Guide to the Semans Family Papers, 1878-2008 and undated
Collection consists of correspondence, financial papers, legal papers, writings and speeches, scrapbooks, pictures, and miscellaneous material reflecting the philanthropic, cultural and social activities of the Semans family. A major focus is the interrelationship of the Semans family with the Biddle, Duke, and Trent families. Additionally, the papers document the roles of Mary Duke Biddle, James H. Semans and Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans have taken in the development of arts and educational programs throughout North Carolina. To a lesser degree, the papers reflect on childcare during the early 20th century.
- Semans family papers
- 64.5 linear feet, circa 40,000 items
- David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library
- For current information on the location of these materials, please consult the library's online catalog.
The papers of the Semans family span the years 1878 to 2008. The collection consists of four sub-groups of papers: the Mary Duke Biddle Family Papers, the James H. Semans Family Papers, the James H. and Mary D.B.T. Semans Family Papers, and the Elizabeth Lucina Gotham Family Papers.
The collection reflects the philanthropic, cultural, and social activities of the Semans family. Major focuses are the interrelationships of the Semans family with the Biddle, Duke, and Trent families. Additionally the papers document the roles Mary Duke Biddle, James H. Semans, and Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans have taken in the development of arts and educational programs throughout North Carolina. To a lesser degree, the papers reflect on childcare during the early twentieth century.
Individuals represented include Anthony Joseph Drexel Biddle, Nicholas Benjamin Duke Biddle, Angier Biddle Duke, Angier Buchanan Duke, Benjamin Newton Duke, Sarah Pearson Angier Duke, Elizabeth Lucina Gotham, and Josiah Charles Trent as well as other members of the Duke, Biddle, Trent, and Semans families. Political and educational leaders are also represented.
Subject areas represented include: arts; charities; childcare; The Duke Endowment; Duke University and other universities and colleges; the North Carolina School of the Arts; education; genealogy; personal finances; philanthropy; Durham, N.C., politics and social life; vocational rehabilitation; and the Methodist church.
For additional collections of Duke family papers, see the Washington Duke Papers, the Benjamin Newton Duke Papers, and the James B. Duke Papers. For further information on the contributions of the Duke family to Duke University, contact the Duke University Archives.
The Mary Duke Biddle Family Papers span the years 1894 to 1960, although the bulk of the material dates from the 1920s to the 1930s. They consist of correspondence, legal papers, scrapbooks, pictures, address books, miscellaneous expense accounts, wedding memorabilia, baby books, and other materials relating to Mrs. Biddle's personal and family life, and social, cultural, and philanthropic activities.
The Correspondence series consists primarily of correspondence to and from Mary Duke Biddle, but also includes correspondence to and from Anthony J. Drexel Biddle, Benjamin N. Duke, Sarah P. Duke, Angier Buchanan Duke, Mary D.B.T. Semans and Nicholas Benjamin Duke Biddle, and Duke University officers, board members, and faculty. There is also a significant amount of correspondence from Duke family business managers that relates to Mrs. Biddle's private finances and correspondence from Mrs. Biddle to Duke University wherein she continued the Duke family tradition of giving to Duke University. Some legal papers relating to financial transactions and purchases are interspersed with correspondence. There are many condolences addressed to Mrs. Biddle on the deaths of her brother, father, and mother as well as other materials relating to the death and funeral of B.N. Duke. Additional materials related to the death of Benjamin N. Duke are in the Benjamin Newton Duke Papers.
The Scrapbooks Series contains newspaper society page clippings about the Duke and Biddle families and Duke University. Some scrapbooks contain correspondence to and from Benjamin N. Duke, primarily related to Duke University. Mrs. Biddle's interest in the performing arts is reflected in scrapbooks which contain primarily photomechanical pictures of opera and theater celebrities.
Four autochrome portraits of Mrs. Biddle and Sarah P. Duke are in the Pictures Series. The autochromes, a rare early color photographic process, are displayed in diascope cases and date from about 1910. Other pictures are of Mrs. Biddle and her family and friends at Biddle's Durham residence "Pinecrest" in the 1950s. Numerous pictures of Mary Duke Biddle are also found in the Pictures Series of the James H. and Mary D.B.T. Semans Family Papers.
