The ELF That Was Born After the P.E.O.s Met in St. Louis in 1904

One of the oldest loan funds sponsored by a women’s organization has its roots in the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, the name by which the Louisiana Purchase Exposition is better known. Although the fair was planned for the centennial year of the Louisiana Purchase, it took place a year later.

P.E.O., a philanthropic, educational sisterhood founded at Iowa Wesleyan College in 1869, had sponsored a room in the Women’s Building at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. Minnie Osgood, from Illinois Chapter A in Chicago, was in charge of the room. The room cost $234.03 to maintain and it was “an efficient way of bringing P.E.O. to the attention of many people who were unaware of it,” according to historical accounts. A registration book contained the names of hundreds of P.E.O.s who visited the room during the fair.

At P.E.O.’s 1902 convention, Missouri Chapter O from St. Louis proposed a P.E.O. building at the fair, an idea which was turned down. What ultimately occurred was a “P.E.O. Day at the Fair” on June 18, 1904. Seed money of $200 was authorized by the convention. Chapter O was also given permission to solicit other chapters for contributions and to take charge of the project.

After the close of the fair, there was a surplus of $658.88. At the 1905 convention, it was suggested that the funds be used for a memorial to P.E.O.’s seven founders. The convention body increased the amount of to $800 and chapters were asked to contribute additional funds. Definitive suggestions were sought for the use of the funds and a decision was slated to be made at the 1907 convention.

Three projects were presented in 1907. The ideas included a P.E.O. home in Colorado, a plan for starting a printing company, and scholarships for young women. Lillian Pollock Parmele, Plattsmouth (Nebraska) suggested scholarships for young women. Luella A. McHenry, Des Moines, mentioned a loan fund instead of scholarships. The rational was that a loan fund would be able to help many more women since the money would be in a revolving account; as women repaid their loans, other women could be assisted. An amendment to change “scholarships” to “loans” passed, as did the subsequent motion.

Additional contributions during that convention increased the fund to $2,000. The fund grew from $5,000 in 1909 to $40,000 in 1916. By the 1919 golden jubilee convention, the total surpassed $111,500. In 1923, it topped $200,000.

P.E.O.’s Educational Loan Fund (ELF) has helped more than 70,000 women. Assistance totaling over $126,000,000 has been given to worthy individuals. Moreover, this initial foray into education gave P.E.O. a focus that would expand over time. Today, P.E.O.’s educational projects, including Cottey College, the only American college for women owned by women, have helped women worldwide achieve their educational goals.

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