The first Junior League was founded in New York in 1901, when a group of determined young women sought to improve the lives of immigrants living on the Lower East Side. In 1918, Eloise Bond Bergland – known socially as Mrs. William S. – was inspired to bring the Junior League to Wilmington. Since its inception, the League has donated innumerable hours, materials, and financial support to many deserving community programs, and has trained its members to be influential leaders in the community.
Please enjoy the short videos below about the History of the Junior League of Wilmington:
|First 25 Years||Second 25 Years||Third 25 Years|
It its early years, the Junior League of Wilmington focused on improving the health, literacy, and living conditions of immigrants to the city. The League worked with the Italian Settlement House – which continues its own mission as West End Neighborhood House to this day – as well as with the state Children’s Bureau and Delaware Hospital. Our newsletter, The Lantern, was started in 1927.
Following the end of World War I, the stock market crash of 1929, and the beginning of the Great Depression, the League’s focus shifted from helping the immigrant population to assisting returning veterans and a growing population of suffering, destitute people. League members were required to fulfill a 75-hour per year service requirement, and there was plenty to do. Members operated a Junior League Exchange, where food and artisan gift items were sold on consignment. Work continued with the Italian Settlement House (where the League created a Well Baby Clinic) as well as with the Children’s Bureau. The League worked to start the Delaware School for Deaf Children and provided service to the Mayor’s Committee for Relief, the Summer Food Relief Program, and the Family Society’s Bureau for Unemployment Relief. Along with many Leagues across the Nation, the Junior League of Wilmington began a tradition of producing children’s plays to raise funds. A Publicity Chair was first appointed in 1934. In 1937, a Chair of Education was appointed to supervise the Provisional Course and bring to the League’s attention educational opportunities within the community.
World War II meant that women across the nation joined in supporting the war effort, and Junior Leaguers were no exception. More members began working jobs during the day, and some League meetings were held at night for the first time so that working members could attend. Inspired by a presentation at the Association of Junior Leagues’ annual meeting, the Junior League of Wilmington helped to found the Delaware Curative Workshop in 1945. The Legislative Committee was particularly active in the 1940s, working on a family court project and lobbying for increased pay and benefits for teachers.
A growing economy and the post-WWII baby boom meant changing needs in our community once again in the 1950s. As the casework of local welfare agencies expanded, the League was ready to help. Ways and means projects raised funds for particular causes, and the popular “Scarlet Ribbon Day” began at Wanamaker’s department store. Members acted as hostesses and saleswomen, raising record amounts of money. Our theater production projects eventually grew into The Delaware Children’s Theater, and the League started the Child Guidance Center and the Wilmington Senior Center, with which work continues today. Also in the 1950s, League members served as the first docents when Winterthur opened its doors as a museum.
As interest in historic preservation grew in this decade, the League began to look for a permanent headquarters. It ultimately rented the historic Lea-Derickson House, becoming an important member of Old Brandywine Village. The League celebrated its fiftieth year in a time of extraordinary turbulence and social change.
Major undertakings of the 1970s included the beginning of the League’s research and development for what would become the Foster Care Review Act. Additional efforts focused on child welfare included creation of the Preventative Environment for Girls House and the Delaware Adolescent Program, Inc. (DAPI). The League also published an infant care manual called “Loving, Caring, Sharing: Your Baby and You” in both English and Spanish, which was distributed at Wilmington General Hospital. The League also assisted with preservation of the Grand Opera House and Old Willingtown Square.
The League continued to lobby for the Foster Care Review Act, which was finally passed in the 1980s. Environmental protection was a growing interest, and the League was a founding member of The Wilmington Waterways group. Our long-running fundraiser, Whale of a Sale, began in 1984, as did the Delaware Women’s Conference. The League also began its involvement in the starting Delaware’s Ronald McDonald House by organizing a car raffle fundraiser.
For our 75th Anniversary project (1993-94) we designed, funded and constructed “Bridges For Play,” a playground for children of all abilities located at the Leach School in the Colonial School District. In 1993 we introduced our first cookbook, Savor the Brandywine Valley: A Collection of Recipes. The Wellness Community Delaware, which provides counseling and services to people with cancer and their families, became the League’s second focus area project in 1995. During the 1996-97 League year, we introduced a new fundraiser, The American Girls Fashion Show and Tea, and turned over the Ronald McDonald Raffle – in connection with an LPGA golf tournament – to the Ronald McDonald House of Delaware. During a ten-year period, the League raised more than $500,000 for this valuable organization.
The Early 2000s
During the 1999-00 year, our focus area shifted to building and preserving families, and we chose a new signature project and partnership with DAPI. The project included starting a pantry and a mentoring program. In 2001, the League published a new cookbook, Dancing on the Table. In the 2002-03 League year, our focus area became Literacy, resulting in projects with Social Venture Partners, Delaware Coalition for Literacy, and Woodlawn Library, through which the League ultimately donated more than $28,000 and more than 13,500 books to area literacy programs. In 2004, the League held its first Heart of the Home® Kitchen Tour fundraiser. In 2005-06, the League completed its commitment to the Woodlawn Library by donating a total of $40,000 to construction efforts and by participating in various fundraising initiatives. In May, a year of project development culminated in members choosing the East Side Charter School Library as the League’s signature project for the coming year. In addition, the League also voted to move forward with a capital campaign to raise funds for the renovation of our headquarters, the Lea-Derickson House. And, Whale of a Sale celebrated its 25th anniversary.
