ELEANOR ROOSEVELT could be called a Superstar First Lady. In the era when women's suffrage was first being exercised, she was "pushing the envelope" of what the President's wife, and women in general, might be expected to do in civic life. She wrote syndicated columns for magazines and newspapers, the most famous of which was entitled "My Day," a daily column that continued from 1936 until shortly before her death in 1962. Mrs. Roosevelt had a successful career as a radio broadcaster, talking not only about home and family, as might be expected of a female public figure, but also commenting on the news. She used these forums to promote the New Deal, the great economic and social policy reforms of her husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt. For her work in these media she was paid, which was itself controversial at the time, because many people expected a woman to rely solely on her husband's earnings.
Through her vast public exposure, the public came to know the First Lady as just "Eleanor." Early in FDR's first term as president, she wrote in a column for the magazine Woman's Home Companion, "I want you to write to me. I want you to tell me about the particular problems which puzzle or sadden you, but I also want you to write me about what has brought joy into your life." Little did Eleanor know what was about to happen: she received an estimated 300,000 letters in 1933. Year after year, the flood of correspondence continued. Eleanor was, of course, unable to respond personally to most of the letters, but she did pass many of them on. At first, she sent them to friends and contacts who might be able to help in a particular region of the country, and then to the appropriate government agencies created by New Deal legislation. (1) She also discussed them in her radio show and daily newspaper column.
Many of the letters to Eleanor were written by young people. During these years of the Great Depression, they wrote about their families' material and financial needs in food, clothing, and shelter; their health problems, including polio and tuberculosis; their hopes for their own education and the future; and the lack of income that so severely affected all aspects of their lives. Often, they asked for an outright loan.
The hand-written letters, collected over the years of the Roosevelt administration, are archived at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York, where they are available to students of history. (2)
Lesson Plan: Letters to Eleanor
In this cooperative learning activity, I share photocopies of several hand-written letters obtained from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum to teach my students about the Great Depression. Five handouts, which are excerpts of letters, follow. This one-hour classroom lesson helps give a personal meaning to the statistics and textbook descriptions. Students enjoy reading and analyzing a letter by someone close to their own age. It is interesting, for example, how many concerns are shared across the generations, from romance and celebrations (like high school graduation) to hardships and doubts (such as problems with parents or the high cost of life-saving medications).
In the lesson outlined below, I ask students to read a letter carefully and then categorize the concerns of the young person who is writing: Do the topics of this young person's letter reflect a social, political, or economic concern? Students discuss in small groups the contents of the letter and how parts of it might fit into one or more of these categories. Sometimes the categorizing is simple, and yet sometimes the task is more complex. The final class discussion relates the letter writers' concerns with what my students are learning from other sources about the causes and consequences of the Great Depression.
It would be misleading to have students count the results of their categorization. There should be no numerical "summing up" of concerns: the sample size of letters is much too small and the categories are not precisely defined. …