Skip to main content
COLLECTION Identifier: MC 471; T-156

Papers of Ada Louise Comstock, 1818-1982 (inclusive), 1887-1982 (bulk)

Correspondence, photographs, etc., of Ada Louise Comstock, Radcliffe College president, 1923-1943, and pioneer for women in higher education.

Dates

  • 1818-1982
  • Majority of material found within 1887-1982

Language of Materials

Materials in English.

Access Restrictions:

Access. Collection is open for research. An appointment is necessary to use any audiovisual material.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright. Copyright in papers created by Ada Louise Comstock is held by the President and Fellows of Harvard College for the Schlesinger Library. Copyright in other papers in the collection may be held by their authors, or the authors' heirs or assigns.

Copying. Papers may be copied in accordance with the library's usual procedures.

Extent

12.93 linear feet ((31 file boxes) plus 2 folio folders, 2 folio+ folders, 3 audiotapes)

These papers primarily document Comstock's personal life prior to 1933 and after retiring from Radcliffe College in 1943. While there is some Radcliffe College material, particularly speeches, the bulk of her presidential papers are at the Radcliffe College Archives. Microfilm of Comstock's diaries is available at the Schlesinger Library (M-126).

Additional Comstock family collections are at Moorhead State University and the Comstock House, part of the Minnesota Historical Society. Wallace Notestein's papers are at Yale University.

Many of the folder titles are from notes within or on the original folder. These notes (indicated by quotation marks) were made either by Comstock or Roberta Blanshard, a close friend who helped Comstock organize her papers. Some of the folders include notes Comstock made about the person or topic; the notes were typed or written by Comstock or Blanshard. The collection is divided into four series.

Series I, Personal and biographical (#1.1-17.9), is organized into the following sections: biographical data; Comstock family; Wallace Notestein and the Notestein family; correspondence with friends and colleagues; and personal materials including financial, household and medical.

The biographical material includes an interview of Comstock from 1971, memoirs of Comstock by family, friends and colleagues, including taped interviews conducted by Dr. Robert J. Loeffler, the site manager of the Comstock Historic Home in Moorhead, Minnesota. The Comstock family section is primarily correspondence with her family in Moorhead: her parents, S.G. [Solomon George] Comstock and Sarah (Balls) Comstock, her brother George Madison Comstock and her sister Jessie Comstock. Comstock and her father were very close and avid letter writers, and continued their correspondence until his death in 1933. In his letters, S.G. Comstock frequently referred to Comstock as his "Bonnie."

Transcripts of family letters were made by Robert J. Loeffler. His comments about the transcripts read: "[The first batch of] letters represent the correspondence between Ada Louise Comstock and her beloved father, S.G. Comstock, between the years 1883 and 1923 (widely scattered). The period covers her days as a young child to the time she was Dean of Smith College. In this group there are some undated letters. There is one letter during her term as the President of Radcliffe College (March 13, 1925) to her father. The next group of letters covers the period 1929 to 1970 (one in the latter year) and covers letters to her brother George Madison Comstock, and to his wife Frances Comstock. These letters are in the files of the Comstock Historic House in Moorhead, Minnesota, and, in some instances, are represented by the original handwritten letters of Miss Comstock and Mrs. Wallace (Ada) Comstock Notestein. The remaining letters, not represented by originals, were transcribed by another individual, and their whereabouts is not known at the present time."

Correspondence with Wallace Notestein, her husband, is rich in detailing their forty-year friendship prior to marrying in 1943. There is also biographical material on Notestein and his siblings, memorial articles and programs following his death, and correspondence regarding his professional affairs after his death. There are also letters between Comstock and Notestein's siblings, Frank B. Notestein, Lucy Lillian Notestein, and Margaret Notestein. In addition, there is correspondence with friends and colleagues from 1943 or later, with occasional letters from earlier years. Comstock managed her and Notestein's business affairs, so income tax returns, bank statements, household accounts, estate papers, and other personal financial papers are also included.

Series II, Professional and business activities (#17.10-21.24), is organized into the following sections: Minnesota (Moorhead State College and the University of Minnesota); Smith College; Radcliffe College, and other colleges, universities and schools with which Comstock had an affiliation; boards and committees; and clubs.

The bulk of this series concerns Comstock's work within higher education after her retirement in 1943. She advised future presidents on a variety of matters, including fundraising, alumnae relations, and the impact of women's colleges in higher education. There are clippings, correspondence between Comstock and school presidents and administrators as well as alumnae and students, and invitations and programs Comstock was invited to and/or participated in. Comstock was a supporter of the United States Navy's WAVES and the collection includes WAVES photographs from 1944 (see Series IV, #PD.5) and the booklet WAVES in Aviation at the Naval Air Training Center Pensacola, FL. (see Series Series II, #19.10-11)

The papers also document her work with various boards and committees on which she served, including the American Association of University Women, where she served as its first president; the Wickersham Committee; and the Institute for Pacific Relations. Institute of Pacific Relations materials document the "Kohlberg Affair" when Alfred Kohlberg charged Institute of Pacific Relations with harboring Communist sympathizers. Comstock was also active in several clubs including the Chilton Club, Cosmopolitan Club, and Our Society.

