A Summer in Italy, 1929 (Part 1)

RCB’s copy of his Scientific American article on perishable paper (1928)

Lately I’ve been working on the summer of 1929, which Bob and Frances spent in Italy. This was a crucial year in their careers: their book What is Right with Marriage was published; they moved from New York to Northampton, Mass, where Bob was appointed Associate Professor to replace Sidney Fay at Smith College; they had their second child (my father); and Bob’s campaign to draw attention to the problem of perishable paper started to bear fruit.

Motive and Opportunity

In the Summer of 1929, Bob and Frances had been living in New York for two years, while Bob taught history at NYU’s Washington Square College, Frances wrote stories, and both wrote articles and tried to launch their literary careers. They lived at 49 Morton St. in the West Village in an apartment building to which they had drawn a convivial circle of friends.

They had planned a European trip since the winter at least. Bob described the purpose in a letter to Ralph Lutz (director of the Hoover War Library) in January:

The scheme is to choose our city – one with the right library – rent a place to live, perhaps even set up a minor kind of housekeeping and let Frances brush up her Italian by bargaining in the market for melons and cabbages. I will finish learning the language, and finish the Italian chapter of my thesis, besides getting that kind of familiarity with Italy – (a kind which is useful even though superficial) – which I already feel that I have with France.1

To his old supervisor R.T. Crane, Bob wrote: “Frances and I will probably go to Italy this summer, where I will study Fascism and write up my Italian chapter”.2 He was evidently working on developing his dissertation on the response of European public opinion to Wilson’s diplomacy in the First World War into a book. (The project was eventually shelved, and his dissertation remains unpublished.)

In the early spring they were still unsure that they would be able to pay for the trip. Bob wrote to friends, probably in March:

“The Great Problem here for the moment is how to raise enough money to pay for tickets to Italy for the summer. We made reservations in the expectation that we would be able to raise the requisite resources somehow. We will probably succeed by a minimum margin…3

They proposed to pay for the trip from the profits from their articles and their book. When they moved to New York they planned to write an article a week; by early 1929 they were managing one per month, and selling some of them. Bob wrote to Bill Adams in January:

The design of writing one-article-a-week has petered out, but we have just barely come through with one a month. This may mean, if it keeps up, that we will get that trip to Italy.4

And to Merv Crobaugh in April:

This literary racket has become standardized more or less in these parts. We figure on selling one out of three or one out of four of the articles. Since January we have sold two, one to Current History and one to New Republic.5

At this time they were also trying unsuccessfully to find publishers for two other works: Carl Wilhelmson’s first novel The Firefly Catchers, and Bob’s father Christian Binkley’s translation of the Tao Te Ching. They started to employ a literary agent, Natalie W. Davison, and in April they signed a contract with Appleton’s for the publication of their book Domestic Theory (published as What is Right with Marriage). This brought them an advance of $150 each,6 which assured them of the cost of the trip to Italy.

All this time there had been a factor that would surely have complicated their calculations: Frances was pregnant. She must have conceived in late November, 1928; but they kept the news from all but their closest friends through the spring. Bob wrote to Carl Wilhelmson in late March:

Frances and I are trying our best now to raise enough money to buy tickets to Italy for the summer. The money has to be made by writing, and I am just barely making it. And even more interesting than that, we are to have another baby, to be born in Italy, if all goes well. I must ask you not to mention this to anyone. You are absolutely the only one in the West who is being told, and that by Frances’ special permission. Of course we don’t want to have our families worried over the thing of having the child born in Italy. But actually, through my university connections, I can get the best doctors in Italy to take care of Frances.7

Their concern for their families’ worry was well founded. Frances’ mother described the reaction in the Williams household to the news of the trip (without word yet of the baby):

I am so excited – thrilled over the word that you are going to Italy on a summer cruise. but your father sat before the fireplace – his head dropped – and he slumped down in his chair – and didn’t speak a word for a long, long time. Then he said “Well you know Frances is not so very strong and I do hope Bob will take good care of her and bring her back safe and sound”. Then he lit a cigar, walked out to the front porch and for an hour paced up and down. That is how he feels – but me – I am glad that you are going to be able to do the thing that will give you so much pleasure.8

That perhaps explains why Frances did not get around to telling her parents about the baby until May 25, too late for a response to reach her from Oregon before they sailed:

