BOSTON, Mass. – The New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston announced in early March the recent discovery of what is being called one of the most significant photographic finds documenting the impressive life of Helen Keller.
The photograph, taken in July 1888 in Brewster, Cape Cod, Massachusetts, shows eight-year-old Helen Keller seated next to her teacher, Anne Sullivan, as they hold hands. Sullivan taught young Helen sign language by finger spelling into the palm of her hand. A large doll rests on Keller’s lap. When Sullivan arrived at the Keller household to teach Helen, she gave her a doll as a present. Although Keller had many dolls throughout her childhood, this is believed to be the first known photograph of Helen Keller with one of her dolls.
Both Keller and Sullivan indicated later in their journals that “DOLL” was the first word Keller learned in sign language, in March 1887. This photograph was taken about 16 months later.
An NEHGS staff member discovered the photograph while combing through a large photography collection recently donated by Thaxter P. Spencer, 87, of Waltham, Mass.
Talking about the photograph, Spencer said, “When my mother was a little girl, she and her family stayed at the Elijah Cobb House on Cape Cod. One of the guests that summer was Helen Keller. My mother remembered having her face ‘explored’ by Helen, who then commented that “she had a good face.’”
Spencer doesn’t know which family member actually took the photo, but says it has remained in the album since then. As far as he knows, it has never been seen by anyone outside his family.
“I never thought much about it,” he added. “It just seemed like something no one would find very interesting.”
The photograph offers a view of a rarely known part of Keller’s life: her summer vacations on Cape Cod. During several summers, Keller traveled with Sullivan from her home in Tuscumbia, Ala., to the popular seaside town of Brewster, where she played with many local children and learned to float and swim.
Spencer’s mother, Hope Thaxter Parks, four years younger than Helen, was one of those children.
In a September 1888 letter to a friend, Keller writes, “I had a pleasant time in Brewster. I went bathing almost every day…and I had fun. We splashed and jumped and waded in the deep water. I am not afraid to float now.”
According to the American Foundation for the Blind – which houses the Helen Keller Archives, the largest collection of Helen Keller materials – very few images exist of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan during Keller’s childhood.
“This is a truly marvelous addition to our visual history of these two extraordinary women,” said Helen Selsdon, archivist at the American Foundation for the Blind. “This picture is especially interesting because it’s a candid outdoor photograph and Annie strongly believed in teaching Helen outdoors.”
Spencer recently donated his large family collection, which includes about 15 photo albums dating from the 1880s through the early 1900s, as well as scores of journals, diaries, papers, and other items, to the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston, where it will become a permanent part of the R. Stanton Avery Special Collections. NEHGS, a 160-year-old archive and research library, specializes in genealogy and family history research.
“When we talk about our individual family histories, we invariably must include local or regional history too,” said D. Brenton Simons, NEHGS President and CEO. “This image of Helen Keller serves as a wonderful example of how one person’s family history really can be part of a larger, more significant story.”