The Watson Lewis Papers
The Watson Lewis papers offer insight into a turbulent time in North Russia following the Russian Revolution and the end of World War I. From letters, dispatches, and other documents in the collection, researchers can find a first-hand view of Russia and China in the aftermath of the Revolution, the political climate of Russia, the presence of the YMCA in Asia, American perceptions of foreign cultures and customs, and a bit of American politics. This exhibit explores a few of the highlights of this fascinating set of materials.
About Watson Lewis
Watson Lewis was born in Brackney, Pennsylvania, on August 3, 1882. He married Mildred Goss in 1910, and in September 1918, as World War I was drawing to a close, he decided to sign a two-year contract to become a Secretary with the International Committee of the YMCA. In this position, he would be stationed in different parts of the world in order to promote the American Y’s missions and services abroad.
Throughout his travels, Lewis absorbed the cultural and political climate surrounding him. He provides us with a firsthand account of the political transition in Russia after the 1917 Revolution and World War I, including fear and rumors, an attack by Japanese military forces, and the privations of the poor. Lewis sees what most media outlets did not report, and he shares these observations with his wife, often with the warning not to share the information with others.
If I come home I will publish the facts but as I want to go back to Russia I am saying nothing and writing less. However the truth is out and in the proper hands and you will soon see the statements made here confirmed.– letter to Mildred Lewis, September 24, 1919
He also wrote letters from his next station in Harbin, in northeastern China. While conditions were somewhat more settled around Harbin, they began to deteriorate in the months he worked there. Lewis returned to the United States permanently in 1921.
In addition to his letters and photographs, souvenirs and other parts of the Watson Lewis collection give us a glimpse of how people traveled during this era. Dispatches from the YMCA head office and other branches in Asia provide us with more context for this interesting perspective on the post-war world.
Please note: some letters include language we today may find offensive and stereotypes of people of color and non-Americans.