The Sunshine Society got its start in New York City and then spread west, exactly like the rising sun. Founded in 1896, the Sunshine Society’s Minnesota division was established in 1901. It was a social service campaign that lasted for decades, based on the simple notion of providing good cheer to those in need.
What a compassionate idea, this movement to help strangers with generosity and kindness. It was newspaperwomen who began it and ran it, using the megaphone of their jobs to share the opportunities for thoughtfulness. In Minneapolis, Miss Eva Blanchard of the Minneapolis Journal ran the Sunshine Society for over 50 years. The schoolchild in need of some clothes that did not shame him or lacking a coat in winter — these acts of kindness were easy to support. The family without a home, the bright child who needed a scholarship — such stories came to Eva Blanchard and she sent them out to the growing network of the Sunshine Society members, and they made miracles happen.
The society was organized in circles, small groups that met to solve social problems. The circles often had 30 members, who rotated in and out. Overtime, a circle would completely replace its members but the work never stopped.
Lake of the Isles Circle was one of many. It was in existence from at least 1910 until 1937, doing good works and helping people who needed it. Its members would gather and sew for the Red Cross or local hospitals. They made baby clothes for new babies who had little. Before the Second World War, clothing was not as cheap and abundant as it is now. Many people only had one good outfit, and the poorest had ill-fitting castoffs to wear, if not outright rags.
In 1910, the group cared for a family through the winter. What was it like to be destitute back then? The Star Tribune reported on a paralytic father of five, “confined to his bed for five years … covered with an old wolf skin,” and supported financially by his one-handed wife. The Sunshiners sent the family coal and clothes and promised to install a double-pane window for the man to look outside.
As the Sunshine Society grew, the projects got bigger. The group bought an old hotel in Excelsior and used it as an old folks’ retreat. It provided two weeks of pleasant surroundings, rest and good food to destitute elders. The Lake of the Isles Circle made certain that the pitiful rooms these seniors called home would still be there after their vacations.
We don’t know where most of the Isles Circle Sunshiners lived. One we know of was a widow named Julie G. Burnet. Her husband was Ralph W. Burnet, and they still have descendants in Minneapolis. Their home was at 2601 Euclid Place. Hosting Sunshine circle meetings was only a small part of Julie Burnet’s philanthropy. She was also a board member of the Maternity Hospital and a founder of the Woman’s Club of Minneapolis. She was one of the many women of her era who took responsibility for her good fortune by sharing in meaningful, personal ways.
The Sunshine Society in Minneapolis peters out in the 1960s, as that older generation of socially responsible women aged. Times changed. But in its era, the Sunshine Society was truly effective at promoting uncounted acts of kindness by thousands of helpful, concerned women.