Avis, Genella and Eve

In Spring 1937 – I guess it is 1937, but it could be 1931, depending on how you interpret the handwriting -, Avis Windham, Genella Burke and Eve Smith bought a textbook of economic theory. It was Principles of Economics, written by Frederic Garver and Alvin Hansen and first published in 1928 by Ginn and Company. This textbook was among those recommended by Harvard teachers in the 1930s, and it has been read and studied by the likes of Robert Solow and Paul Samuelson, who, in their reminiscences, have described the book as a rather serious, but also dreary and poorly entertaining account of economic theory. It really looks rudimentary – not in content but in form – compared to its modern counterpart, which is full of tables, diagrams and figures.

In the 1930s, economics was a man’s field – some might say it still is. Yet I try to imagine those three women living in the same apartment, sharing this seemingly boring book, underlining some sentences – not many, actually -, writing their names all over it: on the edge, on the top, they wrote their three first names Avis, Genella and Eve, as well as their initials, gracefully forming the acronym AGE. I wonder why they bought this book : was it a course requirement, was it for general knowledge? Were they studying in an American university? Did they obtain a B.Sc. or an equivalent diploma? Where did they end up? Were they the typically liberated young women of the 1930s, with short hair and short skirts, or were they compliant daughters from a rather rich family? They bought just one book for all three: was it too expensive, or just uninteresting for them? 

I guess that knowing a little more about Avis, Genella and Eve, their lives, expectations and intents would bring us more knowledge about the status of economic theory in the 1930s than another article on Piero Sraffa. 


6 thoughts on “Avis, Genella and Eve

  1. Yann: not so much the sky, nor the earth. Knowing about “A G E” may indeed be illuminating in terms of the economics of the 1930s. But it may be impossible to know anything about them (but maybe we can get something of this sort from other people). On the other hand, another paper on Piero Sraffa, or Keynes, or Pigou (or Frank Ramsey…) may as well be very useful (no personal propaganda on this statement…).
    A curiosity: How did you learn about those women?

  2. Dear Pedro, the words on Sraffa must be taken as just another provocation of mine … although this is the first one on this blog. I have a paper on Abba Lerner at the HES, so you don’t have to persuade me that there’s still work to be done on 1930s economists! Actually, I learnt about AGE because they left their names on the copy of Garver and Hansen’s book that is now mine. Unfortunately, they did not mention their university name on it. I have the impression that a lot of work that has been done in History of Economics for now is about the supply of economic theory – and I know Tiago would say “supply without production”. Maybe, we should give more attention to the demand side. Some autobiographical pieces offer reminiscences of how it was to be an economics student in the 1930s, but it would be interesting to adopt the standpoint of “ordinary” people. Sometimes, we may find some hints of it through course transcripts and correspondence with students in the archives, but it is not easy to reconstruct something from these elements.

  3. If one wants to write for a wider (mass) audience these are the kind of stories that have promise. Young women in the Harvard of the depression, then heading to face the Second World War, later becoming professionals in the postwar boom, or maybe none of the above. A story of economics and America in one fold. Surely micro-histories of unexpected and seemingly unimportant characters are great entry points to social and intellectual history.

    Don’t trust me. Trust Carlo Ginzburg’s THE CHEESE AND THE WORMS.

  4. One possible clue: where was situated the bookstore from whom you bought it? Boston region or elsewhere? After that you will just have to compulse the student’s book from 1931 to 1937 in the nearby universities (hope for you it is Boston, you will just have to look at Harvard’s) and look for a class with a Avis, a Genella and a Eve. Then you’ll have family names and it’s where it really gets interesting and difficult…
    “Impossible n’est pas français”.

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