National Anthropological Archives

Guide to the Otis Tufton Mason papers, 1862, 1881-1905

Collection ID:
Mason, Otis Tufton, 1838-1908
Physical Description:
4.3 Linear feet
Otis T. Mason served as the first full-time Curator of Ethnology at the United States National Museum (USNM) from 1884 to 1902, as the Acting Head Curator of the Department of Anthropology of the USNM from 1902 to 1905, and as the Head Curator of the Department of Anthropology of the USNM from 1905 until his death in 1908. The majority of the material in this collection pertains to the organization and cataloguing of the ethnology collections of the USNM conducted by Mason in the late 1870s and early 1880s.

Scope and Contents
Scope and Contents
In the late 1870s and early 1880s, Mason was largely occupied with organizing and cataloguing the United States National Museum ethnology collections and with installing them in the new building which was opened in 1881. Much of this collection pertains to these USNM specimens. The largest section of the Mason material relates to the basketry collection and includes slipnote catalogues which were sometimes annotated and/or accompanied by photographs. The letters and notes found with the catalogues contain information similar in nature to accession papers on at least six accessions of basketry, including a "Catalog of the Hudson of Indian Products, 1899," and material on the Fred Harvey Collection. Also present are handwritten and typescript notes; extracts from various early sources; letters from dealers, collectors, and anthropologists; clippings; articles and illustrations, and photographs relating to the basket collection and to mortuary customs. The original arrangement of this material into topical series and the arrangement of Mason's notebooks by topic and type of object reflect the topological approach to specimens that characterized Mason's work in this period. The final two series include two books by Mason and honorary diplomas and certificates awarded to him.
It is difficult to determine exactly the dates of most of the material in the Otis T. Mason papers. Only a small percentage of the collection is dated correspondence, the bulk consisting of notes, articles, catalogues, clippings, and illustrations related to the United States National Museum basketry and knife collections and to the topics of "Modes of Travel and Transportation" and "Mortuary Customs." From their content, much of this material seems to date to the late 1870s and 1880s, when Mason was working on these collections. As far as actual dated material goes, Mason's own articles (not counting his collection of articles by other authors) and dated notes and letters cover 1884-1904. The certificates and diplomas date to 1862 and 1881-1905.

This collection is arranged in 6 series: (1) Material Relating to the United States National Museum Basketry Collection, circa 1896-1904; (2) Material Relating to Modes of Travel and Transportation, circa 1884-1900; (3) Material Relating to the Knife Collection at the United States National Museum, undated; (4) Information Relating to Mortuary Customs, undated; (5) Bound Volumes, undated; (6) Diplomas and Certificates, 1862, 1881-1905

Biographical / Historical
Biographical / Historical
Mason began his professional career at his alma mater, Columbian University (now George Washington University), where he spent the middle third of his life (1861-1884) as a teacher and principal of the preparatory department. In 1872, Joseph Henry redirected Mason's interest from Eastern Mediterranean studies to American ethnology and introduced Mason to what was to become a 36-year career at the United States National Museum. For the first twelve years, 1872-1884, Mason worked as one of S. F. Baird's unpaid part-time "resident collaborators." His work in this period included preparing the tribal synonymy which later became Hodge's Handbook, preparing exhibit schemes for the 1876 Centennial Exposition, arranging and cataloguing the United States National Museum ethnological collections, and editing the anthropology sections of American Naturalist (1876-1887) and three other serials in ethnology. In 1884, Mason left Columbian University, where he had worked his way up to "Professor of Anthropology," to become the Smithsonian's first full-time curator of Ethnology. In 1902, he became acting head curator and, in 1905, permanent head curator of the Department of Anthropology, serving as curator of the department until his death in 1908.
Sources Consulted
Cattell, J. McKeen, ed. "The Progess of Science: Otis T. Mason,"
The Popular Science Monthly
74 (Jan 1909): 96-100.
The Evening Star Newspaper Company. "Otis T. Mason Dead."
The Evening Star
, November 5, 1908.
Hough, Walter. "Otis Tufton Mason,"
American Anthropologist
10, no. 4 (October-December 1908): 661-667.
Hough, Walter. "Mason, Otis T.," In
Dictionary of American Biography
, vol. 12, edited by the American Council of Learned Societies, 370-372. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1933.
Hrdlička, Aleš. "Otis Tufton Mason," Science 28, no. 726 (November 27, 1908): 746-748.
White, James Terry, ed.
The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography
. New York: J. T. White and company, 1900.
Who's Who in America
, vol. 5. Chicago, Marquis Who's Who, 1908.
Born in Eastport, Maine, on April 10; childhood in Philadelphia and then in Haddonfield, New Jersey
Mason family moved to Woodlawn, Virginia
Student at Columbian University (now George Washington University) specializing in the culture/history of the peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean
Received A.B. degree from Columbian University
Principal and teacher of the Preparatory Department of Columbian University
Married Sarah E. Henderson
Collaborator in Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution
With J. M. Toner and G. Mallery, founded the Anthropological Society of Washington and wrote its constitution
Received Ph.D. from Columbian University
Collaborator with the Bureau of American Ethnology
The United States National Museum building opened
Curator of Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution
Served on the U.S. Board of Geographic Names
President of the Anthropological Society of Washington
Received LL.D. from Columbian University
Acting head curator, Department of Anthropology, Smithsonian Institution
Head curator, Department of Anthropology, Smithsonian Institution
Died in Washington, D.C., on November 5

