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Hortense Powdermaker Papers

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: SCA-0038

Scope and Content Note

This collection contains the personal papers of Hortense Powdermaker related to her anthropological research and field work in Lesu (New Ireland, Papua New Guinea) in 1929, in Indianola, Mississippi in 1932-1934, and in Luanshya, Zambia (formerly Northern Rhodesia) in 1953-1954. The materials include: for Lesu--a general research outline and English-Melanesian vocabulary lists; for Indianola--an unpublished typed manuscript of a book based on her field work and field notes on religion; and for Luanshya--unpublished survey results on African attitudes towards the media, related correspondence, interview field notes and conversation transcripts. The collection also includes the typed manuscript, galley proofs, and page proofs of her final book, Stranger and Friend: The Way of An Anthropologist.


  • circa 1929-1966



Collection is open for research; contact Special Collections for access. Staff may restrict access at its discretion on the basis of physical condition. Due to the fragile nature of some originals, preservation copies are available for researcher use.

Biographical Note

Hortense Powdermaker was born into a middle-class, German-Jewish family on December 24, 1896 in Philadelphia, the second of four children of Louis and Minnie (Jacoby) Powdermaker. The family later moved to Baltimore where Powdermaker attended high school and Goucher College, receiving her B.A. in history in 1919.

At Goucher, Powdermaker became interested in socialism and the labor movement. After graduation, she joined the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, first as an assistant at its New York headquarters and then as a union organizer in Cleveland and Rochester. The 1920s, however, was a difficult period for the labor movement. In 1925, Powdermaker resigned her union position and traveled to England.

At the London School of Economics, Powdermaker registered for a course in social anthropology taught by Bronislaw Malinowski, a dynamic teacher and founder of the functional school of anthropology whose ideas about the psychological aspects of anthropology would profoundly influence her. In 1928, Powdermaker earned her Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of London for a study of leadership in primitive societies.

In 1929, Powdermaker obtained a grant from the Australian National Research Council to conduct her own field work and became the first woman anthropologist to live alone among the Melanesians of New Ireland in Papua New Guinea. Her ten months of field work in a small isolated village, Lesu, provided the material for her first book, Life in Lesu, a classic ethnological study of a Stone Age society published in 1933.

Returning to the United States in 1930, Powdermaker began her association with the Institute of Human Relations at Yale University where she met Edward Sapir, a respected anthropologist who also encouraged her psychological approach to anthropology. In 1932, Powdermaker secured a fellowship from the Social Science Research Council to conduct an anthropological study of a small southern town, becoming the first anthropologist to study a contemporary community in the United States. For nine months in 1932-1933 and the summer of 1934, Powdermaker lived in Indianola, Mississippi, examining its Black and white communities and their interactions. Her book, After Freedom, published in 1939, is still notable for its insightful analysis of race relations and of the impact of psychological adaptations to segregation.

In 1937, Powdermaker joined the faculty of newly founded Queens College as an instructor of social sciences. She rose to full professor and established its Department of Anthropology and Sociology. For the next 30 years, she was an enthusiastic and popular teacher and many of her students would themselves enjoy notable careers as anthropologists. In 1965, the Alumni Association of Queens College publicly recognized her many accomplishments as a teacher and scholar, presenting Powdermaker with the Distinguished Teacher Award.

In addition to teaching, Powdermaker continued to pursue her research interests, conduct field work, and publish. In 1943, she published an influential article, “The Channeling of Negro Aggression by the Cultural Process,” in the American Journal of Sociology and, in 1944, authored a book for high school students, Probing Our Prejudices, exploring the causes of racism and prejudice. During her sabbatical in 1946-1947, Powdermaker went to Hollywood to study how its social structure and processes influenced the content and meaning of movies. Although criticized by some, including Powdermaker herself, Hollywood: The Dream Factory, published in 1950, is among her best-known books and it remains the only serious anthropological study of Hollywood.

