Betty Thomas Toulouse

At the laboratory of anthropology


On the occasion of the seventy-fifth anniversary of El Palacio, Betty Toulouse, then recently retired as curator of collections at the Laboratory of Anthropology, wrote an article titled “Happy Birthday El Palacio” (90 [2], July 1984). She had just finished indexing the first fifty volumes of El Pal, and in her tribute to the magazine noted how the Museum of New Mexico and El Palacio had evolved and grown together since 1913. Today, as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of El Palacio, we pay tribute not only to the magazine, but also to Betty Toulouse in long-overdue recognition of her many contributions to El Palacio, the Indian Arts Fund, the Lab, and the Museum of New Mexico.

An artist in her own right, Betty Toulouse spent years curating the Indian Arts Fund collections at the Laboratory of Anthropology in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her knowledge of the collections was encyclopedic, and she was never happier than when she was able to share that knowledge with staff or visitors. Long before it became correct curatorial practice to wear gloves when handling the pots or jewelry, Toulouse, along with the rest of the staff at the Lab, was known to stroke admiringly her favorite seed bowl, made by the famed Hopi ceramist, Nampeyo; trace the design on a special bracelet; or discuss the weaving techniques and dyes used in an unusual blanket.

Growing Up Artistic

Betty Thomas Toulouse was born March 9, 1915, in San Diego, California, the daughter of Frederick Trent Thomas, an architect, and his wife, Louisa (pronounced Lou-eye-za) Ewing, whose family had homesteaded in Farmington, New Mexico, and Durango, Colorado. Toulouse’s childhood took her to cities across the West and Southwest, and exposed her to a range of architects, designers, and artists. After San Diego, the Thomas family lived for a brief time in Albuquerque before moving to Santa Fe in early 1918, where Betty’s father worked with Rapp, Rapp and Hendrickson, known for their iconic design of the new Art Museum on the northwest corner of the plaza, and on the design and supervision of the extensive makeover of La Fonda.

Before moving to Trinidad, Colorado, later that year to continue his association with the Rapp brothers’ firm, Thomas renewed his acquaintance with artist, photographer, and designer Carlos Vierra, whom he had met at the Panama-California Exposition in 1915. Many years later, Toulouse recalled that Thomas and Vierra exchanged ideas about the Spanish-Pueblo Revival style of architecture, which resulted in the design of the Vierra house, on the corner of East Coronado Road and Old Pecos Trail in Santa Fe, now on the State Register of Cultural Properties and the National Register of Historic Places. Between 1922 and 1929, Thomas worked for Allied Architects in Los Angeles before moving back to Albuquerque.

The Thomases spent the early years of the depression in Durango before moving back to Santa Fe in 1934, where Trent Thomas worked as an architect for numerous state and federal agencies: the New Mexico Highway Department, the New Mexico State Park and Energy Conservation Commissions, the National Park Service, the Public Works Reserve, and the Kruger and Clark design firm (K. C. Kruger would go on to design the New Mexico state capitol building, known as the Roundhouse). At the same time, Thomas worked with John Gaw Meem and Truman Matthews on the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS). Thomas became an associate member of the American Institute of Architects in 1926 and a full member in 1948. He died in Santa Fe in 1951.

Betty Thomas learned about art and design in the multiple venues of her childhood. A seamstress from the age of five, when she outfitted her doll from head to toe, she briefly attended Chouinard’s Art Institute in Los Angeles, where she studied under the noted costume designer, Edith Head, herself an alumna of the school. Betty graduated from Albuquerque High School in 1932 and returned to Santa Fe, where her father, by then a registered architect in New Mexico, was busy overseeing the construction of the Don Gaspar Street Bridge.

Nineteen-year-old Betty soon landed a job as an intern at the new Laboratory of Anthropology on what is known today as Museum Hill. There she worked with Kenneth Chapman of the Indian Arts Fund Collection and Harry Mera, the first archaeologist on the staff of the Lab. In her later life, Toulouse delighted in reminiscing to younger staff at the Lab about her early years in the building, when, at 4:00, buzzers sounded, work ceased, and everyone gathered in the sherd room, now the reception area of the Archaeological Records Management Section (ARMS) for tea and a discussion of the day’s events.

