Written by Sichu Mali, summer intern
While cataloging Frances Perkins’s documents at The Brick House this summer, I’ve discovered articles and correspondence on the history of the Perkins family. Among the articles I’ve found was one regarding the Perkins & Butler retail business. According to an article dated 1913, the Perkins & Butler retail business was the largest wholesale paper and twine dealer in Worcester, Massachusetts. Besides carrying paper and twine, their store also carried a line of stationery.
The business was founded by Frederick W. Perkins, Frances Perkins’s father, in October 1, 1882 and was initially known as F.W. Perkins Wholesale. He advanced his business venture alone until 1900 when he admitted George S. Butler to partnership. The business then continued under the firm name Perkins & Butler.
However a letter from George Butler’s attorney to Frances Perkins dated 1916 shows that, with the death of her father, the partnership was automatically dissolved under the Massachusetts law. It became the duty of Frances and her mother to liquidate the business and dispose of the assets or to simply accept a payment worth Frederick’s share in the retail business from Butler and let him continue the business.
In the letter, attorney Willis Sibley suggested to Frances that her mother “should get her money and interest out of the firm” as he did not believe “it was policy for a woman to continue with business with which she could not conveniently keep in touch.” Frances Perkins, who strongly believed in women’s equality, must have found such a remark to be misogynist as well as disrespectful.
By 1916, Frances had already graduated from Columbia University. After receiving her degree, she was appointed the secretary of the Consumers’ League in New York, where she worked for better conditions for working men and women. While we don’t know her actual reaction to this letter, Frances, who defended the labor rights of both men and women, can be imagined to have deemed it appalling. At the same time, such discouraging comments made to her about women may have actually strengthened her will to succeed.