Tales From the Nitrate Negatives: The Taking of The Miami One Two Three

For this week’s Tales from the Nitrate Negatives, please humor us for a bit as we engage in a bit of train-based role play:

Imagine with for a second that it’s the early spring, 1947 and you’re finishing up a long train journey back to Champaign from Chicago. It’s a quaint Saturday morning and you’ve been expecting a relaxing ride home after a week working in the city. As you start to see the oh-so familiar corn and soybean fields flying past as your 100 mile per hour ride is whizzing through the state. As the image of  farmers riding by in tractors is starting to get a tad monotonous, you feel the train slightly lurch. Thankfully, you know this feeling well. It’s a totally normal feeling just before the train starts to decelerate on the trip into town. You feel that slightly thicker air drag on you as the body of the train begins slowing down, but you still have so much inertia dragging you forward. It’s a nice feeling, but you feel it a tad more intense than usual. Moments after that first lurch, the train lurches again. Before you can even question it, you hear the screeching wail of steel scraping against steel and you see sparks an iron go flying past these former farm-filled windows. Your cabin lurches one last time, harder than before. The rapid compression causes the windows to all shatter around you as your body is hurled over your diner car table. There is a brief moment where you are unbound by gravity just before you’re hurled headfirst into a silverware cart; your 1947 brain wonders “How in the world did some yuck, geezer, cold fish, chicken, chrome dome, 1940’s slang, train conductor just crash this train?!”. Everything goes black. You get flits of the fiery and wicked scene as you’re dragged out of the train by rescue crews and taken to a local hospital for injuries. The next morning, lying in a Champaign hospital,  you check the day’s newspaper. You read that your train somehow jumped a track injuring 197 and killing 2 people. Just before the, likely over-prescribed, morphine kicks in, you ask the question, “What in the world could have happened to this train?”


Well, the story of the City of Miami Streamliner is a graphic, yet interesting tale. On Saturday April 19th, train conductor Charles H. Redus noticed that the remote-control track switch meant to bring his train into into Champaign was hasn’t been flipped. In his reports to the investigators just before his passing, Redus noted that he’d seen a green light shine on the switch relay. While that traditionally meant he was clear to go, he saw from the front of the train that the switch itself had not actually flipped. He did his best to slow the train down in the 300 feet before the incoming disaster, but it was too late. The train hit the switch, jumped the track, and rolled itself off the train tracks. The Champaign News-Gazette of April 20, 1947, reports that it tore up more than a  quarter mile of track as the entire streamliner “went up in a nest of steel and a ball of flame.” On April 27th, a Daily Illini Article reported on an investigation by Amtrak and city officials. Their results found that an improper installation of electrical relays on the track was the culprit. Two relays, installed the morning just before the wreck occurred, were incorrectly installed. The signal was mistakenly inverted. So, when it was meant to flash yellow and signal to slow down, it shined green, and vice versa. If it weren’t for Redus’ keen eyes of the track itself, this mistaken relay could have brought the train full force into the crash zone. Just a simple electrical mistake that brought this 85 mile per hour (136 KMpH) missile of a train flying off the tracks into a ripped steel, diesel fireball.

Despite the coalescence of mistakes, the casualty numbers were thankfully very low. Initial reports said 197 people were injured, but the number was lowered to 107 by the 20th with only 32 hospitalized. The 2 casualties of the accident were the two men at the further points front and back of the train. The final car’s bagman, Charles N. Wood, and the engineer, Charles H. Redus, were the only people who lost their lives as a result of the crash. Many reports note that the tables bolted to the floor and chars adhered to the walls prevented massive structures from crushing people throughout the train.  The bagman, Charles Wood, was killed instantly. The lurches of the train and the collapse of the final car brought the bagging compartment crashing down on him. An eyewitness to the bag car reported that Wood was crushed by the luggage instantly and he couldn’t save him. The conductor, Charles Redus, was thrust into the control panel and his leg was badly injured. In a report from the April 25th Daily Illini, a passenger that rushed to his aid had to apply a tourniquet to his leg to stop the bleeding. Ambulances arrived 15 minutes after the crash when two different farmers plowing their nearby fields witnessed the explosion. The blast and sounds could be heard for miles and the response was thankfully almost instantaneous.

Within the hour, wrecking crews, garbage train cars, and Strauch himself were on scene. The images of these collection were taken around 15:00 when the wreck itself occurred at 13:15. His images capture both the astonishment of investigators, the shock on the eyes of the rescued passengers, and the grim visages of the wrecking crews. While one wouldn’t expect a series of just 31 images about a train crash to carry such emotion, Strauch captured the grueling ambiance of the scene. Gray clouds had rolled in, and the sheer carnage of a vehicle formerly so pristine is intense.

The speed at which Strauch arrived on scene allowed for history to be captured when it could have been just as easily lost to time. Almost a century later we can look back on a story so well preserved in the heart of these images. It makes us reflect on what images of the modern day tragedies we face will persevere, and what stories will be told of those caught in our versions of the train wreck? We approach a century since Strauch’s first pictures were taken, yet we still deal with the same feelings of loss and the same accidents that beget tragedy. So, the burden placed on us all is to think of how we can learn from the past to venerate those lost in the present.

Tales From the Nitrate Negatives: Home Sweet (Presidential) Home

For this week’s Tales from the Nitrate Negatives, we wanted to try something a bit different from usual. Instead of focusing on a single historical event documented through nitrates, we’re tracing the evolution of a house. More specifically, we follow the history of the houses of the presidents of the University of Illinois as captured in Bernard Strauch’s nitrate films. It’s been an expectedly tricky process to track down a couple house from over a century ago, especially if half houses were torn down in the mid 1900s. It is no walk in the park strolling through 18th and 19th century city housing directories so detailed that they  person’s race,  marriage status, and even their job. Thanks to a century and a half of Champaign-Urbana growth, what was 905 East Green Street back in 1890 could be halfway through the 1400 block of West Green Street in 2022. With directories, photographs, and even presidential biographies, we got hot on the case hunting down homes. At one point, we even tracked down Regent Gregory’s library card to see if he had an alternate address we needed to track down. This project, ostensibly a small history stemming from Strauch’s pictures of one presidential home turned into a dive into Champaign-Urbana lore. Through more than 150 years and 19 presidents of the University of Illinois, we present Home Sweet (Presidential) Home.

Gregory’s Champaign Home

Our history starts back in the late 1860’s when John Milton Gregory first came to Champaign, Illinois from Kalamazoo, Michigan as part of his quest to help build the young Illinois Industrial University. Gregory, appointed as the first Regent by the board of trustees, paid for the construction of his home at, then, 709 South 4th Street, Champaign Illinois. It was a quaint, two-story, brick house with a patio lightly extended into the front lawn and ivy growing up the columns. Some things don’t really change do they? By the University’s first year, Gregory was a notable figure in the Champaign-Urbana community! Regent Gregory lived in this home all 13 years of his presidency, and for a year after his retirement before he returned home to New York. The property of Gregory’s house was purchased by the Alpha Delta Pi fraternity in 1912, and then razed for the construction of the University’s first Alpha Delta Pi chapter house.

