Assembled in the 1920s by American publisher and author James Alexander Semple, the Semple Portfolio of Notable Women is an invaluable time capsule of signed letters and photographs of prominent women in the United States in the early twentieth century.
On August 22, 2020, a rare archival portfolio celebrating “Famous Women in America” came up for auction. Compiled in the 1920s and early 1930s by the Denver-based publisher James Alexander Semple, the collection was comprised of hundreds of photographs and related material documenting an array of pioneering women across the arts, sciences, education, and politics, including a significant number of historical and contemporary activists in the struggle for women’s rights. Each portrait was accompanied by a short biographical worksheet filled in by the subject herself or occasionally a proxy. Assembled with the intention of creating a copiously illustrated publication dedicated to “Notable American Women,” this unrealized project was left fallow for a century.
On the centennial of ratification of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution giving (some) women the right to vote, recovering this project takes on new significance as a historical endeavor and for the window into socio-political issues of the period it opens. The biographical index and photographic archive together constitute an unvarnished time capsule containing the potential ingredients for an illustrated primer of both celebrated and unsung women who made important contributions to American society, and upon whose shoulders we all stand today. The wealth of untapped visual material also offers a vehicle for investigating the early twentieth-century landscape of studio portrait photography and the manner in which conventions of representation helped define the public identities of the women portrayed. In its totality, the portfolio constitutes a unique collective portrait and presents an opportunity for exploring the nature of the archive in the context of its broader cultural, social, and racial implications.