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Erika Janik

Writer, Historian, Inveterate Seeker. Curious About Everything (especially history). Passionate About Writing.

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History

Sleuthing on the Airwaves

Phyl_Coe_CD_Cover
Old Time Radio Archives

The music swells and then fades. Suddenly there’s drum beat and then a scream. “Ladies and gentlemen, quiet please. A murder has been committed,” intones the announcer. “Here’s your chance to play detective! Phyl Coe Mysteries on the Air.”

Young sleuth Phyl Coe, a name derived from the show sponsor Philco, a maker of batteries and radios, made her detecting debut in 1936. She solved mysteries “right before your ears.” It was up the listeners to determine how she did it.

As a woman in radio, I’m drawn to the stories of other women in early radio – even fictional ones.

From the 1920s onward, film, radio, and, eventually, television, were obsessed with crime. Most of these programs featured male detectives but a few young female detectives found their way into broadcast media early.

Described as “the beautiful girl detective,” Phyl Coe starred in fifteen-minute episodes that invited listeners to solve the mystery using official entry blanks from their local Philco dealer to win “huge cash prizes.” Coe was smart and unafraid to take charge of the situation. In one case, she attends a magic show with her boyfriend only to have the magician shot dead on the stage. She manages to solve the case before the police arrive.

Coe lasted only one year, though. The next year, Philco decided to change the gender of its detective, turning feminine Phyl into masculine Phil.

But the airwaves were not without a female sleuth for long.

Kitty Keene, Inc., a soap opera that centered on a former Ziegfeld Follies chorus girl turned detective in mid-life, joined Phil in radio detecting in September of 1937. When Keene’s daughter had a baby, Keene became the only sleuthing grandmother on the radio. The show ran for four years, with three actresses playing Keene, the longest run for a radio female sleuth.

Movie stars Joan Blondell and Dick Powell starred in the short-lived radio serial Miss Pinkerton, Inc., in 1941, based on characters created by Mary Roberts Rinehart. Blondell played Mary Vance, a law school graduate who inherits her uncle’s detective agency and earns the nickname “Miss Pinkerton” from New York City police sergeant Dennis Murray, played by Powell.

The year 1946 was a banner year for sleuths with three women arriving on the scene. Meet Miss Sherlock played as much for laughs as detection, with ditzy amateur sleuth Jane Sherlock solving cases along with her attorney boyfriend, Peter Blossom. The Affairs of Ann Scotland starred radio and stage star Arlene Francis as a sexy girl detective.

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Miss Sherlock (OTR)

Finally, real-life New York City policewoman Mary Sullivan inspired the series Policewoman, which dramatized cases from her career. Sullivan herself added postscripts to the episodes, enhancing the reality of the crimes depicted. This series marked the first pure female sleuth, devoid of comedy or the melodrama of soaps.

Candy Matson was the first hard-boiled woman on the airwaves, debuting in 1949. Sassy, sexy, and sensible, Matson carries a gun, never hesitates to enter the lowliest dive bar for a case, and doesn’t take anyone’s guff. Monty Masters created Matson and cast his wife, Natalie Parks, in the lead role. Every thirty-minute episode opens with a ringing telephone answered, “Hello, YUKON 2–8209. Yes, this is Candy Matson,” followed by the swell of the theme song. Matson’s work took her from her apartment on San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill to real locations around the Bay Area. Matson works with her best friend and sidekick, Rembrandt Watson, though he is not a doctor like the most famous Watson; he provides more comic relief than actual help. Her boyfriend, San Francisco police lieutenant Ray Mallard, continually underestimates her skill, even as she reliably solves cases before him. The show ran on various NBC stations until 1951

The glory days of the smart detecting woman did not last, however. Matson, radio’s last lady crime fighter, went off the air in the early 1950s.

 

Pistols and Petticoats Is Out!

My new book, Pistols and Petticoats: 175 Years of Lady Detectives in Fact and Fiction, came out today! Find it in your local bookstore. If you don’t see it, ask for it to be ordered.

Pistols and Petticoats explores the struggles women have faced in law enforcement and in mystery fiction since the late nineteenth century. Working in a profession considered to be strictly a man’s domain, investigating women were nearly always at odds with society. These sleuths and detectives refused to let that stop them, and paved the way to a modern professional life for women on the force and in popular culture.

