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Fanny Fern and Ethel Parton papers

Identifier: SSC-MS-00117

Scope and Contents

The Fanny Fern and Ethel Parton Papers contain 7 linear feet and consist primarily of biographical data, including photographs, and material pertaining to the two women's writings. The collection is actually two separate but related sets of papers and have been arranged as such, beginning with the Fanny Fern Papers (SERIES I -IV), and continuing with the Ethel Parton Papers (SERIES V - IX). Types of material include correspondence, photographs and daguerreotypes, typescripts, printed matter, books, artwork, and memorabilia. The bulk of the papers date from 1850 to 1944, although many of Ethel Parton's typescripts are undated and it is unclear how many of them ever reached publication. Items that may be of particular interest to researchers include Fanny Fern's correspondence; photographs and drawings of Fanny Fern and members of her extended family; early editions of books by Fanny Fern; typescripts of all of Fanny Fern's New York Ledger articles (1856-72), compiled by Florence Bannard Adams, as well as a run of original issues of the New York Ledger (1871-72) containing pieces by Fanny Fern; "Popular Pundit: Fanny Fern and the Emergence of the American Newspaper Columnist," a paper by Smith College senior Elaine Gelles Breslaw '56; and typescripts of two unpublished biographies of Fanny Fern: "Fanny Fern: An Informal Biography" by Ethel Parton and "Who on Earth Was Fanny Fern?" by Ruth Sexton Sargent.

Dates of Materials

  • 1805-1982


Language of Materials


Conditions Governing Access

This collection is open for research use without restriction beyond the standard terms and conditions of Smith College Special Collections.

Conditions Governing Use

The copyright owner of unpublished works by Fanny Fern and Ethel Parton is unknown. Elaine Gellis Bradshaw has retained rights to \"Popular Pundit: Fanny Fern and the Emergence of the American Newspaper Columnist;\" copyright to \"Who on Earth Was Fanny Fern?\" has been retained by Ruth Sexton Sargent; and the Parton family have retained literary rights to \"Fanny Fern: An Informal Biography\" by Ethel Parton. 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

Sara Payson Willis Parton, author and newspaper columnist better known as Fanny Fern, was born in Portland, Maine on July 9, 1811 to Nathaniel Willis and Hannah Parker. The fifth of nine children, Sara was educated in Boston and at Catharine Beecher's seminary in Hartford, Connecticut. While still in school she occasionally contributed to her father's periodical for children, Youth's Companion. Willis married Charles Eldredge in 1837. The couple had three daughters, Mary, Grace, and Ellen. After the death of Eldredge in 1846, Willis married Boston merchant Samuel P. Farrington, whom she divorced three years later. After several dismal employment ventures, in 1851 she began writing under the name Fanny Fern for several small Boston magazines. Numerous newspapers soon picked up her humorous pieces. A collection of her writings was published in 1853 as Fern Leaves from Fanny's Port-Folio, an immediate bestseller. She married historian and biographer James Parton in 1856. Fanny Fern's other publications include two novels, Ruth Hall (1855) and Rose Clark (1856); and six collections of her columns including Fresh Leaves (1857), Folly as It Flies (1859), Ginger-Snaps (1870), and Caper-Sauce (1872). Her astounding success led to a regular weekly column in the New York Ledger, making her America's first women columnist. Fern's works incorporated wit and impudence, dealing with such topics as domestic problems, equality between the sexes, the double standard of morality, the need for parents to respect willful children, and tomboys. She deplored excessive housework and too large families, encouraged women to seek wider fields of endeavor, poked fun at the august male, and criticized conventional religion. A suffrage supporter after 1858, Fern was a co-founder of New York City's pioneer woman's club, Sorosis, in 1868. Fanny Fern died of cancer in New York on October 10,1872.

Ethel Parton was born in New York on December 1,1862 to Mortimer Thomson (whose pen name was Q. K. Philander Doesticks) and Grace Eldredge, daughter of Sara Payson Willis Parton (Fanny Fern). Fanny Fern (her grandmother) and James Parton adopted her after the death of her mother. After Fanny Fern's death in 1872, James Parton married Ethel's aunt, Ellen Willis Eldredge, and the couple cared for Ethel along with their own children. Ethel was educated at home by James Parton, at the school of Jane Andrews, and at the Putnam Free School in Newburyport, Massachusetts. After high school Ethel worked for James Parton as "secretary, literary assistant, and occasional collaborator." She changed her surname to Parton on attaining her majority. After James Parton's death, Ethel was a correspondent for Youth's Companion (founded by her great-grandfather, Nathaniel Willis) and contributed verses and stories to St. Nicholas. At age 70, she began writing children's books. These included 6 titles, popularly known as "The Newburyport Chronicles" which were set in early 19th-century Newburyport: Melissa Ann (1932), Tabitha Mary (1933), Penelope Ellen (1936), Vinnie Applegay and Minnie Applegay (1937), Runaway Prentice (1939), The Lost Locket (1940), and The House Between (1943). Ethel Parton died in 1944.


10.793 linear feet (21 containers)


Author, journalist, columnist, children's author, and humorist. Sara Payson Willis wrote for several small Boston magazines under the name Fanny Fern; numerous newspapers soon published her pieces. She had a regular weekly column in the New York Ledger and was one of the first woman columnists. Ethel Parton, granddaughter of Sara Willis and James Parton, worked as a writer and literary assistant, and at age 70 began writing children's books. Materials include extensive writings, correspondence, sketches, albums, and photographs.


This collection is organized into nine series:

  1. I. Fanny Fern Biographical Material
  2. II. Fanny Fern Correspondence
  3. III. Fanny Fern Memorabilia
  4. IV. Fanny Fern Photographs
  5. V. Fanny Fern Writings
  6. VI. Ethel Parton Biographical Material
  7. VII. Ethel Parton Correspondence
  8. VIII. Ethel Parton Writings
  9. IX. Ethel Parton Artwork

Immediate Source of Acquisition

James Parton II donated the Fanny Fern Papers in 1951. He added to the collection on numerous occasions, most recently in 1992, and arranged for the Newburyport (MA) Public Library to donate the Ethel Parton Papers in 1978. Ruth Sexton Sargent gave the manuscript of her unpublished biography, "Who on Earth Was Fanny Fern?," to the Sophia Smith Collection in 1978.

Related Material

The papers of James Parton (1822-1891), Fanny Fern's third and last husband, and of James Parton II (b. 1912), her great-grandson, are in the Houghton Library at Harvard University and in the Harvard University Archives, located in the Nathan Marsh Pusey Library. The Olive Branch and the Boston True Flag, both of which Fern wrote for until she signed an exclusive contract with the New York Ledger in 1856, are located at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Processing Information

Processed by Burd Schlessinger, 2000.

Fanny Fern and Ethel Parton papers
Finding Aid
Burd Schlessinger
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Describing Archives: A Content Standard
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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 (
  • 2005-09-23: mnsss19 converted from EAD 1.0 to 2002 by v1to02-5c.xsl (sy2003-10-15).
  • 2017-07-26T17:48:12-04:00: This record was migrated from InMagic DB Textworks to ArchivesSpace.
  • 2022-03-03: Integrated description of oversized materials

Repository Details

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

Neilson Library
7 Neilson Drive
Northampton MA 01063