History
2:30 am
Wed June 26, 2013

Old Safe Reveals Historical Relics Of Women's Suffrage Group

Originally published on Wed June 26, 2013 10:13 am

Started in 1888 by suffragettes like Susan B. Anthony, the National Council of Women of the United States still exists today in a small office near the United Nations.

On the organization's 125th anniversary, it teamed up with the University of Rochester to open an old safe painted with the words "Woman Suffrage Party." No one knew what was in the safe or when it had last been opened.

On the website of the University of Rochester's Susan B. Anthony Center, people were speculating all week about what might be in the safe. Would it be lists of secret members? Organizing strategies and protest plans? Or perhaps the original copy of the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote? Perhaps love letters, perhaps photographs?

Perhaps nothing, and that's exactly what safe cracker Elaad Israeli said. Most times when he opens safes there's not much, just "rubber bands, paper clips [and] pens."

Israeli worked the combination lock while people crowded into a tiny room. "I don't want to sound rude, but I really need quiet to be able to concentrate," he said.

Suddenly, he was done, and Mary Singletary, the president of the National Council of Women, pulled open the safe to reveal a cache of items.

First there was a change purse filled with coins from France, Mexico and various other countries. There was also a box with a Smithsonian replica of the gavel originally used by Susan B. Anthony, as well as an envelope with a 1999 stamp that revealed the safe had been opened within the past 14 years.

The safe also held medals, a silver broach, a wooden stamp, a corporate seal, a paper of incorporation dating back to 1931. Other documents included federal tax exemption papers from 1957 and an IRS letter from 1940. They didn't open the documents and letters because archivists suggested they handle them with care and many may later be digitized.

Perhaps the loveliest items were six small panels, replicas of huge wall murals of women that were commissioned for the Chicago World's Fair in 1933. Catherine Cerulli, the director of the Susan B. Anthony Center, pointed out that one woman is clearly a Red Cross worker.

"They're historical pictures of women, women caring for others," she says. "Perhaps these are historical figures."

Why was the safe not opened for a long time? Singletary said the hundreds of dollars needed to hire a locksmith was just too much for an organization struggling to survive with multiple projects.

"I had to make a choice of raising money for my programs or raising money to pay this gentleman," she said.

She chose the programs until the University of Rochester joined the effort. One thing they also found was a candy box filled with keys, one going to a storage room in the basement. So who knows, there may be more discoveries.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

OK, we're about to solve a mystery at an organization that got its start back in 1888. That was during the women's suffrage movement, with leaders like Susan B. Anthony. The National Council of Women of the United States still exists today in a small office near the United Nations in New York City. On the organization's 125th anniversary, people there cracked into a time capsule of sorts, an old safe painted with the words: Women's Suffrage Party. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The words painted on the safe are WOMAN SUFFRAGE PARTY.] No one knew what was in the safe, or when it had last been opened.

NPR's Margot Adler takes us there.

MARGOT ADLER, BYLINE: On the website of The University of Rochester's Susan B. Anthony Center, people have been speculating all week about what might be in the safe. Will we find lists of secret members, asked one person, organizing strategies and protest plans? Perhaps the original copy of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote. Perhaps love letters, perhaps photographs. Perhaps nothing, someone else said.

And that's exactly what the safecracker Elaad Israeli said. Most times when he opens safes, there's not much.

ELAAD ISRAELI: You know, rubber bands, paper clips, pens.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLICKING)

ADLER: Israeli started to work the combination lock, while people crowded into a tiny room.

ISRAELI: I don't want to sound rude, but I really need quiet to be able to concentrate.

ADLER: He said it would take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour, as he manipulated the combination lock back and forth, occasionally making notes on a pad. And then suddenly it was done.

MARY SINGLETARY: I can open it now?

ISRAELI: Just pull on the handle.

SINGLETARY: Pull on the handle.

ISRAELI: And there's some stuff in it.

SINGLETARY: And there is stuff in there. A lot of stuff.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: A lot of stuff in here.

(LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE)

ADLER: First, there was a change purse filled with coins from France, Mexico, various countries. There was a box with a Smithsonian replica of the gavel originally used by Susan B. Anthony, and an envelope that revealed the safe had been opened within the last 14 years.

I said to Catherine Cerulli, the director of the Susan B. Anthony Center at the University of Rochester: Some of this stuff is modern.

CATHERINE CERULLI: Yes. And I think, in fact, when you look at the stamp on that envelope, it's 1999.

ADLER: Yeah. So someone got in.

CERULLI: Someone has been in.

ADLER: There were medals, a silver brooch, a wooden stamp, a corporate seal, a paper of incorporation dating back to 1931, and many other documents.

CERULLI: Federal tax exemption, it looks like 1957. IRS letter, 1940.

ADLER: They didn't open the documents and letters, because archivists suggested they handle them with care, and many may later be digitized. Perhaps the most lovely items were six small panels, replicas of huge wall murals of women that were commissioned for the Chicago World's Fair in 1933. We look at one of the panels, Catherine Cerulli points out that one woman is clearly a Red Cross worker.

CERULLI: Historical pictures of women, women caring for others, perhaps these are historical figures.

ADLER: Why was the safe not opened for a long time? Mary Singletary, the president of the National Council of Women of the United States said the hundreds of dollars needed to hire a locksmith was just too much for an organization struggling to survive, with multiple projects about women and girls.

SINGLETARY: I had to make a choice of raising money for my programs or raising money to pay this gentlemen.

ADLER: She chose the programs, until the University of Rochester joined the effort. One thing they found was a candy box filled with keys, one going to a storage room in the basement. So who knows? There may be more discoveries.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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