Scope and Contents
The Jean Scobie Davis papers is a collection consisting largely of Jean Scobie Davis’ diaries and correspondence covering nearly all stages of her life. The collection, which dates from 1892 to 1985, is divided into seven subseries: “Autobiographical Material;” “Correspondence;” “Diaries;” “Family History;” “Photographs;” “Prison Reform;” and “Scrapbooks and Guestbook.” Material found in the collection is diverse, and consists of letters, reports, bound diaries as well as loose diary pages, photographs, scrapbooks, and handwritten notes.
The first series in the collection is “Autobiographical Material.” This material is Davis’s attempt to compile and write her own autobiography. Within this series are “1900 to 1985;” “1907;” “1929 February 14;” “Study Abroad While the Kaiser Reigned;” and “Notes,” which contains Davis’ undated notes.
The next series is “Correspondence,” which dates from 1913 to 1982. This series contains the correspondence of both Jean Scobie Davis and her mother, Marguerite Scobie Davis. Jean Scobie Davis’ correspondence begins in 1913 and ends in 1982. Davis’ correspondence covers almost the entirety of her adult life, ranging from letters she sent from her travels in Europe, and letters to her mother received on her ninetieth birthday. Marguerite Scobie Davis’ correspondence is largely to and from her children, as well as correspondence between her and her husband’s family.
The third series is “Diaries, notes and other accounts,” and this series comprises the bulk of the collection. While the bulk of this series consists of Davis’ diaries, there are some diaries composed by Marguerite Scobie Davis. Jean Scobie Davis’ voluminous diaries cover the years from 1910 through 1982. She describes with great detail and emotion her travels, work, and personal experiences. Marguerite Scobie Davis’ diaries date from 1887 through late 1939, and describe her life as a mother and wife at the turn of the century.
Following is “Family History: Davis, Scobie, and Shaw families.” This series contains Davis’ effort to write the history of her family, going back to 1750. The series is divided by family name, and includes a number of original family documents and diaries. Much of Davis’ writings are her own versions of the Davis, Scobie, and Shaw family history.
The “Photographs” series primarily contains images of Jean Scobie Davis and members the Davis family. Of note are the “Family Albums” which include photographs of trips taken abroad. There are also tintype images of unidentified family members contained within a small box.
The “Prison Reform” series contains numerous records kept by Davis related to her passion for this cause. This series is the strength of the collection as it contains unique records of prison life during early twentieth century America. Included in the “Collected Material” subseries, is an assemblage of materials Davis collected from her studies, such as writings of prison reformers, specifically Hans von Hertig and John R. Commons. Also included are bound reports from various prisons, and her collected material from the Fredrick A. Moran Memorial Institute and State of New York Department of Corrections. Davis studied several aspects of the American prison system, and this range of interest is reflected through the next three subseries “Juvenile Reform,” “Probation Material,” and “Women’s Reform.” She also gave talks on the subject of prison reform, two of which are included in the subseries “Talks by Jean Scobie Davis.” Davis was also heavily involved with the Board of Visitors at Westfield State Farm (a prison in Westchester County, NY), and records related to this post can be found in the subseries “Westfield State Farm”. The Westfield State Farm material contains reports, minutes, and accounts of life for not only inmates, but employees and staff inside a mid-century prison.
The “Scrapbooks and Guestbook” series includes Davis’s home guestbook from 1940 to 1983, as well as two scrapbooks she assembled during 1914 and 1917 respectively. Her 1914 scrapbook is titled “Europe” and includes photographs of her time spent in Geneva, Switzerland for academic study. The 1917 scrapbook titled, “The Book of Efficient Living” contains images of floor plans, gardens, and other domestic scenes.
The Jean Scobie Davis papers is an outstanding collection for researchers studying women’s history and social issues. Davis’ diaries document the struggles of women as scholars and in academia, as well as her own personal experiences and reflections as a woman. This collection also holds material rich in the history and development of prison reform in the 20th century in the United States.
Biographical / Historical
Jean Scobie Davis, a 1914 graduate of Bryn Mawr College, taught economics and sociology at Agnes Scott College, Vassar College, Pierce College, Wells College and the American Women’s College in Beirut. A lifetime interest in prison reform resulted in her work at the New York State Correctional Facility in Bedford Hills, New York.
Jean Scobie Davis was born in 1892 to John D. Davis and Marguerite Scobie. John D. Davis, an 1879 graduate of Princeton, taught Semitic Languages at the Princeton Theological Seminary. Marguerite Scobie, born in Aberdeen, Scotland, graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1884 and studied singing at the Leipzig Conservatory and Paris. Jean Scobie Davis received her education from Miss Fine’s School in Princeton, Bryn Mawr College, graduating in 1914, and the University of Wisconsin, earning her master’s degree in 1921 and her doctorate in 1929. In 1906 and 1907, Davis spent time in Europe.
