Women's History in the Collections
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Val-kill footstool, walnut, c. 1926-36
Eleanor Roosevelt gave this handcrafted footstool as a wedding gift to Margaret Greaves Ryan, daughter of one of FDR's tax commissioners when FDR was governor of New York. The stool is marked "Val-kill" on the underside. Val-kill Industries was an enterprise that Eleanor Roosevelt operated with her friends Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman. The three women also shared a cottage on the Val-kill site near the Roosevelts' Hyde Park estate. The furniture factory was founded in 1926 and operated under the direct supervision of Nancy Cook, with ER handling marketing. ER invested her earnings from her radio talks and her writing in the factory and she promoted Val-kill as a women-owned business. The cottage and factory were one of the many ways ER created a more independent life for herself in the 1920s.
ER, Cook, and Dickerman viewed Val-kill Industries as a social "experiment" with a goal of providing employment to rural youths in order to stem the migration to cities. However, Cook discovered the local farm boys did not possess the skill required to make fine--and expensive-- early American reproduction furniture. In the tradition of such Arts & Crafts movement shops in New York State as Stickley and Roycroft , Val-kill Industries touted the superiority of handcrafted objects over machine-made ones. Most of the 20 to 30 employees were highly skilled Norwegian and Italian craftsmen. Also marked on the underside of this footstool is "OTTO 40," signifying that it was made by one of the Norwegian craftsmen, Otto Berge.
In 1936, ER, Cook, and Dickerman ended their partnership and closed the factory. The factory building was converted into ER's home, which is now a national historic site.
"I never made any money out of this furniture-making venture. In fact, I was probably one of the best customers the shop had because I bought various pieces of furniture as wedding presents and gifts for other occasions." --Eleanor Roosevelt
Christine Kleinegger, Senior Historian
For questions and comments, contact Christine Kleinegger, Senior Historian firstname.lastname@example.org
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