History of the Book Award Committee

History of the Book Award Committee

Presented by Book Award Chairman Jocelyn Lance
70th Anniversary Book Award Luncheon, November 5, 2021


Since 1951, the Society has recognized books of merit that chronicle American history, life, and material culture by giving an Annual Award to the author of an outstanding work and a Citation to a second well-received book. The Colonial Dames of America also presents an award to a book written for Young Readers.


And here’s how it began:


In April of 1951 – WELL – Not exactly……


In the 1920’s, there was a joint scholarship program sponsored by The Colonial Dames of America and the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America of New York. The project was organized in 1926, and one of the members on the joint committee was Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. “Our purpose was a $1,000 Award for the best work on some phase of the Colonial Period in American History, by a resident of New York. It was announced in 1929 that the award would be given to an author who had not as yet made any considerable contribution to historical literature. In 1930, it was awarded to Dr. Richard B. Morris for Studies in the History of American Law. Dr. Morris expressed appreciation on behalf of his “mother and myself.” The societies were asked if the program would be continued, but that is not known. Either way, it was a forerunner to CDA’s Book Award Program.


Dames at the 70th Anniversary Book Award Luncheon (L to R): PPG Audrey Svensson, Book Award Chairman Jocelyn Lance, Hospitality Chairman Kathy Springhorn, and President General Rebecca Madsen.

Back to April 1951: 2nd Vice President Dorothy Harkness wrote to the New York City Board of Education: “We expect to have a fund from which we would like to provide cash for the purchase of books for the New York City high schools. Our purpose is to aid in increasing the number of books which may help students understand and appreciate the principles and forces that have made our country strong – books to help in combating communist propaganda.” The school principals would select the books and the Society would add to the funding – if able. And, if possible, funding would be extended beyond their jurisdiction.


After consulting with an attorney, the Board of Managers was told this project probably wasn’t doable. Technically, the idea in general was legal but the funding would have been prohibitive. The Board deemed it unfeasible. However, the Board, with Mrs. Madison Lewis presiding, liked the idea and suggested another approach to a book project.


1st Vice President Mrs. Byron Stookey suggested a plan that might be acceptable. It was to contact publishing companies and ask them to choose each year, from all new books on American History of patriotic subjects, the book they consider the most important as representing the principles of our Society. These books would be approved by a committee of CDA. Then, annually, a meeting would be held at which a citation and possibly a financial remuneration would be publicly awarded to the author. It would also be recommended that these books be placed in the libraries in the public schools.


By the end of the year, the concept of a Book Award was approved by our lawyers: They suggested that “a Committee appointed by The Colonial Dames of America [CDA] select from the current new books of the year one or more which, in addition to literary merit, most clearly stimulates Patriotism as embodied in the Constitution of the United States of America and in the purposes and program of The Colonial Dames of America. Upon selection of this book, the President of The CDA, or her appointee, will, at a suitable ceremony, confer a citation and prize monies upon the author and confer a like citation, but no prize monies, upon the publisher of the book selected.

And it is hoped:
• that the membership of The CDA will sponsor the book;
• that the publishing house upon which a citation is conferred will bring to public attention the citation conferred by The CDA;
• that other chapters of The CDA throughout the country will join in this program, and
• if no book published during the year qualifies for an award or citation, none will be conferred.”


It was determined the suggested citation would read: In recognition of a Notable Contribution to the Perpetuation of the Principles of The Republic of The United States of America, the Colonial Dames of America confer this Citation of Distinguished Patriotic Service upon____.


President Mrs. Madison Lewis read the letter approving the outline of the Book Project and Citation, which was passed. Another motion was made and passed to award a Citation and $250 as the prize to the author and a Citation to the publishing company. Mrs. Harkness proposed that Your Rugged Constitution by Bruce Allyn Finley and Esther Blair Finley, published by the Stanford University Press, be the first book awarded.


The President was asked to write to the publisher announcing that Your Rugged Constitution had been chosen for The Colonial Dames of America Citation for 1952, and that the Stanford University Press would receive a scroll with the citation and that the author would receive a cash prize of $250, as well as a citation.


