‘Half a cup of cream which nobody else seemed to want’: The American Diary of a Leeds Librarian

  • Guest blogger Val Hewson is a researcher for Reading Sheffield, an oral history project about popular reading in the mid-20th century.  This has led her to research library services in Sheffield and elsewhere.  In the Leeds Local and Family History Library, she read a diary belonging to F.G.B. Hutchings, Chief Librarian of Leeds between 1946 and 1963. Val has kindly agreed to write an article based on what she read in the Hutchings diary. You can find out more about other books, documents, manuscripts and ephemera relating to the history of the Leeds Library Service by browsing our research guide.

‘I managed to drink half a cup of cream which nobody else seemed to want.’  So said Fred Hutchings – gleefully – in the diary he kept during a business trip to the USA in October 1951.  As well as impressions of American libraries, the diary includes trenchant observations on: noisy department stores; the ‘strange’ music at church services; and, to Hutchings’ dismay, the threat of war, with many Americans ‘held in the grip of the idea of Communist aggression’.  But the diary also reveals a particular concern for American hospitality and cuisine, which is unusual in a man of evident moderation.

The Library of Congress. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:LibraryCongressFront1.JPG

There are in fact good explanations for his interest.  International travel was less common in 1951 than now and people were just less familiar with foreign food.  (When Ian Fleming wanted to signal James Bond’s sophistication in Casino Royale, he had him eat the then exotic, but now commonplace, avocado.)  More importantly, there was still rationing in the UK.  Confectionery, sugar, butter and meat were all restricted.  In the USA, with its almost unlimited resources, rationing stopped in 1946.  Hence Hutchings’ enjoyment of that cream.

As an important visitor, Hutchings went to various official functions.  In Philadelphia, he was a guest of honour at a lunch for 300 people. ‘…we had good talk and good food.  The soup was very good as American soup can be.  The chicken was done to fastidious succulence.  Not a lot to eat, but very good.’

hutchingsHutchings found that many Americans were personally kind and hospitable.  ‘Miss MacPherson threw a very good party tonight,’ he notes.  And there was lunch at the home of Luther Evans, the Librarian of Congress: ‘…quite excellent.  Mrs. Evans knows how to cook according to the best American standards, and they are very good.  Soup, liver done to a turn with rice, French fries.  Chocolate blancmange and whipped cream.  Does not sound much, but the quality of the food, its cooking and flavour made it one of the best meals I have had in years.’  And another home-cooked dinner was a feast: ‘Chicken, rice, French fries, peaches in rum, followed by custard pasty with whipped cream.  Before the meal we had Burgoynes (American whisky in water with ice – v.g.)  After the meal we had brandy and coffee.’

When on occasion he returned the hospitality, Hutchings was conscious that prices were ‘haywire’. ‘[He] had got a room for me at $2 a night without food.  This is very cheap and feeding should not exceed (with care) $3 a day.  It is as well.  I gave lunch yesterday to two people who had been specially good to me: cost $8 or £2 16s* – Can’t keep that up!’  He winced when he  bought food for a parcel to send home – a common transatlantic practice at the time.  It was ‘a lengthy and expensive process.’

Outside the professional sphere, the highlight of the visit for Hutchings was probably his weekend in Clifton, Virginia, at the home of an old-school Southerner, Colonel Willard Webb, who was Chief of the Stack and Reader Division at the Library of Congress.  ‘It was hospitality on the grand scale’ and a ‘kind of wonderland existence’.  Hutchings was charmed by the ‘wooden house [in] five acres of wooded, undulating country.’  (The property is now a nature reserve.)  A trip to Manassas reveals a town ‘rather like a more up to date version of Kirby Lonsdale [sic]’ and ‘so quiet and unexciting, yet warm and soothing.’


webb-2Willard Webbs’ house and grounds. By permission of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority

Hutchings finishes his diary travelling from London to Leeds, without much reflection on the trip. However, despite the diary’s last words – ‘How anxiety to get home presses me.’ – we can be pretty sure that he relished his experience.  He certainly enjoyed a greater range of food, although he patriotically said that, for all their resources, Americans didn’t ‘eat as well as we do as a rule’.  But the home cooking he encountered was simple and very good.  And, more importantly than any particular food, Hutchings appreciated the warmth and kindness shown to him by so many Americans.

You can read more about Hutchings’ visit, including his views on American libraries, in an article by Alistair Black, University of Illinois here.

Photo of Mr Hutchings from the Local and Family History newscuttings collection. The caption below this image reads: “Colonel Willard Webb, leader of the American delegation to the Film Festival, held a reception last night. Among those who attended were Mr Fred Hutchings, the Leeds City Librarian, and Mr Marcus Milne, Aberdeen’s City Librarian, who was accompanied by his ten-year-old son, David.”

*  $2 in 1951 = approx. $19 in 2016.  $3 in 1951 = approx. $29 in 2016. $8 in 1951 = approx. $74 in 2016. £2 16s in 1951 = approx. £87 in 2016.

11 Comments Add yours

  1. Lucy Evans says:

    How fascinating. Great he kept such a detailed diary. Also carrying on a great tradition as the first Librarian at Leeds, James Yates, represented the UK at the Conference of Librarians in Philadelphia in 1876. The next year the American Librarians, including Melvil Dewey, reciprocated the visit. After showing them around the library, James Yates introduced them at Leeds Railway Station to the delights of pork pies. “Most of us saw that viand for the first time. Some partook of it. The writer was prudent and did not try the pie.” (Samuel Sweet Green).

