The Daughters of the American Revolution

The Daughters of the American Revolution

The Daughters of the American Revolution or DAR as they are also known, is not an organization that most people would associate with Ellis Island or the hospital that operated on Ellis Island until 1954. In order to be a DAR member, women must trace their ancestors to someone who served in the American War of Independence. Few of the millions of immigrants who passed through Ellis Island are likely to have been candidates for membership. However, the history of the DAR and the history of the Ellis Island Hospital Complex are forever linked.

Begun in 1890 by a group of four women who were frustrated by their exclusion from the men’s organizations which proliferated at the time, the DAR has always been as much about service to the nation as about its members’ heritage. The organization’s three pillars of service include historic preservation, education, and patriotism. Inherent in each of these pillars is a desire to promote an understanding and appreciation for the United States. Therefore, it is not surprising that the DAR took an interest in helping immigrants at Ellis Island become active members of American society.

Occ Therapy Ward South Side 1


In 1934 the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) started an Occupational Therapy program at the Ellis Island Hospital, formally making occupational therapy one of the therapeutic treatment patients received. Previously the DAR had sponsored Occupational Therapy at the Immigration Station between 1923 and 1934. During the period between 1934 and 1941 most of those treated at the Hospital included Coastguardsman, Merchant seamen and a small number of immigrant detainees.

According to a DAR publication, patients who were being treated for general medical conditions, tuberculosis, and “neuro-psychiatric” conditions participated in the program. The DAR staffed the facility with three trained therapists and a secretary. They were assisted by volunteers and New York University students studying Occupational Therapy.

“The total treatment for individual patients is considered at weekly conferences between each psychiatrist, psychiatric social worker, and the occupational therapy director.”

A total of 16 rooms in what became the Occupational Therapy building were set aside for program use. Facilities for Occupational Therapy included “Open Shops” and “Closed Shops” which were used for different types of patients.

Recreation Building Interior


The Open Shop included a large area which included weaving looms, art supplies, book binding, knotting, leather craft tools, and typewriters. Patients were allowed to keep the objects they made or were able to sell them to gain a small income. The second floor of the Open Shop included the Wood Shop, Paint Shop, and Metal Shop. Large scale projects such as cabinet-making took place in these shops with hand and power tools that were provided.

Small activities such as knitting, crocheting, leather-working, and carving were provided to those patients who were bed-ridden. According to an undated radio script interview between two DAR members, items made by these patients included, “carved boxes and book-ends, knotted belts and purses, leather wallets and key cases, woven table mats, crocheted and knitted garments, etc.”

The Closed Shop which was primarily for psychiatric patients had similar arts and crafts resources as well as a gym that could be used for soccer, basketball, or volleyball.  A room with a punching bag was used “where belligerent patients may work off some of their pent-up emotions.”

Art and music were an important part of the of what was offered. Art supplies were available in both the Open and Closed Shops for drawing, painting, and sculpture. There were two Music Rooms that could be used by individuals to perform or listen to music. One music room contained a variety of musical instruments including piano, guitar, clarinet, saxophone, cornet, and other stringed instruments. The other room contained a large collection of records and a record player.

What makes the inclusion of art and music into occupational therapy so amazing is that the term “art therapy” wasn’t even introduced until more than twenty years later in 1946 by British artist Adrian Hill. It is only in recent years that scientific study has supported the benefit that this type of therapy can have on the brain.

The DAR program on Ellis Island demonstrated the healing power of art years before scientific research confirmed it. A DAR report on one recovering seaman stated, “Weaving one-half of the day has given him an opportunity for some creative self-expression making something beautiful as well as useful.” The therapy worked for the man’s anxiety after surviving a torpedo attack and he said that he was “a new man.”

DAR 1 Exterior


As Save Ellis Island moves forward with the restoration of the Ellis Island Hospital Complex, we will be able to tell more stories about the many organizations who came together for the benefit of patients – both immigrants, political detainees, and members of the United States military. The story of the contributions of the Daughters of the American Revolution should be more widely known and we look forward to using these buildings to tell it.