Japanese girls in a tea ceremony, a hand-colored photo by Eliza Scidmore from early 1900s,
included in an exhibit of her work on display at the National Geographic Society in Washington through Labor Day.
This year’s Cherry Blossom Festival is underway in Washington, D.C., and it’s a special one because March 27 marks 100 years since the first trees from Japan were planted in Potomac Park. The anniversary has brought attention to a long-overlooked woman who played a key role in that historic event: Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore.
It was Eliza’s suggestion to First Lady Helen Taft in 1909 that set the events in motion. Several times over many years Eliza had approached federal park officials to propose a park of cherry trees along the Potomac, much like those she saw during her travels in Japan. She envisioned people in Washington coming together in the springtime in a spirit of goodwill, as the Japanese did at their hanami, or blossom-viewing parties. Mrs. Taft took up the idea because she too had seen cherry trees flowering in Japan and understood what a lovely sight they were.
If Google had existed a century ago, a search for the name “Eliza Scidmore” would have brought hundreds of hits. A prolific journalist, the author of eight books, a popular lecturer and a world traveler, she was so well known that newspapers regularly noted the comings and goings of “Miss Scidmore.”
I stumbled upon her several years ago through a reprint of her 1899 travelogue on Java. Surprised to learn the author (“E.R. Scidmore”) was a woman, I headed to the Library of Congress to find out more. Her remarkable list of achievements astonished me.
|Flowering cherries along the Sumida River in Tokyo, known as Mukojima, circa 1897.
Eliza Scidmore wanted to create a “Mukojima on the Potomac.”
She broke the “glass ceiling” long before the term was invented, when elected the first female board member of the National Geographic Society. For nearly two decades she contributed to National Geographic as editor, writer and photographer. The Society is now displaying two dozen of her hand-colored photos as part of an exhibit running to September.
Eliza Scidmore was one of the growing number of women in the late 19th century who followed their own course, fashioning an independent life outside the normal Victorian template of marriage and motherhood.
Eliza Scidmore, probably in her late 30s or early 40s.
Eliza’s knowledge of Washington society opened doors to journalism. She started as a society reporter and became a correspondent for many newspapers and magazines. Much of her writing shows a fluidity of style, strong powers of description and very thorough research, characteristics that earned her wide respect for her work.
In the mid-1880s, while still in her 20s, she went to frontier Alaska on a mail steamer. (See video about the trip, below.) A book about that experience launched her 40-year career as a travel writer. She developed in particular a love of Japan, where her brother served most of his diplomatic career. Eliza, her brother and her mother are all interred at a cemetery in Yokohama.
She remains an intriguing figure to me in part because she achieved all she did largely through the force of her own talent and determination, without great wealth ― or a husband or father ― to back her up. She straddled different worlds with ease and self-assurance: moving in the worlds of eminent people such as John Muir, the Tafts and Alexander Graham Bell, but also living out of hotel rooms and modest apartments, packing and unpacking steamer trunks for her constant life on the road.
A woman of strong convictions, she spoke out passionately against anti-Japanese sentiment in Congress and on the West Coast. Her fierce loyalty to Japan led the Japanese government to award her several honors. Late in life she became a champion of the International Red Cross and the League of Nations. In 1919, a year before women got the vote, the precursor of George Washington University awarded Eliza Scidmore an honorary doctorate.
She was, I believe, a woman guided heavily by inner-directed values, someone who found an affinity with Japanese culture for its emphasis on simple living, artistic achievement and spiritual connection with nature. Though not an artist herself in the traditional sense, I think she achieved the ultimate creative act: self-invention.
Diana Parsell, an independent writer in Washington, D.C., is working on a biography of Eliza Scidmore. Visit her website on the project at http://www.agreatblooming.com/