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Melanie Atherton Updegraff Collection

Identifier: BMC-M145

Scope and Contents

The Melanie Atherton Updegraff Collection spans across Updegraff’s entire life, including photographs from her childhood, letters to her children, records of her missionary work in India, and other items pertaining to her personal life and missionary work. The collection focuses primarily on Updegraff’s family, and we see correspondence mostly to and from the women in her family. Letters to her sisters, daughters, and sister-in-law, Alice Brenneman are prominent in the collection. This collection will be useful for engaging with the domestic side of mission work in Western India work during the early and mid-20th century, as well as researching a family that had multiple generations attend Bryn Mawr. The “Atherton Book Fund,” conceived by Louise Dickey Davison, daughter of Louise Atherton Dickey, and Bryn Mawr class of 1937, includes contributions to the Bryn Mawr libraries from the generations of Atherton women who attended Bryn Mawr.

Technically, the range of dates for this collection is 1685 - 2020, due to the variety in Updegraff’s autograph collection and her family’s continued correspondence with the Nipani Mission. However, the majority of the letters, documents, and publications fall between the 1910s and the 1950s. It is notable that Updegraff first moved to India in 1913 and retired to Ardmore, PA in 1947, so many items relating to her missionary work fall within this timeframe.

The collection is divided into 11 series. Series I: Biography and overview; Series II: Melanie Atherton Updegraff Family Correspondence; Series III: Benjamin David Updegraff; Series IV: Writings and Letters by Atherton and Updegraff relations. Series V: Melanie Atherton Updegraff Correspondence with Mission Board; Series VI: Publications; Series VII: Trips to India. Series VIII: Family History; Series IX: Autographs. Series X: Photographs.

Series I of the collection, “Biography and Overview,” primarily consists of an essay written by Updegraff’s granddaughter, Ann Taylor Allen on women missionaries in Western India. The essay uses Updegraff as a case study and includes a collection of scanned correspondence and other items written by or about Updegraff. The complete bind-up is called, “The Updegraffs in India, 1914-1947, Documents and Commentary edited by Ann Taylor Allen, 2016.”

Series II is Updegraff’s personal letters. These are almost entirely letters written to family members, specifically the women in her family, including her four sisters, three daughters, and her sister-in-law, Alice Brenneman. The letters between Updegraff and her family discuss current events, both local and global. In a letter to her father in series II, we learn Updegraff’s perspective on Woodrow Wilson in the midst of the ongoing global war.

Series III includes items pertaining to Updegraff’s husband, David Benjamin Updegraff. There are official documents relating to his work as a missionary/reverend, publications, as well as a separate folder containing David Updegraff’s personal correspondence. Also included are David Updegraff’s obituaries and letters sent to Melanie Updegraff offering condolences. Series IV consists of correspondence and other items written by Updegraff’s family members. A major part of this series is the letters of Ann Updegraff Allen, one of Melanie Updegraff’s daughters, and Bryn Mawr class of 1942. Her letters are organized by decade, ranging from the 1920s to the 1950s. The letters begin when she is attending the Kokainal School (a school for the children of missionaries, Ann attended at the Highclerc campus) during the 1920s. Later letters recount travel to Buffalo, NY, Wilkes Barre, PA, and European locations. Updegraff’s children attended boarding schools in both England and Switzerland. During the later 30s and early 40s we see Ann’s life a Bryn Mawr. She participates in school theatrical productions, but at the same time laments the school’s lacking music program.

Series V is more involved with Updegraff’s work in India. In the series are her correspondence with the mission board, as it was common practice for a missionary to record correspondence with their mission board detailing their everyday life. Series VI is publications and mostly editions of Western India Notes, the missionary periodical. In the articles written by Updegraff and published in the missionary periodical, we see the domestic side of missionary life, in particular, stories of her children attending missionary school at a young age.