The James H. Semans Family Papers span the years 1878 to 1953, with the bulk of the materials dating from the 1930s and 1940s. They consist of genealogical materials, correspondence, financial papers, legal papers, writings and speeches, scrapbooks, calendars, printed materials, student and professional reports, pictures, and miscellaneous materials relating to the Semans family of Uniontown, Pa. The papers particularly describe the life of James H. Semans, including the academic and professional course Dr. Semans took toward becoming a physician and the early years of his medical practice, before his marriage to Mary Duke Biddle Trent in 1953.
The Correspondence Series especially illustrates Dr. Semans's relationships with his parents and several other family members and his medical training and career. Dr. Semans carried on considerable correspondence with his parents during the 1930s and 1940s, and with his sister Virginia and her husband Wendell A. Stone in the 1940s. The letters describe family life and Dr. Semans's academic, professional, and personal life. Many of these letters were written during Semans's medical residencies at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, St. Mary's Hospital in Pierre, S.D., Ancker Hospital in St. Paul, Minn., and various military base hospitals. He served on the urological service of Dr. Hugh H. Young at Johns Hopkins Hospital. There are also scattered letters from acquaintances.
From 1938 to 1939 Dr. Semans served a medical internship in Pierre, S.D. In a series of letters to his parents he describes his work at the hospital and relationships with members of the staff, his impressions of the community and citizens including American Indians, and the surrounding countryside. Notable are Dr. Semans's descriptions of his St. Mary's Hospital mentor, Dr. Theodore E. Riggs, grandson of Stephen R. Riggs, a missionary to Indians. [Dr. Riggs is also mentioned in letters dated March 31 and April 15, 1944.]
Beginning in 1946 the bulk of correspondence occurs between J.H. Semans and his medical colleagues. Much of it concerns the establishment of his Atlanta medical practice, arrangements for professional meetings and organizations, personnel references and other professional matters. There is some correspondence between Dr. Semans and his patients. The latter part of 1953 includes information on Dr. Semans's establishment of a medical practice in North Carolina and family and personal correspondence related to his marriage to Mary D.B. Trent.
Most of the letters from the 1880s and early 1900s in the Correspondence Series are addressed to the father of James H. Semans, Thomas B. Semans, a successful businessman. They relate to family matters and business investments, including a coal enterprise in New Zealand. The Financial Papers Series and the Legal Papers Series include personal financial records created by Thomas B. Semans and records pertaining to his estate. The Writings and Speeches Series includes periodic diary entries made by Dr. Semans. Most diary entries date to 1946 wherein he describes various trips he made as he looked for a location to establish a medical practice. Most of the medical papers and speeches were prepared for medical professionals but some speeches were presented to local service clubs.
The Scrapbook Series includes photographs, clippings, and correspondence from Dr. Hugh H. Young and others. Dr. Semans compiled and annotated an autobiographical scrapbook for the years 1910 to 1952. Types of materials similar to those in this scrapbook are located in the autobiographical files of the Speeches and Writings Series of the James H. and Mary D.B.T. Semans Family Papers.
There are a variety of family photographs, chiefly of members of the Semans family, in the Pictures Series. There are some formal pictures of children's birthday parties (1910s, 1920s) and Uniontown houses, and some candid photographs made in Atlanta, Ga., and Pierre, S.D. There are copy photographs of Semans family ancestors made from a cartes de visite album. See the James H. and Mary D.B.T. Semans Family Papers for pictures of the Semans family dated after 1953.
The James H. and Mary D.B.T. Semans Family Papers span the years 1925 to 1991. The bulk of the papers date after 1950, except for the Pictures Series which dates from the 1880s to 1990. Included in the papers are genealogical materials, correspondence, financial papers, legal papers, subject files pertaining to the many academic institutions and philanthropic, artistic, and social organizations in which the Semanses are involved, writings and speeches, scrapbooks, pictures, and miscellaneous materials such as audio tapes, awards and certificates, calendars, clippings, motion films, and phonograph records. The papers also document the commitment of the Semans and Trent families to use their personal and financial resources to support artistic endeavors, academic institutions, and research in social welfare and medical programs, particularly in North Carolina.
Papers dating from 1925 to 1953 focus on Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans; her personal and family life including travel, school life, musical pursuits, her marriage to Josiah Charles Trent and their family life and activities; and her relationship with Elizabeth L. Gotham. Her philanthropic, political, and social activities are also illustrated. The development of Mary and Josiah C. Trent's collection of rare book materials and their donations of these to the academic and medical libraries of Duke University are described, as well as their relationships (and later Dr. Semans's) with book dealers Henry and Ida W. Schuman.