Following Gregory’s tenure, Regent Selim Hobart Peabody was appointed to the presidency by the Illinois Board of Trustees. Before his presidential term, Peabody was a professor at the University. In his early days of teaching, Peabody was reluctant to fully commit to Champaign and leave his family’s Chicago home behind. In a biography of Regent Peabody written by his daughter, she notes that he was invited by Regent Gregory to live with him for a few months before he full decided to establish a residency. Arguably, we could call Gregory’s home on 4th street the first “President’s House” handed down between presidents because two university presidents technically both occupied it. After committing to Illinois and fully transitioning his family to Champaign, Peabody moved into a home at 709 Mt. Hope Avenue. This house remained the President’s home during his tenure at the university. Unfortunately, neither the building nor Mount Hope Avenue exists today. Mount Hope Avenue was renamed Pennsylvania Avenue in the mid 20th century, and Peabody’s home was razed in the 1940’s to make room for the rapidly expanding University of Illinois.

Wright Street shot of the President’s Green Streeet house in the winter

Continuing the pattern formed by the first two regents, Peabody’s successor, Thomas Jonathan Burrill, simply transformed his home from his time as a professor to become the President’s house. Located at was once 1007 West Green Street, Burrill’s home occupied the land between where the Hendrick House Residence and the University Astronomy Building currently reside. Not much could be traced about this house beyond the fact that the 1898 housing directory notes that Burrill lived there for almost 5 years after his term as president ended before it disappeared from public record.

Front Photo of the President’s Green Street residence

Beginning with Andrew Sloan Draper’s Presidency, we see the first true rotating home of the president. His home was a well-kept house offset a stone’s throw north of the Green and Wright Street intersection. This nice estate nestled up against the Boneyard Creek was located at 905 W. Greet Street, and would now reside at 1410 West Green. It was purchased for the Draper by the University as a official President’s home for his time here. Beyond building a legacy of expansion and a connecting the University to the peaks of American industry, Draper built the historical legacy of a presidential manor handed off when he was succeeded by President Edmund Janes James in 1904. President James occupied the same Green Street residence bringing with him small expansions like a nice greenhouse out back and a drastically reworked landscape job around the property. The University finally started the dream of having a single president’s house that could be passed on through generations. Though it’s a simple gesture now, at the time having an official President’s house added a sense of prestige and community to the University.

David Kinley and John Pershing pose for Strauch’s camera outside Kinley’s home

Unfortunately, that dream of a generations-long house did not last. Following James’s Tenure, President David Kinley opted for a more conservative choice, preferring to stay in his Urbana home from his time as a professor. David Kinley’s home, a nice 2 story building just off Nevada street is still standing to this day. Located at 1203 W Nevada St in Urbana, Illinois, his home was purchased by the University of Illinois after his departure. It was eventually given and was given to the La Casa Cultural Latina, the latino/a cultural house in 1974.

President David Kinley retired in 1930 before Harry Woodburn Chase was appointed to the presidency. Chase returned to the former presidential manor off Green Street for a bit under a year before moving to the permanent presidential home. Consequently, the former president’s home off Green Street was appropriated by the university as a temporary student health center in the mid 1920’s. It also served as a student organization home after the student YMCA relocated its services from University Hall. They occupied that location for half a year before moving to their current Wright Street location. President Chase was the first to occupy the new, and current, president’s house on Florida Avenue. Chase’s time as President during the Great Depression forced him to deal with a tight economy, and an even tighter university budget following the stock market crash of 1929. With his limited funding, he continued the completion pre-depression Board of Trustees project to construct a new and continuous president’s house in 1930 for a cost of $225,000 ($4.2 million today).

Strauch’s Photo of the President’s house days before its completion

The 14,000 square-foot Georgian revival style building. was designed by the campus’ supervising architect James M. White, and Charles Platt of the Holabird and Roche architectural company. Holabird and Roche had designed a majority of the new buildings on campus of that era, and the president’s house was set to match the standard. James moved into the residence, located at 711 W Florida Ave, Urbana, and it’s remained the university standard for over 90 years. From President Chase to David Dodds Henry, from Stanley Ikenberry to Timothy Killeen, the home of the president has remained constant to this day.


Tales From The Nitrate Negatives: Pyromaniacs in the Pews?!

90 years ago this year, Champaign-Urbana was allegedly on the brink of collapse from the threat of communist arsonists roaming Central Illinois. Churches were burned to the ground, schools were armed with guards, and sheriffs were on high alert. Smoke and fear wafted through the air placing anyone in the twin cities in danger’s path. That’s at least the story that the media tried spinning for everyone. Images captured by Bernard Strauch the morning after the University Place Church Fire uncovered a story of two red scares– flames and commies alike –in March 1932.

Monday March 7th, 1932, the Urbana Daily Courier broke the story “University Place Church Burns” describing a massive blaze that had engulfed the University Place Church on the corner of Springfield Avenue and South Wright Street. The news report tells a harrowing tale of the building’s caretaker Walter Garland, and his wife who lived in the basement apartment of the church. After catching the smell of smoke late Saturday night, both rushed from the building and barely escaped as a fireball swallowed the building and collapsed the roof in. Fire departments arrived immediately to put out the blaze, but it was too late. The building had been completely destroyed in a matter of minutes, so they took to watering down the exteriors of adjacent buildings to prevent a spread of damage.  Early reports Sunday morning listed the damages at $100,000, but by Wednesday the estimates were upwards of $150,000.

The Champaign News-Gazette quoted the fire-chief on the matter, and the facts seemed relatively cut-and-dry: An aging boiler had started leaking and helped ignite the furnace and the resulting explosion started the fire. Everyone should be on alert to avoid leaving exposed flames near their boilers because it was a serious risk. However, the Champaign-Urbana newspapers didn’t find the story the police reports gave to be that simple. On one side, the news reported a revitalization of unity within the community. Students and community members rallied behind Reverend Fisher and found new spaces for the congregation to gather. There was even a reported increase in religious service attendance in the following months. A June 1932 article notes that the church had fully rebuilt its parishioner index card list larger than it ever had been. A March 12th Daily Illini article reports that university classes on religion were quickly relocated to the University High auditorium, and student prayer was held in Smith Hall at 10:30 AM on Sundays. However, on the other side of the matter was a skeptical media that amplified the voices that inspired panic and quieted the voices of those trying to calm the public down.

