Dec 20

Donation Stories: Stephanie Wilds on the Phelps Sisters Collection

Phelps World Cruise

Decades later, it is difficult to know exactly how involved either sister was in the creation of each film, but in most cases it is assumed they worked together in close collaboration.

In 1992, Stephanie Wilds donated a collection of 35mm and 16mm home movies shot and edited by her great-aunt and grandmother, Claudia Lea Phelps and Eleanor Phelps Wilds, to the Moving Image Research Collections. Fixtures of Aiken, SC society, the sisters were avid travelers who circumnavigated the globe in the 1920s. Claudia Lea was a sportswoman and well known for breeding West Highland terriers. Eleanor was a dedicated philanthropist and active in local politics. These films document the sisters’ vibrant social lives both at home in South Carolina, and abroad in their world travels. More information about the history of the Phelps family can be found at the website created by Ellen Wilds, Stephanie Wilds’ sister.

In 2011, Ms. Wilds donated additional materials from the Phelps family, including slides, glass slides, photographic prints, photo equipment, manuscript materials, and more films. The photos, slides, and manuscripts are located at the University’s South Caroliniana Library, and the collection at MIRC now includes nearly 14,000 feet of film—approximately five hours worth of watchable material.

Sailboats, Dogs, Girl Scouts

Still from a Phelps home movie compilation from 1922-1923. Includes footage of vacations, Girls Scouts, outdoor recreation, dogs, and horses.

At the time of Ms. Wilds’ gift in 1992, USC and the Phelps family already had a relationship going back several decades. Claudia Lea Phelps donated a collection of books of botanical interest that belonged to her mother, Mrs. Sheffield Phelps, in 1959. The core of the collection is composed of virtually every significant book published on the camellia, Mrs. Phelps’ personal gardening interest. The materials are housed in in the Irvin Department of Rare Books in the Thomas Cooper Library.

Below, Ms. Wilds provides some insight into the reasons behind donating a home movie collection, and the importance of keeping her family mementoes in the same institution.

 Over the past several decades, various collections belonging to my family have been donated to USC, ranging from my great grandmother’s Camellia Folios to travel diaries belonging to my great aunt and grandmother [Claudia Lea Phelps and Eleanor Phelps Wilds].  I knew that the portion of the family archives that I had inherited (including films, diaries, glass slides, photographs, and other artifacts) was key to tying together all the collections. With these materials in place at USC, anyone researching almost any aspect of the Phelps family would have everything available in one, safe place. Reuniting the travel films with the travel diaries was especially important to me.

Crossing the Line

Still from home movie shot during the around the world cruise that depicts the ceremony performed when crossing the equator, 1923.

The travel diaries described by Ms. Wilds include two volumes compiled by Eleanor Phelps Wilds that document the sisters’ 1922-1923 world tour. Around the World by the S.S. Laconia Book 1 and Book 2 reside in the South Caroliniana Library. The diaries can be viewed online as part of a Digital Collection that makes diary entries, photographs, maps, and souvenirs searchable by type or location. The digital collection also links to a film from the trip available for viewing at MIRC’s video repository. By virtually uniting manuscript, photographic, and moving image collections—all of which demand different types of archival expertise for their care—the university can illuminate the historical practice of dedicated amateurs working in multiple media and connect the history of South Carolina to the world. As Ms. Wilds as puts it:

 For two decades I had been intending to ‘do something’ with these materials, and had, instead, let them languish in a cupboard. It was time to reunite them with the other Phelps materials, making them both publicly available, and safely and responsibly cared for.

The home movies are now stored in climate-controlled vaults that will extend the life of the films, protecting them from the damage caused by hot and humid South Carolina summers. Since the donation, 15 of the films have been digitized and placed in MIRC’s Digital Video Repository, facilitating access for scholars, as well as friends and family members.

 [Friends and family] are amused, delighted, and amazed to see the materials after all these years, and realize they would never have been able to see them without the incredible work that USC has done to make them available.  They have also been inspired to make their own donations.

According to Ms. Wilds, even she had not seen all of the films before gifting them to the university.

 Some I had seen before, and some I hadn’t.  I am pleased to be able to see the films and other materials of my family, and, more importantly I know these materials are in the right place, in the right hands. They are being cared for, and are also accessible to me if ever I want to work with them again. It was the right choice.

Scandinavia, Aiken

Still from a Phelps home movie shot during a trip to Scandinavia, and on a South Carolina plantation.

This is a remarkable collection that vividly details local South Carolina life alongside diverse global locales in the first half of the 20th century. Moving Image Research Collections would like to thank Ms. Wilds for the generous donation of her great-aunt and grandmother’s extraordinary films, and for taking the time to write about her donation experience.

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