Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Minnie [Mrs. George] Newcombe, 1876-1961
By Anne M. Boylan, University of Delaware, Emerita
Suffragist, Pacifist, Single Tax Advocate, Librarian
Minnie Newcombe was one of several Delaware suffrage leaders whose commitment to fundamental political, economic, and social change brought her and her family to the single-tax colony of Arden, Delaware, during the early decades of the twentieth century. Founded in 1900, Arden was a haven for socialists and pacifists but the community also attracted individuals interested in the Arts & Crafts movement and in the legacy of Shakespearean drama. Although Minnie Newcombe did not gain the right to vote in U.S. elections until she became a naturalized citizen in 1943, she nevertheless served as an officer in both the Wilmington and Delaware Equal Suffrage Associations, where she was a resource for her colleagues on the English suffrage movement.
Born in Coventry, Warwickshire, England, on June 5, 1876, Minnie Newcombe was the daughter of Harriet L. Mansfield and Joseph Frith. Extant records are unclear about when she married George Newcombe, a Coventry native who worked as a machinist, but the 1910 census entry suggests that she was his second wife and that they married around 1900. Before her marriage, she had been a teacher. Together, the Newcombes were parents to George (1891-1964), who became a printer, Ernest (1894-1966), who became a machinist, and Vera (later Berkowitz, 1904-1991), who became an artist.
In 1900, the family emigrated from England, arriving in Philadelphia and moving a few times before settling in Delaware in 1915. In 1904, they were in Newport News, Virginia, where Vera was born, and in 1907, they were in Surry County, Virginia, where Minnie had a stint as a town postmistress. Once living in Wilmington, Minnie joined the First Unitarian Church, becoming superintendent of its Sunday school. First Unitarian's congregation was known for its strong support for women's suffrage and, in a segregated state, accepting a few Black members. Minnie threw herself into suffrage work, joining first the Wilmington Equal Suffrage Association and then the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association. She helped staff suffrage booths at the state fair, served as a delegate to the annual state suffrage convention, gave suffrage speeches, and joined the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association's press committee. By 1917, she had been elected secretary of the Wilmington Equal Suffrage Association and then one of two auditors of the Delaware state association. She served until late 1918.
Why Minnie Newcombe withdrew afterwards from suffrage work is unclear, but her decision may have been connected to the hyper-patriotism that accompanied the U.S. involvement in the First World War. A pacifist, she was also an admirer of Karl Marx's philosophy; in May, 1918, she was one of the speakers at a local socialist-sponsored Wilmington event commemorating the centenary of his birth. Her topic: "Karl Marx: The Man behind the Movement." At a time when the term "socialist" was being used as a cudgel against suffragists, and pacifists were being jailed for expressing anti-war sentiments, a newspaper article on her speech may have raised eyebrows among the controversy-averse members of the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association.
Arden, to which the Newcombes moved around 1918, was a haven for like-minded individuals. It was an equal suffrage enclave, permitting all stockholders over the age of eighteen to vote on matters related to land, taxation, and spending. George, Minnie, and Vera were on the 1922 voters' list. During the First World War, residents rallied around Donald Stephens, the son of one of Arden's founders, when he suffered arrest and imprisonment for his refusal to register for the military draft. The couple and their daughter lived at and ran the Arden Inn, a way-station for visitors to the colony. Around 1919, they began taking in foster children, boys in need of parenting who, the Newcombes believed, would benefit from the outdoor life of Arden, gaining "a chance to grow sturdy and happy."
Minnie and George Newcombe contributed to life in Arden in a variety of ways. In the 1920s George became the town clerk as well as its "welfare worker," while Minnie largely ran the inn. She also chaired the Arden Forum, a popular feature of life in the colony, involving lectures and discussions on the pressing issues of the day. During her time as chairman, the forum hosted speakers such as former Arden resident Ella Reeve ("Mother") Bloor, Will Durant, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Florence Bayard Hilles, and (twice) W.E.B. Du Bois. In 1926, a forum event on "anti-Militarism," in which Minnie participated as a speaker, was targeted by "two Army men," who attended in civilian clothing and subsequently denounced what they heard as "anti-patriotic" and exhibiting "borderline sedition or Bolshevism." Minnie's published retort encompassed a defense of the visitors' freedom of speech along with a forthright critique of "military training in schools and compulsory military training in colleges," as obstacles to "international peace." Later that year, she gave another talk to the Arden Forum on "Life in the Soviet Union."