On a report from the confidant of a friend of the postmaster (Urbana’s local anti-communist leader), The News-Gazette reported there were two supposed communist “incendiarists” that had been ravaging Central Illinois for weeks. So, pretty much “a friend of a friend” assured him there were commies on the loose. The Urbana Daily Courier and The Daily Illini ran almost daily stories about updates from fires in nearby Bloomington and Lincoln Illinois. Their stories had started to feed into one another creating an almost feedback loop of anxiety over the matter. By chance, the third ransom note in the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping case had been published the same day as the fire, so the newspaper oozed conspiracy and crimes all over the incendiarist worries.

University Place Church C.A. 1920’s, pre-fire

The powder keg of public worry blew when the mayor announced a ‘shoot to kill order’  following a tip from the Urbana Postmaster John Gray. He had, on his authority, “shown” that the communists were involved in this alleged scheme. John Gray, just one day before the fire, issued a report that communists were not threatening Champaign-Urbana. Organized labor was “against communism because the wages they now receive are enough that they can afford the luxuries of life that would be unavailable under a communistic [sic] system”.  48 hours later, an “informant” reported to John Gray that two communists fled the scene of the church fire. In response, the city placed armed guards inside all public schools in the area. Despite all the chaos, the University’s supervising architect, James White, refused to post guards in university buildings. He denied any communist conspiracy and trusted a March 13th report that each fire was an accident.

It was not until Tuesday March 22nd that state-deputy-fire-marshal [sic]  Thomas Abrams declared that each fire from Bloomington to Champaign was “not of incendiary nature” and were each a product of a “likely overheated boiler”. The story of the two arsonists faded into nothingness overnight! Strauch’s images of the church at University Place along with images before its destruction are displayed in this post. We still face the same issues of mass panic, media frenzies on inaccurate information, and fear of terrorism. It’s interesting how just a few snapshots of one church can reveal so much about how history doesn’t just repeat, but it tends to rhyme

The Greatest Show of Love: Seat Belt Safety before Vince and Larry 1961-1973


The influence of the Crash Test Dummies Vince and Larry is hard to overstate. Twenty-five years after they rode off into the sunset, Vince and Larry still are celebrated for how many lives they, and their associated Ad Council campaign, saved. The importance of this campaign makes it critical to make notice of the safety PSAs that came before Vince and Larry. Long before they crashed into our living rooms for the first time, the Ad Council strove to protect Americans from accident misinformation. While not as successful as campaigns to come, the 1960s Safety Belt campaign served as an incubator for future ideas and practices. The earlier campaign’s shortcomings and setbacks laid the groundwork for the later transformative successes.


Lobbying the Lobbyists

Taking inspiration from the nascent Jet Age, Oldsmobile and by extension General Motors marketed their vehicles as fast, aerodynamic and powerful. They feared that any mention of the dangers of driving would severely impact their bottom line.

Originally invented for aviation pursuits, the first factory seat restraint option in American automobiles was offered by Nash in 1949. Buyers did not enjoy using these early seat belts. Customers believed they were unsafe and uncomfortable.

Many consumers believed it was better to be ejected from a vehicle than remain in the passenger cabin. Studies done by Nash and Ford showed customers removed seat belts from vehicles in droves. As a result, other manufacturers, namely General Motors, considered the endeavor to be a waste of time and money.

By contrast, Robert McNamara and the Ford Motor Company made safety a key selling point in 1956. 14% of Ford buyers opted for the “Lifeguard” safety package that year. For reasons that are still debated today, the Lifeguard package would be scrapped the following year. From the Collections of The Henry Ford

Even at the Ad Council, there were concern that a seat belt campaign would prove to be as unpopular as seat belts themselves.  As Leo Burnett, one of the directors of the Ad Council, stated in retrospect, “There were reservations as to how the [Ad] Council should proceed in this matter.” Since 1943, the Ad Council and several partner organizations had sponsored a campaign dedicated to accident prevention. In fact, sole purpose was to prevent accidents from occurring, not how to minimize injuries in the event of an accident (for more information on the early history of the campaign, please click this link). not merely want to add seat belts to the existing campaign–it wanted to devote all focus to seat belts.


1962 Seat Belt Safety Ad

This requested shift in focus raised several questions for the members of the Campaign Review Committee. While new car buyers would be able to take advantage of the hardware in their cars, what about those with pre-1962 model year vehicles? Would they be able to safely and economically retrofit seat belts in their vehicles? Otherwise, how much of an impact would a seat belt campaign have? Did it make sense to dedicate all of the Ad Council’s resources to a project with a limited target audience at the expense of the masses? Additionally, committee members were wary of the dissipation of gains made by the Highway Safety campaign’s emphasis on the enforcement of traffic laws. The Ad Council respected the desires of their partner, NSC, but did not believe that the time was right for such a change in the safety campaign’s messages.

On April 12, 1961, then-Executive Vice President of the National Safety Council General George C. Stewart spoke to the Ad Council Campaigns Review subcommittee to encourage this shift. He expressed appreciation for the Ad Council’s service and dedication to automotive safety. He stated NSC’s long-standing recommendation of the usage of seat belts and how their persistence was starting to bear fruit with automakers. Movers and shakers in Detroit had acquiesced to National Safety Council’s desires. Beginning with 1962 model year vehicles, all cars manufactured in America would come standard with seat belt latching points. That work would go to waste, however, if people were not aware of the benefits of seat belts. General Stewart, and by extension the National Safety Council, strongly believed in the power of advertising to create the necessary awareness. In the eyes of the National Safety Council, this was not something that could wait. Seat belts demanded the Traffic Safety campaign’s full attention. He ended his stump speech by saying that the National Safety Council would attempt to work out another theme with the Ad Council if seat belt safety was not implemented as they wished.


Once General Stewart ended his talk, members of the Campaign Review Committee began to express their concerns about such a quick overhaul of a long-standing campaign. After further discussion, the committee unanimously passed the following motion: “while the sole strategy of had been to prevent accidents, the emphasis should be broadened to save[ing] lives altogether. The Ad Council would continue to preach safe and legal driving habits while also encouraging seat belt usage to reduce the harm inflicted in the event of an accident.”


That being said, the committee still was concerned about potentially upsetting automotive manufacturing sponsors if the Ad Council acted without forewarning. The Board of Directors desired proof that such a move would not catch automakers off guard. The Council relied on the support of corporate partners to donate space and funds for programming; they were not in a position to directly influence their benefactors. With enough data and advertising, however, they could nudge those who did hold sway over automakers to act—the customer. Convince the public that seat belts were necessary, and hesitant automakers would be forced to offer them. If seat belts were readily available, reasonably priced, and relatively easy to install, what excuse would remain to automakers for not installing them? The NSC produced a veritable trove of studies, graphs, and (critically) advertising material for this revamp in time for the monthly Board of Directors which approved the proposal and promptly scheduled a joint press conference.


