Today’s post comes from Alan Walker, an archivist in Textual Processing at the National Archives at College Park.
Now that the spring semester for colleges and universities across the nation has winded down, thousands of students are preparing to begin their internships. Many of them will come to Washington, DC, to work in the many federal agencies which will host them.
The National Archives and Records Administration is no exception; a variety of important and interesting opportunities await those who have been selected.
What must it have been like for the first student who interned at the National Archives?
The National Archives had been in operation for only a few years when, in the spring of 1939, it was contacted by the National Institute of Public Affairs (NIPA) to solicit interest in hosting an intern. Since 1934, NIPA had been administering an internship program to provide students with experience working in the federal government.
NIPA provided informational materials to schools, which then shared them with interested students.
Students then submitted an application to NIPA, indicating their fields of interest and the agencies in which they would like to intern.
In May 1939, NIPA’s educational director, Henry Reining, Jr. contacted the National Archives to inquire about its interest in hosting an intern for the 1939-1940 school year.
The Archives’ Director of Publications, Solon J. Buck, sent a note and draft statement of qualifications to R. D. W. Connor, the Archivist of the United States.
In late August Buck replied to NIPA.
Unlike today’s process, where a hosting organization or federal agency selects from a pool of applicants, NIPA selected the best candidate for each agency.
It was Lucy Cowdin (now Lucy Cowdin Maisel) from Mills College in Oakland, California.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Mrs. Maisel by phone earlier this year, after having reached out to Mills College’s Office of Alumnae Relations.
Her memories of her experience at the National Archives, and her doings in wartime Washington, are priceless. I am grateful for her kindness and patience in replying to my torrent of questions.
I’ve included excerpts from our interview below.
“Dean Rusk was a professor at Mills, and he helped us apply for the internships. I was interested in government and politics, and the National Archives sounded like an interesting place to work.”
“I was accepted for a fellowship to study at the École Libre des Sciences Politiques in Paris for a year. I was studying political science, but really I was studying French culture! When I returned home in August of 1939 I received word that I had been accepted for the internship.”
“There were about 50 of us in the intern group from NIPA, 10 women and 40 men. NIPA made arrangements for our housing, too.”
Here is a photograph of the intern group which preceded Cowdin’s.
Cowdin started her internship in October 1939 while she took graduate courses at American University.
Herbert Angel of the Division of Publications coordinated her work assignments with the various offices in the Archives, to give her the widest possible experience with its functions.
Her first assignment was in the Division of Publications, working on proofs of copy for the 1938-1939 Annual Report of the Archivist of the United States.
She also helped to select images of the Archives’ holdings for inclusion in the report.
“The Archives was so new, so that made it all interesting. But I felt like I was the only young person there. I think my favorite part of the internship was working with the diplomatic records in the [Division of] State Department Archives.”
Here are some excerpts about Cowdin’s work in that division, compiled by archivist Julia Bland, who oversaw her rotation there in January 1940.
And a report for the following week:
At about the midpoint of her internship, Herbert Angel drafted this report on Cowdin’s progress. This was a much a learning experience for the National Archives as it was for her.
And a second intern was eager to experience the agency, too.
Donald McInnis joined Cowdin during the last half of her internship.
The staff newsletter “Archiviews” made mention of Cowdin as the internship was winding down.
In June 1940, the internship ended. Cowdin wrote up a final report on her experience and submitted it to NIPA.
And the Archives wrote up a glowing report on its inaugural internship experience, with anticipation for the future of the program.
So, what did Cowdin do after her internship ended?
“I took the Civil Service exam for “Junior Professional Assistant.” This was the exam tailored for liberal arts graduates. I ended up working in personnel recruitment and placement at the Office for Emergency Management. During the war I lived in Dupont Circle and walked to my job in one of the old “tempo” buildings on Constitution Avenue.”
She kept busy with other activities, too.
“Sherman Maisel was in my intern group, too. He was interning at the Federal Reserve.”
After getting married, the Maisels departed Washington, DC, when Sherman entered the military. His assignments took them across the United States, culminating in a posting to Brussels and the Inter-Allied Reparations Agency. They returned to California after the war, where he taught economics at UC Berkeley. His pioneering work on real estate and urban economics led to his appointment to the Federal Reserve in 1965.
The Maisels attended a reception for Presidential appointees at the White House on January 3, 1969. Here they are pictured greeting President and Mrs. Johnson.
Mrs. Maisel is holding the banner in this photograph taken at the 50th anniversary reunion of Mills College’s class of 1938.
At the end of our call, although appreciative of my interest, she was somewhat flummoxed: “I don’t know why people would be interested in my life; I didn’t really do much!”
Many would beg to differ, Lucy Cowdin Maisel!
Also, my thanks go to archivist Margaret Harman at the Johnson Library for helping me track down the Maisels at the White House.