Read more about the book and how it came to be here.

And see photos from the book along with an introduction from me in this awesome slideshow on Time.

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Police officer demonstrates an arrest Source: Library of Congress

Girl Detectives Before Nancy Drew

My new book, Pistols and Petticoats: 175 Years of Lady Detectives in Fact and Fiction, comes out April 26th (two weeks from today! Mark your calendars!).

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ArtScatter

 

Nancy Drew looms large in young-adult detective fiction, but she was not the first girl detective. In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, there were a number of young female detectives who solved cases quite capably in their own right.

Some of the first appeared in dime novels, short, usually adventurous fiction sold as cheap paperbacks. Edward L. Wheeler’s pistol-wielding heroine Denver Doll was fighting crime, handily winning poker hands, and leading a band of adventurers known as the Red Shirts as early as 1882. Although her age is never revealed, Doll appears to be about eighteen years old with “rich brown hair” that fell in “rippling waves half-way to her waist. A plumed slouch hat of snowy white; an elegant suit of gray, and patent leather top boots, with a diamond-studded ‘boiled’ shirt, collar, and a sash about her waist beneath the coat, made up her costume, and gave her an appearance at once dashing, and characteristic of the wild roving existence she led.” Doll is particularly good at posing as a man, in one case disguising herself as a tough miner named “Glycerine George.” Doll blazed through four stories, eluding capture by both criminals and love; that Doll remains unmarried is a particularly rare feat for the young fictional heroine.

Detective Kate Edwards is, despite the title of her book, most unladylike in her adventures in Lady Kate, The Dashing Female Detective (1886) by Harlan Halsey. Edwards tried a few professions out before settling on private eye. She speaks multiple languages and dons disguises to uncover clues, appearing as everything from an old woman to a tough-talking male sailor. She knocks men to the ground and uses swords and pistols with skill. Trapped on a cliff at night during a storm, Edwards lowers herself from a tree like a superhero, climbing limb to limb to the ground and to safety. She’s not all brawn, though. In the most Sherlock Holmesian of fashion, Edwards deduces the whereabouts of a suspect by examining the clay on his left-behind boots.

Another young detective, Violet Strange, was the creation of Anna Katherine Green, a writer little known today but one once called the “mother of detective fiction” for her best-selling mysteries. Strange was a wealthy debutante and the favorite child of her father, Peter Strange. The girl’s mother had died when she was a child, and her father gives Strange free reign over her life. Her family home, on New York’s Fifth Avenue, is luxurious, and Violet travels throughout the city to social events in a chauffeured limousine. But she also gets paid to detect as a member of a high-profile private detective agency. Strange is so adept that some characters suggest she have supernatural powers, but Strange rebuffs them, asserting her practicality and displaying a talent for logic and mathematical puzzles.

Drew wasn’t all that different from these and other sleuthing peers when she made her debut in 1930. Like Strange, Drew had the financial means and freedom to travel to solve crimes, unencumbered by school or family responsibilities. Like Strange, Drew also lost her mother when she was young, and both women had fathers who paid little attention to their whereabouts.

All together, what made these girl detectives so effective is that few took them seriously or could even see them as real detectives. Doll, Edwards, Strange, and Drew all used this underestimation to their advantage.

 

Reading Louisa Adams: Or, Taking a Book Too Personally

Alexander Hamilton may be the hottest trend in Founding Fathers but my heart belongs to the Adams family. Always has.

I first fell in love with John Adams watching the movie version of the musical 1776. It started as torture – my dad loved that movie – and came to be a favorite (the same thing happened with Brussels sprouts). He’s obnoxious and disliked and yet so pithy and self-aware. And he married so well. Abigail was smart, curious, and politically minded despite having no formal education. She managed every aspect of their household and farm while John pursued politics. I read countless books on them and visited their homes. The Adams’ pleased my little colonial history loving heart.

But perhaps it’s a sign that my love has grown out of proportion when I find myself sad and hurt by the treatment of one Adams by many other Adams’, Louisa Catherine Adams, the wife of John Quincy Adams, while reading the new biography Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams by Louisa Thomas. So much so that I sometimes lay the book down with a pained look on my face and tell my husband the latest mean thing that John Quincy said or Abigail wrote about her daughter-in-law.

