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MC 309

Dreier, Mary E. (Mary Elizabeth), 1875-1963. Papers, 1797-1963: A Finding Aid

Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women


Radcliffe College
October 1980

© 1980 Radcliffe College

Descriptive Summary

Call No.: MC 309
Repository: Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute
Creator: MARY ELISABETH DREIER, 1875-1963
Title: Papers, 1797(1897-1963)
Quantity: 20 file boxes, 21 photograph folders, 1 oversize folder, 1 folio+ folder 2 folio folders
Abstract: Correspondence, day books, financial records, and photographs of Mary Dreier, social reformer, from Brooklyn, New York.

Processing Information:

Processed: October 1980
By: Donna Webber

Acquisition Information:

Accession number: 77-M210
The papers of Mary Elisabeth Dreier were given to the Schlesinger Library by Theodore Dreier in 1977. They were processed under a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (RC-0051-79-1260).

Historical Note

Mary Elisabeth Dreier (also known as Mimi, Mietze, and Tolochee), social reformer, was born in Brooklyn, New York, on September 26,1875, the fourth of five surviving children of Theodor Dreier and Dorothea Adelheid (Dreier) Dreier. Theodor Dreier emigrated to the United States from Bremen, Germany in 1849; he settled in New York City, where he eventually became a partner in the local branch of Naylor, Benson and Co., an English iron firm. In 1864 he returned to Germany for a visit and married a younger cousin, Dorothea. They had five children: Margaret Dreier(1868-1945), Dorothea Adelheid (1870-1923), Henry Edward (1872-1955), Mary, and Katherine Sophie (1877-1952).
MED attended George Brackett's school in Brooklyn. She took classes at the New York School of Philanthropy but did not seek a college degree. A strong religious background helped motivate MED to undertake reform work. In 1899 she met Leonora O'Reilly, a former garment worker who was head of a local settlement house. O'Reilly later brought both MED and her sister Margaret into the New York Women's Trade Union League, a coalition of women workers and middle and upper-class women reformers founded in 1903 to organize working women and educate the public about urban labor conditions.
MED served as president of the NYWTUL from 1906 to 1914 and remained active in the organization until it disbanded in 1950. She was arrested while demonstrating during the 1909 strike of shirtwaistmakers and was henceforth a leading spokeswoman for labor reform on behalf of women workers. She was the only woman on the New York State Factory Investigating Committee, which was appointed after the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in 1911. Between 1911 and 1915 MED, chairman Robert F. Wagner, vice-chairman Alfred E. Smith, and six other commissioners wrote a report that helped to modernize the state's labor laws.
The negative attitude of male trade unionists towards women workers helped turn MED into an ardent supporter of suffrage and women's rights; she chaired New York City's Woman Suffrage Party. On the national level MED often supported Progressive Party nominees, including Robert M. LaFollette and Henry A. Wallace, although like many progressives she was an enthusiastic backer of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal.
