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HUGFP 76.xx

Bliss, Robert Woods, 1875-1962. Papers of Robert Woods Bliss and Mildred Barnes Bliss : an inventory

Harvard University Archives


Harvard University

© President and Fellows of Harvard College

Descriptive Summary

Call No.: HUGFP 76.xx
Repository: Harvard University Archives
Creator: Bliss, Robert Woods, 1875-1962.
Title: Papers of Robert Woods Bliss and Mildred Barnes Bliss, approximately 1860-1969
Date(s): 1860-1969
Quantity: 58 cubic feet (174 boxes and portfolio folders)
Language of materials: English
Abstract: Robert Woods Bliss (1875-1962) and his wife, Mildred Barnes Bliss (1879-1969) were prominent art collectors and the founders of Dumbarton Oaks, an estate which they developed and conveyed in 1940 to Harvard University as the Center for Byzantine Studies. Contains personal, philanthropic and United States Foreign Service-related papers.

Acquisition Information and Custodial History:

Gift of Dumbarton Oaks.
The Papers of Robert Woods Bliss and Mildred Barnes Bliss came to the Harvard University Archives from Dumbarton Oaks in 1982. They apparently were transferred to Dumbarton Oaks after Mrs. Bliss's death in 1969.

Processing Information:

The collection had been preliminarily arranged at Dumbarton Oaks. It appears that due, in part, to the many moves made and homes maintained by the Blisses, the papers were not kept in an orderly fashion. Much of the arrangement, therefore, is necessarily artificial.
Due to the extremely poor condition of some of the paper, many items in the collection have been photocopied onto acid neutral paper. These were primarily news clippings and carbon copies of telegrams and letters.
The preliminary work at Dumbarton Oaks included weeding. The originals of the photocopied items were discarded.

Related Material

The Harvard University Archives also holds the Papers of Royall Tyler (HUGFP 38.xx) which contains correspondence between Tyler and Mildred Barnes Bliss (see HUGFP 38.6). This correspondence has been transcribed by and is available online from the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives at the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection: http://www.doaks.org/resources/bliss-tyler-correspondence
The Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives at the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection holds the Mildred Barnes and Robert Woods Bliss Correspondence with Kirsopp and Silva Lake, 1934-1941 and also the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens film, which includes footage from the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s; and features Mildred Barnes Bliss and her friends in the Orangery and Robert Woods Bliss strolling in the gardens.

Biographical Information

Robert Woods Bliss was a graduate of Harvard College, Class of 1900. He began work as the Secretary to the Governor of Puerto Rico and entered the U.S. Foreign Service in 1903 with a post in Venice. For the next thirty years he served in the diplomatic corps in St. Petersburg, Brussels, Buenos Aires, Paris, Washington, D.C., and Stockholm. He retired in 1933, but returned to the State Department for occasional special service.
Robert Woods Bliss married his stepsister, Mildred Barnes, in 1908. They had no children. She was a well-educated and well-travelled heir to the Castoria patent medicine fortune. Mildred Bliss was an active participant and leader in social and cultural circles at every diplomatic post to which Robert Bliss was assigned. She was an avid art collector as well as patron of musicians and visual artists in Europe, South America and the United States. She organized the American Distributing Service to transfer medical supplies to French hospitals and funded several vehicles for the Ambulance Corps. She was honored with numerous decorations for her war relief efforts in France during World War I.
In addition to extensive philanthropic work, the Blisses were recognized as important art collectors. In 1920 they purchased an estate in Georgetown called "The Oaks." They renamed it "Dumbarton Oaks" and spent the next several decades involved with the development of both the exterior landscape and the art and book collections within.
In 1940 Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss conveyed Dumbarton Oaks to Harvard University as the Center for Byzantine Studies. The Blisses resided nearby and maintained an active interest in the formation and funding of its garden, library, art collection, and musical program. Plans to build a gallery at Dumbarton Oaks to house Robert Bliss's collection of pre-Columbian art were underway when he died of lung cancer on April 19, 1962. The Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art was opened to the public in 1963.
Mildred Bliss continued to travel and take part in Washington's cultural and philanthropic life until her death on January 17, 1969.

Family Relationships

Biographical / Historical




Scope of the Bliss Collection

Although the collection includes the personal, philanthropic and foreign service-related papers of Robert and Mildred Bliss, the majority of correspondence and records were kept by Mrs. Bliss. The Blisses were prominent in the social, political and cultural circles and the collection richly reflects that importance.
The Bliss Archives contain much that casts light on, most prominently, American philanthropy in the twentieth century, American women's relief work during World War I, the development of a professional American foreign service, elite political society in Washington during the 1930's, the formation and early years of Dumbarton Oaks as a research center, and the evolution of American taste and connoisseurship as seen through the eyes of two prominent collectors. But the Bliss Archives also contain many unexpected riches: scrapbooks from Mr. Bliss's Harvard years, unique photographs of Puerto Rico around 1900 and of World War I battle zones, hundreds of photographs, many of them signed, of luminaries from Clemenceau to Stravinsky, and boxes containing the numerous decorations the Blisses received.

Inventory update

This document last updated 2017 January 11.

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