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Anne Seddon Kinsolving Brown, 1906-1985

Anne S. K. Brown
Anne S. K. Brown

On May 7, 1964, the Baltimore Sun ran an article about the Company of Military Historians, an organization then enjoying its sixteenth year of existence. The introduction described also a library of military books and prints which it considered the largest in the western hemisphere and probably the world, all of which was "the improbable offspring of 288 feet of toy soldiers." The article identified the "mother" of both the library and the Company as Mrs. John Nicholas Brown of Providence, Rhode Island.[1] Today, the Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection at Brown University Library is indeed recognized as the premier archive of its kind devoted to the military history and iconography of soldiers and soldiering from all nations and all periods.

Who was this lady from Baltimore and how did she become so enraptured with a subject traditionally pursued by men? A line in the Sun's article provided some tantalizing clues: "a Coast Artillery post on a New England island, a 'beautiful Irish nurse' and a birthday book to an 8-year-old Baltimore girl."[2]

Born in Brooklyn, New York on March 25, 1906, Anne Kinsolving moved with her family six months later to the rectory of Old St. Paul's Episcopal Church at the corner of Saratoga and Cathedral Streets in Baltimore, where her father had accepted the position of rector. Her parents were members of the Virginia aristocracy and both had impressive lineages. The Rev. Arthur B. Kinsolving came from a long line of eminent ecclesiastics and was himself a noted scholar. Anne's mother, Sally (Bruce) Kinsolving, a poet, traced her ancestry back to the famous Bruces of Scotland. In the years prior to the Great War, the Kinsolving family spent their summers on Fisher's Island in Long Island Sound, living in a rectory situated outside the gates of Forth H. G. Wright. Mrs. Brown later recalled the dress parades at the fort which were the social event of the summer season for the small island colony. The visiting artillerymen gave her and her brother military insignia which they wore all over their clothing. She remembered playing with the post children, learning to ride in army saddles, and always having a military escort, thanks to the charms of her beautiful young Irish nurse. One incident particularly stood out in her memory. West Point cadets used the fort for summer coast artillery training, and while watching these young men play baseball one day, she became so excited she fell off the bleacher seats and received nine stitches for her pains. According to her story, three cadets had run gallantly to her rescue: Colonel Herman Beukema, a former professor of history at West Point was one; the others were Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley![3]

Living in the Baltimore rectory gave Anne a ringside seat on the parade routes taken by soldiers and sailors in the downtown. She was fond of watching the fashionable "Dandy Fifth," as the Fifth Maryland Regiment was called, parade in their period uniforms. In the summer of 1914, Anne and her brothers worked in the servicemen's canteen and were drilled in winter by an ROTC sergeant at the Calvert School. Here Anne's enthusiasm for the military first shone through, gaining for her the appointment as captain of the girls' battalion. However, her shock at not receiving any insignia of rank was soon turned to pleasure when she cut the gold anchor off her mother's prayer book marker and attached it to her sailor cap. The penalty: a sound spanking.

The seeds of Anne Brown's collection actually took root in 1915. In answering the frequently asked question: "How did the collection start?" she described the moment in a speech in 1968: "It actually started with a book which appeared in the window of Schwarz's toy store in Baltimore some time in March, 1915, when I was nine. The First World War had just broken out, and being at an impressionable age, I had become very military-minded. Though I still jump if a gun goes off, I cannot hear a military band without following it, nor see a soldier pass in a full-dress uniform without wishing to follow him. None of your battle dress for me! Well, the bands were still playing in 1915, and the French poilu still wore red trousers. (The Americans in their khaki were not yet in evidence.) So when this book with the charging British Life-Guard on the cover appeared in Schwarz's window, I conceived a passionate longing to own it. The season was Lent. The parsons were pouring into St. Paul's Rectory to preach at my father's noon-day services. As I scanned the printed schedule of preachers, I fervently hoped that, as in times past, the Rev. Mr. Garth, rector of St. Mark's Church, Islip, Long Island, would occupy the pulpit on March 25th, which was my birthday. For I knew that, as in times past, he would take me for a walk after lunch, and would pass by Schwarz's, and ask me to choose a birthday present. All of this came blissfully to pass. But when we reached the shop window and out of its jolly jumble of dolls and games and skates and school-bags, his client selected The Wonder Book of Soldiers, designed to lure small boys into the British Army, he was aghast. But Anne was not to be deflected. Within a month she was a walking encyclopedia on the British Army of 1912."[4]

This book, which can still be found in the Collection, was followed shortly thereafter by a succession of toy soldiers which Anne and her brother Herbert used to parade around the family Christmas tree. The fact that each soldier cost ten cents meant that their collection was somewhat limited since they received only five cents apiece as their regular weekly allowance. "The army so intrigued me that while other girls piled up on dolls to play with, my brother Herbert and I spent every minute tracking down toy soldiers."[5] Little did she know that one day she would amass over 5,000 individual lead miniature soldiers.

