The move of Vision Loss Resources and its partners this month from Minneapolis to new quarters in Little Canada brings to mind one branch in its family tree.
Vision Loss Resources serves Minnesotans with visual disabilities. It has its beginnings in several groups, including the Minneapolis Society for the Blind and the Mutual Aid Blind Association of St. Paul.
The St. Paul group was started by the city’s Council of Jewish Women in 1909. The association became an independent organization 100 years ago.
“The association, which has no capital stock, will endeavor to promote education and training for the blind and near blind by means of training centers and will co-operate with the state and the state department of re-education,” a May 1922 Star Tribune article stated.
At that time middle-class and well-to-do women didn’t work outside of home, and could devote time to volunteering. Minnesota had a large and diverse federation of women’s clubs, which took up many causes. Women’s clubs often spun off groups dedicated to specific issues or social services.
Early women’s organizations were often segregated by race, religious faith or ethnicity. It’s worth noting that the November 9, 1919 Catholic Bulletin newspaper reported that St. Paul’s Guild of Catholic Women joined their Jewish sisters in support of the association, so they could help their blind neighbors.
History doesn’t tell us why Jewish women took up the cause of visual disabilities. Donald Ross’s history of African American and Jewish Women’s Clubs in Minnesota tells us that both Twin Cities Councils of Jewish Women helped the blind, with the St. Paul council the first to do so. The Minneapolis council later formed a “sight-saving committee” and opened an eye clinic. These efforts upheld the National Council of Jewish Women’s commitment to “service to faith and humanity.”
Another factor might be involvement by Esther Frankel, the St. Paul association’s secretary for 15 years. Newspaper articles indicate that Frankel was a social worker, with a deep interest in people with visual disabilities.
The association’s first president was Esther F. Rypins, wife of a longtime rabbi at St. Paul’s Mount Zion Temple. Rypins, Frankel and many others from St. Paul’s Jewish community had long involvements with the association.
The association quickly joined the Community Chest, with more than 50 other social service organizations in an annual funding appeal. Another early activity was a Thanksgiving display and sale of items made by the blind, at Bannons Department Store in downtown St. Paul.
The association also joined the Minnesota State Council of Agencies for the Blind.
For many years the association held a picnic at Como Park, with games, races and plenty of good things to eat. One picnic featured Helen Keller as a speaker. Keller was a prominent author and disability rights advocate who lost her sight and hearing due to childhood illness.
Frankel for years organized the association’s Minnesota State Fair display, in the women’s activities building. At some fairs reading and writing Braille, using a typewriter or weaving mats and baskets were demonstrated. Other years handicrafts were on display.
The 1941 Directory of Activities for the Blind in the United States and Canada tells us that the St. Paul association was quite active in its day. It officed in a building owned by Wilder Foundation. It owned a house on the city’s East Side, where people with visual disabilities could live and work. It had three people on staff there and provided training, employment, recreation and other assistance to blind persons. One service was instruction for people to be able to live in their own homes.
At a downtown workshop the association maintained a small industrial school for vocational training and provided employment. It had 10 employees and one supervisor. Work included chair caning, reed work, door mats, brushes, rugs, bird houses and other items.
After World War II, the East Side house was leased to a group seeking housing for refugees from Europe.
The association continued for many years after that, but its activities were gradually absorbed by other groups.
The History Note is a monthly column produced in cooperation with the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities. Past History Notes and other disability history may be found at