Dollies and Doilies: Priscilla Capps Hill and the Refugee Crisis in Athens, 1922-1941Posted: July 1, 2017
Posted by Jack L. Davis
Jack L. Davis, Carl W. Blegen Professor of Greek Archaeology at the University of Cincinnati and a former director of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (2007-2012), here contributes an essay about the (forgotten) relief efforts of Priscilla Capps Hill through Near East Industries during the great refugee crisis that followed the Asia Minor catastrophe in 1922.
In the months that followed the Asia Minor catastrophe in September 1922 and the population exchange of 1923, more than a million Orthodox Christians were ultimately compelled to desert their birth rights in Anatolia. Their influx to Greece generated an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. American expatriates in Greece took immediate action. Darrell O. Hibbard of the YMCA and Jefferson Caffery, Chargé d’Affaires of the U.S. Mission, created the Athens American Relief Committee, which notified Red Cross missions in Europe and America about the crisis and organized the first relief efforts. Bert H. Hill, Director of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter), was appointed Chairman of the Relief Committee, in which role he was expected to coordinate communication with the Greek government. Harry Hill (no relation to Bert), an Englishman, head of the American Express Company in Athens, was charged with purchases and banking. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were collected by the time the Committee was disbanded on November 24, 1922, when the American Red Cross arrived in Greece to provide humanitarian aid together with Near East Relief, the latter focusing largely on Turkey. Its work had been invaluable. (See also E. Daleziou, ” ‘Adjuster and Negotiator’: Bert Hodge Hill and the Greek Refugee Crisis, 1918-1928,” Hesperia 82, 2013, pp. 49-65.)
The ASCSA’s involvement did not stop there. In the years to come “the School continued to be a hub for Americans offering their services to a variety of refugee relief efforts such as the ARC, the American Women’s Hospital Organization, Near East Relief, the YMCA, and the Athens American Relief Committee” (Daleziou 2013, p. 58). In addition to relief work, Edward Capps, the Chair of the School’s Managing Committee and a professor of Classics at Princeton University, was asked by Greece’s former prime-minister Eleftherios Venizelos to raise awareness in America of what was happening in Greece. Without wasting time, Capps, who knew Venizelos personally from his days as U.S. Minister to Greece (1920-1921), founded The American Friends of Greece (AFG), the broader mission of which was “to promote friendly relations between Greece and the U.S.” (The AFG later published booklets in support of Greece during World War II and a monthly newsletter, “The Philhellene,” which circulated from 1942-1950.)
Incorporation of the AFG on October 15, 1923 marked the start of Priscilla Capps’s involvement in refugee affairs, a much less well-known story than her father’s. Priscilla Capps (1900-1985), a graduate of Smith College, had assisted her father in Athens during his service as Minister, while she was a student at the ASCSA, as a kind of “first daughter.”
Priscilla’s role in confronting the crisis is documented in the archives of Near East Industries (a subsidiary of Near East Relief). She was associated with Near East Relief from 1923 and became the Overseas Director of Near East Industries in 1925. Near East Industries was represented in America by Rose Ewald, who marketed refugee craft goods from the organization’s flagship store at 151 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. They were sold by other merchants on commission, in Christmas sales, and in summer sales on Cape Cod. Capps made frequent promotional trips to New York, and she and Ewald eventually built a business that, at the dawn of WW II, employed 350 women.
James Barton’s The Story of Near East Relief: 1915-1930 (1930) notes that “the general theory of helping women work evolved into the Near East Industries … Workshops were operated in three refugee centers, Athens, Beirut and Constantinople, under the supervision of Miss Priscilla Capps, Miss Dorothy Francis and Miss Sarah Ravndal.”
In Athens itself products of Near East Industries were first offered to tourists from Priscilla’s shop at 48 Amalias Street across from the Arch of Hadrian, and, after 1931, at 2 Amalias, near Syntagma (Constitution) Square. Independent tourist shops also took goods on commission.
Priscilla built Near East Industries on foundations established by the AFG. And we know how this happened because we have a vivid account of the experimental launch in 1924 of the program of refugee craft production that blossomed in 1925 and became Near Eastern Industries, thanks to Gladys Slade Thompson, wife of W. Stuart Thompson, architect of the Gennadius Library of the ASCSA. Her pamphlet titled Refugee Workshops in Greece: A 1924 Experiment Becomes a 1925 Fact (Washington, D.C.: American Friends of Greece, Inc.) is scarce and deserves to be much better known.
According to Thompson, refugee workshops in two communities of Athens were already producing crafts for the AFG by 1925. She begins:
“When the great invasion of refugees came in 1922, they had no place to go. Some slept in boxes, others on street corners, or the gutter, still others in enormous concentration camps that so reeked with vile smells and fifth that they were dangerous to visit. Today the worst of these pest holes are gone, and some of the refugees who were herded there are now living in the new villages which are growing up around the city of Athens.”