Anne Kinsolving passed the years following the Great War finishing her education at Bryn Mawr School, Baltimore, where she graduated in 1924 with honors in English, and making her debut in society, which she remembered as "a lot of walking backwards" at formal balls. Her next step was as a journalist with the Baltimore News, although this happened by chance. One New Year's Eve, she was out on the town with the society editor for the Baltimore American. During the twenties her active interest in soldiers and uniforms therefore had to take second place to the social and music scene in New York and Washington which she covered as a feature-writer and music critic, becoming one of the paper's star reporters. She wrote about celebrities and such major stories of the day as Rudolph Valentino's funeral. Her articles ranged from opinion on curfews, and the parties of fashionable youths, to reviews of theater and opera. Her linguistic abilities — she had more than a passing knowledge of French, Italian, German and Russian — put her in good stead with her profession. In pursuit of a good story, she drove a high-powered locomotive on one occasion, and on another rode upside down in a plane over the Washington Monument with a wartime flying ace.

Anne had a string of gentlemen friends at this time including a Harvard graduate. Through him she met another former Harvard man, John Nicholas Brown. After only three dates, he proposed to her and she accepted. At twenty-four she was about to become one of the richest brides in the country by marrying the very eligible thirty-year-old heir to one of the oldest fortunes in America. One headline read "Million-Dollar Baby Marries Cinderella Girl," a reference to the fact that John had been regarded as the richest baby born in America in the year 1900.

The Browns' honeymoon in 1930 took them to Europe and it was in the toy stores of Britain, France, and Germany that Anne's passion for military miniatures blossomed. The new bride decided to buy a few toy soldiers to decorate one room of the elegant three-story, eighteenth-century Nightingale-Brown House on Providence's fashionable East Side. Before leaving the States, Anne had taken a quick tour of the old ancestral mansion and of the boudoir that was to be hers, and had decided that the hand-painted French garden wallpaper, the pink brocades and antimacassars were not for her. She would surround herself with soldiers. "What I wanted was a parade, marching around the room which I proposed to cover with some neutral stuff and furnish it in the 'modern' style."[6] Arriving back home, the Browns found to their amazement that the contents of the boxes shipped in advance of their arrival created an army 288 feet long! After some debate, John offered to have vitrines constructed to hold the military hordes on the understanding that they were to be confined to one room only. Over the next few months, each figure had to be identified, cataloged, and marked with a number on the base before being placed in the new cases. Unfortunately, many could not be identified. Anne herself confessed to being weak in history, especially European, and she was confused by the various costumes and accouterments. She sought help from whatever textbooks she could find describing uniforms. "I imagined in my innocence that I had only to find the official dress regulations published from time to time, and supplement these with plates the tailors used to carry out their rather cryptic instructions."[7] As she was to learn, this was only half the story. While the lead soldiers began to occupy most of her time, even to the extent of having some of the figures repainted to represent their true uniforms, she still found the time for political activism, becoming a prominent opponent to Prohibition in 1933 and heading a convention of similar female reformers known as "women wets." Three years later she was a Roosevelt Presidential elector.

John Nicholas Brown was a collector of books and art, and inspired by what she saw in the cabinets of the house, Anne decided to embark upon a quest to identify all soldiers in uniform. Booksellers were contacted on the subject of military costume, while Anne herself made numerous sorties into the back rooms of bookshops in search of illustrated books, prints and drawings displaying the iconography of military and naval costume from the seventeenth century onwards. Not content with the dealers of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, and San Francisco, she went abroad in search of the elusive catch. At the outset the books and prints she acquired were used to identify the uniforms exhibited by the lead miniatures. Books began to arrive steadily throughout the 1930s, some of them coming from as far away as Russia where the hard-pressed Communists were selling off princely libraries. This opened up a whole new area of interest — the fête books containing illustrations of state events and coronations with their glorious representations of court and military fashion.

