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Zelma Corning Brandt papers

 Collection — Box: 1
Identifier: BMC-M92

Scope and Contents

The Zelma Corning Brandt papers consist of correspondence, notes, writings, and diaries, in addition to miscellaneous photographs, publications, and other reports. The material dates from 1906-1989, although the vast majority dates from 1960-1989. Brandt’s correspondence forms the bulk of the collection, with letters primarily exchanged between friends, political leaders, and other contacts from around the world. Because of her meticulous record keeping, Brandt’s correspondence is remarkably complete; she kept carbon copies of her sent letters, in addition to all those received, so the record is two-dimensional. Her longevity allowed her correspondence to cover a range of periods, thus creating a full narrative that traces the development of international and domestic affairs.

Brandt maintained core groups of friends in India, Ghana, England, Romania, Mexico, and the American Southwest, in addition to smaller pockets in Hungary, Chile, Egypt, France, Italy, China, and many other countries. Letters from these correspondents are often familiar, addressing daily events and sharing personal anecdotes; however, these letters also cover an ongoing discourse on national development, possible routes towards modernization, effectiveness of the government, etc., especially from her contacts in India and Africa.

Due to Brandt’s social activism, the collection also contains nearly three boxes of organization-specific correspondence. Approximately half of this material relates to financial appeals, which Brandt nearly always responded to personally. The other half records Brandt’s personal correspondence with organization leadership, especially in the case of American Indian affairs, women’s groups, and the Gray Panthers. Through these letters, Brandt is seen devoutly organizing and advocating for these different groups in countless small but significant ways.

As a prolific traveler, Brandt’s papers also include detailed, if hard to decipher, travel notes. The collection contains many copies of her official reports for the United Nations, but her travel notes extend beyond the auspices of the UN and primarily serve as her own personal reflections. Diaries from her early childhood forecast Brandt’s future role as a world traveler and observer.

Apart from her letter writing, Brandt also wrote privately, and the collection contains childhood diaries in addition to her later travel notebooks, poems (written in English, German, and French), and short stories. Often, she would write her thoughts on scraps of papers, seemingly to digest a situation with more clarity. These personal reflections compliment Brandt’s travel observations and organizational aspirations by further developing the strong-willed, generous spirit exhibited by those other writings

In addition, the Zelma Corning Brandt papers also contain travel photographs and photographs of family and friends, and publications and reports from various organizations.


  • Creation: 1906 - 1989


Conditions Governing Access

This collections is open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

The Zelma Corning Brandt papers are the physical property of the Special Collections Department, Bryn Mawr College Library. Literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assigns.

Biographical / Historical

Zelma Corning Brandt (1891-1990) was a social activist who worked to advance international understanding, especially through support for colonial nations, and to advocate for American minority groups, including women, American Indians, and the elderly.

Zelma Corning Brandt was born in New York City on May 23, 1891, to James Wells Corning and Hermione Thorsch. She attended The Veltin School for Girls in New York City, graduating in 1909. As a young girl, Brandt’s family often travelled abroad during the summer, and she began to write poems, and to keep a diary of her travels. After her graduation from The Veltin School, Brandt attended Bryn Mawr College, where she took mostly English courses. She left Bryn Mawr after two years, in 1911, to marry Carl Brandt (1892-1957), a literary agent.

During World War I, Brandt began to work with her husband and brother-in-law at their publishing agency. There, the Brandts worked side-by-side, editing manuscripts and selecting works for publication. They had two children, Barbara Galton and Lois Triffin, born in 1915 and 1917, respectively. They divorced in 1927.

After her divorce, Brandt left the firm and began to travel extensively, utilizing a small family fortune that had been inherited through her paternal uncle. At first, she travelled mostly to Europe to visit friends and family, but her travels soon broadened in scope, as she sought to enhance her understanding of foreign cultures. She developed a particular interest in countries struggling for independence, especially India and the African countries of Ghana, Kenya, Cote d’Ivoire, and French and British Cameroon. In 1957, Zelma was made a correspondent for the Trans-Radio News Agency, to cover Ghana’s independence celebrations. In 1962, she became an observer for the United Nations, specifically focusing on African and Colonial matters under the auspices of the International League for Human Rights (formerly the International League for the Rights of Man). Through this entire period, Brandt also travelled extensively through Europe. She visited the Soviet Union multiple times at the height of the Cold War, and tried for many years to go to Cuba and China. She was finally able travel to China in 1972, at age 81. Brandt also financially supported relatives in Hungary who had been cut from her mother’s will, and sent packages of food and other necessities to friends in Europe during and after World War II.

Domestically, Brandt was active in several women’s organizations. Her first involvements were in the suffragist movement and in Margaret Sanger’s American Birth Control League. Later, she focused on women’s groups advocating for peace. She was an early member of the Women’s International Democratic Foundation. Her involvement in WIDF resulted in accusations of Communist sympathies. She was also active in Women Strike for Peace, which opposed US involvement in Southeast Asia and nuclear proliferation. Brandt also strongly advocated for the American Indian, especially after the Wounded Knee Massacre, and she guided her granddaughter into a lifelong career in Native American affairs. As she aged, Brandt became especially interested in geriatric issues, especially those related to care of the elderly. She was active in the Gray Panthers, an advocacy group dedicated to preserving quality of life for semi-independent and dependent seniors. She declared herself financially “inactive” at age 95, although she continued to follow the developments in her various organizations very closely. She died on February 19, 1990 at age 99, after spending a decade in a nursing home, which she derisively christened her “gilded cage.” She actively corresponded until a few months before her death.


7 linear ft.

Language of Materials



Zelma Corning Brandt (1891-1990) was a social crusader active throughout the twentieth century. Her chief interests included the independence and development of colonial countries, American Indian affairs, nuclear disarmament, women’s issues, and geriatric concerns. The collection consists of correspondence, travel notes, diaries and writings, and publications and reports, especially from 1960-1989. Brandt’s longevity and attention to detail provide a complete view of various world and domestic issues and events through this period. Zelma Brandt attended Bryn Mawr College from 1909 to 1911.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gift of Zelma Corning Brandt.

Processing Information

The processing of this collection was made possible through generous funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, administered through the Council on Library and Information Resources’ “Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives” Project.

This collection is minimally processed to the folder level.

Zelma Corning Brandt papers
Christina Wagner, Elizabeth Reilly
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
The processing of this collection was made possible through generous funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, administered through the Council on Library and Information Resources’ “Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives” Project.

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