Wednesday, November 6, 2019

The School Superintendent Who Needed a Home

Eastchester High School, 1940s

Needless to say, the members of the board of education were shocked to discover that the superintendent and his wife and children had been living in the local high school. 

At the end of each day when the teachers, students, and coaches were gone, when the drama and orchestra rehearsals had wound down and the custodians had banished the last banana peel and crumpled math quiz – the superintendent would make his way to the wing of the school where vocational classes were held.

Warily he would usher his family into the rooms occupied by the school’s home economics department.  There was a bedroom and bathroom, kitchen and living room.  Nothing fancy, but furnished and well-lit. 

Girls learning homemaking in school, 1930s

Good enough for the family to relax, prepare and eat meals, complete homework, wash up, and sleep through the night. 

It was the fall of 1945 in Eastchester, N.Y., a town in the New York City suburbs that started life as a seventeenth-century English settlement.  Within its five square miles, the direst housing shortage in the nation’s history had come home to roost.

Worst of all was that the returning veterans had to scramble for places to live.  “Dog-tired soldiers can’t come home to Detroit.  There aren’t any houses,” according to a headline in the Detroit Free Press.

A classified ad in the Omaha World-Herald offered “Big ice box, 7 x 17 feet inside.  Could be fixed to live in like a trailer.”

The housing famine, as some called it, preceded the postwar boom in housing and roads. Out on Long Island, Levittown’s 17,000 houses would go up in a record four years, but the farmers who sold their land to the builder were harvesting their potatoes until construction started in 1947. 

It was estimated that the nation would need 12.6 million new dwelling units during the first decade after the war.

But major shortages stood in the way of a quick end to the housing crisis: a shortage of labor and a shortage of supplies, their destinies entwined.  

From Architectural Forum (1945)

While the Army had released large amounts of lumber to industry, the timber remained standing in the woods of northern California, Oregon, Washington State, and Idaho.  The reason was that 60,000 American Federation of Labor (AFL) members had struck in nearly 500 lumber camps and logging mills, asking for $1.10 / hour.  No one held out hope for quick mediation.  

Labor was missing across all manufacturing sectors.  Big American Radiator & Standard Sanitary Corp., which formerly turned out 3,000 bathtubs per day, was now fortunate to produce 3,000 tubs per week.  Steel production had slowed, with capacity output not expected until spring of 1946.

Keg of nails?  How quaint. 

As housing starts stalled, veterans and labor organizations looked reflexively to the government for a solution to the crisis. 

Three senators – Robert F. Wagner of New York, Robert H. Taft of Ohio, and Allen J. Ellender of Louisiana – started work on a bill that would “provide a decent home and suitable living environment for every American family.”  This bill also mandated the clearing of urban slum areas to create low-rent housing, which created new problems related to the displacement of poor people.

  Georgia, 1945: black families displaced by
postwar construction lived in tent cities 

that resembled Eastern European shtetls. 

Meanwhile, private industry recognized that the time had come to reject price controls and set its own production goals or else submit to interminable government regulation.

Indeed, after Congress finally declared a national housing emergency in May 1946, President Truman took steps to free builders from government constraints on supplies and construction.    

But he met fierce opposition from veterans’ groups who opposed the government’s removal of priorities, subsidies and market guarantees.  They worried that veterans would be unable to afford the new housing.  The stalemate lasted several years.

"A home from a Quonset Hut" appeared in
House Beautiful (September 1945).

Back in Eastchester, Superintendent Ward I. Miller, who had moved his family into the high school, was not a veteran.  Perhaps he wanted to save money, or his salary did not cover housing costs, or he could not find just the right home.  Which it was remains unknown. 

Despite their shock, the school trustees did not fire Miller.  He stayed on until 1946 and then became superintendent of schools in Wilmington, Delaware. 

One must admire Miller’s clever choice of a place to live. 

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, as student enrollment soared, U. S. public school administrators accepted the charge to teach homemaking.  School buildings were constructed or retrofitted with small apartments where girls learned to cook and clean under the tutelage of home economics instructors who knew all the best recipes for gruel.   

Since the home economics curriculum modeled hygiene, diet and family life, it fit neatly with the overarching goal of Americanizing immigrants.  In Eastchester, such an effort would have been directed at the daughters of Italian immigrants who began moving to the town during the mid-1920s.   

Surely the Millers left the apartment in immaculate condition when they tiptoed out each morning.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

On the Fly with John Walker Harrington

"Tobacco Greatest Solace of War Worn Fighting Man"
One of Harrington's first big stories appeared in The Sun in 1917.

