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A Simpler Time: The State Department in the 1920s and 1930s

The State Department has had a long and often illustrious history, as it was the first department created by Congress back in July 1789. Much like the capital itself, the State Department’s headquarters have moved several times. From 1866 to 1875 it occupied the Washington City Orphan Asylum on 14th and S Streets before moving to the State, War, and Navy Building, now known as the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (EEOB in government speak) next door to the White House, where it was located from 1875 to 1947. After the war, it moved to its present location in the appropriately named Foggy Bottom neighborhood on C Street in Northwest Washington.

As Edward R. Pierce, who served as a clerk in the Department in the 1920s and ’30s, recalls, life in Washington was a much simpler place, where one could walk to and from the White House with few security concerns and wave to Eleanor Roosevelt as she rode her horse from the White House.

He also notes the time-honored Foreign Service tradition of registering after returning from overseas so that people knew where to forward one’s mail and the all-too noticeable class distinctions between clerks and “gentlemen,” which came to the fore when he won a State Department Tennis Tournament against an Ivy League FSO. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in August 1997 at the age of 83.


“There were less than seven hundred people on the payroll in the Department of State”

PIERCE:  I was in the Patent Office in 1929. I was 17 by then. Then, you get one of those big jumps in pay if you moved from one job to another. I think it was about $300 a year. I moved up to the State Department. I just simply heard a rumor, from some of the guys in the Patent Office, or some of the other messengers, that they were hiring people at the State Department.

I just stopped by there one day, went in, asked for a job, and got it as a mail-room messenger. You can’t get much lower than that. I have to say I’ll never forget how impressed I was by going in the front entrance.

This is what later became known as the State-War/Navy building. It was the enormously ugly, but very nice old building, next to the Patent Office. [It’s now the Old Executive Office building, aka, the Eisenhower building, now home to the National Security Staff.]

So I walked down the hall, filled out the necessary forms, and I got a job within a couple of weeks. It was much simpler in those days. There were less than seven hundred people on the payroll in the Department of State — I’m not counting the Foreign Service Officers — when I got on the job. It was so impressive with all those portraits on the walls.

Well, that was the beginning of my employment with the State Department. Kellogg was the Secretary then.….

At the time I went in, it was very dignified and impressive. It was considered if you were going to be in the Civil Service Clerical, Administrative, and Fiscal ranks, if you were going to be in CAF, it was considered the best place in Washington to be for prestige, not necessarily for money. But it carried a lot of prestige, because the personnel people rejected 19 out of 20 people that came in looking for jobs. The atmosphere was also very stratified in this sense that the amalgamation of consular and diplomatic Foreign Service people came I think, in 1924 [with the Rogers Act].

Well, this was after 1924, but the strata system was still in effect, very much so. Up at the top were the really big shots, the Secretary and the Under Secretary, and the Assistant Secretaries. And then the desk-people in the geographic divisions who had to deal with foreign embassies in town, and then overseas and all that. Well, they were one group of people.

Then under them, next strata were the junior Foreign Service people, still Foreign Service, who held other jobs in the geographic divisions, mostly. Then you had the clerks and accountants, and what not….

The atmosphere was really dignified…..They had an actual Departmental memorandum not long after I came in there that said — it was summertime or something and we didn’t have air conditioning in those days, they had those big fans… –, “Gentlemen and clerks will keep their jackets on, or something, during working hours.” They actually had that memorandum. They were making that distinction between “gentlemen” and “clerks.” Under the circumstances, I’m not surprised, but it’s something you would notice.

Well, I’d have to say that women had begun to make quite an appearance. Of course, there were practically no women working in the Patent Office. That was mostly technical stuff, practically all men….

I had a desk of my own. The mail room messenger who had taken my place would come by there on his rounds pushing a cart as he did for two floors; I think somebody else did the other two. He would leave a bundle, pouch of some kind, with all the mail that had come in that could be tracked down to people who were home on leave from overseas.

“In those days you could walk through there going from the White House and if you did it enough, the guards knew you and waved at you”

Because the way things worked… say, you were coming in from the Bahamas or somewhere, and you were going to be on a couple months’ leave. You came into Room 115, which was a famous room, because everybody had to go there. When they first arrived in the building they would take that right-hand corridor going down along 17th Street to the absolute end. Down there was Room 115, Department of Social Administration.

In that room perched on a big safe they had a great big — like a hotel register, only very elaborate. Big heavy book, you know. You were coming in, a Foreign Service person of any rank, ambassador on down, you were supposed to go to Room 115, check with Miss Dix, she was the person who had been there so long, my boss, and sign the register.

On that register it showed a lot of information:  your name, your rank, where you came from, what post, your home address, and your immediate relatives for the next several weeks, anything to help forward mail to you.

It was my job to take that information daily off the register, and I had a card index on the desk, which I inherited from whoever had it before, which had a card in there for everybody in the Foreign Service. Or if it wasn’t there, you created it. When a piece of mail came in you could handle it as well as you could.

Sometimes there were pieces of mail that really had some terrible things happen to them…back in the States…and mail had to go all the way out to Istanbul or something, it happened….

I had to go out to the White House fairly often to pick up various things. In those days the grounds weren’t even sequestered. You could walk through there going from the White House and if you did it enough, the guards knew you and waved at you.

