Tuesday, July 29, 2014

My Weekend with Frances Perkins: 160 Books and a Visit to Her Friend's House

Last Thursday, I arrived with author Kirstin Downey and her family at their country house in Betterton, Maryland.  Betterton is home to a gorgeous beach, quaint community, and Kirstin’s 160 books related to Frances Perkins.  Collectively, these books are a one-stop-shop for understanding the FDR administration, the broader New Deal Era, and all of Perkins’ previous experiences that prepared her to make history.  Upon arrival, I transported the books in the picture below (and more) from the shed into the house.  My task was to alphabetize, organize, and log them, as well as determine which ones should move permanently to Mount Holyoke.  

Friday was an adventure – Kirstin and I drove through Virginia, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania to obtain original Perkins letters from Trenton, New Jersey.  Elizabeth Middleton Maddock was the best friend of Frances Perkins at Mount Holyoke.  Although some of Perkins’ peers viewed her as too liberal politically, Elizabeth Middleton Maddock consistently supported her best friend.  She saved the letters that they exchanged and kept a scrapbook of Perkins’ achievements.  On Friday in Trenton, Maddock’s grandson gave a box of these items to Kirstin and me to give to Mount Holyoke.  The pictures below depict the family compound of the Maddocks, where Secretary Perkins visited.  Furthermore, Kirstin and I speculate that this was the house where Perkins’ husband Paul Wilson attempted to recover from bipolar disorder.

From Friday night through Sunday morning, I continued working with the 160 books.  Organizing books is a fantastic way to discover what has been written.  For example, I was previously unaware that Winston Churchill compiled a massive memoir.  Eleanor Roosevelt also wrote one.  I do not understand why these invaluable pieces of history are no longer in print, but they are characteristic of Kirstin’s extensive Perkins-related collection.  Maybe the most unique book is Be Ye Steadfast by Winnifred Wandersee, which is the bound copy of the unfinished manuscript by a young professor who died of cancer before she could complete her work on Frances Perkins.  Wandersee’s family bound only a few copies, so Mount Holyoke is fortunate to receive one.  Two pictures below depict how the collection appeared after I alphabetized and organized – they will look even better at Mount Holyoke!

On Monday, Kirstin and I opened the box from the Maddocks; below are pictures of some hand-written letters from Perkins.  The letters and scrapbook illuminate Perkins’ time at Mount Holyoke and career path, as well as her valiant efforts to aid refugees from Nazi Germany.  I am beyond excited to explore the contents of the box; my next blog post will be about what I learn from this material!

Rebecca Brenner
Mount Holyoke ’15
Intern in Alexandria, VA, for Frances Perkins Center and Mount Holyoke Archives & Special Collections 

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