Everything grabbed the interest of John Walker Harrington, one of America’s forgotten journalists.

            “Kaiser’s Heir, Prince of Failure: The Sad Military Career of Frederick William, Who Stops Losing Battles Only Long Enough to Accept Decorations and Study the Strategic Value of Frogs”

             “Trotsky Was a Starving Idealist: Bolshevik Leader Left Impress on Thousands in The Bronx by Speeches and Writings”

            “Motor Street Traffic is Big Civic Problem: Wider Highways and Elevated Roadways Recognized as Essential Future Needs”

A quintessential reporter of the early twentieth century, John Walker Harrington was not as well-known as the crusaders Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell nor the daring investigative journalist Nellie Bly.  But Harrington was a prolific and expressive prose stylist.

His news and features appeared regularly in The New York Times, New York Herald, New York Tribune, Saturday Evening Post, Scientific American, Popular Science Monthly, Bankers Magazine, McClure’s, and the American Magazine.

Newspaper editors from Kansas to Alabama; Illinois to North Carolina; Nebraska to New Jersey faithfully pulled his stories from the wire services.

Given Harrington’s lifelong passion for science and technology, and his enthusiasm about the efficiency and productivity that lay in the future, it’s a neat juxtaposition that his earliest published pieces included sentimental stories for kids.  

Typical newspaper puzzle for children, 1890s 

These appeared, amidst comics and puzzles, in the children’s sections that were part of most Sunday newspapers once upon a time.

Born in 1869 in Missouri, Harrington grew up a child of the Upper Midwest.  He spent the first eighteen years of his life in Logan, Ohio, where his father was a pharmacist and his grandfather a bank president.  As companions he had two precocious brothers, Marshall and Herbert, and a younger sister, Evaline.

Logan was a bustling city on the banks of the Hocking River in the southeast part of the state.  It was the first place that Harrington took in the past and imagined the destiny of the United States.  

Main Street, Logan, Ohio, 1890s

During the 1880s, the boy observed the decline of the Hocking Canal – a branch of the Ohio and Erie Canal – once part of a major transportation system that crisscrossed the state. 

He recognized the essential importance of the railroad, for the Hocking Valley Railway passed through Logan on its way from Athens to Toledo.  Later it became part of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad.

And he was fascinated by local industry: grist and sawmills, iron and steel, the manufacture of clay products.

Intricacies of the Hocking Valley Railway

Harrington probably started writing when he was quite young.  At the College of Wooster, he edited the student paper, graduated in 1890 and stayed on to earn a Master of Philosophy. *  Then he became a registered pharmacist and briefly went into business alongside his father.

But his heart’s desire was to be a writer – fiction or the news, it did not matter.

By 1895 Harrington had moved to New York City.  There he began to see his byline with satisfying regularity.   

His first story, “Dove Rock Day,” was about Gilded Age summer society at Lake George in upstate New York, where an actress saves the life of a newspaper reporter who is spying on her.  His second story, “An Interrupted Mission” tells of a former slave who escapes being lynched by his two white partners during the Klondike Gold Rush.

In 1898 Harrington married May Lewis, daughter of a former district attorney.  A baby, Ruth, came along in 1899.

In 1900, Harrington published a collection
of his stories for children. 

Perhaps to amuse Ruth, Harrington turned to children’s stories.  First came “The Apple-Butter Cat,” which starred a church mouse from India and characters named Ugly Dog, Nimble Grasshopper, Leap Frog, and Jumping Kangaroo.  There followed “Hoot Owl Invents Golf”; “The Gray Mouse and the Fat Mouse, a Quaint Conceit”; “When the Goat was King, a Mechanical Toy Melodrama,” and “The Gringe and the Spitfire.”

In 1902 “The Man at Old Tom’s,” his haunting (adult) story about a suicide, was reprinted widely.  Right there in the first paragraph, he fully immersed himself in the main character:

Even the chops looked lonely at Old Tom’s on that December night.  Business had delayed me at the office, for Wall Street was on the verge of one of its frequent crises.  I had slipped out for dinner at the old chop-house.  The exertions of the day and the nervous strain under which I had been placed made me singularly depressed.

Not until 1916 did Harrington hit it big with a full-page story in The Sun.  “Tigers of the Sea” was about sharks preying on fishermen and bathers off the New Jersey Coast.

Now he was off and running.

Illustration for one of Harrington's
newspaper stories for children 

*The College of Wooster is located in Wooster, Ohio.

