Guide to the Marjorie Vandervelde papers

Collection Overview

Date Span: 1837-2008
Creator: Vandervelde, Marjorie (1908-2009)
Extent: 7.00 linear feet.
Collection Number: IWA0375
Repository: Iowa Women's Archives
Summary: Photojournalist and writer who lived with Cuna Indians on the San Blas Islands to learn their culture and traditions.

Administrative Information

Alternate Extent Statement: 69 audiocassettes [AC505, AC548, AC553-AC620]

Access: The papers are open for research.

Use: Copyright has been retained by the donor.

Acquisition: The papers (donor no. 534) were donated by Marjorie Vandervelde in 1999 and subsequent years.

Preferred Citation: Marjorie Vandervelde papers, Iowa Women's Archives, The University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City.

Repository: Iowa Women's Archives
Address: 100 Main Library
University of Iowa Libraries
Iowa City, IA 52242
Phone: 319-335-5068
Curator: Kären Mason

Biographical Note

Marjorie Mills Vandervelde, writer, traveller, and photojournalist, was born September 13, 1908, the ninth of ten children of Anna Burgess Mills and Dr. Ernest Mills. Ernest married Anna Burgess and moved to the mining community of Payson, Illinois, where he practiced as a doctor. When he developed symptoms of tuberculosis that he felt were aggravated by the dust from the mining operations, he moved his family and his medical practice to the rural town of Le Grand, Iowa. In LeGrand, the Mills joined in the civic life of the town and became members of the Friends church. The Mills family had shared the Friends' abolitionist persuasion, but were never pacifists. During World War One, the oldest sons Glenn and Max enlisted in the military and Dr. Ernest Mills attempted to enlist as a medic, but was told to he would be needed in the United States to deal with the flu pandemic of 1918. The youngest Mills son, Ernest, Jr., enlisted in the military and was killed during World War Two. Additional biographical materials about the Mills family are located in the Family series.

Marjorie Mills' sister Ursula provided most of the care for her younger sister during her childhood, but her mother's encouragement kindled a spirit of adventure in the children. Anna Burgess Mills may have inherited her spirit from her father Joe Burgess, who joined the California Gold Rush in 1849. Marjorie Mills Vandervelde was also influenced by her mother's sister, Nellie Burgess, a reporter for the Chicago Daily News until 1908. At that time, she quit her job to homestead in Idaho. Her adventures as a single-woman homesteader, her stories of bears and rugged landscape shaped the imagination of Marjorie Vandervelde during her childhood. Marjorie Vandervelde graduated from Le Grand High School and attended Penn (now William Penn) College and Iowa State University, where she met Andrew "Vandy" Vandervelde. The couple was married December 31, 1929 in the Friends Church in LeGrand. After marrying, they rented a farm near Emmetsburg where Andrew Vandervelde had grown up. The Depression ensued, slashing the price of corn. The Vanderveldes turned to breeding hybrid seed corn and began their own seed company, "Vandy's Hybrid Seed Corn, Best by Test," at the parental Vandervelde farm. The company operated for many years and a portion of the proceeds were used to support scholarships in Le Grand and Emmetsburg.

Andrew and Marjorie Mills Vandervelde raised three sons, Gerry, Kent, and Donald. When the children were young, the family was active in 4-H Clubs, the Methodist Church, school bands and athletics, and the Canter Club. They vacationed by car with their children and when the youngest was in high school, Marjorie and Andrew Vandervelde began travelling overseas. Andrew and Marjorie Vandervelde took extended trips with her sister Ursula Mills Johnson beginning in the 1960s. When her sons were pursuing college degrees and serving in the military, Marjorie Vandervelde became interested in writing about people in developing cultures in isolated regions of the world. Her free-lance writing and photojournalist career led her to live among pre-modern peoples in isolated regions of the Arctic, Latin America, and the South Pacific. (See the list of international travels below). During her travels, she adopted the lifestyle of the peoples she wrote about, learning their customs and beliefs through her own experience. Her older sister, Ursula Johnson accompanied her on many of her trips and kept detailed journals of their experiences. These experiences formed the basis for some of the numerous newspaper and magazine articles she sold between the early 1960s and 2001. Her many photographs were used to illustrate her writings.

Vandervelde became particularly interested in and returned many times to live among the Kuna Indians of the San Blas Archipelago off the Atlantic coast of Panama and South America. She and her son Gerald supported the medical education of two men from this tribe. She also formed an enduring friendship with Marvel Iglesias, a Michigan-born woman who married a Kuna Indian and lived in San Blas among the Kuna the rest of her life. Marjorie Vandervelde continues to serve on the advisory board of a group which coordinates assistance to the Kuna Indians.

Vandervelde wrote extensively for the juvenile press feeling a strong desire "to help children of different cultures and religions understand each other." In her writings for adults she has attempted to convey her respect for the dignity of primitive peoples.

Vandervelde published seven books: Keep Out of Paradise, 1966, Sam and the Golden People, 1970 (juvenile), Could It Be Old Hiari?, 1970 (juvenile), Across the Tundra, 1972 (juvenile), Beauty Is-A Ring in My Nose, 1975, Born Primitive, 1982, and Me Run Fast Good, 1983 (juvenile). She won numerous awards from the Iowa Press Women and the National Press Women award in 1973 for Across the Tundra.

