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COLLECTION Identifier: MC 706

Papers of Betty Tank, ca.1885-2007 (inclusive), 1939-2000 (bulk)


Diaries, correspondence, writings, and photographs of Betty Tank, schoolteacher and traveler.


  • Creation: 1885-2007
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1939-2000

Language of Materials

Materials in English.

Access Restrictions:

Access. Unrestricted.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright. Copyright in the papers created by Betty Tank is held by the President and Fellows of Harvard College for the Schlesinger Library. Copyright in other papers in the collection may be held by their authors, or the authors' heirs or assigns.

Copying. Papers may be copied in accordance with the library's usual procedures.


22.52 linear feet ((54 file boxes) plus 3 folio folders, 2 folio+ folders, 10 photograph folders, 1 oversize photograph folder)

This collection documents Betty Tank's experiences teaching school in Turkey and the United States, her work as a secretary and farmhand, and her relationships with family and friends; it includes diaries and transcripts of diaries, correspondence and transcripts of correspondence, address books, school yearbooks, scrapbooks, writings, and photographs. The collection also includes some papers of Tank's mother, Stella Bayly Tank. The bulk of the folder headings were created by the processor. Tank's headings, when used, appear in quotation marks.

Series I, BIOGRAPHICAL AND PERSONAL, ca.1885-2004 (#1.1-5.10, PD.1o-PD.9, FD.3, F+D.2), includes address books; articles about Tank and family members; genealogical material; schoolwork, grade reports, diplomas, and teaching certificates; Tank's college yearbooks and yearbooks from schools at which she taught (including one signed by her students at the Coxsackie-Athens School); check registers; travel itineraries; a "scrapbook" originally kept by Tank's mother, who collected recipes and housekeeping tips (Tank later pasted newspaper articles into the scrapbook, often obscuring her mother's recipes and notes); Tank's will; and images of Tank, her parents, grandparents, sister, and brother, and schoolhouses in which she taught. A few photographs from her years in Turkey and Egypt are included. Later photographs depict Tank hiking and making maple syrup. The series also includes three notebooks of recipes and lesson plans, used by Stella Bayly Tank in the cooking classes she taught at the Brooklyn YMCA before marrying Morton Tank. For Tank's autobiographical writings, see Series IV. The series is arranged alphabetically.

Series II, DIARIES, 1925-2007 (#5.11-38.4, PD.10-PD.11, FD.1-FD.2), contains diaries and typed diary transcripts describing Tank's life from the age of 15 to 97. The diaries provide a vivid look at Tank's varied experiences, including her college years, her trip to England in 1939 and subsequent sojourn in Turkey and Egypt, her work at Airlie Farm, and teaching school in the midwest and in New York State. She describes a harrowing walk she and a friend took in the hills of Turkey in 1941, during which they encountered a man who assaulted them (#9.6, 31.8). Tank began suffering from hearing loss while relatively young and frequently notes in her diaries the embarrassment and discomfort this caused her. She also records her hopes, ambitions, and disappointments; her philosophic and religious beliefs; her conflicted feelings regarding teaching and the possibility of marriage, her bisexuality, the human race in general, and her family, particularly her sometimes contentious relationship with her sister; the difficulties she encountered while living in an old age home (#22.3-23.6); and the frustrations of old age, with an entry from August 2003 beginning "I'm inches from suicide. Why do I keep on living?...Can't see what I'm eating or who's who or what's what. Can't walk without walker or cane..." (#28.4). The diaries also offer detailed descriptions of Tank's psychoanalysis sessions with Dr. Walter Kluge, which began in March 1953, and continued until his death the following year. In April 1953 she notes that "it is painful to have to admit not only to oneself but to the analysist (I wonder sometimes which is the most painful) that one is really as despicable as is apparent from what is brought out in the spewing forth of whatever comes to mind" (#11.7).

The original diaries and transcripts do not always correspond exactly: Tank frequently made slight alterations to the diaries upon transcribing them and also frequently added notes commenting on the events she was transcribing. In some cases, she printed out multiple copies of the same diary, with slight changes, or with notes made at different times. She often kept several diaries at once, making different entries in each one, and some of the transcripts include entries from multiple diaries. Many of the transcripts also include transcriptions of letters to and from family and friends. In some cases, the collection includes only a diary transcript, not the original diary, and there are no transcripts for diaries after 1985. Most of the original diaries are handwritten, but from 1986 to mid 1994, she typed them on a word processor, sometimes adding handwritten comments on printing them out. Diaries from 1994 onward are handwritten, with the uneven handwriting reflecting Tank's failing eyesight. The series is arranged with diary summaries, "day books," dream and hiking journals, and transcripts of trip diaries appearing first, followed first by a chronological arrangement of the original diaries, and finally by the diary transcripts, also arranged chronologically. For versions of Tank's 1954-1955 diary, see #49-8-50.2 and 54.5-54.9 in Series IV.

Series III, CORRESPONDENCE,1920-2006 (#38.5-49.6, F+D.1), includes Tank's correspondence with family and friends, and typed transcripts of letters she sent and received. Tank's correspondence with her parents, siblings, and other relatives (#44.7-49.3) provides a detailed look of her experiences in England, Turkey, and while teaching in remote parts of Colorado and Wyoming, and her family's feelings regarding her activities. Other correspondents include friends Tank made in high school, while living in England, Turkey, and Wyoming, and through her involvement in the Appalachian Mountain Club. Of note are the letters from Martha Earl, who was interned by the Japanese in the Philippines during World War II and sent Tank an account of her experiences (#40.3-40.4); Harry Scarlett and Jack Meyrick, both of whom she met during her time in England and who both wrote letters giving vivid descriptions of their World War II experiences (#44.1-44.5, 42.4-42.5); and William Fitch Cheney, a professor of mathematics who received MIT's first PhD in mathematics, and who had a romantic relationship with Tank in the 1930s and contemplated leaving his wife for her (#40.7-40.10). (See also #29.10, in which he is referred to as ""F," WFC," and "Francois," and #19.8.) Some of Cheney's letters are written in numeric code, which in a few cases has been decoded by Tank. The series also includes correspondence with authors and politicians Tank admired (#38.5). The series is arranged alphabetically. Folders with transcripts of correspondence have been placed directly after the folders containing the original correspondence.

