Helen Palmer Dawes

Name: Helen Palmer Dawes (Palmer)
Birth Date: November 13, 1869
Birth Place: Washington Ohio, USA
Death Date: July 28, 1941
Death Location: Chicago Illinois, USA
Burial Place: Oak Grove Cemetery, Marietta, Ohio


Helen Palmer Dawes, a noted Evanstonian, was instrumental in several organizations. Born in Washington, Ohio in 1869, she married Rufus Cutler Dawes, the brother of Charles Gates Dawes. Rufus was a utilities director, civic leader and banker. In 1913, while President of the Women’s Club of Evanston, Helen appropriated money from the treasury to pay Evanston’s first food inspector which led to reforms in food safety and was credited with the prevention of an epidemic of typhoid fever in Evanston. She was also during this time the first female library board member in Evanston. At the start of WWI, Dawes collected 32,000 pounds of food for needy people in Belgium, at the request of Anna Gordon. During World War I she helped to found and manage a program for food conservation (canning and storing garden products, and holding canning demonstrations for women all over Evanston) so that factory goods could be used by the military in Europe. Also the kitchen helped to care for flu epidemic people in the Fall of 1918, and became a successful cooperative housekeeping business in 1919. On top of her charitable work and leadership positions (including the Fornightly Club of Chicago, University Guild, and the Chair of the International Relations Committee of the General Federation of Woman’s Clubs), she served as the official hostess of the 1933 Century of Progress and created a women’s board as well as served as a Fair Trustee.


Helen Palmer Dawes, a noted Evanstonian, was instrumental in several organizations. Born in Washington, Ohio in 1869, she married Rufus Cutler Dawes (brother of Charles Gates Dawes) in 1893, after graduating from Lake Erie College with a teaching certificate and teaching in her hometown. Her mother’s death due to an unrelated illness, her children’s many sicknesses, and her early bout with typhoid fever (1905) and other illnesses no doubt shaped Helen’s later pursuits surrounding food sanitation and conservation. Further, Helen’s time (1911-1919) spent caring for (with domestic help) eleven cabins and a farm in Holland, MI owned by her and Rufus may have inspired her work with the Community Kitchen or increased her awareness of issues of housekeeping. These cabins were given to the Christopher House in 1919.

Helen spent early activist years as Chairman of the Woman’s Club of Evanston Child and Home Department, a member of the Directorate of the University Guild, director of the Chicago chapter of her college’s alumni association, and member of the School Management Committee of the School of Domestic Sciences, Chicago. She was elected President of the Woman’s Club of Evanston in April 1913 and the club later that year hosted the Illinois Federation of Woman’s Clubs, with Helen giving the welcome address. While President of the Women’s Club of Evanston, Helen appropriated money from the treasury to pay Evanston’s first food inspector that led to reforms in food safety, efforts that were credited with the prevention of an epidemic of typhoid fever in Evanston in 1912 and 1913. The Woman’s Club further at this time pushed the City Council to pass food safety and milk ordinances (requiring testing and the labeling of fat content). She oversaw the first two years of the Club’s occupancy in their own clubhouse and worked to make it a center of the community through rentals to various groups around Evanston.

During this time, she was also appointed as the first woman on the Evanston Public Library Board of Trustees (1914-1917). Her time as WCE president ended in 1915 after the limited two-year term. In 1914/15 she spearheaded, with Anna Gordon of the WCTU and Mrs. James Patten, the Evanston Chapter of the American Commission for Relief in Belgium. Helen was instrumental in mobilizing over 20 women’s clubs in Evanston (Mother’s Clubs, Churches, etc.) to collect over 32,000 pounds of canned goods, flour, salt, rice, and more to ship to Belgium in 1915. During World War I (1917/8), through the Food Conservation Committee of the Woman’s Club, she helped to found (with Elizabeth Odell and Nellie Kingsley) and manage a community canning kitchen, which produced almost 7000 jars of food over a summer. This Conservation Committee further put on food demonstrations for women at Schools of Domestic Sciences all over the city and trained volunteers to teach others; they also wrote to merchants about complying with the conservation order of the United States, especially to find substitutes for wheat, meat, fat, and sugar.

