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MC 463; T-280

Hilles, Susan Morse, 1905-2002. Papers of Susan Hilles Morse, 1839-2002: A Finding Aid

Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University


Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University

© President and Fellows of Harvard College

Processing of this collection was made possible by a gift from Susan (Morse) Hilles.

Descriptive Summary

Location: Collection stored off site: researchers must request access 36 hours before use.
Call No.: MC 463; T-280
Repository: Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University
Creator: Susan Morse Hilles, 1905-2002
Title: Papers of Susan Hilles Morse, 1839-2002
Date(s): 1839-2002
Quantity: 9.51 linear feet (19+1/2 file boxes, 1 folio+ box) plus 5 folio folders, 3 oversize folders, 1 supersize folder, and 1 audiotape)
Language of materials: Materials in English.
Abstract: Papers of philanthropist and art collector, Susan Morse Hilles.

Immediate Source of Acquisition:

Accession numbers: 87-M72, 87-M135, 87-M152, 87-M164, 87-M170, 87-M185, 88-M55, 88-M62, 88-M142, 88-M203, 89-M2, 89-M11, 89-M13, 89-M40, 89-M170, 90-M101, 91-M79, 92-M11, 92-M37, 92-M70, 93-M70, 94-M67, 95-M7, 95-M47, 98-M136, 2000-M82, 2002-M24, 2002-M142, 2003-M37
These papers were given to the Schlesinger Library between May 1987 and October 2002 by Susan Morse Hilles and Susan (Hilles) Bush, and in March 2003 by Suzanne Boorsch.

Processing Information:

Processed: December 1999
By: Jane S. Knowles and Deborah A. Richards
Updated: June 2011
By: Anne Engelhart


Access. Unrestricted except for Box #20, which is closed until January 1, 2032. An appointment is necessary to use any audiovisual material.

Conditions Governing Use:

Copyright. Copyright in the papers created by Susan Morse Hilles is held by the President and Fellows of Harvard College for the Schlesinger Library. Copyright in other papers in the collection may be held by their authors, or the authors' heirs or assigns.
Copying. Papers may be copied in accordance with the library's usual procedures.

Preferred Citation:

Susan Hilles Morse Papers, 1839-2002; item description, dates. MC 463, folder #. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

Related Material:

There is related material at the Schlesinger Library; see the transcript of a 1986 interview with Hilles by Radcliffe archivist Jane S. Knowles (OH-53).


Susan (Morse) Hilles, art collector and philanthropist, was born in Simsbury, Connecticut, July 4, 1905, the daughter of Susan (Ensign) and William Inglis Morse. Hilles grew up in Lynn, Massachusetts, where her father was an Episcopal minister. Summers were spent in Paradise, Nova Scotia, her father's home, or traveling in Europe. She attended Miss Ethel Walker's School in Simsbury. Simsbury was her mother's home and the location of the Ensign-Bickford Company, manufacturers of safety fuses, which was the basis of the family fortune. Hilles was a student at the school of the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston, Massachusetts, 1924-1925, and the Sacker School of Design, Boston, Massachusetts, 1926-1929. On June 14, 1930, she married Frederick Whiley Hilles, and they spent the first year of their marriage in England. In 1931, they returned to Yale University where her husband, a scholar of eighteenth-century literature, was instructor and later professor. The Hilleses had two children, Susan Ensign (Hilles) Bush and Frederick Whiley Hilles, Jr. In New Haven, Hilles was active in the Birth Control League, the Leila Day Nursery, the Neighborhood Music School, and was vice-president of the New Haven Symphony Orchestra. During World War II, she and the children moved to Cambridge, Mass., to stay with her parents, while her husband was on active service with United States intelligence, stationed at Bletchley, England.
According to Hilles, the 1950s were the happiest period of her life, when her interests in art, which had lain dormant since art school, flourished. She began to assemble a collection of contemporary painting and sculpture, resolving to buy only the works of living artists. She looked, she said, for "design and color in painting, those two qualities plus a third, inner rhythm or soul." Her collection documented the achievements of the post-war generation of mostly American artists and included works by Alexander Calder, Helen Frankenthaler, David Smith, Kenzo Okada, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Josef Albers, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg, and many more. Her collection was frequently exhibited: at the Yale Art Gallery, Wadsworth Atheneum, and Mount Holyoke College (1964), the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (1966), and Trumbull College, Yale University (1968).
Hilles was active on the boards of many museums: member and treasurer of the International Council of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), governor of the Yale Art Gallery Associates, member of the Collectors Committee of the National Gallery of Art, trustee of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Wadsworth Atheneum, and the Museum of Fine Arts. Her loans and gifts of paintings and sculpture have enriched the collections at Yale, Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, and the Harvard University Art Museums. She gave a portion of her collection to the Wadsworth Atheneum in 1990 and 1992.
Hilles has been a dedicated supporter of higher education, music, medicine, and the arts. Her philanthropy at Yale included gifts to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the library, art gallery, and Faculty of Medicine. She adopted Radcliffe College as her own, serving as trustee (1962-1974) and giving the Morse Music Library in memory of her mother, the Jordan cooperative dormitories in honor of President and Mrs. Jordan, and contributing to the Cronkhite Graduate Center, Comstock Hall, and Hilles Library, which was named for both Mr. and Mrs. Hilles in recognition of their generosity to the college. She served on the visiting committee of the Harvard University Library and was the first woman trustee of the Boston Athenaeum. Her life-long love of music is seen in her support for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Other projects she supported include the renovation of a French chateau; the gift of 430 acres in Paradise, Nova Scotia, to form the Morse Arboretum; the foundation of the Amy Sacker lectureship in art at Mount Holyoke College; and the establishment of a research fund and laboratory at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Hospital.
Among Hilles' honors are honorary degrees from the University of King's College, Canada (1958 and Wheaton College (1967), and the Yale Medal (1966). Susan Morse Hilles died in Boston, Massachusetts, in 2002.


