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Frances Perkins papers

Identifier: MS 0632
Frances Perkins and President John Kennedy at the 50th Anniversary dinner for the Department of Labor, March 4, 1963
Frances Perkins and President John Kennedy at the 50th Anniversary dinner for the Department of Labor, March 4, 1963

Scope and Contents

The Frances Perkins Papers contain correspondence, course records, writings, financial records, notes and memoranda, memorabilia, biographical information, and photographs. The most extensive part of the collection consists of notes and notebooks, compositions, student papers, textbooks, assignments, examinations, and other records for courses that Perkins took as a student at Mount Holyoke College, 1898-1902. This material reflects her study of art history, astronomy, the Bible, botany, chemistry, English, English literature, the German language, history, Latin, "pedagogy" (education), "philosophy" (ethics, logic, and psychology), physics, "political economy" (sociology), and zoology. Of particular significance are notes and reports on visits to factories in Massachusetts and Connecticut that Perkins prepared for two political economy classes taught by Annah May Soule. Perkins' course records also include a high school Latin paper, Mount Holyoke catalogues and an entrance examination, and her plans for her course work. Correspondence in the collection dates from 1898-1903 and 1914 and primarily consists of letters written to Perkins by relatives and friends. One letter from her father, dated June 2, 1902, discusses her finances and commencement plans. The other letters are mostly from friends including Mary Alice Bradford, Florence E. Locke, Mary E. Lyman, Kate E. Paterson Ross, Eva Gay Stewart, Alice Bidwell Wesenberg and other Mount Holyoke students and alumnae. These letters reflect the close friendship among these women and discuss College events (such as Senior Mountain Day) and summer and post-graduation activities. The writings by Perkins include articles, letters to the editor, pamphlets, speeches, and copies of her books "People At Work" (1934) and "The Roosevelt I Knew" (1946). Most of her writings date 1930-1945 and concern labor-related issues such as the problems facing working women and older workers. Financial records date from 1898-1903 and include an account book, notes, and a receipt. Most of this material reflects Perkins' personal expenses for room furnishings, food, travel, clothing, and books. Her notes and memoranda from ca. 1898-ca. 1903 chiefly reflect Perkins' service as President of the Class of 1902 at Mount Holyoke. These documents also include teaching notes from 1902-1903, when she taught astronomy, geography, mathematics (algebra and geometry), and zoology at Monson Academy in Monson, Massachusetts. Memorabilia, 1901-1965, relates to her activities as a student at Mount Holyoke and to her subsequent professional life. This material includes programs for College events, Class of 1902 publications, programs for meetings and conferences that she attended, and a copy of an April 3, 1939 speech by Representative John A. Martin of the United States Congress that called for the dismissal of impeachment proceedings agains Perkins. Biographical information dates from ca. 1911-1965 and consists of notes, sketches, and articles chiefly concerning Perkins' professional activities. This material reflects her views on issues such as child labor, the length of the work day, continuing education for married women, a minimum wage for women workers, social security, unemployment insurance, and the best use of leisure time. Several articles also express opinions about her work as Secretary of Labor. Photographs date from ca. 1884-1963 and consist of both formal portraits and informal photographs of Perkins. The earliest photograph is a portrait of her as a child in about 1884. Other photographs show her at Mount Holyoke College before and after graduation and with professional associates including United States presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.


  • Creation: ca. 1884-1965

Conditions Governing Access


Biographical Note

Frances Perkins was born on April 10, 1880 (some sources say 1882) in Boston, Massachusetts. She was christened Fannie Coralie Perkins but later changed her name to Frances. She was the daughter of Frederick W. Perkins, the owner of a stationer's business, and Susan Bean Perkins. The family moved to Worcester, Massachusetts in 1882. After attending Worcester Classical High School, Perkins entered Mount Holyoke College in 1898. She was president of her class and majored in chemistry and physics, receiving her B.A. degree in 1902. She became interested in labor issues after studying working conditions in Massachusetts and Connecticut factories for two political economy courses taught by Annah May Soule. After graduation Perkins taught at Monson Academy in Massachusetts and at the Ferry Hall School in Lake Forest, Illinois. In 1907 she became the General Secretary of the Philadelphia Research and Protective Association. During her time in Philadelphia she joined the Socialist Party and took classes at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1909 she received a fellowship from the Russell Sage Foundation and earned her M.A. in economics and sociology from Columbia University. From 1910-1912 Perkins served as Secretary of the New York Consumers' League and taught at Adelphi College. She worked for industrial reform, women's suffrage, and the passage of a fifty-four hour work week bill in the New York legislature. After witnessing the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire of 1911 in which 146 workers died, Perkins took a position with the Committee on Safety of the City of New York and worked there until 1915. On September 26, 1913 she married Paul Caldwell Wilson, an economist for the Bureau of Municipal Research in New York. During the 1920s Wilson suffered increasingly mental illness. From 1930 until his death in 1952 he spent most of his time in institutions. The couple had two children; the first died in infancy and the second was a daughter born in 1916 named Susanna Winslow Wilson. In 1918 Perkins was appointed to the New York State Industrial Commission, becoming the highest paid state employee in the United States with a salary of $8,000. From 1920-1922 she served as Executive Secretary of the Council on Immigrant Education before returning to work for the Industrial Commission from 1922-1928. From 1928-1933 Perkins was Industrial Commissioner for New York State. From 1933-1945 Perkins was the Secretary of Labor in Franklin D. Roosevelt's cabinet. She was the first woman to hold a position in a presidential cabinet. She helped draft the Federal Emergency Relief Act, the Civilian Conservation Act, the Social Security Act, and other important legislation. Perkins was the target of much criticism in her position. Because of her pro-labor stance, employers often accused her of encouraging union violence. In 1939 Representative J. Parnell Thomas proposed a resolution instructing the House Judiciary Committee to investigate whether she should be impeached for refusing to deport Harry Bridges, a longshoremen's leader and suspected communist. The resolution failed. From 1934-1944 Perkins also was a trustee of Mount Holyoke College. From 1946-1956 she served on the United States Civil Service Commission and lectured widely. From 1957 until her death, Perkins held a professorship at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She died on May 14, 1965 in New York City at the age eighty-five.


3.13 Linear Feet (6 full Hollinger and 3 half Hollinger boxes)

Language of Materials



Perkins, Frances, 1880-1965; Social worker, government official, university professor. Mount Holyoke College graduate, 1902. Papers consist of correspondence, course records, writings, financial records, notes and memoranda, memorabilia, biographical information, and photographs. Principally documenting her life as a student at Mount Holyoke College and her subsequent professional career.


Organized in eight series: 1. Correspondence. 2. Course Records. 3. Writings. 4. Financial Records. 5. Notes and Memoranda. 6. Memorabilia. 7. Biographical Information. 8. Photographs.

Genre / Form


Perkins papers, ca. 1884-1965.
Edited Full Draft
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Repository Details

Part of the Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections Repository

50 College Street
8 Dwight Hall
South Hadley MA 01075-6425 USA