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COLLECTION Identifier: MC 732; Phon-62

Papers of Sarah Thomas Curwood, 1871-1991 (inclusive), 1932-1990 (bulk)


Correspondence, diaries, research and teaching materials, etc., of sociologist and professor, Sarah Thomas Curwood.


  • Creation: 1871-1991
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1932-1990
  • Creation: 1871-1991
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1932-1990

Language of Materials

Materials in English.

Access Restrictions:

Access. Written permission of Anastasia Curwood is required for #6.4-6.7, 17.8-20.9. #41.6 is closed until January 1, 2027. An appointment is necessary to use any audiovisual material.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright. Copyright in the papers created by Sarah Thomas Curwood is held by the President and Fellows of Harvard College for the Schlesinger Library. The library will not authorize extensive quotations during Stephen T. Curwood's lifetime without his written permission. Copyright in other papers in the collection may be held by their authors, or the authors' heirs or assigns.

Copying. Written permission of Anastasia Curwood required to copy #6.4-6.7, 17.8-20.9. Other papers may be copied in accordance with the library's usual procedures.


23.44 linear feet ((55 file boxes, 1 card box) plus 4 folio+ folders, 18 photograph folders, 1 folio photograph folder, 4 phonograph records, 3 objects)
23.44 linear feet ((55 file boxes, 1 card box) plus 4 folio+ folders, 18 photograph folders, 1 folio photograph folder, 4 phonograph records, 3 objects)

The papers of Sarah Thomas Curwood contain correspondence, diaries, journals, financial records, questionnaires, photographs, and other materials, documenting Curwood's personal life, including her troubled marriage, and her work as a sociologist and professor. Most materials arrived at the library unfoldered and in no discernable order; the archivist created folder titles for those files. A small number of files were in folders and those titles have been preserved and appear in quotation marks. Files were arranged by the archivist.

Series I, BIOGRAPHICAL AND PERSONAL, 1871-1991 (#1.1-17.7, 56CB.1-56CB.2, F+D.1-F+D.2, Mem.1-Mem.3), includes diaries, journal entries, appointment calendars, financial records, recipes, and other materials. Diaries contain accounts of Curwood's daily activities, including visits and interactions with family and friends, meetings, and doctor's appointments. Entries provide little insight into her thoughts or feelings about events or people. Journal entries are a mix of hand-written and typed writings recording Curwood's reflections on people and events in her life. Many of the entries, particularly those written between 1967 and 1969, were rewritten several times and may have been intended for an autobiography. Frequent topics in the journal writings include Curwood's upbringing, marriage, children, and race. Included are childhood memories; examinations of her middle-class background and how her upbringing influenced her ideas of race and what it meant to be a successful Black woman; and reflections on her marriage, including James' ideas on acceptable behavior for a wife, their financial struggles, and James' suicide. Other materials in the series document Curwood's struggle to financially support her children as a single mother, her life-long support of the Girl Scouts, and her efforts to ensure women had access to birth control through the Massachusetts Mothers' Health Council and its later iteration, Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts. Files are arranged alphabetically.

Series II, CORRESPONDENCE, 1924-1990 (#17.8-38.1, Phon-62.1-Phon-62.4), contains letters from Curwood's friends, family, and professional contacts, as well as a carbon copies of many of Curwood's replies. Letters from friends and family contain news about family and friends; accounts of daily activities, such as shopping, cooking, housekeeping, and errands; child rearing; trips taken; and other topics. Letters from professional contacts include invitations to participate in conferences, job offers, and information on current areas of study. Correspondence is arranged alphabetically, then chronologically.

Particularly revealing are letters exchanged by Curwood and her husband, James L. Curwood. The exchange begins during their short courtship and focuses on the first few years of their marriage when Curwood was a student a Cornell University and then living in Boston while James held several jobs, including as a valet for families in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The Curwoods married the summer between Sarah's junior and senior years at Cornell University and the marriage was kept a secret due to fears that Sarah would lose her financial aid if their marriage were discovered. James' letters frequently express his frustration and annoyance over having to hide their marriage and Sarah's replies often echo his frustration and contain assurances that she loves him. The Curwood's letters contain frequent reference to their sex life. From the beginning of the exchanges, they established a code language in which they referred to their sex organs as "Edgar" and "Nellie," Sarah's period was referred to as "grannie" or "grandmother," and the notion of their future child was "Tommy."

