The Rent is Too Darned High

Today’s post is written by M Marie Maxwell, an Archives Specialist in Textual Processing who works at Archives I, in Washington, DC. 

Recently I rehoused a few series, moving documents from old boxes and folders into newer, archival quality folders and boxes. In doing so I encountered the letters from District of Columbia residents of the past almost all complaining that their rent was too high. This reminded me of a small New York City political party based on rising rent who inspired a meme a few years ago and inspired this post.

The series I processed are from a little used record group, Record Group 132 Records of the Rent Commission of the District of Columbia. The whole series is less than 8 cubic feet in size and quite small. The Rent Commission was established as an emergency agency by a 1919 Congressional act in response to rising rents after World War I.

RG 132 Entry 3 folder 1920J Letter

Letter From Charles Jenkins to Brigadier General I. W. Littell (NAID 34922747)

The title General Correspondence, 1920-1925 (NAID 2524363) does not truly reveal what is contained. A majority of the letters are from tenants appealing to the Rent Commission to complain that their landlords have raised the rent and their rent was too much. Sometimes letters come from supervisors or others on behalf of tenants as was the case with the Letter From Charles Jenkins to Brigadier General I. W. Littell (NAID 34922747), who in turn contacted the Commission. In an October 3, 1920 letter Jenkins wrote to Littell explaining that his rent at 1111 3rd St SW went from $19.50, then $22.50 and finally $25.00 in less than a year. In a previous August letter to Littell he complained about a leaking roof, falling plaster, a rotting porch and rising rents. The Commission responded October 14th requesting Mr. Jenkins to contact them directly.

In their letters to the Commission, tenants describe their living conditions and challenges, sometimes going into detail, which in turn give a sense of what life was like. In Ms. Annie Onley’s February 28, 1922 letter (Letter from Annie Onley to Commission, NAID 34922764) she describes the row of houses where she lives as having three presumably African American families and three white families. She claimed her neighbors were paying $13.30, and she $30.50 for a similar house. She mentions a small “Summer Kitchen” which could explain something about 19th century working class residential housing in the District of Columbia. Other letter writers go into multi-page detail regarding their rents, their living conditions, their landlords and other matters outside of the Commission’s purview.

Feb 28, 1922 handwritten letter

Letter from Annie Onley to the Commission (NAID 34922764). Front of letter.



Second and third parts of Letter from Annie Onley to the Commission (NAID 34922764)

The Rent Commission came to an end in 1925. The Commission experienced several legal challenges, particularly from the owners of large apartment buildings, such as the owners of the Chastleton– see Chastleton Case Files, 1923 – 1923 (NAID 2524366). The owners of the Chastleton appealed to the Supreme Court, and appears to have challenged the constitutionality of the Rent Commission. Others did too as well, with Karrick v Cantrill in the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia, which may be found in Cases Appealed to the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, 1923 – 1924 (NAID 2524365). According to the Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States, the Commission was abolished effective “May 22, 1925, as provided in final extension act, May 17, 1924.” Yet even in their last year residents were appealing to Commission to complain their rent was too darned high.

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A Catalog for the Records, 1936

Today’s post is written by Alan Walker, an Archivist in the Textual Records Division at the National Archives at College Park.

Today, if you can’t make it in to a National Archives facility or presidential library, you will be diving into our online catalog to find what you’re looking for. But in the early days of the agency, the research process was “hands on” from beginning to end. Here is the story of how our catalog began.

Getting records in the door was only the opening salvo in the battle; now our staff had to perfect their organization, house them, and create a system for accessing them.

64-NA-250 (NAID 12168722) Records of the National Recorvery Administration in the Receiving Room, Oct. 1940

64-NA-250, Records of the National Recovery Administration in the Receiving Room, Oct. 1940 (NAID 12168722)

One of the first operating units established for the Archives was a Division of Cataloging. At first, it had a slightly different name: Continue reading

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Escaping the Killing Fields of Cambodia, 1975

Today’s post was written by David Langbart, an Archivist in the Textual Records Division at the National Archives at College Park.


(c) The New York Times/Redux

Noted journalist Sydney H. Schanberg died on July 9.  While he is perhaps most famous for his reporting from Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge takeover in the mid-1970s, his list of accomplishments and reporting is both long and distinguished.  He won the Pulitzer Prize, the George Polk Award, and Overseas Press Club awards, among others. Continue reading

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The Susan B. Anthony Dollar Coin – the Dollar of the Future?

Today’s post was written by Cody White, Archivist at the National Archives in Denver.

A “Carter Quarter.” The “Edsel of coins.” From newspaper articles found in Record Group 104 Records of the U.S. Mint one gets a glimpse of the widespread dissatisfaction and derision heaped upon the Susan B. Anthony dollar coin, minted for only a few short years between 1979 and 1981. Still occasionally found in change today alongside the newer Sacagawea and presidential dollars coins, the story of the ill-fated Susan B. Anthony dollar can be found in the Denver Mint records held by the National Archives at Denver.

