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James M. Barker papers

Identifier: Midwest-MS-Barker

Scope and Content of the Collection

The Correspondence series contains incoming and outgoing letters between James M. Baker with many major figures in business, politics. and education, including James H Doolittle, Charles G. Dawes, Robert E. Wood, Allen Dulles, Alfred A. Knopf, Atherton Richards, James R. Killian, Ralph E. Flanders, Joshua Green, C. T. Revere, Robert L. Garner, Hugh O’Neill Hencken, Jerome C. Hunsaker, George F. Swain, Walter Muir Whitehill, and numerous others. The Business Interests series contains correspondence, memos, publications, employee newsletters and other documents pertaining to Barker's employers and business interests including the First National Bank of Boston, Sears, Roebuck and Company, Allstate Insurance Company, and other companies that Barker acted as consultant to or served on boards, such as Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad Co. and Allis Chalmers. Series 4, Middle East Missions, contains correspondence and administrative materials pertaining to Barker's involvement in two Middle East economic missions: the first for Overseas Consultants, Inc. in Iran and the second for the World Bank in Turkey. The Speeches and Papers series contains primarily typescripts of speeches, addresses, essays, memoranda, and general writings. The Trusteeships series includes correspondence and other materials from MIT, Northwestern, Robert College, and the Newberry Library, where Barker served as trustee.

The Personal series contains general materials pertaining to Barker's homes, travel, life in South America, hunting and photography hobbies, education, and teaching career. Also included is a typescript autobiography, diaries, and materials from Barker's membership in the Newcomen Society. Family materials include correspondence and a few personal items of the Barker family and the Rankin family of Margaret Barker, several travel diaries kept by Margaret Rankin, and a vacation journal titled Loafer's Glory written by Margaret Barker and the Barker children. The Photographs series includes mainly portraits of James M. Barker, his wife Margaret, and a few friends and colleagues as well as photographs from several corporate events at MIT, Sears, and Allstate. The final series, the Lake series is made up of 77 bound volumes of the family newsletter called the Lake which includes transcripts of letters, newspaper articles, observations on nature and the weather, and other family activities, from 1935 to 1973.


  • Creation: 1825-1975
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1920-1970



Materials are in English.

Conditions Governing Access

The James M. Barker papers are open for research in the Special Collections Reading Room; 1 box at a time (Priority III).

Ownership and Literary Rights

The James M. Barker papers are the physical property of the Newberry Library. Copyright may belong to the authors or their legal heirs or assigns. For permission to publish or reproduce any materials from this collection, contact the Roger and Julie Baskes Department of Special Collections at

Biography of James M. Barker

American banker and business executive who held senior positions at First National Bank of Boston, Sears, Roebuck & Company, and Allstate Insurance Company.

James Madison Barker was born in 1886 near Pittsfield, Massachusetts. His father, Charles Barker, worked in the family wool concern until it went out of business and then became a salesman. Barker’s namesake was an uncle and lawyer who served as Justice of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts. Thanks in part to his uncle, he was able to enter Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1903 and study civil engineering. There he was mentored by George F. Swain, a professor in the department. Barker excelled in his studies and through Swain obtained a teaching position at MIT after his graduation in 1907. In the years immediately following, Swain found Barker work as a draftsman and consulting engineer at various firms in New York and Canada. In his free time, Barker also studied accounting and finance.

In 1912 Barker traveled with George F. Swain to view the construction of the Panama Canal. While en route, he met his future wife Margaret Rankin whose parents were friends of Swain's. They became engaged during the trip and married in 1914. By 1919 they had three children and Barker began to contemplate a more lucrative position than teaching and part-time consulting. He sent out letters of inquiry to several major financial firms and eventually landed a position with the First National Bank of Boston. He was sent by the bank to Buenos Aires, Argentina to reorganize and then co-manage their branch there. He spent the next eight years in Buenos Aires, where he oversaw the construction of a new, architecturally noted bank building, while also turning the branch around to a more profitable status.