In 1953-1954, a Guggenheim fellowship allowed Powdermaker to study the effects of western mass media and urbanization on African tribal life in Luanshya, a mining town in the Copperbelt region of northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). Copper Town, published in 1962, utilizes both anthropological and psychological theory to analyze societal change.

Powdermaker’s influential final book, Stranger and Friend: The Way of an Anthropologist, was published in 1966. Stranger and Friend is a candid examination of her field work experiences, the participant-observation method, and the appropriate role of the anthropologist and social scientist. Powdermaker was asked to contribute the section “Field Work” in the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences in 1968, an acknowledgement of her expertise in this area.

In 1968, Powdermaker retired from Queens College and moved to Berkeley, California. As a research associate at the University of California at Berkeley, she was undertaking a study of youth culture until her sudden death from a heart attack at age 73 on June 16, 1970. In 1977, the Social Sciences Building at Queens College was renamed Powdermaker Hall to honor her distinguished career as an educator and anthropologist.

Powdermaker was a member of numerous professional organizations, serving as vice president and chairman of the New York Academy of Sciences, Anthropology Section (1944-1946), and as vice president (1945-1946) and president (1946-1947) of the American Ethnological Society. She was also a member of the American Sociological Society and a fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. Goucher College awarded her an honorary doctorate in 1957.


Powdermaker, H. (1966). Stranger and friend: The way of an anthropologist. W.W. Norton.

Silverman, S. (1988). Hortense Powdermaker, 1896-1970. In U. Gacs, A. Khan, J. McIntyre, & R. Weinberg (Eds.), Women anthropologists: A biographical dictionary (pp. 291-296). Greenwood Press.

Wolf, E. (1971). Hortense Powdermaker. American Anthropologist 73, 783-86.


2 Linear Feet (3 flat document boxes, 1 large flat document box)

Language of Materials



Hortense Powdermaker (1896-1970) was a noted anthropologist, writer, and educator. She was a Professor of Anthropology at Queens College from 1937 to 1968. The collection comprises materials related to her research and field work in Lesu (New Ireland, Papua New Guinea) in the late 1920s, in Indianola, Mississippi in the early 1930s, and in Luanshya, Zambia in the early 1950s, and includes field notes, interviews, survey results, correspondence, and unpublished manuscripts of writings. The collection also includes the typescript manuscript and proofs of her final book, Stranger and Friend.

Arrangement Note

The collection is arranged by subject and by chronology into two series, each series further arranged into a few subseries.

Series I: Research and Field Work Materials, circa 1929-1954

Series II: Stranger and Friend, 1965-1966


Donated to Queens College by Hortense Powdermaker in 1966 and reprocessed by the Department of Special Collections and Archives in 2013.

Related Collections

The following archival collections contain related materials, primarily photographs or correspondence with Powdermaker:

Anthropology, Departments and Faculty. Queens College Photographs, Box 1, Folders 18-19. Special Collections and Archives, Rosenthal Library, Queens College, New York.

The A.L. Kroeber Papers, The Theodora Kroeber Papers, and The George A. De Vos Papers. Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley, California.

Bronislaw Malinowski Papers. Manuscripts and Archives Repository, Yale University Library, New Haven, Connecticut.

Dorothy Eggan Papers. Special Collections Research Center, The University of Chicago Library, Illinois.

The Oakley C. Johnson Collection. Special Collections and University Archives, Frank Melville Jr. Memorial Library, Stony Brook University, New York.


The Hortense Powdermaker Papers archive is physically owned by the Queens College Libraries. Literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assignees. The collection is subject to all copyright laws. Queens College assumes no responsibility for the infringement of copyrights held by the original authors, creators, or producers of materials.

Hortense Powdermaker Papers
Deborah Marks
Spring 2013
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Repository Details

Part of the Queens College (New York, N.Y.) Special Collections and Archives Repository

Queens College Library, CUNY
Benjamin Rosenthal Library RO317
65-30 Kissena Boulevard
Flushing 11367 USA us