At the Lab

Betty Thomas began work as an intern at the Lab in the summer of 1934. Nominally a museum assistant, she was primarily the Lab’s tour guide. “The visitors . . . came in buses, courier limousines and private automobiles,” she said. “The American Express Company sponsored tours at least once a week, and sometimes more often during the travel season. Large buses, two or three, filled to capacity, would drive up front of the Laboratory [where Milner Plaza is now] and in mere minutes the building would be inundated with people, seemingly in all directions. Talking to visitors was usually done to the accompaniment of small chatter between members of the group—until we went down the stairs into the pottery rooms [the former collection rooms are used for storage]. As each person saw that large room filled with richly decorated Indian pottery, there was an intake of breath, a low sound of amazement and then complete silence. Finally questions began to come and always among the first were, ‘How much are they worth?’ or ‘How many are there?’ and occasionally, ‘How do you know where to find them?’”

Throughout her career, Toulouse loved working and corresponding with visitors, whether they were tourists, professional archaeologists and anthropologists in town to work on their own research projects, collectors, or dealers. Many asked her, “What can you tell me about this piece?” She was especially fond of working with groups of Pueblo potters, who would come in to discuss and handle old pieces made by their mothers, grandmothers, or other relatives, long deceased. Occasionally there would be a lengthy discussion in Tewa, Keres, or Tiwa, along with giggles or gales of laughter when someone told a funny story about a certain potter. Whenever Toulouse asked how the visiting potters determined exactly who had made a special bowl or olla, she was invariably told that they “just knew.”

Her internship completed, she joined the staff at the Lab and was asked by Dr. Mera and Stanley Stubbs to catalogue the Indian Arts Collection. The goal of the Indian Arts Fund, founding in 1922 as the Pueblo Pottery Fund, was twofold: “to save Indian Art for the Indians, and to preserve a complete historical record of the varied Indian Arts of the Southwest.” According to Toulouse’s history of the Lab, Harry Mera had been in charge of the Indian Arts Fund materials since the fund’s founding but because of his other duties had never had a chance to catalogue the many items in the collection. Instead, Mera wrote the accession information on a slip of paper, which he then saved in a shoe box. Thus began Toulouse’s love affair with modern Southwestern material culture. She measured and described each piece in the collection, leading over time to her voluminous knowledge of it.

Marriage and the War Years

Joseph Toulouse, the archaeologist who excavated much of the seventeenth-century Spanish mission at Abo, New Mexico, came to Santa Fe to confer with Harry Mera or Kenneth Chapman at the Lab. It is likely that he and Betty met at that time. They were married in 1939 and moved to Abo and Mountainair, where Joe wrote up the results of his excavations and Betty illustrated his paper. After the start of World War II, Joe accepted a position as a security officer with the Atomic Energy Commission, and the small family, which by then included their daughter Patricia, moved to Los Alamos, the “Secret City on the Hill,” where a son, Joseph Jr., was born and they remained until after the war.

Even though the Laboratory of Anthropology had managed to eke out an existence through the Great Depression, and just barely managed to hold on through World War II, after Harry Mera retired in 1946, staffing was at an all-time low, and the publications program had come to an end. Edgar Lee Hewett died on December 31, 1946, and in 1947 the Lab became part of the Museum of New Mexico. With the merger of the Lab and Museum, the ownership of the Indian Arts Fund collection was retained by the School of American Archaeology even though it continued to be housed at the Lab.

At the Museum of NewMexico

Betty returned to Santa Fe with her children in the mid-1950s and became curator of the Indian Arts Fund collections, which were still housed at the Lab. However, in 1959 the legislature passed SB 147, which ended the collaboration of the School and Museum and formally separated the institutions into two discrete entities. Wayne Mauzy, who had been director of the dual organization, submitted his resignation to the School to become director of the Museum, and Edward Weyer Jr. became the new director at the School. Shortly thereafter, Betty was hired by the School to inventory the collections of the Indian Arts Fund, which by then had been comingled with gifts to the Museum and stored with collections of the Laboratory of Anthropology, Inc., in the basement of the Lab. In 1972 the Indian Arts Fund dissolved its organization, and Betty was hired by the Museum to curate its collections.

Betty continued to work in the basement of the Lab until her retirement. I met her in October 1970 when I started my first job at the Lab as an assistant curator. Betty was slender, of medium height, and was always dressed in an impeccable skirt and freshly ironed blouse that she had made. By noon my first day on the job, she had shown me her favorite Nampeyo seed jar, owned by the Indian Arts Fund; a favorite ceramic model of a train engine owned by the Museum, with two cars made by a Santa Clara potter; and her favorite archaeological artifact, the Pecos cat, which had been recovered by Jesse Nusbaum during his excavations of the Pecos Mission church and convento in 1915.

