Behind the Exhibit: Columbus Women on the Move
Posted May 27, 2024

By Daniel Willis, Audiovisual Archivist

About this Post

This blog is a follow-up to two others posted about a new exhibit, "Columbus Women on the Move." The first blog was written by Veda Faust, an Ohio State University student who conducted a professional writing internship with the Archives Services Department in the fall of 2023.  You can read her blog here.

The second blog recounts the travels of Helen Bresee, the central figure in our new exhibit. It tells Helen’s story using quotes from her diaries. You can read it here.

This third entry focuses on the events occurring in Ohio while Helen Bresee traveled the world. While she experienced luxury and adventure, others were dealing with environmental catastrophes and fighting for their rights. This blog examines major events occurring in Ohio while she was away and help place her trip within a larger context. The text is adapted from material written by Veda Faust that did not make it into the exhibit.

Ohio during 1936 and 1937

When Helen Bresee left to travel the world during the summer of 1936 she was ready for adventure. She looked beyond her home at the wider world and wanted to experience it all. However, even as she experienced what the world had to offer she missed numerous events at home. The Great Lakes Exposition in Cleveland opened for visitors in the summer of 1936, just after Helen departed by train to San Francisco. The exposition celebrated the 100th anniversary of Cleveland and opened in amidst the Great Depression as the city was looking for ways to boost its economy. The event provided countless jobs and economic opportunities. Works Progress Administration workers developed the exposition grounds. Up to 35,000 people attended the exposition each day. It highlighted the Great Lakes region’s progress during the preceding century. The city held the event in the summers of 1936 and 1937. Visitors from all over the country flocked to see the attractions, rides, exhibitions, and commercial and scientific displays. The exposition ended before Helen returned to the United States. For people without the means to travel the world, the exposition was an excellent way to find temporary relief from the drudgery of the Great Depression.

Behind the Scenes: Installing Columbus Women on the Move

Observe a behind the scenes peek at the installation of the Columbus Women on the Move exhibit. The pictured panel briefly highlights the events that occurred while Helen was away.

Even as Cleveland and the Great Lakes celebrated their history and innovation, labor disputes heated up across the steel belt. In the earliest months of 1937, a series of strikes began at major steel companies, known as “Big Steel”. Workers demanded better working conditions, pay, and hours. Helen commented on these strikes, while in Kolkata (Calcutta) on January 30, "I went to the Am. Counsel just to see if there was any news on the strike. He had none." The striking workers won, and the Big Steel companies agreed to their demands. However, smaller mills like Republic Steel and Youngstown Sheet & Tube Company refused. In March Republic Steel refused to acknowledge the union. 70,000 workers walked out and began a strike in response. On June 19, 1937, women joined the male protestors in Youngstown. The police response resulted in violence and injured at least thirty women. The event became known as the Women’s Day Massacre. In contrast to Helen and her friends enjoying months of pampering and luxury, working-class Ohio women were fighting alongside men for labor rights.

Women were not just picketing alongside their male colleagues as an act of altruism; they were also workers in all sectors of the economy. This included manufacturing and industry. During the Great Depression, women worked for the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company of Ohio. Their experiences during 1936 and 1937 were radically different from those of Helen and her friends.

While northern Ohioans struggled to secure their labor rights, southern Ohio was experiencing an environmental catastrophe. Melting snow and a deluge of rain in late January resulted in the Ohio River flooding in February 1937. The disaster affected everyone living on the riverbanks, from Pennsylvania to Illinois. Approximately four hundred people died, and countless more lost their homes and livelihoods. The Great Depression worsened the impact, as states could not provide the support and aid people needed. Damage to water and power infrastructure compounded the devastation. Refugees fled north to Columbus, fueling the city’s economic growth. The influx of flood victims and the varied job market meant Columbus experienced the Great Depression less harshly than other Midwestern cities.

Helen’s journey around the world exposed her to different people and places. However, she experienced all of it through the lens of a wealthy American tourist. While her story of travel is exciting and unique, it was also something the average American was unable to experience. It is important to note that she could afford to take 11 months off work and travel, a luxury others could not afford. Her experiences in 1936 were markedly different from those of other women from Ohio, the United States and even the world. However, her experiences still help us understand how the world looked at the time. Her diaries provide insight to how she engaged with the world. With this added context we can see a broader picture of the world in which Helen Bresee lived.

To Learn More

To view AV 364  or to look at any of the other material featured in this blog and the Columbus Women on the Move exhibit, please consider booking a research appointment at the following link:

To find more collections related to Ohio’s rich history you can search the Ohio History Connection catalog:

For further information on the library please visit

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