The Crafting Project that Made Milwaukee Famous

handicraft-bookbinding

Source: UWM

Bowling and beer made Milwaukee famous. But so, too, did the books, dolls quilts and other handmade items created by thousands of women during the Great Depression. As someone who sews, it’s a story near to my heart.

The Milwaukee Handicraft Project was one of the many projects created by the Works Progress Administration to provide work for millions of Americans in the 1930s. Unlike other WPA programs, though, the Milwaukee program was unique in putting women to work, while many other early projects were geared toward men.

Elsa Ulbricht from the Milwaukee State Teachers College came up with the idea for the Milwaukee Handicraft Project. She envisioned a work relief program for women who needed to support their families that would create artistic items for public institutions at cost while also providing employment for graduates of her college that couldn’t find teaching jobs.

Ulbricht selected art education student Mary Jane Kellogg and Anne Feldman to serve as art director and general supervisor respectively.

Kellogg identified product needs for schools and hospitals in cooperation with state and local governments. The project first started compiling scrapbooks of articles and puzzles to entertain hospital patients. Workers also bound and repaired books for schools.

Eventually, 11 different units were created for bookbinding, block printing, screen printing, weaving, rugs, applique, dolls, toys, costumes, wood toys and furniture. New units were added as staff developed new products that would improve the lives of children and families.

A state order for coverlets for all WPA nurseries in Wisconsin created work for 75 women. Those workers who became competent in their craft were encouraged to find employment in other WPA projects, like the sewing project which paid higher wages.

More than 200 women reported to work on Nov. 5, 1935. Two weeks later, 700 women were employed. Unlike most other workplaces at the time, the Handicraft Project was racially integrated, employing a large number of African-American women. The project employed only women at first, but when it expanded to include furniture, men were also hired.

Orders for products came from every state and the project gained national attention for its use of unskilled labor to produce handmade products in an integrated workplace. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt even paid the project a visit in 1936, writing about her experiences in her newspaper column, “My Day:.

“I have just come back from one of the most interesting mornings I have ever spent. Milwaukee has a handicraft project for unskilled women which gives one a perfect thrill. They are doing artistic work under most able teachers,” Roosevelt wrote.

Federal support for the project ended in 1942, but Milwaukee County continued it for a time as a rehab program for older and disabled workers.

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When Pennies Built a Hospital

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.

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

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.

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.

July 4th, When Wisconsin Broke Free (From Michigan)

Map of the Wisconsin Territory Wisconsin Historical Images

Map of the Wisconsin Territory
Wisconsin Historical Images

On July 4, 1836, Wisconsin officially broke off from Michigan to become its own territory.

Michigan was one of several territories that the future Wisconsin had belonged. We’d been part of the original Northwest Territory, Indiana Territory, Illinois Territory, and finally Michigan before becoming a territory in our own right once enough people had settled here and Michigan became a state.

Land speculator, judge, and all-around Wisconsin booster James Duane Doty led the effort to create the Wisconsin territory. Much to Doty’s chagrin, President Andrew Jackson appointed his rival General Henry Dodge governor.

Doty didn’t let this setback deter him in his quest to shape Wisconsin. Dodge’s new job came with responsibility for conducting a census, holding elections, and convening a territorial legislature that would select a new capital. Doty purchased some land with a few partners on an isthmus where downtown Madison stands today. Doty then hired a surveyor who mapped out a hypothetical city that he named Madison after the former president who had just died and aggressively lobbied the legislature to select his planned city as capital. Out of 19 contenders, Doty won.

Doty finally became Wisconsin’s territorial governor in 1841, where he tried and failed to lobby public support for statehood.

This territorial seal, likely created in 1838, shows a farmer plowing behind a horse, a Native American, a river steamboat, lighthouse, and lake schooner, and the first Madison capitol building (though not a very accurate representation of that).

John Muir: Celebrated Naturalist And Unrecognized Genius Inventor

Kids gather around John Muir's study desk Wisconsin Historical Images

Kids gather around John Muir’s study desk
Wisconsin Historical Images

John Muir, one of America’s most influential naturalists and champions of the wilderness, celebrates his birthday this week.

Born on April 21, 1838, in Dunbar, Scotland, Muir and his family landed in Wisconsin in 1849. They settled near Portage on land they called Fountain Lake Farm. It was there in the woods, prairies, and wetlands of the farm that Muir discovered his passion for nature.

As a young man, Muir was also a talented inventor and could have made quite a career for his mechanical devices. On the farm, he constructed water wheels, thermometers, clocks and an automatic horse feeder. His father disapproved of his tinkering so he spent his nights working in secret in a cellar workshop.

Muir, whose formal schooling ended when he moved to Wisconsin, craved education. So he took several of his inventions to the 1860 Wisconsin State Fair and scraped up enough attention and money to pay for his college tuition.

Muir made the combination desk and clock pictured above while he was a student at the University of Wisconsin in the 1860s. More than just keeping time, it was a study aid for the harried college student. He arranged his books in the order he needed to study and set the timer. After a click, the first book was pushed up from a rack below the top of the desk and thrown open for studying. After a set number of minutes, the machinery closed the book, dropped it back into the rack, and then moved the next book up and onto the top of the desk.

