Historic Staff Spotlight: Helen Beach

We are taking a look at past staff and their many contributions to the National Archives throughout history. Today’s staff spotlight is on Helen Beach, who worked for the National Archives from 1936 to her retirement in 1965 and developed her own cart, known as the “Beach Wagon.” 

Frances Helen Beach was born on July 5, 1900, in Victor, Colorado. She earned her B.S. in 1923 at Florida State College for Women (now Florida State University), and in 1930 she earned her A.B. in Library Science from Emory University. Before coming to the National Archives, Beach was a high school teacher; she then was a reviser and a librarian at Emory. 

Beach came to the National Archives on September 3, 1936, to work in the Catalog Division. Cataloger was one of the few positions at that time for which the National Archives hired women.

When the Cataloging Division was abolished in 1941, Beach moved to the Division of Treasury Department Archives, then to the Division of Justice Department Archives. While there, she worked on numerous projects including compiling the Preliminary Checklist for the Records of the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee on Crime, 1934–1938.

In 1944 Beach had an idea for a new kind of cart that would make it easier to travel around the stack aisles, and she submitted it as part of an employee suggestion program. Known as the “Beach Wagon,” it could be made from materials already available at the National Archives, which was essential due to material shortages caused by World War II. The National Archives created several dozen Beach Wagons, and the following year, Beach was given an additional within-grade promotion for the idea.

The carts were so popular that staff hoarded them (for those working in an archives, once you find a good cart, you don’t want to let it go). Some old Beach Wagons can even be found around the National Archives Building today.

In 1946 Beach conceived of another idea to assist National Archives working staff in the stacks—a movable table for use in narrow stack areas where one could not use a conventional table. It featured a removable stool to help staff reach records on high shelves. Again, the idea was well received, and in 1948 the National Archives awarded her a $25 check. As with the Beach Wagon, some of these tables have survived and are still in use today.

Beach moved to the National Historical Publications Commission (now the National Historical Publications and Records Commission) in 1950, becoming chief archivist to the executive director, a position she held until her retirement.

While at the Commission, she worked on several documentary histories, including the papers of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Andrew Johnson. She also assisted with the NHPC Guide to Archives and Manuscripts.

Beach retired from the National Archives on December 30, 1965, although due to her dedication, she continued to work past her retirement date. She passed away in Alexandria, Virginia, on September 17, 1972.

Watch a video about Helen Beach and her inventions:

A big shout-out to archivist Alan Walker for providing some of the images in this post!

March is Women’s History Month. Check out the National Archives website for more related resources and events.

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