The papers of Mary Octavine (Thompson) Cowper span the years 1895-1969, although the bulk of the material begins in 1938 when Mrs. Cowper became Executive Director of the Durham Nursery School Association, Inc., a post which she held until 1962. Included in the collection are five series: personal correspondence; writings; topical series; miscellany; and photographs.
Mrs. Cowper's personal life is best documented in the personal correspondence. Letters are primarily to Mrs. Cowper from family and friends but chiefly from her husband, Dr. Frederick Cowper. Most of his correspondence dates from 1918 when he was Director of French at the U.S. Army Y.M.C.A. camp at Camp Grant, Rockford, Illinois, and during 1952-1960 when he was visiting France, England, and other parts of Europe. There are a few letters from Mrs. Cowper to her husband, and several to her mother, written while Mrs. Cowper was in Europe, Feb. to Sept., 1928.
The writings series includes a biography of Eleanor of Acquitaine, which Mrs. Cowper attempted unsuccessfully to have published in 1936, plus several other writings and an undated travel journal.
The topical series is divided into three subseries: the Durham Nursery School Association, Inc., 1938-1966; Suffrage, Industrial Labor Concerns, Social Legislation, 1910-1968; and the Durham Milk Delivery Controversy, 1948-1949.
The Durham Nursery School Association section forms the largest group of papers in the collection. The organization's formation came about as an outgrowth of Mrs. Cowper's work with the Durham branch of the American Association of University Women Social Studies Committee. A study conducted by this group in the Durham area indicated a great need for a nursery school for children of working mothers. The result was the establishment of the Durham Nursery School in May, 1938. This section of the collection provides insight into the organization's operations and activities through correspondence, bylaws and reports, minutes, financial data, case studies, public relations papers, newsclippings and other papers. This subseries also furnishes information about Mrs. Cowper's work as chairman of the Child Welfare Division of the Office of Civilian Defense in Durham (1939-1945), which was instrumental in getting federal funds for the Emergency Child Care Center that operated several nursery schools in Durham during the Second World War. Although several of them closed after the war, one which remained, the Southside Child Care Center, was renamed the Mary O. Cowper Child Care Center in her honor in 1958.
The Suffrage, Industrial Labor Concerns, Social Legislation section, 1910-1968, provides information about Cowper's efforts on behalf of a number of social causes. Her work for women's suffrage and better working conditions in textile mills and her advocacy for labor legislation for women and children are reflected in this section's correspondence, writings, and newsclippings. Her involvement with different organizations, including the American Association of University Women and the League of Women Voters is also represented. Included are separate folders for the American Association of University Women and the League of Women Voters, containing bylaws, membership lists and bulletins, reports, and information about conferences and meetings. Because the Durham Nursery School Association was begun as an outgrowth of the American Association of University Women Social Studies Committee, there is also some correspondence in this section relating to nursery schools. Although Mrs. Cowper worked to establish a juvenile court for youths in Durham, there is very little documentation for this in the papers. Correspondents include Gertrude Weil, President of the N.C. League of Women voters, Belle Sherwin, first vice-president of the National League of Women Voters, and other officers at the local, state, and national level of organization. There are also some letters from Howard Odum, Director of the School of Public Welfare at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Angus W. McLean, Governor of North Carolina. The bulk of the correspondence in this section dates from 1924-1926, when Mrs. Cowper was executive secretary of the North Carolina League of Women Voters.
The Durham Milk Delivery Controversy series, 1948-1949, centers around the controversy created when Durham milk companies changed home milk deliveries from every other day to three times a week, with milkmen not beginning their route service until 7:00 a.m. Citizens protested that many people did not have enough space in their iceboxes for a three day supply of milk and further that the delivery of milk to homes after 7:00 a.m. meant that some people's milk would spoil because it would arrive after customers had already left for work. Mrs. Cowper was co-chairman of a citizen's committee that investigated the problem and suggested solutions. This section includes correspondence, minutes of the citizen's group meetings, newsclippings, and other papers.
The two remaining series are miscellany and photographs. The miscellany section primarily contains reports of Mrs. Cowper's grades and information about the Thompson family. Photographs are chiefly of Mrs. Cowper and members of her family, including her parents, and her brother Herbert, and his family.