The collection is arranged in five series:


This collection spans five generations. It contains papers relating to the family life, philanthropy, and art interests of Susan (Morse) Hilles, and to the lives of her parents and grandparents, her children and grandchildren.
There is some overlap in the various series. Letters from the Ensigns to their son-in-law, William Inglis Morse, are found in Series I, while all letters from him are in Series II. Similarly the Morse parents' letters to their daughter, Susan (Morse) Hilles, are in Series II, and Hilles' letters to her parents are in Series III. There are very few writings or personal letters by Hilles in the collection, although there is rich documentation of her activities in the letters of others, and in her business, art, and philanthropy files.
Series I, Toy Ensign families (#1-12), contains the history of the Ensign-Bickford Company, clippings, correspondence, and genealogy of the Toy family and their English relatives, the Oslers, and clippings and correspondence of Ralph and Susan (Toy) Ensign. A clipping about the hospital established in memory of Susan (Toy) Ensign at Nanchang, China, documents the philanthropy of the first of three generations of women philanthropists in this family.
Series II, Morse family (#13f+-115), includes biographical material including vital records, genealogy, clippings, and obituaries of Susan (Ensign) and William Inglis Morse. Additionally there are records of the Morse property in Paradise, Nova Scotia, an inventory of their goods including furniture and silver, and invoices for purchases of clothing, jewelry, and antiques. Travel diaries kept by Susan Morse and a collection of family recipes are also included. The philanthropic interests of both Susan Morse and her husband are documented. A rich exchange of courtship letters bears witness to the mutual devotion between this wealthy heiress and her distinguished, but impecunious, Canadian suitor who had been a tutor in the Ensign household and was in training for the ministry. Subsequent letters illustrate the closeness of the family relationships.
Series III, Susan Morse Hilles (#116-185), includes biographical materials, correspondence about her health, wedding and honeymoon album, honors and awards, 1958-1967, and appointment books, 1977-1991. There is a small collection of her letters to friends and family and drafts of autobiographical writings and writings on art and gardening. There are significant records of her gifts to Yale, Radcliffe, Harvard, the Wadsworth Atheneum, Mount Holyoke College, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Athenaeum, and the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Hospital. Folders #122 and 136 for which original restrictions have expired were added to the collection in November 2009.
Series IV, Frederick Whiley Hilles et al. (#186v-225), contains an album of clippings, ms. notes, and photographs about his childhood and adolescence, 1900-1918. There are courtship letters (1929-1931) and letters written during his service in the Intelligence Unit at Bletchley, England, during World War II where he worked on Enigma, the secret effort to break the German codes. Additionally there is correspondence from the Hilleses' children, Susan and Ted Jr., and their grandchildren, and Susan's baby album.
Series V, Family photographs (#226-257), include Toy Ensign, Morse, and Hilles family photographs. The Hilles collection of photographs include albums documenting special dedications and events, portraits of Hilles, her friends, the immediate family and other relatives. There are photographs of her art collection and of art-related events and exhibits.
In June 2011, additional records were added to the original finding aid: this new material is found in 13f+, 116af+, 117a, 117bf+, 122a, 172ao, 258f+--265f+, and T-280, reel 1.


Container List

Additional Index Terms

Architectural drawings
Bletchley (Buckinghamshire, England)--History
Collectors and collecting--United States
Exhibition catalogs
Love-letters--United States
Marriage--United States
New Haven (Conn.)--Social life and customs--20th century
Oral histories
Paradise (N.S.)--Social life and customs--20th century
Philanthropists--United States
Photograph albums
World War, 1939-1945--Personal narratives, American
World War, 1939-1945--Women--United States
Boston Athenaeum
Bush, Susan
Ensign family
Ensign-Bickford Company
Harvard University. Art Museums
Hilles, Frederick W. (Frederick Whiley), 1900-1975
Hilles Library (Cambridge, Mass.)
Houghton Library
Jordan, Frances Ruml, 1899-1980
Jordan, W. K. (Wilbur Kitchener), 1902-1980
Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary
Morse, Susan Ensign
Morse, William Inglis, 1874-
Mount Holyoke College--Benefactors
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Radcliffe College--Benefactors
Radcliffe College. Comstock Hall
Radcliffe College. Cronkhite Graduate Center
Radcliffe College. Jordan Cooperatives
Sacker School of Design (Boston, Mass.)--Students
Susan Toy Ensign Memorial Hospital (Nanchang, China)
Toy family
Trumbull College (Yale University)--Benefactors
United States. Office of Strategic Services
Wadsworth Atheneum
Wheaton College (Ill.)--Benefactors
Whitney Museum of American Art
Yale University. Art Gallery
Yale University--Benefactors