Miscellaneous organizations are alphabetized according to Comstock's filing system.

Series III, Speeches (#22.1-31.45), is arranged chronologically, and spans 1921 to 1966. There are speeches during Comstock's time as president of Radcliffe as well as speeches after her retirement. The speeches include manuscript and typed notes, manuscript and typed texts, and transcriptions of Comstock's notes as well as summaries of speeches by Robert J. Loeffler. Occasional book reviews written by Comstock or copies of published speeches are included among the speeches.

Robert J. Loeffler also transcribed many of the speeches from handwritten notes by Comstock. He wrote the following regarding his transcriptions: "Nearly all of [Comstock's] messages were delivered from handwritten outlines on regular unruled 5/7 white index cards. She continued this practice after her marriage in 1943 to Dr. Wallace Notestein and during her retirement years (1943 to 1973). ...all of the handwritten notecards (representing mainly talks to students on campus) were transcribed to the typewritten forms so that future researchers can more easily work with the outlines on the notecards. After all the talks were transcribed, each one was interpreted as to content and message. In many instances it was necessary to guess as to Miss Comstock's thoughts and pronouncements to the students." See folder #22.1 for the full explanation given by Loeffler.

Series IV, Photographs (#PD.1-PD.10), includes family, friends and photographs of Comstock as president of Radcliffe College; WAVES; and group photographs of the Institute of Pacific Relations.

BIOGRAPHY

A champion of higher education for women and the third president of Radcliffe College, Ada Louise Comstock was born on December 11, 1876, to S.G. [Solomon Gilman] Comstock, a lawyer, and Sarah (Balls) Comstock, a former schoolteacher. She was raised in Moorhead, Minnesota. Her father was a lawyer, state legislator, and United States Representative (1889-1891), and, as regent of the University of Minnesota, he assisted with the founding of the Moorhead Normal School. Her mother was active in founding the women's club and a strong supporter of the public library in Moorhead.

Comstock grew up in a close knit family with her brother and sister, George Madison Comstock and Jessie Comstock. She remained very close to her father until his death in 1933. An avid student, she graduated from high school at the age of fifteen. From 1892 to 1894 Comstock attended the University of Minnesota, before transferring to Smith College where she received her B.L. in 1897. While at Smith she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. She completed her teacher training at Moorhead Normal School in 1898, but, dissatisfied with her training there, she attended Columbia University where she earned an A.M. in English, history, and education. In 1900 she accepted an assistantship at the University of Minnesota in the department of rhetoric and oratory.

During her time at the University of Minnesota she befriended Wallace Notestein, a professor of history who later taught at Yale University. Comstock and Notestein maintained their correspondence for forty years; they married in June 1943, after Comstock retired from Radcliffe College. The Notesteins traveled to England frequently due to Notestein's work on British literature and social history. They lived in New Haven, Connecticut.

Comstock's long life, including extensive travel and many achievements in the fields of higher education and public affairs, is reflected in the following chronology.