This League year began with the commencement of the Cornerstone Campaign. On September 12, 2006, the deed amendment between the Junior League of Wilmington and Old Brandywine Village, Inc. was signed, thus transferring complete ownership of the house to the League. As part of its signature project commitment, the Junior League donated $12,000 to the East Side Charter School for an accelerated reading program.
The first ever capital campaign – our “Cornerstone Campaign” – reached its fundraising goal of $750,000 in record time, allowing us to begin renovations to League headquarters. Enthusiasm generated by the capital campaign helped pave the way for a memorable 90th Anniversary celebration.
With headquarters renovations successfully completed, we began an exciting project to organize and preserve the Junior League of Wilmington archives. The League entered into an agreement with the University of Delaware to transfer our archives collection to the college upon completion of the cataloging process The League’s historical records are permanently housed in the college’s Delaware archives collection. As part of our new focus area of life Skills and mentoring for children and teens we began a signature project with the West End Neighborhood House Lifelines Program. During the year, League members beautifully renovated and landscaped two homes that house teens transitioning out of the foster care system, making these dwellings feel warm and inviting for their residents. In addition, League members successfully conducted monthly seminars to teach these teens important life skills such as budgeting and staying healthy. Another important achievement in the community programs area was the revival of the Community Advisory Panel, which brought leaders together from local nonprofits to discuss and collaborate on the community’s most urgent needs.
League members renovated two additional residential houses and landscaped five backyards for West End Neighborhood House’s Lifelines Program. In this last year of our three-year commitment with West End, we also facilitated 12 life skills and two self-defense workshops. The JLW ultimately donated more than $90,000 and hundreds of volunteer hours to West End. The League was selected for Cancer Support Community Delaware’s 2011 Lifetime Achievement Award. This honor was in recognition of the League’s commitment to cancer care in Delaware, which dates back to the mid-1980s.
Alarmed that more than a third of children in Delaware are obese, the League shifted its focus to children’s health and wellbeing. The League’s HEALTHY Hour (Health Education About Lifestyles That are Healthy for You) program, designed to educate children on obesity prevention, impacted more than 2,000 Delaware schoolchildren and their families.
As we continued to focus on obesity prevention, more than 3,000 children took part in the HEALTHY Hour. Partners for the HEALTHY Hour and other events include Delaware Greenways, Healthy Food for Healthy Kids, Girls on the Run, Wilmington Police Athletic League, Ministry of Caring, and Anna P. Mote Elementary School.
Our Heart of the Home® Kitchen Tour celebrated its 10th year and is now held in alternate League years with Whale of a Sale. Membership reaffirmed its commitment to children’s health and wellness as a focus area for another three years, and new nonprofit partners were researched. The JLW took the “Kids in the Kitchen” series, which was developed by another Junior League, to area elementary schools and community centers. A partnership was established with Delaware Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, and partnerships continued with Delaware Greenways, Healthy Food for Healthy Kids, Girls on the Run, Wilmington PAL, Ministry of Caring, and the Anna P. Mote Elementary School. Additional opportunities were created to allow even more flexibility for membership. A smaller board of directors with board liaisons connecting committees to the board debuted. Extensive governing document revisions to provide more clarity that were started in the prior League year were presented and approved by membership. The League’s financial security was strengthened through additional investments in its fund at the Delaware Community Foundation.
We continued to educate children and families served by the Wilmington Senior Center with our HEALTHY Hour program. Many seniors served by the WSC are also caregivers to their grandchildren. The League also began to hold lifeskills workshops for teens on topics such as resume writing, dressing for the workplace, and job interview skills. Approximately 50 teens served by Bayard House and the Delaware Center for Justice participated in the workshops. The League also began renovations to the common areas at the Delaware Adolescent Program, Inc., including a new paint job and new furniture. The League began work to have sexual abuse prevention education bill Erin’s Law introduced in the Delaware Legislature.
Our focus narrowed to improving wellbeing of girls age 12-18 in the Greater Wilmington area. We continued renovations to the facilities at DAPI, as well as held lifeskills workshops for more teens served by Bayard House and the Delaware Center for Justice. The League held an inaugural Women’s Leadership Summit, which was open to the public. With the help of Senator Margaret Rose Henry, Erin’s Law is introduced and League members testified on the importance of the bill, as well as lobbied lawmakers in Dover.
Shortly after the 2016-17 League Year began, Erin’s Law passed, and Delaware became the 28th state to adopt this important legislation, which required publicly funded schools to implement age-appropriate, prevention-oriented sexual abuse education. On August 10, Governor Jack Markell joined League members, Senator Henry, and leaders from our partners that supported the bill, including Prevent Child Abuse Delwaware and the Beau Biden Foundation, at Junior League of Wilmington headquarters to sign the bill into law. Also in 2016-17, we finished renovations to DAPI, and hosted a Mother’s Day Portrait event there and at Bayard House. Both organizations serve pregnant and parenting teen mothers. The League continued our lifeskills workshops with Bayard House, and hosted an inaugural Teen Empowerment Summit with the Choir School of Delaware. We held our 35th Whale of a Sale, as well as a second Women’s Leadership Summit.
This history was compiled through archival research and interviews with members. Our historical archives are housed at the University of Delaware.