Sleuthing on the Airwaves

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!).

 

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.

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.

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

Back-to-School: Dorm Life in the 19th Century

Though students may not bring their tea sets to college anymore — as Lelia Bascom did in the above image of her room in the old Chadbourne Hall at the University of Wisconsin in 1899 — the college experience has long been associated with dorm life.

For centuries, universities were built around massive libraries. Early dorms were imposing structures designed to separate students from the outside — noneducational, vice-ridden — world. The male students that traditionally occupied these rooms were subject to strict rules and routines, often enforced by dorm mothers.

Male students took up residency in the University of Wisconsin’s North Hall in 1851. Among the hall’s most famous residents in its early years was John Muir, who decorated his 1860s dorm room with some of his inventions designed to maximize his college experience. One was a combination bed/alarm clock that tipped him onto the floor at an appointed hour each morning and struck a match to light up the room. Another was a rotating desk that lifted his textbook from a stack, opened it to the proper page, and left it there for a preset time before replacing it with the next book.

A second dorm, South Hall, opened in 1855, and became the first female residence hall in 1863 when the first women were admitted to the UW. The student above, Lelia Bascom, benefited from the actions of her distant cousin, former UW President John Bascom, the man primarily responsible for giving women full coeducational status at the UW in 1863. It was a move steadfastly opposed by one of Bascom’s predecessors Paul Chadbourne, who later, in a most fitting bit of historical humor and revenge, became the namesake for the building housing female students. When the original Chadbourne Hall was demolished in 1957, it was the oldest women’s dorm in the United States.

See more photos of dorm life — and its evolution — in this wonderful gallery from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives.

Single Ladies – 19th Century Style

Long before Carrie, Miranda, Samantha, and Charlotte brought singledom to the television, real women known as “bachelor girls” were doing the same in American cities. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, women were expected to marry. They had no social identity without marriage and motherhood.

But in the late 19th century, some single women with respectable ways of earning money came to regard marriage as unnecessary for self respect or financial stability. They didn’t oppose marriage but set certain standards for suitors to meet to gain their hand. “A great many bachelor maids are not living alone because they so choose, but have been unable to find a suitable companion,” declared Helen Gould, a self-proclaimed bachelor maid. Women like Gould formed social groups, known as Bachelor Maids’ Clubs, first in New York and Washington D.C., and then in cities and towns around the country. Sixty women, “banded together by an ‘all-for-one-and-one-for-all’ compact that would make the Musketeers themselves pale with envy,” formed the inaugural membership of the New York Bachelor Girls’ Club. The women first considered calling themselves “The Old Maids’ Club” but the bad feelings associated with spinsters – “corkscrew curls and a tabby cat” proclaimed one bachelor girl – led them to embrace bachelorhood.

The generations of women born between 1865 and 1895 had the highest proportion of single women in history. Before this time, a single woman who didn’t have to work to support herself would likely have resigned herself to a boring life in her childhood home with her parents. Not these ladies. Instead, they pursued higher education, fulfilling work, and independent living.

In 1907, the Washington Herald began publishing a popular column “Bachelor Girl Chat” that soon found a home in the women’s pages of newspapers across the country. Written by Helen Rowland (the “Carrie” of the past), the columns featured an ongoing conversation between the “Bachelor Girl” and the “Mere Man.” The Mere Man clearly wants to marry the Bachelor Girl but his interest gets subsumed beneath talk of feminism and patriarchy. Complaining of new laws barring women from smoking in New York City, the Bachelor Girl proclaims, “The moment you find anything amusing, you discover that it’s unladylike. Her reputation is the white woman’s burden. It takes all the fun out of life to have a good reputation.”[1]

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, some of the most visible and influential women in the United States were unmarried: Susan B. Anthony, leader of the suffrage movement, Frances Willard, president of the WCTU, and Jane Addams of Hull House in Chicago. Reformers and progressives often cast independent women as the vanguard of women’s struggle for equality.[2]

Even though most bachelor girls would end up at the altar, their existence and that of the newspaper column show that views of women were beginning to shift in the early 20th century. Single women now had options, and they dared to reach out to claim them.