A fact which I have scarcely noticed up to now, what with so much general excitement, is that I am going to have a baby in September. We planned to work in our two desires, a baby and a trip abroad, at the same time. We started the baby, perhaps, a trifle late because it will have to be born just on time in order to see Bob before he leaves for home. However, we wanted to make sure we would make enough money from writing before we started, and I think now things will come out about right.9

Bob and Frances were in touch with Margaret Sanger‘s family planning clinic and were sending summaries of information about contraception to their siblings,10 so they were well-informed about planning a pregnancy. Indeed, in April Bob wrote to Congressman Fiorello La Guardia urging him to read into the congressional record Mary Dennett’s sex education pamphlet, to prevent it being suppressed.11 The previous summer Bob and Frances had discussed their plans for baby and trip, and typically, they typed up the options in a protocol, starting with Frances’ enumeration of the options:

Report on Baby. 5 August, 1928

F’s report.

  • Plan No. 1. Start immediately. Baby May 1. Meanwhile sell articles & get Belgian fellowship. June 15, sail, for year abroad. Return and finish year (and book) in Cabin.
  • Plan No. 2. High pressure work this year; summer abroad. Baby following year.
  • Plan No. 3. Same as 2, except pregnancy abroad.

R’s comments.

Plan #1 has many problematical features: whether fellowship will be secured; whether job will be had afterwards; it is by far the riskiest plan, and gives us the baby only about ten months earlier than plan 3. Plan 3 can easily be modified to equal plan 1 if fellowship is secured. Plan 3 seems to combine most perfect control of future, with least lapse of time before having baby.12

As it turned out they ended up somewhere between plans 1 and 3: the baby came in late August, not early May; they spent only the summer abroad, without the Belgian fellowship; and Bob had to leave for home only three weeks after the baby’s birth to start his new job at Smith College.

The final element of their summer plans fell into place when the program for the World Bibliographic Congress was announced in March. The Congress was the first organized under the auspices of the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA), which had been inaugurated at a meeting in Edinburgh two years before. It was hosted by the Italian government. It was to open in Rome, hold a few days of sessions there, then break into a series of exhibitions in various Italian cities, and close with two days of plenary sessions in Venice. The conference was to take place in Rome and other Italian cities, June 15-30 - a perfect fit for Bob and Frances’ plans.13

There were 16 sections, and Bob’s attention was immediately drawn to Section VI: Book Production and Book Collecting, chaired by Theodore Wesley Koch, chief librarian at Northwestern University. This seemed to him an outstanding opportunity to draw attention to the problem of perishable paper, which had occupied him since his time in the Hoover War Library. There he observed that wartime newspapers printed on wood-pulp paper were already deteriorating, and in some cases were unusable. Since coming to New York he had collaborated with Harry Lydenberg at New York Public Library and C.C. Williamson at Columbia to promote action on this problem among the funding agencies and scholarly organizations.14 By the spring of 1929 they had had some success: there was a prospect of research funding from the Carnegie Foundation,15 and they had engaged the attention of the Secretary of the Interior Ray Lyman Wilbur (former president of Stanford University). This raised prospects of reaching the ears of the new president, Herbert Hoover, who as founder of the Hoover War Library and a loyal Stanford man could be expected to respond positively to proposals that emanated from that institution.16

The action Bob and his collaborators sought was on two fronts:

  1. to have governments, newspapers and other publishers print a limited run of their important series on durable rag paper for libraries
  2. to promote research into the chemical properties of wood-pulp paper, to discover methods of preserving it; and also to develop media such as microphotography to prevent the loss of irretrievably damaged texts

Bob had collaborated on the latter goal with his brother Charles, who was now just finishing his masters in chemistry at Stanford. Bob hoped that a side-effect of the project would be a research position for Charles.17

The Congress offered an opportunity to have a resolution adopted in favour of these projects, building on the one passed in 1928 by the League of Nations Committee on Intellectual Cooperation. Such a resolution could be used to support the various efforts that were ongoing in the American scholarly world. Bob accordingly wrote to Koch in mid-March, as well as to Ralph Lutz, Lydenberg and Williamson. They organized a push to get the perishable paper problem onto the Congress program, either in the form of a paper or as a discussion point leading to a resolution. Koch agreed, and Bob was endorsed as a representative of the Hoover War Library at the Congress.18

Ever one to keep many balls in the air, Bob also wrote to Social Science Abstracts, for which he and Frances had recently started abstracting articles. He proposed to distribute samples at the Congress and publicize the service, and also to look for opportunities to fill gaps in its coverage.19 Sample issues were duly sent on to Rome.20