Denver Mint

Photograph of the Denver Mint building, date unknown (NAID 293491)

Continue reading

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“We’re not as bad as we look”: Girls’ Education at the Albuquerque Indian School

Today’s post is written by Jennifer Eltringham, an intern at the National Archives at Denver.

The Albuquerque Indian School was founded in in 1881 during a push to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream American culture through education at off-reservation boarding schools. By removing children from their families and culture, educators hoped to “Kill the Indian, save the man,” as per the motto of Col. Richard Henry Pratt, founder of the Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Until 1934, the teaching of Indian history and culture was forbidden in Indian schools.

Part of this mission involved “educating Indian girls in the hope that women trained as good housewives would help their mates assimilate” (Trennert, p. 272). At the Albuquerque Indian School, girls were trained in home economics – housekeeping, cooking, sewing, and other domestic arts. In addition, they practiced weaving and embroidery, creating items that were sold to interested parties or used at the school. By doing chores such as laundry and cleaning, girls spent a good part of their time in service to the school. Continue reading

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Malvin Whitfield: Ambassador for Track and Field

Today’s post was written by David Langbart, an Archivist in the Textual Records Division at the National Archives at College Park.

Malvin “Mal” Whitfield, a gold medal-winning track star of the 1948 and 1952 U.S. Olympic Teams died in November 2015.  He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in June 2016.  Whitfield served in the Air Force from 1943 to 1948 and again from 1951 to 1953.  During World War II he was part of the group known as the Tuskegee Airmen and during the Korean War he flew 27 combat missions. Continue reading

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The Approach of World War II: A View from the U.S. Embassy in Poland

Today’s post was written by David Langbart, an Archivist in the Textual Records Division at the National Archives at College Park.

The Textual Records Division is in the midst of a large-scale project to identify and refile a large volume of “orphan” records. These are documents and files that have become separated from their proper filing location or were never properly identified.

I have been working with files from various Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State Continue reading

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A Flag for the United Nations

Today’s post was written by David Langbart, Reference Archivist at the National Archives at College Park.

John Kelly, a respected columnist for the Washington Post, recently (June 14, 2016) wrote about Brooks Harding’s “Four Freedoms Flag.”  Harding designed the flag to represent the countries fighting against Axis tyranny during World War II, commonly referred to as the “United Nations.”  Not surprisingly, Harding was not the only person interested in designing a flag for that cause.

In the records of the Department of State (Record Group 59) for the period of World War II preserved in the National Archives are almost 100 letters from Americans recommending the adoption of a flag for United Nations.  Continue reading

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The Unforgettable Calamity – 40th Anniversary of the Teton Dam Failure

Today’s post was written by Cody White, Archivist at the National Archives at Denver

“As I sit here and watch I can see it caving in. It is just coming apart, completely coming apart… my advice to people downstream that are living along the Teton River, get your belongings, get your belongings. Don’t push your luck. Look, look, there goes the whole side, there goes whole complete side of the north edge of the Teton Dam and the water is monumental – holy – great – what can I say? People downstream better get out…”

From this transcript of a live broadcast aired on Rexburg Idaho’s KRXK radio station one is jolted back 40 years to June 5, 1976, when correspondent Don Ellis watched as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s nearly 75 year run of successful dam building crumbled before his very eyes. Years of panels, inquiries, investigations, and on-site excavations all worked to pinpoint the exact cause of the Teton Dam failure, to no definite end, but the hundreds of millions of dollars of property damage and 11 deaths attributed to the disaster remain undisputed. The story, from beginning to the tragic ending, can be found in the National Archives at Denver’s Record Group 115 Records of the Bureau of Reclamation holdings.

Construction of the dam had been authorized by Congress 12 years earlier on September 7, 1964. Planned on the Teton River, a tributary of Henry’s Fork of the Snake River in southeastern Idaho, the earth-filled embankment dam and reservoir were to be the main features of the Teton Basin Project, designed for flood control, power generation, and supplemental irrigation for nearby farmland in the upper Snake River Valley. The contract for construction was awarded December 13, 1971, and despite pending environmental lawsuits (which were eventually dismissed) work commenced in February of the following year.

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All phases of the dam specifications were scheduled to be completed in May 1977 but by October 1975 the embankment was essentially finished. Workers then began the slow process of filling the reservoir.


Aerial photograph looking downstream taken 16 days before the disaster, showing the nearly full resovoir (NAID 28894692)

water level chart

Bureau of Reclamation memoranda book compuling the Teton Dam Resovoir level and capacity, the last entry being the day of the failure (NAID 2199668)

In the early morning of June 5, 1976, workers discovered two leaks in quick succession within the wall of rock that served as the dam abutment on the right side. Noted as no cause for concern, it wasn’t until a wet spot on the dam wall itself was discovered around 9:00 a.m. that serious alarms were raised. Quickly turning into a mud stream, by 10:30 a.m. it was flowing to the point that witnesses reported the leak sounding like a waterfall. Jerry Dursteller, an employee of the Gibbons and Reed Company which had been contracted to build the dam’s feeder pipeline and pump canal, arrived on scene at 10:00 a.m. and immediately began taking photographs. His collection of images, seen in whole within our collection, show the worsening of the leak.

