The Civil War had recently ended when James Scripps invited his 19-year-old sister, Ellen Browning Scripps, to come to Detroit from the family farm in Illinois. Ellen would assist in the household of James and his wife, Harriet, and also join him at the Advertiser and Tribune, which he co-owned. She was reviewing concerts, books, and theater for $10 weekly. In her free time, she learned telegraphy.
“For the life of me, I cannot see what use she is going to make of the art,” James wrote, failing to understand Ellen as the product of her age.
“The generation of women who survived the 1860s found that they needed employment and a living wage, a political voice, and a role in providing welfare to those in need,” writes Molly McClain in “Ellen Browning Scripps: New Money and American Philanthropy.”
During the Panic of 1873, James launched The Evening News (today’s Detroit News). The paper was compact at 18 inches tall, and inexpensive at 2 cents a copy. It aimed for an audience of literate working-class readers and made a special effort to cast barbs at the elite. Detroit’s population surpassed 100,000 in the 1870s, and The Evening News’ press run boomed to 17,000 by mid-decade. Biographer McClain attributes to Ellen such wry notices as: “Portsmouth, N.H. produces annually, in addition to numerous temperance orders, 120,000 barrels of ale and 90,000 gallons of rum.”
As a writer and an editor, Ellen earned up to $20 weekly at the startup. Her job included evenings spent working with James to reconcile the paper’s accounts. She reinvested her salary in company stock, and with the family formula extending to Cleveland, Cincinnati, and St. Louis, she found herself with a growing fortune.
When younger brother Edward Willis, known as E.W., took the helm of the Cleveland Press, Ellen sent miscellaneous feature material his way. “Every morning, the mail brought me one or two envelopes from Detroit, mailed the night before, containing copy that had been prepared by my sister,” E.W. said. Drawing a lesson from this, he started the Newspaper Enterprise Association, a syndicated goldmine that sent out six to eight columns daily to newspapers nationwide.
Ellen’s frenetic seven-days-a-week schedule eventually led to exhaustion, so in 1881, she and E.W. embarked on a two-year sojourn abroad. She dispatched reports describing the daily lives of people in Europe and the Mediterranean, and threw in outstanding prose about bullfighting.
Back in Detroit, she was earning better than $5,000 in annual dividends, which allowed her to wield financial clout within the Scripps empire. When James suffered an illness in 1887, he sought respite by traveling with Ellen to Europe and buying paintings for the core collection of the Detroit Museum of Art (now the DIA).
During that period, E.W. brought in James’ son-in-law, George Gough Booth, and expanded The Evening News — changes that “infuriated” James. Worn out by it, Ellen and another brother, Fred, wintered in California in 1890. They found their way to San Diego and stayed. Then she lured E.W. from Cleveland, asking, “But, after all, what is it we are doing but amassing money and becoming monopolists?”
It was a short-lived anti-capitalist thought. They bought 600 acres and built a 49-room mansion. Unable to stop themselves, they expanded the newspaper empire up the West Coast, with Ellen involved in every detail. By the 1920s, her wealth exceeded $30 million. Among countless philanthropic gestures, she and E.W. had already funded the creation of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla.
In 1926, when she was 90 years old, Ellen supported the creation of Scripps College, a school for women east of Los Angeles. In recognition, Time put her on its cover. She passed at age 95 in 1932 — the end of an extraordinary life in any era.