Leigh H. Coen
Processing Information
The final two series were found in the NAA and added to the collection in 2020.
Processed by Leigh H. Coen, 1983
Encoded by Katherine Christensen, December 2020
Immediate Source of Acquisition
The majority of the Otis Tufton Mason papers were transferred to the National Anthropological Archives from the Department of Anthropology in 1965. Some of the materials were found in the NAA's collection.
Separated Materials
Material originally found with the Otis Mason collection that was, from its nature and arrangement, determined to belong to the Manuscript and Pamphlet file of the Department of Anthropology records, has been moved to that collection. This material consists of numerous articles, notes, and manuscripts, including 14 manuscripts by Thomas Wilson of the Division of Prehistoric Anthropology, correspondence between W. H. Holmes and Zelia Nuttall, and correspondence between A. F. White and Thomas Wilson. All are listed under "Thomas Wilson" in the guide to the Manuscript and Pamphlet file (Box 84).
Papers, consisting of administrative files and correspondence, which were originally found with the Otis Mason collection but clearly belonged to the Department of Anthropology's own administrative files were moved to that collection in the NAA. Correspondents included in the eleven letterpress books moved to the Department of Anthropolgy records are W. H. Holmes, Ales Hrdlicka, Walter Hough, and E. H. Hawley. These papers relate almost entirely to administrative matters directed by Mason and very little to Mason's own ethnological and anthropological research.

Using the Collection
Conditions Governing Use
Contact the repository for terms of use.
Conditions Governing Access
The Otis Tufton Mason papers are open for research.
Access to the Otis Tufton Mason papers requires an appointment.
Preferred Citation
Otis Tufton Mason papers, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution

Related Materials
Material related to the Otis T. Mason collection can also be found in the Bureau of American Ethnology records and the Department of Anthropology records, including the Division of Ethnology Manuscript and Pamphlet file. The following materials in the National Anthropological Archives series of Numbered Manuscripts are also pertinent:
A.S.W./Anthrop., Hist. of, 4821 (pt.): Box 4. "Anthropology in the District of Columbia..." (39 pages, dated 1906) and two letters pertaining to it.
Anthrop., Hist. of, 49033: "Diary of Otis T. Mason.." from 1 July 1884 to 23 May 1891 (approximately 100 pages).
Arch., U.S., 2431: notes, sketches, and letters used in Smithsonian Annual Reports for 1876-1879 and 1881-1883.
Athapaskan, 173 and Tinne (Kutchin), 169: translation and notes from works of Petitot (total of 68 pages).
Choctaw, 666: revision of Byington's grammar of Choctaw (ca. 1872).
Census, 4289: report on Indian education for the 10th census.
Africa, Morocco, 7083: Choctaw, 4056; Fewkes 4408 (5-a); Mohaven 7036; and Pamunkey, 2218: various letters to Mason containing ethnographic or linguistic information (dated from 1891 to 1893).
In the United States National Museum Manuscript and Pamphlet File, Boxes 4, 14, 20, 35-40, and 70, is material on the topics represented in the Mason papers as well as other material produced by Mason.
The Smithsonian Institution Archives has a small series of copies of letters which Mason wrote to the Smithsonian in 1889 while on a trip in Europe to study museum practices (SIA 7086).

More Information
Selected Bibliography
Selected Bibliography
1893. "The human beast of burden."
United States National Museum Annual report for 1887
, 237-295. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1893.
The origins of invention: a study of industry among primitive peoples
. London: W. Scott, ltd., 1895.
Migration and the food quest, a study in the peopling of America
. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1896.
1899. "The man's knife among the North American Indians: a study in the collections of the U.S. National Museum."
Report of the U. S. National Museum for 1897
, 725-745. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1899.
Indian basketry; studies in a textile art without machinery
. New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1904.

Keywords table of terms and types.
Keyword Terms Keyword Types
Basketwork Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Knives Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Mortuary customs Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Transportation Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
National Museum of Natural History (U.S.). Department of Anthropology Corporate Name Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
United States National Museum Corporate Name Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid

Repository Contact
National Anthropological Archives
Museum Support Center
4210 Silver Hill Road
Suitland, Maryland 20746