By Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt.
February 7, 1933
Letters, and letters and letters! Wire baskets on my desk, suit cases of mail going home even on Sundays with my secretary, Mrs. Scheider. A sense of being snowed under by mail. This is a picture of our first few weeks in Washington.
Before my husband had gone to Albany as Governor of New York State, I had had the usual amount of mail that comes to any one whose name is listed in the telephone book or the social register. there would be more appeals if we gave a party for young people or if it was recorded in the newspaper that we took part in any social or civic activity.
Not until my husband was Governor did I find it necessary to set up some kind of a system for handling the mail. Even then I continued to open, read and answer all the mail myself and sign personally all the letters which were sent in reply. Incidentally nobody ever signs my name but today of course, there are many letters signed by Mrs. Scheider. In Albany I shared with my husband the services of Miss Grace Tully, and kept Mrs. Scheider in New York, only bringing her occasionally to Albany.
Before the Old age Pension Bill went through in New York, I remember a farmer's wife wrote me about it. When it finally went through a year or so later, she wrote me again beginning her letter: "I am the farmer's wife who wrote you a year ago and you told me to write again when the Bill went through." "The farmer's wife" was quite delightfully naive for already there were a good many farmers' wives who had reached an age when old age pensions meant something to them and I was glad of my files where I could find the letter from "the lady" who thought she was the only one. This letter amused me very much at the time for I thought it rather unique, but I was to find as the years went by that everybody thinks their situation unique and everybody thinks they alone have written on a particular subject.
Fortified with this modest system of ours, and the fact that we had built up an unofficial organization of some on in almost every state in the union, who could investigate a particularly interesting or appealing letter if it seemed necessary, we moved to Washington. The time was a serious one, and the need of the people seemed great. I had a feeling that even to be able to tell some one near the seat of government about their troubles, would be a help, so in a broadcast which I made I said I would be glad to hear from those who felt that any government department could assist them in their needs.
Our initial preparation for the new work which we were to encounter in Washington, was to accept the very kind offer from our old friend, Edith Benham Helm who had been Mrs. Woodrow Wilson's secretary, to come in as a volunteer and guide Mrs. Scheider and myself along the social path that lay before us, for we were both at sea in Washington. Mrs. Helm came to New York to see us and helped us as a volunteer until we decided that some one would have to take full charge of the society end of our mail, or Mrs. Scheider would never get any time to sleep.
Almost immediately on moving into the White House we took stock of what was known as the Social Bureau which was under Mrs. Scheider's direction. There were two divisions; one under Mr. William Rockwell does all the work on the social end - letters, invitations, dinner cards in perfect script, lists, etc. The other under Mr. Ralph Magee does all the other work which such a tremendous mail entails. When we turned over the society end of the work to Mrs. Helm she immediately became direct head of Mr. Rockwell's department. Both Mr. Rockwell and Mr. Magee have been in the White House for many years and are a tremendous help to any President's wife and her secretaries.
We asked at once what had been the previous custom in answering mail which was addressed to the President's wife and we were brought a pile of form letters which were supposed to cover every contingency and some of them dated back to the days of President Cleveland!
If a woman wrote and said her child pined for an elephant and would Mrs. Blank provide it, the answer under the "form" system would automatically be: "Mrs. Blank has had so many similar requests she deeply regrets she can not comply with yours!"
This system seemed a little inadequate to Mrs. Scheider and to me because of the gravity of the question that were coming to us in 1933. We did away with many of the old forms and set up a system of our own.
The first year 300,000 pieces of mail came in addressed to me. Gradually as the need lessened the mail was decreased. Two years ago I received 198,000 pieces of mail and last year, even though it was a campaign year, there were 110,000.
The mail comes in to the mail room in the executive office. There it is sorted and all mail addressed to me is sent to the ushers' office and finds its way very quickly to Mrs. Scheider's desk in her office in the White House proper. She goes through that mail the first thing in the morning, takes our all personal letters and communications from government departments, senators and congressmen and any other letters which she thinks look from the outside as though they required immediate attention. The remainder she puts in a basket unopened, and it is celled for by a messenger and taken back tot he Social bureau. there trained people open and classify it.
The classifications are roughly as follows: Letters asking for contributions to church bazaars. Since time immemorial the contribution sent by the President and his wife is a small engraving of the White House with a message from both engraved on it. That is done in the Bureau without being returned.
Letters asking for contributions of any other nature are sent back to Mrs. Scheider. Letters asking for information are classified according to the government department which should be able to furnish the answer and they are sent over immediately for attention. Requests for speeches, or greetings to organizations, or short messages to various types of publications are all returned to Mrs. Scheider. The balance of the mail which includes every possible kind of request which does not seem to classify itself into any of the foregoing groups is returned to Mrs. Scheider. She reads them all and when she is able to do so, takes appropriate action and answers them herself, or dictates the answer for my signature. Letters of appeal or asking for contributions are placed in my basket with the balance of the general mail which Mrs. Scheider can not answer. She also gives me any letters which she thinks are of special interest, and she usually tries to give me a cross section of the general mail. This amounts to about fifty letters a day.
To give you some idea of the type of thing which comes to my desk and how it is handled, let me tell you a story of a letter written on six sheets of cheap pad paper. It was a mother's story of her family. She spoke well of her husband but he had been unfortunate. They lived in a poor part of the country; a part-time job which the father held had been lost; the land was poor and produced little; their cow had died, and there were five children to be fed and clothed and then one of them, a little fellow of some five years old, had infantile paralysis. He lived, but one leg was badly crippled. How was he going to meet life? She had heard of Warm Springs, but she could not take the trip and she could not pay for the care. What could she do?