[1] “New York Girls Organize Club,” The St. Louis Republic (22 June 1902), part 1, pg 6; Elizabeth K. Stratton, “The Bachelor Girl Confesses,” New York Tribune (4 April 1909); “Bachelor Girls Find Defender,” The Washington Herald (26 July 1912), pg 5; Helen Rowland, “Woman’s Rights and Man’s Privileges,” The Washington Herald (1March 1908)

[2] Trisha Franzen, Spinsters and Lesbians: Independent Womanhood in the United States (New York: New York University Press, ) 5

Wisconsin’s Goddesses and Ag Queens

I’ve never hid my love of agricultural queens. The cow-shaped air freshener given to me by Alice in Dairyland 2005 hung from my rearview mirror for years (no, it didn’t smell like cows). A few years ago, I did a tribute to Alice on “Wisconsin Life.” And now, I’ve written a longer piece on ag queens and the long history – and future – of women in agriculture for Edible Milwaukee. Get a sneak peek below and then follow the link to the full piece.

Isn’t she adorable? Alice in Dairyland.

She’s milked a cow with rocker Alice Cooper. She’s danced with Lawrence Welk on TV. She’s appeared in the Rose Parade.

She is Alice in Dairyland and she’s been Wisconsin’s agricultural royalty for 66 years. Alice travels the state during her yearlong reign talking up the importance of farming. Despite her name, she’s more than just dairy, and more than just an agriculture beauty queen.

“I cover the diversity of Wisconsin’s agricultural sector from mink and cranberries to ginseng and ethanol,” says Zoey Brooks, the 67th (and current) Alice in Dairyland. “It’s a marketing job, and I spend most of my time on the road trying to be a positive voice for agriculture in Wisconsin.”

Wisconsin’s royalty isn’t confined to Alice. We’ve also got a cranberry queen, a honey Queen, a Brown Swiss Queen, a Hereford Association Queen, a maple Queen, and a Cherry Blossom Princess, among others. While they may seem a little silly and outdated today, these agricultural queens have an ancient history.

Read the rest of the story in the fall issue of Edible Milwaukee.

Living Wilder in South Dakota

As a kid, I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder and her “Little House” books. Every time it snowed (rare in Seattle), I’d imagine opening the front door to find a wall of snow like in The Long Winter. Or tying a rope from the house to the barn to find my way in a blizzard (not that we had a barn in the suburbs). When the power went out (a much more common occurrence), my parents and I would huddle near the gas fireplace. Though we never had to close off the upstairs of our house for the winter, I was ready if it became necessary.

I read the books so often as a child that the characters felt like members of my own family. I imagined living in Laura’s time as well as showing Laura my life should she ever come to the present for a visit.

Although its been years since I’ve read the books, I couldn’t resist a stop in De Smet, South Dakota, otherwise known as the Little Town on the Prairie. De Smet is the setting for five of Wilder’s Little House books. Pa Ingalls brought his family there in 1879. This part of South Dakota is marked by small rolling hills and glacial lakes under an enormous sky. The whole town is given over to Wilder mania… even the public restrooms.

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The two existing Ingalls homes are owned by the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Association. There’s the Surveyors’ House, which was originally located on Silver Lake (Wilder wrote about it in By the Shores of Silver Lake), where the family lived for five months before moving to their own homestead. Down the street is the original Ingalls’ house that Pa built in 1887. Its a small white two-story frame house just a few blocks from what is today De Smet’s main street.

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Some of the buildings featured in Wilder’s books still stand in the quiet town, including the Loftus Store and Banker Ruth’s house. On a warm and sunny September day, De Smet’s streets are quiet. The few people we pass smile and nod at us, surely knowing we are there for Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Just outside De Smet is the Ingalls homestead where reproductions of buildings described by Wilder dot the spacious prairie grass. The 1862 Homestead Act provided that any citizen could claim 160 acres of surveyed government land. Claimants had to “improve” the plot by building a dwelling and cultivating the land. After five years, the land was given to the original claimant for only a small registration fee. Pa Ingalls staked his claim and moved the family out to their new farm.

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The land has passed through many hands since the Ingalls family lived there. I was far less interested in the recreated buildings than in seeing the landscape with my own eyes. Even many years removed from reading the books, I could still see the mental picture of the Ingalls’ life that I had created so long ago. It really is a beautiful place and seeing it in person (something I still can’t quite believe I really just did!), I can imagine why Pa had so much hope for this promising piece of land after so many years of hardship.

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