About Laura Smith

Archivist

Connecticut Women’s Land Army

 

This post was written by Shaine Scarminach, a UConn History Ph.D candidate who is a student assistant in Archives & Special Collections. 

The Second World War upended domestic agriculture. Across the United States, farms faced an acute labor shortage as workers left the land for military service and industrial jobs in the defense industry. The federal government responded with a nationwide plan to put high school students, immigrants, and even convicts into agricultural service. Founded as an agricultural school in 1881, the University of Connecticut was primed to support the government’s efforts.

A notable example of UConn’s support for this plan came through the Connecticut Women’s Land Army (CWLA). The CWLA sought to train young women in agricultural work and place them on local farms in desperate need of labor. By serving in the land army, young women would receive training in modern agricultural practices and fulfill their patriotic duty by providing food for Americans at home and abroad.

The Connecticut program began in the summer of 1942 under the direction of Corinne R. Alsop. Alsop had served as a Republican in the Connecticut House of Representatives, and was a cousin and close confidant of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Alsop recruited thirteen women to take part in a two-week course taught by faculty from UConn’s Ratcliffe Hicks School of Agriculture. Training covered everything from cleaning barns and washing milk bottles to driving tractors and applying pesticides. With their training complete, seven of the women were then placed on local farms.

The initial program was deemed a success, though some revisions were in order. Judith Churchill, one of the trainees, wrote to Alsop after working on a farm in Litchfield County. Churchill described the job as “most interesting and successful.” But she felt the program would benefit from more specialized training. Alsop and the head of the program at UConn, Wilfred B. Young, agreed and changes were made as the program entered its second year.

The new program, which began in February 1943, reflected a more ambitious vision. The course would still last two weeks, but trainees would specialize in either poultry or dairy work. Also, the course would no longer be a one-time affair. Alsop and Young aimed to have about twenty students trained and placed on farms every two weeks. The expanded program was made possible with increased support from the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and other federal agencies.

In the revamped program, all costs would be paid by the FSA as long as the trainees agreed to serve on a local farm for at least three months. This new offer succeeded in attracting a range of applicants. Women of all ages and occupations, and living as far away as Virginia and Missouri, wrote to Alsop and Young for more information about the program.

Even with the diversity of applicants, most trainees were young white women in their late teens and early twenties. The majority came from within Connecticut and almost all admitted to having little to no experience with farm work.

The rare exception was a Chinese exchange student named King Sze Tsung, who was in the country learning to teach braille to blind children. Sze Tsung, or Jane as she was known, even received coverage in the local newspaper.

When the first group of trainees arrived on the Storrs campus in February, they faced the daunting prospect of beginning their training in the middle of winter. But the school newspaper, the Connecticut Campus, reported that “despite the biting winds, freezing temperatures, and the snow covered ground,” the women were “cheerful, eager and full of spirit.”

The trainee’s day began around 5:30am. The women milked cows, fed chickens, cleaned utensils, and tried their hand at other farm tasks. Along the way they received instruction on more challenging jobs like cooling and bottling milk or grading eggs. The day ended around twelve hours later with dinner and socializing in campus facilities.

Despite the positive response from trainees, high hopes for the program were soon dashed. In particular, attendance fell well short of the initial goal. Meanwhile, the state’s labor shortage continued to hinder agricultural production. But the program received a publicity boost in March 1943 when Eleanor Roosevelt paid a surprise visit to the Storrs campus.

Accompanied by CWLA director Alsop, Roosevelt spent her time at UConn visiting with President Albert N. Jorgensen, delivering a lecture on the importance of youth involvement during the war, and taking a tour of the poultry houses, dairy barns, and dormitories used to train and house the CWLA members.

After finishing the two-week course, CWLA trainees were placed on farms around Connecticut. The women were guaranteed room and board and a salary that ranged from $45.00 to $75.00 a month.

Once on the farm, the women found themselves faced with a wide range of tasks.  They might take on work for which they had been trained or be pressed into jobs that fell well outside their instruction. For example, one trainee recounted her dismay at having to face off with a troublesome tractor engine.

Nevertheless, local farmers generally responded positively to the CWLA recruits.

In job surveys sent to Wilfred Young, farmers praised the instruction offered by UConn and commended the work done by their new employees. Some even planned to rely on CWLA labor in the future.