The letter rang true, but I asked a friend to visit them and find out if circumstances were as she described them. They were, and then with the aid of some friends, a fund was raised which paid for the small boy for the long months that he had to stay in Warm Springs; for his trip and for one older person to make the trip with him and settle him there. He stayed until the doctors felt that they could do nothing more for him. When he went home he was sufficiently improved to go to school with the others. He learned to get about on crutches even to walk on them the half mile to and from school every day. The years that followed were a gallant fight on the boy's part and on the part of the parents. Finally they had an opportunity to move to a government homestead where the land promised a better living. They were pioneering again in much the same way that their ancestors had done and things looked brighter. AT Christmas time last year, the mother wrote me, not a letter of appeal, but the story of a modern pioneering family!
Then there was the lady who said she was quite young, and she and her husband had fallen on hard times. Before their baby had been born the stress had been so great that she had opened a trunk which had belonged to her step-mother and taken out a bag of times, a treasured collection which had been especially entrusted to her care. She had spent them thinking that her step-mother's interest had taken her so far away from them that she would never return, but she was coming back! The writer said she dare not face her without the dimes. Would I kindly see what I could do to get the dimes, dated in that special year? I inquired at the Treasury Department, was told they never kept dimes according to years and that dimes of that particular year would have considerable value. Then, feeling that the lady might be in serious trouble, I asked a friend to visit her and she turned out to be a middle aged woman with a very fertile imagination! She claimed to know nothing about the value of the coins, but one may be pardoned for Questioning the veracity of an individual who could make up such a story out of whole cloth!
Then there was the little girl who made my secretary, who prides herself upon being suspicious of everyone in the world, almost weep! In fact without waiting for my attention, she was about to send off a money order!
This time I restrained her! The child was too plausible. She said she was about to graduate from high school, she was to be valedictorian of her class, and her parents could not afford the traditional white dress and white shoes, so she wrote asking if I would provide them and enclosed a mail order catalogue blank all marked with the desired articles, sizes, etc. I went through the usual procedure and asked a friend to visit the young lady. She was found to be in her second year, in high school, not a very good student and her parents were quite able to furnish her with whatever she needed.
Two discouraging ones, so in closing I must tell you one of which I am very proud. In spite of all the weaknesses of human nature which you soon discover, if you keep on, when all is said and done, you have a great admiration for the courage of the average human being who keeps on with the struggle of life in spite of sorrow and hardship and disappointment.
She and her husband had been unable to find work in a southern state and had gone out to the west coast. they bought a small lot in an effort to build and settle. Unfortunately no jobs were forthcoming to furnish the wherewithal to build, or even to live, and back they trekked on the promise from a member of the family to provide them with a farm to work. The farm was not ready when they arrived and so the woman thinking that if she were alone, she could get work in order to get what little furniture they had out of storage and make a home for them when the farm work started, hitch-hiked her way back tot he west coast. She got work but only for two days a week which served to keep body and soul together but not to provide for her return trip or to get the furniture out of hock for the future farm home. A baby was on the way, in fact would be born in the next couple of months. The situation looked desperate. Had I any suggestions to offer? Could I find some one who would like to buy her lot or to lend money on it?
I wrote to a friend of mine who is always kind. She was going away but she left it in the hands of another kind friend who investigated; found the story true; tried to borrow money enough on the lot to meet the urgent needs; found it was impossible and finally sent the deed to me in return for a loan. In the meantime, this friend of my friend became so interested she enlisted other friends and they bought the future baby the garments that would be needed, purchased some necessary household linens for the woman and got her furniture out of storage. Then they put her on the train with her furniture safely shipped. She found herself before long on the farm. By Christmas time a baby girl was there and a more jubilant letter I have rarely had from any human being. They continued to be happy, the baby was a most wonderful baby, they had enough to eat, they were going to make good.
Then one day when the father was watching the baby, she swallowed an open safety pin. The local doctor only succeeded in pushing the pin further down. They must take her to a nearby city but how could they get there? I returned to my New York apartment one night rather late to find a telegram despairing in every word. Would I lend the money to get them to the hospital and the baby admitted for care? I wired a friend in the city where the hospital was located. She contacted them and everything possible was done but the baby died. Then there was no money to take the little body away for burial. Finally that was given but despair settled down on that home. Before long the farm was given up, the man in order to earn more money and pay their debts shipped on a coastal steamer. I heard nothing from them for a little while and then one day I went to speak in their state and as I got off the train a hand was put on my arm and an anxious-faced woman said: "I am Mrs. Blank, Mrs. Roosevelt, I hitch-hiked my way up to see you. Could I talk to you?" Face to face was my correspondent. Older than I had expected, much more care worn but still with a fighting look. We had our talk, I offered her money. She would not take it, but insisted that she and her husband were going to get together again and going to make a success of their life.
In addition to the mail which I have describe, I get a great deal of mail which is purely advisory. People tell me what they think about my traveling so much. They tell me how I should manage my children and what I should do for my husband. They scold me for his policies if they don't like him or the policies, they tell me they love my husband and that they pray for him. Occasionally I have a run of such kindly letters that I have to remember some of the disapproving ones in order to keep my perspective!
There are the chronic letter writers, people who write in every administration. There are people who think the best way to reach my husband is through me. All in all it is a varied collection that fills the wire baskets which constantly reappear on my desk and perhaps our system is not the best system in the world, but these are questions dealing with human beings and our main desire is to remember that each individual is a human being who feels that his problem is the most important thing in the world and as far as possible the problem should be met with that same feeling on the part of those who deal with it.