When University of Wisconsin–Madison English Language and Humanities Librarian Susan Barribeau acquired 25 sketchbooks of Florence and Margaret Hoopes in 2008, she didn’t know they would become one of Special Collections’ most heart-warming treasures. Already familiar with the Hoopes’ prolific illustrations from her own collection of early 20th-century children’s readers, Barribeau jumped at the opportunity to add the working sketchbooks to the Cairns Collection of American Women Writers manuscripts.
“It was a complete fluke that I saw them advertised, and another fluke that I knew who [the Hoopes sisters] were,” she said.
In time, that fluke would lead to a rich new archive and to some roots right in Madison.
Florence and Margaret Hoopes were two sisters who lived together in Philadelphia during the 20th century. They both went to art school before pursuing careers in illustration.
“I always particularly noticed and liked their illustrations because they were so detailed, varied, and alive,” Barribeau noted.
Margaret and Florence began illustrating commercially in the 1920s and continued throughout their lives. The sketchbooks reflect their research, meticulously documented, and their sketches of people, often neighbors and neighborhood children. They include technical drawings of items such as telescopes and stagecoaches. Barribeau said it is difficult to tell exactly how many books they worked on because different editions have been produced over the years. Some of the most successful books were part of a widely used children’s reading series: Alice and Jerry.
Once she had acquired the Hoopes sisters’ sketchbooks, Barribeau published the
acquisition on an illustration blog where the Hoopeses’ work was being discussed. Four years later, an email arrived from someone who had found her blog post—the owner of the Philadelphia house where the sisters had lived.
“In my attic, I’ve found a tub of their papers—or more accurately found it again, as I’d come on these things in 1995 when we bought the house and put them aside. They were in a disintegrating cardboard box so I moved them to a plastic storage tub and forgot about them.”
That’s the kind of email a special collections librarian lives to receive. After a series of emails, Barribeau visited Philadelphia and was given a tour of the former Hoopes home before settling in to see what was in the tub.
“It was fantastic—years of their letters to and from the many publishers, authors, and editors they worked with! There were fan letters, sketches, mock-ups, promotional materials, and a great deal of it,” she said.
The decades of letters reveal the growth of the sisters’ relationships with many colleagues and, most remarkably, enormous amounts of detail and negotiation about the content of their artwork and the commercial production of it. Discussion of the color of a character’s shirt, or the precise position of a toy, or a hand gesture in an image was not unusual.
The sisters were artists first, but also talented communicators. “They were astute at business,” Barribeau said. “They were good at it. You can tell from their writing.”
The correspondence reveals healthy respect from the publishers and editors with whom they worked. In addition to Row, Peterson (publisher of the Alice and Jerry series), the sisters worked with World Book, Ginn & Co., Houghton Mifflin, Silver Burdett, John C. Winston, Scott Foresman, and many others.
Sorting, boxing, and documenting the treasure was not the end of the personal connection to the Hoopes sisters that Barribeau would encounter. More email arrived, again as a result of the original blog post. Neither Margaret nor Florence had ever married or had children, but their brother Penrose, an engineer and inventor, had. As it turns out, a Hoopes great-nephew lives in Madison. Two separate branches of the Hoopes family have come to Special Collections to visit the Hoopes archive, read the letters, and view the sketchbooks.
“Talking with family members and hearing their recollections definitely enlivened the Hoopes archive legacy,” said Barribeau.
One of Barribeau’s frustrations was that there were no photos of the sisters in any of the boxes—or anywhere on the internet. “Family members were generous in helping out with that problem, providing us with several snapshots of Florence and Margaret.”
The Hoopes sisters’ archive will remain housed in Special Collections, where it will continue to grow and enrich the Cairns Collection as one of the Libraries’ many hidden gems.