CWLA recruits also spoke well of the program. Marie Sullivan, a trainee who worked on a farm in Middletown, reported that she “enjoyed the work immensely.” Another named Polly Brooke said she “liked every minute of the work and would do it again.”

For some though, the adjustment to farm life was not always easy. Recruits often complained about poor housing, a lack of proper training, and the dearth of social life on the farm. Farmers too grumbled about the women’s lack of skill, charged them with laziness, and pressed Young to instruct future recruits on how to better integrate into farm life.

One farmer, for instance, lamented that his trainee never left him and his wife alone. “While we want her to feel at home,” he wrote, “we feel she is taking some advantage of this.”

By the end of 1943, several waves of recruits had passed through the program and been put to work on Connecticut farms. In the end, though, both Alsop and Young offered a gloomy assessment of the program.

Young wrote that despite large numbers of applicants, many women failed to show up for one reason or another. In an interview with the Connecticut Campus, he noted a number of challenges to recruitment. The CWLA had a small publicity budget, hours and wages for factory work were better than in agriculture, and, Young feared, many interested women may have been scared off by the thought of hard labor on the farm.

Alsop echoed Young’s view, though she added that prejudice toward hiring women for farm work also impeded the program. But she argued that the CWLA should not be judged by the number of placements.

In her estimation, the Connecticut Women’s Land Army had come a long way. “There is still more pioneering to be done,” she wrote, “but the first roads are cleared.” The program continued to run for the remainder of the war, though it never proved as successful as some had hoped.

The Blizzard of 1978 “Stops State Cold”!

It started snowing in the early morning of February 6, 1978, in Connecticut and across the entire area from New York City up through New England. Thirty hours later there were over two feet of snow in some places, including on the University of Connecticut campus in Storrs. The famous Blizzard of 1978 is still one for the record books, with the cost for damage over $25 million statewide and the deaths of six people including four men who had heart attacks from shoveling snow. Governor Ella Grasso shut down the state for three days, hundreds of cars were abandoned on state roads and thousands of people sought refuge in emergency shelters. President Jimmy Carter declared Connecticut and the other New England states a disaster area and federal troops were called in to help the state recover from shoulder high snow drifts and blocked roadways.
On the UConn campus it was more of a party atmosphere, with students having snowball fights, sledding down Horsebarn Hill, and enjoying a couple of days of no classes. Twenty students were treated at the University Health Services for snow related injuries, including one who broke his foot jumping from the upper story of a dormitory into a pile of snow below. There were reports of other students doing the same thing, except they did so with no clothes on (see the article “‘Skin’ Diving Becomes Winter Sport,” from the Connecticut Daily Campus of February 8, 1978). University Facilities was busy with round-the-clock plowing and shoveling, and classes finally resumed on February 9.

Car meets Duck Pond, 1972

We recently came across a folder of photographs in the University Photograph Collection that we just had to bring to the attention of our blog viewers. Luckily the photographs were accompanied by a note written by Doug Cutchins, a UConn History graduate student who worked as a student assistant in the 1994-1995 school year at what was then the Archives Department of the UConn Library. Doug found the photographs in the Archives and interviewed the professor whose car is the subject of the photographs over 20 years earlier. With Doug’s permission we are using his writing (below) although we have made a few minor changes.

Here’s the story of the photographs:

On January 17, 1972, UConn Professor Bob Asher parked his car on the road above the Duck Pond, the body of water now better known as Swan Lake, as he did every morning. While he had remembered to set the parking brake he had neglected, he later assumed, to put the car into “Park.” The cold of the day froze and snapped the parking brake cable, and the wind blew the car down a hill, where it hit a rock or stump, swerved at a ninety degree angle, and skidded out onto the frozen pond.

Professor Asher received a call at his office from the University police, who told him his car was out on the ice. Rather incredulous, he waited until they came to his office to get the full story. The police walked into his office, and apparently glared at his print of Andy Warhol’s “Pigs” painting on the professor’s wall. Prof. Asher then decided to move the meeting out to the pond.

A tow truck was called, but refused to go out onto the ice. As everyone watched, the wind picked up again, blowing the car further out onto far thinner ice, which the car soon started to break through. Eventually, someone was able to get to the back bumper of the car with a cable, and it was pulled out of its partially-submerged state onto the hard ground.