Muir filled his dorm room with these practical machines to maximize his college experience. Another of his inventions was a combination bed and alarm clock that tipped the bed up and the person sleeping in it to standing position and struck a match for the lamp at the appointed wake up hour. It was carved, as a former dormmate of Muir’s recalled, with “no other tool than a jackknife.”

Muir left the UW and Wisconsin in 1863 on what he called “a glorious botanical and geological excursion.” He didn’t consider his education done, however: “I was only leaving one university for another, the University of Wisconsin for the University of the Wilderness.”

Vintage Wisconsin: The Perfect Christmas Outfit

I’ve started a new blog at Wisconsin Public Radio called “Vintage Wisconsin.” It includes things like this:

Have you picked out your Christmas outfit yet? In this great photo, a young girl takes dressing up for the holidays to a new level with this tinsel- and ornament-bedecked dress in the 1950s. 

Jesuit priest, the Rev. Claude Allouez, celebrated what was perhaps the first Christmas in Wisconsin on the shores of Lake Superior in 1665. He had set out from Montreal in August in the company of 400 Native Americans returning home to Wisconsin. He landed near where the city of Ashland is today and built “a little chapel of bark” that he decorated with “various pictures, as of Hell and of the universal Judgment.” Cheery decor, no? Allouez didn’t say what he did on Christmas, but it was probably praying and saying Mass rather than dressing as a Christmas tree.

Holiday cooking disasters have a long history in Wisconsin as well. In 1803, British trader Capt. Thomas Anderson attempted a Christmas feast for his Native American neighbors. He captured “the fattest raccoon” he could find – 32 pounds – and set to work stuffing it with venison, onions, and seasonings.

“No coonship’s body, I am sure,” he wrote, “was never so cram-full before.”

He set the stuffed raccoon by the fire intending to roast it in the morning but woke up to find it “putrid and stinking.” Mortified, Anderson went without dinner and got laughed at by his “half-famished friends.”

Despite this cooking disaster, Anderson was at it again in 1811, preparing a “sea pie” of muskrat for a Christmas feast. He made the crust and fit it in the bottom of a bake-kettle; spread a layer of muskrat meat, pepper, and salt; and continued alternating crust and meat until the kettle was full.

“But pepper and salt did not save it, nor savory crust convert muskrat into relishable food,” Anderson lamented. “On opening the pie, so sickening was the effluvia emanating from it, that all were glad to rush to the door for fresh air.”

Maybe Anderson should have tried the tree outfit instead. May your holiday feast be more relishable.

Before MOOCs, There Was Radio

Waiting for a coworker for lunch today, I happened to take a closer look at a display case that I pass every day without really looking. Inside are pieces of Wisconsin Public Radio history, including a brief description of the education programs that WHA (today’s WPR) offered to listeners starting in the 1930s. Full classes, many taught by professors and other experts in their fields, covering a range of subjects and delivered over the latest technological marvel – radio – that its creators hoped to use to reach and educate people with limited access to education? Sounds like a MOOC to me.

MOOCs, or massive open online courses, are the latest thing in education, promising unlimited participation and access via the technological marvel of our time – the internet. Professors at dozens of universities are teaching online courses and nearly every other university that hasn’t joined in is seriously considering their options. It’s new and hip and marketed as the way to reach people in the modern world.

But isn’t this just what the radio was doing in Wisconsin nearly a century ago?

In 1930, WHA began offering music and discussion of current events to students in rural schools in Dane County. The ten-week trial program proved a tremendous success and the station planned to incorporate classroom instruction into the regular broadcast schedule the following year.

Debuting in October of 1931, the “Wisconsin School of the Air,” as it was called, was designed for use in elementary and high school classrooms around the state.  Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction assisted with the creation of lessons that they hoped would be particularly valuable to the students attending the state’s more than 6,000 one- and two-room schools. Producers believed that the radio curriculum would increase exposure to new ideas, enhance the learning experience, and most importantly of all, help to close the very real gap in educational resources and quality that existed between rural and urban areas.

Aline Hazard interviewing a guest on the Homemaker Program Source: Wisconsin Historical Society

Aline Hazard interviewing a guest on the Homemaker Program
Source: Wisconsin Historical Society

 

Radio lesson topics included government, history, music, art, nature, health, and English. The series included programs like “Let’s Draw” (an art appreciation course where students mailed their artwork to Madison for grading) and “Afield with Ranger Mac”(a nature program hosted by Wakelin McNeel) that ran for decades. Teachers received study guides and educational suppliers offered higher quality radios to schools.

WHA also initiated the Wisconsin College of the Air to extend and improve adult education across the state. One of the most popular programs on the college slate was the Homemaker Program hosted by the affable Aline Hazard. She offered tips for cleaning, cooking, childcare, gardening, and introduced the latest tools and science of home economics. Together, the Wisconsin School and College of the Air brought useful information and education into homes and schools across the state on a technological platform that was relatively accessible to anyone.

At the end of the first semester in 1931, WHA reported nearly 11,000 regular listeners. By the next year, the regular audience had more than doubled to 23,000. The audience only continued to grow so that by 1960, roughly 290,000 students used the programs.

Other states followed Wisconsin’s lead in the 1930s and 1940s, particularly as commercial networks cut back on children’s programming. Nearly all were linked to universities or colleges, just like MOOCs today.

It seems to me that MOOCs are just a modern incarnation of the School of the Air, an attempt to give everyone a quality education using technology, whether on the air or online.