By 1927, she was putting into motion a plan for an Arden public library. When it opened in 1929, she became Arden's librarian, a position she filled for over 30 years. In that role, she also organized and ran a book sale at the annual Arden Fair. The Arden library eventually became part of the New Castle County library system before being consolidated with another locale and closed. She was honored several times for her dedicated volunteer service to the institution.
Two months after George's death in July 1943, Minnie Newcombe became a U.S. citizen by naturalization. When she died in Arden in 1961, she was memorialized as "an ardent pacifist, a dedicated believer in world federation, [and] active fighter against prejudice."
Basic genealogical information on Minnie and George Newcombe can be gleaned from the vital records, decennial censuses, immigration, naturalization, and other materials found on Ancestry.com and Familysearch.org. The sources provide varying birth dates, but the 1876 date is confirmed by naturalization and Social Security records. Local newspapers digitized via ChroniclingAmerica.loc.gov and Newspapers.com, and reports available on HathiTrust.org provide useful details on Minnie Newcombe's suffrage work, ideological principles, civic commitments, and life in Arden. In reading newspaper accounts, one must take care to differentiate between Minnie and her daughter-in-law, Minnie [Rumer] Newcombe, who married George Newcombe Jr. in 1915.
The following obituaries for Minnie (1961) and George (1943) provided significant information:
"Founder of Arden Library Dead at 85," Wilmington Morning News, July 17, 1961, p.19.
"Arden Pioneer Dies; Was 75," Wilmington Journal-Every Evening, July 6, 1943, p. 21.
Local journalist and Arden resident Bill Frank published an appreciative memory of Minnie Newcombe in his column, "Justice and the Law of Economics," Wilmington Morning News, July 28, 1961, p. 18.
These newspaper articles illuminate her ideas and especially her life in Arden:
"Marx Centennial Observance Here," Wilmington Morning News, May 4, 1918, p. 3.
"Helping Children: Novel Welfare Work at Arden by Mr. and Mrs. Geo. Newcombe," Wilmington Every Evening, September 3, 1921, p. 7.
"Army Men Denounce Speeches at Arden," Wilmington Evening Journal, February 5, 1926, p. 32; "Army Officials Cause Dismay to Ardenites," Wilmington Morning News, February 5, 1926, p. 1; Minnie Newcombe letter, "That Arden Meeting," ibid., February 8, 1926, p. 4.
"Librarian at Arden Guest at Tea Party," Wilmington Morning News, July 14, 1947 p. 3.
The W.E.B. Du Bois Papers at the University of Massachusetts Library include Minnie Newcombe's correspondence with Du Bois. The letters provide insights into her role in inviting guest speakers to Arden. Digitized versions can be found at: https://credo.library.umass.edu/view/collection/mums312
See also Arden-Stephens Papers, Delaware Historical Society (accession #1993.30); First Unitarian Society of Wilmington Records, Membership Records, Box 3, Delaware Historical Society; and Minutes of the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association's Executive Committee, 1916-1919, Mabel Lloyd Ridgely Collection, Woman Suffrage Records, Delaware Public Archives, Dover, Delaware (#9200 R09, 002, folder 1).
For context on Arden's early days, see Charles White Huntington, Enclaves of Economic Rent, third annual volume (Harvard, Mass.: Fiske Warren, 1923): 81-118. For context on Arden's history, see Mark Taylor, "Utopia by Taxation: Frank Stephens and the Single Tax Community of Arden, Delaware," Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 126, no. 2 (April 2002): 305-25; and Eliza Harvey Edwards, "Arden: The Architecture and Planning of a Delaware Utopia" (M.A. Thesis, University of Pennsylvania, 1993).
The following secondary works provide context on Delaware's suffrage story: Mary R. de Vou, "The Woman Suffrage Movement in Delaware," in Delaware: A History of the First State, ed. H. Clay Reed and Marion Björnson Reed (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1947), I: 349-70; Carol E. Hoffecker, "Delaware's Woman Suffrage Campaign," Delaware History 20:3 (Spring-Summer, 1983): 149-67; and Anne M. Boylan, Votes for Delaware Women (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2021).
Photo: A late-life photo of Minnie Newcombe appeared in "Arden Library Gild Plans Book Sale," Wilmington Morning News, August 29, 1956, p. 28.