Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Father Knickerbocker's Ball

The old-timers never forgot the winter of 1917.  At night the rivers froze like Colonial times, and during the day the frosty air held up a brilliant blue sky.  Brutal cold would not interfere with a gala evening, however.  On February 5 at 9 o’clock, the carriages started rolling up to the sumptuous Manhattan restaurant, Sherry’s.  It was time for Father Knickerbocker’s Ball, with a special treat in store for the guests who alighted. 

It all went back to the administration of President Washington.  After his inauguration in New York City, he and Martha moved to Philadelphia.  There she gave a series of receptions, entertaining fashionable women in a manner that some thought too regal, even anti-Republican.  But the chosen who attended never got over it.

Lady Washington's Reception
Line engraving after Daniel F. Huntington's painting (1865)

One hundred and twenty-eight years later, the descendants of those ladies weren’t over it, either.  For this reason, in honor of Father Knickerbocker’s Ball, they decided to dress up in period costume and recreate one of Mrs. Washington’s receptions.  

Their purpose was one that their ancestors never could have imagined:  to raise money for an organization that had been aiding immigrants since 1896 – the City History Club of New York.

Starting with the arrival of the Irish and Germans well before the Civil War, charitable, religious, and social service organizations had supported immigrants at home and at work, largely with the goal of assimilation.

Toward the turn of the twentieth century, as millions continued to arrive at American shores, progressivism began to influence the thinking of leading New Yorkers.  The City History Club, founded by a group of patricians, newly minted millionaires, and the descendants of colonists, embraced the ideals of the progressive movement.

A surgeon named Robert Abbe initiated the idea.  His ancestors emigrated from England during the seventeenth century, bequeathing to him an impeccable pedigree.  Abbe’s father, a philanthropist and businessman deeply committed to the Baptist Church, and his mother, the daughter of the founder of the Colgate Soap Company, encouraged their son to become a physician.   

Dr. Abbe’s work in radiology and plastic surgery was pioneering.  He visited Pierre and Marie Curie in Paris in 1904, and subsequently introduced radiation therapy to the U. S.

He told friends that the club was for his wife, really.  Catherine Abbe loved learning about the history of the city.  A fierce suffragist, she happily participated in the D.A.R., Colonial Dames of America, and other exclusive organizations which had been around for decades. 

Mrs. Robert Abbe
Cecilia Beaux, 1898
(Brooklyn Museum)

But this organization would be different. 

While Abbe and his colleagues stated that “the club exists for Americanization,” they enunciated a deeper idea, that reflexive patriotism is meaningless.  Informed citizenship is a product of historical understanding.  And that can only come through education and exploration.

The City History Club planned to use the city of New York as a laboratory to help immigrants reach that understanding.

In the words of the club’s superintendent, Frank Bergen Kelley:  

The city becomes more than a mere collection of buildings, a despised place in which one must live, but for which there is no admiration, no love, no regard.  Instead it becomes a living organism with an interesting and honored past . . . 

The City History Club sponsored public
lectures, exhibitions, and tours.

See also February 7, 2018 post. 

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Joan of Stones

Ready to charge across the Hudson River, an equestrian statue of Joan of Arc overlooks Riverside Park on the west side of Manhattan.  It arose in December 1915, six years after two energetic men – a distinguished mineralogist and jewelry company executive and a patron of the arts – set out to honor the French saint in New York City.

The 20-foot high bronze statue, atop a granite pedestal, has never been a major attraction.  Admirers always note, however, that it is the work of a woman sculptor, Anna Vaughan Hyatt.  Her sculptures also show up at the Bronx Zoo and Columbia University, among other places.

Anna Hyatt 
(Columbia University)
Anna studied at the Art Students League under Gutzon Borglum, who created Mount Rushmore.  In 1909, she entered a plaster cast of a statue of Joan of Arc in the 1910 Paris Salon, where it received an honorable mention.  Subsequently, Hyatt would sculpt Joan in bronze for the New York City memorial.