The car was then towed to a local garage, where it was left out overnight. Unfortunately, since it had been under water, the engine block froze during the night, killing the car. The garage offered Prof. Asher $1100 for the car as scrap. Prof. Asher agreed immediately since he had bought the car used only a year earlier for $1000.

Asked if he was sure that the car hadn’t been pushed by students, he said he was sure that was not the case since the incident occurred during Winter Break and the doors were locked and there was no indication that the car had been tampered with when it was brought up from the water.

A UConn Student visits Vietnam on Winter Break

This post was written by Shaine Scarminach, a UConn History Ph.D candidate who is a student assistant in Archives & Special Collections. All images are from issues of the Connecticut Daily Campus and the Nutmeg, the student yearbook.

In January 1968, Dennis Hampton, a twenty-year-old philosophy major at the University of Connecticut, spent his winter break thousands of miles from home in the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon. As editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, the Connecticut Daily Campus, Hampton went to report on the U.S. war in Vietnam. The conflict occupied the minds of many students that year. In the following months, protests against the war would rock the UConn campus. But by then, Hampton had already seen the conflict up close.

Photo of Hampton and Major William Corliss from March 1, 1968, Daily Campus (pg. 3)

After a Pan American flight over half the globe, Hampton disembarked at Saigon’s Ton Son Nhut airport. Stepping off the plane, his first view of the city surprised him—it seemed so ordinary. European cars and bright new motorbikes clogged the roads, the clamor of people and car horns filled the humid air, and the refuse of urban life lined the streets.

Only “a few odd touches” hinted at the reality—Saigon was at war. Hampton noted the grills on bus windows for deflecting grenades, the street-corner guard stations stacked high with sand bags, and the endless American military and civilian personnel. Still, the war seemed far away.

Dennis Hampton and unidentified woman at the Nutmeg office

Hampton disliked Saigon. He found the city too crowded and noisy, and his first night left him feeling discouraged. What should he do and how would he do it? Why would he leave his friends and family to wander alone in a foreign city, and on his vacation no less? “I wondered what I was proving,” Hampton later wrote, “whom I would impress by coming to a country when practically everyone else did everything possible to stay away.”

Hampton had better luck away from the capital. He left Saigon by military helicopter, flying low over rice fields and canals of coffee-colored water. He touched down in Can Tho, a city southwest of Saigon. The pace was slower there, and the streets less snarled by traffic.

Hampton soon met Major William Corliss, a resident of Gloucester, Massachusetts, who had taught in the ROTC program at UConn’s Hartford campus before enlisting for a tour of duty in Vietnam. Hampton reported that Corliss “was impressed that a college student would spend time to come to Vietnam, and maybe just a little glad to see someone from UConn.”

Front page of Connecticut Daily Campus, February 22, 1968

In South Vietnam, Corliss served as senior commander to an American advisory team. He oversaw the small village of Phong Dien and promised to show Hampton the community development work underway there. Corliss and Hampton boarded a military jeep and took off. Hampton felt elated. He was finally “on the track of SOMETHING.”

As the pair reached Phong Dien, Hampton noted the lack of U.S. personnel in the area. He had arrived in “an actual, un-Americanized Vietnamese town.” Village life had ground to a halt because of the fast approaching celebrations of Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. Hampton spent his first day in town meeting local officials, drinking tea, and enjoying regional dishes.

The excitement would have to wait until that evening. Hampton spent the night with the U.S. military detail stationed in the village. Earlier in the day, Corliss had warned him about an impending mortar attack. Hampton wrote that he was “just a little nervous, a little afraid, but also eager.”

Dennis Hampton and Nutmeg staff, 1968

That changed once he heard the first mortar round go off around 11:00pm. He quickly became “a lot more nervous and afraid.” Luckily, his fears were unfounded. Hampton learned the next morning that the boom of mortars had come from U.S. troops firing in the opposite direction.

The next day, Corliss took Hampton on a tour of the surrounding hamlets. The commander spoke at length about the prospects and problems of community development. They had made some strides in education and local government but faced setbacks too. Hampton pointed to the lack of healthcare and sanitation in the area as a particular challenge. But Corliss was optimistic about his work. Community development, he claimed, would win the war.

This optimism seemed to rub off on Hampton. The college student found his time with Corliss the most informative part of his trip. It would not last. Hampton noted that he left Phong Dien only a day before the Tet Offensive, a major turning point in the war. Thereafter, the American public’s support for the war plummeted, never to recover.

