[This blog post was written by Kim Andersen, Audio Visual Materials Archivist in the Special Collections Section of the State Archives of North Carolina.]
The State Archives is thrilled to announce the debut of our Brimley Collection online. The Brimley Collection is one of our oldest and most interesting collections and thanks to the dedicated hard work of Ian Dunn of the Audiovisual Materials Unit and Olivia Carlisle and Francesca Evans of the Digital Services Branch, it is available in its entirety on the Web. The photographs in this collection document many aspects of life in the state in the pivotal era between the late 19th and mid-20th century and include people both common and renowned, scenes of cities and towns, rural landscapes and farms, agricultural activities and products of every variety found in North Carolina, industrial concerns, and much much more.
The Brimley Collection is named for Herbert Hutchinson Brimley, the first leader of The North Carolina State Museum of Natural History. That museum was at the time an all-encompassing state museum that included history, art, and science. It later evolved and morphed into separate entities – the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, the State Archives of North Carolina, the NC Museum of History, and the NC Museum of Art – all of which operate under an umbrella governance and exist today.
Herbert Hutchinson Brimley was born in Willington, Bedfordshire, England, on March 7, 1861, the son of Joseph and Harriet Brimley. He received his formal education at the Bedford County School in Elstow, England, where he excelled in mathematics and sports. In December 1880, he immigrated with his parents and siblings to Raleigh, NC. Interestingly, young H. H. Brimley’s first night in the city of Raleigh was spent in the National Hotel, the building bought the following year for the new home of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture which would become the site of Brimley’s work for the next 60 years.
Following unsuccessful attempts at farming and teaching, Brimley and his brother Clement opened a taxidermy and biological supply company in Raleigh, where they quickly gained an international reputation as the leading naturalists of their day in the South. In 1884 the North Carolina Department of Agriculture commissioned Brimley to prepare a display of waterfowl and fishes for the State Centennial Exposition, and in 1892–93 he supervised the North Carolina zoological exhibition at the Chicago World’s Fair. In 1893 the Department of Agriculture designated two rooms in its office building as the North Carolina State Museum, for the permanent display of the exhibits assembled by Brimley, and on April 15, 1895, Brimley was appointed curator of the new museum, a post he held until 1928, when his title was changed to director. He served as director until 1937, when he became curator of zoology for the museum, a position he retained until his death. During the fifty years of his leadership, the institution grew into one of the best-known state museums in the United States, containing an outstanding collection of animal, plant, and geological specimens from the southeastern United States.
During his years of service with the State Museum, Brimley assembled North Carolina displays at various national and international expositions. In preparation of his exhibits for the various shows, he traveled and took photographs throughout North Carolina to capture scenes for display in his exhibits. H.H. Brimley took the majority of the photographs in the collection himself, and he was involved in all aspects of the work in which the photographs were used. The photographs in the Brimley Collection were used in the state’s exhibits at numerous expositions and shows as well as within the museum itself and in state publications over the years.
When Brimley died in 1946 at the age of 85, he was still an active state employee and after his death, the photographs remained at the Museum of Natural History for in-house use by the museum staff. In 1962 with space at a premium and with the knowledge that the collection was too valuable and parts of it too old to continue to be used as an active reference file, the Museum of Natural History transferred the collection to the State Archives for permanent preservation. Archivists created a detailed finding aid cataloging the collection at that time.
This collection is arranged alphabetically by topic, beginning with Agriculture and ending with World War II. At the end are two boxes of unidentified lantern slides (1900s-1920s), seven folders containing correspondence and miscellaneous items (1898-1979), and several boxes of oversized prints. Most of the photographs in the collection are black and white, but a few of the oversized prints are hand colored. Description of the collection is to the folder level under each subject heading.
We invite you to enjoy this great body of work, and please let us know what questions you may have.