Faye Duncan Littleton, and the Magic of Keeping Everything

(originally published 9/12/19)

I take my subtitle this week from a book that came out a couple of years ago called The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up. Sure, it sounds good – dusting, straightening the stack of magazines on the coffee table, putting pencils back in the drawer, etc. But in reality it’s a manifesto for throwing away all the stuff you have until you’re down to about five things to wear, a well-organized stack of take-out menus and a small pile of returnable library books. The book was a favorite among book clubs at the time, and understandably so. No matter your demographic, you’re seeing the wisdom of “less is more.” Personally, every time Big Brothers/Big Sisters carts away a load of my “treasures,” I feel lighter.The author of this manifesto does suggest that things are only to be kept if they “spark joy.” But what if everything – and I do mean everything – sparks joy? In that case, you can call yourself a “collector,” your friends will whisper you’re a “pack-rat,” and your children will slip in to throw things out when they think you’re not looking. But to those of us interested in history, you are a hero. And such a hero – of mine at least – was long-time Nichols Company employee Faye Duncan Littleton. I have included some of Littleton’s story in my book, “The Country Cub District of Kansas City,” and I mention her frequently in my presentations, but her contribution is worthy of its own spotlight, and perhaps will serve as a cautionary tale to those too quick to discard the so-called detritus of the past.

Faye Duncan Littleton is who local researchers have to thank for the manuscript collection known as the J.C. Nichols Company Scrapbooks, in the custody of the State Historical Society of Missouri – Kansas City Research Center. The scrapbooks are a rich, though admittedly imperfect, compendium of both the fascinating and the banal stories of the Nichols Company and the Country Club District between 1910 and 1980. Note that I say “scrapbooks,” as in plural. At the time of her final retirement in the early 1960s, Littleton had compiled 33 large three-ring binders, chronicling the growth of the organization as seen from the inside. In all, the scrapbook collection continues through the 1980s when it reaches 60 volumes, but these later volumes, compiled by subsequent Nichols Company employees, focus more on clippings and information available from other sources, with few photos. Faye, bless her, includes in her volumes virtually every photo, business card, obituary, thank you letter and meeting note she already had or could find.

Faye was featured in a 1963 article in the Johnson County Herald, which is why we know as much about her as we do, though it is still scant. The rest of what we learn about Faye comes from the scrapbooks. Some of it comes from her notes in the margins, but her viewpoint comes out in what she includes in telling the story. Faye is not a character in that story, but she is its voice.

Faye Duncan Littleton, 1918. Courtesy State Historical Society of Missouri – KC, JC Nichols Scrapbooks.

Faye’s personal story is interesting enough. Faye Duncan was just 19 in 1913 when she came to Kansas City from Tecumseh, Nebraska to make her way in the world. What prompted Faye to leave and come here isn’t known, but there were many like her. It was a period when many young people – and for the first time, single women – were leaving farmsteads and moving to where opportunities were, in growing cities like Kansas City. Faye stands in for other women with names that escape history who worked in the offices, telephone switchboards, secretarial pools, and reception desks of all the new businesses springing up in Kansas City around 1900.

Faye had been in Kansas City only a few days when she responded to a job listing in the Kansas City Star. The J.C. Nichols Company was looking for a switchboard operator. Nine dollars a week for nine hours days, six days a week. Indeed, her job interview was on a Saturday, and it was with J.C. Nichols himself. So, in Kansas City less than a week, and in the Nichols Company offices for less than an hour, she found herself working by 11 o’clock that same morning.

For eight years, Faye’s spot on the switchboard afforded her the perfect position to learn about her new city – its addresses and phone numbers (phone numbers had a relationship to geography back then), and the names of its leaders, because J.C. Nichols was himself growing in local and national stature. And of course she learned much about the company, its staff and departments, and generally how the whole business worked.

In 1921, Faye left the Nichols Company, and the next five years seem fraught with missteps and backsliding, with reasons not all together clear. Initially her stated reason for leaving was to work for an insurance company, in the hopes of becoming an agent. However, a year later she was working for a builder. Later that same year, she took a job at Commerce Trust Company, and still later that same year worked for an accountant in Brookside.