Series IV, WRITINGS, 1924-2000 (#49.7-54.9), includes drafts of Tank's memoir of her experiences in Turkey, Pushing My Shadow, and memoirs of other parts of her life, including her childhood in Chatham, New York, and reflections on her parents' marriage (#51.3), her experiences at the Louis F. Payn Foundation for Aged People (#53.11), and teaching in a small schoolhouse in a remote part of Wyoming (#53.8). While teaching in Wyoming in 1954-1955, Tank kept a diary in the form of letters to her recently deceased psychoanalyst, Walter Kruge; she attempted to have versions of this diary published in 1955 and again in 1999. The series also contains drafts re: psychoanalysis (#50.5), and published and unpublished essays and poems, including an essay Tank wrote in 8th grade which was printed in the Chatham Courier (#51.14). The series is arranged alphabetically.

Most of the photographs in this collection are or will be cataloged in VIA, Harvard University's Visual Information Access database. Others, referred to as "uncataloged" photographs, are not of sufficient research interest to warrant cataloging and are simply treated as part of the documents they accompany; they are marked on the back with an asterisk in square brackets [*].


Helen (Betty) Elizabeth Tank was born in Chatham, New York, the second child of Stella (Bayly) Tank and Morton R. Tank, on January 26, 1910. Her brother Richard was born in 1906 and her sister Carolyn in 1916. She graduated from Russell Sage College in Troy, New York (B.A. 1931) and attended Connecticut State College. During the 1930s, she worked as a waitress, mother's helper, cook, switchboard operator, speakeasy assistant, secretary, and finally as kennel-girl and chauffeur at Airlie Farm in Westchester County, New York. This farm, owned and run by women, raised cows, ponies, collies, and spaniels. In August 1939, she sailed to England, intending to spend a few days there and then visit other parts of Europe. The outbreak of World War II disrupted these plans, and Tank remained in England until May 1940, hiking through the country and working odd jobs. In May 1940 she traveled to Istanbul, Turkey, to become a housemother at the American College for Girls; in September 1941 she began teaching English and Science at the College. She left Turkey in July 1943, with the intention of returning to the U.S. after visiting Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. Upon arriving in Cairo, she discovered she could not return home via ship and began working for the American Red Cross as a secretary; in December, after several weeks of ill health, she began her journey home.

Anxious to help with the war effort, she worked as a drill press operator in the Veeder Root factory in Hartford, Connecticut, for part of 1945, and in 1946 moved to Arizona hoping the climate would improve her health (she suffered from asthma and hay fever). She spent two years in Arizona, working first as a waitress in Tucson, and then as secretary to the headmaster of the Arizona Desert School. In the following years she taught in a one-room schoolhouse in Colorado and then at an isolated school in Wyoming, where she rode a horse to work each day. In 1951 she began studying at Columbia University's Teachers College, receiving her master's degree in 1954. She returned to Wyoming for the 1954-1955 academic year, teaching in another one-room schoolhouse, and in the fall of 1955 began teaching in Albany, New York. For the next few years she worked a variety of jobs in Albany and Chatham, New York, and also kept house for her father, who was in poor health. From 1960 until her retirement in 1971, she taught second and third grade in Coxsackie, New York. A lifetime member of the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Hobos Association of America, Tank devoted her time after retirement to travel both within the U.S. and abroad, traveling to Iceland, the Soviet Union, and the Virgin Islands, and to music and writing. She kept diaries from the age of 15 until shortly before her death, and also wrote poems, essays, and autobiographical fiction. Her memoir of her life in Turkey and the Middle East, Pushing My Shadow, was published in 1995. Although she was engaged once, Tank never married and identified herself as bisexual. She died on April 16, 2007, at Poet's Seat Nursing Home in Greenfield, Massachusetts.


The collection is arranged in four series:

  1. Series I. Biographical and Personal, ca.1885-2004 (#1.1-5.10, PD.1o-PD.9, FD.3, F+D.2)
  2. Series II. Diaries, 1925-2007 (#5.11-38.4, PD.10-PD.11, FD.1-FD.2)
  3. Series III. Correspondence, 1920-2006 (#38.5-49.6, F+D.1)
  4. Series IV. Writings, 1924-2000 (#49.7-54.9)

Physical Location

Collection stored off site: researchers must request access 36 hours before use.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Accession numbers: 2010-M99, 2011-M202, 2012-M53

The papers of Betty Tank were given to the Schlesinger Library by her nieces, Anne Judson and Susan Schuman, between 2010 and 2012.

Processing Information

Processed: September 2012

By: Susan Earle, with the assistance of Suzanna Calev.

Tank, Betty, 1910-2007. Papers of Betty Tank, ca.1885-2007 (inclusive), 1939-2000 (bulk): A Finding Aid
Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America
Language of description
Processing of this collection was made possible by a gift from the Radcliffe College Class of 1957.

Repository Details

Part of the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute Repository

The preeminent research library on the history of women in the United States, the Schlesinger Library documents women's lives from the past and present for the future. In addition to its traditional strengths in the history of feminisms, women’s health, and women’s activism, the Schlesinger collections document the intersectional workings of race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and class in American history.

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