Photograph ca. 1909-1910.
Margaret Mead was born in
Philadelphia on December 16, 1901, and grew up in a household
that included three generations. She was the first of five
children born to Edward Sherwood Mead and Emily Fogg Mead,
social scientists who had met while attending the University
of Chicago. Margaret's early home life, with emphases on
education and social issues, exerted a pronounced influence
on her later life and career. She was a child of the Progressive
Era, when reformers felt that social problems could be solved
by the application of the social sciences. Growing up with
a mother who was a well-educated social reformer and a father
who was an economist, Margaret had a lifelong Progressivist
orientation. In later years, she was criticized for encouraging
traditional cultures to adopt Western ways in the name of
As an anthropologist, the
adult Margaret Mead sought to apply the principles of anthropology
and the social sciences to social problems and issues, such
as world hunger, childhood education, and mental health.
She was constantly observing and gathering information in
all kinds of settings. A public figure for much of her adult
life, Mead sought the spotlight and sometimes found herself
at the center of controversy.
"The Original Punk"
Mead recalls in her autobiography that her father's affectionate
nickname for her as a small child was "Punk." When her brother,
Richard, was born a little more than two years later, her
father called him "the boy-punk," while she became known
as "the original punk." This was, Mead wrote, "a reversal
of the usual pattern, according to which the girl is only
a female version of the true human being, the boy."
Margaret Mead as an infant,
Gelatin silver print.
Emily Fogg Mead.
at 6 Years,"
ca. January 1908.
Margaret Mead at Age 6
When Emily Fogg Mead (1871-1950), Margaret's mother, learned
that she was pregnant with her first child, she began keeping
a diary of her state of mind and daily experiences, believing
these factors would affect her baby's development. She continued
the note-taking after Margaret's birth, filling thirteen
notebooks with observations on minute details of Margaret's
behavior and development. This page from one of Emily's
surviving notebooks details Margaret's "Characteristics
at 6 Years."
TRANSCRIPTION of "Characteristics
at 6 Years":
2.) wishes to be helpful
3.) Fond of Richard but selfish to him (when he went up
for operation and did not come back, wept and was inconsolable)
4.) continually asking questions. What is that? What does
that word mean?
5.) always busy at something
6.) very bright + original
8.) expresses herself very well
9.) tantrums consist of much impertinent talking or (when
Mother waving hands) stamping feet, etc.
10.) great determination + perseverance when wants anything
11.) not orderly but willing to pick up
12.) Fond of out door life
13.) Social - anxious for companionship, but plays well
14.) Some sense of humor
15.) Soon repentant
16.) Likes to get best of people.
17.) Makes rhymes
"It will dry up but I don't care
Have to do it before I swear."
Speculated at [?] Only a [joke?]
18.) Remembers friends [examples illegible]
19.) Great interest in facts - [animals?], digestion.
How are people made?
20.) Loved Katharine
Says Richard does not understand
Inclined to accept things
21.) Does not like to be blamed or scolded.
Martha Ramsay Mead.
Notes on Margaret Mead's early
childhood learning, "Margaret,"
possibly ca. 1905.
Margaret's First Teacher
One of the most important people in Margaret's early life
was her paternal grandmother, Martha Adaline Ramsay Mead
(1845-1927) . A widowed schoolteacher, Martha lived with
her only son's family and was responsible for much of the
children's education. Martha believed it harmful for children
to be indoors for long periods of time, so young Margaret
and her siblings also spent time learning outdoors, absorbing
practical lessons in natural history and botany. Here Martha
records Margaret's progress.
PARTIAL TRANSCRIPTION OF PAGE:
Sept. 29. "Margaret made figures
with corn and then drew them on paper."
Oct. 23. "We found a robin's nest in the grape arbor.
There were pieces of the frail shells showing the Robin's
egg blue'. I asked M. the color. She said green',
which is almost correct."
Oct. 23. "She is continually drawing from her store
of Literature, and adapting it."
of her sister Elizabeth's
probably ca. 1911-1912.
An Early Observer
Margaret had four siblings--one brother, born two years
after Margaret, and three younger sisters. Katharine died
in 1907 at the age of nine months, a traumatic event for
Margaret, who had named her. Elizabeth and Priscilla Mead
were born in 1909 and 1911, respectively. Margaret's
grandmother assigned her to take notes on her sisters' behavior
while they were still babies, encouraging Margaret to see
emerging differences in temperament between the two girls.
