Wednesday, May 16, 2018

I'd Like to Place a Call

Bell Telephone used this idealized image of the telephone
operator in its publications; World War I era

In January 1921, a trade journal called the Union Telephone Operator made its debut.  It hit the ground running, Vol. 1, No. 1, with an editorial that surely provoked J. Edgar Hoover:

The trade unionist is interested in other things than shop conditions.  Every economic, political and social question attracts him.  This type of worker is not favored by anti-union employers, anti-union newspapers, anti-union business men, anti-union bankers and their political agents  . . .  Those interests want a slave class, not in name but in fact. 

Although the FBI would not be formally established for another few years, in 1921 Hoover was chief of the General Intelligence Division within President Warren Harding’s Department of Justice.  There he dedicated himself to rooting out radical political activity and oversaw the Palmer Raids, through which more than 500 foreign nationals were arrested and deported.

In light of the focus on “Reds” – Communists, Bolsheviks, anarchists and leftists – unions inevitably fell under scrutiny.

Agitate! Educate! Organize!  The goal of the new journal was to inspire telephone operators to demand better wages, better hours, and better working conditions.  The workers were largely women and had been since 1878 when the Boston Telephone Dispatch Company hired a woman named Emma Nutt.  The job appealed particularly to women who did not wish to work in manufacturing.

But problems existed.  The women had to conform to certain body proportions because they worked in very tight quarters.  They were required to maintain perfect posture throughout nine-hour shifts.  They were not allowed to speak to each other and always had to be patient and polite, even to rude customers.  These were several of the indignities.  

Late nineteenth-century training of Chicago telephone operators

In 1892, the operators became members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. They had no voice, however, largely because men feared “petticoat rule.”  

Then, in 1918, activists formed a Telephone Operators’ Department within the IBEW.  Julia O’Connor, the daughter of Irish immigrants, led the new department.  A determined strategist and talented writer, she had worked as a telephone operator since 1908 until she became disgusted and left to be an organizer.   

Among O’Connor’s victories was the 1919 telephone operators’ strike in Boston.  In a way, the strike brings to mind the New York City Blizzard of 1888, which brought daily life to a dead stop for more than a week.  During the 1919 Boston telephone operators’ strike, communications ground to a halt for two days, which paralyzed New England.  

The outcome of the Boston telephone operators’ strike affected the local only, although it inspired operators nationwide. The local came away with higher wages, an eight-hour day, and the right to organize. But the strike also convinced the telephone company that it couldn’t afford to depend on the operators. 

Indeed, the heyday of the telephone operator had already passed.  Even in the first issue of the Union Telephone Operator, Julia O’Connor explained why: the advent of “the automatic” – also known as the dial telephone.

The union assured telephone operators that their services would be needed for at least another generation, as it would take a long time to phase in the automatic system.  In fact, operators continued to handle many local calls and all long distance calls.  And it wasn’t till 1954 that New York Telephone finally abandoned the switchboard, as shown in this amusing instructional film, “How to Dial Your Telephone":   

The Union Telephone Operator did not last long.  Its final issue appeared in December 1922. Julia O'Connor wrote many of the articles, expressing chagrin that American laborers lived in the "back wash" of World War I. 

1921 sketch of a telephone operator

On immigration she was ambivalent, even as the daughter of immigrants. The Johnson Quota Act of 1921 restricted immigration from eastern and southern Europe.  By and large, organized labor supported these restrictions because immigrants would work for less money than would unionized workers.

But she celebrated the Sheppard-Towner Act, which funded health clinics to provide maternity and child care. O’Connor knew from the 1920 census that more women than ever – over 8 million – occupied the workforce.  Like most labor activists, she lobbied for a safety net for women and children.  Sheppard-Towner passed in 1921.  

And Julia O’Connor was not without a certain sense of humor.  On the back page of one issue, a “Marriage Notice” appeared:

Miss Low Wages and Mr. Nonunion Worker were married at the home of the bride, Industrial Centers.  Mr. 100% Profit Employer, the father, gave the bride away without any ceremony.  Mr. Longer Hours blessed the union.

Scandal mongers are circulating the rumor that the couple are not happy because the newly wed husband has been flirting with Miss Join D. Union.  The bride’s father however is reported to be opposed to any talk of divorce.

Unsurprisingly, Julia O’Connor became a New Dealer.  She died in 1972.   

