Chatham Served As Incubator For The Nation's First Unemployment Program

By: Debra Lawless

Topics: History

The Rauschenbushes sailing in Chatham. COURTESY PHOTO

Back in August 1936, Walter Raushenbush accompanied his parents, Elizabeth and Paul Raushenbush, to the Chatham Theater on Main Street.

They were not interested so much in the movie — at age eight, Walter had not yet seen a movie — as in the March of Time newsreel that would be shown before the main attraction. Someone had told them that Paul was featured in a newsreel, and they wanted to see him on the silver screen. As director of Wisconsin’s unemployment department, Paul had just issued the state’s first unemployment check on Aug. 15. In the newsreel, he was present for its signing. The check was for $15.

“It was very exciting,” Walter, now 91, recalled during a telephone interview from his home in Virginia last week.

But as it turned out, the newsreel was not shown on the family’s first foray to the theater. The trio had to return and eventually sat through both “Mary of Scotland” which Walter calls “an unpleasant movie, and unhappy,” and “State Fair” (which he enjoyed) before seeing Paul in the newsreel.

The landmark work done by Elizabeth and Paul in crafting an unemployment compensation plan in Wisconsin is especially relevant today as the U.S. Labor Department estimates that more than 38 million people have now applied for unemployment insurance during the coronavirus pandemic. And you might say that the family home in Chatham played a role in the couple’s work.

Elizabeth Brandeis Raushenbush (1896-1984) was the younger daughter of Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, and his wife Alice. In 1924 the Brandeis family bought a house off Stage Neck Road on 20 acres overlooking the Oyster Pond River. (The house, still owned by the family, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1972.) Every summer, three generations of the family met in Chatham. Given the “amazing people” who gathered in the house, and their visitors, the atmosphere took on a kind of “intellectual fervor,” says Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, Walter’s son and Elizabeth and Paul’s grandson. Paul, a Baptist minister who lives in Manhattan, is writing a book about his family and the house it cherishes in Chatham.

Elizabeth and the elder Paul met at the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1923; they wed in 1925. By 1930, the couple were both teaching economics at the university. For many years they, as well as Brandeis, had been interested in unemployment insurance. When a candidate for governor of Wisconsin asked them to craft a plan, they did. The idea was simple: Benefits would be funded entirely by employers. The legislation was passed in Wisconsin in 1932, at the bottom of the Great Depression.

The summers in Chatham gave his grandparents “a place of space and time when you could think well and invite people to think with you,” Paul says.

The property was for “relaxing, while not at all luxurious,” Paul adds. While the family enjoyed croquet, sailing on Stage Harbor and camping on the tip of Monomoy — “healthy fun” — brilliant ideas were bandied about at the dinner table.

Even the children — Walter and his three Gilbert cousins — were exposed to the intellectual fervor of the household. On Sundays, the extended family enjoyed a turkey from the Mayo Farm in Orleans, where turkeys were fed a diet of cranberries, lending the meat a cranberry tinge. By 1936 Brandeis had served on the Supreme Court for 20 years. Walter’s cousin Alice Gilbert Popkin, who died in 2018, recalled that during those Sunday dinners, the conversation often turned to current news.

“The atmosphere really called for an awareness of what was going on,” Popkin said in 2016. “It was a difficult period. The Nazis were on the march.”

As Elizabeth and Paul worked out their ideas on unemployment compensation, Brandeis served as a “silent kind of intellectual partner with them,” Paul says. “The ethos of that generation was that you solve the problems that made life more difficult for people. Solutions should be workable ones that all sides would agree to and that would endure.” Eventually, unemployment insurance was passed as a part of the Social Security Act of 1935.

Another hallmark of these Depression-era summers in Chatham was distinguished visitors. One was Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo. Others were prominent Boston businessmen such as Lincoln Filene, whom Brandeis invited to the house to talk about unemployment compensation with his daughter and son-in-law.

While the adults worked over their ideas, Walter was often entertained by another distinguished summer guest, Elizabeth Glendower Evans, whom he called “Auntie Bee.” A widow, Evans was a long-time friend of the Brandeises. She is variously described today as a “social and labor reformer” and a suffragist. During the summer of the newsreel, she was 80 years old, and often entertained Walter by taking him out into the vegetable garden where he picked beans. She died in 1937.

Walter says that when people ask him what year he first came to Chatham, he tells them that he was brought as an infant “in the last summer of the presidency of Calvin Coolidge.”

Those summers seem long ago, yet the ideas of the Brandeis dinner table, and the legislation that grew out of them, remain current today.