Long before FRASER and Fed History, the Committee on the History of the Federal Reserve System was established by Mildred Adams,[1] Donald B. Woodward, and a handful of well-respected Fed economists with the goal of putting together a “comprehensive history” of the origins of the Federal Reserve. The project was launched in 1954 with the assistance of the Rockefeller Foundation and the Brookings Institution and sought to accumulate historical resources that could later be used to write a formal work, such as a book or a series of monographs.

In summer 1953, Mildred Adams, an economic affairs journalist, and Brookings Institution trustee Donald B. Woodward developed the idea for an exhaustive history of the System. The project gained the interest and support of a group of economists, and the original Committee was formed, including Brookings Institution president Robert D. Calkins, Walter Stewart of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, economic historian F. Cyril James, Joseph Willits of the Rockefeller Foundation, and deputy secretary of the Treasury (and former New York Fed economist) W. Randolph Burgess.[2] Members from the Federal Reserve included William McChesney Martin, Jr., chair of the Board of Governors, and Allan Sproul, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Adams was appointed the Committee’s research director (later executive director), and the group was awarded a grant by the Rockefeller Foundation in early 1954 for an “exploratory study of the historical materials relating to the Federal Reserve System.” Based on the Committee’s early success in locating useful research materials on the early Federal Reserve System, a five-year grant request proposing an in-depth study of the history of the Federal Reserve was awarded in May of that year.

Schedule of interview appointments at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, July 1954.

Adams, whose professional achievements already included writing for the New York Times and the Economist, and who was also heavily involved in relief work for refugees of the Spanish Civil War,[3] launched the project with vigorous intensity. Working out of an office at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, she and her assistants reached out to foundations, universities, and other Federal Reserve Banks to inquire about their collections. This correspondence led to the Committee amassing records documenting the lives of more than 100 Federal Reserve leaders, researchers, and influencers. Adams also managed to uncover a number of unpublished studies, including Legal Aspects of the Lending Function of Federal Reserve Banks by Howard Hackley. (Encouraged by the Committee, Hackley later revised, updated, and published the study as a book-length work in 1973.)

Adams was partially able to obtain such a large collection of materials on the history of the Federal Reserve System because of her connections with many Federal Reserve Bank librarians. A report, written to Adams by her assistant Marguerite Burnett, makes note of the Federal Reserve librarians’ staunch support of the Committee’s work and their willingness to contribute to the project. In the process of accruing these resources, Adams also conducted interviews with many of the individuals associated with the System in its formative years, including former Chair Marriner Eccles. Calkins later deemed these interviews “invaluable to any historian.” Although their contents remain confidential, Adams, knowing the historical value of such material, provided detailed summaries that are now accessible to the public via FRASER. Decades after Adams, Robert Hetzel of the Richmond Fed, and researchers at the Board of Governors would conduct similar interviews with over 80 distinguished economists.

Photograph of Meeting of Officers and Directors of all Federal Reserve Banks, Washington, October 20-22, 1914, collected by the Committee.

In spring 1956, having been unable to find a qualified historian to produce a comprehensive study of the Federal Reserve System,[4] the Committee requested that the Rockefeller Foundation relieve this obligation and redefine its goals to allow it to produce smaller, topical studies of the Federal Reserve System. It was announced in summer 1956 that the project would be relocated from New York to the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. Wishing to remain in New York, Adams resigned as the project’s executive director. Her year and a half as director of the project yielded the discovery and report of materials pertinent to the study of the Federal Reserve’s history, including 106 collections of personal papers, an inventory of the Carter Glass Papers held at the University of Virginia, her invaluable personal interview notes, compilations of bibliographical and biographical card files, and much more. Adams’s work and the work of the Committee also strengthened the connection between the Federal Reserve System’s librarians. Although the project was deemed to have lost momentum and was terminated in 1958, the material acquired by Adams, searchable through FRASER’s abundant digital records, continues to provide critical insight on the history of the Federal Reserve System.

[1] Although Kenyon is Mildred Adams’s married name, she is referred to by the name she used professionally.

[2] Burgess initially expressed interest in writing a definitive history of the Federal Reserve System based on research materials located by the Committee, which became an obligation of the Rockefeller Foundation grant. However, Burgess was appointed Undersecretary of the Treasury in 1954 and was unable to follow through with this plan.

[3] Mildred Adams Kenyon Papers, 1939-1976. Elmer L. Andersen Library.

[4] Publication of a comprehensive history of the Federal Reserve System would not be achieved until 2002 with the first volume of economist Allan Meltzer’s A History of the Federal Reserve. Meltzer donated copies of much of his research materials to FRASER, where they are available in the collection Meltzer’s History of the Federal Reserve – Primary Sources.

© 2021, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect official positions of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis or the Federal Reserve System.

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