Dollies and Doilies: Priscilla Capps Hill and the Refugee Crisis in Athens, 1922-1941

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.)

Priscilla’s Story

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 Capps clad in a traditional Greek costume, ca. 1920s. Photo: ASCSA Archives, Oscar Broneer Papers.

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.

Card advertising Near East Industries. Photo: ASCSA Archives.

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.”

Koundouriotis Village Workshop. Source: G. S. Thompson, Refugee Workshops.

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

Aerial view of Koundouriotika (ca. 1960), near the soccer stadium, on Alexandras Boulevard (Leoforos Alexandras). Photo: N. Paradeisis, Ambelokipi.

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).

Near East Industries pouch with Rhodian design. ASCSA Archives, Jack L. Davis Collection.

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 [1929]. 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).

Greek refugee girls weaving. Photo: The National Geographic Magazine, November 1925, p. 585.

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.


Some of the dolls made by Near East Industries, Athens, Greece. Photo: ASCSA Archives, Jack L. Davis Collection.

Skyrian doll made by Near East Industries. Private Collection. Photo: Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan

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.

Pins and matches advertising the work of the Greek Work Relief  during WW II. ASCSA Archives, Jack L. Davis Collection.

Reclothing Greece

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).

Athens at the Turn of the Century: A Sentimental Capital and a Resort of Scholars

On February 17, 1901, a young American archaeologist and member of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter) was “roaming over the city in search of Mr. Kavvadias, the general ephor of antiquities in Athens, in order to get a permit to begin work at Vari tomorrow” (letter of Charles H. Weller to his wife).  Together with a small group of students from the School, he had conceived of the idea of conducting a small excavation at the Vari Cave on the southern spur of Mount Hymettus, near the ancient deme of Anargyrous. Known since the 18th century, the cave had been visited and described by several European travelers who were particularly taken by the reliefs and inscriptions carved on its walls.

Vari Cave interior with sculpted figures, 1923. Source: ASCSA Archives, Dorothy Burr Thompson Photographic Collection.

Read the rest of this entry »

Expat Feasts in Athens on the Eve of the Balkan Wars

One of Zillah Pierce Dinsmoor's letters to her mother, October 1910

One of Zillah Pierce Dinsmoor’s letters to her mother, October 1910.

“Maybe I asked you before, but will you save all my letters, dear, for I may want to use some of the material in them” Zillah Pierce Dinsmoor (1886-1960) reminded her mother a month after her arrival in Greece (Oct. 20, 1910). And because Emma Pierce respected her daughter’s wish, a valuable collection of private correspondence describing the daily life of a young American bride in Athens in the early 20th century has been preserved in the Archives of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA).

This is the second time From the Archivist’s Notebook features an essay about Zillah Dinsmoor.  In February 2014, guest author Jacquelyn Clemens published an account of Zillah’s Greek experience, mining information from her letters. “Students and scholars who study at the American School… have often been accompanied by their spouses, significant others, and children who live with them here in Athens. In the early 20th century, Zillah Pierce Dinsmoor was one of these women who traveled to Athens along with her husband, architect William Bell Dinsmoor” wrote Clemens in her introductory paragraph. (Read J. Clemens,”Letters from a New Home. Early 20th Century Athens Through the Eyes of Zillah Dinsmoor“)  Barely 24 years old (and away from home for the first time), this fashionable young woman from Massachussets wrote long letters once a week to her mother about her new life in Athens. Read the rest of this entry »

The Bohemian Past of Madame Gennadius

On Saturday December 27, 1902, a well-publicized wedding took place in London.  John Gennadius, former ambassador of Greece to England and a great book-collector, age 58, and Florence Laing, the youngest daughter of Samuel Laing and the widow of painter Edward Sherard Kennedy, age 47, were married in a double ceremony, first at the Greek Orthodox church of St. Sophia and later that day at the Anglican church of St. Peter’s at Cranley Gardens.  There are no photos capturing the ceremony or the reception that followed, but Gennadius, the creator of more than seventy scrapbooks, did keep numerous newspaper clippings announcing this celebrated marriage. More than a few of them mention that the bride had an annual income of roughly 8,000 pounds, leading some to hint that it may have been a marriage of convenience. Time proved that their union was a harmonious one; it lasted 30 years until his death in 1932. She outlived him by another twenty years. The Gennadius Library of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter) was the offspring of their union. The deed of gift was signed in 1922 and the building was completed in 1926.

John and Florence Gennadius, ca. 1925. Source: ASCSA, Gennadius Library.

John and Florence Gennadius, 1920. Source: ASCSA, Gennadius Library.

