In 1940, a high school class took lessons at the New Haven Free Public Library. The library, open since 1887—the year Jennie Jerome’s parents were married, and her father, Yan Phou Lee published When I Was a Boy in China—drew students from across New Haven to its catalogs and stacks. On the top floor was the Art Department, staffed by Jennie Jerome (1888-1979). She was short, serious, and once prided herself helping youth “not so much [in] choosing their books, but in making them behave.” Her library acolytes wore crimped hair, bobby socks, and saddle shoes. Jerome always dressed the same: in black dresses with white edging lace and sensible lace-up black shoes. Her dark hair, in long tendrils when let down, was braided into a “coronet” style that wrapped around her head. Jerome never varied from her self-proclaimed Victorian style. Decade after decade, as the world changed around her, Jerome stayed the same.
In addition to teaching local students, in her days at the library, Jerome curated hundreds of art exhibits for local artists, selecting the works of art, drawing cover images for small catalogs, and offering them receptions. She also started a clipping system of images, which she boasted was “better than the New York Public Library’s [image collection].” Her taste in art was influenced by her grandmother, a nineteenth century amateur artist trained in art schools in Hartford. Though Modernism had turned the visual arts in Connecticut away from traditional forms—Alexander Calder, for example, settled in the state in the 1930s—Jerome remained attached to the older ways, proclaiming “I suppose you might say that I am a conservator. I try to conserve the best of the past and present it to the new generation. You can describe me as very Victorian, for I am proud of it.”
Women’s history and much of male history, too, celebrates those who break molds, lead avant-garde lives, and generally do things differently from the majority, while under pressure from society or duress from personal circumstances. Often, the women who gain attention (and readership) are wild and witty, throw parties, run away with men, or fall in love with other women, write novels or move to the deserts of the Southwest. But, what about women like Jennie Jerome? Although bearing the same name of such a mold-breaking woman – another Jennie Jerome became Winston Churchill’s mother – this Jennie Jerome, New Haven’s Jennie Jerome, was only interviewed once at the end of her life, appearing in a newspaper article upon her retirement, holding her scissors high, and posing by the fireplace mantel of the family home. She died in the city where she was born, surrounded by her mother’s Victorian furniture and her grandmother’s paintings.
Finding the New Haven Free Public Library as a place for meaningful work was not a foregone conclusion. Although Jerome attended Mt. Holyoke College and graduated with majors in Art and English Literature in 1911, it was not expected that she would go to work afterward, and her mother, Elizabeth, was vocally set against it. As noted, her grandmother was a strong influence, but Jerome was fortunate to encounter other women whose presence may have served to bolster the argument that a vocation was not only socially acceptable, but a worthwhile way to fashion a life.
At the turn of the twentieth century, American women had begun making inroads into the realms of public life and education. At Mt. Holyoke, Jerome was exposed to the leadership of president Dr. Mary E. Woolley, an innovative educator, administrator, peace activist, and public speaker—who was in an open relationship with another woman. Moving into her second decade as president in 1911, Woolley had transformed the college, solidifying its place in women’s higher education. That year Jerome graduated and returned to New Haven to find a brand-new public library on the Green. With a gift of $300,000 philanthropist Mary E. Ives had transformed dreary outdated spaces pressed into library service into a city icon. Architect Cass Gilbert provided the Beaux-Arts building design, with double-story Palladian windows and a marble entrance hall with twinned staircases. His architectural record reinforced a sense of tradition, something Jerome would have appreciated as she climbed the stairs to her desk in the Art Department.
Finally, in the image from 1940 where Jerome (at the far left) is seen teaching students, near her stands two more teachers, one of whom is Dr. Marian Campbell Sheridan (figure to the far right). Sheridan, whose birth, and death dates closely mirror Jerome’s, received her PhD from Yale College while teaching English for New Haven High School, which both she and Jerome had attended. While Jerome did not break molds in the radical ways we have come to expect today—she was not a suffragist, preferred being home, did not pursue higher education, and remained unchanged in her personal style—yet she did wield power in her own way, fashioning a life from her work at the library.
Laura A. Macaluso researches, writes, and lectures on monuments, museums, and material culture. She works in the cultural heritage field. She can be found at www.lauramacaluso.com or @Monumentculture.
Jennie Jerome with scissors is reproduced by kind permission of Mount Holyoke. Jennie Jerome instructing high school students is courtesy of the New Haven Federal Public Library.