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Mary Johnston Elson papers

Identifier: IWA0730

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Scope and Contents

The Mary (Johnston) Elson papers date from 1928 to 2004 and measure 17.5 linear inches. The papers are arranged in five series: Biographical, Education, Teaching, the Iowa Federation of Women's Clubs, and Artifacts.

The Biographical series (1928-2004) includes a biography hand-written by Mary Elson in 2004, and diaries spanning the period from 1960 through 2008. The early diaries cover family vacations the Elsons took each summer to various places across the U.S., and a family trip to Europe in 1977. Beginning in 1979, Elson made daily entries in her diary, detailing many aspects of her day-to-day life. Also within this series are numerous newspaper clippings from the early 1930s covering life in Birmingham, Iowa. Some of the clippings provide information about the Birmingham High School Women's Basketball Team, of which Mary Johnston was a member. This series also includes the Elson's WWII ration books, and a number of booklets and pamphlets from the World's Fair held in Chicago in 1934.

The Education series (1928-1966) includes several graduation programs and certificates, report cards, and scrapbooks of Birmingham High School "School Notes" clippings, a newspaper series that Mary Johnston helped edit. Also included are Iowa State Teacher's College (now U.N.I.) yearbooks from 1938 and 1939. Of particular note are the school notebooks made by Mary Johnston during her high school years, which cover subjects such as literature, agriculture, biology, and home economics.

The Teaching series (1933-1976) includes various school newsletters, teaching certificates, and contracts spanning Mary Elson's entire teaching career. Also included is a Folk Tales book compiled by the Iowa State Teacher's College. Photographs from Mary Elson's teaching career, including photos of Mary Elson, other teachers, and of students, conclude the series.

The Iowa Federation of Women's Clubs series (1958-1962) includes numerous "yearbook" booklets from women's clubs, each highlighting a specific year. The yearbooks contain such information as that year's calendar, the membership, the club motto, and the year of founding and federation. The series also features an issue of The Iowa Clubwoman, and a booklet compiled by Mary Elson, as Chairman of the Art Division of the IFWC, which includes "A Look at Art in Iowa." This essay provides information on the art departments at Iowa colleges and universities, history and information on Iowa art associations and museums, and brief biographies of numerous Iowa artists. Photographs of Mary Elson conclude this series.

The Artifacts series (1922-1977) includes mementos from her school and teaching days.


  • Creation: 1928-2004


Conditions Governing Access

The papers are open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright held by the donor has been transferred to the University of Iowa.

However, copyright status for some collection materials may be unknown. Transmission or reproduction of materials protected by U.S. Copyright Law (Title 17, U.S.C.) beyond that allowed by fair use requires the written permission of the copyright owner. Works not in the public domain cannot be commercially exploited without permission of the copyright owners. Responsibility and potential liability based on copyright infringement for any use rests exclusively and solely with the user. Users must properly acknowledge the Iowa Women’s Archives, The University of Iowa Libraries, as the source of the material. For further information, visit

Biographical / Historical

Mary Johnston Elson was born in 1914 in rural Jefferson County, near Birmingham, Iowa. After attending grade school at local one-room schoolhouses, she attended Birmingham High School, where she was valedictorian of her graduating class in 1932. The following year, Mary Johnston began her teaching career at the Crum School in Van Buren County, Iowa, marking the beginning of a teaching career that would span forty-four years. In the summers of 1933 and 1934, she took summer classes at Parsons College, Fairfield, Iowa.

After four years of teaching, she had saved enough money to attend Iowa State Teachers College (now the University of Northern Iowa), where she studied for two years to receive her Kindergarten-Primary Certificate in the spring of 1939. She immediately found a position at the Shellsburg, Iowa, school, where she was hired to teach third grade.

In the fall of 1939, Mary Johnston met Van Elson, and they were married that December on Christmas Eve. The Elsons farmed in the Shellsburg, Iowa area for three years before purchasing a farm between Urbana and Center Point. Mary Elson taught third grade for over ten years at the Shellsburg School, then took time off to raise the Elson's son, John. She returned to teaching in 1958, and about this same time, she became the Chairman of the Division of Art for the Iowa Federation of Women's Clubs. Mary Elson taught for a few more years at Shellsburg before seeking a position in Urbana, where she became a kindergarten teacher.

In 1966, she received her BA in Education from Coe College, and then took a position at the Vinton, Iowa, school, and taught kindergarten there until her retirement in 1977. After retirement, Mary Elson became involved in numerous volunteer activities and continued to participate in several clubs, including the East Iowa Heirloom Quilters.


2.75 Linear Feet

Photographs in Boxes 6 and 7; artifacts in Box 8. boxes

Language of Materials



Iowa teacher from Jefferson County who taught in rural schools for forty-four years and was active in the Iowa Federation of Women's Clubs.

Method of Acquisition

The records (donor no. 1149) were donated by Mary B. Elson in 2008 and by John Elson in 2011 and 2012.

Lindsay Shannon, 2009; June Silliman and Christine M. Vivian, 2012.
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Repository Details

Part of the Iowa Women's Archives Repository

100 Main Library
University of Iowa Libraries
Iowa City IA 52242 IaU
319-335-5900 (Fax)