- 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.
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.’
Hutchings 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.’
Willard 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.
* $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.