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Barton, Clara.

LETTER: ALS to a colleague in the Patent Office.


Barton, Clara. Autograph Letter Signed (to a colleague in the Patent Office, January 29, 1855). Washington, D.C., January 29, 1855. Evening.  
Single sheet, 13 x 7-13/16"; folded once into four pages; buff stationery with embossed emblem at upper left corner; written in Barton's careful, small script on all four sides with two marginal interpolations; folded twice lengthwise and once horizontally with one tear to a fold at second leaf; age-toning and mild foxing. Generally very good in a custom-made cloth case.
Barton (1821-1912) came from an upper-class Oxford, Massachusetts family. NAW records that while young "she early evidenced a strong will, a determination to surmount obstacles, and a capacity to identify herself with needy sufferers." She began teaching at eighteen and, after further schooling at the Liberal Institute of Clinton, N.Y., undertook a teaching position in New Jersey. There she established one of the state's first public schools. The school, a marked success, quickly grew large. The board decided that a man was needed to administer it. Barton, in protest, resigned her position in 1854 and moved to Washington where a Massachusetts congressman helped obtain her appointment as a clerk in the Patent Office. Though it cannot be documented with certainty that Clara Barton was the first regularly appointed woman civil servant, it is generally accepted that this was likely the case; without question she was one of the very first women to be employed by the federal government. After working as a schoolteacher and then for the U.S. Patent office, Barton found her vocation when she took up nursing during the Civil War. Her genius was not for hands-on field nursing, but for medical administration: during the war she was known for her efficient reorganization of systems and distribution of supplies to the Union Army and for her work with the U.S. Sanitation Commission. She earned the sobriquets of "American Florence Nightingale" and, alternately, "the Angel of the Battlefield"-titles that would stay with her always. Barton's travels throughout Europe exposed her to the preaching and practices of the International Red Cross, then a new and revolutionary organization. She founded the American branch-which would come to be known as the American Red Cross-in 1864.
Here Clara Barton writes a fellow woman employee at the patent office who is on leave to nurse an ailing father. The letter gives a vital picture of Barton's work, the relationship among the employees, and general tenor of the office itself. Barton's opening suggests the sense of fun and liveliness which charmed her contemporaries: "I've vowed a vow to write you now, and I'll fulfill it this very minute, so here it goes in rhyme or prose, truth or evasion, to suite the occasion." She goes on to say that long arduous hours at the Patent Office have prevented her from writing sooner: "...but the fact is I have been worked almost to death. I wonder was I working on the Office Report, when you left? I believe not, but I commenced about that time, and I have copied, corrected, compared, & revised ever since, day and night, unceasingly, getting a whole Book ready for the press, now it is true that I have written all night long, without once looking at my bed more than once or twice." Barton describes the activities of others in the office, updates "Sis" on who has a cold, who has been out of the office, what gentleman callers she has had, etc.; in short, she gives a lively and fulsome account of the activities which occupy her days and nights. Toward the end of her letter, she remarks that she would like to come out to meet her friend and accompany her on the return to Washington: "If I had a little time that I could spare from my eating sleeping or writing I should commence now and try to be able to go on with you on your return, but as circumstances are at present the thing is not to be thought of. Oh dear this working one self to death to get a living is not what is cracked up to be is it?" An exceptional letter by this important American woman, revealing a lesser-known facet of her life and work.

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