MED served on a number of government and private committees concerned with labor and women. Later in life, however, she focused more of her attention on international issues and American foreign policy. Between the two world wars she was a supporter of Soviet-American friendship and an outspoken opponent of the regime in Nazi Germany; after World War II she opposed nuclear proliferation. She was investigated by the FBI in the 1950's.
MED wrote numerous poems, plays and skits during her long life. In 1914 she wrote Barbara Richards, a novel about working women that was never published. In 1950 she published a laudatory biography of her sister, Margaret Dreier Robins: Her Life, Letters and Work.
MED's income came from a trust fund left by her father; she was a generous supporter of causes, the WTUL, numerous friends, and family members. She remained close to her brother and sisters, and to her brother's children and grandchildren, and kept up a long correspondence with relatives in Germany. She never married, but shared a home with fellow reformer Frances Kellor from 1905 until the latter's death in 1952. Thereafter she lived alone, still a busy correspondent and active in favorite causes despite increasingly frail health. She died of a pulmonary embolism on August 15, 1963, at her summer home at Bar Harbor, Maine, at the age of 87.
For further biographical information about MED, see Notable American Women, Vol. IV. The papers of the National Women's Trade Union League are available on microfilm at the Schlesinger Library.
Margaret Dreier Robins (September 6, 1868-February 21, 1945), also known as Gretchen and Bimini, was the oldest of Theodor and Dorothea Dreier's five children. She began to work for various social organizations in New York in her late teens, and in 1904 joined the NYWTUL. The following year she married fellow reformer Raymond Robins (1873-1954; also known as Ahochee) and moved to Chicago, where she continued to work for the League and became its national president (1907-1922). In 1924 MDR and RR retired to Chinsegut Hill, their 2000 acre estate in Florida. MED spent much time at Chinsegut Hill; she was very close to both MDR and RR. MDR died at Chinsegut Hill of pernicious anemia and a heart ailment at the age of 76; MED continued to visit the estate often until 1954, when the invalided RR died. The Robinses had no children but for many years shared their home with Lisa von Borowsky, who remained at Chinsegut Hill after the Robinses' death to care for the estate.
The papers of MDR are at the University of Florida Library in Gainseville. For further biographical information about MDR see Notable American Women, Vol. I, and Margaret Dreier Robins: Her Life, Letters and Work, by MED, 1950. The papers of Raymond Robins are at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin at Madison.
Dorothea Adelheid Dreier (1870-1923), also known as Dodo, was the second daughter and a painter. She studied art for several years in Europe but never gained the prominence of her younger sister, Katherine (see below). The papers of Dorothea Dreier are at the Archives of American Art of the Smithsonian Institution and are available on microfilm at the AAA in Washington, New York, Boston, Detroit, and San Francisco.
Henry Edward Dreier (1872-1955), known as Edward, was a New York businessman. He worked for his father's company for many years and eventually became its president. He was also president of the Lock Stub Company. In 1901 HED married Ethel Eyre Valentine (1874-1958), a suffragist who was later active with the League of Women Voters and in civic affairs. Her papers are in the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College.