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Louisa Adams (Wikimedia)

This isn’t my first brush with Louisa. I read Mrs. Adams in Winter by Michael O’Brien that detailed her journey from St. Petersburg, Russia, to Paris in 1815. Her marriage to John Quincy didn’t seem easy or always happy in that book.

But somehow this book has hit me harder, especially as Louisa suffers miscarriage after miscarriage with little sympathy (and often blame) from her husband. He’s introverted and struggles with the public aspects of public service while Louisa excels at friendship and adjusting to new situations and expectations (of which she has an epic number). Abigail is scarcely any kinder to her, seeing her as pale, weak, and coddled – no match for her son.

No one is perfect, of course, but I’ve been surprised how deeply I feel for Louisa and the difficulties she faced. Author Stacy Schiff has it right in her blurb – if “being born an Adams was difficult, marrying one was yet more so.” John Quincy was prickly and suffered from the high expectations he believed (rightly so) that his parents placed on him. And Louisa, the child of an American father and British mother, grew up in Europe, far from the New England world of her future husband and his family.

But as sad and disappointed as I feel about some of Abigail, John, and John Quincy’s actions, it’s also this complexity that makes the past real. It’s how I fell in love with history in the first place – reading books and visiting historic sites that made people in the past feel like real people with all of the good and plenty of the bad.

I haven’t lost my love of the Adams family by reading this book. If anything, it’s just demonstrated the power of great storytelling and great history to evoke real emotion in the present day.

When Pennies Built a Hospital

Counting Pennies
Wisconsin Historical Images

In the above image, people in Woodruff count the thousands of pennies that came in the mail as part of the Dr. Kate Million Penny fundraiser in 1953.

Dr. Kate was Kate Pelham Newcomb, a country doctor undeterred from attending to her patients by any harsh winter weather that northern Wisconsin threw her way. She was used to adversity, though. Her mother had died when she was very young (as did a baby brother). As a girl, she dreamed of being a doctor but her father thought medicine was an inappropriate career for a woman. So Newcomb became a teacher, instead, in Buffalo, New York, in 1911.

When her stepmother died, Newcomb moved to Boston to take care of her family and manage the home. But she was miserable and still dreamed of becoming a doctor. Her father finally relented and she went to medical school.

In 1919, Newcomb moved to Detroit and opened her own practice. She also met her future husband there, Bill Newcomb, and the two married in 1921. But a lung disease soon led Bill to trade polluted Detroit for the fresh air of Boulder Junction. Newcomb followed in 1923, giving up her medical career for a life in the forest.

But the needs of her new community brought Newcomb back into medicine in 1931.

It wasn’t easy. She was the only doctor serving a far-flung population of several thousand. To reach her patients, she paddled in icy rivers, drove through blizzards, and walked miles in snowshoes. The latter feat earned her the nickname “Angel on Snowshoes.”


Dr Kate Newcomb. Wisconsin Historical Society

Although she eventually delivered more than 3,000 babies (and never losing a mother like she’d lost her own), Newcomb dreamed of doing more. She wanted a hospital and launched a campaign to raise funds for the facility in 1952.

Around the same time, a local schoolteacher seeking to demonstrate how much a million was led to a student drive to collect 1 million pennies, the Million Penny Parade. All of the pennies would go toward funding the hospital.

The effort captured the imagination of people around the country and even around the world. Pennies poured into the Woodruff post office. Newcomb even appeared on the TV show “This Is Your Life” in 1954 to help raise money to complete construction.

With enough funds secured, Lakeland Memorial Hospital opened in 1954. Woodruff gave Newcomb a parade worthy of a hero, with 90 floats and 15 marching bands.

Two years later, in 1956, Newcomb passed away.

Flour Bag Fashion

“When I was just a maiden fair,

Mama made our underwear;

With many kids and Dad’s poor pay,

We had no fancy lingerie.

Monograms and fancy stitches

Did not adorn our Sunday britches;…

No lace or ruffles to enhance

Just “Jockey Oats” on my pants.

One pair of Panties beat them all,

For it had a scene I still recall –

Chickens were eating wheat

Right across my little seat.

Rougher than a grizzly bear

Was my flour-sack underwear…

All through Depression each Jill and Jack

Worse the sturdy garb of the sack…

There were curtains and tea towels too,

And that is just to name a few.