Mead recalled: "I learned to make these notes with love,
carrying on what Mother had begun."
"Tracing old patterns was something I began to do very
early, as I noted family resemblances -- who in the next generation
had the eyes or the nose or the curling hair or the sharp wit
of some member of the generation before."
--Margaret Mead, Blackberry Winter: My Earlier
Recording "My Every Day Life"
Margaret Mead started several journals as a child but did
not keep a diary consistently. This is a diary she began
in the summer of 1911, while vacationing on the island of
Nantucket, Massachusetts, with her family. The diary contains
numerous misspellings. Her grandmother, who was her primary
teacher, did not emphasize spelling. Consequently, Mead
was an inattentive speller throughout her life, relying
on others to edit her writing. Their family name was originally
"Meade," and Margaret still spelled her name that
way in some childhood writings.
The accompanying photograph shows Margaret, aged 9 and
her brother, Richard, aged 7, on the beach that same summer.
begun July 11, 1911.
Margaret and Richard
Mead on the beach,
Gelatin silver print.
Self-portrait completed around
the age of thirteen,
Pastel on paper.
Self-Portrait at Age 13
Despite her family's academic background, young Margaret's
formal schooling consisted of two years of kindergarten,
a year of half-days in the fourth grade, and six years of
high school. When not attending school, she and her siblings
were taught at home by their grandmother. Since their mother
believed that children should learn skills and crafts, the
children were also taught such things as music, carving,
basketry, drawing, and painting by local artisans in the
various places they lived.
Born into a family of educators
and home-schooled by her grandmother for much of her childhood,
Margaret learned early to be a keen observer of the world around
her. She was treated as a unique individual within her family,
rather than as just a child, and this inspired confidence and
curiosity in the young Margaret. She learned from being studied
by her mother and grandmother that to be observed was, as she
recalled late in her life, "an act of love." In turn,
Margaret was encouraged to observe the development of her younger
Margaret's father was a professor
at the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce at the University
of Pennsylvania, while her mother pursued graduate work in sociology.
As Mead herself said, they were "like a family of refugees,"
moving often to accommodate her parents' academic careers. Margaret
had to adjust to frequent changes in surroundings and people from
a young age. She learned that it was necessary to write things
down, keeping track of such things as neighbors' names and addresses
and the medical histories of herself and her siblings. In addition,
she learned to respect books and the acquisition of facts. Due
to her unconventional upbringing, Margaret also acquired a variety
of manual skills, such as typing and woodworking, at a young age.
Gelatin silver print.
Margaret Mead and Luther Cressman
In June of 1917, Margaret Mead met Luther Sheeleigh Cressman
(1897-1994), the younger brother of one of her teachers
at Doylestown High School. She and Luther became secretly
engaged on New Year's Eve 1917. After a lengthy engagement,
they married on September 3, 1923. At the time, Cressman
was an Episcopalian priest doing graduate work in sociology.
He ultimately left the priesthood and became a prominent
archaeologist of the American Pacific Northwest. Cressman
and Mead divorced in 1928.
Choosing a Career
After a largely disappointing year at DePauw University in Indiana,
Mead transferred to the all-women's Barnard College in New York
City in 1920. Mead began as an English major but decided to study
psychology instead. After taking classes in anthropology with
Franz Boas (1858-1942), often considered the "father of modern
American anthropology," and his teaching assistant, Ruth Benedict
(1887-1948), she decided to become an anthropologist. Mead was
impressed by Boas's brilliance and taken by the urgency of the
task Boas and Benedict set out for her--to document cultures before
they disappeared in the face of contact with the modern world.
Benedict, who began as Mead's mentor, would become a longtime
colleague, intimate friend, and confidante.
Anthropology involves the
study of human culture, the socially shared
and learned system of beliefs, values, customs, language,
and material goods necessary for people to function as members
of a particular social group. Twentieth-century American
anthropology is distinguished by the four-field
approach. These four fields are archaeology,
the exploration of past human cultures through their material
remains; linguistics, the study
of language; physical anthropology,
the study of human biology and evolution; and, cultural
anthropology, the study of the customs and traditions of
human social groups. The descriptive accounts of cultures
written by anthropologists are called ethnography.
