There are few historical figures in recent memory who have received as much adoration and reverence as Eleanor Roosevelt—and rightly so. As a political figure, feminist, mother and activist, Eleanor Roosevelt’s legacy is unparalleled. The contemporary political climate may be one of partisanship and irreconcilable division, yet even today, Mrs. Roosevelt’s lifelong tenure as “First Lady of The World” is almost universally admired, held up as a model of both selflessness and citizenry. Although she came to public prominence by way of her husband, President Frankin Delano Roosevelt, Eleanor’s career and narrative stand strikingly on their own, her social and humanitarian work forming the basis for much of today’s public and foreign policy, her public role as the President’s wife providing the blueprint for all future First Ladies. In many ways the prototypical “New Woman,” Eleanor Roosevelt was never one to sit idle. Prior to her role as First Lady, Mrs. Roosevelt worked at the Women’s Trade Union League and at the Todhunter School For Girls as a history and literature professor. Later, she served as a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly, helping to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Mrs. Roosevelt was a prolific writer, public speaker and civil rights advocate—all roles for which she is famous. She was also, however, an avid entertainer, fine furniture enthusiast and stylish trend setter—vocations she partook in during her time as co-owner of Val-Kill Industries, a furniture workshop established at her residence in Hyde Park, New York.
Above image: Eleanor and cabinetmaker Frank Landolfa in the Val-Kill Industries workshop. Image courtesy of The Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s foray into decor and furniture production, Val-Kill Industries, sprang from the roots of a friendship formed between herself and companions Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman. After meeting at a luncheon held by the New York State Democratic Committee, the trio hit it off and soon decided to built a cottage for themselves on the grounds of Roosevelt’s estate in the Hudson River Valley. The women had much in common, among which was a love for America’s early craft traditions. Cook, in particular, had nurtured a keen interest in craft methods and ideologies while a student at Syracuse University, exposed to the thinking of such artists and thinkers as Gustav Stickley, William Morris and John Ruskin.
In 1926, Mrs. Roosevelt decided to harness these interests and establish Val-Kill Industries, a furniture workshop meant to function both as an incubator for craft talent and an example of craft’s ability to supply living wages to workers. The latter was of particular interest to Mrs. Roosevelt who was noted for her tireless work in support of worker’s rights, labor laws and government-subsidized business. At the time that Val-Kill Industries was established, America’s agricultural industry was flailing, hurt badly by swiftly depreciating prices in the wake of World War I. As a result, many of America’s farmers were abandoning their long-held family businesses in search of new jobs in urban areas. In order to stymie this agricultural crisis, Roosevelt became active in creating ways to keep farmers employed whilst remaining on their land—one of which was through the making and selling of craft objects. In some ways, Val-Kill Industries served as a testing ground for ideas later put to use in the Works Progress Administration of FDR’s presidency.
Above image: Eleanor with the rest of her Val-Kill Industries co-founders: Caroline O’Day, Nancy Cook, and Marion Dickerman. Photographed in New Brunswick in 1926. Image from the collection of The FDR Presidential Library.
Above image: The Val-Kill workshop. Image courtesy of The Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site.
Aside from its social and economic aspirations, Val-Kill industries sought to promote the value of expert craftsmanship and the beauty of America’s early styles. A shining example of the Colonial Revival movement that came to prominence during this time, the furnishings, silver, and textiles produced during Val-Kill Industries’ decade-long lifespan stood in direct opposition to the excess of the Victorian Era and the industrial coldness of Modernism. Val-Kill was not just selling objects, it was selling a lifestyle—one that was perfectly in-line with Mrs. Roosevelt’s populist leanings. The lifestyle espoused by Val-Kill was not one of exclusivity or ostentation; it was about honesty, quiet modesty and simplicity—all things that were reflected in the pared-down aesthetic of Val-Kill products. Ornamentation was not the cause célèbre at Val-Kill by any means—quality and craftsmanship were the guiding principles. In an era in which more and more production was being industrialized, Val-Kill’s philosophy of pride in work struck a chord for many.
Above images: A sampling of the furniture, textiles and silver pieces produced by Val-Kill Industries. Images courtesy of The Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site.
Above image: An image from the Val-Kill Industries trade catalogue. Images courtesy of The Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site.
Above image: The Stone Cottage at Val-Kill, from a photo essay in McCall’s Magazine, ca. 1950s. Image courtesy of The Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site.
The Stone Cottage at Val-Kill, where Mrs. Roosevelt frequently entertained guests, was a perfect illustration of Val-Kill Industries’ ideals at work. A far cry from the grandeur of the Roosevelts’ Hyde Park estate, Val-Kill provided a warm, welcoming and unpretentious atmosphere, one that spoke to a quieter, more domestic lifestyle. A 1950s photo essay of Val-Kill from McCall’s magazine depicts a space that is pointedly laid back and wonderfully lived in—photographs line wood-paneled walls, books are stacked haphazardly on shelves, and rush-seated chairs fill the space, hinting at jovial gatherings of friends and family.
As with many businesses, the Great Depression took its toll on Val-Kill Industries, and the decision was made to dissolve the partnership in 1937. Despite its eventual dissolution, Val-Kill Industries and its legacy still proved successful in numerous ways. It helped to popularize the Colonial Revival, a style that continues to be immensely popular to this day. It also provided the building blocks for an increased appreciation for handicraft traditions in the United States. Today, handcrafted products wear their “Made In The USA” seals with pride and craft has once again become not just a sought-after style, but a profitable source of income for many American households. Val-Kill Industries’ influence, just like Eleanor Roosevelt’s, seems to be never ending. —Max
Above image: A formal portrait of Eleanor, ca. 1915. Image from the collection of The FDR Presidential Library.
Above image: Eleanor and her dog, Fala, at Val-Kill, ca. 1947. Image from the collection of The FDR Presidential Library.
Eleanor Illustration by Libby VanderPloeg.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s life at Val-Kill is highlighted in the upcoming permanent exhibit at the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site—Eleanor Roosevelt and Val-Kill: Emergence of a Political Leader, opening June 1st in Hyde Park, New York.
Special thanks to Frank Futral and The Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site for providing imagery and information for this article.