BLANCHE AMES AMES: ARTIST
& WOMEN'S RIGHTS ACTIVIST
Miller, Writer and Editor
Blanche Ames Ames, c. 1895. Below: Oakes Ames,
drawing by Blanche Ames, c. 1901, courtesy Borderland
Born in Lowell, Massachusetts to
a prominent family, Blanche Ames was one of six children.
Her father, who had been a general in the Civil War and
a U.S. Senator and governor of Mississippi, and her mother
took an active role in their children's education. Blanche
enjoyed an athletic childhood in which she learned golf,
tennis, football and sailing.
At Smith College, Ames was class president and pursued
diplomas from both the College and the School of Art,
earning an A.B. in 1899. One year later, she married
Oakes Ames (unrelated), an instructor in botany at Harvard.
Their marriage was a highly successful collaboration
in home and family building, art, science, technology
Between the years 1900 and 1910, they had four children.
In 1910, they designed and constructed an impressive
stone mansion located in North Easton, Massachusetts.
The house was surrounded by 1500 acres called Borderland
which the family farmed. The Ames resided at Borderland
for the rest of their lives. They were Unitarians who
belonged to the Unity Church of North Easton, whose
building was designed by John Ames Mitchell. Today Borderland
is a State Park.
established an art studio on the third floor of Borderland
for her many artistic projects, which ranged from oil
paintings of prominent men and women, to her illustrations
of orchids for her husband's scholarly works to political
As an artist, Ames is known for her
drawings of orchids, which she produced over a period
of 50 years to accompany her husband's groundbreaking
scholarly work in orchidology. Little was known about
the Orchidicae, one of the largest plant families,
before Oakes Ames' thorough study and classification of
them. In search of further identification and knowledge
of orchids, Blanche travelled with her husband on expeditions
to Florida, the Caribbean, the Philippines and Central
and South America. Thanks to his scholarship and thousands
of her minutely observed drawings, the Orchidicae
is now the best researched and classified of all the large
plant families. The Ames' cumulative work was published
in the seven-volume Orchidicae: Illustrations and Studies
of the Family Orchidicae. The couple also jointly
developed the Ames Charts, using watercolors to illustrate
the phylogenetic relationships of the major plants useful
to humans. The chart is used to this day.
Mansion, Library Room
Blanche Ames, a Republican, was a deeply political
person and outspoken feminist who lobbied hard for suffrage
and for women's right to birth control. In 1916 she
cofounded the Birth Control League of Massachusetts,
affiliated with the national group led by Margaret Sanger.
She was vocally critical of the Catholic Church's prohibition
of birth control. In her 1931 article "A Grave and Present
Danger," published in the Birth Control Review
(Volume XV, Number 4 (April 1931), she wrote, "The long
arm of the Catholic Church is reaching into our legislative
halls and is directing our legislators to act according
to its will...We have all been troubled by the fear
that this Catholic threat to our free institutions would
materialize if Catholics were given positions of power
in our government, but never before in so short a time
have events developed in such irrefutable sequence as
in this case of opposition to the Doctors' Birth Control
When the ban on dissemination of birth control information
was upheld, Ames reacted by suggesting that women take
the matter into their own hands. She encouraged mothers
to teach birth control methods to their daughters. To
help them, she created formulas for spermicidal jellies
and provided instructions on how to make a diaphragm
by using such everyday objects as a baby's teething
Ames' wedding to Oakes Ames, a botany instructor at
Ames' involvement with the Birth Control League of
Massachusetts came to an end, however, when she quit
in outrage at a fundraising advertisement for the league.
In the advertisement, the League used the fact that
250,000 babies had been born that year to families on
welfare to persuade taxpayers to support birth control.
Blanche Ames Ames was well known as a witty pro-suffrage
political cartoonist. In all of her political endeavors,
she was actively supported by her husband.
In 1941, Ames became a member of the corporation of
the New England Hospital for Women and Children. NEH
was run entirely by women for women and children. Its
purpose was to offer same sex medical care to women.
In 1952 due to financial difficulties, the board of
directors opened itself to the possibility of hiring
male staff. Ames vigorously fought to maintain the hospital's
almost 100 year old charter. In 1952, as president of
the board, Ames successfully spearheaded a massive fundraising
effort which raised sufficient funds to ensure an exclusively
female staff and administration for the hospital.
Ames' imagination extended to inventions and engineering.
She designed and engineered the dams and ponds throughout
the 1250 acre Borderland estate. During World War II,
she invented and received the patent for a method of
trapping the propellers of enemy airplanes using strings
held by balloons.
Ames is notable not only for the breadth
of her interests and activities, but for her longevity.
At the age of 80, she wrote the biography of her father,
General Adelbert Ames, entitled Adelbert Ames: Broken
Oaths and Reconstruction in Mississippi, 1853-1933.
The biography was prompted by her anger at a suggestion
in John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage that her
father was a carpetbagger politician in Mississippi. At
the age of 90, Blanche received the patent for her invention,
"the antipollution toilet."
Blanche's daughter Pauline Ames explained her mother's
productivity by stating, "For her to have an idea was
to act." Blanche Ames lived for nineteen years after
her husband's death before succumbing to a stroke at
her home, Borderland, at the age of 92.
Mansion, circa 1998, Residence of Blanche and Oakes
North Easton, MA, National Historic District (photograph
by John J. Ventresco).
Harvard Botanical Museum Leaflets, 1969
Blanche Ames was an
early champion of women's suffrage, a leader in
civic and charitable affairs and an author; but
perhaps she will be most widely acknowledged as
an artist. Her botanical etchings and pen and ink
drawings are displayed in the Botanical Museum and
in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and her oil paintings
hang at Harvard, Dartmouth, Columbia, Phillips Exeter
Academy, the Mississippi State Hall of Governors
and in several private collections.
Her interest in botanical
artistry began when, at the Ames Botanical Laboratory
at North Easton, she started to illustrate her husband's
publications on new species of Philippine orchids.
When Professor Ames transferred his activities to
the Museum and installed there the Ames Orchid Herbarium
and Library, she intensified her efforts, producing
over a period of some fifty years literally hundreds
of outstanding line drawings of orchids. When the
University added the supervision of the Arnold Arboretum
to Professor Ames' duties, Mrs. Ames undertook the
preparation of drawings of a number of horticulturally
Truly a great lady
and an outstanding artist, Blanche Ames' influence
will long be felt in botany, for she spent a great
part of her life interpreting the beauty of plants
for others. This characteristic of her life was
appropriately stressed at memorial services for
Mrs. Ames by the Rev. Mr. Edmund Palmer Clarke of
the Unitarian Church of North Easton: "This was
her greatest talentto know natureto
reproduce it in her drawings for those less perceptive
than she, and to give expression to those things
which made us better because she had lived amongst
Richard Evans Schultes
Biography, general editors, John A. Garraty, Mark
C. Carnes (New York : Oxford University Press, 1999).
Women: The Modern Period, ed. Barbara Sicerman, Carol
Hurd Green (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980).