Advertisement for the revamped Stop Accidents/ Safety Belt Campaign, 1961

On June 27th, 1961, the Ad Council, National Safety Council, and the American Medical Association, alongside news outlets, gathered to announce a revamping of the Stop Accidents campaign. Ad Council President Theodore Repplier explained the necessity of this change with the following statement:

“When we started the Stop Accidents Campaign in 1945, the death rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled was 11.3. The rate last year was 5.3. While the National Safety Council has been most generous in citing the value of this campaign in helping to bring about this reduction, they are not satisfied and we are not satisfied as long as there are 38,000 people killed and almost one and a half million seriously injured in on our streets and highways.”

Although the Ad Council had done much to encourage safe driving habits while discouraging risky behaviors, traffic incidents are a fact of life as long as the human element remains a factor. As cars became bigger, faster and heavier, more needed to be done to protect passengers from their chrome-plated missiles. A driver could do everything right from taking precautions during inclement weather and only driving when in a condition to do so safely, but still be mangled by another driver’s mistakes.

Bumps in the Road

Divisions spread within the Safety Taskforce. The campaign languished in limbo, as some members did not want to dedicate Ad Council resources to a campaign that did not have the endorsement of its sponsoring agency. These members proposed a one to two year “holiday” on the campaign, while others, recognizing the importance of the campaign, pushed for its renewal. Even Howard Pyle expressed reservations on the continuance of the partnership after the campaign’s December 31st, 1964 expiration date.

Less than two months from deadline, Pyle wrote a letter expressing a change of heart. The National Safety Council definitely requested continuance if the campaign. The Ad Council agreed to extend the campaign for one year, contingent upon two conditions: that the NSC and Ad Council mutually agree upon a copy theme that the campaign group feels would be effective and the signing of an agreement upon communication policies and procedures to prevent tensions from rising in the future.

Seat Belt Safety Magazine Ads, 1968

With these kinks ironed out the Seat Belt campaign soldiered on, outliving other campaigns, presidential administrations and even members of the Council’s Board of Directors. Finally, thirty years after its inception, the Stop Accidents/Seat Belt Safety campaign died a quiet death in 1974. With the end of the campaign, seat belt awareness and promotion would languish for an entire decade. By the time seat belt safety was resurrected in the 1980s, any noticeable gains made by the Council’s push had been eliminated. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, only 15 percent of Americans reported using seat belts while driving. For perspective, 1 out of every 7 ford buyers paid for the privilege of having seat belts in 1956.


Where Did It Go Wrong?

In the words of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “the body politic, as well as the human body, begins to die as soon as it is born, and carries in itself the causes of its destruction.” The first iteration of the seat belt safety campaign died as a result of a flaw present at its creation–not enough people responsible for the campaign believed in it. The Council has always been at its most influential when selling ideas that they fully supported. Seat Belt Safety was born under a haze of apprehension and doubt. For once, it was the Council that needed to be sold on an idea.

1984 Safety Belt Campaign Proposal Fact Sheet, Ad Council Campaign Review Committee

They worried about losing hard-fought ground in automotive safety to promote a new and unpopular device. The seat belts in cars at the time were not the modern three-point harness with pretensioners, but lap belts akin to those used in school buses today. While these seat belts did save lives, people found these early models to be clunky and uncomfortable. It would have been an uphill battle with the full support of the Ad Council. Without it, making the campaign a success would have been Mission: Impossible.


By the time the National Safety Council pulled its funding from the campaign, its strongest supporters at the Council were no longer there to promote it. Leo Burnett passed away in 1971. H.T. Rowe died three months after the campaign was canceled. Theodore Repplier retired from the Council in 1966 and was in declining health. The Council searched for new sponsors for the campaign but came up empty-handed. Overloaded with campaign requests and underfunded to support it alone, the Ad Council had no other choice. Stop Accidents had effectively been orphaned, with no one stepping up to adopt the poor child.

The robustness of the NSC’s proposal also might have been its undoing. The campaign was the National Safety Council’s brainchild with the Ad Council taking a back seat. As then-President of the Ad Council Theodore Repplier said, it was in “full support” of the messaging produced by the NSC. The shift in emphasis to seat belt safety also marked an unofficial transfer of power from H.T. Rowe to Howard Pyle, the President of the NSC. Traditionally, it was the volunteer coordinator who would issue a letter with each press kit, outlining the goals of that season’s advertisement. After 1963, Governor Pyle would be the one to address the ad representatives. While Rowe was an Ad Man who cut his teeth at IBM, Pyle’s background was in politics and broadcasting. Pyle preferred facts and figures to hokey messaging, hoping that logic would be enough. It was not. The campaigns that stick with us long after they end have soul. They make us laugh; they make us cry. We connected with Vince and Larry on a level that could never be reached with raw data. No man understood the value of the “soft sell” better than Leo Burnett. It shouldn’t be a surprise that it was the agency he founded that showed us “you could learn a lot from a dummy.”


Tales From The Nitrate Negatives

Cellulose Nitrate film was first invented in 1887, patented in 1889, and hit the public market in 1902. With it came a paradigm shift in the realm of publicly accessible cinematography. Nitrate film was flexible, light, and could be strung together in long rolls allowing for multiple photos to be taken in a row. It required fewer solvents and film preparation techniques than glass plate film and could be prepared in a fraction of the time. By lowering the entry point to casual photography, this invention brought forward waves of new photographers ready to capture their world on film. With them came a wider variety of subjects matters to be photographed

Military Day Parade of 1937

By the turn of the century, cellulose nitrate films were practically the bread and butter of the Eastman Kodak corporation; they were industrially mass-produced, and this newly efficient system of film production brought filmography to the masses. In the first third of the 20th century, it really seemed as if nitrates were the future of photography!

However, nitrate film did come with one insignificant, teeny tiny, itsy bitsy, almost imperceptible downside: it sometimes explodes.  Specifically its image content deteriorated quickly, and deteriorated nitrate film was prone to spontaneously combust and explode. The only effective way to prevent these explosions, like what happened to the 1937 Fox Vault, is to freeze the nitrate film at sub-zero temperatures. Most storage facilities for nitrate film, like that of the Chicago History Museum, are massive freezers that keep nitrate film meant prevent instant combustion.

Members of the class of 1890,1891,and 1892 gather with family in 1921 for the 30th anniversary.

The Chicago History Museum alone has reportedly 35,000 films on site and thus the protection of those films before they are digitized is essential. At the University of Illinois Archives–with our lack of space for a multi-million-dollar refrigeration unit–have opted to have our nitrate films digitized before their potential explosion dates. We are left today with thousands of photos in pure digital form, and we feel committed to giving them a name and a retelling story that the physical films once held.