Series VII, “Trips to India,” is a copy of memoirs detailing Richard Updegraff and Elizabeth Updegraff Dyson’s trip to India in 1977. Series VIII is made up of items relaying the family histories of both the Athertons and the Updegraffs. Series IX is Updegraff’s autograph collection. Some of these documents are letters, while others are signed slips of paper or name cards. Many of the autographs appear to have been inherited from older family members, as a few are addressed to Updegraff’s father, while others are addressed directly to Melanie Updegraff. Among the correspondence in the autograph collection, we see letters from John Gibson Paton (1824 – 1907); Cyrus Long Pershing (1825-1903); Francis L. Patton (1843-1932); James McCosh (1811-1894); Julian Hawthorne (1846-1934); Adrian H. Joline (1850-1912); Andrew Fleming West (1853-1943); Henry van Dyke ( 1852-1933); Horace Greeley (1811-1872; Office of the New York Tribune); Peter Prince of Greece and Denmark (1908-1980); George Washington Cable (1844-1925); Robert Jones Burdette (1844-1914); Elihu Vedder (1836-1923); Dwight Lyman Moody (1837-1899); Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910); George William Curtis (1824-1892); Charles Dudley Warner (1829-1900); Booker Taliaferro Washington (1856-1915); Jacob A. Riis (1849–1914) (folder 1), as well as George Kennan (writing a letter to Benjamin E. Smith, 1889); Arthur T. Hadley (1856-1930); George de Forest Brush (1855-1941); Lillian Blauvelt (1873–1947); Luigi Vannuccini (1828-1911); Francis L. Patton (1843-1932); Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924); Jacob A. Riis (1849-1914) (folder 2). Also in the autograph collection are drawings by American children’s book illustrator Peter Newell from the end of the 19th or beginning of the 20th century. The majority of these drawings are racist caricatures of Black Americans.

Finally, series X is photographs of the Atherton and Updegraff families, as well as a small collection of images of Villa San Martino in Florence, Italy, where Updegraff lived briefly with her Uncle, Dr. Charles Parke.


  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1910s-1980s
  • Creation: 1685-2020


Biographical / Historical

Melanie Atherton Updegraff was born June 11, 1886 in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania and graduated from Bryn Mawr in 1908, following her older sister Louise’s graduation in 1903. Her father, Thomas Henry Atherton, was a lawyer, and her mother, Melanie Parke Atherton, was active in community organizations such as the YWCA and the missionary society of the First Presbyterian Church of Wilkes Barre, PA. Three of Updegraff’s other sisters also attended Bryn Mawr, although one, Elizabeth Atherton Hewitt, class of 1914, did not graduate. After graduating from Bryn Mawr, Updegraff studied art in Florence, Italy. However, she soon decided to pursue missionary work in India like her older sister, Louise, rather than the life of an artist. Updegraff left for India in 1913, where she taught English at the Esther Patton School in Kolhapur. She soon met David Benjamin Updegraff, a Presbyterian minister who had graduated from Yale in 1903 and Princeton Theological Seminary in 1906, and they married in 1914. The couple first remained in Kolhapur and then helped set up a mission station in Nipani in 1923. In 1924 they moved to Nipani, where they remained until their retirement in 1947, after which they returned to the United States and settled in Ardmore, Pennsylvania. David Updegraff died in 1953, and Melanie Updegraff passed twenty years later in 1973.Updegraff did not have an official job at the mission, but she hosted a women’s group in her bungalow and wrote articles for the publication "Western India Notes." The Updegraffs had five children, three of them were girls, Melanie Parke who went to Oberlin College, Ann Taylor, and Elizabeth Atherton, who both attended Bryn Mawr. They also had two boys, Richard, who went to Oberlin and the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, and David Dirick who died in infancy.


4 linear ft. (4 boxes and 10 folders)

Language of Materials



Melanie Atherton Updegraff (1886-1973) was a 1908 graduate of Bryn Mawr who went on to do missionary work for the Presbyterian Mission Board alongside her husband, Reverend David Benjamin Updegraff. The two were primarily stationed in Kolhapur and later Nipani, in West India. The collection includes correspondence between Updegraff and her sisters, children, and sister-in-law, among other family members, photographs of the Atherton and Updegraff families, an autograph collection, and brochures, pamphlets, and official documentation pertaining to Updegraff’s missionary work. Updegraff’s four sisters and three daughters all went to Bryn Mawr, and we hear about entrance exams, musical productions, and other campus activities in their letters.

Elinor Berger
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

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Most of the materials in this catalog are not digitized and can only be accessed in person. Please see our website for more information about visiting or requesting repoductions from Bryn Mawr College Library

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