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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
 “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)
 Trisha Franzen, Spinsters and Lesbians: Independent Womanhood in the United States (New York: New York University Press, ) 5
It was the summer of the ice bucket challenge. Dumping icy water (or just ice. Or just ice to make a stiff drink) on your head to raise awareness for ALS while challenging others to follow suit.
One hundred and fifty years ago, people poured ice cold water on their head or bathed in it as a medical treatment itself. Hydropathy, or the water cure, promoted the benefits of pure cold water to good health. Many people took the cure at any number of water cures that opened around the country in the 1840s and 1850s. Most cures were located in beautiful spots alongside streams, lakes, or beside mountains. But the best time to come wasn’t summer but winter when the water was colder and the breezes strong and chilling. Water cures often advertised their winter amenities to people looking to be well.
Hydropathy’s founder Vincenz Priessnitz maintained that the water “cannot be at too low a temperature.” The “lower the temperature,” he claimed, “the more efficacious it will prove.” As a result, many water cures charged more in the winter than for a summer visit.
Unsurprisingly, winter brought its own hazards to those taking the cures. Icicles sometimes formed around the head of the outdoor shower, sending icy daggers along with cold water down on the head of the patient below. Outdoor bathers sometimes found themselves floating beside chunks of ice.
While critics of the water cure delighted in these tales of peril, patients loved it. Reformer and teacher Catharine Beecher declared hydropathy “the safest and surest methods of relieving debilitated constitutions and curing chronic ailments.”
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.
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.
“Every woman is born a doctor… [while] men have to study to become one,” declared American educatorElla Flagg Young in the mid-19th century. Looking around much of the country, it certainly must have seemed that way.
Long before marketers invented “Dr. Mom,” women had served as nurse, doctor, and pharmacist to their family and friends. Doctoring a family required a great deal of knowledge and skill, which often passed down, woman to woman, through families for generations. Even so, mainstream medicine generally barred women from pursuing medical careers until the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Those women that did see doctors rarely received adequate treatment. Many doctors refused to physically examine women for fear of offending their modesty. Others dismissed women’s illnesses, contending that reproduction made women irrational and emotional. As a result, women often found themselves suffering from a dangerous or inappropriate remedy—or no treatment at all—without the benefit of a thorough analysis.
Despite these limitations—or maybe because of them—many women did break through the discrimination and gender assumptions to pursue a career in health, particularly women’s health. Alternative medicine, then known as irregular medicine, welcomed women as both patients and practitioners. The first generation of female doctors practiced homeopathy, water cure, phrenology, and osteopathy, among other therapies. Medicine was second only to teaching in attracting professional women in the 19th century.
Here a few of those pioneering women you should know:
In the 1830s, Mary Gove Nichols made a name for herself lecturing and teaching on the shocking topics of women’s health. She championed the benefits of cold water, fresh air, vegetarianism, and regular exercise. She urged women to take charge of their own health as much as possible and lauded women as natural caregivers with their inherent thoughtfulness and gentler dispositions. Nichols never attended medical school (the same could be said of most 19th century doctors, male or female, regular or irregular) but became a trusted healing expert through her popular lectures, publications, and medical practice.
Lydia Folger became the first American woman to receive a medical degree in the United States (Elizabeth Blackwell was born in England). Graduating in 1850, Folger hit another first by becoming the nation’s first female professor of medicine at Central Medical College in New York. She practiced phrenology, the science of reading character on the skull, anatomy, and hygiene. Her medical practice in New York City specialized on the health of women and children.
Harriet Judd Sartain operated one of the most successful medical practices in 1850s Philadelphia. Sartain practiced homeopathy and used her powerful position in her community to fight for women’s right to practice medicine. She lobbied for coeducation and formed a medical club for women. Sartain became a national figure in 1871 when she became one of the first women to join the American Institute of Homeopathy, the field’s national professional association.
Elizabeth Stuart Phelps and Elizabeth Cady Stanton weren’t doctors but few championed the cause of women more vocally. In 1867, the 23-year-old Phelps decried the misery of the American woman burdened with housework or leisured idleness. She suggested a range of jobs for women to pursue but saved her highest praise for medicine as the most “noble” career. Phelps advocated for women in medicine repeatedly in essays, letters, and novels. Her enthusiasm for homeopathy was so great that she even named her dog after the field’s founder, Samuel Hahnemann.
Stanton, too, saw freedom and purpose for women in medicine. After witnessing her brother-in-law’s recovery from heat disease under the care of a homeopath, Stanton purchased her own homeopathy kit and began doctoring her family and friends. “I have seen wonders in Homeopathy,” she reported to her cousin, and “I intend to commence life on Homeopathic principles.” She nursed her children through malaria, mumps, and whooping cough. She even treated herself during childbirth in 1852. Homeopathy felt like nothing less than liberation for Stanton. “Dear me, how much cruel bondage of mind and suffering of body poor women will escape,” wrote Stanton to her friend Lucretia Mott, “when she takes the liberty of being her own physician of both body and soul.”