“Live dangerously and follow your convictions”: Seattle’s First Prudence Penny

31 03 2011

Bernice Redington and her sisters in Tacoma, Washington, 1902

As Women’s History Month 2011 draws to a close, I bring to you part of the story of Puyallup-born journalist and home economist Bernice Redington (1891-1966).  Bernice Redington first revealed herself while we were in the process of getting the scrapbooks of her father, John W(atermelon) Redington cataloged.  A colorful character in his own right, John W. Redington was an enterprising jack-of-all-trades.  He found a niche as a newspaperman in Oregon and Washington, along the way becoming the father of four daughters, each of whom (as clippings in his scrapbooks proudly attest) seemed to have had some involvement with journalism and/or writing at various points in their lives.  Of the four, Bernice was the only one who never married and who remained the most connected with the Puget Sound region, although, like her father, she was quite peripatetic.

Bernice Redington began working for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 1923, while attending the University of Washington part-time, where she apparently changed her major with some regularity.  She had worked for a time as a dietitian for the Washington State School for the Blind in Vancouver, Washington and at Seattle advertising agencies before joining the staff of the P-I.  She published a weekly food page and a daily column under her own byline for about two years, but her role began to expand during the time of Royal Brougham’s editorship of the newspaper (1925-1928).  By the early 1930s, Bernice had added the moniker, “Prudence Penny” to her column, sometimes in tandem with her own name, sometimes on its own.

Seattle Post-Intelligencer Prudence Penny letterhead

A pseudonym shared by numerous home economics columnists at various Hearst publications, Prudence Penny, was described in a 1924 article in Time Magazine, as “an institution through which Mr. Hearst dispenses good advice, human kindness, and valuable aid in exchange for the good will of prospective newspaper buyers.”  The Seattle Prudence Penny department grew to be a quite large and profitable concern — at its height, the newspaper hosted its own “Dream Kitchen” on site, provided a daily radio broadcast each weekday morning (with suggestions for that evening’s menu), and required the services of eight women to handle incoming telephone calls.

Cover of "Cosmopolitan Seattle" (1935)

It was exciting to try to learn more about the Prudence Penny phenomenon and to discover that we had two related items already cataloged in Special Collections, including Cosmopolitan Seattle, a  1935 edition of an earlier pamphlet that compiled recipes from a variety of “ethnic” and other restaurants.  A quick perusal of the finding aids database also showed that there was some correspondence between Bernice Redington and Edmond S. Meany contained in the latter’s papers, which yielded two examples of Prudence Penny letterhead, the “Dream Kitchen Bulletin” (pictured above) and one for “Prudence Penny’s Recipe Studio.”  A couple of  digitized Prudence Penny photographs led Deidre and I to make a field trip to the MOHAI Library and Archives on a soggy day to try to see if we could turn up an elusive portrait of Bernice Redington in her Prudence Penny persona.  Although we did not locate one, we were very fortunate to be shown an assortment of negatives from the Seattle P-I Collection which depicted the enormous crowds that attended Prudence Penny cooking schools and other events held in Seattle through the decades (thanks, MOHAI!).

Perhaps the most unexpected and informative discovery, however, was an interview with Bernice Redington conducted in 1959 that was housed in the Roger A. Simpson papers.  The Redington interview was one of several that formed part of the research for the book, Unionism or Hearst (1978), a study of the American Newspaper Guild’s 1936 strike against the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which Simpson co-authored with William E. Ames.  As Bernice Redington recounts her own experience in the transcript, she had grown dissatisfied with working conditions at the P-I by the end of 1935, not having much of a say as the more experienced women on her staff were suddenly being replaced by lower-paid, less experienced ones.  Perhaps sensing the writing on the wall, she decided to quit her P-I job to focus on finally completing her degree and quit abruptly in early 1936.  Although she professed not to be much of a union sympathizer (“because my father was a small-town newspaper publisher and didn’t allow you to even mention the word unions”), she did testify before the National Labor Federation and supplied the “Molly Mixer” food columns for the Guild Daily newspaper (put out by the Guild during the strike).

After receiving her degree, Bernice found employment for part of the year with the Ball Brothers (glass fruit jar) company and the rest of the time as a social worker in Kitsap County.  She eventually left for Hawaii, where she returned to journalism, working for several publications, including the Honolulu Star Bulletin (1946-1948) and also completing an (unpublished) novel.  She returned to Washington State in 1948 and became the head of the test kitchen for the Fisher Flouring Mills, also appearing on radio broadcasts for Fisher.  She settled in Normandy Park, where she continued to do freelance writing and also was involved in community affairs until her death.

Bernice Redington at age 13

Although only a very partial portrait emerges from these few scattered facts, it seems pretty clear that Bernice Redington was a strong-minded woman who did her best to live up to the journalist’s credo she expressed in an interview so much later in her life.   In addition to the materials at the UW, the University of Oregon Special Collections and University Archives also holds its own set of John Redington papers (AX 93), as well as a collection on Bernice Redington (AX 92), which contains correspondence on food preparation, fashion, and careers in home economics, as well as a number of cookbooks.

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One response

31 03 2011
Jennifer

Fascinating!

Choose Happiness & Success!
Jennifer

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