Archives & Special Collections holds several collections that provide information about the Vietnam War era and its impact on campus and in society. You can find the finding aids to the following collections in our digital repository:

Crisis at UConn, Alternative Press Collection

Diary of a Student Revolution — a National Educational Television documentary showing the dramatic behind-the-scenes struggle between President Homer D. Babbidge and the UConn protesters demonstrating against on-campus employment recruiting by Dow Chemical Company on the Storrs campus.

Hoffman Family Papers

Poras Vietnam War Memorabilia Collection

Frances Perkins and the E. Ingraham Company

This post was written by Shaine Scarminach, a UConn History Ph.D candidate who is a student assistant in Archives & Special Collections. The letters are from the E. Ingraham Company Records.

In late October 1944, famed U.S. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins wrote to the E. Ingraham Company of Bristol, Connecticut. In her letter, she gave the company permission to employ girls between the ages of sixteen and eighteen for nine hours a day. Under an earlier federal regulation, young girls could only work for eight hours a day.

But as Perkins’s acknowledged, times had changed: a labor shortage in Bristol and the essential work of the E. Ingraham Company to the war effort meant rules would have to be bent – if only temporarily.

Founded in 1831, the E. Ingraham Company had by the 1940s become one of the most successful clock and watch makers in the United States. The company’s successful manufacturing operations, though, would soon serve a different purpose. In 1942, the War Production Board drafted the company into the U.S. military effort against the Axis powers.

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, industries throughout the United States shifted from producing for the consumer market to providing essential material for the war effort. The E. Ingraham Company went from crafting fine clocks and its popular “dollar watches” to cranking out mechanical time fuzes for the Army and Navy.

Local women had long labored in the E. Ingraham Company’s Bristol factories. But World War II drew even more of them into the workplace. The relentless demand for munitions pushed company president Edward Ingraham to ask the federal government for a loosening of labor restrictions.

Appointed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933, Frances Perkins was the first woman to hold a cabinet-level position and has so far been the longest-serving Secretary of Labor. She devoted much of her life to defending the rights of women and children in the workplace. Moreover, setting limits on working hours had been one of her chief aims upon accepting her position. Perkins’s approval of an extra hour of work for young women employed by the E. Ingraham Company thus illustrates the demands placed on daily life during war time.

In June 1945, with the war in Europe over and the need for munitions in decline, Perkins rescinded her prior authorization. Young women could no longer work more than eight hours, and the E. Ingraham Company returned to fashioning the clocks, watches, and other products that had made them a household name in the years before the war.

 

Reading room closed, December 18-January 1

The Archives & Special Collections reading room is closed from Monday, December 18, 2017, through Monday, January 1, 2018. We will reopen our doors on Tuesday, January 2, 2018. If you have a question about our collections please email us at archives@uconn.edu and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible.

Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

UConn Professor of Music Herbert France leads students in singing Christmas Carols, 1947

Storrs Girl and Her Classmates Earn Jeep Rides!

 

The March 9, 1944, issue of the Hartford Courant had this news story:

Girl’s War Loan Letter to President Wins Jeep Ride for Storrs Pupils

As the result of a letter to President Roosevelt, in which Geraldine Hall of Storrs Grammar School told him of the good work her schoolroom did in the Fourth War Loan Drive, the 39 children in that room were given rides in jeeps Wednesday [March 8, 1944] and the rest of the school will be taken on similar rides Thursday [March 9, 1944].

Geraldine’s room comprises the fifth and sixth grades at the school. Boys and girls in the room brought more than $3500 worth of war stamps and bonds during the drive, enough to pay for three jeeps. The sum they raised was more than one fifth of the $15,000 quota for the town of Mansfield.

In the whole school there are 135 students and their total contribution to the Fourth War Loan Drive was $8000, more than half the town’s quota. When the officials who sent the jeeps here primarily to give the fifth and sixth grade students rides learned the fine record of the whole school, it was decided they would come back again Thursday and see that all students in the school get rides.

Geraldine’s letter brought an answer from the White House praising the record of her school room and said that if the answer were taken to the nearest Army post her classmates would be given rides in a jeep. She displayed the letter to Major Michael F. Moffitt at the University of Connecticut and the two jeeps were sent out from Hartford.

Geraldine Hall is a daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Burton C. Hall. Her father is first selectman for the town of Mansfield.