Anne allied herself with some kindred spirits around this time. One was a cadet at West Point, another a freight conductor on the Pennsylvania Railroad, and the third, a retired policeman serving as bodyguard to Governor Dewey. These "military nuts" as John Brown termed them would make frequent visits to Providence to see how the collection was coming along. "The four of us would spend whole evenings on our tummies on the floor of what was known by now as the 'soldier room,' comparing the miniature figures with books from the 'library,' which was then housed in a small adjacent cupboard."[8]

The Second World War put an end to personal buying forays in Europe but had a dramatic effect on the course of Mrs. Brown's collecting. One significant event was the London Blitz in 1940. She explained: "A bomb fell on Ackermann's, the firm that had published practically every notable uniform book and print issued in England during the past 150 years. This threw me into a panic. What if every uniform book in Europe were burnt up in the blitz? Then never again could one positively identify a uniform in a portrait, a painting, a museum. This horrid thought spurred me to action, and, throwing discretion to the winds, I began a vast importing operation, paying the price asked, sight unseen, and trusting to luck. It turned out to be the brightest idea I ever had. During the four years of intensive submarine warfare, I never lost a book or a print through enemy action, and I brought in thousands, many of which would undoubtedly have been destroyed if left to the mercy of the bombers."[9]

Finding time to digest all this new material was another problem, but a chance event gave Mrs. Brown the opportunity to study her collection. A bicycle accident during the wartime gasoline shortage incapacitated her for nearly two years. She now had time to reflect upon her collecting strategy. The catalogs began to arrive in large numbers and she began to find all sorts of military art, some of it peripheral to her collection but still very relevant to the study of uniforms. Much of this depicted the soldier in bivouac or in battle. Similar pictures could be found in illustrated histories of wars and campaigns, of units and individuals, and in the memoirs of fighting men. Dress regulations were purchased along with books on royalty. Original drawings and water-colors, photographs, caricatures, cigarette- and post-cards, and popular prints showing soldiers in every phase of their activity, found their way into her Benefit Street house. In pondering this material, two dominant themes in military iconography emerged, as she explained in her 1968 speech: "The first traced the pattern of our civilization as it followed the paths of exploration and conquest, met resistance, triumphed over it, and finally achieved assimilation and stability in its new environment. The second traced the personality of the individual solider who, more than any other professional, had been the pioneer of that civilization."

While recuperating from her fall, Mrs. Brown helped to run a mobile canteen for the American Red Cross in Newport and served on the national board of the U.S. Navy Relief Society. Her husband was also involved with war work on the European continent (serving as General Eisenhower's cultural advisor on the identification and restoration of art treasures looted by the Nazis). Wandering around Paris one day, he stumbled upon a little shop which was crammed with publications on military collecting, many of them commissioned by Nazi military collectors from the best scholars and artists in France.[10] He purchased everything in the shop depicting uniforms and forwarded them to the States. 1946 found the Browns in Washington, D. C., John having been appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy by President Truman.

Mrs. Brown relished her four years in the capital and it was there that the plans for a national organization of military collectors and historians took shape. Some years earlier, she had written to Frederic Todd, a leading authority on American uniforms who was then attached to the historical section of the War Department, about her ideas for military collecting. He responded curtly, "Go back to your toy soldiers, little girl, and don't meddle with a subject that is way beyond you. Women should stick to their knitting and leave the problems of research to men."[11] Unfazed, Anne continued her pursuits and, upon seeing her growing collection, a friend of Todd's advised him to reconsider his comments. Following their "truce," Todd and Mrs. Brown began to develop ideas for an organization that would bring together collectors of military materials as well as historians. Three years later, in 1949, the Company of Military Historians was founded and it has continued to publish a regular journal, Military Collector and Historian, and an ongoing series of uniform plates entitled Military Uniforms in America.

The post-wars years saw the military collection on Benefit Street grow to impressive proportions and it was apparent to Mrs. Brown that it needed some serious organization. In 1951 therefore, she appointed a Worcester-born Harvard graduate named Richard B. Harrington to be her librarian. He brought order to the burgeoning collection and started the process of arrangement which is still adhered to today. In this thirty-eight years with the collection, ending only with his death in 1989, literally thousands of books and prints passed through his hands as they were cataloged and placed in their appropriate positions on the shelves at the Benefit Street house. He was fond of stating that, while not being a military historian, he had come to know a lot about military history through the process of osmosis. While Richard Harrington ran the day-to-day operations, Mrs. Brown provided the intellectual stimulus necessary to turn her private library into a world-renowned research collection. By doing this she established herself as one of the world's leading authorities on military uniforms. As a result she was sought out by professionals in the field to identify pictures, write essays, and present lectures, including a guest lectureship at the University of California in 1965.

