Notes on collections and events at the RIHS
The collections of the Rhode Island Historical Society have their own storied past and the current curators walk through the trails forged and catalogues established by our predecessors.
My favorite brain from this past is Howard Millar Chapin. He was born in Providence in 1887 to Dr. Charles Value Chapin (1856-1941) and his wife Anna A. Balch. He was the fourth in direct descent of his family to receive his degree from Brown University, which he did in 1908.
He became Librarian of the Rhode Island Historical Society in September 1912. That same year he married Hope Caroline Brown, daughter of the former Governor D. Russell Brown. They were on their wedding tour aboard the Carpathia when it rescued survivors of the Titanic.
His first major project as Librarian was to plan and oversee a modernized fireproof addition to the R.I.H.S. Cabinet Building on Waterman Street in Providence. He was also the first to catalog on standard size cards!
The research and publications he produced as Librarian at the R.I.H.S. are still invaluable to researchers and staff. These include the seminal 2-volume Documentary History of Rhode Island (1916), Rhode Island in the Colonial Wars (1918), Privateering in King George’s War, 1739-1748 (1931), Sachems of the Narragansett (1931) and the hand-written Gazetteer of Rhode Island— which still sits in close reach of the Reference Desk at the Research Center.
An innovator in so many ways, Chapin also had his eccentricities. According to a trusted source, he was a social conscious person. Female staff were warned away from the stacks as he was known as a “pincher” (back when that was tolerated). He and his wife had no children but they were very devoted to their dog Jerry who supposedly had a terrible disposition. They even had a bookplate designed for Jerry Chapin and it took me a long time to figure out the relationship.
Civic and municipal heraldry was his passion and he wrote many books about the topic. Chapin was a fellow of the Royal Historical Society of London, Business Manager of the Brown Alumni Monthly Magazine, and private librarian to the George Leander Shepley Library of Providence during 1917-1924.
Chapin passed away in September of 1940 of a brain tumor. He is buried at Swan Point Cemetery. His legacy lives on and his picture hangs over my desk to inspire me.
~Phoebe Bean, Librarian