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A Bag of Happiness: The Mary Burnett Horton Papers

This blog posting comes from Alex Gelfand, an Archives Assistant at the New York University Archives.


The bag of happiness.

One day, while processing the papers of Mary Burnett Horton, an alumna of New York University, I stumbled upon a small, shiny horseshoe among some of her letters. Upon further investigation I discovered a small plastic bag full of horseshoes, four-leaf clovers, sacks of “1000” gold coins, and pieces of paper with the word “happiness” written on both sides. The plastic bag had a sizable tear, and some of these charms were sprinkled throughout the collection.
Who was Mary Horton, and how did she come to have a bag of happiness among her effects? After processing the collection I may now be able to answer that question.

Mary Burnett Horton was born in Stirling, Scotland, in 1897 and moved to New York City with her family when she was a child. Growing up, she wanted to enter a scientific field; she later studied bacteriology at Hunter College.

In 1920, after graduating from Hunter, Horton was hired as an assistant in the laboratory of Sheffield Farms, a large New York-based dairy company. Rising through the ranks, she became Sheffield’s chief bacteriologist in 1932.


Sheffield Farms Laboratory


Sheffield and two colleagues drinking milk.

In 1926 Sheffield Farms offered the young bacteriologist a chance to be a part-time lecturer whose main task was to promote the company brand. Horton jumped at the chance, appearing in front of diverse groups to speak on the merits of milk.


Sheffield Farms ephemera


Sheffield Farms ephemera

Horton’s success led to her appointment as the director of the newly created consumer education program in 1937. As part of her job she developed school and public visiting programs at four major milk processing plants in greater New York. These programs primarily focused on pasteurization and the nutrition of dairy products.


Leaflet advertising Horton’s lectures during World War II

When the United States entered World War II, the country experienced widespread food restrictions. As a representative of Sheffield, Horton once again embarked on a speaking tour, giving lectures to women’s clubs with advice on feeding families under food shortages and rationing. Her knowledge in the field led to her to serve as the Chairman of the Manhattan Nutrition Committee from 1944 to 1946.

Horton in her office at Sheffield Farms
In 1946 Horton earned a master’s degree in home economics with a specialty in nutrition from New York University, and three years later she bore the distinction of becoming the only woman elected to the Board of Directors of Sheffield Farms, a post she held until 1956 when the company became a division of National Dairy.


Horton in her office at Sheffield Farms


One of the Sealtest kitchens

In 1947 Horton was appointed director of National Dairy’s Sealtest Consumer Service, which included four test kitchens equipped with the latest and newest appliances. The aim of the kitchens was to help consumers, dietitians, school, hospital and industrial food managers to adjust to postwar changes, including the advent of convenience foods and the transfer of new technology to consumer products.

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A concoction from a Sealtest kitchen

Horton and the Sealtest team testing a product
The staff working in the kitchens performed extensive work on recipe development, sometimes personally testing their creating. Food was on the mind of the nation with some of the articles written during Mary Horton’s time at Sealtest would not be out of place in today’s publication. For example, the following excerpt was found in an article written in 1953:
“Doctors, insurance companies, health societies, and nutritionist agree that most of the aged are suffering from ailments directly traceable to bad diets.

food_counterThe No. 1 problem is obesity, the major life-shortener [sic]. Too many carbohydrates, fats and starches are being eaten, and such vital nutrients as iron, proteins, calcium, the B-complex vitamins, and ascorbic acid are being ignored. Correction of these dietary abuses would not only prolong life but would promote the feeling of well-being so conducive to good morale.” (Food Marketing, September 1953, 6.)


The hard work of Horton and her staff usually culminated in recipe pamphlets, publicity releases and quantity recipe cards.



Mary Horton continued to work in the food industry, collecting a large body of cookbooks and food-related literature that may now be found at the New York University Archives.

She retired in 1962, receiving many letters from friends and colleagues in the food industry. One of them included a bag filled with happiness for Horton to keep, which she proceeded to do.


Informational booklet from the Women’s Committee

Food was not her only passion and as one of the most successful business women in the state, she was appointed to the Women’s Committee, established by Governor Rockefeller and the Department of Commerce, with the purpose of creating more career opportunities for women.

Mary Horton continued to be professionally active for the rest of her life, traveling to the Soviet Union in 1963 to take part in a Women’s Congress, always remembering to add to her recipe collection along the way.


Soviet_Guidebook_3 Mary Horton died in 1974, and her daughter donated her papers to the New York University Archives. They have since been processed and are available for research.

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