To be continued.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

The Editor at Bat

The editor of a college newspaper, captured for the school's 1895 yearbook.
Happened to catch my eye.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Betty Wales and J. J. Goldman

Ambitious and imaginative, J. J. Goldman filed
a patent for a button-detachment device in 1893.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Jacob J. Goldman and his brother Michael were chugging along in the garment business in New York City.  Their company, Gold Quality Skirts, manufactured skirts for women and girls. 

They were the sons of Jewish immigrants who arrived in the U.S. before the Civil War and settled in Baltimore.  Their father Samuel had brought a trade from Poland:  he was a tailor who specialized in hoop skirts.

Therefore, it is not surprising that Samuel’s sons went into women’s apparel.  By 1880, Jacob had moved to New York to start his career.  Michael soon joined him.   

At that time, the “needle industries,” as some called the garment business, occupied large swaths of Manhattan.  As far north as Fiftieth Street all the way down through the Village and ending east of City Hall, women’s wear was manufactured in tenements and factory buildings where immigrants toiled over sewing machines and other equipment or worked by hand.  These places were known as sweatshops.*

This 1922 map shows how the garment industry
(red and blue) was eventually consolidated

below 34th Street in Manhattan.

Around 1900, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) began to demand better working conditions and humane treatment of workers.  In 1909 they scored success with 14-week strike in which 20,000 women participated.

That same year, the Goldman brothers met their own kind of success with the new Goldman Costume Company.  By 1910, J. J. was ensconced on Riverside Drive with his wife Lollie and their two children.  

Then J. J. had an idea. It may have arrived via his daughter, Bessie.  Perhaps she brought the Betty Wales books to his attention in the same way that Walt Disney’s daughters showed him Mary Poppins.

Edith Kellogg Dunton published Betty Wales, B.A. under her pseudonym, Margaret Warde, in 1908.

Either way, it made for an unlikely pair:  Jacob Josiah Goldman and Edith Kellogg Dunton – Smith College graduate and author of the bestselling girls’ series Betty Wales.

The daughter of a judge, Edith was born in Rutland, Vermont, in 1875.  At the age of 18, she entered Smith, where she flourished as a writer.  After graduating in 1897, she worked as an English teacher in Rutland.  She also managed publicity for Smith, and received praise for her clever public relations strategies.

Then inspiration struck.  Edith decided to write a series of books for girls, all starring a capable young woman named Betty Wales.  There would be eight books, from Betty Wales, Freshman (1904) to Betty Wales, Business Woman (1917), all published by the Penn Publishing Company in Philadelphia.  Edith used the pseudonym Margaret Warde although her fans soon uncovered her identity.

Edith Kellogg Dunton, 1900

Many aspects of the stories seem autobiographical as Betty makes her way through the fictional Harding College and out into the world, surrounded by a circle of devoted friends.  The books were promoted as “college stories” about modern young women.  They quickly became bestsellers.

Now here came J. J. Goldman with a proposal for Edith and the Penn Publishing Company.

J. J. wanted to create a clothing line for younger women featuring a stylish, contemporary look.  He planned to call the line “Betty Wales Dresses,” and hoped to harness the popularity of the books and its heroine.   

The deal was sealed in 1915.  Within a few years, J. J. renamed his company Betty Wales Dressmakers.  Eventually, after his brother Michael died, he manufactured only Betty Wales dresses.

Ever the innovator, dubbed “father of a great idea,” J. J. devised all sorts of gimmicks to build the brand. 

His opening gambit was that every woman who purchased a Betty Wales dress would receive one of the books.  In the early 1920s he staged a contest guaranteeing a free dress to booksellers who sold a certain number of Betty Wales books.  Another contest asked for slogans; yet another for essays on “Why customers buy Betty Wales dresses.” 

As sales rose, J. J. spent heavily on advertising, especially in women’s magazines.  No one had done that before.  Patent medicine and soap?  Those items had been advertised for years in the Ladies Home Journal. 

But never a women’s clothing brand.

J. J. decided to make Betty Wales dresses available exclusively at one store per city, and eventually, he started a chain of Betty Wales Dress Shops.  By the 1930s, a kind of fervor surrounded the dresses, as reported in The American Cloak and Suit Review:

Betty Wales is a practical Twentieth Century personification of an idea, with the power to materialize to the modern girl or young woman in the form of a dress, a smart, refined, wearable and original dress, more dear to the heart of a girl than any legendary Goddess.

The dresses were popular through World War II and lingered into the early 1960s, although J. J. had long since sold the business and moved to Florida.  He died in 1948.  Edith spent most of her life in Rutland, where she died in 1944.  Penn Publishing continued to turn out juvenile book series through the postwar era.

And Betty Wales – she lifted her lamp beside the golden door of merchandising.   