The best source for John Gennadius’s life is a small, but thorough, booklet, Joannes Gennadios, the Man: A Biographical Sketch (1990), by Donald M. Nicol, director of the Gennadius Library (1989-1992). In it, there is very little information about the circumstances of how Gennadius met Florence Laing Kennedy. Nicol suspects that they were introduced by “Prince Alexis Dolgoruki, an acquaintance of Gennadios, [who] had married an English lady, Miss Fleetwood Wilson, who was an old friend of Florence.” In an endnote, Nicol mentions that Florence was an artist in her own right, having exhibited her “genre paintings” in the Royal Academy and other London galleries between 1880 and 1893. Read the rest of this entry »

Communism In and Out of Fashion: The American School of Classical Studies at Athens and the Cold War

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 attitudes of the ASCSA and its members toward Communists and Communism in the 20th century.

“Feeling they were witnessing the demise of capitalism, many writers moved left, some because their working class origins helped them identify with the dispossessed, others because they saw socialism or Communism as the only serious force for radical change, still others because it was the fashionable thing to do; they went where the action was.”
Morris Dickstein, Dancing in the Dark (2009), pp. 16-17.

DancingDark_smallIn 1974, when I first arrived at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter), we youngsters were told that we should not express our political views in public. The ASCSA’s institutional mission might be hurt, were it perceived not to be neutral. In September 1974 that was certainly a reasonable position for the ASCSA to assume. Yet I was curious. In 1974, I was myself radicalized, and had definitely headed left. I could not condone U.S. policy in respect to the Junta, or the suppression of the Left in Greece. Could I say nothing? Had the ASCSA always maintained a position of strict neutrality? Or were its postures more convenient than sincere? Read the rest of this entry »

Gertrude Smith: A Classic American Philhellene

Posted by Dylan Rogers

Dylan Rogers holds a PhD from the University of Virginia, and he has been Assistant Director at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens since 2015. The essay he contributes to “From the Archivist’s Notebook” was inspired by his summer experience at the School.

“Summers at the ASCSA are a vibrant time for the School, full of students and scholars, with the buzz of activity and chats at Ouzo Hour. Taking on the role of the Assistant Director of the School last year, I was intrigued to learn that each Summer Session Director is given the title, “Gertrude Smith Professor.” At first, I was only vaguely familiar with Smith’s scholarship on Greek law. So, why would the School associate SS Directors with her? This led me on a quest to find out more about Smith—and to find out what her story exactly was. She must have had a passion for Greece, but why? And in what ways did she spread this love to others?”

Gertrude E. Smith in her office at the University of Chicago, ca. 1950.

Gertrude E. Smith in her office at the University of Chicago, ca. 1950. Photo: University of Chicago Library, Special Collections Research Center.

Gertrude Elizabeth Smith (1894-1985) spent most of her adult life in Illinois. Born and raised in Peoria, Smith would later go on to receive her education at the University of Chicago, writing a PhD dissertation on Greek law– after which Smith would begin teaching at the university, eventually becoming the Edwin Olson Professor of Greek in 1933. From 1934 until her retirement in 1961, Smith was the Chairman of the Department of Classics at Chicago, making her a prominent female figure in the field of Classics in America in the 20th century. Smith also served as a founder of Eta Sigma Phi, the national Classics honor society, was the first woman to serve as the president of both the Classical Association of the Middle West and South (CAMWS, 1933-1934) and the American Philological Association (1958), and was a long serving member of the editorial board of the journal, Classical Philology (1925-1965). After her retirement from Chicago, Smith would go on to teach briefly at the University of Illinois, Loyola University in Chicago, and Vanderbilt University (Gagarin 1996-1997). Read the rest of this entry »

Dorothy Burr Thompson’s Love for the Spirit of the Primitive

Dorothy Burr photographing wedding dance at Parapoungia 1924.

Dorothy Burr photographing wedding dance at Parapoungia 1924. ASCSA Archives, Dorothy Burr Thompson Photographic Collection.

“By myself in a Boeotian village, with the cry of the wind and drunken men in my ears! I love this place; it is so full of interest and a sense of real thing – seeing weddings whereat one reddens a finger… plodding one’s weary way homeward over purple fields to the din of bells like an organ cadence, knowing villagers… Oh, it is so full of life…” scribbled Dorothy Burr in her personal diary on November 9, 1924.

She was twenty-four years old and had come to Greece the year before, to study at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter). Before that, she had lived in Philadelphia and studied at Bryn Mawr College. After attending the year-long program of the ASCSA, she and Hazel Hansen, another student of the School, were invited by archaeologist Hetty Goldman to dig at the Neolithic site of Eutresis, not far from Thebes, in Boeotia. Read the rest of this entry »