The Dreiers had four children:

Katherine Sophie Dreier (September 10, 1877-March 29, 1952), also known as Kate, was a patron of modern art as well as an artist. In her youth she studied art in New York and as an adult in Europe. In 1914 she helped establish the Cooperative Mural Workshop, and in 1916 joined the newly formed, avant-garde Society of Independent Artists. She made her most lasting contribution to modern art when she joined with Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray to found the Societe Anonyme, a "center for the study and promotion of modern art." As an artist, KSD was known for a predominantly abstract style. KSD maintained a deeply affectionate relationship with her sister Mary, with whom she shared a life-long interest in spiritualism. The KSD papers are available at Beinecke Library, Yale University. Most of them deal with the Societe Anonyme. For further biographical information, see Notable American Women, Vol. IV.


The Mary Elisabeth Dreier papers arrived at the Schlesinger Library in no particular order. MED had attempted to sort them while partly blind and they had subsequently been repacked. They have been divided into three series, each arranged chronologically except where noted. There are some professional papers, but most of the collection consists of correspondence with family members and friends. Most of the papers date from the 1920's or later.
Series I, Personal and Professional Papers, includes day books, which give some indication of MED's daily activities; however, except for a short run in the 1950's, they exist for only random years, and she did not write every day.
Most of the poetry in #14-18 was occasional, written for various holidays or addressed to relatives or friends; the poems in #17 are addressed to KFC, the initials of a nickname of Raymond Robins.
MED's financial records are fairly complete. They include information on taxes and investments, people MED helped support, and organizations to which she regularly contributed. The NYWTUL material contains very little from MED's early years or the years of her presidency with the League. There is almost no information about the 1909 shirtwaistmakers' strike which MED led and during which she was arrested. There are several personal accounts of work and living conditions by women who worked in the garment industry (see #45). The correspondence with executive secretary Elisabeth Christman provides a good picture of the League's last 15 years, when it was beset with the financial problems that finally forced it to dissolve. The professional materials (#71-76) also contain little information about MED's most active years.
The correspondence between Frances Kellor and MED spans the length of their fifty-year relationship. The letters document the close and affectionate nature of their friendship; there is some discussion of their work, especially in the early years.
The major portion of this series consists of correspondence, arranged alphabetically. MED often established personal friendships with people she worked with and so there has been no attempt to distinguish personal and professional correspondence. Most of the letters are to MED; the occasional letter from MED is interfiled with the appropriate correspondent. Major correspondents have their own folders; these are followed by general alphabetical folders.
Series II, Dreier Family Papers, contains papers of various members of the family, mainly their correspondence with MED and with others. Many of the early Dreier letters (pre 1900) are in German, as is MED's correspondence with German relatives. Most of the letters in this series are to MED from her family; letters from MED are interfiled with those from the appropriate correspondent.
MED's correspondence with MDR reveals a close and loving relationship between the two sisters. There is little discussion of the NYWTUL or of other professional interests; most of the letters deal with family matters and mutual friends. Later letters illustrate MDR's increasing dependence on MED as the health of MDR and RR began to fail. MED also maintained a long and deeply affectionate correspondence with her brother-in-law RR. They created the "Order of the Flaming Cross"; she calls him "Knight of the Flaming Cross" (KFC) and he calls her "Lady of the Flaming Cross" (LFC). The RR papers contain numerous clippings about his disappearance in the 1930's (at first attributed to kidnapping, but in fact due to amnesia). There is also a folder of correspondence between MED and RR's sister, Elizabeth Robins, an actress and writer who for many years made her home in England. MED's correspondence with Lisa von Borowsky deals mainly with the activities of the Robinses, their health problems after RR was paralyzed in an accident in the 1930's, and the care of the estate after RR died.
Some of the letters between MED and HED or Theodore Dreier and MED discuss MED's and other family financial matters, but most of the correspondence is devoted to an exchange of family news. (See also correspondence with nephew Peter Voohees #32 and 33). MED faithfully corresponded with her brother and sister-in-law, their children and grandchildren until she died, and the letters reveal the interest of a loving sister and doting aunt.
The long run of correspondence between KSD and MED again illustrate the concern and affection MED felt for her family. KSD was especially close to MED; her letters report fully on her work and political attitudes, with occasional references to family tensions. Many of the letters discuss spiritualism and KSD's efforts to examine its effects on her day-to-day life.
Series III, Photographs, includes photographs of MED, her family and friends. Very few of the pictures are dated, and some are not identified. Of particular interest is the photograph of MED's grandfather Heinrich Eduard Dreier in #301, and of MED's parents with two of their children and several other relatives in the same folder. The arrangement of this series parallels that of Series I and II.

Additional catalogue entries (a card for each of the following appears in the card catalogue):