The Awards would be given at the luncheon on the day of the Annual Meeting. The publisher and author would be invited to attend and receive the awards. The publisher would be asked to keep this information in confidence until after the awards are given (The winning book was kept secret for many years until presentation).


Mrs. Harkness received a letter of acknowledgement from the Director of Stanford Press: “We are indeed honored to be considered for recognition by your group, and we are happy to tell you that we plan to keep this book in print for many years. In addition to the ‘trade edition’ priced at $3.50, we now have a ‘Patriot’s Edition’ in paper binding, available to industrial companies for distribution to their employees. This edition has already reached the 100,000 mark, and we hope that its distribution will go into the millions. About March 1st, the book will be published in still another form – a ‘special text-book edition’ which we believe will be adopted widely by school systems. From this, you will see that we are making every effort to acquaint as many Americans as possible, with this easy-to-grasp interpretation of the Constitution, and we will deeply appreciate the assistance that your award will render toward achieving this goal.”


Today various copies of this book can be purchased on Amazon anywhere from to $9.79 to $580, and it is still getting great reviews.


It was decided to send copies of the Book Project and a copy of the Citation to all members of the Society.


Mrs. Lewis appointed Mrs. Byron Stookey Chairman of the Book Project Committee to serve for one year. She began her term as President General the following year.


Mrs. Stookey reported that there had been a meeting of the Book Project Committee, and plans had been completed for presentation of the award and the citation. Mrs. Harkness brought a sketch of the proposed citation she had drawn and that she would take the drawing to an illustrator and have the citation made.


Mrs. Delafield brought up the question of publicity, and strongly recommended that only the chairman of the Book Project Committee be authorized to give out any information. This had the unanimous approval of the entire Board. At the time of the Annual Meeting Luncheon, a statement of the winning author would be handed to the representatives of the press who would be asked to the luncheon.


Mrs. Harkness received a letter from the London Chapter expressing interest in the Book Project and stating they wanted twelve copies of Your Rugged Constitution to put in the American Embassy Library. They also ordered new CDA book plates. It was suggested to chapters that they send books to the London and Paris chapters to be put in the Embassy Libraries. However, London or Paris must be typed on the CDA nook plate.


The Rome Chapter started a project to donate books on Colonial American History to the National Library of Rome to be placed on a special shelf there with a book plate to go in every book. Of course, they must type Rome Chapter on each plate that the Society has available upon request.


Two interesting side notes at this time: The Entertainment Committee had invited General McArthur to speak, but got no reply. They then decided to invite Mr. Hoover if the General refused, and if Hoover refused, they’d ask Mr. Henry J. Taylor: author, radio broadcaster and former United States Ambassador to Switzerland (I assume Mr. Taylor saved the day). Also, the Board hoped the Queen of England would become a member.


In 1954 there was discussion as to whether to award Mr. Clarence Randall the Book Award for the second year. The Book Award Committee [first time with this title] was empowered by the Board to act in this matter. Mrs. Stookey later announced that Mr. Randall would be the speaker at the Annual Meeting Luncheon. And, that a display of his awarded Freedom’s Faith and last year’s A Creed for Free Enterprise, along with The Rugged Constitution would be put on display.


And fast forwarding about half a century:


Past Book Award Committee Chairmen at the 70th Anniversary Luncheon (L to R): Audrey Svensson, Rebecca Madsen, Rosemary Vietor


Rosemary said her experience on this committee was a delight. She looked forward to every meeting and to the start of each reading season when all the new books arrived. The Young Readers Award was initiated when Rosemary was Chairman.


Past Chairman Anne Farley remembers: “There was always a big stack of books at headquarters to choose from. If the publishers didn’t send something we were interested in reading, the Executive Director would write and ask for a copy. I loved doing it. I remember telling Audrey I had a hard time staying awake when reading our books and she told me she read in the morning. It helped. Anne was Chairman and Audrey President General when Doris Kearns Goodwin was the speaker.


In April 2006, there was an ice cream social for CDA children with author Carol Weston. Anne doesn’t recall how that came to be, but it must have been sponsored by the Book Award Committee, otherwise, she probably would not have attended.