Five-Star General William ‘Blackjack’ Pershing stands outside University President David Kinley’ home with Kinley.

The Nitrate Digitization Project, as we’ve come to call it, is part passion project and part dedication to the history contained here at the University Archives. So many of these films are from members of the community whose legacy is stored in thousands of JP_2 files online. Namely, over 500 of the files digitized were by just one guy! A Champaign-Urbana resident and photographer, Bernard Strauch documented so many early images of buildings on campus that exist today. Some of the images in the project were orchestrated and planned out. Strauch often took class reunion photos for some of the earliest graduating classes.

Image that features the degradation of nitrate film that can occur

Where Strauch’s work truly shines is in his series of on-the-ground photos that capture a moment and were wholly unprompted.  Whether it’s rushing to be on scene to see a derailed train just a day after the news broke, photographing all angles of a burned down church at what appears to be 6 in the morning, or even snagging photos of WWI general visiting campus, Strauch always made his mark with his images. So, we are seeking to do justice to Strauch’s work, and all those captured within the nitrate files, by reconstructing and retelling the stories captured almost a century ago. So, we hope to post bi-weekly ‘Tales from the Nitrate Negatives” as we can and work to dissect a world of the past both very alike, yet very alien from our own.

Safety First! The Ad Council Drives Caution Home, 1944-1954

CW: Graphic Imagery


“Take it easy driving — the life you might save might be mine.” – James Dean, 1955

As citizens of the United States, we entrust our common defense and safety to the great leviathan called the federal government: sometimes that power manifests in the regulation and discouragement of behavior that puts lives – ours and others – in harm’s way. As a conduit for government initiatives, the Ad Council has encouraged safe driving habits for over 75 years. As administrations, automotive design trends, and public perception have shifted, the Council has remained steadfast on the importance of personal responsibility. Join us as we take a spin behind the wheel, exploring a multi-legged grand tour of Traffic PSAs from D-Day to today.

The enemy at home and the War abroad

Your Advertising Can Save Lives Page 2
Uncle Sam is in disbelief at the sheer number of injuries suffered in 1943

In 1943, the engines of war hummed, well-oiled machines churned out weapons, munitions, and other goods essential to the war effort. Unfortunately, the cogs in the machines frequently caught themselves in the gears, limiting their usefulness, if not utterly destroying themselves. These critical components were the citizens left behind. According to President Roosevelt, more Americans were killed and injured in accidents than combat. Each life lost and day of work missed impacted the US’s ability to be the “arsenal of democracy” in the battle against the Axis Powers. To win the war, the Government needed to mitigate its losses at home.

Your Advertising Can Save Lives Rear Cover
“Your Advertising Could Save Lives!” (c. 1944)

Together with the Office of War Information (OWI), the Ad Council began its first campaign on public safety. The “Stop Accidents” campaign identified the four most common causes of serious injuries in the United States: traffic collisions, incidents at home, workplace accidents, and farming accidents. While wary of all injury causes, traffic accidents were of greater concern. Fewer men on the roads meant less traffic. Less traffic and increased levels of stress encouraged more reckless behavior from drivers. Like in our time, traffic deaths and injuries increased while the number of people on the road decreased. The OWI and the Ad Council recruited companies with appeals to patriotism, religion, and charity. Families, employers, and even Uncle Sam suffered when someone lost their ability to work. The publication of ads that emphasized caution could save countless lives. It was the right thing to do. It was the virtuous thing to do. Above all else, it was the Christian thing to do.

Switching Gears in Post-War America

The end of World War Two also marked a transition in focus for the Ad Council’s Stop Accidents campaign. During the war, the reduction of workplace injuries, especially in the expanded defense sector, was a matter of national security. For one reason or another, the Council dropped this point of emphasis in 1946.

Stop Accidents 1949
The Ad Council began to send traffic safety campaign calendars like this to advertising affiliates in 1949. These calendars allowed advertisers to create related advertisements to supplement the Green Cross campaign.

Another change was the switch to seasonal press kits. The Green Cross/Stop Accident campaign released advertising kits themed around traffic and driving quarterly beginning in Fall 1948. Each season focused on the hazards (both natural and man-made) that were prevalent at those times of the year. Fall focused on drunk driving, changing weather patterns, and the dangers of nighttime driving. The winter kit emphasized the hazards caused by winter weather and not taking proper precautions when driving. Summer slammed speed demons and road-ragers.

Within these kits were photographs and sketches of accidents. In an era before photographic ethics, some of these crash photos displayed the bodies of the deceased, showcasing the human toll of these preventable incidents. These images showed how quickly tank-like automobiles could turn into truncated tin cans. Like the CDC’s anti-smoking ads from the 2010s, the Ad Council hoped that showing disturbing images would discourage self-destructive behavior.

Green Cross/Stop Accidents Traffic Safety Kit, Fall 1949
Green Cross/Stop Accidents Traffic Safety Kit, Fall 1948

Another reason for the graphic imagery in the sample advertisements is convenience. The Council encouraged their advertising partners to create ads to supplement existing campaign materials. Major newspapers had entire collections of traffic accident photos to choose from to use in the campaign. Wesley Nunn, then coordinator of the campaign, wrote to newspaper ad reps in 1949, “a little digging in your own newspaper file should furnish some surprising facts about the frequency of local auto accidents. Use these clippings as sales ammunition to convince business, civic, and social groups of the need for support of this campaign.”

Under Nunn, the Stop Accidents campaign transitioned away from shock value in advertising. The first advertising kit issued under Nunn’s leadership included a mix of existing advertising and stencils. These stencils traced over pictures of auto collisions but removed any depictions of human remains. Compare these two kits, one from 1948 and another from 1949. The 1948 poster includes multiple photos from the same horrific car crash. A lone policeman lurks in the background, almost like the specter of death, with the deceased still behind the wheel of his automobile. The image is haunting, direct, and pulls no punches. The 1949 sheet, by contrast, is tame and tasteful. A destroyed vehicle takes center stage once again. Conspicuously absent is the presence of people. The before image clearly shows people crossing the street but removes them from the after shot. This ad asks the viewer to infer what condition the occupants of the wrecked vehicle are in instead of putting them on display.

Stop Accidents Fall 1952
Stop Accidents Spring 1954

Initially appointed as the program coordinator for just 1949, Nunn assumed a permanent position as the lead for the Green Cross campaign. Nunn’s status allowed further control of the images chosen for Ad Council materials. Possibly inspired by the successful Tom and Jerry shorts of the time, the images became increasingly surreal and fantastical. Ad kits were light-hearted and built around a theme related to the time of year in which they ran. One example is the Fall 1952 kit, designed to resemble a liquidation sale of goods and accessories. Instead of fur coats and designer goods, accidents and bad driving practices were priced to move. Nunn believed that earlier campaign tactics did not get the public to buy into safety and caution. In a letter from 1952, Nunn said, “We want readers to think and feel our story [the Stop Accidents campaign] and act upon it. We are definitely selling this whole idea of accident prevention.”