Thompson then turns to the “Kountouriotis Camp” —300 one-room houses in Ambelokipi, built with funds from Greeks in America. She describes conditions:
“About thirty of these houses run along in a row with one roof. They look like little bathing houses with all the bareness of the seashore but none of the beauty of the sea. Short clothes-lines run crosswise down the narrow dirt road, and we are oblique to duck our heads to avoid the many ragged patched pieces of clothing hanging on the lines. Each house is about ten feet square and has one window, a dirt floor and a roof that is now beginning to leak.”
The village took its name Κουντουριώτικα from that of Admiral Pavlos Koundouriotis, the President of Greece who had granted public land behind the soccer stadium on Alexandras boulevard for the settlement. (See also http://www.mixanitouxronou.gr/pia-ine-afti-i-prosfigiki-gitonia-pou-sinedese-to-onoma-tis-me-ena-thriliko-gipedo-podosferou/)
From Thompson’s account we also learn about the workshop there. She writes:
Won’t you look into the workshop with me? The room, about twenty feet square, has no furnishing except benches. Forty women and girls are there, from eleven years up to any age where the woman has eyes to see. They are embroidering little Greek bags with designs taken from the old pottery of Rhodes, and in another room the cloth is woven by weavers who, in more happy days, wove their own material but never worked for others. Some are weaving beautiful natural silk into just the right width for scarfs, while others are weaving cotton into material for bags and dresses.
The raw silk and natural dies were brought from Kalamata and the silk dyed in Athens to match the colors of Rhodian pots and antique scarves. Lucy Shoe Meritt, who shared an apartment with Priscilla in 1928, reminisced in the obituary she wrote at the time of Priscilla’s death in 1985: “At the time she was running a shop for the Near East Relief… [the] motifs copied from pieces that Priscilla had found in the Greek Islands… Fortunate are those of us who have reproductions of some of these from her shop which was always popular with tourists” (ASCSA Newsletter, Spring 1986, p. 13).
In a second refugee village, another 100 women were working in Pangrati to produce handkerchiefs and “luncheon sets.” 250 women in Lesbos, 100 in Chios, 100 in Samos, 100 in Crete, and 300 in Thessaloniki also filled orders from the AFG.
Efforts by the AFG were soon absorbed by Near East Industries, while Priscilla Capps built bridges to other relief agencies too. I quote from a 1929 report of the Near East Foundation, submitted on the eve of the Great Depression:
“Miss Capps gives us a most remarkable report covering her work for the month of March . You will note that she is most confident in being able to continue the Industries without orders from America. With Mr. Acheson’s approval, Miss Capps has been loaned by the Near East Relief for two hours daily to organize the various refugee industries under the Refugee Settlement Commission. In this connection it is interesting to advise you of the fact that about 300 of our ex-orphan girls are employed by the Danish Mission work-shops. Their products are entirely of a different character than anything produced by Miss Capps’ workers and practically the entire output is sold in Denmark. These girls have clean, well-lighted work-rooms and Miss Yibson, the Director, is a Danish woman of the finest type. The girls have daily religious exercises before beginning their work and this one industry has done much to keep alive hundreds of Armenian families supported entirely by these ex-orphan girls.”
The Refugee Settlement Commission with which Priscilla Capps collaborated had been created by the League of Nations in September 1923 at the request of the Greek government, and was vested with full legal authority to coordinate resettlement of refugees. In 1924 her father, Edward Capps, had declined to serve as one of its four members because of other commitments.
Nonetheless, Edward Capps did continue his involvement in refugee affairs, albeit not to the extent of Priscilla’s. Most of the men employed between 1923 and 1925 in the construction of ASCSA’s Gennadius Library were refugees. Capps also raised funds to employ Greek men formerly held as prisoners in Turkey so that roads around the School could be improved. In 1925 he even proposed building a model women’s workshop with salvage timber from the construction of the Gennadius Library (Newberry Library, Horace S. Oakley Papers, Capps to Oakley, April 24, 1925). And he served as a trustee of Near East Relief. Bert Hodge Hill also joined the Refugee Settlement Commission alongside Edward Capps from 1927 until its dissolution in 1930 (Daleziou 2013).
Caught in the Great Depression
By 1931, in the heart of the Great Depression, the financial situation of Near East Industries had become grim. Priscilla’s summer sale in 1931 had failed to deliver anticipated profits and, among other problems, tourism in Athens had declined. She responded to this downward trend in sales by introducing new product lines and by accepting new commissions. Her women were now making embroidered suits, dresses, and coats, and she announced that Near East Industries would produce stage curtains for the theater of the University of Athens, for the house of the director of the Gennadius Library, for the professors’ house at Athens College, and for the new Corinth Museum.
