Wednesday, December 29, 2010

What Olive Opened, Christmas 1914

Christmas 1914: Among the gifts 20-something Olive opened was a gift record from "Mable and Lydia." In this small paper pamphlet, tied with a red ribbon, Olive carefully tracked all the gifts she gave and received for the next six Christmases, through 1920. Eventually she became a friend of my grandmother, and through various hands passed her gift record until it came to mine this December.

A peek into this slim volume reveals the gifts given to a young woman at the time. Accessories, clothing — or fabric for making clothing — and books were popular, much as they are today. What's not popular today? Handkerchiefs, a plethora of which fill many lines of Olive's list, both as gifts given and gifts received. What else did Olive find under her tree that morning, Christmas 1914?

• An ivory mirror and comb from "Mamma"
• Drawnwork (embroidered) sheet and pillowcases from Grandma
• Dresser scarf from Martha
• Silk hose from Aunt Sophia
• Rambler Rose Waist — in other words, a printed blouse — from Aunt Martha
• Leather writing case from Aunt Mary
• Crocheted collar and cuffs from Aunt Alma
• Ribbon wrist bag from Auntie Hanson
• Japanese print from Marcella
• Henry Van Dyke's popular book The Spirit of Christmas from Thekla
• And a "Good Cheer" calendar from Ida

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Huskies today, "Lassies" yesterday

Women's basketball is big news today, thanks to UConn's Huskies beating the 88-game winning streak set by the University of California's men's team back in the 1970s.  Had it been a men's team to break the L.A. team's record, there would have been more coverage. No doubt.

But women's basketball has long been making history. In fact, just one year after John Naismith invented "basket ball" in 1891, Smith's College organized the first women's basketball team. Four years later, the first women's intercollegiate basketball championship was played between Stanford and the University of California at Berkley — before a crowd of 700 women.

Around the same time, high schools (including Western High School, Washington, D.C. — see inset), companies and local clubs started women's basketball teams, including such all-black girls' teams as the New York Girls and the Spartan Girls.

One New York Times story in 1907 reported on the Colgate YMCA women's team hosting two others: "The playing was fast and rough, and the girls were sprawling on the floor several times after lively scrimmaging. . . . There were many fouls called, not necessarily because the girls meant to be rough, but because they entered into the spirit of the contest with so much vim and aggressiveness that they slammed each other up against the wall with anything but girlish gentleness."

But all this ardor for b-ball wasn't without controversy. A number of colleges began banning women's basketball from intercollegiate competition. The Amateur Athletic Union took the position that women and girls shouldn't play basketball in public. And the split bloomers the players wore? In 1907, the Illinois State High School Athletic Association declared the costumes "objectionable" and that "the record of blacked eyes, scratched countenances and bruised bodies of the last season is an argument against the game as far as the lassies are concerned." At the time, that meant all 300 girls' basketball teams had to cancel their games.

Despite all that and even during women's baskeball decline before the passage of Title IX, girls and women have always played hoops. Congratulations to the Huskies for continuing to make history. 

P.S. December is Black Women's Basketball History Month.

Friday, December 3, 2010

You think Black Friday’s mobs are brazen?

Seemingly well-mannered shoppers window shop during the holiday season in New York City.                   Library of Congress Prints & Photographs.
Actually, crazed Christmas shoppers are simply following tradition. Back in December 1900, a gentleman was put upon to go Christmas shopping and was so enraged by his treatment by female shoppers and clerks that he wrote a letter to the editor of The New York Times to complain. Here’s a snippet:
“[At No. 1 store] a more brazen, impudent, uncouth, ill-bred, and indecent specimen of womanhood has never before been on public exhibition. . . . At No. 2 there was simply a mob of women pulling, hauling, and crowding, affording just the kind of an opportunity sought by thieves and pickpockets. . . . At No. 3 the crowd was largely from the country, consequently it was more orderly and decent, but at No. 4 . . .the clerks showed more impudence than a grass-fed mule.  This experience, however, [was] well worth the expense and discomfort attending it, for it fairly demonstrated that a man has no rights which a woman respects in a department store, and therefore hereafter he cannot be expected to [shop for] Christmas presents.”