James H. Semans's papers merge with those of Mary Semans beginning in 1953, the year in which the two were introduced and subsequently married. After their marriage materials reflecting the Semanses' joint and individual activities are interspersed throughout the sub-group.
The Correspondence and Subject Files Series form two of the largest and most important components of the papers. There is much overlap of topics between the two series. The papers demonstrate the continuing interest of Duke family members in the welfare of Duke University and the institutions served by The Duke Endowment. Mary Semans's positions with the Duke University Board of Trustees and numerous committees, the Woman's College, and with The Duke Endowment are documented, especially in the Subject Files Series. Correspondents for Duke University include university presidents, officers and staff, especially Douglas M. Knight, Terry Sanford, Keith Brodie, Thomas L. Perkins, Benjamin E. Powell, and Joel L. Fleishman. Medical Center correspondents include Barnes Woodhall, Wilburt C. Davison, Lenox D. Baker, and William G. Anlyan. The Duke Endowment correspondents include Marshall I. Pickens and Robert McCormack. However, since many of these individuals operated within several organizational spheres, their correspondence may be scattered.
James and Mary Semans's involvements with Duke University's Art and Music departments and other programs and events are described in the Correspondence and Subject Files Series. Mary Semans participated in the development and expansion of the academic and medical libraries. James Semans was instrumental in the expansion of the medical library in the 1950s. Their trusteeship in the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation and its contributions to Duke University and the arts outside of the university are prominently represented. Other educators and civic leaders who corresponded with the Semanses include William C. Friday, George Watts Carr, Jr., and Dan K. Moore.
The North Carolina School of the Arts is heavily supported by the Semanses, particularly by Dr. Semans who is a school founder. The school, including its summer sessions in Siena, Italy, is documented primarily in the Subject Files Series, but references will be found also in the Correspondence and Miscellaneous Series, and additional photographs are in the Pictures Series. The correspondence illustrates the close personal and professional relationships of the Semanses with school staff and students. Prominent people represented in the North Carolina School of the Arts materials include Vittorio Giannini, Robert C. Suderburg, Samuel M. Stone, and Giorgio Ciompi.
The Correspondence and Subject Files Series document the Semanses' work in the arts and their memberships in many arts organizations, including the Advisory Board of the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University and the Concert Opera Board of New York City, and James Semans's extensive connections stemming from the North Carolina School of the Arts. Numerous artists, writers, musicians, dancers and art supporters have close ties with the Semanses. Correspondents for these areas include John Ehle, Iain Hamilton, Nancy Hanks, Agnes De Mille, and Archie K. Davis.
The Semanses sponsor music scholarships and prizes, artistic programs and concerts, and have commissioned art and musical works at Duke University, the North Carolina School of the Arts, and elsewhere. A number of endowments, funds, scholarships, and foundations have been started by the Semanses in support of the arts, social and medical research, and other academic endeavors. They also sponsor a collection of art for Duke University in honor of Dr. Semans's parents.
The Correspondence and Subject Files Series also reflect the extensive involvement of Dr. and Mrs. Semans in medical and vocational rehabilitation in local, state, and national organizations in the late 1950s through the 1960s. There is significant correspondence from Mary Switzer and Howard Rusk for this area. Three major subject files of these materials are Duke University Medical Center, the National Paraplegia Foundation, and Vocational Rehabilitation.
The Correspondence Series also contains information on family, personal, social, and business activities and relationships. There is correspondence from Duke, Biddle, and Semans family members. The close relationships between the Semanses and members of the Trent family of Oklahoma and elsewhere after Josiah C. Trent's death are reflected in the correspondence. The correspondence also reflects many of the Semanses' close personal relationships with people in North Carolina, New York, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., Italy, and Greece.
The Trent and Semans children, Mary Duke Trent Jones, Sally Elizabeth Trent Harris, Rebecca Gray Trent Kirkland, Barbara Biddle Trent Kimbrell, Jenny L. Semans Koortbojian, James D.B.T. Semans, and Beth Gotham Semans are also described throughout the Correspondence, Pictures, and Miscellaneous Series. This includes information on their academic and professional activities as well as their personal and adult family lives.
