John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, owners of two of the largest libraries of their age, died on the 4th of July, 1826. Six weeks earlier, another bibliophile had passed away. Although she was not as well-known or as powerful as the two men, Jean Miller Skipwith, Lady Skipwith (1748-1826), had probably the largest library of any Virginia woman of her lifetime.
Lady Skipwith’s life was by no means representative of her era. Like Jefferson, her home, her lifestyle, and her library were built on profits from the labor of enslaved people. After her husband’s death, she ran the estate herself for the next twenty-one years, all the while continuing to buy books from America and Britain.
Many people are familiar with Jefferson’s library from the display at the Library of Congress, but women’s reading at the same time has not received as much attention. By considering Lady Skipwith’s ownership of books, how her library differed from those of men, and what it allowed her to do, we gain some insight into the intellectual life of elite women during an important period of American history.
Images of the exhibit are available from Swem Library on Flickr.
Curator: Phillip Emanuel, Archives Graduate Apprentice and MA/PhD Candidate in History. Exhibit Design and Installation: Jessica Molz, SCRC Graphics Student Assistant, Jennie Davy, Burger Archives Specialist, and Phillip Emanuel, with assistance from Dana Florczak, Undergraduate Student Assistant, and Matt Abel, Undergraduate Student Assistant.