Descriptive inventory for the Katharine Whitney Curtis visual materials, ca. 1910-1980

Katharine Whitney Curtis visual materials

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Descriptive inventory for the Katharine Whitney Curtis visual materials, ca. 1910-1980

Prepared by Adam Melville, 2018.
Please address questions to:
Chicago History Museum, Research Center
1601 North Clark Street
Chicago, IL 60614-6038
Instructions for accessing this collection

Collection Overview +/-

Title: Katharine Whitney Curtis visual materials, 1910-1980 (inclusive), 1933-1975 (bulk)
Creator: Katharine Whitney Curtis
Dates: 1910-1980 (inclusive), 1933-1975 (bulk)
Accession number: 1981.0031
Bib number: 00222971
Call numbers: 1981.0031 PPL
1981.0031 PCP-0271
1981.0031 0MM-0328
Size: 5 linear feet, including approximately 1,500 images (8 boxes and 1 audio reel)
Language of material:Collection is written in English.

Provenance statement:

Materials were a gift of the estate of Katharine Whitney Curtis (accession number: 1981.0031).

Terms governing use:

Copyright may be retained by the creators of items, or their descendants, as stipulated by United States copyright law, unless otherwise noted.


Advance appointment required to view photographic material in cold storage; please email

For listening purposes, it is necessary to use a copy, not the original (and to have a listening copy made if one is not available).

Please cite this collection as:

Katharine Whitney Curtis visual materials (Chicago History Museum) plus a detailed description, date, and box/folder number of a specific item.

Additional Materials +/-

Separated material:

Separated material at the Chicago History Museum, Research Center includes the Katharine Whitney Curtis papers.

Collection Summary +/-

Black-and-white and color photographic prints and negatives, newspaper clippings, and printed matter pertaining to the life of Katharine Whitney Curtis. Early photos show Curtis' teenage swimming activities and college years, and the swimming pageants she organized at the Century of Progress fair (1934) and in Caserta, Italy (1945). Curtis's career with the Red Cross and U.S. Army is also documented, particularly her headquarters and travels in Germany. Also present are photographs of Whitney and Rankin family ancestors from the nineteenth century and a photograph album of Washington Island (Wis.).

Biographical/Historical Note +/-

Katharine W. Curtis, born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on June 4, 1897, was a swimming coach who led in the development of synchronized swimming in Chicago in the 1930s. Curtis organized and trained the Kay Curtis Modern Mermaids, a swimming act of thirty women who performed at the world's fair (Century of Progress International Exposition) in Chicago in 1933-1934, and in 1936, she published a book on synchronized swimming, entitled ”Rhythmic Swimming" (Minneapolis: Burgess Publishing Company).

In May of 1942, Curtis joined the American Red Cross. Her initial assignments were as Assistant Director of First Aid in Chicago and as a Club Director in Washington, D.C. In 1943 she was transferred to Casablanca, Morocco, to work as a military recreations official before transferring to Sicily, Italy, in September 1943. Positions in Italy followed at Palmero (August-December 1943), at Capri (December 1943-May 1944), at San Spirito (May-August 1944), and at Caserta (November 1944-September 1945). While at Caserta, Curtis organized an "Acquacade," which was staged on June 16 and 17, 1945.

Curtis was assigned to Marsailles, France, in October 1945 as Assistant Area Supervisor of Red Cross clubs, remaining there until early 1946. After returning briefly to Chicago's Wright College, the Red Cross requested that she serve in occupied Germany, and she arrived in Nuremburg in December 1946, where she supervised Red Cross service clubs in the area. The U.S. Army Special Services Unit assumed control of the service clubs in September 1947, and Curtis became Chief of the Leave Activities Section, Special Services, U.S. Army. Her duties included coordination between European bureaus of tourism, private travel agencies, and groups of U.S. armed forces personnel. Curtis remained with the Special Services Unit until September 1962, when she retired and settled in the Washington Island (Wisconsin) cottage which her mother had occupied.

In June 1959, Curtis became the first recipient of the Helms Synchronized Swimming Hall of Fame Award, and in May 1979, was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Florida.

Catalog Subject Headings +/-

Swimmers--United States
Synchronized swimming
Curtis, Katharine Whitney, 1897-1980
American National Red Cross
United States. Army. Women's Army Auxiliary Corps
Photographic prints
Photographic prints--color
Europe--Description and travel--20th century
Mexico--Description and travel--20th century

Organization and Arrangement of Collection +/-

The collection is arranged in three series.

Click on heading to view series description.

Series 1. Personal and Family, 1900-1980 (Boxes 1-2, 5-6, 8)
Series 2. Travel, 1900-1980 (boxes 2-8)
Series 3. Scrapbooks, 1938-1975 (Boxes 5, 8)

About This Finding Aid +/-

Creation: Finding aid encoded by Adam Melville using Oxygen Editor, 2018.
Language: Finding aid is written in English.
Processing Note:Original descriptive inventory created by John Miller, March 1992 and edited in 2018.
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