  • 1900Accepts assistantship in University of Minnesota's department of rhetoric and oratory
  • 1903-1904Studies in Paris
  • 1907Appointed first dean of women at University of Minnesota
  • 1909-1912Holds joint appointment as dean and full professor of rhetoric and oratory
  • 1910Spends summer in England
  • 1912Leaves University of Minnesota to become first dean of Smith College
  • 1917-1918Runs Smith College in absence of President Marion LeRoy Burton but is denied title of acting president because of her sex
  • 1920Becomes an American delegate of the organizing conference for the International Federation of American Women
  • 1921-1923Serves as first president of the American Association of University Women
  • 1922Turns down presidency of Bryn Mawr College
  • 1923Leaves Smith College to become first full-time president of Radcliffe College (1923-1943)
  • 1924Opens Briggs Hall, new Radcliffe dormitory
  • 1927Attends Institute of Pacific Relations conference in Hawaii
  • 1928Institutes tutorial system at Radcliffe, and opens Tutorial House
  • 1929-1932Becomes only woman to serve on the National Commission of Law Observance and Enforcement, also known as the Wickersham Commission
  • 1930Opens Longfellow Hall, new lecture hall at Radcliffe
  • 1931Leads successful struggle to continue Radcliffe's certification relationship with Harvard
  • 1931Travels to China and Japan to report on the Manchurian crisis for the Institute of Pacific Relations, of which she is vice-chair
  • 1931Attends meeting of Institute of Pacific Relations in Honolulu and Shanghai
  • 1931Opens Summer Secretarial School at Radcliffe
  • 1932On the Wickersham Commission, abstains on vote to repeal Volstead Act (prohibition)
  • 1932Opens new science center, Byerly Hall
  • 1937Opens new dormitory, Cabot Hall
  • 1937Opens Radcliffe's Management Training Program
  • 1941Serves on National Committee for Planned Parenthood
  • 1943Implements new Harvard/Radcliffe agreement, by which Harvard becomes officially responsible for instruction of Radcliffe students
  • 1943Retires from Radcliffe, marries Yale History professor emeritus Wallace Notestein, and moves to New Haven, Connecticut
  • 1949Receives honorary degree from Oxford University
  • 1959Receives honorary degree from Harvard University
  • 1969Wallace Notestein dies on February 2 in New Haven.
  • 1973Dies in New Haven
1900
Accepts assistantship in University of Minnesota's department of rhetoric and oratory
1903-1904
Studies in Paris
1907
Appointed first dean of women at University of Minnesota
1909-1912
Holds joint appointment as dean and full professor of rhetoric and oratory
1910
Spends summer in England
1912
Leaves University of Minnesota to become first dean of Smith College
1917-1918
Runs Smith College in absence of President Marion LeRoy Burton but is denied title of acting president because of her sex
1920
Becomes an American delegate of the organizing conference for the International Federation of American Women
1921-1923
Serves as first president of the American Association of University Women
1922
Turns down presidency of Bryn Mawr College
1923
Leaves Smith College to become first full-time president of Radcliffe College (1923-1943)
1924
Opens Briggs Hall, new Radcliffe dormitory
1927
Attends Institute of Pacific Relations conference in Hawaii
1928
Institutes tutorial system at Radcliffe, and opens Tutorial House
1929-1932
Becomes only woman to serve on the National Commission of Law Observance and Enforcement, also known as the Wickersham Commission
1930
Opens Longfellow Hall, new lecture hall at Radcliffe
1931
Leads successful struggle to continue Radcliffe's certification relationship with Harvard
1931
Travels to China and Japan to report on the Manchurian crisis for the Institute of Pacific Relations, of which she is vice-chair
1931
Attends meeting of Institute of Pacific Relations in Honolulu and Shanghai
1931
Opens Summer Secretarial School at Radcliffe
1932
On the Wickersham Commission, abstains on vote to repeal Volstead Act (prohibition)
1932
Opens new science center, Byerly Hall
1937
Opens new dormitory, Cabot Hall
1937
Opens Radcliffe's Management Training Program
1941
Serves on National Committee for Planned Parenthood
1943
Implements new Harvard/Radcliffe agreement, by which Harvard becomes officially responsible for instruction of Radcliffe students
1943
Retires from Radcliffe, marries Yale History professor emeritus Wallace Notestein, and moves to New Haven, Connecticut
1949
Receives honorary degree from Oxford University
1959
Receives honorary degree from Harvard University
1969
Wallace Notestein dies on February 2 in New Haven.
1973
Dies in New Haven

Physical Location

Collection stored off site: researchers must request access 36 hours before use.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Accession numbers: 135, 51-48, 74-79, 74-80, 74-98, 74-181, 74-332, 75-57, 75-282, 75-396, 77-M73, 78-M59, 78-M107, 79-M264, 81-M287, 82-M35, 83-M96, 83-M105, 83-M183, 84-M90, 85-M257, 88-M193, 89-M189

These papers were given to the Schlesinger Library by Ada Louise Comstock Notestein in 1951. Addenda to these papers were given to the Schlesinger Library by Kathleen Elliott, 1974; by Bernice Brown Cronkhite, 1974; by Frances Ruml Jordan, 1974; by Brand and Roberta Blanshard, 1974-1978; by Jacqueline Van Voris, 1974; Radcliffe College President's Office, 1975; Mrs. George Comstock, 1975; Susan Clemedtson, 1978, 1981, 1988; Barbara M. Solomon, 1979; Dr. Robert J. Loeffler, 1982; and Katherine S. Van Eerde, 1996.

Related Material:

There is related material at the Schlesinger Library; see Ada Comstock scrapbook, 1934 (SC 26), Ada Comstock records of the President of Radcliffe College, 1923-1943 (RG II, Series 2), Ada Comstock papers, 1929-1974 (RA.A/C739), Ada Comstock diaries, 1902-1968 (M-126).

Processing Information

Processed: May 2003

By: Jane S. Knowles, Deborah A. Richards,Jessica Tanny
Link to catalog
Title
Comstock, Ada Louise. Papers of Ada Louise Comstock, 1818-1982 (inclusive), 1887-1982 (bulk): A Finding Aid
Author
Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America
EAD ID
sch00104

Repository Details

Part of the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute Repository

The preeminent research library on the history of women in the United States, the Schlesinger Library documents women's lives from the past and present for the future.

Contact:
3 James St.
Cambridge MA 02138 USA
(617) 495-8647