But the best beyond compare

Was my flour-sack underwear.”

This poem, an anonymous ode to flour sack underwear from the 1930s, likely expressed the thoughts of many who wore feed sack fashion. Feed and flour sack fashion predated the Depression years, however.

In the 1850s, improvements in sewing machine design and a thriving and growing cotton market, helped by the widespread commercial use of the cotton gin, made cotton bags cheap and easy to produce. Wooden barrels, boxes, and bins, the stuff of transport for centuries, were pushed aside in favor of tightly stitched bags. Flour, sugar, animal feed, and fertilizer were among the products to be shipped in bags.

To the surprise of the companies, these bags proved nearly as valuable as the feed they contained.

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Two women in flour sack dress around 1929 (Source)

Rural families often had limited resources for reasons of finances and distance from markets. Forced to be thrifty, farm families took advantage of an essentially free source of fabric to make clothes. The cotton bags came with the names and logos of the companies and women figured out ways to remove the ink to make the fabric useable for dresses, towels, curtains, quilts, and other goods. It was no easy task – some soaked he bags in kerosene and others rubbed them with lard – but women were resourceful. Free from logos, the bags were dyed, embroidered, and trimmed.

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An instruction manual for sewing with cotton bags (Kindness Blog)

It took some time but by the 1920s, the flour and feed industry began to capitalize on the popularity of the bags. To make it easier for sewing, companies developed easy to remove labels. Others provided instructions on how to remove the labels. Then, they came up with printed patterns, bright colors, and printed pattern and embroidery lines. Gingham Girl flour, for instance, was marketed in red and white checked fabric of a dressmaking quality as early as 1925. Some companies even hired artists to design prints. Recycling flour sacks into clothing and household items had become a fad.

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Printed sacks of wheat for dressmaking (Life)

The introduction of printed fabric bags expanded the market for feed and flour from male farmers to farmers and their wives. Women were now more involved in the selection of feed. Feed and flour companies hoped that these innovations would cause women to instruct their husbands to purchase particular brands and additional bags so they could complete an outfit or pattern.

Commercial and noncommercial organizations alike published pattern and instruction booklets. A typical woman’s dress required three sacks.

Fad turned to necessity during the Depression and continued into World War II with fabric shortages and rationing. Fortunately for farm wives, feed sacks fell in the industrial rather than retail category during the war so clothing fabric could still be found in feed stores at the same time that readymade clothing became scarce.

Demand for cotton bags declined after World War II as packaging switched to paper, the new more cost-effective way to transport goods. Producers of cotton bags tried to keep their market share by intensifying their focus on farm wives. They hired top designers to create modern prints, and organized traveling fashion shows of clothes made from bags.

But the flour sacks’ days were numbered. Production declined in the late 1950s, replaced by cheaper plastic and paper.

Milwaukee: Spice Mecca

My latest story for Edible Milwaukee is out in the world. Spices, just in time for the holidays! It’s also where I magically trace the European settlement of Wisconsin to the spice trade.

A teaser:

Few things conjure the spirit of the holidays better than the scent of cinnamon, cloves, vanilla and nutmeg. These flavors have long been popular with Milwaukeeans. In 1846, Water Street grocer Frederick Wardner announced in the Milwaukee Daily Courier that he had just returned with the largest stock of dry goods and groceries, with special note made of ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and pepper, that “has ever been exhibited to the good people of Wisconsin.”

SpiceHouse-2There’s something mystical about the idea of spices, invoking images of brightly colored mounds of seeds, flowers, and bark in an Eastern bazaar. While the terms are sometimes used interchangeably in the kitchen, herbs and spices are different. Herbs are the leaves of plants, while spices come from the roots, bark and seeds. Some plants provide both herb and spice, like cilantro, the leaves and coriander, the seeds of the cilantro plant. Most spices originate in the tropics, growing 15 degrees above or below the equator. Herbs, on the other hand, can be more temperate.

Demand for trade goods from Asia, especially spices like cinnamon and pepper, was high in the Middle Ages. But the distance and number of middlemen involved made these goods too expensive for any but the wealthiest of Europeans in the 1300s and 1400s.

