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Selected reels from the papers of Margaret Sanger, housed at The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at New York University.

As historical researchers, we spend countless hours getting to know the individuals we study. Upon completion of my Master’s Thesis, I felt as if I had lost contact with a unique group of close friends that I had slowly grown to know (there was something so strangely endearing about those Antisuffragists!). Assisting in the research at the Sanger Papers and continually trolling through Sanger’s personal accounts of her life’s work is no different– sometimes I empathize with her, and at others she makes me curious, but either way, I can’t help but feel connected to someone whose personal archives I work so closely with and whose drive I profoundly admire. So naturally, while happily stranded in my homeland of Western New York, I got to wondering: if Sanger were here, what would she be doing? After poking around our office database, I got some answers.

Sanger visited Western New York frequently and was tied to my home in many ways. Judging by the amount of times she frequented the area throughout her life, I’d like to think she was pretty fond of the place.

Born and raised in Corning, New York, Sanger came from a working class family in a factory town about two hours south of Buffalo. Her father worked as a stonemason, while several of her brothers worked at Corning Glass Works, the backbone of Corning’s economic success since its founding in 1851. Sanger returned to Corning numerous times– mostly to stay with her father or brothers who continued to live in in the city after she left home, and once to give a speech on birth control. She traveled more broadly in other cities in Western New York, attending and giving lectures in Chautauqua at the Chautauqua Institute, and organizing lectures, luncheons and other meetings for birth control in Rochester and Syracuse. But because I’m from Buffalo and enamored with my hometown city’s history, I found myself especially wondering about Sanger’s visits there, the individuals she met, and what she did on her numerous stays.

Initially, it was the development of the Erie Canal that spawned Buffalo’s rapid growth and strategically allowed the city to act as the commercial gateway between the eastern seaboard, the Great Lakes, and ultimately the west (if you’re interested in empathizing with every Buffalonian school child, click here to listen and learn the Erie Canal song). It was another event, though, that earned Buffalo its nicknames “Queen City on the Lake” and “Electric City” at the turn of the twentieth century (you may also have heard “Nickel City” or “City of Good Neighbors”– I’d like to think that it’s hard for us to stick to one descriptive since we have so much to offer). In 1901 it played host to the Pan American Exposition, a World’s Fair event which showcased Buffalo’s use of electricity and technological advancements, further cementing its position as one of the wealthiest cities in the nation. Prominent individuals such as Frederick Law Olmsted, Thomas Edison, and Theodore Roosevelt all made their individual mark on the city in some way, especially during this era of success. In fact, many of the individuals that Sanger would appeal to in Buffalo were extremely influential during the exposition, or during the city’s expansion.

Pan American Exposition illuminated, courtesy of the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society, located in Buffalo’s Pan-Am Building.

Appealing to the affluent, in Sanger’s world, was necessary in order to find the means to help the less fortunate. Sanger turned to wealthy women’s groups for financial support for her cause, even as she challenged them to form local birth control leagues and clinics.  It’s no surprise that Sanger associated with the city’s elite, whose families were deeply vested in major events like the Pan American Exposition, or in the social and cultural affairs of the city. Throughout the 1920s and 30s, Sanger hobnobbed with the likes of Susan Fiske (Mrs. Dexter P.) Rumsey, Emily Grey (Mrs. Chauncey) Hamlin, and Mrs. Frank K.M. Rehn. Each woman belonged to a different circle within Buffalo’s most elite and influential families. Imagine: having tea along Millionaire’s Row in Buffalo’s heyday. Not too shabby.

The Frank H. Goodyear house, one of the many mansions located on Buffalo’s “Millionaire’s Row,” running along Delaware Avenue, between North and Bryant Streets (courtesy of Buffalo as an Architectural Museum at http://www.Buffaloah.com).

Susan Fiske Rumsey, for example, was married to Dexter P. Rumsey, a descendant of the Buffalo Rumseys– the family that owned the majority of the city’s land which now comprises a large portion of Olmsted’s Delaware Park and on which the Pan American Exposition was built. Upon the death of Dexter, Susan donated the family’s land to the city, which has since become the “Rumsey Woods” section of the park. The Rumsey’s were so influential that author Lauren Belfer wrote, “To know a Rumsey is to know enough” in her acclaimed work entitled City of Light, a novel that takes place at the Pan American Exposition. The family’s original home was located on the corner of Delaware Avenue and Summer Street, which has long been demolished, but the stables from the home, and other buildings the Rumseys acquired, such as the Wilcox Mansion, can still be seen standing today. Additionally, it was Rumsey land that was used and leased for the Pan Am. The Women’s House, that catered to the Board of Women Managers, of which other Hamlin and Rumsey descendants (Kate Hamlin and Evelyn Rumsey) sat on, continues to be one of the few remaining structures that continues to survive today (it was common practice to build for easy dismantle for World’s Fairs at the turn of the twentieth century, no matter how grand the structures may have been). Susan Rumsey served as a vice-president of Sanger’s National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control, which drummed up grass roots support for amending federal birth control laws in the 1930s and served as the nature of the meetings she had with Sanger at the time.

Sanger was also connected to Emily Grey Hamlin, who along with her husband, sat on the Board of Directors of the American Birth Control League, and was listed as a key supporter in Sanger’s Birth Control Review. Her husband, Chauncey Hamlin, was active in the formation of the Progressive (Bull Moose) Party, serving as Teddy Roosevelt’s campaign manager in Western New York. Like Sanger, the pair also displayed a public commitment to the advancement of science. An active conservationist, Hamlin worked to preserve many of the nation’s parks, and served as President of Buffalo’s Museum of Science and the Buffalo Society for Natural Sciences. Additionally, Emily Hamlin organized lectures on the nation’s parks at Buffalo Women’s Clubs. The nature of Sanger’s relationship with the Hamlin’s is unclear, but their commitment to Sanger’s work is visible through the role they took on as board members in the American Birth Control League.

I imagine these visits to be extravagant. Lunching in grand mansions and discussing the city’s scientific and technological advancements at the turn of the century? Yes, please. But I also have a tendency to romanticize Sanger’s life on the road, while many visits were hardly the lavish or celebratory type and of a different nature completely. One of Sanger’s sisters, for example, had moved to Buffalo from Corning when her employers, the Abbott family, relocated there from Corning. Sanger visited her older sister, Mary, many times– the last was in December 1925, shortly before Mary passed away at Buffalo General Hospital due to complications resulting from a ruptured appendix.

In the midst of many Rust Belt Revolutions that are thankfully beginning to take place around America’s Great Lakes, it was also reassuring to revisit some of the individuals who were so vested in Buffalo’s legacy prior to the manufacturing decline of the latter twentieth century. It also left me wondering– was there anywhere Sanger didn’t go?!


Visit the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society for more information on Buffalo’s role in the Pan American Exposition and prominent individuals philanthropic efforts: http://www.bechs.org/.

For more information on Buffalo’s Pan American Exposition, visit the University of Buffalo’s digital project entitled “Illuminations” in honor of the centennial anniversary of the expo.

City of Light and other works by Lauren Belfer can be accessed by visiting her website.

“Doing the Pan” is another digital project highlighting the Pan American Exposition and the many events held at the expo. And if you’re in the Buffalo area, check out the Pan American Grill & Brewery in the historic Hotel Lafayette, dedicated to the legacy of the Pan American Exposition. And of course, has some killer Buffalo wings.