As a child, the martyr Jeanne d’Arc experienced visions that called her to drive the English from France and restore the Roman Catholic King Charles VII to the throne.  She survived the battlefield and court and church intrigue only to be captured and burned at the stake by the English, at the age of 19 in 1431.*

Joan of Arc had been gone for several centuries when she came back into vogue.  During the late nineteenth century, thousands of French citizens began to make pilgrimages to her birthplace and new statues of her were erected in towns across France.

The reason for the excitement was the Church’s decision to beatify her in a series of ceremonies at St. Peter’s in Rome in April 1909.  More than 30,000 French pilgrims, dozens of French cardinals and bishops, and all kinds of “notables” attended. 

In the U. S., George Frederick Kunz, a mineralogist and former vice president of Tiffany & Co., and J. Sanford Saltus, a philanthropist and the heir to a steel fortune, decided that New York City should honor the new saint.  Both men revered French painting and sculpture, were recipients of the Legion of Honor, and felt a strong affinity with the people of France.

George Frederick Kunz

They co-founded the Joan of Arc Statue Committee in 1910. Within three years, Kunz – who was the real driver – had raised $20,000 for the construction of a statue. 

"In working for a statue to honor Joan of Arc here in New York,” Kunz told the New York Times, “we are not thinking of anything having to do either with religion or woman suffrage.  She represents, I think, the best type of true womanhood.”

He continued chauvinistically:

We are beginning to realize more and more that New York is the most wonderful city in the world and the monument must be an ornament to it.  As long as it is what it should be we do not care who makes it, a Russian, an Italian, an American, or a Hottentot.

Meanwhile, Anna Hyatt had already started to work on the statue, using her niece as a model for the figure.   

Kunz turned his attention to the pedestal.  The man had traveled the world in search of rocks, gems, opalized wood, meteoric iron and the like.  In 1900 he had procured the Star of India for J. P. Morgan, who later donated it to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Kunz was passionate about stone and hoped to use it to infuse the monument with meaning.     
For this reason, the granite pedestal contains stones from the castle at Rouen where Joan of Arc was imprisoned; from the cathedral at Reims where Joan watched the coronation of Charles VII in 1429; from Domremy, the village where Joan was born; and from the city of Orleans, where Joan led French forces to victory during the Hundred Years’ War. 

Statue unveiling, December 1915;
Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument in left distance. 

It was Kunz’s idea, as well, to bury a copper box inside the pedestal.  The box contained mementoes of the era, including American and French currency, commemorative medals, and more than a dozen letters and speeches including salutations from President Wilson.

Lastly, a specimen of Staurolite, also known as “fairy stone,” went into the box.  The crystal symbolized the tears shed for Joan of Arc, Kunz explained.

In December 1915, Jean J. Jusserand, French ambassador to the U.S., dedicated the statue.  By this time, of course, the Great War had started and Jusserand’s message of fighting to the death held both poignancy and urgency.

Jean J. Jusserand
delivered remarks at the dedication

Through the war and for some years after, ceremonies were held regularly at the Joan of Arc memorial.  Kunz often participated.  On November 2, 1918 – nine days before the Armistice – he joined a French bishop to place a wreath on the pedestal.  The bishop noted that American soldiers in France were pressing to victory “like the men led by Joan of Arc.” 

Dr. Kunz (as he liked to be called) had launched his career in 1876 when he sold a spectacular tourmaline to Charles Lewis Tiffany.  Kunz would serve as Tiffany’s chief gemologist for the rest of his life, discovering and analyzing gorgeous, exotic stones.  The crystal known as Kunzite was named in his honor after he identified it in the Connecticut countryside in 1902.   

After the death of Kunz’s first wife, he waited ten years before remarrying a young woman aviator.

It’s kind of funny that her name was Opal.


*A highly abbreviated account. She also was charged as a cross-dresser.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The Wartburg Orphanage

Postcard of the Wartburg Orphanage, around 1914

A few weeks ago I read a crushing article, “The Lost Children of Tuam,” in the New York Times. 

The story concerns hundreds of unmarried Irish Catholic mothers who, during the mid-twentieth century, were exiled to the St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home in County Galway. Inside the stone fortress, as one survivor described the home, the nuns subjected the mothers and their children to neglect and degradation.      