One product line sold on commission in the U.S. during the 1930s remains popular among collectors today — 8” dolls dressed in traditional costumes of Greece, Albania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Palestine. From the mid-1930s they were distributed in the United States by Kimport Dolls, a company managed by Ruby and Arthur McKim of Independence, Missouri. Kimport had contracted with Near East Industries to market them, but it is clear that the same or similar dolls were already being made in the 1920s in Athens by refugee women.
Making Garments for Air Raid Victims
Sales on Cape Cod continued to be held on behalf of Near East Industries even on the brink of America’s entrance into WW II. A press release from the Near East Foundation Archives describes an exhibition of craft goods to be held in Yarmouth Port in July, probably 1940. The S.S. Excalibur of the American Export Lines had carried the goods from Greece across the Atlantic, running “the gauntlet of mined areas of the Mediterranean.”
Priscilla soon abandoned the production of craft goods for export to America altogether as conditions in Europe worsened. There were greater needs in Greece itself. Laird Archer, the resident overseas director of the Near East Foundation in Athens, described (“Identification of the Author,” in P. Capps Hill, General Study of the Problem of Reclothing the Greek People After the War [Near East Foundation, 1943]) her herculean efforts on behalf of Greece:
Mrs. Priscilla Capps Hill did the planning which was the basis for the remarkable production of both home-made and workshop garments for air raid victims and the homeless from invaded regions during the hostilities in Greece, 1940-42… It gave employment to more than 5,000 women and girls from families whose breadwinners were in war service … in a few months more than 400,000 handmade garments were produced – in spite of material shortages and interruptions by air-raids …
The clothing distribution was a joint enterprise of the Near East Foundation and a new Greek War Relief Committee, a group of Americans in Athens who assembled at the invitation of General Metaxas. Harry Hill, Priscilla Capps’s husband since 1933, was Executive Vice-President and Laird Archer was a member. Through American Express, Hill ensured that supplies of cloth reached Athens.
Priscilla’s work continued until she and Harry were evacuated in April 1941. Near East Industries in Athens closed, but that did not mark the end of their enthusiasm for Greek causes. Harry became American Ambassador to the Greek and Yugoslav governments in exile in Cairo during WW II, while continuing to serve the Greek War Relief Committee.
Priscilla was also active in the Greek War Relief Committee throughout the war, but from her base in New York. There she and Alice Carr, former Director of Public Health for the Near East Foundation in Greece, laid plans to reclothe Greece and provide medical aid for workshops and cloth distribution centers when peace would be restored. In her report to the “Coordinating Committee of American Agencies in Greece,” already referenced, Priscilla noted that the Germans had requisitioned what stores of cloth had existed in Greece and had commandeered mills. She proposed that relief shipments of food to Greece be followed by supplies needed to re-establish workshops of the sort organized in 1940 and 1941. In this way the Greeks would quickly become self-sufficient again. She specified both the types of clothing and quantities required. As long as the war continued to rage, she suggested a project be sponsored in Cairo, where Greek refugee women could be put to work and make a start producing the clothes needed after the armistice. The idea had been first proposed by Dorothy Cox, an OSS officer in Egypt who had been architect for Carl Blegen’s excavations at Troy in the 1930s.
So far as I know, WW II marked the end of Priscilla’s devotion to refugee affairs. In 1945, the Hills moved to Paris, where Harry served as Vice-President of American Express in Europe. The Germans had occupied their house in Psychiko during the war, and it was sold in 1947. Now her attention turned to the welfare of the ASCSA, and after Harry’s death, from her home in Princeton, she continued her father’s campaigns to build the endowment of the School. Her efforts as treasurer and Charlie Morgan’s as chair of the Auxiliary Fund added thousands of dollars to its endowment between 1959 and 1974, “diligently tracking down lost old friends, annually writing informative and persuasive letters to new ones, and publishing the growing list of contributors to the Fund each year” (Lucy Shoe Meritt in ASCSA Newsletter Spring 1985, p. 13). She also donated her collection of old and rare embroideries to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
Priscilla Capps Hill died in 1985.
I am grateful for the help I received in researching this post from Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan and Eleftheria Daleziou of the ASCSA, Kostis Kourelis of Franklin and Marshall College, Renee Pappous of the Rockefeller Archive Center, Linda Jacobs, formerly of the Near East Foundation, Caitlin Eckhard of the Jackson County Historical Society (Missouri), Nancy Pearl (Walnut Creek, California), and Cathy Breedon (Fargo, North Dakota).