In early December 1923, Faye Duncan married Joseph Sanford Littleton. She was 29, he was 22. Not much is known about him, or their marriage, but it was brief and no doubt hard. Faye contracted pneumonia in February 1924, eventually entering a hospital in San Antonio that kept her away from her job and husband until May. In 1925, her husband was diagnosed with tuberculosis. That winter, he was admitted to an El Paso sanitarium. Fay left her job to be with him.

An excerpt from Littleton’s scrapbooks for the Nichols Company. Courtesy State Historical Society of Missouri – KC, JC Nichols Scrapbooks.

When they returned in the summer of 1926, the Nichols Company took her back, as a relief worker, filling in where needed. In the fall, she took on the role of secretary for the newly formed Country Club District Homes Association, which paid $150 a month and offered a position of high visibility and responsibility within the company. Faye’s career was improving, but unfortunately the same could not be said of her husband’s health. In 1930, Joseph Littleton died from tuberculosis. He was only 29. The couple had no children, and Faye never married again.

Faye served the Country Club District Homes Associations for another 25 years. In 1948, a fall at home injured her enough to keep her away from her work for some months. Less active now, in 1952 she left her beloved homes associations, who had become a kind of extended family, to accept a less active position as a secretary in the Nichols Sales Department. The position left her time to start compiling some of her mementos. J.C. Nichols had died in 1950, but others now running the company got wind of Faye’s project and saw value in it.

Researchers find value in it, too. Although somewhat disorganized, the scrapbooks follow a general chronology but cover a wide range of topics. She includes notes from annual neighborhood meetings, photos and records of the careers of many Nichols Company employees, the work of the homes association groups and their leadership, behind-the-scenes photos of development (as opposed to the beauty shots and promotional shots the Nichols Company took for their publications), and bios and obituaries of notable neighbors. She pastes in clips from newspapers, business cards, neighborhood newsletters and virtually any ephemera she could find, that could be pasted between the pages of a scrapbook. In the final years of her time at the Nichols Company, the scrapbooks were Faye’s only assignment. She retired in 1961, concluded her 33 scrapbooks in 1963, and died in 1980.

Between 1963 and 1981, the scrapbooks were continued by employees of the Nichols Company. Although lacking the individual personality Faye infused into the first 33, the last 16 scrapbooks are an important continuation of the company’s story through the last of its glory days. The last two decades of the company’s history saw it change dramatically not only from what it was in J.C.’s time, but from the locally focused, locally based company that had been so much a part of the Kansas City story.

Faye captured the value of the scrapbooks in her opening of the first volume, “These memory guardians [scrapbooks) are vastly important – if only to furnish the information to researchers.” Amen. But in fairness, in that same introduction, when speaking of the material she personally collected for the Nichols Company scrapbooks, Faye said, “…having been somewhat of a “collector” all my life, I have saved some of the information over the years and my only regret is that I did not save more.”

Save more? I can’t imagine there would have been room in her house for more.

Faye was more than a collector, but too organized and deliberate to be a hoarder. Call her an “amasser,” if that’s a word. In that previously mentioned Herald interview, Faye revealed the extent of her personal collections. When asked to list them for the article, the ones that came readily to mind were impressive, at least in breadth and scale. She started with miscellaneous commemorative dishes including 300 plates, 150 cups and saucers, and more than 13,000 salt and pepper sets. She also listed at least 500 each of promotional lead pencils and cocktail swizzle sticks, five thousand post cards, and dozens and dozens of glass figurines.

But all of these collections pale in comparison to her matchbook collection. It numbered over 100,000 and she collected them from all over the world. Friends and co-workers who traveled delighted in bringing new and interesting ones to her. But where to display them? Well, originally she used them like wallpaper, affixing them to the walls of every room in her small house north of the Plaza. When she retired and left town, she painstakingly removed them all and put them neatly in – what else – a scrapbook collection.

(Featured Photo: Faye Duncan Littleton and eleven of the original twelve presidents of the member neighborhoods of the Country Club District Homes Associations. Courtesy the State Historical Society of Missouri.)

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