Then, after a year of abuse, the mothers were forced out into the world leaving their children behind.  Many of those children eventually died and were buried under gruesome circumstances, although some made it through.

When the neighborhood kids encountered the St. Mary’s children at the local school, they taunted them and called them “home babies.”

Although the circumstances are vastly different, the story reminded me of the Wartburg Orphanage in the city where I grew up, and how the students who lived there were known as the “Wartburg kids.”  That’s what we called them.  The teachers said it, too.  If pressed, a child might state in a very low voice, “I live at the Wartburg.”

 Late nineteenth-century view of the Wartburg Orphanage

We never visited the Wartburg.  Therefore, we didn’t know anything about what life was like there.  No one enlightened us, either, which made it even easier to imagine something unpleasant.  

There was an impassable line between the students who lived at the Wartburg and everyone else who attended our predominantly white elementary school.  Our city had a very strict social order most evident in the railroad cut that separated the South Side – largely black – and the North Side – largely white.  The Wartburg fit into that hierarchy. 

The founder of the orphanage, Rev. William Passavant, called it the Wartburg Orphan’s Farm School.  He started it after the Civil War for the children of dead soldiers.  For a while, elderly people lived there, too.  The reverend went on to establish several other orphan’s homes and spread the word of evangelical Lutheranism.   

He named the school after the medieval Wartburg Castle, located on a mountaintop in Thuringia in central Germany.

Passavant asked a businessman named Peter Moller to purchase 121 acres in Mount Vernon, N.Y., and to provide an endowment.  Moller, who liked to refer to himself as a Hanoverian immigrant (as opposed to German), was the eldest of several brothers who went into the sugar refining business in the 1850s.  He made his fortune as president of the American Sugar Refining Company.  Eventually he got embroiled in price-fixing but that was long after he gave Passavant the money.

George Charles Holls, first director of the
Wartburg Orphanage

To head the Wartburg, Passavant called on George Charles Holls, a German immigrant who had risen quickly in the ministry after he founded the first Lutheran orphan asylum in the U. S., in a Pennsylvania town that bore the inimitable name, Zelienople.   

After Holls retired in 1889, along came Gottlieb Cleopas Berkemeier, who presided over the Wartburg until his death in 1924. During World War I, Berkemeier became active in Friends of Peace, a pro-German group that lobbied against American involvement in the war, especially the prospect of a military alliance between the U.S. and the U.K.

The first American orphanages sprang up during the early 1800s in response to industrialization, which robbed children of their parents’ care.  Some orphanages were created to wrest control of children from their parents; this occurred especially among the families of Irish immigrants.

A social reformer named Charles Loring Brace founded the Children’s Aid Society in New York City in 1854, working initially with newsboys.  Reverend Brace also created the Orphans Train, which transported city children to the Midwest, Plains, and New England where they joined new families, mostly on farms.  Astonishingly, the Orphans Train relocated nearly 400,000 children.

Orphanages proliferated in the U. S. during the last third of the nineteenth century.  Some historians believe this reflected society’s deepening concern for the welfare of the needy, young and old.  All institutions were privately funded, and religious and ethnic groups looked out for their own.  

My great-grandmother, for example, lost her husband soon after emigrating from Russia to the U. S. with two young children.  She placed them in a Hebrew Asylum for one year until she got back on her feet.

There were a few orphanages for African-American children.  The Colored Orphan Asylum in New York City operated between 1836 and 1946. By and large, however, black children without parents were sent to jail or reform school.

As progressivism surged into the twentieth century, Americans became disenchanted with orphanages, which were thought to keep children dependent and in lock-step (not to mention concerns about abuse).  In 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt convened a White House conference to address the care of dependent children.  Subsequently, the Federal Government created the Children’s Bureau, which had considerable latitude in overseeing foster homes, institutions, and medical care.   

In 1911, Illinois became the first state to authorize mother’s pensions for families without male breadwinners.  It was thought that the pensions would minimize the need for orphanages.  By 1919, 39 states had followed suit.  Eventually the program was folded into the New Deal, along with much of the work of the Children’s Bureau.

Through two world wars and the Depression, orphanages were filled to capacity.  During those years, the Wartburg drew widespread praise as a model institution. 