Copies of many of the speeches given by the Semanses at the ceremonies in which they received awards and at other public occasions are in the Writings and Speeches Series. Files, including correspondence and other related materials, created by Dr. Semans and his assistants for the publication of an autobiography titled Coming of Age are also in the Writings and Speeches Series. Some of the correspondence in the autobiographical files does not relate to the publication of the book but is background information compiled by Dr. Semans.
The Scrapbooks Series consists of three scrapbooks compiled by Mary D.B.T. Semans during the 1930s. They illustrate her travels across the U.S., her student years at Duke University, and her courtship with Josiah C. Trent.
People represented in the Pictures Series include the Angier family of North Carolina, the Biddle family of Philadelphia, the Duke family, the Trent family (related through Josiah Charles Trent) of Oklahoma and elsewhere, and the Semans family of Pennsylvania and elsewhere. For most of these individuals there are candid photographs as well as formal portraits. Family oriented subjects include children's birthday parties (1920s), family group Christmas portraits that were also reproduced on Christmas cards (1941-1988), weddings, travel in the U.S. and Europe (1950s-1980s), and leisure in Atlantic City, N.J. (ca. 1915-1920s), southern resorts, and at home. This series provides an opportunity for an examination of affluent society in the 1920s and 1930s. A significant number of the pictures were made by professional photographers, and many were reproduced on the newspaper society pages. There are extensive photographs taken in Palm Beach, Fla., showing people engaged in recreational activities and pictures of homes and social clubs.
The Elizabeth Lucina Gotham Family Papers are useful for the study of women's history, particularly that of women trained as baby nurses in the early twentieth century. The papers span the years 1902 to 1968, with the bulk occurring in the 1920s. They include correspondence, pictures, a few genealogical items and clippings. Most of the Correspondence Series consists of letters from Miss Gotham's family and women friends. Many of the latter are evangelistic in nature and include letters mailed from a missionary station in Honduras.
A significant amount of correspondence to Elizabeth Gotham from Mary Semans and her family, which documents their close relationships, is in the James H. and Mary D.B.T. Semans Family Papers Correspondence Series. It dates from about 1938 to 1941 and then is scattered throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
The Pictures Series includes photographs of Gotham family members, portraits of nurses and nurses in baby hospitals, and towns in the state of New York.
Access to the Semans Family Papers is restricted.
Researchers must register and agree to copyright and privacy laws before using this collection.
All or portions of this collection may be housed off-site in Duke University's Library Service Center. The library may require up to 48 hours to retrieve these materials for research use.
Please contact Research Services staff before visiting the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library to use this collection.
The copyright interests in the papers of the Semans family have not been transferred to Duke University.
- Biddle family
- Biddle, Anthony Joseph Drexel, 1896-1961
- Biddle, Mary Duke, 1887-1960
- Biddle, Nicholas Benjamin Duke, 1921-
- Duke Endowment
- Duke family
- Duke University
- Duke, Angier Biddle, 1915-1995
- Duke, Angier Buchanan, 1884-1923
- Duke, Benjamin N. (Benjamin Newton), 1855-1929
- Duke, Sarah Pearson Angier, 1856-1936
- Gotham, Elizabeth Lucina, 1887-1968
- North Carolina School of the Arts
- Semans family
- Semans, James H.
- Semans, Mary Duke Biddle Trent
- Trent family
- Trent, Josiah C. (Josiah Charles), 1914-1948
- Arts -- North Carolina
- Charities -- North Carolina
- Childcare -- 20th century
- Durham (N.C.) -- Politics and government
- Durham (N.C.) -- Social conditions
- Education -- North Carolina
- Methodist Church -- North Carolina
- New York (N.Y.) -- Social life and customs
- Philanthropists -- North Carolina
- Social history -- 19th century
- Social history -- 20th century
- Universities and colleges -- North Carolina
- Women in politics -- North Carolina
- Women in public life -- North Carolina
[Identification of item], Papers of the Semans Family, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.
The Semans Family Papers were donated to the library by James Hustead and Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans beginning in 1969 through 2010. The collection includes the papers of Mary Duke Biddle and Elizabeth Lucina Gotham. Funds from The Duke Endowment supported the processing of the collection.
Processed by Madeleine Bagwell Perez and Donna Longo DiMichele
Date Completed: April 19, 1991
Encoded by Alvin Pollock
Updated because of addition, January 2009 and April 2010