Women’s History Month Feature: Marjorie Speakman

Sorry for the long absence, folks! There are SO many things going on at DHS right now, I hope you will hop on over to our website to check out our exciting upcoming events.

March is Women’s History Month, and there are literally HUNDREDS of stories of Delaware women to be found within our collections. There are doubtless thousands more that haven’t survived over time. So you can understand why it’s difficult to choose just one (or even a few!) to feature here this month. That being said, lately I have been partial to the Marjorie Speakman Collection, in part because of the beautiful photos contained there.

Marjorie Willoughby was born on July 10, 1889 in Philadelphia to a prosperous family. Early in Marjorie’s life, her father squandered away much of their fortune. Marjorie’s mother eventually left him and took the children to Delaware where she found work as a seamstress. This experience left an large impression on Marjorie. In 1908, Marjorie married Cummins Elliot Speakman, an insurance representative, and the couple had three children. The Speakmans lived in historic Belmont Hall in Smyrna Delaware. When the family suffered economic hardships a few years later, Marjorie began a thriving asparagus plantation at Belmont Hall to support them. She later claimed that her children went through college “on asparagus.”

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Model Eleanor Gundy in Bird-Speakman Philadelphia fashion show, ca. 1940s.

In 1934, she opened a small shop, Bird Speakman, Inc., in Wilmington. Later, she founded Marjorie Speakman Inc., a children’s specialty shop in Greenville, and Bird-Speakman Ltd., in the Tidewater Inn, in Easton, Maryland with a branch in Rehoboth Beach. Bird-Speakman Inc. became the prestige shop for women’s apparel in Wilmington, as well as the rest of Delaware, until it closed in 1966.

In addition to her business, Speakman was an advocate for small businesses, the arts, and various political causes. In the years following World War II, she was actively involved in efforts to provide aid to European countries and traveled to Paris on many occasions in this endeavor. One of her most prestigious appointments was to the National Board of Consultants to the Small Business Administration during Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency. In 1964 Marjorie received the Wesley College award with citation. She later became a prolific writer and had her own column, It Seems To Me, in the Wilmington Morning News and fashion notes for the Sunday Morning Star. In these columns she discussed issues of local and national interest and was not afraid to put forward her own ideas on many topics. Marjorie died in 1978.

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As a businesswoman in the mid-20th century, Marjorie often found herself in a male-dominated world. She was the only female consultant on Eisenhower’s Small Business Committee.

Marjorie was an important businesswoman and advocate who accomplished much in her lifetime. But perhaps it’s her strength of character that makes her story so interesting. To learn more about Marjorie, check out this interview with Barry Corke, a graduate student at the University of Delaware who has researched her story extensively. We’d love to hear about YOUR favorite Delaware woman. What stories intrigue you?

 

–Heather


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