Skip to main content

Edna Means papers

Identifier: IWA0171

  • Staff Only
  • Please navigate to collection organization to place requests.

Scope and Contents

The Edna Means papers date from 1908 to 1986 and measure 2.5 linear feet. The papers are arranged in seven series: Biography, Yearbooks, Diaries, Scrapbooks, Writings, Photographs, and Artifacts.

The first series, Biography (1916-1980), consists chiefly of three obituary notices and an article on her career from the Waterloo Courier.

The second series, Yearbooks (1908-1914), contains four yearbooks, three from Highland Park College in Des Moines, Iowa, and one from Emerson College of Oratory in Boston.

The third series, Diaries (1922-1936), consists of six diaries ranging in date from 1922 to 1936. The diaries typically record, in very cryptic fashion, Means' travel experiences giving the day by day locations of her performances throughout the United States. The entries frequently record the name of the sponsoring organization, the venue of the performance, i.e., theater, auditorium, church, or school, the name of her hotel or host family, the size of her crowd and a brief indication of its response to her program. The entries sometimes conclude with the titles of the readings she performed that day. The entries for the periods of time she spent at home either in Tama or in Chicago are devoted more to her family and social contacts, social and cultural events attended, rehearsal sessions for herself, auditions of new talent for the Redpath Lyceum Bureau, and business meetings with representatives of the Bureau.

The fourth series, Scrapbooks (1912-1945), contains six scrapbooks dating from approximately 1912 to approximately 1945 and are devoted entirely to Means' collection of publicity materials from the Redpath Lyceum Bureau, letters of reference and commendation sent to Means or to the Bureau, printed programs of events at which she performed, and newspaper clippings containing reviews of her performances, the latter having been sent to her by chautauqua agents or by the organization sponsoring her appearance. Most of the items in the early scrapbooks are undated or have had their dates obliterated, making it difficult to establish a chronology or itinerary of her travels or to link these scrapbooks to activities described by date in her diaries.

The fifth series, Writings (1914?-1986), contains an undated notebook entitled "Evolution of Expression" which appears to be a set of notes for a lecture. The series also contains two printed catalogs dated 1978 and 1986 respectively, listing all of the published monologues, orations, and humorous and dramatic readings available from the Edna Means Dramatic Service.

The sixth series, Photographs (1911?-1980) consists of two subseries. The first, Albums, consists of three photographic scrapbooks, almost all of which are undated. They run the gamut from family and friends, to school activities and dramatic performances, to all manner of activities, persons, and places connected with her performances on the chautauqua circuit. The second subseries, Portraits, contains photographs taken in 1980 of the Means residence in Tama, Iowa, which served also as the offices of the Edna Means Dramatic Service. Eleanor Ogden, Means' friend and business associate, appears in some of the interior views of the offices. The bulk of the unframed photographs consist of approximately forty professional portraits of Means taken at various stages throughout her career. Also in this series are three framed photographs, one inscribed "Edna [Means] with Minstrels (Chautauqua)"; a framed portrait of Conrad Nagel inscribed "With love and best wishes to the teacher who 'learned me all I know.' Conrad"; and a framed, inscribed portrait of Elias Day.

The seventh and last series, Artifacts, contains five mementos of Means' career, chief of which are an engraved silver cup and a Phi Mu Gamma pin, both dated 1910 and presumed to have been received while attending Emerson College of Oratory in Boston.

A gift copy of James W. Foley's, Some One Like You (1915), presented to Means by Elias Day in 1936, has been removed to the printed works collection and cataloged separately.


  • Creation: 1908-1986


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

Edna Means, nationally known "characterist" and dramatic reader, was born in Tama, Iowa, on February 24, 1887. Upon graduating from Tama High School at the head of her class, she taught for one year at a rural school before enrolling at Highland Park College in Des Moines, Iowa, where she earned a bachelor of oratory degree. Wanting further specialization she enrolled at Emerson School of Oratory in Boston, Massachussetts, graduating at the head of her class once again. She was then hired as a "teacher of expression" in the Chicago Public Schools (La Salle/Peru High School). Her speaking skills soon came to the attention of the Redpath Lyceum Bureau and for two years she travelled the lyceum circuit with violinist and character singer Eve Anderson. For sixteen weeks in 1911 they toured the deep South states of North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.