Practical arrangements for the trip had to be completed. Since they would be returning to the new job at Smith College, Bob and Frances gave up their apartment in New York, transferring it to their friends Kate Beswick and Joan Pearson. It appears that Amasa (“Ted”) Miller would be subletting over the summer. At the last minute the landlord tried to move new tenants in at a higher rent, but this attempt was defeated.21 Their passport applications were complicated by the fact that neither Bob nor Frances had a birth certificate, so affidavits were required; Bob ended up making an appeal in early May to his cousin Russell Lutz, who worked in the State Department, to help with the process.22 Russell visited the passport office and had the passport in the mail a day later.23 Frances’ case was simpler, though her passport was fated to make two more Atlantic crossings than its owner. Galleys had to be proofed and Bob struggled to finish a review article he had promised to Bernadotte E. Schmitt, the editor of The Journal of Modern History; he wrote to Fay in mid-May: “An air of panic is becoming noticeable around here. The place looks like a factory with galleys and manuscripts thrown over everything.”24

A student of Bob’s had to telegraph them the departure date of their ship, the S.S. Minnekahda25 ; so perhaps they had left the city for a couple of days. On June 1, they went aboard. At the last minute the page proofs of What is Right with Marriage had arrived, to be corrected onboard.26 From the ship Bob wrote to Schmitt: “It is now after one o’clock, and the boat sails at three. I shan’t get this review finished anyway. So I might as well quit.”27 He sent a carbon copy of an early draft and promised to send the final version from France. They sailed.

  1. Doc. 1567: 1929-01-20.↩︎

  2. Doc. 1095: 1929-03-04.↩︎

  3. Doc. 2082: undated, probably March 1929, to Conrad and Esther Wright.↩︎

  4. Doc. 1227: 1929-01-16.↩︎

  5. Doc. 1079: 1929-04-13. The articles were “The ‘Guilt’ Clause in the Versailles Treaty”, Current History 30:2 (May, 1929) p.294-300, and “The Ethics of Nullification”, New Republic, May 1, 1929, 297-300.↩︎

  6. Doc. 1195: 1929-04-13.↩︎

  7. Doc. 2080: 1929-03-25.↩︎

  8. Doc. 2077: 1929-04-03.↩︎

  9. Doc. 100: 1929-05-25.↩︎

  10. Doc: 874: 1929-04-13: Bob to his brother Charles.↩︎

  11. Doc. 1551: 1929-04-23.↩︎

  12. Doc. 2299: 1928-08-05.↩︎

  13. “The First World’s Library and Bibliographical Congress, Rome-Venice, 15-30 June, 1929”, Library Journal 54 (1929), p.171; “Rome Will Exhibit Precious Old Books: Treasures of the Past Will Be Shown at World Congress of Libraries and Bibliography”, New York Times 1929-04-07, p.E4.↩︎

  14. Doc. 1569: 1928-12-18, RCB’s memorandum on the problem addressed to the American Council of Learned Societies.↩︎

  15. Doc. 1510: 1929-03-17 to Koch.↩︎

  16. Doc. 2099: 1929-01-20, to Wilbur.↩︎

  17. Doc. 930: 1928-08-24.↩︎

  18. Doc. 1510: 1929-03-17, to Koch; Doc. 1563: 1929-03-22, to Lydenberg; Doc. 2088: 1929-03-19, to Williamson; Doc. 2445: 1929-03-28, from Lutz.↩︎

  19. Doc. 1910: 1929-05-17; Doc. 2384: 1929-05-30.↩︎

  20. Doc. 1876: 1929-06-03.↩︎

  21. Doc. 2073: 1929-05-14.↩︎

  22. Doc. 1548: 1929-05-03.↩︎

  23. Doc. 1549: 1929-05-07.↩︎

  24. Doc. 2379: 1929-05-13.↩︎

  25. Doc. 1505: 1929-05-28.↩︎

  26. Doc. 107: 1929-06-01.↩︎

  27. Doc. 2389: 1929-06-01.↩︎


2 responses to "A Summer in Italy, 1929 (Part 1)"

  • Jan Binkley wrote:

    Nicely readable as well as informative -- side comments catch the personalities of Robert & Frances.

  • [...] of the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA). Bob and Frances accordingly spent the summer of 1929 in Rome. On their return, Bob was able to parlay his expertise in this area into an appointment as [...]