Vassar College class of 1922

The Setting

In 1922 Americans were adjusting to “normal” life after the dark days of World War I and the 1918 influenza epidemic.  In February the first radio arrived at the White House and President Warren Harding made the first national radio address. In October automated telephones were installed at the Pennsylvania exchange in New York City.  The Supreme Court unanimously upheld women’s right to vote.  Women’s hemlines were gradually rising and a new hair-do “the bob” was becoming popular as women cut their long hair.  All of these cultural developments are reflected in Paul’s and Betty’s letters as they shared their thoughts and concerns with each other: they worried about their health; they made appointments to talk on the phone; it was assumed that Betty would resign her job before their marriage as was the custom.  They traveled extensively by train as neither owned a car.

Paul and Betty met at a Young Friends conference the end of July 1922.  They quickly decided to marry, by August 10th, but agreed not to announce it for another month.  The letters between them flew fast and furiously, interspersed with weekends often spent together, until the end of March, 1923.  Their wedding was held on September 15, 1923 at Swarthmore Friends Meeting, just two weeks after a large conference for Eastern Young Friends was convened at Westtown School — a gathering envisioned and organized by Betty, Paul and a handful of others.

Paul J. Furnas was born into an Orthodox Quaker family on September 5, 1889 in Marion County, Indiana.  During his childhood Paul’s parents worked and lived at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana; later he graduated from Westtown School in 1907, and Earlham College, class of 1911. At the time this story takes place the elder Furnases lived on their farm, “The Elms,” near Indianapolis, Indiana.  Paul’s younger brother Philip – whom he called “Pelops” – was a professor of English, first at Earlham College and then at Guilford College, Greensboro, North Carolina; his older sister, Marcia Ann, was a librarian in Indianapolis and living at home.

Elizabeth Ann “Betty” Walter was born to Hicksite Friends Caroline Sargent Walter and William Emley Walter on September 11, 1900, in Wallingford, Pennsylvania.  Betty had an older brother, David, and two younger sisters, Henrietta and Helen.  She graduated from Vassar College in June 1922, and began employment as the Executive Secretary of the Young Friends Movement of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (Hicksite) on July 1st, three weeks before she attended The Young Friends General Conference held in Richmond, Indiana, where she was introduced to Paul.

Paul Furnas, who was eleven years older than Betty and working in New York City, was one of the Conference leaders.  The Young Friends General Conference was convened by young adult Friends from disparate branches of Quakers at a time when tensions among the groups (modernists, moderates, revivalists and holiness) were high.  Not only was the conference a success, but it launched Paul and Betty’s love story.  Their marriage eventually produced six children and lasted thirty-eight years until Paul’s death in 1960.

It is significant that Betty and Paul saved this large collection of letters, Betty writing from her home in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, and her office in Philadelphia, and Paul from his home and office in New York City.  Mail was collected twice a day in those days and each envelope is clearly marked with date and time stamps.  Early in their relationship telephone calls were rare and expensive but as the year progressed their visits and telephone conversations increased and (sadly for us) the letter-writing ceased.  Interspersed with the letters is a weekly calendar showing the dates of their correspondence – red dots for Betty, blue dots for Paul – and briefly noting their visits together and trips taken for their work.

It is poignant to think of Betty graduating in June, starting her new job in July and moving back home to Swarthmore where her parents’ marriage was troubled: the context for her great joy in falling in love with Paul – apparently a case of “love at first sight” for them both – several weeks later on the Earlham College campus at the Young Friends General Conference.

Read an excerpt from A Quaker Courtship.