Betty’s enthusiasm for her job and the collections never waned in all the time she spent in the basement. Her curiosity was unflagging. On one occasion, a visitor asked her about the most unusual weaving that I had ever seen, a circular Navajo textile with a double-sided design. Betty explained that while circular textiles were unusual, the piece was not unique, and she proceeded to describe one or two other circular specimens she had seen. As it turned out, the double-sided design wasn’t unique, either, but had been produced by attaching two different pieces at regular intervals, which produced the effect of two different designs. Betty then went on to describe another double-sided textile she had seen, where a talented weaver had used a double warp to weave a different design on each side of the piece. In another instance of Betty’s meticulous record-keeping, just after Thanksgiving in 1971, a friend gave her an amaryllis bulb and told her that once sprouted, the leaves and stem of the plant could grow an inch or so in a day. Each morning and evening thereafter, the plant was carefully measured and the measurements recorded for discussion and comparison with future plants.

While untangling the ownership of the items in the various collections, Betty wrote From the Indian Arts Fund Collection, with photographs by Laura Gilpin (1970); and Pueblo Pottery of the New Mexico Indians (1977), both published by the Museum of New Mexico Press. In 1981 Betty completed an article in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Laboratory of Anthropology, “The Laboratory’s Early Years: 1927–1947,” followed in 1984 by her birthday article for the seventy-fifth anniversary of El Palacio.

Shortly after she officially retired, Betty started a volunteer job. Exasperated at never finding the article she wanted, when she wanted it, she took it upon herself to index the first fifty years of El Palacio. Betty spent eight years preparing the index. Long before computers were in common use, she meticulously listed each item, volume, and page number on as many 3-by-5-inch cards as required for the entry; after placing the cards in alphabetical order, she typed the index on a typewriter, using carbon paper for copies. Betty’s workroom at her house was a writer’s nightmare of hundreds upon hundreds of small boxes, each filled with individual entries. The index was completed in 1985, and although it covered only the first fifty years of El Palacio, it has been used by researchers and librarians ever since. The problem is, we’ve long needed an index to cover the years of El Palacio that have been published since Betty’s tour de force.

Betty was plagued with ill-health in the years before her death in 1991. Still, on days when she felt up to it, she walked from the family house on Cordova Road to the shopping center several blocks to the west or to admire the roses in Harvey Cornell Park. I can’t help thinking that after grousing about those newfangled computers that were becoming common in the years before her death, Betty would have been intrigued and then delighted with the digitized version of El Palacio, now available online. So, on behalf of Betty Toulouse, happy birthday, El Palacio. Here’s to the next 100 years!

This paper could never have been written without the help of Patricia Toulouse, Betty and Joe Toulouse’s daughter, who answered my many questions and provided me with several albums of photographs, along with examples of Betty’s animal figures and a carved soapstone piece. I also wish to thank Allison Colborne, librarian extraordinaire at the Laboratory of Anthropology.

Cordelia (Dedie) Thomas Snow has worn many hats since she started her career as a historic-sites archaeologist at the Laboratory of Anthropology in 1970. After she left the Lab in 1977, she became a grants administrator at the Environment Department, started a consulting firm, and eventually became a part-time curator at the Palace of the Governors in 1991. Since 1996 she has worked for the Archaeological Records Management Section of the Historic Preservation Division. At ARMS she occupies the same office space that she had when she started working at the Lab in 1970.


John Conron. The Laboratory of Anthropology Historic Structures Report for the State of New Mexico. Santa Fe: Ellis Browning Architects, 1997.

Nancy Owen Lewis. A Peculiar Alchemy: A Centennial History of SAR, 1907–2007. Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research, 2007.

John Gaw Meem. Quiet Triumph: Forty Years with the Indian Arts Fund, Santa Fe. Fort Worth: Amon Carter Museum of Western Art with the cooperation of the School of American Research, Santa Fe, 1966.

Betty Toulouse. “The Laboratory’s Early Years: 1927–1947.” El Palacio 87 (3), 1981.

———. “Happy Birthday El Palacio,” El Palacio 90 (2), 1984.