Nunn’s run as the volunteer coordinator for the campaign ended in 1954. The final packet issued under Nunn’s stewardship was the Spring 1954 campaign, which introduced Alec, “the hero or villain” of the Stop Accidents campaign. Alec was the first character to fulfill a niche later occupied by Vince and Larry, the Crash Dummies. Within the developing Alec cinematic universe, he used his nine lives to demonstrate how self-destructive some actions were. While Alec could bounce back and land on his feet after calamities, humans could be gravely injured or worse if they followed his lead.

With the end of Nunn’s tenure came a complete refresh of the Stop Accidents campaign. Also departing was the Young and Rubicam Advertising Agency, which had produced campaign materials since 1947. Therefore it is only fitting that we end our tale here. What started as a wartime initiative blossomed into an eight-decade-long crusade against poor driving habits. While this concludes one chapter in the history of the Ad Council, countless stories are waiting to be told about the Council’s 80 years of public service advertising. Advertising provides a glimpse into the mindsets and culture of those who create it. If you are interested in discovering other hidden stories, I invite you to contact us at the University Archives by email or stop by for a visit.

Artifacts used

  • 13/02/201 Box 3, Meeting Notes March 18th, 1949
  • 13/02/201 Box 6, Meeting Notes February 26th, 1954
  • 13/02/207 Box 2, Fight Waste/Stop Accidents: Your Advertising Can Save Lives, undated. #176
  • 13/02/207 Box 5, Stop Accidents: Green Cross/Traffic Safety, Fall 1948. #437b
  • 13/02/207 Box 6, Stop Accidents: Traffic Safety, Fall 1949. #457
  • 13/02/207 Box 10, Stop Accidents: Summer Safety Kit, 1952. #622
  • 13/02/207 Box 12, Stop Accidents: Spring Safety Kit, 1954. #689


Steady Does It: American Sentiments Personified by Uncle Sam 1942-1952

Uncle Sam. The personification of the United States Government. The paternalistic captain at the helm of the Republic, through tempests and torrents. A steadying constant since his inception during the War of 1812, right? Well, not exactly. The origin tale of Uncle Sam is one of obscurity, confusion, and mystery. We do not know the exact date of birth of Uncle Sam, nor do we know where his iconography begins and the older character, Brother Jonathan, ends. What we do know is by the 20th century, Uncle Sam was securely in position as a figure who called people to action.

Like Uncle Sam, the Ad Council’s birth is fuzzier than the reasons for their existence. The Council’s founders sought to unite the American people for common causes. They solved and spoke to problems that the federal government could not tackle alone. Constant, yet always evolving, the Ad Council and Uncle Sam reflect the sentiments, hopes, fears, and desires of their times. Is Uncle Sam standing resplendent and regal, as always? Is he dressing down to better relate to the working class? What about his expression? Is he confident? Angry? Determined? Depressed? If pictures are truly worth a thousand words each, then choices by the illustrators hired by the Ad Council can reveal much about the State of the Union.

The earliest usage of Uncle Sam by the Ad Council dates back to 1943. Created in conjunction with the Office of War Information (OWI) and the Council, the Security of War Information campaign utilized a hushing Uncle Sam insignia. The Security of War Information campaign implored citizens to be careful about what information they shared, regardless of how much faith they had in the receiver of said information. Uncle Sam’s disapproving librarian glare cut to the heart of the issue: your silence was golden. No matter the importance of what you were sharing, it was ruining the lives of other users of “library” materials. People took to this metaphor like flies to honey. Companies were encouraged by the OWI and Ad Council to spread this code of silence through their advertising.

While the campaign was popular, an official propaganda office was not. Created by Executive Order 9182 in the summer of 1942, the OWI operated as a governmental counterpart to the Council. Both worked to present a unified message to the American people. Whereas the Ad Council was a non-profit entity outside of the purview of the government, the OWI was explicitly an American propaganda agency. President Roosevelt, like the founders of the Ad Council, recognized the importance of an organized delivery of information. As the OWI and the Council celebrated their first success, people within and without the government spoke out against the OWI’s existence. The department was not free from controversy, however. Those who did not oppose a propaganda office in concept felt that previous attempts were heavily flawed and unsuccessful. The press worried about the influence the government could wield over the media. Members of Congress even feared that the Office could eventually resemble the Nazi propaganda apparatus created by Joseph Goebbels. The agency’s operations and influence were quickly curtailed. Despite this, the OWI and the Council continued their cooperation throughout the war.

Another product of this union was a series of victory garden advertisements produced from 1944 to the end of the war. Uncle Sam features prominently in most ads, meant to take up either half or a whole broadsheet newspaper page. For Once, Uncle Sam is not dressed to the nines. He has his sleeves rolled up. His brow is furrowed, with visible beads of sweat. In others, he brandishes garden implements as if they are weapons of war, daring the viewer to take up the fight. As a character, Uncle Sam can personify sentiments that the federal government as an abstract entity cannot. By showing Uncle Sam in more practical attire, the artist puts the viewer and the government on equal footing, a “we’re all in this together, your fight is our fight” kind of thing. Images of Uncle Sam and gardening tools as weapons attempt to link groups with unequal responsibilities. The Council wanted to make victory gardeners feel more connected to the war front. All Americans had to make sacrifices to best the Axis Powers. Even if you cannot pick up a rifle, the Council and OWI wanted to acknowledge your labor and show thanks.

To the victor, the spoils of war, the saying goes. The United States and its allies achieved total victory over the Axis powers. While the world celebrated the end of the conflict, the Ad Council and the Federal Government looked wearily ahead to the struggles to come. Both the Ad Council and the State Department agreed that a new war was on the horizon, albeit one fought within the hearts and minds of people. To win the Cold War, the US government needed to counteract Soviet propaganda at home and abroad.

One of these attempts was a series of pamphlets titled The Miracle of America. Here, Uncle Sam lectures the reader on the basics of the economy. The Ad Council (through the guise of Uncle Sam) states that America possessed a bounty of natural resources and an innovative spirit capable of taking full advantage of its situation. Uncle Sam admitted that American Capitalism is far from perfect. In the same breath, he states that our rise as a global power and the prosperity of our Nation would not be possible without it. The text juxtaposes two different concepts of what Uncle Sam represents. Firstly, we have Uncle Sam, the wise paternalistic leader of the Nation. While still friendly, there is a power imbalance inherent in the relationship between Uncle Sam and his “nieces and nephews.” He is the adult in the room. He is the authority on all subjects. All Americans must mind their Uncle Sam or suffer the consequences.