In 1964, its board decided that the children should attend the local public schools.  I’m certain that at least a few public school parents and administrators objected. After all, these were “Wartburg kids.” 

This still, from a 1938 documentary about the Wartburg Orphanage,
oddly evokes "The Sound of Music" thunderstorm scene. 

*In 1979, the Wartburg closed its doors.

See posts November 2, 2015; December 21, 2015; May 18, 2016.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Back in Time: Inwood 1940

My mother (left) poses with a friend on
Sherman Avenue, Inwood, Manhattan, mid-1930s.

My mother is living in a corner of her childhood.

She doesn’t suffer from dementia, although her memory has worsened.  Her intellect persists, fed by the New York Times and the New Yorker.  She is not grieving; she is not pained.  She just keeps cycling through 1940 where she lives in an apartment on West 211th Street and attends junior high school at P. S. 52.

Her story is set in a particular place called Inwood, located at the northern tip of the island of Manhattan.  While my mother was growing up there in the 1930s, the neighborhood was home to mostly Irish and some Jewish families who lived harmoniously in Art Deco-style apartment buildings built between the wars.   

Contemporary photo of Inwood Hill Park with
the Hudson River visible through the trees

As a little girl, living on Sherman Avenue, she liked to ride her tricycle along the sidewalk in front of her building. One day, she looked across the street to watch a police car pull up in front of a candy store.  The cops leapt out and busted through the door, dragging out pinball machines and smashing them in the street. Mayor LaGuardia believed that pinball encouraged gambling and corrupted youth.

The family moved to a four-room apartment on 211th Street.  An only child, she drew adoration from her grandmother, mother, and father. Her parents owned luncheonettes and worked long days so she ate dinner with just her grandmother. The two were very close; they shared a bedroom. Sarah Olcott cooked, shopped, sewed, and – the story may be apocryphal – brewed something alcoholic which she sold to the local policemen.

The radio, a 20” Philco made of dark wood, sat on a table near a chair and ottoman. On Sunday mornings her father sat on the ottoman with his head close to the fabric screen that covered the speaker, listening to Father Coughlin.

When Father Coughlin, a Roman Catholic priest out of Michigan, started his radio program in the early thirties, he was a New Dealer. Then he became obsessed with Jewish bankers and, as the decade progressed, enthusiastically embraced Hitler and Mussolini.

My mother asked her father why he listened to such a horrible man. Her father replied that he liked to hear the other point of view.  

Scholars have thoroughly examined the importance of radio to all Americans during the war years. My mother remembers Edward R. Murrow’s “This is London” and commentary by William Shirer. Those reports must have been thrilling and chilling.

Her grandmother Sarah had emigrated from Kiev around 1900, at the age of 30. She arrived with two young children and her younger sister, Rebecca. The eldest sister, Zelda, stayed behind. Everyone assumed that Zelda had perished at Babi Yar, but a few years ago we learned that she came to the U. S. during the late 1930s. The secret puzzled my mother, who concluded that Sarah and Zelda had argued about something serious and never reconciled. 

Corn Exchange Bank, West 207th Street, Inwood, 1920s.
My mother's mother kept an account at this branch.
Rebecca’s husband turned out to be crazy and slashed her throat with a kitchen knife.  Her two sons, by then grown up and both lawyers, “took care of him,” according to my mother. There may have been restraining order or perhaps the guy was institutionalized.

Rebecca’s daughter, Rhoda, married a man who went into the Venetian blind business after the war.  He did very well for himself, as they say.

Rebecca’s other daughter, Faye, was blonde and blue-eyed.  Since Faye didn’t “look Jewish,” she snagged a top job at a bank.  While on a ship headed to Paris for a bank conference, Faye met a British oil engineer who worked for BP in Iraq. They married and lived in Iraq through the 1950s.

Sadness intruded.  My mother’s uncle, Ben, had been gassed in the Meuse-Argonne during World War I.  He returned to the U. S. and spent the rest of his life in V. A. hospitals.

Her mother had TB and spent years in hospitals and sanitariums. 

I wonder about this attachment to childhood. Surely not every 89-year old feels like crawling back into the past, even if it is comforting.   