An outspoken woman, Helen chastised the Public Library for distributing a cookbook encouraging the use of baking powder, and further expressed her disapproval that so little time was being devoted to conservation issues in woman’s clubs. She explains that this disapproval and penchant towards patriotism was driven by her own sons’ presence overseas during the war. Half of the canned food was sold to families, while the other half was given to charitable organizations in Evanston (including King’s Daughters House, Swedish Home, and Grove Home, among others). During this time, Margaret Bogert featured Helen as the subject of a 1914 interview, “in which she relates her experiences in shopping and her inability to secure the merchandise which she seeks.” Helen further wrote a pamphlet (published by the WCE) in 1918 entitled “Food Conservation.” She gave many talks on the topic around the city and spent Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings at the office of the State Council of Defense, acting as the Chairman of the Woman’s Food Conservation Committee. This same concept was implemented during the influenza epidemic in the fall of 1918, which distributed meals to about 200 families that did not have domestic help and where the adult family members were sick.

This idea carried into the Community Kitchen Company, founded in 1919 again by Dawes, Odell, and Kingsley, which distributed hot meals to families that were unable to secure sufficient domestic help or wanted to save money and time on food preparation. This venture started in the basement of the Woman’s Club, however quickly moved out to another building due both to size and also the desire to be a for-profit business. Dawes, Odell, and Kingsley were invited to speak around the country about the successes of this business. The Kitchen delivered meals using a specially designed container made by the Aladdin Company to keep food warm (insulated with glass); to test this, a meal was sent with a pilot flying between Chicago and Cleveland, and he was satisfied. While delivery service ceased after about a year, the business continued as a cafeteria and bakery until 1951.

Helen Dawes held high-ranking positions on numerous other boards. She was the first President of the Woman’s Association of the First Presbyterian Church (1922), President of the University Guild of Evanston (1924-25), and Chair of the International Relations Committee of the General Federation of Woman’s Clubs (1926-28). Her time in this last position was met with some hostility as she advocated for peaceful international relations, which was considered by some to be unpatriotic and pacifistic. Helen however drew a strong line between herself and anti-war activists, in fact keeping tabs on their activities and working in this position to prevent the distribution of their literature to unsuspecting groups.

In 1931 she acted as the General Campaign Chairman of the Central Association of Evanston Charities (currently known as the Family Welfare Association), and from 1936-1938 she was President of the Fortnightly Club of Chicago, moving there in 1940 shortly after the death of Rufus. In both the 1920s and 1930s Helen gave talks to woman’s clubs on topics ranging from the education of children to business practices. Her most famous work might be her 1933-35 position as the Chair of the Social Committee at the Chicago Century of Progress, as appointed by her husband, President of the fair. In this position she was expected not only to host and entertain visiting dignitaries’ wives, but was also expected to attend parties and functions to which she was invited, and accompany Rufus when needed. She oversaw a number of woman’s committees devoted to various areas of the fair (for example, the Art and Literary department was headed by Mrs. Potter Palmer). Helen’s diary indicates that she also engaged the visiting dignitaries in conversation about current events. One of her most famous visitors was Eleanor Roosevelt, and Helen called her a “clever woman and good politician” in her diary. Helen’s earlier diaries focus almost exclusively on her children; while she held many high-ranking positions, she was extremely devoted to her family. There can be no doubt that motherhood drove many of her causes. News articles and correspondence indicate that she was a dynamic speaker and outspoken woman, however, her diary indicates modesty for her own accomplishments. Further, as many women do today, Helen struggled with the desire to impact her community and her desire for motherhood. After a writing gap between April 6, 1913 and March 29, 1914, she states, “The newspaper clippings on the opposite page are intended as a lame excuse for neglecting to chronicle the doings of the Dawes children in this book. I have been doing too many things that have made me put off writing. Now so many happy times and funny sayings will be forgotten, all because mother went to the Club.”

