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2020 Transcribe-A-Thon Report: 5 Days, 50 Volunteers, 668 Pages

Friday, November 20, 2020

Section of diary page
January 15, 1926 diary entry.

Less than an hour into day one of our first ever Transcribe-A-Thon, a transcriber came upon the diary entry shown above which reads, “The men were all very nice to me except Mr. Ives, the Printing Clerk, who showed quite plainly that he resented my intrusion into his masculine paradise.” Mary Jean Simpson, the first woman to serve as Bill Clerk in the office of the Secretary of the United States Senate, wrote the entry on January 15, 1926 after her first day at the office. With that succinct and telling entry providing a glimpse into the very real change Mary Jean represented, we were off and running.

Over the course of the Transcribe-A-Thon, held from October 26-30, our volunteers transcribed 668 pages of Simpson’s diaries, from the period between January 1926 and July 1930, in just five days. Just over fifty people registered for the event, including UVM students, faculty, staff and Geography Professor Meghan Cope’s Qualitative Research Methods class, archivists and librarians from Vermont and around the country, homeschoolers and their families, a few transcription enthusiasts, and even an individual participating from all the way across the world in Australia. One transcriber summed up the week well, “It's been great to participate. Definitely made me regret not keeping a diary. Current events, who we see, where we go, seems like mundane information at the time, but clearly can have great historical and cultural value!”

The event grew out of our experience working from home these last few months, which has seen Silver Special Collections staff busy transcribing handwritten letters and diaries as part of our effort to make our collections more widely accessible via our digital collections site. To celebrate Vermont Archives Month, we invited the public to help us transcribe and make accessible the diaries of Mary Jean Simpson, virtually of course.

Mary Jean Simpson (1888-1977) from East Craftsbury, Vermont broke new political ground by becoming the first woman to serve as Bill Clerk in the United States Senate from 1926-1933. The diaries of this pioneering woman detail both her personal life and the political world of Washington, DC in the late 1920s, when the presidency transitioned from Coolidge to Hoover and the country entered the great depression. (Simpson graduated from UVM in 1913, and returned to be Dean of Women from 1937 to 1954.)

Mary Jean Simpson seated at desk in Senate office.
Mary Jean Simpson in the Senate office, 1926. Photo: NEHS via Shorpy.

Our initial modest goal for the week was to transcribe Simpson’s 1926 diary. We blew by that goal early on day two, setting the stage for a wildly successful event where we completed three and a half more diaries (1927-1930).

Our volunteer transcribers participated morning, noon, and night as their schedules allowed. They discovered and shared with their fellow transcribers a number of interesting passages along the way that documented historical events, cultural events, fashion, finding a place to live, medical treatments, and much, much more. A few highlights from the diaries are excerpted below. For more, see the passages shared by our transcribers during the week on our Facebook event page.

In February 1927, Simpson attended a White House reception with Augusta Dale, the wife of Vermont Senator Porter Dale, President Calvin Coolidge and his wife Grace Goodhue Coolidge, who graduated from UVM in 1902 and was the first First Lady to hold a 4-year undergraduate degree. Mary Jean documented the event on the pages for February 3 and 4.

Thursday February 3, 1927
... we were all dressed and ready at 9:00 when Mrs. Dale came to take us to the White House. Owing to being with her we got in very easily and joined the line which filed into the Blue room where Pres. & Mrs. Coolidge stood to receive.

Friday, Feb. 4, 1927
He looked weary and bored and never smiled once. She was animated and gracious and smiled, lovely to look at in a rose velvet dress .... Because of being with Mrs. Dale we got into the Blue Room just in front of Pres. & Mrs. Coolidge and were there when they left to go upstairs, followed by V. P. & Mrs. Dawes & the Cabinet. It was all very beautiful and I'm glad we could go.

Simpson also documented important events happening on the floor of the Senate, such as this entry about the debate on the Sheppard-Towner bill, or “The Promotion of the Welfare and Hygiene of Maternity and Infancy Act,” originally passed in 1921 toprovide federal funding for maternity and child care.

Thursday, Jan. 13, 1927
We have had a prolonged debate today on the Sheppard-Towner bill which ended in a filibuster by Sen. King, broken about 8:30 this evening where a compromise amendment was offered providing for the repeal of the bill in 1929.

After looking for a place to live with her mother on January 14, 1926, Simpson writes, “Very busy day with a morning full I went to Mrs. Dale's at 10:00 and she & Mrs. Southwick took me over to look at rooms. not very encouraging as the $40 one is dark + gloomy and the $70 one is up two flights of stairs which mother can't do. ... finally decided to take the one at $40 which with a few changes may be fairly comfortable tho' there is no running water in the room and the bathroom is upstairs.”

It seems Mary Jean eventually won over Mr. Ives, whose masculine paradise seemed so at risk with her arrival in the office. On December 23, 1926 the office staff went to the Vice-President's Dinner. Mary Jean writes about the evening, "Col. Thayer and Mr. Ives gave me flowers from the tables, we had our pictures taken about ten times and I was surely glad I went."

December 23, 1926 diary entry.

For those interested in learning more about Mary Jean Simpson's time in Washington, we'll be putting these diaries online in the coming months at our digital collections site. For an even deeper dig, Silver Special Collections holds the Mary Jean Simpson papers. An online guide to the collection is available.