 

We are fortunate that UConn professor and photographer Jerauld Manter took photographs of the children and their jeep rides on that day in March 1944.  These photographs are in the University of Connecticut Photograph Collection and can be found here: http://archives.lib.uconn.edu/islandora/search/jeep?type=dismax

Metanoia at UConn

This post was written by Shaine Scarminach, a UConn History Ph.D candidate who is a student assistant in Archives & Special Collections. All photographs are from the University of Connecticut Photograph Collection.

Metanoia. A curious word with multiple meanings. Most trace its origins to the Greek, though its definition varies. Some have said it means repentance or reorientation. Others have argued it means to change your mind, or even further, to change your way of life.

National Urban League President Whitney Young meets UConn President Homer Babbidge, 1970.

For the University of Connecticut, metanoia has been the name for a time of “meditation and reflection” on an important issue to the campus community and the wider world.

The idea (and word) originated with former UConn President Homer Babbidge in the fall of 1969, and the first Metanoia was held on May 6, 1970. It sought to increase “racial awareness, racial respect, and racial sensitivity” on campus.

Since that first occasion, University by-laws have included provisions for holding a Metanoia whenever necessary. Any group on campus has the right to petition for a Metanoia day, and once approved by the administration, an ad hoc committee of faculty and students is formed to plan the day’s activities.

National Urban League President Whitney Young speaks at the first Metanoia in May 1970.

Metanoia events usually include speakers, panels, workshops, and other activities planned by the ad hoc committee with support from other campus groups. Classes have often been canceled in observance of the day’s activities, and some Metanoia have even stretched beyond a single day.

In keeping with its origins, issues of race have been a frequent subject of Metanoia days at UConn.

In 1979, a series of racist incidents against black students on campus, combined with a shocking incident in which a female graduate student was severely beaten while jogging

UConn students practice a whirling dance reminiscent of Sufi ceremonies at Metanoia in 1987.

on Separatist Road, spurred the University to hold a Metanoia day in early October.

Speaking on the occasion, former UConn President John A. DiBiaggio told a crowd of faculty and students that “each violent event ripples through the campus.” But feelings of anxiety and fear must be coupled with action. In the bitter days of the Reagan era, it seemed to DiBiaggio that “society at large may be moving to a posture of indifference to its members.”

Issues beyond campus have also prompted Metanoia days over the years. One in 1972 focused on the American war in Vietnam, while another in 1974 on constitutional crisis and the presidency reflected the Watergate scandal then-engulfing President Richard Nixon.

UConn students practice a whirling dance reminiscent of Sufi ceremonies at Metanoia in 1987.

Metanoia days have regularly featured notable guests. National Urban League President Whitney Young spoke at the first Metanoia in May 1970. Held amid tense discussions over a planned student strike against the Vietnam War, Young told students to fight for their beliefs but not to close the universities.

A Metanoia day on world peace held in April 1987 included a musical performance by folk singer Mary Travers along with speeches by Linus Pauling, the Nobel Prize-winning chemists and Barry Rosen, one of the 52 Americans held prisoner at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran.

Students on a candlelight walk from the Student Union to Mirror Lake, which ended the 1987 Metanoia dedicated to world peace.

Perhaps more significant than the famous speakers have been the campus activities organized around Metanoia days. At the first Metanoia in 1970, groups of three—a black student, a white student, and a faculty member—visited each residence hall to hold frank and open discussions on issues of racism and education.

A Metanoia held in March 1975 focused on the world food crisis. For one of the day’s activities, around 2,000 students fasted to “sensitize” themselves to the deprivations of hunger. They also donated the money they would have normally spent in the dining halls to charities working to eliminate hunger around the world.

Students release balloons to celebrate the opening of Metanoia in April 1987. Linus Pauling, the Nobel Prize-wining chemist who spoke that day, is pictured at the bottom left.

Metanoia has sometimes come under criticism, most often because of its name. In a faculty survey before the first Metanoia in 1970, one respondent wondered if “metanoia” might be confused with “paranoia.” A 1979 committee report suggested keeping the event but changing the name. “Time spent explaining the term,” they wrote, “results in a tremendous loss of energy.”

Nevertheless, Metanoia lives on at the University of Connecticut. The tradition continues in 2017 under the banner “Together: Confronting Racism.” This year’s theme reflects the perennial problem of racism in American life. But it also signals the campus community’s continued desire to set aside time to confront that essential fact.

