such letters already, recounting our amusing experiences in one way and another, the comings and goings, the successful completion of work “unfinished” at the time of your departure. But even though the letters have not been achieved, the constant desire to associate you uninteruptedly with our concerns has been always pressent. You have not left us, and you never will!

Instead of letters, however, the staff decided to “publish” a weekly newsletter called the Underworld Courier, named after the basement area, the “underworld,” where many of them had their offices. The staff sent the Blisses a telegram on January 7, 1941, to express their delight in the initiation of the project:

The staff of the Underworld Courier beg to express the honor they feel in your interest in their infant enterprise, For them, assembling the copy will be a joy and their hope is that the flight of the weekly leaflet across the continent will mutually lessen the sense of distance.

The Blisses telegrammed back:

First number of Underworld Courier read with great interest. Hearty congratulations to the Editor and to talented author of feature article. No infant enterprise this, rather is it born already adolescent.

Special Valentine's Day edition of the Underworld Courier with an accession register card with Coptic "cupids"

The Underworld Courier provided a succinct summary of the happenings at the institution during the week. The first issue, dated January 11, 1941, for example, contained postings on the book bindery, book acquisitions, the Census of Byzantine Objects, the gardens, the Fellows Quarters, and even the weather. The feature article was titled “Chicago” and was written by Louisa Bellinger “of the Mummy Case Bellingers” about her research at the Field Museum on Coptic textiles for the Census of Byzantine Objects. In all, there were twenty-five issues. The last, dating to November 1, 1941, was billed as “An Aftermath (Don’t Tell).” This was due to the fact that, by September 1941, the staff who had originally contributed to the publication had left Dumbarton Oaks, with the exception of Bellinger. In the September 25th issue, she wrote:

New name for the Courier? New character? Obviously, it will no longer be the Underworld Courier, since all but me are fled. We will try to think of a new name which will be agreeable to our subscriber—should they want to renew their subscription. May we be notified about that last point? Obviously, it should have a new character. We must try to think about that, too. No longer, perhaps, of so light a character, so formless. Possibly, a series of reports—not too long—from each room upstairs. A weekly batch of separate notes giving a picture of the activities as seen by each. Would that please you? Would you like us to continue? In some form or other? We will be guided by your wishes and, meantime, continue much as before till we hear.

But the “Aftermath” issue, tellingly published on the first-year anniversary date of the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, would be the last. The “Underworld Courier” had done its job of keeping the Blisses informed about Dumbarton Oaks during the critical first year of its existence.

Complete texts of the Underworld Courier can be found here.