Filling in the Gaps: Missionaries in Service of the University Collection


Both Blackmore and Sharp worked with missionaries to collect ethnological dress- and textile-related artifacts from Southeast Asia. Prior to the professionalization of anthropology, missionaries served as intermediaries and knowledge holders for public and private institutions. In fact, the first Chief Curator of Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History, Franz Boas, worked with missionaries stationed throughout countries in Southeast Asia to expand the museum’s collections to include artifacts from Myanmar, India, Japan, China, and Korea in the early twentieth century. The reasons why missionaries collected examples of ethnological dress however differed from that of American anthropologists and home economists. While Blackmore and Sharp sought to document Indigenous authenticity for the advancement of design education and the preservation of cultural knowledge, missionaries used Indigenous dress practices to demonstrate the validity of missionary work. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, object lessons played an important role in promoting the need for religious enlightenment; religious educators used objects to illustrate theological truths and values within and outside of the classroom. By collecting and circulating objects that, to them, exemplified the practices and beliefs of the heathen world, missionaries underscored the need for and success of missionization. Missionaries also sought to transform Indigneous dress practices abroad by promoting new cultures of consumption. Their objective was not to merely eradicate Indigneous appearance styles, but to refashion the wants and needs of Indigenous peoples so that they mirrored Christian values. One way they sought to achieve this was through their establishment of capitalist markets that presented certain articles of clothing as more desirable than others, specifically underwear, handkerchiefs, and umbrellas. In this light, missionary work demonstrates the complex ways Westerners actively worked to change Indigenous dress practices while also cultivating certain practices that they then used to support Western-constructued narratives of Indigenious peoples as “Other.” Sharp and Blackmore’s collaborations with missionaries impacted their perception and role of Indigenous dress practices. Blackmore collected examples of ethnological dress that were constructed specifically to advance the missionary cause, while Sharp understood missionaries as useful partners on projects aimed at integrating tribal peoples into Thai national culture.

Beulah Blackmore

Philippines Group at 1939 installment of “Costume of Many Lands”
Philippines Group at 1939 installment of “Costume of Many Lands”
Courtesy of Rare and Manuscript Collection, #23-19-2807

Following her trip around the world, Blackmore recruited missionaries to collect additional examples of ethnological dress for the collection. She also organized the fashion showcase, “Costumes of Many Lands” in collaboration with Cornell’s School for Missionaries, that offered courses on the principles of agriculture, nutrition and health, rural education, and sociology to missionaries on furlough. Correspondence between her and several missionaries who attended the four week program demonstrate Blackmore’s effort to develop this particular showcase in addition to building the collection’s holdings of Southeast Asian dress- and textile-related artifacts. Since she only collected twenty complete ensembles abroad, Blackmore needed additional examples of dress to illustrate the range of garments worn by different peoples and communities within a single country. In 1939, she circulated a call for costumes within the pamphlet for Cornell’s Tenth Annual School for Missionaries. Several students reached out to Blackmore and agreed to partake in the showcase. Correspondence between Blackmore and Frances Rodgers revealed that she supplied seven additional garments from the Philippines for the showcase in addition to the dark red baro’t saya Blackmore collected in 1936 that was primarily worn by upper class Filipino women for formal occasions.

Photograph of Mr. E. Wade Koons, Helen Boyles, Gertrude Cass backstage at “Costume of Many Lands” in 1939
Photograph of Mr. E. Wade Koons, Helen Boyles, Gertrude Cass backstage at “Costume of Many Lands” in 1939
Courtesy of Rare and Manuscript Collection, #23-19-2807

