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Rathbun Family Papers

Identifier: MS 00020

  • Staff Only
  • No requestable containers

Scope and Contents

The collection consists mostly of love letters between Ella-May Abbott of New Orleans, Louisiana and Walter James Rathbun who is based in ship ports in the United States, Europe, Nicaragua and the Panama Canal Zone.  Letters from Walter Rathbun’s Mother, Mrs. J. Baird of Floral Park, New Jersey and other family members are included.

Ella-May and Walter begin a correspondence courtship in 1916, then breakup in 1919. They begin writing to each other again in 1926 and finally marry in 1930, after Walter was able to obtain a divorce from his wife in Brazil.

In their almost daily letters, Ella writes about her day's activities and Walter writes about his ship duties and his experiences while in port. His World War II letters from the Panama Canal Zone are marked by a censor and have few details about his work but contain many comments about the culture among the Navy families, particularly the wives. A running thread through the years is the inability of Charles Rathbun, Walter's brother, to hold a job.

Walter has many titles while working on ships including 2nd Officer and Captain.  In World War II he is a Lt. Commander in the United States Naval Reserves stationed in the Canal Zone.  Ella-May is a window designer for a large department store in New Orleans, but gives up her job when the couple gets married and moves to New Jersey.  They later move to Pasadena, California where Ella-May's mother and sisters live.


  • Creation: 1916-1942


Language of Materials


Conditions Governing Access:

Collection is open to all researchers. Manuscript collections and archival records may contain materials with sensitive or confidential information that is protected under federal or state right to privacy laws and regulations, such as the Virginia Public Records Act (Code of Virginia. § 42.1-76-91); and the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (Code of Virginia § 2.2-3705.5). Confidential material may include, but is not limited to, educational, medical, and personnel records. If sensitive material is found in this collection, please contact a staff member immediately. The disclosure of personally identifiable information pertaining to a living individual may have legal consequences for which the College of William and Mary assumes no responsibility.

Conditions Governing Use:

Before reproducing or quoting from any materials, in whole or in part, permission must be obtained from the Special Collections Research Center, and the holder of the copyright, if not Swem Library.

Administrative History:

Walter James Rathburn was a ship captain on vessels associated with the navy and with shipping. He spent time in the Panama Canal Zone during World War II. His father was also associated with ships and his brother, too. Ella-May Abbot is a woman who works and enjoys her family then must adjust to marriage with a man whose time is more often on ships than at home.


3.00 Linear Feet

Arrangement of Materials:

Chronological order.

Processing Information:

Accessioned and minimally processed by Benjamin Bromley in September 2011. Fully processed by Anne Johnson in August 2015.

Guide to the Rathbun Family Papers
SCRC staff.
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note

Repository Details

Part of the Special Collections Research Center Repository