The Changing 20th Century: A Look into the Margaret M. Fitzgerald Papers

While Burns Library has papers from notable figures such as Tip O’Neill and W.B. Yeats, there is still much to discover in the collections about those who may not be in history textbooks or literary canons. Margaret Mary Fitzgerald is one such example. A Boston native, Fitzgerald was born in the South End in 1891, and by 1906, she was working in Filene’s, the famed Boston department store. Fitzgerald’s papers document both the career of a remarkable woman as well as the changing economic and political norms for women throughout the 20th century. 

During her career at Filene’s, Fitzgerald worked her way up from cashier to buyer for three departments. She also became the president of the Filene’s Cooperative Association,the company union, and worked on an effort to determine a fair living wage for the women working at Filene’s. 

Image of Fitzgerald's Line-A-Day diaries

Fitzgerald’s Line-A-Day diaries, Box 1, Margaret M. Fitzgerald papers, MS.2000.009

Much can be discovered in these papers about Fitgerald’s daily life. A meticulous user of Line-A-Day diaries, her papers contain seven of these diaries, tracking her life from the 1940s into the 1970s. Even without reading a word, the idea that someone could so faithfully fill out a line for every single day for multiple decades gives insight into her personality!

Her papers can also be used as a window into changing economic and political norms throughout the 20th century. Fitzgerald’s records chronicle her work in Filene’s, her time as a member of the Retail Store Wage Board of the Minimum Wage Commission of Massachusetts, and her many speeches to various Boston area clubs and churches as a member of the Catholic and Professional Business Guild. 

Image of proposed clothing expenditures for retail workers

Proposed clothing expenditures for retail workers, Box 2, Folder 9, Margaret M. Fitzgerald papers, MS.2000.009

As part of her work advocating for Filene’s workers, Fitzgerald collected information on the living situations of retail workers. This data, as well as memos discussing proposed wages for Filene’s workers and copies of Fitzgerald’s own tax returns for 1918-1934, highlights the day-to-day working conditions of female retail employees in the early 20th century.  One of the most interesting factors considered in this wage discussion is the personal wardrobe the workers were expected to have to work in retail. A proposed budget lists exactly what clothing women should own, and how much the estimated cost of each item was.

Fitzgerald’s papers also include a small pamphlet which presents a sample wardrobe for Filene’s customers with $75 and $400 yearly clothing budgets. It goes into delightfully exact details on what a modern woman of the 1920s would need to own, including 5 pairs of gloves (1 silk for summer, 2 fabric for summer, 1 dress pair for winter, and 1 business pair for winter, of course).

Image of clothing pamphlet with advice on clothing to purchase on a $75/year budget

Advice on clothing to purchase on a $75/year budget,  Box 2, Folder 8, Margaret M. Fitzgerald papers, MS.2000.009

Beyond looking at the details of working (and shopping) at Filene’s, Fitzgerald’s work touches on many of the larger political and economic issues of the day. Starting in 1915, Fitzgerald served as a member of the Retail Store Wage Board of the Minimum Wage Commission of Massachusetts. Her papers include a series of memos regarding the work of the board to provide recommendations on minimum wages for Massachusetts, and mentions of the other industry boards which were created as part of this commission. 

Image of suffrage speech type on an index card

Suffrage speech type on an index card, Box 2, Folder 3, Margaret M. Fitzgerald papers, MS.2000.009

Fitzgerald also kept the text of speeches she gave, many of them as part of the Catholic and Professional Business Guild. These speeches touch on a series of issues that struck home with Fitzgerald, such as a call for more female lay leaders in the Catholic Church as a response to the changing labor force post World War II.  An earlier speech draws connections from the dependence on women in the workforce to the need for women to be granted suffrage in the political realm as well.

Despite not being a widely known figure, Margeret Fitzgerald’s papers can be used as a case study for research into the lives and roles of women living amidst greater social currents of the 20th century. If you’d like to explore this resource further, it is available in our reading room.


-Kathleen Monahan, Reference, Instruction & Digital Services Librarian

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