Toward the end of the 1920s, Barker and his wife began to consider their children’s education and decided it would be in their best interests to return to the United States. Barker again investigated other career options. By chance, in 1927 he met Lessing Rosenwald (executive at Sears, Roebuck & Co. and son of Sears founder Julius Rosenwald), who was visiting South America on business. In 1928 Barker was offered a senior position at Sears in the Philadelphia office and over the next twenty years moved to successively higher executive positions. In 1932, during the Depression, the company consolidated and Barker moved to Chicago where he was made vice-president of retail administration. During his tenure he helped usher in the changeover of Sears from a primarily mail order organization to a retail operation with branch stores all over the world. He also innovated a system of “time-payment” financing that was later adopted by many major banks. Barker retired from Sears in 1940, but remained on the board of directors. He was appointed director of the Sears subsidiary Allstate Insurance Company in 1943 and remained active in both organizations until the 1960s.

Over the next decades, Barker served on the boards and was a consultant to many other companies including the Hawaiian Pineapple Company, Hartford Empire, Allis-Chalmers, and the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad Company (commonly known as the Milwaukee Railroad), as well as serving as a trustee for the MIT Corporation, Northwestern University, and the Newberry Library.

In addition to his business interests, Barker was involved in several United States government activities. In this era of the Cold War and the Marshall Plan, and Barker’s international executive experiences made him a valued advisor on economic matters. He was engaged by Overseas Consultants, Inc. (OCI) IN 1948 to participate on an economic mission to Iran. OCI had been retained by the Iranian government to report on the financial viability of their “Seven-Year Plan” for economic reconstruction. Barker contributed significantly in the writing of the final report. Based on this work was hired in 1950 by the World Bank, for whom he organized and headed a group which was sent to Turkey to study and report on the economic situation in and make recommendations on investments. In the mid 1950s he also served on a task force of the second Commission on Organization of the Executive Branch of the Government, also known as the Hoover Commission, whose objective was to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of government.

Barker was strongly conservative in his politics, falling to the extreme in some instances. He was an outspoken supporter of population control, against social programs, ardently pro-business and capitalism, and believed that the United States should limit their involvement in "backward countries." He also held deep beliefs on the nature of language, and the superiority of Western culture because of what he saw as their more evolved development of this system.

After his retirement, Barker and his wife traveled extensively, and spent time on their properties in Wisconsin and Pinckney Island, South Carolina where Barker enjoyed game hunting and fishing. They had four children, Robert, Ralph, Hugh, and Cecily. Barker gave speeches and talks to dozens of organizations, and maintained an active correspondence with friends right up to his death in 1974.


60 Linear Feet (115 boxes, 1 oversize box, and 79 bound volumes)


Correspondence, business records, speeches, personal materials, photographs, and family newsletters of business executive James M. Barker. During his career, Barker was, among other things, banker, vice-president of Sears, Roebuck and Company and president of Allstate Insurance Company whose financial expertise made him a valued advisor in government financial matters and corporate environments. He participated in post World War II era economic missions to Iran and Turkey, and was a close friend to many leading businessmen of his time including Charles Dawes, Alfred A. Knopf, Joshua Green, and James H. Doolittle.


Papers are organized in the following series

Series 1: Correspondence, 1916-1974
Boxes 1-46
Series 2: Business Interests, 1917-1970
Boxes 47-57
Series 3: Middle East Missions, 1946-1952
Boxes 58-61
Series 4: Speeches and Papers, 1919-1972
Boxes 62-69
Series 5: Trusteeships, 1931-1974
Boxes 70-84
Series 6: Personal, 1886-1974
Boxes 85-105
Series 7: Family, 1825-1975
Boxes 106-113
Series 8: Photographs, approximately 1880s-1970
Boxes 114-115
Series 9: The Lake, 1935-1973
Volumes 1-39

Collection Stack Location

1 4 2-5


Gift of Robert R. Barker, 1984.

Processed by

Lisa Janssen, 2010-2011.


This inventory was created with the generous support of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this inventory do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.


Inventory of the James M. Barker papers, 1825-1975, bulk 1920-1970
Lisa Janssen
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the The Newberry Library - Modern Manuscripts and Archives Repository

60 West Walton Street
Chicago Illinois 60610 United States