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Guide to the Olivia Converse Papers
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Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Access
  • Publication Rights
  • Preferred Citation
  • Acquisition Information
  • Processing Information
  • Biography / Administrative History
  • Scope and Content of Collection
  • Arrangement
  • Indexing Terms
  • Related Material

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: Olivia Converse papers
    Dates: 1939-1971
    Collection number: MS-04
    Creator: Converse, Olivia L.
    Collection Size: 4 linear feet 5 boxes
    Repository: UC Santa Barbara Library, Department of Special Research Collections
    Abstract: Correspondence, manuscript, artwork and photographs related to Olivia Converse's writings about Mexican plants.
    Languages: Languages represented in the collection: English Spanish Nahuatl


    Collection is open for research.

    Publication Rights

    Copyright has not been assigned to the Cheadle Center for Biodiversity and Ecological Restoration, UC Santa Barbara. All requests for permission to publish or quote from manuscripts must be submitted in writing to the Director. Permission for publication is given on behalf of the Cheadle Center as the owner of the physical items and is not intended to include or imply permission of the copyright holder, which must also be obtained by the reader.

    Preferred Citation

    Olivia Converse papers, MS-04 , Cheadle Center for Biodiversity and Ecological Restoration. University of California, Santa Barbara.

    Acquisition Information

    Collection transferred from the Cheadle Center for Biodiversity and Ecological Restoration, University of California, Santa Barbara, to the UC Santa Barbara Library Department of Special Research Collections, August, 2016.

    Processing Information

    Arrangement and description of this collection was funded by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

    Biography / Administrative History

    Olivia Poole Long Converse was born November 23, 1898. She was the daughter of Louis Long. According to her friend Isabel Kelly, she was raised in California and attended UC Berkeley. She married George P. Converse, grandson of Edmund Cogswell Converse, former president of U.S. Steel, in 1922 and they were subsequently divorced in 1928. She lived part time in Santa Barbara and also spent much of her time in Valle de Bravo, a town located on a large lake, about two hours from Mexico City. While in Mexico, she worked on a book on garden plants of Mexico writing the text and making original drawings of about 70 plants she hoped to describe. Her yearly stays in Mexico were interrupted by the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and she was unable to go back until 1944 to resume work on her book.
    In 1946, she had a showing of her drawings at the Biblioteca Benjamin Franklin in Mexico City, sponsored by the Instituto de Biologia de la Universidad Nacional and the Sociedad Botanica de Mexico. A 16-page catalog was published containing the text that accompanied the pictures. Converse also illustrated the cover of an issue of the Sociedad's Boletin in 1948. While she worked on her book, she collected many plants from the wild and sent specimens to both Mexican and American botanists for identification. On the advice of Maunsell van Rensselaer, Director of the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, she collected a voucher specimen for each plant so there would be no future questions regarding their identification. Many if not most of those specimens were deposited at the Jepson Herbarium, UC Berkeley. Some of her specimens are also in the herbaria at the U.S. National Herbarium, the New York Botanical Garden and the Missouri Botanical Garden. Two plants she collected were new to science and were named after her: Aristolochia conversiae H.W. Pfeifer and Erythrina oliviae Krukoff.
    Converse tried for a number of years to get a publisher interested in her book, to no avail. At the time of her death in 1972, her text was still very much in draft form, although she had 68 final or partially completed drawings. Her friends and colleagues Isabel Kelly, Annetta Carter, and Cornelius Muller were tasked in her will to dispose of her manuscript and drawings. After considering publishing her work as single journal articles, the group decided to contact the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation in Pittsburgh to offer the collection to them. However, UCSB, where the collection was housed, made the decision to keep the collection for its value as a botanical art collection. In her honor, a graduate fellowship has been set up at UCSB for botanical field research in Mexico.

    Scope and Content of Collection

    The bulk of this collection focuses on Converse's unpublished manuscript and drawings of Mexican plants, a project she worked on during the last thirty years of her life. Included are descriptions of about 60 plants with accompanying pencil drawings. Through her book, she wanted to introduce American readers to showy and beautiful flowering trees and shrubs which have not been widely introduced here (letter to Macmillan Company, April 4, 1939). By 1961 she had broadened her scope to address a growing interest in pre-Columbian life and to show the importance of Mexican plants in Aztec culture. She added to her early descriptions evergreens of historical or economic importance, vines, fruits, and edible plants such as coffee and vanilla.
    For each plant she gave its Nahuatl (Aztec) name, botanical name and any regional common name (in Spanish), as well as its native habitat, history of introduction if it was not native, medicinal or other uses, and other interesting information she found. She was interested in pre-Columbian uses of these plants and took copious notes from many historical works about Mexico. Her pencil drawings, showing flowers, fruits, and leaves, are stylized but accurate botanically. Accompanying these materials are research notes, field notes, and correspondence. Converse wrote to botanists in both the United States and Mexico for plant identification, verification of facts, and for assistance with editing. Notable correspondents include Annetta Carter and Herbert Mason from University of California, Berkeley; Maximo Martinez from the Sociedad Botánica de Mexico, Sylvio Conzatti, Clif Smith, and E.O. Orpet. Letters are in both Spanish and English. She also received assistance from botanists Paul Standley, Richard Howard, C.H. Muller, and Harold Moore, Nahuatl expert Francisco Horcasitas, and anthropologists Bodil Christensen and Isabel Kelly.


    This collection is arranged into 4 series: Series 1 Correspondence; Series 2 Publications; Series 3 Photographs; and Series 4 Drawings.

    Indexing Terms

    The following terms have been used to index the description of this collection in the library's online public access catalog.
    Converse, Olivia L.
    Plants, Useful--Mexico

    Related Material

    Santa Barbara Botanic Garden Institutional Papers has correspondence between Converse and Maunsell Van Rensselaer.