Skip to main content

Frances Bemis papers

 Collection
Identifier: SSC-MS-00016

Scope and Contents

The Frances Bemis Papers consist of 7 linear ft. of material from her professional career and date from 1933 to 1974. Photographs make up the largest portion of the collection, but the Papers also include biographical information, correspondence, publicity, scripts, clippings, programs, and scrapbooks.

The Papers detail Bemis's busy career over decades during which professional women were often a marginal part of the work-world. The documentary evidence of Bemis's innovative transformation of the staid department store exhibition into a headline-grabbing cavalcade indicates the often-overlooked influence of professional women in the mid-twentieth century. The Papers also illustrate the world of fashion in 1930s-50s New York City and give a window into the celebrity and consumer culture of this time.

Dates of Materials

  • 1921-1974

Creator

Language of Materials

English.

Conditions Governing Access

The papers are open to research according to the regulations of the Sophia Smith Collection.

Conditions Governing Use

Materials in this collection may be governed by copyright. For reproductions of materials that are governed by fair use as defined under U. S. Copyright Law, no permission to cite or publish is required. Researchers are responsible for determining who may hold materials' copyrights and obtaining approval from them. Researchers do not need anything further from Smith College Special Collections to move forward with their use.

Biographical / Historical

Frances Bemis was a public relations specialist, executive, writer, radio producer, and fashion director. She was born in Georgia on 25 June 1898, and she attended Oglethorpe University and the University of California. In the 1920s, she wrote columns for the Atlanta Constitution and Journal, and she started her public relations career by handling publicity for the Woman's Club of Atlanta. She accompanied her husband (probably Clarence Bemis) to New York City in the late 1920s, and it was there that she became a professional in the fields of public relations and advertising. (She used the name Frances Bemis professionally. She was married four times, but the names of her husbands and dates of the marriages are unknown). Hearn's, a Brooklyn Department Store that during the Depression declared itself "the bargain store of all the people," hired her as a fashion promoter and publicist in 1932. Bemis is responsible for numerous innovations in the field of department store publicity. She designed events that were guaranteed to garner press attention and bring crowds of entertainment-starved, Depression-Era New Yorkers to the free events at the store. She used celebrities and lavish shows with elaborate sets and costumes to promote new departments and features of the store, fashion collections, and holiday tie-ins. For example, in 1936-37, she staged a dog show, brought a psychologist to the store to counsel shoppers on their personal problems, hired legendary society woman Elsa Maxwell to emcee a fashion contest, and held a Thanksgiving Day circus in Central Park. In addition to writing scripts and coordinating production of these events, Bemis wrote lively releases for the press and radio. News of her events could often be found on the women's pages of New York papers, and occasionally, she made the front pages of the paper, as was the case when Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia opened ceremonies for Forgotten Man Day in 1934, a response to the National Recovery Act.

In 1938, Bemis left Hearn's department store to do free-lance public relations work with the Claire Wolff Agency. Among other projects, she directed a "College Girl's Day" for the Ford Motor Company at the 1939 New York World's Fair and staged a "Fashions Out of Test Tubes" event for the chemical industry. Her husband, (first name unknown) McLain, had joined the Army air force, and Bemis enlisted in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps in 1943. She was stationed in Daytona Beach, where she gave radio addresses and staged entertainment for GIs and WAACs. She achieved the rank of corporal and was given an honorable discharge upon the urging of New York Times editor Ivan Veit. The Times sought a director for a war-time fashion show intended to vaunt New York City as a fashion capital while Parisian fashion houses languished under German occupation. The result, Bemis's "Fashions of the Times," was an unqualified success. Spectators filled the show to capacity, and the publicity did much to promote American fashion.

After the war, Bemis returned to Atlanta to become Director of Special Events at Rich's Department Store. She drew great press for her "Fashionata" show (1946-47), which used local socialites as models in a typically lavish production. In 1947, Bemis took a position as Director of Feature Events at New York City's Abraham and Strauss Department Store. She stayed at A and S until 1954 and continued her successful formula of spectacular events, luminous personalities, and innovative consumer services. Her personal interests in the fine arts, radio, and literature were reflected in several shows in which she showcased notable artists and performers, including Betty Smith (author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn), the Met Opera's Rise Stevens, and radio and TV star Morey Amsterdam.

In 1956, Bemis moved to St. Augustine, Florida for a retirement of sorts. Though she no longer staged fashion extravaganzas, she used her considerable creative energy for civic and charitable activities. She worked as a publicist for the city of St. Augustine, wrote for the local papers, volunteered at an art gallery, and took an interest in advocacy for civil rights and the mentally ill. She was murdered in November, 1974.

Extent

14 boxes (7 linear feet)

Overview

Public relations specialist, radio producer, and fashion director. The Papers document Bemis's very active professional career, as well as the world of fashion in 1930s-50s New York City, giving a window into the celebrity and consumer culture of this time. Photographs make up a large portion, mainly of Bemis' fashion shows, special events, celebrities, and models. Correspondents include doll-maker Madame Alexander, Svetlana Allilueva (daughter of Josef Stalin), and many of the writers, artists, and radio and television personalities. Other materials include personal writings, scrapbooks, correspondence, and scripts.

Arrangement

This collection is organized into five series:
  1. I. Biographical Materials
  2. II. Correspondence
  3. III. Writings
  4. IV. Professional Activities
  5. V. Subject Files

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The Frances Bemis Papers were donated to the Sophia Smith Collection in 1974 by Mary-Louise Wagman Boyer (Smith College class of 1951), the executor of Bemis's estate.

Processing Information

Reprocessed by Amanda Izzo, 2002.
Title
Frances Bemis papers
Subtitle
Finding Aid
Author
Amanda Izzo
Date
2003
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
English
Script of description
Latin
Sponsor
Encoding funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Revision Statements

  • 07/26/2017: This resource was modified by the ArchivesSpace Preprocessor developed by the Harvard Library (https://github.com/harvard-library/archivesspace-preprocessor)
  • 2005-09-23: mnsss146 converted from EAD 1.0 to 2002 by v1to02-5c.xsl (sy2003-10-15).
  • 2017-07-26T17:48:11-04:00: This record was migrated from InMagic DB Textworks to ArchivesSpace.
  • 2019-07-02: Added list of names under 'Photographs'

Repository Details

Part of the Sophia Smith Collection of Women's History Repository

Contact:
Neilson Library
7 Neilson Drive
Northampton MA 01063