Dursteller ran out of film at 11:50 a.m. and his last picture shows the gaping hole reaching the crest of the dam. On the reservoir side witnesses reported a small two foot diameter whirlpool had grown quickly to 20 feet in diameter, indicating an increasing volume of water leaking through the dam. A warning from project officials to local sheriff’s offices was soon elevated from ‘Prepare for Flooding’ to ‘Evacuate Everyone Downstream’ as there was nothing left to do, the dam was going to fail. At 11:57 over 250,000 acre feet of reservoir water, equivalent to 81.5 billion gallons, broke through the Teton Dam and rushed downstream.

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Wilford, Idaho was the first town hit, followed thereafter by Sugar City which reported a 15 foot high wave of water at 1:00 p.m. The rushing, debris laden water was making its way to the area’s largest town, Rexburg, where it would continue the destruction.

While talk of rebuilding the dam has arisen over the decades, no serious push has been made as the scars are still borne by the land and people of the area. Today the Teton River flows lazily through the earthen and cement ruins of the dam, which while stabilized after the disaster were never completely removed. In nearby Rexburg, a local museum still displays exhibits that chronicle what they call “the unforgettable calamity.”

Newspaper headline

Salt Lake Tribune, June 6, 1976, featuring front page photographs of a couple posing in their flood ravaged home and another of a man pulled to safety via a backhoe (NAID 2199668)

Facts and statistics used come from “Teton Dam (A Preliminary Report for the Independent Panel for Review of Teton Dam Failure) Revised August 5, 1976”, Teton Dam Records Related to Dam Failure (NAID 2199668), in RG 115 Records of the Bureau of Reclamation series; with additional information coming from the Bureau of Reclamation’s website on the Teton Basin Project

For further reading on the Teton Dam disaster within the National Archives, the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library & Museum has documents online relating to the administration’s response to the disaster

If you find yourself in the southeastern area of Idaho, the Teton Flood Museum has since been renamed the Museum of Rexburg.

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Drafting a Guide: American Jewish History Resources

Today’s post is written by Alan Walker, Archivist at the National Archives at College Park.

In 1957, archivist Nathan Reingold distributed a memo to each custodial unit at the National Archives asking for their staffs’ help in tracking down records relating to American Jewish history.

Nathan Reingold at NYU, 1947 - from

Nathan Reingold at New York University, 1947 (from

RG 64, P 71 - Reingold Memo to All Branches, July 1957

Memorandum from N. Reingold to all Branches, July 19, 1957, Regarding Resources for American Jewish History in the National Archives.

Now, such a request isn’t made (or granted) lightly in view of the tremendous reference burden felt by every custodial unit on a daily basis. But over the next year, reference reports from all of these units found their way to Reingold; archivists sent long and detailed listings of relevant records relating to Jewish involvement in many aspects of America’s story. Below is a sample of the responses.

From the textual records holdings:

RG 64, P 71 - Leo Pascal Reference Report, page 1

First page of Reference Service Report, September 30, 1957, regarding American Jewish history records in NLT record groups.

From the motion picture holdings:

RG 64, P 71 - Robert Wells Reference Report on Motion Pictures

Memorandum from NMP to Mr. Reingold, September 25, 1957, Regarding resources for American Jewish history in the National Archives.

. . . and from the photographic holdings:

RG 64, P 71 - Josephine Cobb Reference Report, page 1

First page of Reference Service Report, September 18, 1957, regarding photographs pertinent to a study of the Jewish peoples.

Reingold made good use of his colleagues’ work and produced a short article about Jewish American history resources at the National Archives, which was published in the journal of the American Jewish Historical Society in 1958.

Pages from Article re Am. Jewish History in the National Archives, 1958

“Resources on American Jewish History in the National Archives” By Nathan Reingold. (A copy of the article is attached below)

But he didn’t stop there. Reingold began compiling all of this material into what he hoped would become a Reference Information Paper, several of which the Archives had already published. He created two drafts, based on comments from his colleagues. At that point, other priorities intervened, and Reingold’s project went no further. However, he saved all of his material, including the drafts (the final draft is attached below).

RG 64, P 71 - Memo re Final Draft of RIP, April 1958

Memorandum from NBE to NIR, April 28, 1958, regarding Reingold’s draft of the Reference Information Paper (RIP) on American-Jewish History in the National Archives.

Even though the intended Reference Information Paper on American Jewish history resources at the National Archives was not published, Nathan Reingold could take pride in knowing he created a comprehensive and still useful guide! One which has been preserved among the holdings of the National Archives in Record Group 64. To see for yourself, click on the links below:

“Materials in the National Archives Relating to American-Jewish History,” Final Draft

“Resources on American Jewish History in the National Archives” by Nathan Reingold, 1958

These, and related material, can be found in the series Records Compiled by Nathan Reingold Relating to American Jewish History Resources, 1957 – 1958 (NAID 7595464) RG 64, Records of the National Archives and Records Administration, 1789 – ca. 2007.


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