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Home >> Sophia Smith Collection >> Frances Bemis Papers, 1921-1974
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Sarah Tinsley Rees papers, 1921-1974
14 boxes (7 linear ft.)
Collection number: MS 16

Public relations specialist, radio producer, and fashion director. The Papers document Bemis's very active professional career, as well as the world of fashion in 1930s-50s New York City, giving a window into the celebrity and consumer culture of this time. Photographs make up a large portion, mainly of Bemis' fashion shows, special events, celebrities, and models. Correspondents include doll-maker Madame Alexander, Svetlana Allilueva (daughter of Josef Stalin), and many of the writers, artists, and radio and television personalities. Other materials include personal writings, scrapbooks, correspondence, and scripts.

Terms of Access and Use:

Restrictions on access:

The papers are open to research according to the regulations of the Sophia Smith Collection.

Restrictions on use:

The copyright owner of this collection is unknown. It is the responsibility of the researcher to identify and satisfy the holders of all copyrights. Permission to publish reproductions or quotations beyond "fair use" must also be obtained from the Sophia Smith Collection as owners of the physical property.

Sophia Smith Collection
Smith College
Northampton, MA

Biographical Note

Frances Bemis was a public relations specialist, executive, writer, radio producer, and fashion director. She was born in Georgia on 25 June 1898, and she attended Oglethorpe University and the University of California. In the 1920s, she wrote columns for the Atlanta Constitution and Journal, and she started her public relations career by handling publicity for the Woman's Club of Atlanta. She accompanied her husband (probably Clarence Bemis) to New York City in the late 1920s, and it was there that she became a professional in the fields of public relations and advertising. (She used the name Frances Bemis professionally. She was married four times, but the names of her husbands and dates of the marriages are unknown). Hearn's, a Brooklyn Department Store that during the Depression declared itself "the bargain store of all the people," hired her as a fashion promoter and publicist in 1932. Bemis is responsible for numerous innovations in the field of department store publicity. She designed events that were guaranteed to garner press attention and bring crowds of entertainment-starved, Depression-Era New Yorkers to the free events at the store. She used celebrities and lavish shows with elaborate sets and costumes to promote new departments and features of the store, fashion collections, and holiday tie-ins. For example, in 1936-37, she staged a dog show, brought a psychologist to the store to counsel shoppers on their personal problems, hired legendary society woman Elsa Maxwell to emcee a fashion contest, and held a Thanksgiving Day circus in Central Park. In addition to writing scripts and coordinating production of these events, Bemis wrote lively releases for the press and radio. News of her events could often be found on the women's pages of New York papers, and occasionally, she made the front pages of the paper, as was the case when Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia opened ceremonies for Forgotten Man Day in 1934, a response to the National Recovery Act.

In 1938, Bemis left Hearn's department store to do free-lance public relations work with the Claire Wolff Agency. Among other projects, she directed a "College Girl's Day" for the Ford Motor Company at the 1939 New York World's Fair and staged a "Fashions Out of Test Tubes" event for the chemical industry. Her husband, (first name unknown) McLain, had joined the Army air force, and Bemis enlisted in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps in 1943. She was stationed in Daytona Beach, where she gave radio addresses and staged entertainment for GIs and WAACs. She achieved the rank of corporal and was given an honorable discharge upon the urging of New York Times editor Ivan Veit. The Times sought a director for a war-time fashion show intended to vaunt New York City as a fashion capital while Parisian fashion houses languished under German occupation. The result, Bemis's "Fashions of the Times," was an unqualified success. Spectators filled the show to capacity, and the publicity did much to promote American fashion.

After the war, Bemis returned to Atlanta to become Director of Special Events at Rich's Department Store. She drew great press for her "Fashionata" show (1946-47), which used local socialites as models in a typically lavish production. In 1947, Bemis took a position as Director of Feature Events at New York City's Abraham and Strauss Department Store. She stayed at A and S until 1954 and continued her successful formula of spectacular events, luminous personalities, and innovative consumer services. Her personal interests in the fine arts, radio, and literature were reflected in several shows in which she showcased notable artists and performers, including Betty Smith (author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn), the Met Opera's Rise Stevens, and radio and TV star Morey Amsterdam.

In 1956, Bemis moved to St. Augustine, Florida for a retirement of sorts. Though she no longer staged fashion extravaganzas, she used her considerable creative energy for civic and charitable activities. She worked as a publicist for the city of St. Augustine, wrote for the local papers, volunteered at an art gallery, and took an interest in advocacy for civil rights and the mentally ill. She was murdered in November, 1974.