Soon after the Curwoods were married, Sarah discovered that she had gonorrhea. Her letters contain references to Edgar making Nellie sick and she encouraged James to see a doctor because she feared James was the source of the disease. She also chastises James because he had assured her before they married that he had seen a doctor and been given a clean bill of health. For his part, James' responses were initially sympathetic and apologetic but evolve into claims that he had been to a doctor who found no indications that he had ever had gonorrhea. While refusing to take responsibility, he also assured Sarah that he didn't doubt her fidelity.

Sarah and James were reunited during the Thanksgiving. Sarah's letters reveal that during one of their sexual encounters, James didn't use a condom and she feared that she was pregnant. Much of the conversation is couched in references to the presence, or lack thereof, of grannie and mentions of Tommy. Sarah's letters often express her hopes that she isn't pregnant because it would force her to leave college, she and James would have to establish a home, and she doubts their ability to financially support a baby. James' responses range from trying to soothe her fears to expressing his hurt that Sarah blamed him for the situation, his belief that she was thinking only of herself, and anger that she doubted his ability to provide for his family. Eventually, the pregnancy becomes a reality. In a letter postmarked December 28, 1936, Sarah recounts how her mother attempted to help her abort the pregnancy, writing, "mother is giving me pills, I have to take hot foot baths, she also gave me a shot of gin last night." The abortion attempt failed, but Sarah suffered a miscarriage soon after.

James and Sarah's letters also document their disagreements over how Sarah should conduct herself. Letters reveal Sarah's dedication to obtaining an education and James' beliefs that she should leave Cornell to help support them with a job as a domestic worker. Occasionally, Sarah mentioned events she attended and people she socialized with. On several occasions, James replied with scathing letters criticizing Sarah for being self-centered for socializing while he was working so hard, being naive in her interactions with men, and thinking herself better than him. These letters generally ended with claims that James was only trying to give Sarah the benefit of his world experience because he loved her and wanted to spare her from making mistakes due to her sheltered background. Sarah responded to James' critiques with apologies and measured defenses of her actions and comments with occasional bursts of anger over James' criticisms. These brief, angry exchanges give way to affectionate exchanges in which both Curwoods express their love and desire for each other and plans for their future together.

Series III, EDUCATION, 1924-1990 (#38.2-42.9, F+D.3), includes class notes, papers, report cards, transcripts, diplomas, printed material, etc., documenting Curwood's education from her years in high school through attaining her PhD. At Cornell University, Curwood studied economics, but her graduate studies focused on child development. As a result, notes from classes Curwood took at Boston University, the Nursery Training School of Boston, and Radcliffe College may be found with files relating to courses taken at other schools. While Curwood attended classes at the Nursery Training School of Boston, she worked as a teacher at the Ruggles Street Nursery School. Since the Ruggles Street Nursery School served as the training grounds for students enrolled in the Nursery Training School of Boston, materials relating to Curwood's teaching are generally indistinguishable from her student files. As a result, all materials Curwood had relating to both institutions are filed in this series under the Nursery Training School of Boston. Files are arranged alphabetically.

Series IV, PROFESSIONAL, 1959-1987 (#42.10-55.10, F+D.4), includes correspondence, syllabi, notes, drafts, reports, and other materials, relating to Curwood's work as a professor, for the Massachusetts Committee on Children and Youth, and for Head Start. Also included are questionnaires, correspondence, and drafts relating to research projects undertaken by Curwood on moving patterns among women in small towns, particularly Yellow Springs, Ohio, and a project initially funded by a grant from the Ella Lyman Cabot Trust studying middle class African-American women. There is no record of the final product of either study, but information gleaned from both studies featured prominently in courses taught by Curwood. Researchers should consult Nursery Training School of Boston files in Series III for materials relating to Curwood's work as a teacher at the Ruggles Street Nursery School.

In the early 1950s, Curwood purchased a farm in Nottingham, New Hampshire, where she opened a Great Dane kennel. Files relating to the kennel include dog registration and vaccination papers, and Ladies' Dog Club dog show programs. In the late 1960s, Curwood became a registered tree farmer and worked much of the farm's forest as a tree farm. Files relating to the tree farm include bills for tree purchases and services contracted; correspondence with foresters, the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension Service, and forest industry interest groups; property maps; contracts; and printed material. Files are arranged alphabetically.