Julia O'Connor


Wednesday, May 2, 2018

A Shack in East Hampton

Sammy's Beach, East Hampton, N.Y.
(Corcoran Group Real Estate)

I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills – the opening sentence of Isak Dineson’s novel, Out of Africa.

Having lived in several states during the past 18 years, I play a game upon arriving at a new home.  How to imitate Dineson’s sentence?

I had a house in Abingdon, at the edge of the Appalachian Trail.

And so forth.

Between 1967 and 1985, my parents owned a small beach house on a windswept road in East Hampton, N.Y.  One drove from the stately old town, through woods crackling with sunlight, to arrive at a spit of land which faced a bay whose water turned every shade of blue. 

The bay was named for a seventeenth-century English settler, Lion Gardiner.  He had lived in the middle of the bay, on Gardiner’s Island, which he purchased from an Indian chief named Wyandanch. 

Sammy’s Beach Road ran along the spit, and we were the second house from the end.  The homes were modest.  I remember one contemporary cantilevered house; otherwise they had all been there since the 1940s and 50s.  One house looked like a shingled box and was extra-mysterious because its owner never, ever appeared.

The beach had not yet eroded.  A dune covered with beach grass and Rosa rugosa sloped from the deck to the end of the path.

 Easthampton Elms in May by Childe Hassam
(Smithsonian American Art Museum)
Main Street, East Hampton, looked much the same in 1970 as in this 1925 print. 

The town was still fun: pre-Ralph Lauren, pre-Tommy Hilfiger, pre-Tahari.  The hot spots were a grocery with a donut machine and the Ladies Village Improvement Society bookstore, packed with books that had been abandoned at beach houses after the war.   

About a half-mile down the beach from my parents’ house, an old shack stood back from the shore.  Made of weather-beaten boards that had turned splintery and silver, it contained a few benches and a partition from its days as a place to change into a bathing suit.  You could sit on a narrow deck and look at the water.  In the manner of teenagers, I thought of it as mine.

I drew the shack, as recalled, in the mid-90s. 

Recently reminded of the shack, I examined a few real estate photographs.
  It’s definitely gone.  That feels poignant, for this is exactly the time of year, a baby step toward summer, when we would head out to East Hampton to open the house for the season.  It became a habit to cast an eye toward the shack to make sure that it was still there.

I had a shack in East Hampton . . .

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Story of a Painter

President Coolidge accepts Hayley Lever's painting
of the presidential yacht, Mayflower (1924)
(Smithsonian Archives of American Art)

Richard Hayley Lever is not considered an exceptional artist, although some of his paintings are very pretty and appear in the collections of important museums.  They are rarely displayed, however.

Perhaps his brightest moment came in 1924, when President Calvin Coolidge commissioned him to paint a picture of the presidential yacht, the Mayflower.  The dour Coolidge always took an awkward photograph, and the one wherein he accepts the painting is the same. 

Born in Australia in 1876, Hayley Lever studied painting in England.  He became captivated by the wild sea and countryside at Cornwall, a peninsula at the southwest corner of England. Just before World War I, he left England for New York where he became friendly with George Bellows, John Sloan, and other artists who comprised the “Ashcan School.”

Hayley Lever's painting of the Mt. Vernon, N. Y.
train station, in the style of the Ashcan School, 1930s

The Ashcan painters were urban realists who coalesced during the early twentieth century in reaction to the Impressionists who had dominated painting for at least three decades.  Ashcan subjects included tenements, immigrants, and streetscapes.  

In New York, Hayley Lever became a member of the National Academy of Design, a prestigious honorary association of artists.  He also taught at the Art Students League, although the school does not list him among the famous artists who trained or taught there. Every summer he traveled to Gloucester, Mass., to paint the ocean and boats that reminded him of Cornwall.

During the early 1930s as the Depression set in, Hayley Lever fell on hard times.  He was forced to sell his home in New Jersey and faced limited options.

Fortunately, he received offers to run studio art clubs in two communities just outside of New York City.  As a well-known East Coast painter, he must have been considered quite a catch. 

The electric company building in Mt. Vernon, N.Y.
appears in Hayley Lever's paintings below.
(Westchester County Historical Society)

The artist probably didn’t earn much of a living, but he was of the moment.  