Scope and contents of the collection

The Frances Bemis Papers consist of 7 linear ft. of material from her professional career and date from 1933 to 1974. Photographs make up the largest portion of the collection, but the Papers also include biographical information, correspondence, publicity, scripts, clippings, programs, and scrapbooks.

The Papers detail Bemis's busy career over decades during which professional women were often a marginal part of the work-world. The documentary evidence of Bemis's innovative transformation of the staid department store exhibition into a headline-grabbing cavalcade indicates the often-overlooked influence of professional women in the mid-twentieth century. The Papers also illustrate the world of fashion in 1930s-50s New York City and give a window into the celebrity and consumer culture of this time.

Organization of the collection

This collection is organized into five series:

  • I. Biographical Materials
  • II. Correspondence
  • III. Writings
  • IV. Professional Activities
  • V. Subject Files

Information on Use
Terms of Access and Use
Restrictions on access:

The papers are open to research according to the regulations of the Sophia Smith Collection.

Restrictions on use:

The copyright owner of this collection is unknown. It is the responsibility of the researcher to identify and satisfy the holders of all copyrights. Permission to publish reproductions or quotations beyond "fair use" must also be obtained from the Sophia Smith Collection as owners of the physical property.

Preferred Citation

Please use the following format when citing materials from this collection:

Frances Bemis Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Mass.

History of the Collection

The Frances Bemis Papers were donated to the Sophia Smith Collection in 1974 by Mary-Louise Wagman Boyer (Smith College class of 1951), the executor of Bemis's estate.

Processing Information

Reprocessed by Amanda Izzo, 2002.

Additional Information
Contact Information
Smith College Special Collections
Young Library
4 Tyler Drive
Northampton, MA 01063

Phone: (413) 585-2970
Fax: (413) 585-2886

Encoding funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Series Descriptions
1935-74, undated
1 linear ft.

This series includes clippings pertaining to Bemis's professional activities and photographs of Bemis and friends and acquaintances. There are photos of celebrities and of models with whom Bemis worked.

1934-74, undated
.5 linear ft.

This series consists largely of letters sent to Bemis that document her personal associations and professional activities. There are a small number of letters from Bemis to others. Bemis's correspondents include dollmaker Madame Alexander, Svetlana Allilueva (daughter of Josef Stalin), and many of the writers, artists, and radio and television personalities with whom Bemis worked.

(1933-circa 1970s),
.25 linear ft.

This series includes materials from an unpublished memoir, "Barnum in Merchandising," and notes from a proposed project about older women living alone. Other personal notes in this series record Bemis's thoughts on the cultural changes of the 1960s and give insight into her less-documented private life.

1933-71, undated
4 linear ft.

This series documents Bemis's public relations work. It starts with her career at Hearn's Department Store in Brooklyn and follows it through her employment for the city of St. Augustine. The material consists largely of photographs of Bemis-directed special events and exhibitions, but there are also clippings, publicity, scripts, correspondence, and other related material.

.5 linear ft.

This series consists of clippings, publicity, photographs, and ephemera collected by Bemis on friends and subjects of interest. Files include information about dollmaker Madame Alexander, radio personality (and Bemis friend and correspondent) Mary Margaret McBride, and Bethune Cookman College.

There is also a scrapbook from the 1920s detailing Bemis's newspaper work. This scrapbook showcases Bemis's early career and consists of clippings of Bemis's writings as well as clippings of Bemis and her family and friends appearing in dramatic productions and social events. Another scrapbook from the 1950s documents her public relations work for St. Augustine.

Contents List
1935-74, undated

Press releases, etc.,
1954-55, undated

Box 1: folder 1
Clippings re: Bemis,
1936-1974, undated

Box 1: folder 2
Clippings re: Mrs. W.H. Gillette (F. Bemis's mother),

Box 1: folder 3

Frances Bemis,
1947, 1950-51, undated

Box 1: folder 4
Miscellaneous notables (see folder for listings),
1935-36, 1953, undated

Box 1: folder 5
Clay Martin and "Lucifer" the rooster,

[See also SERIES II. CORRESPONDENCE - Outgoing, 10 Feb 1974]


