The Case of the Mysterious Blue Writing

30, August 2017

One of the most magnificent rooms in all of mid-19th-century St. Louis was . . . a private library in a Carondelet home. That home, and many of the more than 900 books within it, belonged to Henry T. Blow, a lawyer who made most of his fortune through manufacturing and mining. He also spent time in Venezuela and Brazil as a U.S. ambassador. Blow is a prominent St. Louis figure even now, as is his daughter, Susan, the well-educated, well-traveled woman who brought public kindergarten to the United States.

Black-and-white photo of the Blow family libraryA view inside the incredible library at Henry T. Blow's Carondelet home, 1876. Photo by Boehl and Koenig. Missouri History Museum.

I learned all about the Blow family and the books they kept while creating a massive inventory of their volumes and devising just how to incorporate them into the collections at the Missouri History Museum’s Library and Research Center. Because the books had at one time been mixed with other books unrelated to the Blow family, one of the major challenges of the project was determining exactly which books went with the collection.

Color photo of book with blue markings by Susan BlowA book with blue markings from the Blow family library. Photo by Marlee Keeven.

One particularly perplexing set of books contained blue markings all over the pages. I could tell these blue annotations were made by the same person because the handwriting and the style of the checkmarks and underlining was identical from one marked-up book to the next. I also noticed that all of these books shared common themes: philosophy, theory, religion, and education. The catch? Not one book directed me to any sign of sure ownership, such as a signature, inscription, or bookplate. The frustrating puzzle remained unsolved for weeks—until I came across a book that contained blue annotations and an inscription on the front cover. That inscription read, “With Love, from Alice S.”

Even though these words only told me that somebody by the name of Alice S. gave this book to somebody else, I was able to recognize the handwriting as well as the name. I had seen an inscription by this same person in another book I’d inspected earlier in the project. That book’s inscription read, “To dear Miss Blow, Wishing her a very Happy Christmas — 1905 Alice Snider.” Better yet, this book contained blue annotations inside the pages.

Side-by-side photos of the Alice S. inscriptionsThese inscriptions helped solve the mystery of who owned the blue-annotated books in the Blow family library. Photo by Marlee Keeven.

At this point, I felt positive that all the books with blue markings had belonged to Susan Blow. Their philosophical, educational, and religious themes all matched her interests exactly. Yet another confirmation was the fact that Alice Snider was the daughter of Denton J. Snider, a friend, colleague, and mentor of Blow’s, as well as somewhat of a famous intellectual and writer himself.

Color photo of a blue-annotated book from the Blow family libraryAnother book from the Blow family library featuring markings by Susan Blow. Photo by Marlee Keeven.

Head Librarian Emily Jaycox and I ultimately concluded that all 44 books containing blue annotations had indeed belonged to Susan Blow and could be added to the Blow Library Book Collection. All 340 books in this collection, most of which belonged to Susan and Henry, are now available for viewing in the Martha Blanke Grigg Reading Room at the LRC. Take a look at them when you can, especially those blue-annotated volumes. They offer incredible insight into the mind of one of this region’s most influential educators.

—Marlee Keeven, 2016 Williams Intern

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