On the other, we have the proletariat Uncle Sam, the laborer hard at work around his “homestead.” This Uncle Sam does not awe you into submission with pomp and circumstance. He is an honest man, a simple one at that. This Uncle Sam is a paragon of American duty and sacrifice in ways that top hat and tails Uncle Sam could never approach. If formal Uncle Sam would host a cocktail party and discuss foreign relations, informal Uncle Sam would share a six-pack and discuss crop yields and issues at home. In short, one is the Federal Government looking outward. The other is when America puts itself under the microscope.

While people were already concerned about the spread of communism, this fear did not make its presence known in Ad Council materials until the beginning of the Korean War. Far from the first flare-up in US-Soviet relations, this was the first instance of armed conflict since World War II. As an avatar for the federal government, a stern but prepared Uncle Sam gears up for a fight he did not ask for but is more than happy to oblige. In this series of images, Uncle Sam returns to his formal attire. The humble Uncle Sam has been retired for one who means business. This Uncle Sam furrows his brows. He is disappointed to see peace be broken so soon after the cataclysm of the Second World War but is more than prepared to defend his vision for the world. The Uncle Sam we saw in earlier editions of The Miracle of America (and to a lesser extent the victory garden material) wanted to peacefully rebuild a better world and focus on getting his house in order. This Uncle Sam will flex his muscles and restore peace, even if he has to break a few bones in the process.

While this concludes one chapter in the history of the Ad Council, there are countless stories waiting to be told about the Council’s 80 years of public service advertising.  Advertising provides a glimpse into the mindsets and culture of those who create it. If you are interested in discovering other hidden stories. I invite you to contact us at the University Archives by email or stop by for a visit.

Selling Freedom: Madison Avenue in Defense of the American Experiment 1945-1950

The year is 1945. The Allies had defeated the Axis powers on three continents. Europe, except for neutral Spain, had been liberated from the evil specter that was fascism. Yet, as the ink dried on Germany’s capitulation, a new war appeared on the horizon. This new conflict was waged not on the battlefield but in the boardroom. Not on the Seine but with signs, posters, and bulletins. This war would be as frigid as the taigas and tundra of the Siberian landscape, with main combatants separated by thousands of miles and an infinitely wider political chasm. Little did they know, they were witnessing the dawn of the Cold War. But how does one win a war without physical battlefields? If you asked the Truman administration, the answer was on Madison Avenue.

The Advertising Council cut its teeth promoting government initiatives during the Second World War. While the boots on the ground fought overseas, the Ad Council was waging a war of its own in publications. To make good on President Roosevelt’s “Arsenal of Democracy” broadcast, Madison Avenue marshaled their marketing experience to sell the American people the importance of their individual contributions to the war effort. Images and broadcasts bombarded Americans, summoning everyday citizens to do their duty to triumph in this existential conflict. As one Ad executive stated in 1944, “So advertising, the voice of American industry, foolishly denounced by some as wasteful, sometimes despised as frivolous and actually marked for destruction by extremists in various governmental agencies, has modestly accomplished tasks essential to the United States and to a free world.[1]

In this 1949 ad, the Ad Council announces that America is hiring “full time citizens” to build on the triumphs achieved by the American people.

Despite the end of armed conflicts in 1945, the wartime advertising apparatus did not dissolve. Both the Ad Council and the State Department agreed that a new war was on the horizon, albeit one fought within the hearts and minds of people. To win the Cold War, the US government needed an organized front to counteract Soviet propaganda at home and abroad, “The Radio Allocation plan is an excellent example of the teamwork in advertising that epitomizes the Council. After seven years, it still looks to many like the instrument which one national radio advertiser once called it: Perhaps the most powerful weapon for public service ever devised.[2]

Found on the rear of a pamphlet titled Freedom is Everybody’s Job, this questionnaire asks if the reader has been doing their due diligence as a citizen.

Before the Korean War, the “most powerful weapon for public service ever devised” was squarely aimed at reminding Americans what made America different from other countries in the world. The American Heritage Foundation ran several campaigns imploring Americans to take advantage of their freedoms and be more active democratic participants. The campaign admitted that the American system was flawed but stressed the importance of a politically engaged populace for a thriving democracy. Union members who never attended meetings, stockholders who sat idly on top of their profits, and parents who did not join the local PTA were all called out as hindrances. Their laziness contrasted with the “full time citizen” who embodied the principles outlined by the founders of the Nation. The ads implored Americans to diligently and willfully perform all the tasks expected of them as full citizens of the United States to truly “work for freedom.”

After consulting with the Truman administration on “the national economy, national defense, and foreign relations,”[[3] the Council created the American Economic System campaign. First released in early 1949, it sought to explain the economic virtues of the United States and its brand of capitalism. This campaign featured ads that the Council helped place in newspapers and magazines, promoting the uniqueness of the United States. The campaign explicitly connected the freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution to the virtues of capitalism. Because of American capitalism, as the campaign materials claimed, people from all over the world flocked to the United States to escape famine and persecution.

Found on page 15 of the fifth edition of the Miracle of America, Uncle Sam encourages his fellow Americans to use the tools of democracy to build a healthier and stronger America.

Simultaneously, the Ad Council produced a pamphlet titled The Miracle of America which used Uncle Sam to lecture the reader on the basics of the economy. Uncle Sam explained that America was blessed with a bounty of natural resources and an innovative spirit capable of taking full advantage of its situation. The competitive nature inherent in capitalism made the US robust and resilient to whatever fate threw at the American people. The Ad Council’s pamphlet included several graphs that demonstrated how much better off the average American was. The average American worker made nearly twice as much as their contemporaries in the second most prosperous state, Canada.

In addition, the pamphlet sought to assuage fears of automation rendering American jobs obsolete. Between the post-war demobilization and the introduction of newer and more efficient machines, Americans worried about the long-term security of their jobs. Uncle Sam assured them that the introduction of new machines would not only create new jobs but continue to make lives easier. In his own words, “the machine isn’t an enemy, it’s a friend – and anything which helps us to turn out more work adds to our strength and prosperity.”[4]

Thanks to American’s industries being an ocean away from the brunt of the conflict, the United States was in a unique position to influence the restructuring of nations around the world. The Ad Council reminded Americans that they were truly lucky in more ways than one. There was much to be thankful for, and even more work to be done. If the United States wanted to make the world safe for democracy, its citizens needed to get their house in order as well.

While this concludes one chapter in the history of the Ad Council, there are countless stories waiting to be told about the Council’s 80 years of public service advertising.  Advertising provides a glimpse into the mindsets and culture of those who create it. If you are interested in discovering other hidden stories. I invite you to contact us at the University Archives by email or stop by for a visit.


“Advertising and the War Effort.” Collier’s, August 26, 1944.

Ketchum, Alton. The Miracle of America. 5th Edition. New York, New York: The Advertising Council, 1950.