Box 1: folder 6
Unidentified promotions and groups, circa
1940s, undated

Box 1: folder 7
Models and fashion


Box 2: folder 1-16

Box 3: folder 1
1934-74, undated


1944-74, undated

Box 3: folder 2
Ada Louise Huxtable,

Box 3: folder 3

1934-74, undated

Box 3: folder 4-11
Madame Alexander,

Box 3: folder 12
Allilueva, Svetlana (daughter of Josef Stalin),

Box 3: folder 13
Atkinson, Brooks,

Box 3: folder 14
Baldwin, Faith,
1951, 1957

Box 3: folder 15
Blair, Frank,

Box 3: folder 16
Cannon, Poppy,

Box 3: folder 17
Chadwick, Florence,

Box 3: folder 18
Collins, Leroy,

Box 3: folder 19
Daniel, Clifton,

Box 4: folder 1
Falkenberg, Jinx,
1951, 1953, 1967

Box 4: folder 2
Flexner, James Thomas,

Box 4: folder 3
Hurst, Fannie,

Box 4: folder 4
Huxtable, Ada Louise,
1957, 1965

Box 4: folder 5
Kingman, Dong,
1958, 1967, 1971, undated

Box 4: folder 6
Koerner, Henry,

Box 4: folder 7
Lowell, Joan,

Box 4: folder 8
McBride, Mary Margaret,
1945-60, undated

Box 4: folder 9
Merrill, Robert,

Box 4: folder 10
Murray, Kathryn,

Box 4: folder 11
Snow, Edward Rowe,

Box 4: folder 12
Sulzberger, Arthur Hays,
1942-43, 1954

Box 4: folder 13
(1933-circa 1970s),

General: includes introduction to lecture, fashion assignment, and notes for book, "A Living Doll," re: Madame Alexander,
1955, undated

Box 4: folder 14
"Older Woman Alone": notes and research material,
1967-70, undated

Box 4: folder 15
"Barnum in Merchandising": unpublished memoirs

Research material

Lists of events staged by Bemis and celebrities with whom she worked,

Box 4: folder 16
Annotated photographs from Hearns department store events (includes Eddie Cantor, Fannie Hurst, Al Smith),

Box 4: folder 17-18
Clippings and notes re: celebrities, models, and "personalities" with whom Bemis worked,
1943, 1959, undated

Box 4: folder 19
Notes from agent and typescript (incomplete), circa

Box 4: folder 20
Personal notes, circa

Box 4: folder 21
1933-71, undated

Hearn's Department Store,

Buy American,
Feb 1933

Box 5: folder 1
NRA Ceremonies,
11 Sep 1933

Box 5: folder 2
Forgotten Man Day (includes photo of Fiorello La Guardia),
Nov 1935

Box 5: folder 3
Dog Show with Dave Irwin,
Jan 1936

Box 5: folder 4
Gala Fashion Showing,
16 Mar-2 Apr 1936

Box 5: folder 5
14th Street Bus Ceremony,
Apr 1936

Box 5: folder 6
Opening of Children's World,
31 Aug-5 Sep 1936

Box 5: folder 7
109th Anniversary Event,
Sep 1936

Box 5: folder 8
Opening of Historic Wine Caves under Brooklyn Bridge,
7 Oct 1936

Box 5: folder 9
Bureau of Human Relations,
Feb 1937

Box 5: folder 10
Elsa Maxwell: Queen of Fashion Contest,
Mar 1937

Box 5: folder 11
Scrambles of
1937, 11 Nov 1937

Box 5: folder 12
Hearn's Circus, Thanksgiving Day,

Box 5: folder 13
Consumers Mass Meeting (includes photos of Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, and Ed Wynn),
21 March 1938

Box 5: folder 14
A Woman's World,

Box 5: folder 15
1935-37, undated

Box 5: folder 16
Freelance and WAAC career,

Fashions by Television,
18 Nov 1937

Box 5: folder 17
Astra Elephant Ceremonies (includes photos of Al Smith),
Oct 1938

Box 5: folder 18
Century Ribbon Show,
Oct 1939

Box 5: folder 19
Paris Review of Coney Furs,

Box 5: folder 20
College Day,
Oct 1939

Box 5: folder 21
Fashions Out of Test Tubes,
7 Dec 1939

Box 5: folder 22
March Carnival of Advertising Women of New York,
15 Mar 1940

Box 5: folder 23
Textiles of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,
13 Apr 1940

Box 5: folder 24
Fashions of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,
29-30 Aug 1941

Box 5: folder 25
The American Trend,
24 Sep 1940

Box 5: folder 26
Defense Bonds for the Fur Industry,
10 Nov 1941

Box 5: folder 27
Cottons for Victory,
2 Dec 1942

Box 5: folder 28
Women's Army Auxiliary Corps career,

Box 5: folder 29
Keep 'em in Stitches,
12 Jan 1944

Box 5: folder 30
War Bond Frolics,
14 Feb 1944

Box 5: folder 31
Rich's Department Store: miscellaneous,
1946, 1955

Box 5: folder 32
"Fashions of the Times,"

