Natural History Magazine: Photographs by Marjorie Gowie

Authored by Rachel Sferlazza

Amityville Public Library

Photo-journalistic essay by Marjorie Gowie inside

For my Academic Service Learning Project, I processed a previously untouched collection. This collection was kept in a box labeled, “African Handicrafts Collection,” which contained artifacts from South Africa, made by the Xhosa tribe. Included along with these items were a series of photographs taken by Marjorie Gowie, along with a copy of the Natural History magazine some of those photographs appeared in. The magazine, which is still currently published, contains six of the twelve photographs donated to Amityville Public Library. When I arrived at the Library, this collection had never been processed. Almost nothing was known about this collection, though the name “MARJORIE GOWIE” was stamped in capitals on the back of each photograph. The American Museum of Natural History’s Division of Anthropology has a similar collection of Xhosa artifacts, but its descriptions are also vague, in favor of photographic documentation (AMNH). My research would reveal that Gowie was a South-African-born photographer, who lived in Manhattan (, n.d.).

Accompanying the photographs, though, was a hard copy of Natural History, from February 1957. When I looked inside the magazine, I saw half of the photographs in front of me reprinted there. A few more were in the magazine, but we did not have those. There were a few handwritten notes by Gowie included in the collection, however their text was general. This magazine provided more descriptive material on the photographs in the collection, and the types of artifacts used in traditional Xhosa daily life. Using captions from the magazine, I was able to determine the purpose of other items in the collection. For example, “Married women smoke long handmade wooden pipes; the men use short ones” (Gowie, 1957, p. 86). Among the physical artifacts from the collection, there was one such long pipe, made of iron.

Most of my research was focused on determining the identity of Gowie, and how she came to the United States. I spent a good amount of time determining what the 3-D objects were; my goal was to treat the artifacts with the utmost respect, and not mislabel them. Mislabeling them would not be true to the Vincentian mission, which gives a voice to the underrepresented, and treats all with respect (St. John’s University, 2008). For example, the coat shown on the cover of Natural History is most likely an isikhakha or umbhaco, but I would not definitively say either without more corroboration (Afropedea, n.d.). However, the fact that I was able to do research and create a finding aid/inventory list is a testament to the power of a social justice-minded, conscientious student.


“1940 United States Federal Census.” Accessed February 20, 2015. (2011). U.S. City Directories, 1821-1989 [database on-line]. Retrieved February 20, 2015, from

American Museum of Natural History, Division of Anthropology. “Xhosa Artifacts.” American Museum of Natural History. Accessed March 23, 2015.

Afropedia. “Xhosa Clothing.” Afropedia. Accessed February 21, 2015.

Gowie, Marjorie. “The Red People.” Natural History, February 1, 1957, 84-87.

Gowie, Marjorie. “The Red People.” Natural History, February 1, 1957. Accessed

South African History Online. “Xhosa.” South African History Online.

Sferlazza, Rachel. “Finding Aid.” In Creating a Community Exhibition: Xosa Handicrafts and Traditional Fashion from South Africa. 2015.

St. John’s University Board of Trustees. “Our Mission.” St. John’s University. March 13, 2008.

U.S.Social Security Death Index, 1935-2014.” Accessed,