Through the 1920s, as the upper-middle class gained leisure time, a hobbyist culture had emerged in the U. S.  Wealthy men and women took up golf, bridge, ham radio and the like.  Civic involvement and club activities increased steadily until 1930.

Railroad Yards, Mt. Vernon, N. Y.
(Richard Hayley Lever, 

Eager to stay busy and develop their interests, many suburban women were drawn to painting. Unsurprisingly, Hayley Lever’s plein air classes became very popular as he took students around to lakes, a waterfall, a harbor, and woods.

Considering his love of nature, one might imagine that he lived in a pretty place.  But that was not the case.  He lived on a busy street, in a room in a bungalow overlooking a deep stone railroad cut where the New York-New Haven trains came through.

It’s those Ashcan scenes which he knew by heart, and painted again and again during the last two decades of his life. 

City Scene, painting of downtown Mt. Vernon, N. Y.
(Richard Hayley Lever, 
1943) (

*He died in 1958.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Nora Bird Barbour & the Educator Crackers

Vintage tin of Educator Crackers

So many odd advertisements appear in the pages of old magazines, quaint and strange to our twenty-first-century eyes. 

How about Educator Crackers?  They were invented by a New England dentist during the 1880s.  After three decades of practicing dentistry with a foot-treadle drill in a dark office, he could not bear the sight of his patients’ rotten teeth.  Around the same time, an unsmiling man named Horace Fletcher was running around the country promoting “Fletcherism,” the practice of masticating food until it just ran down one’s throat.

The dentist, William L. Johnson, drew inspiration from Fletcher.  He decided that Americans’ teeth were being ruined by too much soft food, especially easily-downed crackers made of white flour.  He devised a new recipe whose ingredients were whole wheat flour and water, and which would require a great deal of chewing.  Dr. Johnson’s family baked the crackers at home and he gave them away to his patients. 

The dentist named them “Educator Crackers” because he hoped to educate people about nutrition and diet.  Within a year, the crackers became so popular that he started to think about giving up dentistry and going into business.  But it was 1885, he had reached the age of 60, and he just wasn’t sure about entering a new profession.

So Dr. Johnson asked his daughter, Nora Bird, for help.  Twenty-five years old, ensconced in a Victorian household, she saw an opportunity for herself and her father.  At Nora’s urging, Dr. Johnson established the Educator Cracker Company and opened a store on Boylston Street in Boston.  The store did well.  As demand increased, the company contracted with Butler’s Bakery of Newburyport, Mass., to manufacture the crackers.  This made sense because Butler’s had been supplying hardtack (also known as pilot’s bread) to sailing ships since the eighteenth century.     

In 1895 Nora Bird married a linotype operator from Maine, name of Frederick Barbour.  He soon joined his wife and father-in-law in the business and became its treasurer.  One year later, the company introduced three new cracker varieties: rye, graham and corn meal . . .  not very exciting.  My hunch is that Dr. Johnson resisted expansion, but Nora kept hoping for something bigger.   

Advertisement starring Nora Bird, early 1900s
(left-click to enlarge)

When Dr. Johnson died in 1898, Nora became president of the company.  I imagine her sweeping into her father’s paneled office, adding a potted palm and a typewriter, and drawing up plans.  She was intuitively smart about product development and distribution.  In short order, the company introduced

-the Fruited Educator
-the Educator Almonette
-the Educator Toasterette
-the Baby Educator
and many more new types of Educator Crackers.

The company’s Educator Ark, filled with animal Educator Crackers, sold out every Christmas.

And in 1913, along came the Suffragette Biscuit.   

Nora Bird Barbour

Nora belonged in the twentieth century.  She had a great imagination as well as a strong grasp of marketing at a time when most food manufacturers were just catching on.  Her promotional and advertising campaigns were often cited in trade journals of the day.

In 1919, Nora and Frederick sold their controlling interest in the company.  Thereafter it changed hands and names several times before disappearing in 2001.   

That name – Educator Crackers – what a handicap!  Yet Nora Bird Barbour brought her product to every household in America.  That’s why she shines like a beacon through America’s retail past, an unsung daughter of Yankee enterprise.   

*Frederick and Nora had two children, William and Dorothy. Nora died in 1946. Frederick died in 1926.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Too Late for Kumyss

Downtown Mt. Vernon, 1920s
(Westchester County Historical Society)

During the winter of 1974, I was stricken with some sort of respiratory illness and stayed home from school for several days.