Also, if you were an employee, like I was, you’d go into the bottom, there was a bottom part there, that’s where I really went frequently, but it was very simple. They had security, but it was only after you passed the steps and you could wander on down, have lunch down there and walk back out and walk through….

It was a help that this was between wars. I went in there, I’d say, July 1930. So this would be under the Hoover Administration.

The salaries, of course, were strange according to modern standards. First job I had in the government was $600 a year. Pay raises were $720, $800, ridiculous, you know, really, but they meant something.

When I got a little further along, up there in FA as we called it, Foreign Administration…some were good friends of mine and we used to play softball together and what not. These guys were grade 5 in the clerical scale. They were making about $2,000 a year and raising families. Northeast Washington was completely filled with government employees of that type. Guys who went to Eastern High School and all that. $2,000 a year! $2,600 was the next raise, and then went up to $3,200, then on up. Division chiefs like Mr. Henksler, they got about $6,500….

Of course, I was there [when the Roosevelt Administration came in]. By that time I was 23 years old. I’d been there four years.

[During the Great Depression] they immediately put in an economy move, first, before there was any expansion of any kind. They had a 15% reduction in government pay for a year or two. We had to take that, but of course, you lived through it.

With the Roosevelt Administration, Cordell Hull became Secretary of State. He was a man that we used to see…very nice, gentlemanly man. Tall, dignified, he was sort of distant. He wasn’t any back slapper or anything like that. So there wasn’t any change in the attitude of the second floor, that’s where all the big shots were, towards anybody else.

As the Depression began to wear off and things got better it seems to me, looking back, that there was a change in attitude. There was more opportunity, we could feel it.

There’s another thing to consider. When I first got on the government payroll, there were only five or six major departments. State was considered number one. Possibly the War Department, it wasn’t Defense, it was the War Department and the Navy Department, might be two, I don’t know. Then on down to Government Printing Office. With every advance in science that has occurred, major change, you had a government agency set up to take care of it. Now there’s hundreds….

Eleanor Roosevelt on horseback

I used to fill in occasionally for the guy who delivered to the top two floors. Up there on the fourth floor, on the side toward the White House, was where the Communications Division was….That division handled all files and records, permanent files and records, and also codes….

Mrs. Roosevelt was a good horseback rider and she was having horses brought to the West Lawn of the White House several times a week and different people would go with her. She would mount up there and go off down to Potomac Park and then come back.

Well, it became a habit. She was very friendly, and she discovered somehow, or somebody told her, there up on that fourth floor every time you’re down here getting ready to go or coming back there were these cooped-up people up there peering out the windows at you and waving.

So every time she did that, making those horseback forays, you’d see her on that horse. She was in riding clothes, and she looked good in riding clothes, tall lady. She’d wave up there, you know, at the windows…all these code clerks and file clerks, and me included would be looking down and waving at her, it was very nice. It’s just so different now, to think about that happening..…

“When you beat Jack Simmons in that tennis tournament, my dad got drunk that night”

It may sound strange, but at the time I was pretty athletic and I was a good tennis player and they started having tennis tournaments in the State Department, must have been 1933. I won it three times. I’m not bragging…but this is 1936….

I was going to George Washington at night, but the hours were pretty good. There was rarely any overtime. So you’d get out of work in that building and all you had to do was walk three or four blocks up G Street and you were at George Washington University. They had special rates for government employees, night school.

So I signed up, and I went to night school at GW and also I used to play on the tennis team. I got a lot of heavy practice. When this tournament….

I’m going to tell you this story because you’d kind of have to like it, it’s true. Up in the Eastern European Division there was a man named Robert Kelley. He was a very famous man as far as his knowledge of the Far East, and he kept exquisite files on everything. It turned out, strangely enough: he had gone to Princeton with John Forrest Simmons.

John Forrest Simmons, really a great guy, was a career Foreign Service officer who moved up very rapidly. He was Protocol Officer in these ‘30s; we’re talking about the liaison between Cordell Hull and Roosevelt’s White House on protocol matters. He spent most of his time over at the White House.

Anyway, he had been captain of the Princeton tennis team and was a very fine player, big, tall man. But here’s the actual truth — I was told this later by several people who both meant well, although Jack Simmons never told me the story.

Robert Kelley, when this tennis tournament thing was over, first time in about 1933, I guess, was so sure that Jack Simmons was going to win the State Department tennis championship that he put the cup up. But it says right on it, “DONATED BY ROBERT KELLEY” for this tournament, and the name that is supposed to be engraved underneath when it was all over was “JOHN FORREST SIMMONS.”

Well, it didn’t turn out that way because I beat Simmons in the tennis game. I want to tell you, not bragging, but at my age I can speak frankly.

We had the final match down on the monument grounds. In those days they had tennis courts down there. I beat Simmons. We had played three hard sets, but I won. I was a little bit younger; I guess I was about 22. He must have been 10 years older at least, more than that, maybe. He was supposed to be such a champion, you know.

About 300 people, so I’m told, came down there. I didn’t count them. But it made a big difference, it really did. It made me sort of a hero among the clerks. It didn’t make me very popular among the big shots.

But in any case, the chief clerk at the State Department, a man named Percy Allen, had been there many years….Percy Allen’s son, Henry, told me years later, “When you beat Jack Simmons in that tennis tournament my dad got drunk that night.” I think I understand it now, it meant a lot.