Series V, PHOTOGRAPHS, 1909-1987 (#PD.1-PD.19f), contains portrait photographs, snapshots, and negatives of Curwood as well as her family and friends. Also included are snapshots of children playing on the playground at the Harvard Preschool and the Ruggles Street Nursery School. Most of the photographs in this collection are or will be digitized and available online. Folders are arranged with photographs of Curwood first, followed by an alphabetical arrangement of files.


Sociologist, professor, lecturer, and tree farmer, Sarah Thomas Curwood, daughter of Maurice and Sarah "Sadie" E. (Dorsey) Thomas, was born January 23, 1916, in Binghamton, New York. One of the few African Americans attending Cornell University at the time, she graduated in 1937, and went on to attend Boston University (Ed.M. 1947) and Radcliffe College (Ph.D 1956). She also attended the Nursery Training School of Boston (1942-1944). Curwood married James L. Curwood (born May 8, 1908), a businessman, on June 20, 1936; they had a daughter, Sarah "Sally" (born 1938) and a son, Steve (born 1947). James Curwood committed suicide on December 23, 1949. Curwood taught at the Ruggles Street Nursery School, the nursery school at Jamaica Plain Neighborhood House (both in Boston, Massachusetts), and was an instructor in early childhood education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (1952-1955). She served on the faculties of Antioch College, Rhode Island College, the University of New Hampshire, and Knoxville College. From 1968 to 1969, she was the Head Start regional training officer for New Hampshire and Vermont. She was also a consultant for many organizations including the Massachusetts Committee on Children and Youth and Volt Information Services Head Start Planned Variations Program in Buffalo, New York. In 1967, she became a registered tree farmer and eventually started a tree farm in Nottingham, New Hampshire.

In addition to her professional activities, Curwood served on the boards or as a trustee of the Massachusetts Mothers' Health Council, Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, the Eliot-Pearson School of Tufts University, Region One of the Girl Scouts USA, the American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia, the Friends National Committee on Legislation in Washington, DC, and Guilford College in North Carolina. She was also a member of the Rockingham County Forest Advisory Board and the Cooperative Extension Advisory Council. Curwood died October 6, 1990.


The collection is arranged in five series:

  1. Series I. Biographical and Personal, 1871-1991 (#1.1-17.7, 56CB.1-56CB.2, F+D.1-F+D.2, Mem.1-Mem.3)
  2. Series II. Correspondence, 1924-1990 (#17.8-38.1, Phon-62.1 - Phon-62.4)
  3. Series III. Education, 1924-1990 (#38.2-42.9, F+D.3)
  4. Series IV. Professional, 1959-1987 (#42.10-55.10, F+D.4)
  5. Series V. Photographs, 1909-1987 (#PD.1-PD.19f)

Physical Location

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

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Accession numbers: 2004-M125, 2004-M133, 2005-M70

The papers of Sarah Thomas Curwood were given to the Schlesinger Library by her son, Stephen T. Curwood, between November 2004 and July 2005.


Donors: Stephen T. Curwood

Accession numbers: 2004-M125, 2004-M133, 2005-M70

Processed by: Johanna Carll

The following items have been transferred to the Schlesinger Library books and printed materials collection (pending review by curator):

  1. Miss WRONE's Chatter, Women Radio Operators of New England (WRONE), May/June 1964 - January/February/March 1988 (gaps)

The following items have been transferred to the Schlesinger Library books and printed materials collection:

  1. Planned Parenthood News, Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, Number 13, Spring 1966; Number 15, Spring 1967; Number 16, Winter 1968
  2. Planned Parenthood News, Planned Parenthood-World Population, Number 45, June 1966; Number 47, November 1966

Processing Information

Processed: December 2012

By: Johanna Carll with assistance from Samuel Bauer.

Curwood, Sarah Thomas. Papers of Sarah Thomas Curwood, 1871-1991 (inclusive), 1932-1990 (bulk): A Finding Aid
Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America
Language of description

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. In addition to its traditional strengths in the history of feminisms, women’s health, and women’s activism, the Schlesinger collections document the intersectional workings of race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and class in American history.

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