Illuminating Lives: Documenting Women in the Cranbrook Archives

In the publication Perspectives on Women’s Archives, recently released by The Society of American Archivists , editors Tanya Zanish-Belcher and Anke Voss begin their introduction with the following : “the history of women’s archives and the collecting of women’s records reflect the larger cultural and societal developments occurring in American history over the past few centuries.” This poses the question—how do we at Cranbrook document the lives of the women who worked and studied here? What can we do to actively collect the papers and records that will illuminate the lives of these women? How have their experiences contributed to our community and to the world at large?

Currently, the Cranbrook Archives has a small percentage of collections donated by women or their families that speak to these issues, including the collections of Cranbrook artists and the papers of former CEC president Lillian Bauder. However, the bulk of women’s history can be found in our institutional records. I would like to spotlight three unsung women in this blog: Helen McIlroy, Pearl Peterson, and Marjorie Bingham.

Helen McIlroy at her desk at Cranbrook House, 1950. Cranbrook Archives.

Helen McIlroy at her desk at Cranbrook House, 1950. Cranbrook Archives.

It seems only fitting to begin with Helen Louise McIlroy (1907-1980), whom I consider to be Cranbrook’s first archivist. In 1931, Helen began her career at Cranbrook as a temp at Brookside School, which led almost immediately to her employment as George Booth’s secretary in the Cranbrook Foundation offices. In this role Helen served as Cranbrook’s first unofficial archivist, organizing the personal papers of George Booth and preserving all of the records of the Cranbrook Foundation. She kept meticulous records, documenting the Booths’ art purchases as well as the activities of the Foundation and its many departments. Helen described George Booth as a creative and dynamic personality who “inspired you to do your best.” She continued on as secretary of the Foundation when Henry Booth became chairman in 1946, assisting him with research on the history of the Cranbrook community, and in 1966 she established a more formal archive at Cranbrook House. A member of the Cranbrook Music Guild and the Garden Auxiliary, Helen retired in 1974 after 43 years at Cranbrook. At her memorial in 1980, Henry Booth affectionately remembered her as “humble, self-sacrificing and uncomplaining. . . she did not try to impress anyone. . . in spite of herself, Helen [built] a reputational monument.”

Pearl "Pete" Peterson and Carleton McClain, 1956. Cranbrook Archives.

Pearl “Pete” Peterson and Carleton McClain, 1956. Cranbrook Archives.

Pearl I. Peterson (1905-2006) began her tenure at Cranbrook as the bookkeeper and financial secretary for Cranbrook School in 1926, one year before the school officially opened. “Pete”, as she was affectionately known, had a contagious laugh, was always happy to lend an ear to the boys, and was well-known and well-liked across campus. She went over accounting issues with parents, issued pay checks, and took care of a myriad of bookkeeping concerns.  A musician, Pete also played piano for the Cranbrook School musicals and had a piano in her small apartment at Tower Garage (adjacent to Cranbrook House).  By 1950, Pete was the only original staff member remaining at Cranbrook School. The school newspaper, The Crane , reported: “when one thinks of Pete one thinks of an avid, well-dressed golfer, a dark green Chevvie [sic] coupe parked in the court, day to day regularity and an insatiable memory.” Though Pete retired in 1974, she continued to work in the CEC accounting department as a volunteer. In 1981, she received the Founder’s Award. She remained connected to Cranbrook, contributing regularly to the Schools annual fund before she passed away in 2006 at the age of 101.

Marjorie Bingham and Dudley Blakely installing an exhibit, Cranbrook Institute of Science, 1945. Cranbrook Archives.

Marjorie Bingham and Dudley Blakely installing an exhibit, Cranbrook Institute of Science, 1945. Cranbrook Archives.

Another woman who stands out in Cranbrook’s history is Marjorie Tellefsen Bingham (1895-1979). Born in New York, she received her Masters Degree in Botany from the University of Cincinnati before coming to work as a botanist at the Institute of Science from 1933 to1946. Between 1934 and 1941, Marjorie conducted a plant survey of Michigan which led to the publication of “Orchids of Michigan” (1939) and “Flora of Oakland County, Michigan: A study of physiographic plant ecology” (1945). In 1936 Marjorie was sent on a tour of 45 museums in the eastern U.S. to gather information on advanced methods of museum operations in connection with the Institute’s new expansion. She developed the botanical collection through field work, conducted Junior Member programs and field trips, and also taught physiology at Kingswood School. Among some of her accomplishments, she served as chairman of the Botany Section, Michigan Academy of Science, was President of The Michigan Wildflower Association (est. 1941), and was instrumental in shepherding Michigan’s wildflower protective law through the senate. Marjorie left Cranbrook in 1946 to pursue a career in education on the east coast.

The stories, accomplishments, and dedication of these three women represent only a fraction of the roles women played in the building of our community. I wish we had their papers so that we could better understand their experiences here and better present Cranbrook’s rich heritage from all points of view. We must be sure to not tell only half of the story!  We must endeavor to actively uncover, describe, and promote Cranbrook’s holdings of women’s history and bring the experiences of these women into the center of our intellectual discourse. In that spirit, look out for when we post a snippet of Pete Peterson’s oral history (which we’re currently in the process of digitizing!), and keep your eyes peeled for several more of these posts this month as we continue to explore the story of Cranbrook’s women.

Leslie S. Edwards, Head Archivist

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