 So what were these “impudent vixens” buying back in 1900?
• gunmetal banks for children,
• fur coats for dolls,
• 25-cent toy cars,
• pretty silk-covered coat hangers — three for $1.25,
• needle cases, each the size of a "doll's opera-glass" case,
• traveler's inkstands, each packed inside a man's hatcase-shaped leather box,
• wood-famed petite calendars,
• luncheon name cards decorated with floral designs,
• ivory smoking sets, and
• elaborate silver toilet articles — mirrors, brushes, bottles and glove boxes.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Etiquette Books: Part 2

This woman is likely not displaying her best table etiquette in "A Word to the Wise" by C.D. Gibson (1900).
While most etiquette books 100 years ago advised girls and women to be feminine, quiet, attentive and helpful, the books were not of one mind: A few books also expected girls to be smart and hard-working. A rare volume or two advised them to be bold. 
Here's one modern observation from a 1923 etiquette volume*: "There was a time, not so long ago, when a most marked reserve was required between men and women in public. But to-day, with the advent of women into almost every branch of business, art and profession, there is a tendency to loosen this social barrier and create a more friendly relationship between men and women."
While most 1900s advice is amusing to today's girls and women ("Tight clothing spoils the complexion" and "When a girl is. . . in public places, she should never laugh nor talk loudly"), some advice*, even 100 years later, still rings true in 2010: "The young miss of to-day is certainly more thrilled with life and its possibilities than her sister of two or three decades ago ever was. . . . To-day life is shown to her as it is shown to her brother — as something beautiful, something impressive, something worthy of deep thought and ambitious plans."
We can all give thanks for that. Happy Thanksgiving!

* Both quotes from Book of Etiquette, 1923.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Etiquette Books: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

No doubt these ladies are following myriad etiquette rules in "Luncheon" by C.D. Gibson (1898).
Who determines how you act? What you say? What you wear? 
You? Your friends? Your mother's voice in your head?
At the turn of the last century, society largely dictated what was and was not appropriate in all areas of life — especially for women in the middle and upper classes. That was true about what women wore ("Dress for comfort, not fashion"), what women said ("Never take a man to task about anything"), and where women went ("Never visit unfavorable cabarets"). Above all, society taught conformity and propriety.
Volumes of etiquette proliferated — most filled with advice for women and girls. Sure, men were told which fork to use first at a formal dinner party and when to tip a hat to a lady, but for the most part, Etiquette's rules rested on women's shoulders. That was particularly true for young women. After all, reputations were at stake: All a young woman said and did and wore reflected on her and her family.
There were letters to write, neighbors to visit, calling cards to leave (the number of rules regarding calling cards alone is mind-boggling), books to read and books to avoid, household skills to learn, conversational tips to use, dances — and church — to attend, boys to meet and date and wed. It was enough to make a girl's head spin — or perhaps to make her fury at the few accomplishments to which she was to aspire outside of marriage and child-rearing. 
Here's a typical piece of advice (Etiquette, 1923): "The dainty smiling wife who sends her husband cheerily on his way each morning makes the machinery of the world he contacts move more smoothly. At night she is ready, unruffled and dainty to greet him and presents a charming appearance whenever they go out." 
Hmmm. Or should I say hmmpffff? 

(Stay tuned for Etiquette Books, Part 2.)