As her circle of friends and acquaintances widened, Mrs. Brown came into contact with numerous foreign specialist. On her frequent visits to France she met many kindred spirits and it was there that she was "admitted to the inner shrines of French military scholarship — the Society of the Sabretache, the Musée de l'Armée, and finally — unheard of for a woman — the sacred archives of the Ministère de la Guerre."[12] Inspired by a succession of exhibitions at the Musée de l'Armée and her own growing collection of Napoleonic books and pictures, she began to develop ideas for a book. A chance announcement in a catalog from a Paris dealer describing a new history of the Imperial Guard set her upon a course that was to lead to her first major publication, The Anatomy of Glory, in 1961. Presented with the 1,114-page book Napoléon et la Garde Imperiale by Commandant Henry Lachouque, she embarked on an English translation which she undertook during a cruise around the world with her husband. "I had the Guard half-way home from Russia, frozen and starving, by the time we arrived in Honolulu and San Francisco," she wrote.[13] The typescript was finished by 1959 and she started to comb her collection for suitable illustrative images. In all she included 173 plates, seventy-three in color, and the 564-page tome was published by Brown University Press in 1961. A third reprint of the book appeared in 1997, testimony to its value as one of the major studies of Napoleon and his army.

The three Brown children, John Nicholas, John Carter, and Angela Bayard, having grown up and left the mansion on Benefit Street by the early 1960s, their rooms were quickly sequestered and pressed into service as additional storage space for the expanding collection. An elevator had already been added and the cellar remodeled into print- and stack-rooms, but unbeknown to the Browns, the very weight of the collection was placing a severe strain on the timber-framed structure of the house. In her characteristic fashion, Mrs. Brown put it in a humorous light. "The next mail will bring an intriguing query that puts you on your mettle. Or the parlour-maid may come up some morning and announce that your husband's 18th century dwelling is beginning to buckle under the weight of your books. This actually happened to us last Holy Week [1967], whereupon the Blessed Season was passed in moving 5 tons of books out of the house to the stacks at Brown University. It was a traumatic experience, believe me, with architects clambering about measuring bulges, and carpenters boring holes in the walls from cellar to garret, while Mama tearfully or cheerfully went about designating the books she consulted the least, and movers packed cartons it might well have been termed the Second Battle of the Bulge."[14] This was the beginning of a process that would see the complete transfer of the military collection from the Benefit Street house to the Jon Hay Library, a move that was complete over several months in 1981-82.

Mrs. Brown followed The Anatomy of Glory with another major work, this one dealing with the campaigns of the French army in America during the Revolution. In 1964 she had purchased a two volume manuscript diary compiled by a French officer, Jean Baptiste Antoine de Verger during his American service with the Comte de Rochambeau between 1781 and 1784. Her research into the background of the diary revealed two other similar first-hand accounts by French officers in the same army, in other collections. With the help of Howard C. Rice, Jr., then Assistant University Librarian at Princeton University, she translated and edited the three diaries which were published as The American Campaigns of Rochambeau's Army in 1972.

In 1979, John Nicholas Brown suffered a fatal heart attack on board his yacht Malaguena, with his wife at his side. A few months later Mrs. Brown moved to Harbor Court, the Browns' summer house in Newport. In 1968 when the first books had been transferred to Brown University, Mrs. Brown had promised that her whole collection would ultimately be donated to the University; even while the collection was still on Benefit Street, the collection stationery bore the crest and title of Brown University Library. With the renovation of the John Hay Library between 1979 and 1981, towards which the Browns contributed, Mrs. Brown decided that the time had come to complete the transfer of her collection, and by mid-1982, approximately 14,000 prints, drawings, paintings and water-colors along with their storage boxes and cabinets, 12,000 books, 18,000 scrapbooks, sketchbooks, albums, portfolios and offprints, and the 5,000 miniature lead soldiers, were safely in their new accommodation on the top floor of the library. Removed by distance from the collection, Mrs. Brown still advised on new acquisitions and made occasional visits to the library but she felt increasingly divorced from her lifetime passion. She died in Newport on November 21, 1985 but her legacy lives on in the collection that bears her name.

1. Robert A. Erlandson, "Historians to Hold Annual Conclave," Baltimore Sun, May 7, 1964.
2. Ibid.
3. Autobiographical note sent to H. W. Williams at the Corcoran Gallery, October 23, 1959.
4. Speech given at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, January 13, 1968. (Hereafter cited as "Speech.")
5. Quote in Eleanor Roberts, "Built Up America's Greatest Collection of Soldier Prints," Boston Post Magazine, November 18, 1951, 12-13.
6. Speech, op. cit.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid.
10. Anne S. K. Brown, "Napoleon comes to Rhode Island," Bulletin of the Newport Historical Society No. 107, December 1961, 12.
11. Speech, op. cit.
12. Ibid.
13. "Napoleon Comes to Rhode Island," 16. This article has a detailed account of the writing of the book.
14. Speech, op. cit.

Peter Harrington
Curator, Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection
Brown University Library