In celebration of Women Inventors Month and Women’s History Month, the National Archives commemorates the extraordinary women who have made great contributions throughout American history. Today’s post comes from Dena Lombardo, an intern in the Office of Public and Media Communications.
In 1917, American sculptor Anna Coleman Ladd moved from the United States to France with her husband where she was introduced to Francis Derwent Wood, a face mask creator who operated a “Tin Noses Shop.” Wood inspired Ladd to create her own “Studio for Portrait-Masks.”
During World War I, weapons such as machine guns and heavy artillery had a devastating effect on the human body. With new medical breakthroughs soldiers survived horrifying injuries but their facial features might be torn away, leaving them without noses, eyes, or part of their jaws. Surgery could not fix every injury, and so the soldiers turned to portrait masks.
Ladd was married to a doctor, and after reading an article about the work of artist Francis Derwent Wood in helping disfigured soldiers in London, she used her husband’s connections to meet with American Red Cross. She persuaded them that she could do the same and they helped her open her studio in Paris in 1918.
Ladd’s work changed the lives of many injured veterans. Adjusting back to life after war was already extremely difficult; physically, these soldiers faced hardships. They also feared the stares and judgment due to their injuries.
The masks were made of copper and silver and painted while the patient was wearing it to match the color of his face precisely. These masks mimicked what an average face, uninjured, would look like. The soldiers who wore them looked as if they had not sustained great injuries. The Red Cross described Ladd’s achievements as “miracles.”
Ladd worked to return the soldiers to a physically whole state, creating masks that even had mustaches on them. The masks were held in place by the glasses that were attached to them, but if a soldier didn’t want glasses, Ladd used thin wire or ribbon to keep it in place.
Ladd and her assistants created a welcoming environment for the soldiers to help raise their spirits. Her studio was filled with flowers, the casts of masks in progress, and American flags.
Ladd worked with many soldiers to ensure that they could adjust back to civilian life. By the end of 1919 she had created 185 masks. She donated her services to create these masks, and each soldier purchased the mask for just $18. But when the war ended, the Red Cross could no longer fund her studio and it closed.
Ladd went back to the United States, where she continued her career as an artist. She died in 1939 at age 60 in Santa Barbara, California.
For National Women’s Inventor’s Month we have a special document display in the East Rotunda Gallery of the National Archives in Washington, DC, until March 18, 2020.