*The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire killed 145 young women who could not escape the sweatshop because the doors were locked.  That tragedy led to major reforms demanded by organized labor.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

At Home in Kansas

Caught in a side view mirror
When my family moved to Kansas in 2000, the prospect of adjusting to a new community brought great trepidation. I imagine the feeling was similar to that of a settler’s wife, she who might have come west more than a century earlier, around 1880, as a young bride.

The young bride may be akin to a state of mind, the wistfulness that comes from leaving what is comfortable and moving to unfamiliar territory.

Perhaps the Civil War has just ended, and she is following her husband to a strange flat land of extreme temperatures and wary natives, where most news of the outside world comes from the Methodist circuit rider who pays monthly visits to conduct a revival or perform a baptism.

That was me, trailing my husband out to the Plains, hopefully anxious and anxiously hopeful – a young bride, figuratively speaking, wishing to feel at home in millennial Kansas. For despite the homogenization of American culture, communities do maintain distinctive social structures. I found that it would be necessary to acquire a local state of mind in order to fit in.  

View from a Target parking lot;
Overland Park, Kansas

From its earliest days as a territory, Kansas challenged those who made the journey. Whenever the pioneers reached their destination – whether by covered wagon after the Homestead Act of 1862 or by train during the rise of the Populist / agrarian movement a few decades later – they found unpredictable weather and unbroken land.

Even before they got to the place, there were premonitions. One woman would recall:

To me Kansas spelled destruction, desperadoes, and cyclones. I could not agree with my husband that any good could come out such a country, but the characteristic disposition of the male prevailed, and October 1, 1879, saw us bound for the “Promised Land.”  

A dairy farm lingered in suburban
Johnson County, Kansas

My family arrived in mid-July and waited for the temperature to cool. Day after day – 107, 105, 106. Occasionally, a faint prairie wind blew through. We stayed inside nearly all the time, enacting the nineteenth-century drama of the parlor darkened by curtains pulled against the sun.

Would the doorbell ring? Would the minister pay a call on the new family? That did not happen.

Eventually the heat diminished, and our two sons began the school year. I started to find my way, always driving, along the wide streets and through the startling checkerboard of big-box stores and fields filled with hay bales.

By the time of the High Holy Days in October, we were invited to break the fast at the home of neighbors, where the hostess’s famous ten-layer Jell-O mold, presented in the world’s largest trifle dish, arose in the center of the buffet.

Land for sale
It’s not easy to understand why any individual will become comfortable in certain places and not others. There are cities and towns where the fit is right, and we discover with pleasure what Willie Morris called “terrains of the heart.”  

We do not need to be kept in familiar boxes in order to feel sure of ourselves. However, there are things we grow to as a habit without which we may not be happy.   

Of course, I did not appreciate Kansas while we were there. That’s an old story.  Further down the road, when I was no longer a young bride, it became possible to know and understand the place.

Photos by Claudia Keenan

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Receive the summer sky

Be firm, rail over the river, to support those who lean idly, yet haste with the hasting current; 
Fly on, sea-birds! fly sideways, or wheel in large circles high in the air; 
Receive the summer sky, you water, and faithfully hold it till all downcast eyes have time to take it from you! 

from "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry"
by Walt Whitman 

Long Island Sound on the way from New London to Orient Point

Photos by Claudia Keenan

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

"My world is not your world, O Census-taker"

In 1922, the poet James Rorty published “What Michael Said to the Census-Taker.”  The poem is not well-known; just 150 pretty copies were printed by a San Francisco antiquarian named Edwin Grabhorn. 

Rorty, who was also an author, editor, and journalist, would become best known for co-founding The New Masses, a leftist magazine associated with the Communist Party of the United States of America.  He also decried Senator Joseph McCarthy and published McCarthy and the Communists, which is thought to have helped diminish the senator’s influence, and other works of social criticism.  

The son of Irish immigrants, born in 1890 in the industrial city of Middletown, N.Y., Rorty graduated from Tufts University. He drove an ambulance during World War I and received the Distinguished Service Cross.  Upon his return to the U.S., Rorty worked in advertising before cynicism set in and he turned to writing full-time.     

“What Michael Said to the Census-Taker” embodies themes to which Rorty returned throughout his life: pacifism, defiance, justice, and hypocrisy.  It’s an interesting poem and well worth reading, which is why I’m posting it here.

"yapping on the roadside of the world"

"Homer sang to me"

"I saw the torches sway and go out."

"When the moon rose over Calvary, I was there."

"A red glow flushed the cheek of the saint in
the stained-glass window"

"I'm Bolshevik!"

"And the jail's open door flapping, 
flapping in the wind."