    1. Hi Lucy

      Thanks for this – and really glad you liked Val’s article! The Yates visit is also, as you say, fascinating in it’s own right – we’ve been meaning to publish something about our first Librarian soon, and your comment has definitely convinced us its a story worth sharing. Thanks again! Antony

      1. Lucy Evans says:

        Thanks – and look forward to James Yates. He was a real character!
        Best wishes

  2. val383 says:

    Hi Lucy. I’m glad you liked this piece too. I’ve now read quite a lot of Fred Hutchings’ papers in the library, in addition to this diary. He was a man of strong opinions, unafraid to express them – for example, on American architecture (railway stations and libraries) and their, to his mind, extravagant library budgets. Transatlantic contact among librarians seems very established. I have seen a diary by an American librarian visiting England (including Leeds). He comments on the food he encounters too, though he isn’t as complimentary as Fred H. I plan to do some work on his diary one day. And James Yates is new to me, but I’d like to know more. Regards, Val

    1. Lucy Evans says:

      Hi Val, Great way of discovering history through these stroppy characters – thank you so much for the information. The American diary sounds fascinating – you must write about it! I came across James Yates when I was writing a book about Andrea Crestadoro, third Chief Librarian of Manchester. They were regular correspondents. I was also intrigued to find how internationally minded these early librarians were, especially with their close links to America. I suppose the UK was far behind in setting up free libraries they needed to look at precedents. I tracked some of the American links when I was looking at first Dewey use in the UK. Happy to send you the paper if you’d like. I’ve only found one article on James Yates but as quite a stroppy character too he also appears in local newspapers. Article is “Who was James Yates?” by R. D. MacLeod in Library Review, Vol 17, 1959-1960, pp.50-7. Best wishes, Lucy

      1. Hi Lucy

        This is fascinating stuff – thanks again. Incredibly, just after reading your comment I was talking to a colleague in the Librarian’s office here in Leeds – and saw a copy of your book on another colleague’s desk! It’s been donated to us and is awaiting cataloguing. I shall be sure to pass it to Val next time she visits us here in Leeds, along with our folder of material on James Yates. Hopefully we already have the MacLeod article – but, if not, we shall try and get a copy of that as well. Thanks ever so much for commenting and bringing all this to our attention.
        Assistant Librarian-Manager

        PS. I was actually in Manchester this this last weekend and thinking that a comparative history of there and Leeds would be a very interesting thing to read indeed; it never crossed my mind there might be an interesting story about the two respective Library services. I think this would make an interesting future blog article indeed.

      2. Lucy Evans says:

        Hi Antony, Thanks so much – I think it’s great you’re so interested in all this. I’ve got a battered copy of the MacLeod article plus Yates’ paper on “Our Town Library” so can copy for you if necessary. I donated the Crestadoro book – it’s too long, no index and could have done with proper editing but I just wanted the information to be there for others to use. Plus people like Crestadoro and Yates should be celebrated as pioneers. Can also supply the PDF of the Crestadoro book if you or Val would like. It would be great to look at the stories of the two services – Yates was always really cross that Crestadoro managed to get freebies from the BM when he couldn’t. He campaigned for this but failed. Anyway look forward to future blogs, Best wishes, Lucy

      3. Hi again Lucy
        A PDF of your book would be superb, if that’s still possible – we’re adding it to stock as I type, but we realised it would be really helpful for us to be able to seperatly index the specific parts about James Yates/Leeds. A PDF copy would allow us to do a text search, greatly speeding up that indexing process. If this is OK, our e-mail address is localandfamilyhistory@leeds.gov.uk.

        I’ve checked and we do have a copy of the MacLeod and Yates’ articles already. Thanks for the offer though!

      4. Lucy Evans says:

        Hi Antony, Of course happy to send PDF and I’ll do that now. I use WE transfer as too large for an email attachment. If there are problems with this (e-mail notification sometimes goes into junk, file hits security etc.), let me know and I’ll drop in as USP next Tuesday, Best wishes, Lucy

  3. val383 says:

    Hi both. When I was in Leeds yesterday, I skimmed the file on Yates, inc the MacLeod article. They are all fascinating, these men. The reason I came to Leeds in the first place is for a book I’m co-writing on popular 20th c reading in Sheffield and was researching two important Sheffield Librarians, R J Gordon who moved to Leeds in 1927 and his deputy and successor J P Lamb who stayed in Sheffield until retiring in 1956. Hutchings at one time worked for Lamb and later took over from Gordon. They all seem to share a boundless confidence and authority but are otherwise very different characters, as far as I can tell.

    I’d like to read your book and article, Lucy. My email is threegracesatlarge@gmail.com

    Do you btw know a book called Gendering Library History, eds Evelyn Kerslake and Nickianne Moody (Liverpool JMU, 2000)? Good essays on stroppy early women librarians.

    Best wishes, Val

  4. Lucy Evans says:

    Hi! One of my favourite books is “Views and Memorandum of Public Libraries” by Alfred Cotgreave (interesting man in himself), published 1901 by his company, Library Aids. Lots of photos of striking men and women who were prominent in libraries and the LA. Sadly no photo of Yates though a good one of Butler Wood, the Bradford Librarian. If you haven’t come across it there’s a great article by Bob Duckett “Standing on Forgotten Shoulders – who was Butler Wood?” (Library Review Vol 44, No.2 1995, pp.6-27). This really inspired me to look further at these amazing and often colourful pioneers There’s a chapter on the first ever female assistants in the Crestadoro book – as well as a mention of the charwomen who also had a role. (I’ll contact Val via email to send a copy). I’ll check out Gendering Library History – thanks. I also think Yates was an important librarian, especially in trying to get official publications and BM duplicates for the free libraries,
    Cheers, Lucy

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