The timing proved excellent.  Joni Mitchell had released her iconic album, “Court and Spark,” on January 1st of that year.  Now it was February, and I knew the record would be essential to my recuperation.

After everyone had dispersed to school and work, I got dressed immediately.  Although six inches of snow lay on the ground, my plan was to walk a few blocks to a street called Columbus Avenue, take the bus to downtown Mt. Vernon, and go to the Bee Hive Record Store.  (Its name came from a soda parlor that previously occupied the space.)

When the Bee Hive was still a soda parlor

By 10:30 I possessed the record and decided to stop at Clover Donuts, a coffee shop near the bus stop.  That’s where I ran into Mrs. Moskowitz.  She waved me over to the counter, pointing to an empty stool.  I sat down beside her and ordered a cup of tea.

She didn’t ask why I wasn’t in school.

That’s probably because Virginia (“Ginny”) McClellan Moskowitz had other things on her mind, like history.  In fact she was the city historian.  She knew everything related to Mt. Vernon’s past and present, as befitted a woman born and bred there.  Mrs. Moskowitz had grown up in a family of city fathers.  Her childhood and much of her adulthood were spent in a large Victorian house with three generations of McClellans.  After World War II, she married Dr. Eugene Moskowitz and they continued to live in the house.

Virginia McClellan (left column, fourth down)
 Mt. Vernon High School yearbook, 1933

During the early 1970s Mrs. Moskowitz became especially busy.  In advance of the U.S. Bicentennial, the federal government dispensed millions of dollars to support local history initiatives.  Mrs. Moskowitz would use her allotment to mount several exhibitions and organize the old stuff that was pouring in.  She needed a lot of help.  The previous summer I had volunteered in her fiefdom, the Local History Room. 

In that room, the wooden file cabinets were packed with papers, the tables piled with maps and photographs, and the display cases filled with medals, plaques, and old silver.  Mrs. Moskowitz definitely had a plan, though.  She was working on it.

And now here we were in Clover Donuts. 

“Nice to see you,” she said cheerfully.

I explained about being sick and the unfortunate situation of having to run an errand in such bad weather.  I didn’t mention Joni Mitchell.

Mrs. Moskowitz leaned close and said with a smile:  “You could probably use some cumis.”  That’s how I imagined the word, based on her pronunciation.  But no.  

“K-U-M-Y-S-S,” she spelled enthusiastically, then added:  “Unfortunately, you’re about 50 years too late!”  

Indeed, I was very late for Kumyss, a sparkling milk drink popularized by Mount Vernon’s first mayor, Dr. Edward F. Brush, as a cure for asthma, chest colds, indigestion, tuberculosis, malnutrition, and anything else that ailed anyone anywhere.  It was a classic nineteenth century patent medicine. 

Kumyss is made by fermenting unpasteurized cow’s milk.  The addition of yeast and sugar makes the drink fizzy and slightly alcoholic.  According to Dr. Brush, the healing powers of Kumyss were known to Homer, the nomadic tribes of Russia and Asia, Marco Polo, the Crim Tartars and the Uzbeks.

 Advertisement for Kumyss, circa World War I

Dr. Brush became interested in Kumyss during the 1870s and published a book called Kumyss or Russian Milk Wine.  Subsequently he began to promote the drink, created a market, and built a Kumyss factory in Mt. Vernon.  The sales made him a millionaire.  Meanwhile, he continued to practice medicine, specializing in pulmonary diseases.

However, he also loved being mayor and was reelected on the Republican ticket twice after an abbreviated first term, 1892-4.   

The rage for Kumyss ran through World War I, then started to decline.

But Mrs. Moskowitz kept the story alive.  And she found the perfect moment to tell it.  I can still hear her chatting about Dr. Brush while we drank our tea in Clover Donuts.  The windows were fogged, the sidewalks needed salt, and the twentieth century marched on, looking for a new cure.  

Mayor Edward F. Brush, early twentieth century

More Mt. Vernon posts: 11/8/17; 6/28/17; 5/18/16; 9/27/16; 12/29/15/; 11/2/15

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

A Municipal Tragedy

Acupuncture or bail?
My acupuncturist is located on Baxter Street in Chinatown, his office wedged between storefronts that are occupied mostly by bail bondsmen.  They serve the municipal courts, just a few blocks away.  