Reflecting on the idea of Metanoia, the late-Irving Cummings, a former Professor of English at UConn, perhaps put it best: “I find the term Metanoia both appropriate, humane, and risible—a disease, maybe? Metanoiacs of the world, unite!”

The Handicapped Homemakers Project at UConn in the 1950s

Written by Shaine Scarminach, a UConn History doctoral candidate, who is currently serving as a Graduate Intern in Archives & Special Collections.

In the mid-1950s, the University of Connecticut led a pioneering studying in the rehabilitation of disabled homemakers. The study sought to examine the challenges faced by orthopedically handicapped women in caring for young children.

Mrs. Mathews of the Handicapped Homemakers Project

Supervised by Elizabeth E. May, Dean of the School of Home Economics, the project received generous funding from the U.S. Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, a part of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. It ran from 1955 to 1960 and included a pilot program of in-home research and a series of academic conferences.

The immediate goal was to produce educational materials for disabled homemakers and their families. But the project had loftier aims as well. Expanding the abilities of disabled homemakers, May thought, could boost individual morale, smooth family relations, and increase the numbers of workers both in and outside of the home.

Mrs. Mathews of the Handicapped Homemakers Project

When organizing the project, May and research coordinator, Neva R. Waggoner, adopted a team approach. The project team comprised a diverse group of researchers – including nurses, therapists, engineers, sociologists, and home economists. Together, they hoped to develop labor saving devices and techniques to help disabled homemakers more easily perform household tasks and increase their overall independence. Collaboration would be key. As May made clear in one report, “This is not an ‘ivory tower’ project!”

The bulk of the study involved holding interviews with disabled homemakers throughout Connecticut. The project team developed a list of interview questions and then identified around 100 suitable subjects. The women chosen came from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds and lived with various disabilities.

 

The team then dispatched a field worker to conduct in-home interviews. This was no small undertaking. Because the interview subjects were scattered around the state and sometimes difficult to locate, the field worker ultimately traveled 8,000 miles over the course of the project.

Mrs. Wilson of the Handicapped Homemakers Project

The interviews were extensive, with questions running to ten pages. Despite the careful research design, the responses left the researchers feeling somewhat discouraged. It became difficult to group the responses into general categories because the subjects experienced their disability in highly individualized ways.

But according to the field worker, the interview subjects cooperated willingly and appreciated the researcher’s interest. The worker even remarked on the “ingenious” ways those interviewed had already adapted their abilities to routine household tasks.

Advertisement for the Handicapped Homemakers Project

After the initial round of interviews, the research team chose to continue working with some women. One case was Mrs. M., “a warm, friendly woman” who had lost an arm to cancer but was eager to return to work. Over a series of visits, a social worker observed Mrs. M. throughout her day and suggested how to adjust her daily tasks or use new equipment as needed. Changes could range from using new cutting sheers or adjustable ironing boards to relearning how to type or drive a car.

 

The project even had an international dimension. At one point, May took a sabbatical from her teaching and research to explore the European approach to helping disabled homemakers. She traveled across a number of countries in Great Britain, Scandinavia, and elsewhere. At each stop, May lectured about the project underway at UConn and learned about the programs available in the countries she visited. Finland, she found, had made some of the greatest strides in meeting the needs of disabled people in the home.

Mr. Ackerman of the Handicapped Homemakers Project

By the time the project ended in 1960, the research team had made significant progress in understanding the needs of disabled homemakers. The final step involved translating the study into

Mrs. Fersch of the Handicapped Homemakers Project conducted by the University of Connecticut in the 1950s

educational materials that included films, slideshows, and pamphlets. May and Waggoner, along with another co-author, also published a book based on the study. Ultimately, the project had achieved its goal of drawing attention to the needs of disabled people working in the home.

For more information about the Handicapped Homemakers Project, see the finding aid to the Elizabeth E. Mays Papers at http://archives.lib.uconn.edu/islandora/object/20002%3A860129674 and several hundred photographs from the project at http://archives.lib.uconn.edu/islandora/search/%22handicapped%20Homemakers%20Project%22?type=dismax

Hartford Electric Light Company and the Marketing of Electric Appliances

Written by Shaine Scarminach, a UConn History doctoral candidate, who is currently serving as a Graduate Intern in Archives & Special Collections.