Recently I realized that my mother’s point of reference has always been those years on West 211th Street.  When we were growing up, she excessively invoked her childhood.  I wonder if she is now trying to figure out something or someone, but the fact is that reflection has never been her forte.    

And so she simply replays the past.  At least she knows how it will turn out. 

Summer Afternoon by Ernest Lawson
My mother remembers the ancient tulip tree depicted
in this 1908 painting of Inwood Hill Park.

See post May 11, 2016.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Frank Munsey of Maine

Frank Munsey

When the publisher Frank Munsey died in 1925, Americans took notice. Rather than grieving, however, most speculated about the disposition of his fortune.  A bachelor with no record of philanthropy, Munsey had accumulated wealth since 1894, having trekked from Maine to New York City with $40 in his pocket twelve years earlier. Eventually, Munsey’s investments in real estate and U. S. Steel, along with his consolidation and sale of newspapers and magazines, begat millions. 

The tributes poured forth, from President Coolidge down the line: “His purpose was high and his efforts never ungenerous.”  “In his death a dynamic, forceful, and enterprising personality is gone.”  And so on.

Several colleagues wrote that Munsey’s life was inspirational, dramatic and romantic. A few offered examples of his kindness. But the truth was revealed at the funeral service, attended by hundreds at the Cathedral of St. John Divine. Not a eulogy in sight.  

A Munsey Company vice president sent his boss an
embarrassingly sycophantic thank-you for a
Christmas bonus, 1914. 

Amidst the coverage a theme emerged: the life of Frank Munsey was a Horatio Alger story. Horatio Alger, Jr., a nineteenth-century writer, penned more than 100 books – most famously The Story of Ragged Dick, or, Street Life in New York With the Boot-blacks – in which the heroes were usually destitute young boys, alone in the city, who achieved financial success through luck and determination.

Somehow, more than his self-made contemporaries such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, Sr., Munsey embodied the boy with a dream.

Born in rural Maine in 1854, Munsey went to work as soon as he could.  At the age of 12, he made his way to Augusta, where he got a job as a telegraph clerk.  The state’s forests produced paper as well as lumber, and Augusta had become a publishing and shipping center. Here, Munsey developed a consuming interest in newspapers and magazines.  At a time when the nation’s literacy rate was rising, he imagined an adventure magazine for boys called Golden Argosy.  He asked friends to fund his venture, including the Maine politician James G. Blaine who thrice ran for president. 

“You will be swallowed up in New York by the sharks in very little while,” Blaine reportedly said.

Frank arrived in New York City in September 1882 with $40 in his pocket. He rented a room and toiled by candlelight year after year, writing stories, striking out until the 1890s when he found the right formula with Argosy, the nation's first pulp magazine.  Later, he started Munsey’s Magazine, which soon turned a profit.

During the next few decades, Munsey launched more magazines with mixed results. And he bought and sold newspapers in New York, Boston, Washington D.C. and Philadelphia, bent on creating a monopoly similar to the railroads.
The New Republic often editorialized about Munsey. 

His really was a “rags to riches” tale.  No wonder that Editor and Publisher, the preeminent trade journal of the day, ran this rambling headline:

Frank Munsey’s Boy Dream of Power and Wealth Came True – Indomitable Will Triumphed over Countless Obstacles – Fortune Estimated at $40,000,000 – His Amazing Adventures with Magazines and Newspapers in Five Cities

Historians have long debated the Alger mythology. Was it propaganda or a narrative that mediated between the agricultural economy and industrialism? Or was it authentic?

However you slice it, the Alger heroes were distinguished by earnestness and sweetness.  It is doubtful that Frank Munsey, beset with ruthless ambition, ever possessed either quality.

In early 1926, the public learned what was in Munsey’s will. The publisher left bequests to several longtime employees. He generously remembered his sister as well as a woman he knew as Annie Downes, who had spurned his marriage proposal years earlier in Maine. And, in a grand gesture, he left the rest of his estate – estimated at $40 million – to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Many a head was scratched upon learning that Munsey had become a major benefactor of the art world.  Not only had he never evinced an appreciation of paintings, drawings, and sculpture, but in 1921 he had turned down a nomination to become a member of the museum corporation.  That was less than five months before Munsey executed his last will. 
It’s hard to figure how Frank Munsey reached the decision to bestow so much money on the Met. One acquaintance believed Munsey’s lawyer had persuaded his client; others thought the publisher admired the business efficiency of the museum trustees. But I believe that the gift constituted the last bid of a very lonely man for acceptance into New York society.  

Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1917
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

We dine at 9 on steak and wine

 Helen Ridder, around 1940
(Screen shot of newspaper photograph)

Just a party girl, said her stepson’s third wife.  Ply Helen with a streak of Orange Blossom cocktails and she’ll laugh all night. 

She buried her past in the drawer where she kept her diaries. Born in St. Louis in 1885, one of seven children, Helen Bush was reared largely by her grandmother. In 1896, her father died and her mother went off to work as a teacher.

Helen was fortunate to have an enterprising brother, John, who had climbed the ladder at the Brown Shoe Company. By the time the World’s Fair came to St. Louis in 1904, John’s title was junior executive and he cut a deal that would transform the company.  At the fair, he met the newspaper cartoonist R. F. Outcault, creator of two famous characters: the Yellow Kid and Buster Brown.

John Bush persuaded his company to purchase the rights to the Buster Brown character and Buster’s dog, Tige.  Sketched together, they became the emblem of Brown Shoe’s children’s line.  Eventually John became president of the company.

"Buster Brown" cartoon character before he and his dog,
Tige, became the Brown Shoe Company trademark.

Meanwhile, Helen was just dyin’ out there in St. Louis. Fortunately, through her brother she met a widower with two children: H. Sherman Howes, president of the Howes Leather Company in Boston. They married around 1915.   

Soon enough, Helen became restless.  With the Great War over, she divorced Mr. Howes and sailed off on a cruise ship to Bermuda. On board she met William Leonard Shearer of Boston, also a widower.  Within a year they married. 

As president of a furniture company founded by his father in 1835, Mr. Shearer ran a big showroom and a factory.  He owned a large stone house on Bay State Road, which ran along the Charles River.  He and Helen lolled about on his yacht, The Paprika.  When things got dull, they traveled to Europe.

Passport photographs, William and Helen Shearer, early 1920s

But the twenties were drawing to a close.  Time to move on.

Helen’s third husband, the newspaper tycoon Bernard H. Ridder, fell in love with her at the Lake Placid Inn in upstate New York while his wife was traveling abroad during the summer of 1929.  As fast as he could, Ridder installed Helen in a Manhattan hotel.  Subsequently, Helen divorced Shearer on grounds of incompatibility and went to Reno to marry Ridder.

Helen stayed nearly a decade with Mr. Ridder, who had been married twice before himself.  But in 1939 she socked him with a divorce suit citing cruelty.  In court, Ridder claimed that he owed Helen nothing because she had carried on an affair with a man named Neil English.  What evidence did Ridder bring forth?  It was Helen’s diary, snuck from her dresser drawer.

 “The diary’s presence in court,” one reporter noted,

once more brings up the dark mystery of why women, especially those who are skating on the thinnest legal ice, persist in setting down the secret archives of the heart, knowing they may be used against them in court.

The diary excerpts that Ridder’s lawyer read in court relate to an automobile journey taken by Helen, Neil English, and a chaperone of some sort named Mary Harris.  As the three headed toward the Adirondacks, Helen wrote:

How cold! Very cold. What is Neil saying about the warmth of Havana? We try to comfort him. The invigorating mountain air will do him good but he is cold and cross and wishing he were in Havana.  That does not sound like a bold Lothario running away with another man’s wife. . .

 The group moved on to Saranac, where a cabin awaited.

What an adorable little cottage with a well-equipped kitchen to mix our beloved orange blossoms.  It is all breathtaking.  We dine at 9 on steak and wine and so grow warmer and a little kinder. . . Later we discover dancing in the casino where Neil and I entertain with a sensational rhumba.

Broadway, the main street in Saranac, 1930s

Back to the trial. . . .