In the fall of 1911, Means returned to Des Moines, having been named Dean of the Oratory Department at her alma mater, Highland Park College. Here she organized an Oratory Club and thus came to coach and tutor Keokuk native, Conrad Nagel, who would later achieve huge success in Hollywood by starring in 225 movies over a period of forty years. Means left Highland Park College after World War I to form her own company and began to make personal appearances around Iowa and the Midwest. Eventually she came to be booked in all states of the union.

Beginning in the late 1910s until approximately the mid-1920s, Means spent each summer on the chautauqua circuits, traveling with the Redpath-Vawter Chautauqua units, managed by Keith Vawter of Cedar Rapids. Means collected as many press clippings as possible relating to her performances. Her diary for 1921-1923 contains the following clipping from the Albany (Mo.) Capital: "Miss Means' clever readings yesterday afternoon displayed a talent, in its wide range of characters portrayed and the faultless manner in which each was impersonated, that simply places her in a class by herself when it comes to furnishing laughs and sermons for an audience. Her faultless program caused some of us to positively regret that the 'males and minstrelsy' could not have been cut out and the job of entertaining the big night audience turned over to Miss Edna Means."

While on circuit, Means appeared often with Edgar Bergen, already a popular ventriloquist. Bergen admired Means so much that he had a puppet named "Laura" dressed up to look like her. The two frequently went swimming together after hot August afternoon performances. During the winter seasons Means at first stayed with her mother and stepfather in Tama and accepted speaking engagements around the Midwest. By 1924 her engagements had increased to such a point that she relocated to Chicago and hired Miss Eleanor Ogden, whom she had met on the chautauqua circuit, as her personal agent and business manager. They formed the Edna Means Dramatic Service and ran it for the next fifty-two years.

Means had by now become a speaker of great fame throughout the country. Billing herself as a "characterist," she became a favorite of the national civic club and women's clubs speaking circuit, traveling to every state, often speaking to men's groups that had never before engaged a female speaker. From the mid-1920s to the mid-1930s, Means accepted bookings with independent chautauquas through the Redpath Bureau in addition to those arranged by her own service. The dramatic service was also formed so that Means could pursue another interest, that of publishing adaptations from famous literary works as well as her own original compositions, thereby providing material suitable for the newly expanding field of school speech study and contests. Means thus became a pioneer in promoting speech work in schools and her service became the nation's foremost publisher and supplier of readings, orations, and monologues for schools, colleges, and theater groups.

In 1952, after more than twenty-five years in Chicago, Means moved her service back to her parental home in Tama, Iowa. She was now sixty-five years old and with this move she was finally able to say "no" to the constant invitations to speak before organizations nationwide. Her mail order service continued to flourish and Means continued to write and adapt well-known writers' works for school speech materials for the next twenty-four years.

In 1956, while living in Tama, Means wrote an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's "Saint Joan" for Jean Seberg, then a Marshalltown High School senior, and coached her in its performance so that the Iowa oratorical champion would do well in her audition for the role of Joan of Arc in Otto Preminger's forthcoming movie of the same name. Miss Seberg was selected for the role and gained instant fame as an actress.

Means finally retired at age eighty-nine and died three years later, on November 12, 1979, at age ninety-two.


2.50 Linear Feet

Photographs in boxes 4 and 5, Artifacts in box 6. boxes

Language of Materials



Characterist and dramatic reader, and chatauqua performer from Tama, Iowa organized her own talent agency.


A gift copy of James W. Foley's, Some one like you (1915), presented to Means by Elias Day in 1936, has been removed to the printed works collection and cataloged separately.

Method of Acquisition

The papers (donor no. 248) were donated by Bernie Lowe in 1994.

Related Materials

Chautauqua Collection (Special Collections Department, The University of Iowa Libraries): Contains correspondence with the Redpath Bureau, newspaper clippings, travel reports and expense vouchers, contracts, cancelled checks and other personnel records of Edna Means (boxes 161-162).

George Mullally, 1995.
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note

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)