Smithsonian Secretaries and Clerks, 1930, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7177, Image no. 94-4431.

Depression-Era Pen Pals: A Correspondence Between Two Hard-Working Women

Ruth B. MacManus and Gertrude Brown bonded over their heavy workloads and shared experiences as working women in the Great Depression. Together, they helped improve a publication that does not bear their names: the Smithsonian Scientific Series.  

Life for a working woman after World War I was a mixed bag. As Smithsonian historian Pamela M. Henson explained at the first annual Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative symposium, several young women secured clerical jobs in Washington, D.C. as a result of the conflict. However, with the onset of the Great Depression, hiring stagnated across the city, promotions were scarce, and the Economy Act of 1932 spelled the end of many women’s federal careers as, per section 213, they were laid off if their husbands also worked for the government.

On top of these struggles, working women between the wars faced the constant challenge of unequal pay and recognition. Yet, those who maintained their positions through the country’s worst economic slump often began long, fruitful careers that are increasingly being recognized by historians and the public. I unearthed the stories of two such women who corresponded via letters type-written at their respective desks in Washington, D.C. and New York.

Six women pose for a photograph. The photo is dated 8-31-30. The names of the women are written in c

Together, Ruth B. MacManus and Gertrude Brown worked long and hard on a product that does not bear their names: the Smithsonian Scientific Series.

Beginning in the late 1920s, the Smithsonian partnered with a for-profit publishing company to sell a twelve-volume set of books “to diffuse knowledge more widely” and “supplement its own inadequate resources for the increase of knowledge.” Each volume showcased a topic studied at the Smithsonian, such as insects or American inventions, and communicated information to readers in easy-to-understand prose. While the Smithsonian’s staff fully supported the educational content of the Smithsonian Scientific Series, the New-York-based publication company in charge of printing and selling the books frequently fell short of their standards. Typographical errors spilled across pages and salesmen used misleading, high-powered techniques to secure subscribers.

The Smithsonian received hundreds of letters from Americans pointing out mistakes and criticizing the sale of the series. Ruth MacManus, who worked as an assistant in the Smithsonian’s Editorial Division, communicated their concerns to the publication company and facilitated corrections dictated by the series’ chief editors: Webster P. True and Charles G. Abbot. As secretary to the company’s president, Gertrude Brown received MacManus’s letters in New York and informed the staff of any necessary changes.

MacManus and Brown bonded over their heavy workloads and shared experiences as working women. In November 1934, Brown broke her purely-professional writing style to relay to MacManus the challenge of overseeing numerous editorial changes as a female secretary: “You see, I am just another one of the girls in the office, and it is a little difficult for me to make frequent criticisms.” MacManus responded with kindness and support, assuring Brown, “I can understand perfectly the difficulty of your position, for I have been in the same situation myself.” MacManus ended her letter by asking Brown not to “worry if something goes wrong once in a while. That is to be expected. It isn’t humanly possible for anyone to turn out work that is 100% perfect all the time.”

After this exchange, both women increasingly wove candid discussions of their jobs and information about their personal lives into their everyday business correspondence. Requests for meetings and additional rounds of edits appeared side-by-side with well-wishes, movie recommendations, and tales of long-distance boyfriends. As years passed, they exchanged anecdotes from tipsy holiday parties and New Year’s Eve celebrations. On one such occasion, MacManus admitted to Brown how “wonderful…a little of the old fire water lifts your spirits and downs your inhibitions. I could conquer the world if I could have just a slight glow all the time.” Both women also regularly remarked on their inadequate pay and instances when they took on the load of two jobs in lieu of delayed staff replacements.

Despite the frequency of their letters, the robust friendship between Brown and MacManus never distracted from their duties; their bosses’ letters frequently acknowledge the dependability and respect they had in their workplace.

While little is known about Brown beyond what she shared with her D.C. pen pal, MacManus’s obituary is filed in the Smithsonian Institution Archives. It recounts thirty-five years of service to the Smithsonian’s editorial and publications division: “At the time of her death” MacManus “served as publications editor” and “was responsible for the publication of the Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, the annual reports of the Smithsonian and the publications of the Freer Gallery of Art.” Her name and Brown’s are absent from the pages of the Smithsonian Scientific Series. However, it is clear from their Depression-Era correspondence and the letters of their peers how invaluable both women were to the books’ publications. In keeping with themes from the Smithsonian’s recent symposium, the heartfelt words in Brown and MacManus’s letters also reveal challenges that women continue to face in the workplace and the value of peer-to-peer encouragement.

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