Eventually Neil took the stand dressed in a blue pin-striped suit, blue shirt, and “a tasteful tie of many colors,” according to a reporter.  Turned out he was 20 years younger than Helen Ridder, and a jewelry salesman to boot. 

The judge granted Helen a legal separation and an annual allowance of $6,000. After the trial ended in 1940, Helen lodged briefly at a residential hotel. But she ended up in a Park Avenue apartment, which perhaps was her goal all along.

"Encore les Orange Blossoms!" as Helen liked to say.

Two recipes for Orange Blossom Cocktail,
pre-Prohibition at the top. 

See posts January 28, January 24, January 20 2016.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

An Object of Terror to All Beholders

Klan costume for "Great Titan"
in Catalogue of Official Robes and Banners 
(published by Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, 1925)

Several years ago while living in Atlanta, I went behind the scenes at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center.  The National Historic Site includes the Ebenezer Baptist Church and King’s boyhood home.  Among various artifacts in the archive: a robe and hood that once belonged to a member of the KKK.  Just glancing at the garments felt chilling.  But the real shock came when I noticed that there were labels attached them. 

During the nineteenth century, the robes and hoods worn by Klansmen were sewn at home by loving wives and mothers.  But by 1915 when the Klan resurgence started, they would have been manufactured in a factory.  And the people who assembled them surely included black workers.

Around the same time, many Confederate statues were constructed in Northern factories, ironically, because industry below the Mason-Dixon Line remained decimated.  These statues, like the Klan robes, would have embodied the labor of black men.

On one hand, a job is just a job. On the other hand, a job may demand the creation of objects that sear one’s body and soul. 

Klan banner featured in Catalogue of Official Robes and Banners 
(published by Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, 1925)

Historians have identified several reasons for the Klan’s second coming after World War I.  They include the influx of European immigrants, which began even before the Civil War and accelerated during the 1890s; it would be stemmed by the 1924 Immigration Act.  Prohibition and its enforcement – which the Klan favored – further united members.  And the fact that black soldiers who fought overseas now demanded respect and equality back home also enraged whites who joined the Klan in droves.

By 1920, the organization reached well beyond the South.  At this time, the garments worn by its members became standardized.  Various colors and insignias reflected a complex hierarchy.  But the point of the costume remained clear. In the words of a Klan enthusiast: the wearer is an object of terror to all beholders.

In 1921, a former KKK member named Henry Peck Fry wrote an expose of the organization which was published as a series in the New York World and picked up by numerous other papers nationwide including, remarkably, the New Orleans Times-Picayune. He wrote:

The organization does not “sell’ robes to members; it merely rents them. The price charged a member for a robe is $6.50, while the Kleagle* must pay $12 as his robe has more trimming. Made in large quantities, there ought to be a profit of at least $5 per garment, although I believe a New York garment maker could show a larger profit than that. . . The present output is about 600 robes per day.


The World articles prompted the U. S. House of Representatives to open hearings on the Ku Klux Klan in October 1921. Unsurprisingly, the hearings led nowhere. This was a year before Southern Democrats defeated an anti-lynching bill that had been proposed repeatedly by Republicans since the early 1900s.

Statement of Honorable Peter F. Tague,
U. S. Representative, Massachusetts;

Hearings on the KKK, 1921

In the meantime, Klan activities continued to roil the American landscape from California to Indiana to Georgia.  While the group achieved power through intimidation and violence, its expansion relied largely on its deft insinuation into the culture of small communities.  The Kiddie Klan and Women of the Ku Klux Klan were important auxiliaries, as the Klan presided over school and church events as well as local celebrations.**  

In 1925 when 30,000 Klansmen marched in Washington, D.C., the group had four million members.   

Waving American flags as they moved along Pennsylvania Avenue, the men cast back their hoods and boldly exposed their faces.

And that’s just about where we are right now.

Imperial Wizard Hiram W. Evans;
Klan March, Washington, D.C., 1925


*Kleagles are Klan officers who focus on recruitment of new members.
**There is an excellent book about this aspect of the KKK: Women of the Klan by Kathleen Blee (1991).

The Widow Nolen at Harvard

    Illustration from Harvard Celebrities (1901) William Whiting Nolen orbited Harvard for the better part of 43 years. During much of tha...