Box 6: folder 1-7
"Fashionata" for Rich's,

Script and production information,

Box 7: folder 1
Clippings, publicity, programs, and photographs,
1946-47, undated

Box 7: folder 2-6
Script, production information, and miscellany,

Box 7: folder 7-9
Abraham and Straus,


Box 7: folder 10
5 Aug 1947

Box 7: folder 11

Floor for Better Living,
Sep 1947

Box 8: folder 1
Junior Size Center,
Oct 1947

Box 8: folder 2
Music Center (includes photos of Vic Damone and Rise Stevens),
10 Feb 1948

Box 8: folder 3
Art to Live With,
26 Jul 1948

Box 8: folder 4
Petticoat Parade,
10 Mar 1948

Box 8: folder 5
Launching of Betty Smith's Tomorrow Will Be Better (includes photos of Smith (author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn)),
5 Aug 1948

Box 8: folder 6

Box 8: folder 7
Spring Tonic,
11 Mar 1949

Box 8: folder 8
White House Housekeeper,
25 Apr 1949

Box 8: folder 9
Spending for Happiness,
19 May 1949

Box 8: folder 10
Elizabeth Arden Beauty Classes,
13-17 Jun 1949

Box 8: folder 11
Eternally Young (includes photos of Billie Burke),
20 Jun 1949

Box 8: folder 12
Better Living with Television,
20 Jul 1949

Box 8: folder 13
Back to School Fashion Primer (includes photos of Robin Morgan),
1 Sep 1949

Box 9: folder 1
Glamour Career Fashion Show for Savings Bank Girls,
8 Sep 1949

Box 9: folder 2
What Makes a Woman Beautiful,
19-22 Sep 1949

Box 9: folder 3
Ski World Opening and Ski Queen Contest,
10 Dec 1949

Box 9: folder 4

Box 9: folder 5
Men's Short Pants,
1 Feb 1950

Box 9: folder 6
Homemaker's Carnival,
13-25 Feb 1950

Box 9: folder 7
Margaret O'Brien,
18 Feb 1950

Box 9: folder 8
T.H. Robijohn-Gibbings,
18 Apr 1950

Box 9: folder 9
Painting for Pleasure,
8-17 Jun 1950

Box 9: folder 10
The 1950 Bride and Her Home,
24-25 Jul 1950

Box 9: folder 11
Penny Contest, week of
26 Jul 1950

Box 9: folder 12
Howard Hodge,
5 Sep 1950

Box 9: folder 13
Book and Music Week (includes photos of Fannie Hurst, Rise Stevens, Barbara Stanwyck, and Frank Sinatra), week of
25 Sep 1950

Box 9: folder 14
Maidenform Dream Fashion Show,
5 Oct 1950

Box 9: folder 15
Youth after
40, 9 Oct 1950

Box 9: folder 16
Christmas Promotion,
Dec 1950

Box 9: folder 17

Box 9: folder 18
Brooklyn through the Eyes of Brooklyn Artists,
22-31 Jan 1951

Box 9: folder 19
Junior Fashion Show,
Feb 1951

Box 9: folder 20
Homemaker's Carnival,
12-24 Feb 1951

Box 9: folder 21
Children's Easter Fair,
8-15 Mar 1951

Box 9: folder 22
Tulip Fair,
23-28 Apr 1951

Box 10: folder 1
Dog Beauty Show,
3 May 1951

Box 10: folder 2
"A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" (includes photos of Betty Smith),
8 May 1951

Box 10: folder 3
Beauty and Fashion Fair,
21 May 1951

Box 10: folder 4
"Experiences Abroad," script of Bemis on Mary Margaret McBride's radio show,
5 Sep 1951

Box 10: folder 5
Music, TV, and Book Week (includes photos of Morey Amsterdam, Anna May Wong, Robert Merrill, Carol Channing, and Rise Stevens), week of
24 Sep 1951

Box 10: folder 6-8
Beauty Salon Opening,
15-20 Oct 1951

Box 10: folder 9
Christmas Doll Tea Party,
28 Nov 1951

Box 10: folder 10
Good Design Exhibit,
28 Nov 1951

Box 10: folder 11
Opening of A&S Nassau store,
Jan-Mar 1952

Box 10: folder 12-13
Eyes on Israel,
8 Apr 1952

Box 11: folder 1
Book and Authors Tea,
13 May-17 Jun 1952

Box 11: folder 2
Waiting for Baby,
5 Jun 1952

Box 11: folder 3
Ladies Baseball Clinic (includes photos of Jackie Robinson),
27 Jun 1952

