What is the Marguerite Hicks Project?
3. The history of the ownership of a work of art or an antique, used as a guide to authenticity or quality; a documented record of this.
Oxford English Dictionary
Provenance, or the history of ownership, determines the value of antiquities and rare books, authenticating precious objects, and dictating which are worthy of study. Provenance recalls origin stories and traces the chain of custody made legible through pedigree. When looking in the archive for women as collectors and owners, this means searching the surnames of their fathers and husbands.
This project foregrounds the intersectional subjectivity of Marguerite Hicks, a woman doubly obscured by her gender—as widowed, queer woman—and by the disability of her failing eyesight. Hicks built her collection through the assistance of her female companion, in whose care Hicks placed her correspondence. Hicks herself, therefore, is often silent, obscured. Acknowledging these women’s relationship is central to uncovering evidence of Hicks’ life and collection in the archive, from Metro Detroit to the United Kingdom.
The Marguerite Hicks Collection, started in the 1930s, is one of the first intentional American collections of writings by and about 17th-19th century British women writers, and is held at Oakland University’s Kresge Library in Rochester, Michigan. The Marguerite Hicks Project seeks to reconstruct the provenance of the Collection to understand and legitimize the intellectual endeavors of Marguerite Hicks’ collecting methods, rather than establishing authenticity of the historical objects she amassed. For Hicks, this means intentionally decoupling provenance from pedigree. Acknowledgement of Hicks’ curation reconceptualizes her as scholar and intellectual, recognizing the importance of her prescient interest in women writers.
What does the Collection Consist of?
The Marguerite Hicks Collection is likely the first intentional collection of works by and about women from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to be gathered by an American collector. In 1971 Oakland University’s Kresge Library purchased the 900+-item collection of seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth-century books, printed materials, and manuscripts by and about British Women Writers from Marguerite Bieber Hicks. It contains unique materials featuring ballad broadsides, novels, cookbooks, political tracts, educational texts, sermons, plays, poetry, and more. It houses items by the printer/playwright/novelist Eliza Haywood, the proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, intellectual and dramatist Elizabeth Inchbald, and more. It also includes a large collection of items relating to Queen Anne, and the rumors about her relationship with the Duchess of Marlborough and Abigail Masham. Dozens of the items in this collection exist in fewer than ten known copies worldwide, and a handful are uniquely existing copies.
What do We Know About Marguerite Hicks?
Marguerite Bieber Hicks was born in 1891 in Dearborn, Michigan. Hicks attended the University of Michigan for a year before returning home upon the death of her mother. In 1915, she married Roy Carl Hicks, an accountant and later executive treasurer and assistant secretary of the Dodge Corporation. After raising their two children, Hicks returned to school at Wayne State University in Detroit, earning her Bachelor's degree in English in 1935 at age 44, and her Masters degree in early modern women writers three years later. Hicks’ failing eyesight prevented her from continuing coursework toward a PhD. Hicks’ husband died in 1942, but as early as 1938, Thelma James, Wayne State professor and Marguerite's later partner, was corresponding on Hicks’ behalf. It was around this time that Hicks began purchasing books from British and American booksellers for her collection. Over the next 15 years, Hicks, through James, corresponded with rare book dealers to purchase items by and about seventeenth- and eighteenth-century women writers.
Thelma James, "great good friend" of Marguerite Hicks
Professor Thelma Grey James (1898-1988) received her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the University of Michigan in the early 1920s, and served as a folklorist in the English Department at Wayne State University for over 40 years until 1963. There she co-established the WSU Folklore Archive (now at the Reuther Library) in 1939, the largest and oldest collection of urban folklore in the United States. During her tenure, James served as president of the Michigan Folklore Society and the American Folklore Society, and as public intellectual around the city of Detroit. James never married, and she and the widowed Hicks shared a home and life for 40 years before Hicks’ death in 1978. Hicks and James were active members of the Book Club of Detroit and various women’s civic clubs around the city, and traveled internationally together. They are called by the society pages in the Detroit News “great good friends” and “inseparable off-the-campus companions.” Hicks’ obituary in the Detroit Free Press characterizes her, amid the enumeration of surviving family members, as “friend of Thelma G. James.” Hicks, one of the first scholars of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British women writers, and James, who recorded folk stories of Detroit’s urban ethnic enclaves, were singular people to be building this collection of lost and silenced voices in history.