"If you want to know who I am, I shall tell you"

Double left-click on images to enlarge them.

*The poem is in the public domain.

**The philosopher Richard M. Rorty was the son of James Rorty.    

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

The Schoolman

Ballroom at the Hotel Fort Des Moines in Des Moines, Iowa, site of the
1921 convention of the National Education Association 

Summer is always hot as hell in the Plains States and that’s inscribed in his soul, for he was a boy in rural Kansas and a young man in Nebraska. 

Now it’s July 1921 and Fred Hunter is ready to handle the heat of Iowa.  He’s on top of the world as he pulls open a bronze door to enter the lobby of the Hotel Fort Des Moines.  He’s ready for anything. 

Fred is president of the National Education Association, the nation’s most prestigious organization of school teachers and administrators.  The 64-year old group’s annual convention is about to begin.

Fred Hunter was a rising star in the
field of public school education.

In and out of the hotel’s ballrooms and lounges, Fred will preside over five days of discussions, debates, and reports.  Four thousand participants are expected.  Most will arrive in time for “Educational Sunday,” as described in the official program: Homer C. Stuntz, Bishop of the Methodist Episcopal church of Omaha, will speak about “Educating the Other Half of the World.”

The next morning, in between greetings from college presidents and state officials, the group gathered for an Americanization pageant performed by children in the Des Moines Public Schools.  Since the late nineteenth century, the children of immigrants had been the focus of Americanization programs in the nation’s public schools.

Immigration slowed during the Great War but after the Armistice it surged again.  Consequently, Senators Albert Johnson and David Reed were busy drafting the nation’s harshest immigration law to date.  The Immigration Act of 1924 would encompass the Asian Exclusion Act and, using drastically revised quotas, slam the door on Italians, Jews, and Slavs.   

Back at the convention, female teachers and male administrators discussed salaries, tenure, visual and music education, daylight in the classroom, rural school consolidation, the creation of the junior high school, and educating the Negro.

Excerpt from the NEA's 1921 Report on the Negro in Rural
Education and Country Life. 
Utter indifference among those
who could have made a difference.

The leading topic was student health and hygiene, including the trachoma epidemic* and proposals for sex education.  Nearly 20 sessions were devoted to health issues.

Some of the charts concerning student health which
appeared in the 1921 NEA convention program 

But the real buzz at the convention concerned something else entirely:  the application of business practices to schooling.  Educational administrators had fallen under the spell of efficiency.

Styling themselves as executives, the schoolmen – as they now liked to call themselves – sought better ways to monitor truancy and supplies, keep costs down, and standardize teaching practices.  They wanted more student testing.  They wanted to account for every red rubber playground ball. 

And so school administrators shifted their emphasis from education to efficiency.  As school districts grew larger, the schoolmen called in experts and ordered surveys.  Not until the thirties did the trend start to wind down, although arguably it never went away entirely.

Fred was an adherent of the education efficiency movement, but he didn’t stay a schoolman.  He had set his sights on higher education soon after kicking off his career in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he served as superintendent of schools between 1912 and 1917.

During those years, as popular culture stormed across the country, Fred voiced deep concerns.  He worried about the movies, dance halls, and penny arcades where wide-eyed youngsters learned about divorce, adultery, suicide, drinking, and robbery.  Teenagers were dancing the Tango and the Maxixe.  Church socials had been swapped out for bowling parties.    

Fred called for “a constructive program to control the amusement instinct” – build more playgrounds and sponsor activities at local schools.  Insist on vocational guidance for each student.  Establish an “efficiency list” comprised of reliable girls and boys who are available to perform tasks for local merchants.

But he probably didn’t want to keep wrestling with social deviance and the health crisis in the public schools.  As president of the University of Denver and chancellor of the Oregon Higher Education System – he would hold both positions – he could largely detach himself from those problems.

So here’s to Fred, president of the National Education Association, slamming down the gavel on July 3, 1921.  He welcomes everyone to the glittering new ventilated hotel and jovially shakes hands with his fellow schoolmen. 

Despite the sobriquet “Roaring Twenties,” the decade was disastrous for immigrants, minorities, and poor people (although very good for business). 

The schools were besieged by single-issue influencers ranging from the American Legion to Nativists to the Women's Christian Temperance Union.  The teaching of history became a battleground. The juvenile justice system meted out thousands of sentences.  For many public school students, it was the worst of times.

Dr. Frederick Maurice Hunter
*Trachoma is a contagious disease of the eye that can lead to blindness.  Many thought it was brought to the U.S. by immigrants, but it also proliferated among white Appalachians and Native Americans.