Significance: Helen Palmer Dawes was instrumental in spurring the Food Conservation movement in Evanston and all over Illinois during World War I. Her work as the Chair of the Woman’s Food Conservation Committee at the Illinois State Council of Defense ensured that Illinois women were adhering to United States mandates on food consumption and conservation, while also feeding their families nutritious meals with what was available; she also helped to train these women to teach others. The canning kitchen, of which she had a leading role, further donated food to charities during this time of food shortage. These same principles were applied to the influenza outbreak of 1919 when she helped create a kitchen to deliver meals to sick families. This further extended to the Community Kitchen Company, which provided meals for families without domestic help and lasted as a female-run business for over 30 years. Prior to all of these feats, however, it must be noted that Dawes was crucial in mobilizing women’s groups in Evanston to collect food from businesses and individuals – 32,000 pounds – to ship to people in Belgium at the beginning of WWI. This work combined demonstrates that one of Mrs. Dawes’ primary concerns in life was ensuring individuals were properly fed and nourished at a time when food procurement and preparation were uncertain, especially during and after World War I.

Mrs. Dawes acted as President of the Woman’s Club of Evanston during its first two years in its clubhouse; she worked to make it a center of the community through rentals to various groups. Today, the clubhouse still stands as a prominent gathering and event space. Mrs. Dawes held high-ranking positions in many local and international organizations, demonstrating her leadership in the community. Most significantly, she was the first female library board member of the Evanston Public Library, even though female librarians had been working there for decades; while not everyone agreed with this appointment, she had many supporters. Her knowledge of international relations led to her appointment as Chair of the International Relations Committee of the General Federation of Woman’s Clubs.

While she was a staunch supporter of patriotism, she also in this position preached a message of peaceful international relations, which was met with some opposition accusing her of being a pacifist (the exact group of people she worked against, even before her appointment to this role). This role, along with her heavy involvement in food conservation, demonstrates her commitment to ensuring the well being of citizens and soldiers during both times of war and peace, and encouraging people to act on their patriotism, not just speak of it. During a Century of Progress, Mrs. Dawes was charged with hosting and entertaining the wives of dignitaries and often engaged in conversation with the dignitaries themselves. The fact that the Fair board agreed to appoint her to this position speaks volumes to her social abilities and demonstrates that she was intelligent, well-spoken, and organized enough to handle such a wide variety of people. This position also placed her in the position of overseeing all of the Women’s Committees, again demonstrating her ability to organize and engage with many minds.

While Mrs. Dawes held all of these positions and was clearly an outgoing, outspoken woman, as evidenced by various documents and news articles, her earlier diaries (pre-1920) speak heavily about her children and home life. As is still an issue today, Mrs. Dawes struggled between wanting to contribute to her community and also raise and provide for her family. Her activities were no doubt driven by her role as a mother (a handwritten note on a letter regarding speaking to women about food conservation indicates that she feels so strongly about the cause because she has two sons at war), making her only one but a very prominent example of how home life inspires and drives women to push for moral and social reforms in the community.

Children: Six: Charles, William, Palmer, Margaret, Harriet, Helen
Education: Lake Erie College; teaching degree/certificate (1892)
Years in Evanston: 1896-1931

Sources: Archives and Collections: "Rufus C. and Helen Palmer Dawes Collection, 1870-1941," MS84, Northwestern University Library Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections. "Service from the Hearth: The Lives of Caro Blymer Dawes and Helen Palmer Dawes." Lecture by Sigrid Pohl Perry, Library Assistant, Northwestern University Special Collections. Given at the Evanston History Center, November 8, 1995. "Evanston Women" Newspaper Clipping File. The Evanston History Center, Evanston, Illinois. "Rufus Dawes" Newspaper Clipping File. Evanston History Center, Evanston, Illinois. "Records of the Woman's Club of Evanston, 1890-1991" Northwestern University Archives.