As Book Award Chairman, Anne had hoped to launch an author lecture series. It wasn’t easy to get off the ground and there was a mixed reaction. She remembers we had Pamela Meyjes’ spouse, Robert Meyjes, who spoke on his book Abandoned Property. The Program was held upstairs in the Mount Vernon Hotel Museum and was a success. Everyone received a great history lesson on WWII.


New author David O. Stewart was invited to speak about his book The Summer of 1787. His publisher funded his trip up from DC for that evening, which was held in the Abigail Adams Smith Ballroom, but turnout was rather disappointing. However, his newest book about George Washington (The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father) is a contender for the 2022 Award!!


Audrey Svensson has served on the committee for thirty years and was Chairman for quite a few of them, and has shared many experiences: “In 2001,” she said, “we were still known by our husband’s names: Mmes. McNeely, Henry, Pilcher, Powers and Svensson. I was a member of the Book Award Committee for almost two years before I was a CDA member, which was possible then. I can remember secretly writing under the table when I heard a first name, because first names were not listed anywhere.


“Marion McNeely was very active and the Book Award Chairman for a long time. She had the entire committee to her beautiful apartment for lunch at the end of the school year each year that she was Chairman. She had little gifts for each of us,  a book mark or a pretty pen and pencil set. She always asked me to please call her Marion, but I could not. Marion had trouble with her voice, and so I was asked early on to please read her report every month and at the Annual meeting.”


Audrey set a cozy scene of the committee sitting around the table in CDA’s board room with a host of books sent unsolicited from publishers. Each read at least one book a month and wrote up very short reports so they could go through and read them all in just an hour and enjoy a lovely lunch. They all felt that they belonged to the best committee of the Dames.


There was a box of stickers to place in the books before they were given away which stated “This book donated by the BOOK AWARD COMMITTEE of the Colonial Dames of America”. The books were often given to libraries that had been flooded out, or some other worthy reason.


PPG Audrey Svensson sharing more personal recollections of her time as Book Award Committee Chairman.

Audrey recalled inviting the publisher of our winning book to come as our guest and to please bring a wife, etc. One year the author accepted for herself, and then showed up with her sister. “We have handled some interesting situations. In 2000, James Bradley showed up with a bigger-than-life cardboard replica of the flag rising from the cover of his book Flags of Our Fathers. I forget where we held our Annual Meeting that year, but a large display was not in our contract.”


There is no perfect system to putting books on our monthly Recommended Reading List that is sent to all Chapter Presidents, Chapter Book Chairmen, and interested members. As Audrey told me, so much is gut feeling and focus – we shouldn’t include cruelty or sadism and we stay away from current political topics. We go over the list of suggested reading each month to keep the list current. We rely on and trust each other’s opinions. And, often we would remove a book even if only one reader had a strong opinion and found it unworthy.


The Book Award Committee with its long history has changed vastly over the past seventy years – while still maintaining CDA high standards and joie de vie.


We went from…

…gathering together over lunch in the City…to coast-to-coast Zoom meetings – thanks to our Zoom host Lynn McNamara;
…all members from the Parent Chapter…to a diverse representation of chapters when Janis Myer was recruited from Texas, myself from Virginia, Sharon Hare from Chicago, and most recently, Julene Watson from California;
…publishers sending boxes of books…to emailing pre-published copies to the committee for award consideration – thanks to Melinda Waterhouse with her contacts to publishers;
…the secret appearance of the awarded author at the Annual Meeting Luncheon to their anticipated participation as speaker of CDA’s Annual Awards Dinner, a change which occurred in 2018.


In these seven decades, 66 books have been awarded, with one year including a tie, and five years with no book awarded. We love our authors and a few have won several times: Ron Chernow with three winning books – one being Alexander Hamilton – Thomas Fleming with four, and David McCullough as our absolute favorite with five winning books. Most of our winners have been men, but Doris Kearns Goodwin has been mentioned by quite a few members as their favorite, and at least one of the authors is a prospective CDA member.


Today, we honor Audrey Allerton Chapin Svensson for her years of loving commitment to The Colonial Dames, not only as a Past President General, but for her devotion to books and our mission.


Jocelyn Lance
Book Award Chairman
November 5, 2021


[See Book Award Luncheon Photo Album]
[Learn more about the Book Awards Program]