An old, locked safe holds the promise of unclaimed prizes and long-forgotten mysteries waiting to be rediscovered and deciphered. That was the sentiment when a curious, enthusiastic group crowded into a small room to watch a locksmith open a safe that belongs to the National Council of Women. Did the safe’s contents live up to expectations? Did they disappoint? That depends on perspective. The National Council of Women dates back to 1888 and today operates out of a tiny office near the United Nations. According to NPR, one of its founders was Susan B. Anthony, and the organization’s rich history is deeply intertwined with American history. To celebrate this history on its 125th birthday, the Council hired a locksmith to open an old safe emblazoned with the painted words “Woman Suffrage Party.”
The services of Elaad Israeli, the locksmith who opened the safe, would not have been possible without the financial assistance of the University of Rochester, which teamed up with the National Council of Women to aid in this matter. On the University’s website in the days leading up to the safe cracking, speculation reached a fever pitch. What, pray tell, might be inside the safe? Maybe the safe held lists of secret members? The original copy of the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote? Protest plans and organizing strategies? Personal effects from prominent past National Council of Women members? The truth is always more plain and simultaneously freakier than reality.
Mr. Israeli eventually unearthed a change purse with coins from around the world, a wooded stamp, a silver broach, medals and a paper of incorporation from 1931. There were also six small panels, copies of wall murals in miniature depicting women helping women. The National Council of Women commissioned the miniatures for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. Noting their inherent value, Catherine Cerulli, the director of the Susan B. Anthony Center, said, “They’re historical pictures of women caring for others.” She identified one figure among the panels as a Red Cross worker.
According to the University of Rochester, the safe also contained keys, one of which opens a storage room in the basement that now houses the Council. The basement storage area might contain other treasures. The past often speaks through history in subtle, unpredictable ways. The old Woman Suffrage Party safe recently discovered unlikely treasure, modest though it was. The safe’s contents are nonetheless priceless and add one more brushstroke to our developing portrait of women’s collective past and their struggles for equality.