Allen, Florence Ellinwood, 1884-1966
Anderson, Mary, 1872-1964
Balch, Emily Greene, 1867-1961
Baum, Pearl Handelman, 1915-
Blossom, Bertha
Blossom, Fred, 1865?-1941
Brown, Jane
Cabot, Richard Clarke, 1868-1939
Christman, Elisabeth, 1881-1975
Coit, Eleanor Gwinnell, 1894-1976
Commager, Henry Steele, 1902-
Cook, Nancy, 1882-1941
Davis, Jerome, 1891-1979
Davis, Mildred Greta Rood, 1899-
Dewson, Mary Williams, 1874-1962
Dickerman, Marion, 1890-
Dreier, Dorothea Adelheid, 1870-1923
Dreier, Ethel Valentine, 1874-1958
Dreier, Henry Edward, 1872-1955
Dreier, John, 1906-
Dreier, Katherine Sophie, 1877-1952
Dreier, Theodore
Duchamp, Marcel, 1877?-1968
Eaton, Cyrus, 1884-1975
Eisenhower, Dwight David, 1890-1972
Fast, Howard, 1914-
Fisher, Welthy Honsinger, 1879-
Flexner, Eleanor, 1908-
Flynn, Elizabeth Gurley, 1890-1964
Frankfurter, Felix, 1882-1965
Franklin, Stella Miles, 1879-1954
Gawthorpe, Mary
Gompers, Samuel L., 1850-1924
Green, William, 1870-1952
Henry, Alice, 1857-1943
Herrick, Elinor Morehouse, 1895-1964
Hill, Dorothy
Hillman, Bessie
Hughes, Charles Evans, 1862-1948
Humphrey, Hubert Horatio, Jr., 1911-1979
Hurst, Fannie, 1889-1968
Ickes, Harold, 1874-1952
Ickes, Jane Dawlman
Ives, Irving McNeill 1896-1962
Javits, Jacob, 1904-
Johnson, Lyndon Baines, 1908-1973
Keating, Kenneth B., 1900-1975
Keller, Helen Adams, 1880-1968
Kellogg, Paul Underwood, 1879-1958
Kellor, Frances A., 1873-1952
Kennedy, John Fitzgerald, 1917-1963
Kenyon, Dorothy, 1888-1972
Kirchwey, Freda, 1893-1976
La Guardia, Fiorello, 1882-1947
Laidlaw, Harriet Burton, 1873-1949
Lamont, Corliss, 1902-
Lamont, Margaret, 1905?-1977
Lehman, Herbert H., 1878-1963
Lerner, Max, 1902-
Lewis, William Draper, 1867-1949
McWilliams, Carey, 1905-1980
Melish, William Howard
Miller, Frieda Segelke, 1889-1973
Mishnun, Eleanor
Morford, Richard
Morgenthau, Henry, 1856-1946
Morgenthau, Rita Wallach, 1881-1964
Morris, Newbold, 1902-1966
Mumford, Lewis, 1895-
Murrow, Edward Roscoe, 1906-1965
Nestor, Agnes, 1880-1948
Newman, Pauline
O'Brien, Agnes
O'Day, Caroline Goodwin, 1875-1943
O'Gorman, Alice, 1891?-1965
Paret, Bertha
Paret, Thomas
Pauling, Ava
Pauling, Linus 1901-
Pepper, Claude Denson, 1900-
Perkins, Frances, 1880-1965
Perutz, Helen
Polier, Justine Wise, 1903-
Robins, Elizabeth, 1862-1952
Robins, Margaret Dreier, 1868-1945
Robins, Raymond, 1873-1954
Roche, Josephine Aspinwall, 1886-1976
Rockefeller, Nelson Aldrich, 1908-1979?
Roosevelt, Eleanor, 1884-1962
Roosevelt, Franklin Delano, 1882-1945
Roosevelt, Theodore, 1858-1919
Saarinen, Aline Bernstein, 1914-1972
Schneiderman, Rose, 1882-1972
Smith, Hilda Worthington, 1888-
Smith, Jessica, 1895-
Stearley, Garrett
Stearley, Nan Dreier
Stein, Gertrude, 1874-1946
Strong, Anna Louise, 1885-1970
Swartz, Nelle, 1882?-1952
Swing, Raymond Gram, 1887-1968
Switzer, Mary Elizabeth, 1900-1971
Truman, Harry S., 1884-1973
Van Kleeck, Mary, 1883-1972
Von Loon, Hendrik Willem, 1882-1944
von Borowsky, Lisa Pauline Amman, 1904-
Voorhees, Dorothea Dreier, 1909-
Voorhees, Peter, 1902-1964
Wagner, Robert Ferdinand, 1877-1953
Wald, Lillian, 1867-1940
White, William Allen, 1868-1944
Williams, Albert Rhys, 1883-1962
Williams, Lucita Squier, 1889?-1980
Wise, Stephen Samuel, 1874-1949
Account books
Equal rights
Family records
Finance, Personal
Labor laws and legislation--Addresses, essays, lectures
Labor laws and legislation--New York
Life and Labor Bulletin
National Women's Trade Union League
New York Women's Trade Union League
Social reformers
Societe Anonyme
Textile workers
Trade unions
Women in public life
Women--Rights of women
Women's networks
World Congress of Mothers