“Minutes of Meeting December 16, 1948.” Meeting Notes. New York, New York, December 16, 1948.

“Public Service by Radio Networks & Advertisers … 12 Months of 1948.” New York, New York: The Advertising Council, 1948.



John C. Houbolt: The Man Behind the Lunar-Orbit-Rendezvous

On May 25th, 1961, President John F. Kennedy called for the nation to “commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.”

On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 successfully landed on the surface of the moon, and 6 hours after landing Commander Neil Armstrong became the first person to step onto the lunar surface. This July 20th will mark the 50th anniversary of that historic event, and in honor of that day, a University of Illinois Archives exhibit calls attention to alumnus John C. Houbolt (B.S. 1940, M.S. 1942). For without his work and advocacy, the brave Apollo 11 astronauts would never have made it home.

Houbolt was a NASA aerospace engineer from Joliet, Illinois who developed the unpopular idea that to land a man on the moon and return safely, the only way was to use his concept of Lunar-Orbit-Rendezvous (LOR) and a lunar landing module. At the time the prevailing ideas for landing on the moon were Direct Descent or Earth-Orbit-Rendezvous. Neither of which would be cost-effective or feasible. The Lunar-Orbit-Rendezvous eventually became the ideal and safest way to accomplish a moon landing.

There are always scientists and engineers who may be responsible for the success of historic events but who remain anonymous to popular history. Without Houbolt’s idea and persistence, this event would not have been possible. So that he is not just a footnote in history our exhibit opens a window into the work and life of John C. Houbolt.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hxPbnFc7iU8?controls=0&w=560&h=315]


For an informative account of Houbolt’s contribution visit NPR’s 1A interview with Todd Zwillich, “Fly Me To The Moon: Apollo 11 and The Unsung Hero Who Made It Happen”

Found in the Archives: Alta Gwinn Saunders and the Art of Business Communication

In June 1948, Alta Gwinn Saunders boarded a plane for New York, in order to speak with her publisher about a third printing of her book, Effective Business English, and then to travel on to the seventy-fifth annual Delta Gamma convention. She had been a faculty member at the University of Illinois for thirty years and a full professor for ten. In addition, she both edited and wrote for The Anchora and was nationally recognized as a founder of the field of business communication. Her plane never arrived, crashing near Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania, and killing all aboard. Saunders’ death left the University of Illinois, Delta Gamma, and the wider academic and business communities “shocked and saddened.” [1]

Alta Gwinn Saunders, University Archives, Series 39/2/25, Box 3

This past July, the University Archives received a copy of the second (1939) edition of Effective Business English as a part of a routine records transfer from the Gies College of Business. Although the title may seem a bit dry, it is truly quite intriguing. The book’s content draws readers into an era of business both foreign and familiar. Saunders’ book, first published in in 1925, is aimed at teaching “the business correspondent to use written English as a powerful, effective business tool” [2] through an exploration of the nature of business correspondence and its reliance on a knowledge of culture. She wrote:

A knowledge of human nature is the basis of sympathetic understanding. It helps a correspondent to write in some degree as if he were face to face with a person. It enables him to talk to a reader; not down to him or at him. [3]

The text is filled with examples of business letters and reports, illustrations of “attractive letterheads,” and practical insights into the principles and characteristics of business writing. Saunders remarked that “custom and manner can be acquired only by being exposed to them through reading good letters.” [4] A product of their time, some example letters in Effective Business English read much like a foreign language to modern audiences, giving insight into a world of personalized, direct-by-mail sales:

Dear Miss Smith:

Never have we been more excited about new millinery fashions than we are right now! They’ve never been so dramatic, so inspired, so different–and with it all–so wearable. And never has your hat been more important as a definite part of your ensemble–asa bold accent of color, perhaps, to lend your costume spice. Its selection, therefore, is a matter of thought and consideration Leschin’s is well able to render.

Just to give you a birds eye view of our spring millinery selection, we are sending these sketches to you. We hope they’ll intrigue you enough to make you come in and let us find YOUR hat for you. For whether you plan to look tailored or acquire the devastatingly feminine Margot look, we have the perfect hat to complete your costume picture.

You’ll note two very amazing things, too–that you may pick up a casual little hat for as low as $7.50–AND–you may have an exclusive model made in our workroom for as little as $12.50–and that IS news!

Even if you are not ready to select your hat now–won’t you come in and let us show these new things to you, while our collection is so complete? [5]

Still, there is a timelessness to many of Saunders’ lessons. She emphasizes clarity and conciseness, use of positive suggestion, attention to use and overuse of slang, and general courtesy. Saunders’ work remains the foundation of business communication practices today, underscoring basic principles of business conduct through a command of “good English.”

View of Green Street, ca. 1922, showing The Green Teapot tea room on the right, University Archives, Series 39/2/22, Box 96

An accomplished businesswoman and prominent academic, Saunders made her mark on the university as a determined scholar and educator. She earned her Bachelor’s (1907) then Master’s (1910) degrees in English and later returned to the university as an Instructor of Business English in 1918. Having successfully helped run a household of four sisters, founded the Delta Gamma sorority, opened and managed The Green Teapot tea room, and co-managed the Flat Iron Department Store, Saunders’ practical business experience was both diverse and exemplary. [6] By 1925, she had been appointed as an Associate Professor of Business English and ten years later, she helped found the American Business Writing Association (later renamed the Association for Business Communication). In 1938, at a time when women were almost universally shut out of the upper levels of academe, Saunders’ accomplishments earned her promotion to the rank of Full Professor.

Saunders’ legacy can perhaps best be summed up in these closing words from her 1925 book, Your Application Letter:

The world is just as much yours as it is any one’s else and for most people success depends upon concentration, combined with intelligent and persistent effort. [7]


A description of the full collection, Alta Gwinn Saunders Publications, 1929-1951 (Record Series 9/2/27), is now available. For more information on Alta Gwinn Saunders, her achievements, and publications, visit the University Archives and browse her file in the Alumni and Faculty Biographical (Alumni News Morgue) File, 1882-1995 (Record Series 26/4/1), or contact the archives for information on requesting access to her file in the Staff Appointments File, 1905-2001 (Record Series 2/5/15).

[1] Spindel, Carol, “Alta Gwinn Saunders: The Invention of Business English,” The University of Illinois: Engine of Innovation, ed. Frederick E. Hoxie, (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2017), 66. https://muse.jhu.edu/book/49860.

[2] Saunders, Alta Gwinn, Effective Business English, 2nd edition, (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1939), v.

[3] Effective Business English, 19.

[4] Effective Business English, 26-7, 33.

[5] Effective Business English, 232-3.

[6] Spindel, 63.

[7] Saunders, Alta Gwinn, Your Application Letter, (Urbana: University of Illinois Supply Store, 1925), Conclusion.