From the Collections: Mary Baker Eddy portrait plate
As objects pass down through time, their histories can sometimes resemble a children’s game of telephone—the story changes slightly with each retelling, until the final details only hint at the original. Part of an archive’s value lies in its ability to draw together seemingly disparate items, showing how they fit together like puzzle pieces to create a more complete and accurate picture of the past.
Such was the case with one object in our collection—a plate painted with Mary Baker Eddy’s portrait. It was donated to the Library in 2003 and accessioned into our Art & Artifact Collection.
According to the story passed along with this object, one Mr. Lenox (presumably Walter Scott Lenox, founder of the Lenox Corporation)1 made the plate as a token of his gratitude for Christian Science. The story continues that Lenox brought the plate directly to Eddy, who appreciated it but said that no more should be made—because, as she expressed it, she didn’t like the idea of people eating from off her face.
As it turns out, that story does not quite match the documentary evidence found in Eddy’s correspondence. There is nothing to support the claim that Lenox made the plate or that Eddy reviewed it in person.
So what in fact does the historical record reveal about this plate? And how did our staff piece the facts together? Clues in the mystery came from two letters and a photograph, which all entered our collections long before the plate itself.
In 1900 former factory manager Albert Edward Miller, C.S.B. (1874–1922) wrote in the Christian Science Sentinel that “Christian Science found me, some four years ago, a slave to false beliefs and appetites.” He gave gratitude for an improved life through studying the Bible and Eddy’s book Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures.2 He and his wife, Printhia Trahern Miller, C.S.B. (1871–1955), both joined The First Church of Christ, Scientist (The Mother Church) in 1897. Both were elected in September 1903 as Executive Members of the church3 and completed Primary class instruction three months later. Albert became a Christian Science teacher in 1907 and served in many official roles for the church, including as Publication Committee for Pennsylvania,4 5 circulation manager for The Christian Science Monitor and other Christian Science periodicals,6 and Assistant Manager of the Committee on Publication for The Mother Church.
The Millers loved Eddy very much and felt moved to show their devotion to her. Albert wrote her on April 6, 1908, telling her about a “very handsome plate which Mrs. Miller and I have just had made” and explaining how they thought Eddy’s portrait on the plate was “a good likeness,” painted “in Germany by a noted artist.” Pleased that it was “such a beautiful work of art,” he enclosed a photograph of the “priceless household treasure.”7
Eddy disagreed with the Millers’ assessment of the plate. She did not feel that the portrait captured her true likeness (although the painted image does bear a strong resemblance to a popular photograph of her that she had shared with others).8 She instructed Adam H. Dickey, her secretary, to return the photograph of the plate to the Millers with a cordial reply based on notes she wrote on the back of it.9 “I am also returning the photos of your painting,” Dickey wrote, “which our Leader has pronounced beautiful, but hopes they will not be circulated. The hair is too white, and the expression not hers.”10
The Millers were not disheartened by this pronouncement. Albert replied:
The plate containing your portrait we shall cherish, even though it does not give all that it might of your expression of loving strength. Mrs. Miller and I want always to be accounted ready to serve and uphold. We want to express constant gratitude for your loving guidance.11
It is unclear exactly who crafted that unique plate, and in their letter the Millers only refer to its painting as having been done by “a noted artist.” Nor is it clear whether the plate’s manufacturer and the portrait artist were one and the same. It is of course possible that Lenox was the manufacturer and someone else was the painter. But how did the name “Lenox” come to be associated with this plate, when the Millers never named an artist or manufacturer? We may never know.
One possibility: in the same letter, the Millers also offered Eddy a gift of a “little individual set of dishes which we have taken the liberty of having had made for you.” These dishes, they added, were made by their dear friend Mr. Lenox, “a devoted student of [Eddy’s] books.”12 Could this indicate a connection between the dishes and the plate with Eddy’s likeness? While that would be a convenient assumption, there is no evidence to suggest any such connection.
So then, how did the pieces of the puzzle eventually come together for our staff? To recap, it began with a 2016 research query to the Library, referencing Eddy’s likeness on a painted plate. This led us to discover in our archives a photograph of a plate, donated by Printhia Miller in 1932. Dots then started to connect, as we recognized this image matched an actual plate we received in 2003. Further research revealed Dickey’s 1908 correspondence with Albert Miller on behalf of Eddy. Next we connected this correspondence with the inscription in Eddy’s handwriting on the back of that photograph. Suddenly the photograph, the plate, and the letters all merged—to shed new light on an old story.
- Lenox | About Us. Accessed 13 September 2019. https://www.lenox.com/about-us.
- Albert E. Miller, “From a Business Man,” Christian Science Sentinel, 1 March 1900, 421, https://sentinel.christianscience.com/shared/view/246xhba1826?s=t.
- Mary Baker Eddy to The Christian Science Board of Directors, 7 September 1903, L00353.
- The Committee on Publication was at one point called the Publication Committee. https://www.marybakereddylibrary.org/research/what-is-the-history-of-the-name-committee-on-publication/
- Albert E. Miller to Calvin Frye, 7 December 1901, IC168.29.001
- Trustees of The Christian Science Publishing Society to Eddy, 3 April 1909, L07271.
- Albert E. Miller to Eddy, 6 April 1908, IC168.29.058.
- Mary Baker Eddy portrait, pose #3, 9 April 1886. P00229. H. G. Smith.
- Plate embossed with gold with painted portrait of Mary Baker Eddy with inscription by Eddy on the back, c. 1908. P00231. Photographer unknown.
- Adam H. Dickey to Albert E. Miller, 7 April 1908, L10423.
- “Letters to Our Leader,” Christian Science Sentinel, 2 May 1908, 692, https://sentinel.christianscience.com/shared/view/10t1odu4r7y?s=t.
- Albert E. Miller to Mary Baker Eddy, 6 April 1908, IC168.29.058.