Blackmore also worked with missionaries not affiliated with Cornell to obtain garments for the collection. In 1939, she asked her friend, Lillian Dean Miller, a missionary stationed in Korea, to send her examples of traditional Korean dress. Miller had two garments made in Seoul by a Korean tailor. In a letter to Blackmore, Miller explained this was because she found it “increasingly difficult to secure authentic old costumes [since] European clothes are almost universally worn.” The ensembles Miller donated to the collection were worn by several missionaries who worked in Korea and participated in the 1939 showcase. A picture of the group illustrates the garments that were supplied by Mr. E. Wade Koons, Helen Boyles, and Mrs. Lillian Dean Miller for the showcase. The 1939 installment of “Costume of Many Lands'' also provided Blackmore with the opportunity to cultivate relationships with missionaries from around the world, several of whom sent back costumes once they returned to the field. Blackmore’s interest in documenting the “authentic costumes” of Indigenous peoples mirrored that of the Christian missionaries she collaborated with. Rather than reflecting the ways in which Indigneous dress practices responded to colonization, both parties sought for the showcase to highlight those practices believed to occur before Western acculturation.

Ruth Sharp

While Sharp acquired some items directly from villagers, she also purchased items through other Westerners stationed in Thailand. She might have relied on these purchases facilitated by others due to her limited movement within the region. The General in charge of the region did not approve of either Ruth Sharp or Jane Hanks, a female anthropologist co-leading the project, traveling among the tribal communities and so the two women had to complete their work in the town of Mae Chan.

Silver Jubilee marking Thailand's first Akha converts to Protestantism
Silver Jubilee marking Thailand's first Akha converts to Protestantism
Courtesy of Nina (Cornelia) Kammerer

One group of people who Ruth worked with were members of the Overseas Missionary Fellowship (OMF), who the Bennington-Cornell Survey project relied on for assistance in their survey work and for information on communities. Reverend Peter Nightingale and his wife Jean worked as missionaries on behalf of the OMF, a Protestant missionary society. The Nightingales were stationed in Thailand from 1953 - 1976 and worked to missionize the Akha community there. In 1962, after almost ten years of missionary work in the community, two Akha families decided to convert. In an article on the Protestant Akhas of Northern Thailand, the anthropologist Cornelia (Nina) Kammerer describes how the Akha converts were told to leave their village of Kaiyeh (also spelled Kayeh or Khaje) and so the Nightingale’s founded a Christian village nearby for the converts. This forced move might explain why Sharp recorded objects as acquired in Reverend Nightingale’s Village.

Jean Nightingale, the wife of Reverend Nightingale, was also involved in the arts and crafts initiative research that Ruth Sharp worked on while in Thailand. In her report on the proposed creation of an arts and crafts market economy, Sharp wrote that “the missionary stationed at the village of Khaje, Mrs. Peter Nightingale, volunteered to check the workmanship and so helped the Akha produce jackets which otherwise might have been inferior to their own and so unacceptable." This description demonstrates ideas held by Sharp on the need for Indigenous people’s work to be supervised by Westerners in order to ensure quality, a view often held by Westerns involved in benevolence projects.

Clothing and Textiles


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Letter to Professor Beulah Blackmore from Miss Frances Rodgers, January 15, 1939. Philippines, Folder 21, Country Files, Box 11, Cornell University Department of Textiles and Apparel Records #23-19-2807, Cornell Rare and Manuscript Collection, Ithaca, New York.

Letter to Professor Beulah Blackmore from Mrs. Lillian Dean Miller, January 16, 1939. Korea, Folder 13, Country Files, Box 11, Cornell University Department of Textiles and Apparel Records #23-19-2807, Cornell Rare and Manuscript Collection, Ithaca, New York.

Missionaries model foreign costumes in pageant ending short course term. (February 14, 1939). The Cornell Daily Sun 59(96), 5.

Pamphlet for Tenth Annual School of Missionaries, 1939. The 1939 School, Folder 1, Box 2, Cornell School for Missionary Records 21-34-1476, Cornell Rare and Manuscript Collection, Ithaca, New York.

Sharp, R.B. (1964). Appendix I: Tribal arts and crafts. In L.M. Hanks (Ed.), A report on tribal peoples in Chiengrai Province north of the Mae Kok River (pp. 83-102). Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University, Dept. of Anthropology.

Taylor, L. (2004). Establishing dress history. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.