College receives NEH CARES Act grant for its Bigelow collection

Publication Date

Attorney and writer John Bigelow was so smitten with the vivacious and exuberant raconteuse Jane Tunis Poultney that, four months after meeting her at a party on Long Island in 1850, the two were married.

Bigelow woman in photo sitting in chair

“She was a woman of notable beauty and social charm. Her family deemed our courtship rather brief, but there seemed to be no occasion, on my part at least, for prolonging it,” he wrote of his bride.

A member of the Class of 1835, Bigelow rose to become of the most distinguished figures of the 19th and early 20th century. Managing editor and co-owner of the New York Evening Post until 1861, he also served as consul-general and later as minister to France under President Abraham Lincoln.

Active in New York’s social and literary circles, Jane Bigelow championed Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde, hosting both when they visited New York. She was just as comfortable in the company of diplomats she and John entertained in their home.

She was “noted even in her girlhood for her bright and witty conversational powers and charming manners,” stated her obituary in the New York Times following her death in February 1889 after a long illness.

Known as Jenny to her family and friends, she had a profound impact on her better-known husband.

“Without her my career in the world would not only have been very different from what it was, but far less satisfactory to myself and to others,” Bigelow wrote years after her death.

The world may soon learn more about Jane Tunis Poultney Bigelow.

Union is among more than 300 cultural institutions to receive the latest CARES Act grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The funding is part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed by Congress to assist those impacted by the pandemic.

“Over the past few months we have witnessed tremendous financial distress at cultural organizations across the country, which have been compelled to furlough staff, cancel programs, and reduce operations to make up for revenue shortfalls caused by the pandemic,” said NEH Chairman Jon Parrish Peede.

“NEH is pleased to provide $40 million to preserve thousands of jobs at museums, archives, historic sites, and colleges and universities that are vital to our nation’s cultural life and economy.”

Union’s grant of nearly $47,000 will be used to hire Jill Tominosky as a part-time project archivist in Special Collections and Archives in Schaffer Library. Tominosky had interviewed for the position and a job offer was pending when the College instituted a hiring freeze due to the pandemic.

She begins in July.

Tominosky will survey the College’s popular John Bigelow Collection, with a particular focus on the 16 handwritten diaries kept by Jane Bigelow. Gifted to the College nearly 60 years ago on behalf of the Bigelow family, the collection spans approximately 80 linear feet and includes over 20,000 letters, the diaries and 18 scrapbooks.

In 2012, the College completed a two-year project to create a digital index to the letters, including to and from such heavyweights as Dickens, Theodore Roosevelt, Andrew Carnegie and Mark Twain.

“We are delighted to receive this funding from the NEH,” said Sarah Schmidt, director of Special Collections and Archives. "Jane was a fascinating person in her own right, yet little has been written about her. This project will allow us to describe and digitize the contents of her diaries so we can all learn more about this remarkable woman.”