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Bickel Helped Keep Florida Beautiful

Articles: Sarasota History

Author: Mark D. Smith, former county archivist
Photo Credit: Sarasota County History Center
Credit: Sarasota County History Center

Sarasota History - Bickel Helped Keep Florida Beautiful photo

Whether it was running her own business or her crusade to keep Sarasota and the state of Florida beautiful, Helen Madira Bickel certainly left her mark. As the wife of the president of United Press Association, Karl Bickel, Madira Bickel traveled around the world during the 1920s and early 1930s. It was during these travels that she began her career in the jewelry business. While touring China and Japan, Bickel became interested in the fine detail work in semiprecious stones. She would search the shops for semiprecious stones to bring back home to the United States.

A friend with a shop in Greenwich Village, New York, displayed Bickel's collection of jewelry in her shop window before Christmas one year and every item sold out. Bickel then set up a workshop in her apartment dining room to assemble jewelry, which she displayed in several leading New York department stores. After a feature article in Woman's Daily Wear on her jewelry, her distribution increased to more than 200 department stores all over the country.

By 1935 the Bickels had decided to retire to Sarasota. They had been winter residents in Sarasota since 1928. The Sarasota Tribune announced on June 16, 1933, that the Bickels were buying the housed next to the John Ringling Hotel. They regarded Sarasota as one of Florida's beauty spots and an ideal place for a winter residence.

Bickel decided to quit the business and turned it over to her workers. Quoted in the June 2, 1957 issue of Sunday Sunshine magazine, she said, “I never felt I was really in business; it was such fascinating fun and absorbed me so completely. I never cared much for bridge or luncheon parties, but this was my life so much that my friends thought I was crazy!”

Once settled in Sarasota, Bickel became involved in community affairs. After the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Bickel organized the Sarasota County unit of the British War Relief, and in early 1940 inaugurated a week's drive to raise $2,000 to purchase a motor kitchen for the British. The drive raised $6,000, with which three motor kitchens were purchased. They were used by the British throughout the war in London, North Africa and Germany. Drafted from the British War Relief by chairman James Haley of the Sarasota Red Cross, she initiated the first tow major Red Cross drives, tripling the quota and collecting more than $18,000 in the initial drive in 1942 and collecting $32,000 in 1943. In 1945, she headed a fund drive for the Sarasota Hospital that netted $15,000.

After the war, Bickel continued her affiliation with members of the Federated Circles of the Sarasota Garden Club. In January 1946, she inaugurated a series of radio broadcasts, sponsored by the federation, designed to encourage further beautification of the city through garden planting.

She continued her work in beautifying Sarasota and Florida until her death in 1964.