See the autobiographical sketch by Marjorie Vandervelde in the first folder of the Family series.

Content Description

The Marjorie Vandervelde collection dates from 1855 to 2008 and measures 7 linear feet. The majority of the collection consists of published writings and original photographs from newspapers, magazines, and juvenile magazines from the late 1950s to 2001. The collection consists of five series: Family, Correspondence, Writings, Presentations, Awards, and Photographs. Marjorie Vandervelde organized much of the material according to subject before donation. Her explanatory and identifying notes are included with the materials or in the first folder of sub-series. The series order reflects the organization of Vandervelde wherever possible. This collection is extraordinary for its writing and photography about primitive peoples and isolated cultures around the world, but also includes personal papers and records from the Mills family and extensive correspondence from Kent Vandervelde while he served in the military from the late 1950s until the 1980s. Additional material donated between 2005 and 2008 have been integrated into the existing series.

The Family series consists of items from and about the Burgess, Mills, and Vandervelde families. A medical account book of Ernest Mills from his practice in Illinois from 1896 to 1900 provides valuable medical history. Stories by Marjorie, Glenn, and Ernest Mills about family members are included here along with a color photocopy of the cartooned life of Glenn Mills by Dean Gaunt. Of particular note is the original World War I photograph album of Glenn Mills depicting his service in the Navy during the war. There is also a set of maps and drawings of the Vandervelde family farm drawn by Andrew Vandervelde in1923. This series also includes a scrapbook of family photographs and writings. An audiocassette tape of Kent Vandervelde describing his Navy experiences as well as an interview by Emmetsburg High School student Jess Horsley and his mother Maureen Horsley are included in this series.

The Correspondence series includes letters between Marjorie and her brothers Ernest and Glenn and her son Kent. Letters by her son Kent from1965include several from Vietnam where he was stationed during the conflict. A list of contents is located in the folder of correspondence from notable correspondents. This series includes a photocopy of an informative 1941 letter from Grant Wood to Nellie Burgess. This series also includes letters taped onto audiocassettes that Marjorie Vandervelde sent and received from her close friend Marvel Iglesias and interviews with other Kuna tribal members.

The Writings series forms the bulk of the collection. Vandervelde combined a love of travel and adventure and a commitment to help children understand people of diverse cultures to devote much of her writing career to juvenile magazine articles. These, along with news and magazine features about travel and characters comprise the majority of the series. Three scrapbooks of her writings are included in this series. Her books are available in the Iowa Authors section of the University of Iowa Libraries Special Collections Department.

The Presentations and Awards series includes the scripts of various talks she gave around the state about her experience travelling and writing. It also includes various writing awards Vandervelde and other family members received.

The Photographs series consists of many photographs that Vandervelde took to illustrate her stories and articles. These are almost exclusively of diverse peoples and cultures, with additional photographs of family members and family activities.

Partial list of Vandervelde travels:
Carribean, 1952
Southwestern United States and Mexico (?),1956
Cuba, 1958
Northwest Territories, 1958
Taos, 1961
Florida, Appalachians, and Texas, 1962
Seattle World Fair, 1962
San Blas Islands, 1963 and every three years through 1993
Southern United States, 1964
Hawaii, 1966
Mexico and Guatemala 1967; Mexico, 1970
Alaska in 1967, and British Columbia, 1971; 1976, 1979, and 1982
Southern United States, 1968
Tonga and Samoa,1969
Europe and Iceland, 1970
South America, 1972
Bering Sea, 1975
Middle East, 1978
Haiti, 1978
Wyoming, 1984
China, 1987
Africa, 1988
Mexico and Guatemala 1967; Mexico, 1970
Alaska in 1967, and British Columbia, 1971; 1976, 1979, and 1982
Southern United States, 1968
Tonga and Samoa,1969
Europe and Iceland, 1970
South America, 1972
Bering Sea, 1975
Middle East, 1978
Haiti, 1978
Wyoming, 1984
China, 1987
Africa, 1988.

Detailed Description of the Collection

Browse by Series:


This collection is indexed under the following subject terms.

Personal Names:
Vandervelde, Marjorie Mills
Vandervelde, Kent
Mills, Ernest
Mills, Glenn
Vandervelde, Andrew
Burgess, Nellie
Horsley, Jess
Horsley, Maureen
Iglesias, Marvel
Johnson, Ursula

Corporate Names:
United States Navy

20th century

World War, 1914-1918
Cuna Indians
Adventure travel
Voyages and travels
Women and war
Cultural pluralism


Geographic Names:
United States -- Illinois -- Payson
Panama -- San Blas Islands
United States -- Iowa -- Le Grand

Genre/Form of Materials:
Oral histories (Document genres)
Personal papers
Sound recordings
Photograph albums
Drawings (Visual works)

Family Names:
Mills family
Vandervelde families
Burgess family

Women and War
Women in Wartime
Rural and Farm Women