Wood, Edith Elmer (1871–1945)

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Wood, Edith Elmer (1871–1945)

American housing reformer . Born on September 24, 1871 (some sources cite 1872), in Portsmouth, New Hampshire; died on April 29, 1945, of a cerebral hemorrhage in Greystone Park, New Jersey; daughter of Horace Elmer (a Civil War veteran and naval officer) and Adele (Wiley) Elmer; educated privately; Smith College, B.L., 1890; Columbia University, in a joint program with the New York School of Philanthropy, M.A., 1917, Ph.D., 1919; married Albert Norton Wood (a naval officer), in 1893; children: Horace Elmer (b. 1895); Thurston Elmer (b. 1897); Horace Elmer II (b. 1900); and Albert Elmer (b. 1910).

Selected writings:

Her Provincial Cousin (1893); Shoulder Straps and Sunbonnets (1901); Spirit of the Service (1903); An Oberland Chalet (1910); The Housing of the Unskilled Wage Earner (1919); Housing Progress in Western Europe (1923); Recent Trends in American Housing (1931); Introduction to Housing Facts and Principles (1939).

The daughter of a naval officer, Edith Elmer Wood traveled across the United States and abroad frequently as a child. She received her early education from private tutors before entering Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. She graduated in 1890 with a B.L. degree. Drawn to writing as a child, she became a novelist, publishing several books of romantic fiction and travelogues. In 1893, she married a naval officer, Albert Norton Wood, with whom she would have four sons, and again traveled frequently as his assignments changed. During the early years of her marriage, Wood divided her time between her family duties and fiction writing.

Her literary works were abandoned in 1906, when the family was living in Puerto Rico. Wood's servant became ill with tuberculosis; discovering that no treatment was available on the island, Wood started a crusade to improve public-health facilities especially for the poor. She founded the Anti-Tuberculosis League of Puerto Rico, and when the family moved to Washington, D.C., tried to improve housing conditions in the slums, though with limited success. Convinced that she needed more education to better understand the connections between public health and housing conditions, Wood entered Columbia University's graduate school in 1915, at age 44. She completed her M.A. in 1917 with a thesis on European housing policy, and also finished a diploma at the New York School of Philanthropy. In 1919, she earned a doctorate for her thesis, a detailed statistical analysis of low-income housing later published as The Housing of the Unskilled Wage Earner.

Wood would dedicate the rest of her life to housing-reform advocacy. A member of the Regional Planning Association of America, she wrote many articles for scholarly journals and published three more books on housing policy. In her writings Wood developed her argument that the free market system was incapable of providing affordable and sanitary housing for middle- and low-income families. Wood believed that the federal government needed to intervene in the housing market to ensure the availability of affordable, decent housing because housing conditions affected health, moral behavior, and happiness. Her constructive proposals for housing legislation included federal loans and tax abatement for the middle class, and direct government ownership of housing for the poor. After graduating from Columbia, Wood and her family settled in Cape May Court House, New Jersey.

A recognized expert on housing policy by 1920, Wood was appointed to numerous housing advisory boards, including the Women's Municipal League of Boston (1917–19) and the American Association of University Women's committee on housing, of which she was chair from 1917 to 1929. In addition, she lectured widely and from 1926 to 1930 taught courses on housing economics and public policy at Columbia University. She was also a member and later director of the National Public Housing Conference from 1932 to 1945, and of the Executive Committee of the New Jersey State Housing Authority from 1934 to 1935.

Overall, progress for low-income housing was slow before the implementation of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal housing policies in the 1930s, many of which followed constructive practices such as Wood had proposed. During Roosevelt's tenure, Wood served as a consultant to the Public Works Administration from 1933 to 1937, and to the U.S. Housing Authority from 1933 to 1945, researching and shaping New Deal housing legislation. Her efforts made her one of the most respected analysts of American housing needs. She was awarded an honorary LL.D. from Smith College in 1940.

Wood suffered a heart attack in 1943 but continued her writing and advising activities even while bedridden. She was finally forced to retire from her campaign to improve the lives of the poorer classes in 1944, at age 73. She died in April 1945 in Greystone Park, New Jersey, and was buried in the Naval Academy Cemetery at Annapolis, Maryland.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

Trattiner, Walter I., ed. Biographical Dictionary of Social Welfare in America. NY: Greenwood Press, 1986.

Whitman, Alden, ed. American Reformers. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1985.

Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California

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Wood, Edith Elmer (1871–1945)

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