Franz Boas, Founder of Modern Anthropology
Franz Boas (1858-1942), the German-born "father of modern
American anthropology" and Mead's mentor, challenged the
prevailing nineteenth-century race-based, evolutionary approach
to culture, which considered white Western industrialized
societies the pinnacle of human progress. Boas separated
race from cultural factors in his theories and laid the
groundwork for cultural relativism, which requires that
a culture be understood on its own terms, without a hierarchy
ranking some cultures as better or more advanced than others.
Franz Boas in Ruth Benedict's
living room, undated.
Gelatin silver print.
Letter to Martha Ramsey Mead,
March 11, 1923.
"Our cup is broken"
In this letter to her grandmother, Mead reveals her emerging
passion for anthropology and hints at Ruth Benedict's growing
importance in her life. Benedict sought to popularize the
ideas of anthropology, a path Mead would also follow. Both
shared an interest in explaining each culture through an
essential pattern. In this letter, Mead quoted from a Benedict
essay in which one of the author's Native American informants
says, "In the beginning there was given to every people
a cup of clay. And from this cup they drank their life.
Our cup is broken." Mead found the cup of clay metaphor
"a quaint and poetic way of characterizing the whole culture
of the Indians, or any other people for that matter."
Ruth Fulton Benedict, Colleague and Friend
Ruth Benedict (1887-1948), Boas's teaching assistant, convinced
Mead to focus on anthropology, saying: "Professor Boas and
I have nothing to offer but an opportunity to do work that
matters." Mead was attracted by the urgency of documenting
vanishing cultures (a practice referred to as "salvage anthropology").
Mead and Benedict soon became colleagues and developed an
intimate and enduring friendship. They exchanged ideas and
read all of each other's writings until Benedict's death
Ruth Benedict at Lake Winnipesaukee,
probably ca. 1920s.
Gelatin silver print.
Anthropology seminar notes,
March 19, 1924.
Boas Seminar Notes
Franz Boas was a very demanding professor but had become
a more paternal figure to his students by the 1920s. This
generation of his students, mostly women, referred to him
as "Papa Franz." Mead took these notes during a seminar
with Boas in the spring of 1924. Mead has recorded an exchange
of ideas between Boas ("F.B.") and Benedict ("R.F.B.") on
the interrelation of social organization and relationship
systems in culture.
TRANSCRIPTION OF PORTION OF NOTES:
F.B. One rather fundamental quest[ion]
on How do you think soc[ial] org[anizatio]n. as it may dev[elop]
in a given tribe is determining of relationship. This is
important because of the interpretation that has been made
on this basis.
R.F.B. Certainly striking connection
between clan + [gender?] + [terms?] [of? Plains? and Cal?].
But they have gone without social organization.
F.B. P[oin]t is can soc[ial] org[anizatio]n
change without adapting relationship system.
R.F.B. Tribes occur with different [?]
1 + 2, and yet no different social org[anizatio]ns.
F.B. Bella Bella -
(I) Had patrilineal descent, but whole system of relationship
terms is bilateral like ours. Absolute incongruity between
soc[ial] [custom?] and terminology.
I'm inclined that the interrelation
bet[ween] soc[ial] org[anizatio]n + relationship system
has been very much overdone.
Poets and Anthropologists
While Mead was best-known as an anthropologist, poetry
was her earliest published work. Mead, Benedict, and their
colleague Edward Sapir (1884-1939), a famous linguist, all
shared a love of poetry, reading and critiquing each others'
verse. Sapir found Mead's poem "Traveler's Faith" to be
"delicate" and advised her to "cultivate that very
charming simplicity you have latent in you. Your verse will
be your own."
in Song of Five Springs.
Hand-bound volume, probably
compiled for Ruth Benedict, ca. 1927.
An Inquiry into the Question of
Cultural Stability in Polynesia.
New York: Columbia
University Press, 1928.
Table of Contents
- Page 2
Mead's Ph.D. Dissertation
This is the published form of Margaret Mead's doctoral
dissertation, a study of relative stability in certain elements
of culture. It focuses on canoe building, house building,
and tattooing in five Polynesian cultures, including Samoa.
Mead completed the basic study in 1925, before going to
Samoa, then revised it upon her return from the field. It
was for this work that Mead received her Ph.D. in 1929.