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Historical Context

Boston Theater

Louise was an enthusiastic patron of the performing arts, attending concerts, film screenings, and live stage productions throughout the Boston area. During the 1930s, the Boston theater community was undergoing several major transformations. The advent of radio and films — especially films with sound — combined with the Great Depression to create a serious slump in the industry nationwide. Local playhouses could no longer afford to produce their own material and support their own companies. Instead, they looked to New York and Broadway shows.

Program for Abe Lincoln in Illinois

Like companies in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Connecticut, Boston became a “testing and touring” city for Broadway shows. Producers would either send new shows for a test run in the Boston market, or put an already-successful show on a national tour. These imported New York shows often toured with their original casts. Stars such as Ethel Barrymore, Humphrey Bogart, and Laurence Olivier graced the stages of the Theater District, often at a deeply-discounted price.

Unlike today’s big-budget Broadway musicals, the plays from New York were of all disciplines. Pulitzer-winning plays, such as Abe Lincoln in Illinois, played at the Shubert Theater one year before it became an acclaimed film. Shakespeare was still very popular with Boston audiences in the 1930s, with Hamlet and Richard III enjoying successful runs. Despite the decline in original material, these test-run shows were a popular and inexpensive source of entertainment for college students in the city.

Program for Hamlet

YWCA in Boston

The Simmons chapter of the Young Women’s Christian Association was the earliest religious club at the college, and hosted several recreational activities and field trips along with serving the interests of Evangelical Protestant students on campus.

Louise’s YMCA Membership card, 1939-1940.

This history is reflective of the national body of the YWCA. In 1858, the U.S. Ladies Christian Association was founded in New York City, following a period of social progress and reform that swept the country. At its core, its focus was empowering women. In 1866, the first YWCA opened in Boston, providing the city’s women a place for recreation, boarding, and career training. Along with providing affordable, supervised housing for college students, it also began offering courses in secretarial studies one year before the founding of Simmons College.

In 1927, the Boston YWCA moved into its Clarendon Street location, not far from Simmons. There, it continued its missions of social justice, cultural enrichment, and advocacy for working women.

Hurricane of 1938

Although the tradition of naming hurricanes did not begin until the 1940s, the storm that battered the New England coast in 1938 does not need a name to be remembered. It was one of the largest storms to ever hit the Northeast, causing destruction as far north as Quebec. A category 3 storm, it was also the deadliest in area history, responsible for over 500 deaths in New York and New England.

The majority of the destruction occurred on the coasts of Long Island, Connecticut, and Rhode Island before it moved inward, carving a path up the Connecticut River Valley and into Canada. The eastern part of Massachusetts, while not as hard-hit, was also affected. Large amounts of flooding and property damage occurred in Greater Boston, and Louise’s hometown of Wareham saw ocean swells of up to 15 feet.

Damage in Wareham

Coming of Age in the Great Depression

No American lived through the 1930s without feeling the effects of the Great Depression. For a young woman coming into adulthood at the time, education, career, and family prospects were greatly marred by the downturn.

Louise Lincoln was lucky in that she was an only child of middle-class parents who could afford to send her to a four-year college. Although high-school graduation reached an all-time high during the 1930s, fewer and fewer families could afford to send their children to college. Often, parents would elect to pay for a son’s tuition, as they would need a degree to support a family. Because of this, enrollment in women’s colleges declined drastically.

For those who did attend college, their focus was on professional degrees. Professions such as teaching, nursing, and clerical work had long been the realm of women, but because of the weakened economy, a greater number of men were turning to these fields. Women needed the competitive edge of a degree if they wanted a well-paying job. This competitive market also had an effect on women’s personal lives: many employers openly discriminated against hiring married women.

This need for practicality and self-sufficiency made programs such as secretarial studies at Simmons so popular. Even at the height of the Depression, a clerical worker in Boston with a college degree earned twice as much as those with only a high school education. Fortunately, for Louise and her classmates, the coming decade would once again broaden their career prospects.


Boston Athenaeum (2012). Boston Athenaeum Theater History. http://www.bostonathenaeum.org/node/224

National Weather Service Forecast Office (1997). The Great New England Hurricane of 1938. http://www.erh.noaa.gov/box/hurricane/hurricane1938.shtml

Norton, E. (1978). Broadway Down East: an Informal Account of the Plays, Players and Playhouses of Boston from Puritan Times to the Present.Boston: Boston Public Library.

Scharf, L. (1980). To Work and Wed: Female Employment, Feminism, and the Great Depression. Westport, Conn.: Greenwoord Press.

Scranton, P. (2012, April 30). The ‘Modern College Girl’ Confronts the Great Depression. Bloomberg News. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-04-30/the-modern-college-girl-confronts-the-great-depression.html

Works Progress Administration Federal Writers’ Project (1938). New England Hurricane: A Factual, Pictorial Record. Boston: Hale, Cushman & Flint.

Yamashita, T. (2007). The Effects of the Great Depression on Educational Attainment. http://www.sole-jole.org/7274.pdf

Young Women’s Christian Association (2013). History. http://www.ywca.org/site/c.cuIRJ7NTKrLaG/b.7515891/k.C524/History.htm

YWCA Boston (2012). Important YWCA Boston Firsts. http://www.ywcaboston.org/timeline/

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