In the fall of 1910, Davis’s education at Bryn Mawr College commenced. She majored in history and minored in economics. She graduated in 1914 and travelled with her family to Neuchâtel, Switzerland, with the intention of studying French in preparation for taking graduate courses in history in Paris. The outbreak of World War I altered her plans and she instead studied economics and international law at the University of Geneva during the winter of 1914-1915. She also became active in working with students from Russia and the Balkans who were stranded in Switzerland due to the war. In March 1915, Davis left Switzerland for Paris and after a brief stay, returned to the United States in July.
During the winter of 1915-1916, Davis volunteered in Greenwich Village, NY performing “settlement-house work.” She spent the summers of 1915 and 1916 working at a summer camp for low-wage earners. She then worked as an Instructor in economics and sociology at Agnes Scott College in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia. During her time in Georgia, Davis’ interest in prison reform developed and she and a colleague spent weekends visiting the State Reformatory for girls, as well as jails and labor camps. During the summers of 1918 and 1919 and the winters of 1919 to 1921, she pursued graduate studies in economics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, earning her Master’s Degree in 1921. Her chief interests while at Wisconsin were the history of economic thought, and problems of labor in industry.
In 1921, she returned to Bryn Mawr as a tutor in economics at the first session of the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers in Industry. In September of the same year, she went to Vassar College as Instructor in Economics. In 1922, she returned to Agnes Scott College as Associate Professor of Economics and Sociology, and the next year was promoted to Professor.
During the following five years living in the south, Davis studied and researched the development of professional social work in Atlanta, the history of organized labor, and the cotton mills and their villages, where most of the workers, “poor whites,” were illiterate and had not yet formed unions. Her method of study involved dressing in gingham and living in the mill boarding houses with the workers, posing as “a teacher on vacation.” Because teachers in Georgia and South Carolina at the time were very poorly paid, no one was surprised that she had chosen cheap boarding houses in which to survive the wage-less summer. In this way, she gathered material for her doctoral dissertation on Labor Management in Southern Cotton Mills.
In 1927-1928, she served as research assistant to Professor Paul Douglas of the University of Chicago, who later became a U.S. Senator from Illinois, and also took part in a seminar in American History given by Professor William Dodd.
In September 1928, she became Professor and Chairman of the Department of Economics and Sociology at Wells College in Aurora, New York, where she remained until retirement in 1957. In 1929, she received her Doctorate in Economics at the University of Wisconsin. She spent the summer vacations of 1932 and 1938 in England, visiting factories and prisons, reformatories and other public institutions; and for two months in 1935, she pursued similar studies in Russia and Finland. Using a special leave of absence from Wells in 1946-1947, she travelled to Greece which was still recovering from World War II and in a state of civil war, and combined teaching at Pierce College with reconstruction work, principally at the Women’s Prison in Athens.
After retirement and a second visit to Russia, she taught for a year at the American Women’s College in Beirut. She travelled again to Europe, visiting England, Paris, Italy, Greece and Crete. She was to say of these trips, “My visits to Europe have never been as a tourist, but always as a student, an observer of correctional institutions, a teacher, or as a guest of relatives or friends—long leisurely visits, during which I came to feel at home in other cultures and other centuries.”
From the early 1930s on, her chief “outside interest,” which she would say was actually an “inside interest, was in women’s prisons and reformatories for teenagers. Her interest gained her entrance where few were admitted, and successive Governors of New York State appointed her to serve for thirty-six years on the Board of Visitors of the New York State Reformatory for Women at Bedford Hills, New York.
Davis died at her home in Aurora, NY in 1985. She was described by Carolyn Bunn Wood, the recipient of the 1999 Alumnae Award at Wells College as, “a legend … [and] one of the most brilliant women [she has] ever known,” (Wood). In honor of Davis, Wells College awards the Jean Scobie Davis Prize to a member of the graduating class who majors in either economics or sociology, and who shows “both the fine understanding of facts, and the social implication of the subject involved, so characteristic of Miss Davis,” (Wells College).
Well College Catalog, page 55. (http://minerva.wells.edu/pdfs/Wells_Catalog_2009-
10.pdf) [accessed December 8, 2009]
Wood, Carolyn Bunn, 1999 Alumnae Award Acceptance Address,
http://www.wells.edu/whatsnew/wnspch19.htm [accessed December 8, 2009]