Box 11: folder 4
Home Fashion Time,
5 Sep 1952

Box 11: folder 5
UNESCO Delegates Event,
18 Sep 1952

Box 11: folder 6

Box 11: folder 7
British Royal Family Coronation Robes (includes photographs of Beatrice Lillie),
Jan 1953

Box 11: folder 8
The Coronation Story (includes photographs of Robin Morgan),
25 May-6 Jun 1953

Box 11: folder 9-12
Featuring Brooklyn,
27 Feb-7 Mar 1953

Box 11: folder 13
Travel time, week of
5 May 1953

Box 11: folder 14
Merrie Christmas Shop opening,
7 Nov 1953

Box 12: folder 1
The Ding Dong Lady,
14 Nov 1953

Box 12: folder 2
Christmas Dress Party,
3 Dec 1953

Box 12: folder 3

Box 12: folder 4
Authors Week,
23-27 Feb 1954

Box 12: folder 5
Preview of Easter,
15-22 Mar 1954

Box 12: folder 6
Travel Time Is Cotton Time,
17-22 May 1954

Box 12: folder 7
Designs in Scandinavia,
20 Apr-16 May 1954

Box 12: folder 8

Box 12: folder 9

Fashion Is a Golden Door--Inspiration Gala, a Tribute to Michelle Murphy,
2 Mar 1955

Box 12: folder 10
Jane Harris, Ltd.,

Box 12: folder 11
Speaking engagements,

Box 12: folder 12
City of St. Augustine,

Public relations forum,
4 Oct 1956

Box 12: folder 13
"The Florida Story,"
Nov 1956

Box 12: folder 14
Welcome to newcomers,
Feb-Apr 1957

Box 12: folder 15
Organization for improved St. George St.,

Box 12: folder 16
Easter week,

Box 12: folder 17
Easter week festival,
29 Mar-5 Apr 1959

Box 12: folder 18
St. Augustine Art Association

2 Apr 1961

Box 12: folder 19
Open house events,
Jan 1966

Box 12: folder 20
Helen Strong exhibition,
23-27 Jan 1971

Box 12: folder 21
Lecture of F. Roy Carlson, n.d
6 April

Box 12: folder 22

Box 12: folder 23
City of St. Augustine,

Miscellaneous clippings (includes articles by Bemis)

Box 12: folder 24
St. Augustine Historical Society miscellany

Box 12: folder 25
Pamphlets and brochures

Box 12: folder 26

Box 12: folder 27

Friends and associates (includes clippings, publicity, and photographs)

Madame Alexander

Box 13: folder 1
Allilueva, Svetlana

Box 13: folder 2
Bethune, Mary McLeod and Bethune Cookman College

Box 13: folder 3
Boyer, Mary-Lou

Box 13: folder 4
Huxtable, Ada Louise

Box 13: folder 5
Kenyon, Dorothy

Box 13: folder 6
Kingman, Dong

Box 13: folder 7
Koerner, Henry

Box 13: folder 8
McBride, Mary Margaret

Box 13: folder 9
McNaughton, Elinor

Box 13: folder 10
Nemkov, Sol

Box 13: folder 11
Weddell, Mimi

Box 13: folder 12
Wright, Frank Lloyd

Box 13: folder 13
Miscellaneous friends' obituaries

Box 13: folder 14


Midtown Gallery

Box 13: folder 15

Box 13: folder 16
Brooklyn Museum and Brooklyn Children's Museum

Box 13: folder 17
Civil rights

Box 13: folder 18
Echo House, St. Augustine

Box 13: folder 19
The Lightner Museum, St. Augustine

Box 13: folder 20
Miscellaneous material collected by Frances Bemis (includes annotated clippings and memorabilia)

Box 13: folder 21

Clippings from the Atlanta Journal,

Box 14
Public Relations Program for the City of St. Augustine,

Box 14



Flat File

Search Terms
The following terms represent persons, organizations, and topics documented in this collection. Use these headings to search for additional materials on this web site, in the Five College Library Catalog, or in other library catalogs and databases.

  • Advertising--United States--History--20th century--Sources
  • Alexander, Madame
  • Bemis, Frances, d. 1974
  • Celebrities--New York (State)--New York--20th century
  • Department stores--United States--History--Sources
  • Fashion shows--United States--History--20th century--Sources
  • Fashion--United States--History--20th century--Sources
  • Huxtable, Ada Louise
  • McBride, Mary Margaret
  • New York (N.Y.)--Social life and customs--20th century--Sources
  • Popular culture--United States--History--20th century--Sources
  • Public relations--United States--History--20th century--Sources
  • Women executives--United States
  • Women in advertising--United States--History--20th century--Sources

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