Monday, November 8, 2010

Easy women? Hardly

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
Sure, women are increasingly in the spotlight when it comes to elections. But back in 1900, women also made political headlines. In a few states, women already had the right to vote: They could vote in Utah, Colorado, Idaho and Wyoming — long before the 19th amendment passed in 1920.
During the election of 1900, Wyoming Congressional candidate John Charles Thompson boasted that the "women who vote [in Wyoming] were the easiest to get, the easiest to keep and the easiest to manipulate." Not surprisingly, women of "The Equality State" united behind Republican Frank Wheeler Mondell, who handily won the election.
Check out the suffragettes heading up the stairs of the state capitol,  Rep. Mondell in the midst of them.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Underneath it all

A 15-year-old girl works on corsets in Boston in 1917. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Comfortable, stylish and straight yet with enough curve to “conform to healthful anatomical lines.” That’s the glowing ad copy that hawked the R&G “extreme straight-front corset” to its customers back in 1900. Of course, R&G, like other corset companies, offered a variety of colors and dozens of styles “to fit every figure.” And millions of women bought them every year.

Yet corsets were far from controversial. Arguably, no woman hated them more than Alice Bunker Stockham, a Chicago ob/gyn and only the fifth female U.S. doctor. Indeed, she called the corset “an instrument of torture.”

“If women had common sense, instead of fashion sense, the corset would not exist,” she wrote in her popular 1897 book Tokology. “There are not words in the English language to express my convictions upon the subject.” She was particularly irate over women’s insistence on wearing corsets well into their pregnancies.

Yet corset lovers would not to be swayed. And corset makers would not be thwarted. Women routinely read newspaper “articles,” claiming that a corset was “indispensable to health and beauty.” Women were counseled to call on corsetieres to ensure an expert fit. And “modern” corsets promised to support spines, provide natural breathing, and prevent poor poise and stooping shoulders. There were even “college girl” corsets designed to allow movement for golfing, horseback riding and biking.

Eventually, the corset haters won out. Stockham recounted one woman’s response on having shed her corset: “For the first time in my life, I am an emancipated woman.”

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Packing for College: Whisky and Witch Hazel

A rowing team of Wellesley students dress in their finest, circa 1913.
Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.  

Vassar College was the first university to offer a full liberal arts program for women beginning in 1865. At the time, when most young women seeking higher education were enrolled in teachers' colleges, inviting women to study such subjects as art history, French and psychology was a radical idea. 

Forty years later, while other such women-only universities had opened their doors, the majority of women students still attended "female seminaries." Despite that and surprisingly, the number of "coeds," as they were dubbed, was equal to the number of male students by then.

Regardless of what type of educational institution women were attending, when it was time to go away to school, they weren't heading to Target for fashionable decor and minifridges. No, an incoming freshman was told to bring mostly first-aid supplies. Here's her typical list: bandages, antiseptic, hot water bottle, syringe, roll of prepared mustard sheets, three porous plasters, absorbent cotton and a roll of old linen, bottle of "pure whisky," flasks of turpentine and alcohol, witch hazel, medicated clay, eye cup and eyewash, medicine glass and dropper, thermometer, salve, quinine tables, family-tested headache and cold cures, scissors and safety pins. 

Today's college first-aid kit? Likely a box of Band-Aids and the phone number to the on-campus health office.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Old Girl Celebrates Her 90th

Women march in a suffrage parade in New York City, May 4, 1912.
Both photos, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
CHARLOTTE WOODWARD WAS JUST 18 when she traveled by wagon, with other hopeful and liberal-minded friends, to the Seneca Falls Women's Rights Convention in 1848. There, the radical notion of women's right to vote was first seriously suggested by rabble-rousers Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. Woodward was among 68 women to sign the meeting's Declaration of Sentiments.
Little could Woodward have realized that it would take another 72 — yes, 72 — years, for that right to be guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. When the 19th amendment was finally ratified in 1920, she was roughly 90 years old. Unfortunately, she was ill and confined to her home and did not participate later that year when women first voted in a presidential election.  
Last month, women's suffrage celebrated its own 90th birthday. A girl born on August 18, 1920 — the date the 19th amendment was ratified — never knew a time when she couldn't vote. And she's had the chance to vote myriad times — 18 times in presidential elections alone.
As we approach another election, albeit a midterm, we raise a glass to the Old Girl, women's suffrage, and to all the women who pressed for its passage, including Woodward. 
"My heart is with all women who vote," she said in 1920.
Cheers to that.