I take the subway to Canal Street and walk east past the street vendors.  Glancing downtown, I can see the Municipal Building – a wedding cake designed by McKim, Mead & White and completed in 1914.

Even before it was built, the Municipal Building drew controversy.  The landmarks preservation movement would not emerge for another 60 years. But plenty of antiquarians objected to further disrupting a sedate civic center that dated to 1800.  City Hall Park had already been assaulted by a garish Beaux Arts post office, not to mention the Tweed Courthouse, an enduring symbol of nineteenth-century political corruption.

Municipal Building postcard, 1920s

The antiquarians didn’t stand a chance.  Besides, the 60-story Woolworth Building had just risen nearby, and without a doubt the city was going UP.

By 1984, when I started to work there, the Municipal Building had become shabby with a bit of a roach problem.  Yet fun still could be had since the marriage bureau was located on one of the lower floors and you never knew who would get in the elevator.   

The city’s radio station, WNYC, had called the building home since 1922.  It broadcast from crumbling quarters in the tower at the top.  I came on as an assistant to the director, Mary Perot Nichols, who began her career as a reporter for the Village Voice. 

Mary and her family had moved to Greenwich Village in the early 1950s.  As she became involved in the neighborhood, she kept asking Dan Wolf, then editor of the Voice, why no one was covering Robert Moses’ plan to build a highway through Washington Square Park.*  Finally, Wolf gave her the assignment.

Within a few years, Mary became one of the city’s foremost investigative journalists.  She had dirt on every New York politician and surely that included Mayor Ed Koch, to whom she owed her WNYC appointments in 1978 and 1983.  Mary had resigned in 1979 after Koch ordered the creation of a show nicknamed the “John Hour,” wherein the names of men arrested for patronizing prostitutes would be read on the air. 

The idea, absurdly, was that the men’s embarrassment would lead to a decline in prostitution.

The “John Hour” aired once.  An enraged Mary stormed off.   

Mary Perot Nichols, 1970s
Photo was taken on a balcony of the Municipal Building.

But now it was 1984 and Mary had saved the station by creating the WNYC Foundation and populating its board with movers and shakers.  Formidable and rollicking, she loved her job and thrived on people dropping in and out of her office all day long.  For snacks, she kept a large jar of cherry-flavored chewable Vitamin C tablets on her desk in the same way that my grandmother kept a crystal dish of hard candy on her coffee table.

There was always a crisis, or perhaps Mary’s idiosyncrasies made it seem so.  

One incident was unforgettable.  It involved the city’s Board of Estimate, on which sat the borough presidents, a motley crew representing Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island.**

This board mattered a great deal because the city still funded a significant portion of WNYC’s operating expenses, and Mary needed to nail down every vote.  So each year the station prepared a detailed report to convince the borough presidents of the station’s worthiness.

The Queens borough president was an affable, beefy Democratic pol named Donald Manes.  He insisted that Mary pay a visit to his house to discuss the vote.  Mary asked me to come along – my one and only ride in a city car. 

We were ushered into the house through the back door.  The air was filled with cigarette smoke.  At the kitchen table, surrounded by men in dark suits, sat Mr. Manes. 

Mary squeezed in next to him.

“Donny,” she said, cutting to the chase. “Have you had a chance to read the report?  We sent it to your office a few weeks ago.”   

“Yes,” he wheezed.  “I got the report.”   

He looked at his palms, then turned them over.  

“I read it,” he said mournfully, and paused.  “But these days when I read, I don’t retain.”   

How incongruous.  Donald Manes, sad and defeated?

Sure enough, within two years the FBI would implicate Manes in all kinds of payoffs, kickbacks, and patronage.  The web of corruption engulfed several city agencies and many officials.  In 1986, facing charges of extortion and bribery, Manes stabbed himself to death with a kitchen knife.

I read, but I don't retain.  At the age of 26, I found this very amusing.  Now I realize that it's just a line in a municipal tragedy.    

Donald R. Manes, 1970s.

*Robert Moses, an enormously influential developer known as “the master builder,” over-zealously constructed bridges, parks, beaches, tunnels, and roads during his reign, mid-1920s to early 1960s.  He met his match in Washington Square Park, where urban activist Jane Jacobs led the opposition to his proposed highway.
**The Board of Estimate was disbanded in 1989 after the U. S. Supreme Court declared it to be unconstitutional.