The secret behind the spice trade was simple: huge demand and a tightly-controlled supply. The drive for more (and cheaper) spices drove Europeans westward in search of an alternative sea route to Asia. Among the first was Christopher Columbus who aimed for India but bumped into the Americas instead. To appease his creditors for his failure, Columbus named the New World natives he met “Indians” and their chilies “pepper,” two names that have confused people ever since.

 

Read more about spices and so many more delicious things at Edible Milwaukee

Make And Mend: Sewing in the Second World War

“It’s up to you to keep the home fires burning, to see that you and your family stay easy-on-the-eyes. Fortunately, you can be patriotic and pretty both. It’s easy to teach an old wardrobe new tricks, to resurrect the skeletons in your closet and bring them up to date. Come on, take those old knockabouts and turn them into knockouts, keep that glint in Uncle Sam’s eye and still do your stint towards Victory!”

That’s how the Spool Cotton Company enticed American women to sew during World War II. Everyone was asked to do his or her part for the war. Children saved pennies and collected scrap metal. Families planted vegetable gardens. Women learned to cook meals without meat, wheat, and sugar. Other women went to work in factories and farm fields. They also picked up a needle and thread.

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4.2.7

Sewing had fallen by the wayside for many Americans with the growth of ready-made clothes in the 1920s. A whole generation of young people grew up thinking that they maybe didn’t have to sew anymore.

But during World War II, sewing became patriotic and women were urged to mend old clothes or make new ones. In 1942, the War Production Board issued regulation L-85 rationing natural fibers. Domestic supplies of wool, cotton, linen, rayon, silk, and nylon were needed for military uniforms and supplies. The government need for fabric grew so great that it depleted supplies of clothes and shoes.

To save on fabric, the War Production Board even regulated style, limiting fabric color choices and restricting the length of skirts and the fullness of pants. Cuffs were forbidden. Dresses were limited to one and ¾ yards of fabric.

As a result, women’s hems rose, pants legs narrowed, and jackets fell at the hip. Women stopped wearing silk stockings (which cost too much, while the new wonder fiber nylon was commandeered soon after its launch for parachutes, airplanes, netting, and tents) and began painting seams on their legs to give the appearance of wearing stockings. Men adopted single-breasted suits without pleats or cuffs. Some men struggled to even find a suit as the clothing industry focused on military needs.

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Archive.org

And Americans began to mend their old clothes – “make do and mend” as the effort was known in Britain. “You’ve no idea how quickly wilted wardrobes respond to kindness,” counseled Make Mend for Victory. The booklet advised women on easy repairs for holes in stockings, fixing tears, and patching holes. Not oblivious to trends, it also covered alterations and restyling, the addition of collars and dickeys, and smart hats made from “a ball of yarn” and “a scrap of felt.”

Sewing for victory created a sewing boom but it didn’t last. While fabric shortages in Europe kept women sewing longer, many American women put aside their machines once the war ended.

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Make Mend for Victory

Recalling Women’s Fight for the Vote in Wisconsin

Wisconsin Historical Images

Nov. 5, 1912, was a bad day for Wisconsin women hoping to gain the vote in a statewide referendum.

Wisconsin voters (all male, by definition) shot down the suffrage question. As the poster, pictured right suggests, many of them did so for fear of what women would do armed with the vote. (Since only men could vote, it’s not clear who the other half of the “menace” in question is).

Women’s rights groups began forming in Wisconsin in the late 1860s. Most focused primarily on suffrage and temperance, the latter of which generated particularly strong opposition from the state’s powerful brewing industry, as well as German-Americans. Many of these voters believed that enfranchised women would force prohibition on the state.

In 1911, Richland Center suffragist Ada James enlisted her father, state Sen. David James, to push for a statewide referendum on suffrage. His support along with the lobbying of the Wisconsin Federation of Women’s Clubs brought the issue to voters in the fall of 1912. Wisconsin men voted suffrage down by a margin of 63 to 37 percent. Many factors contributed to the referendum’s defeat, but the link between suffrage and temperance played a major role.

Seven years later, in 1919, Wisconsin became the first state to ratify the 19th Amendment, the measure that would give women the vote nationwide. It was Ada James’ father, David, who raced to Washington, D.C., after the state Legislature approved the amendment to give Wisconsin that honor.

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