A. C. Dunham, president of the Hartford Electric Light Company


A. C. Dunham had a mind that rarely sat idle. Much to his frustration, the electric works he oversaw often did. As president of the Hartford Electric Light Company, Dunham sought to use every ounce of energy his company generated, and water wheels turning in the bright light of day symbolized for him so much wasted energy. But as America became wired in the late nineteenth century, Dunham exhibited an uncanny ability to find new channels for electrical current to flow down.

Shortly after Thomas Edison’s incandescent light bulb appeared in 1879, a group of New England merchants banded together to invest in the burgeoning electrical industry. On April 12, 1881, the Hartford Electric Light Company (HELCO) received its charter from the Connecticut General Assembly. The first shareholders meeting took place about a year later in February 1882, and the board chose Austin Cornelius Dunham – A.C. as he was known – for president.

The company’s first display of electric light came the following year. On April 7, 1883, HELCO used twenty-one arc lamps to illuminate the Asylum Street train depot in Hartford. The Hartford Courant reported that “hundreds of people gathered at the depot during the evening and the comments were universally favorable.” From then on, HELCO would flourish as a leading producer and distributor of electricity in Hartford and the surrounding area.

Despite intense competition and the rapid pace of change, HELCO stayed at the forefront of the electrical industry. By 1896, the company could already claim several firsts. According to company records, HELCO was the first to use batteries to store excess electricity, the first to run cables through underground ducts, and the first to use forced cooling for transformer oil.

100-ton steam turbine in Pearl Street station, nicknamed “Mary Ann”

Most famously, HELCO was the first company to generate electricity using a steam turbine. In 1900, the company purchased a new 100-ton steam turbine designed in England to replace part of their hydraulic system. The mammoth machine arrived at the company’s Pearl Street power station in January 1901 and was soon nicknamed “Mary Ann” by a HELCO employee. By April, it was pumping out 1,500 kilowatt-hours of energy.

The company’s early success did not slow its restless president. Dunham was convinced that electricity in the home would open a vast new market for the industry. In 1902, he convinced HELCO to hire an outside contractor to begin wiring homes for electric light. The company also began selling electric refrigerators around this time. Still, HELCO faced an uphill battle as few Americans used electricity for anything other than lighting in this period. Dunham set out to change this.

Rose M. Greene in 1953

In a makeshift workshop on the company’s Pearl Street property, Dunham dreamed up one invention after another. He had a particular interest in using electricity for cooking. In 1906, he hired Rose M. Greene, a student at Hartford High School, to serve as test cook. One early success involved using a light bulb in an insulated pail to cook beans.

Original test range from Hartford Electric Light Company, c. 1912-1913

But Dunham’s real interest was in perfecting the electric oven. In 1908, he converted a vacant church into a model apartment equipped with electric lights, an experimental range, and other electric appliances he hoped to popularize. He invited employees and other local businessmen to taste the food Greene cooked on the new appliances. Employees reportedly never missed a chance to dine in the model kitchen.

As with any kind of innovation, the experiments sometimes faced setbacks. In one instance, HELCO employee Ralph D. Cutler came up with the idea to improve insulation by lining a test oven with cork. Since ovens took about four days to heat up at the time, Cutler started the oven before he left work for the day. Four hours later, he got a call notifying him that the oven had caught fire. Despite the accident, his idea had succeeded in speeding up the heating process.

1914 Advertisement for Hartford Electric Light Company

Dunham retired as president of HELCO in 1912 after leading the company for thirty years. His persistence had helped the company continually grow, and his promotion of home appliances would prove prescient as the consumer revolution took off in the 1920s. After leaving the company, he moved to St. Petersburg, Florida, where he died in 1918.

For more information about the Hartford Electric Light Company Records, please see the finding aid at http://archives.lib.uconn.edu/islandora/object/20002%3A860131166

Archives & Special Collections reading room closed for holidays

American Brass Company employees singing Christmas carols, 1955

Our reading room will be closed from Monday, December 19, 2016, through Monday, January 2, 2017. We will open at 9a.m. on Tuesday, January 3, 2017, and resume our regular hours of Mondays through Fridays, 9a.m. to 4p.m.

In the meantime we’ll sing Christmas carols with these employees of the American Brass Company in Waterbury, Connecticut, in 1955.

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year from all of us here in Archives & Special Collections!