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Erika Janik

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

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women’s history

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.

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.

PolicewomanMakingArrest-LOC
Police officer demonstrates an arrest Source: Library of Congress

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.

feedsack_wwii__large
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.

Kansas Wheat
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.

4.2.7
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.

MakeMendForVictory_0000
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.

MakeMendForVictory_0013
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.

Frank Lloyd Who? The Remarkable Aunts of the Famed Architect

Ellen Lloyd Jones and her sister Jane Lloyd Jones standing in front of the Hillside School which they founded and managed.
Ellen Lloyd Jones and her sister Jane Lloyd Jones standing in front of the Hillside School which they founded and managed. Wisconsin Historical Images

While Frank Lloyd Wright—his innovative buildings and his tumultuous love life—tend to get most of the attention, his mother’s remarkable sisters, Ellen “Nell” Lloyd Jones and Jane “Jenny” Lloyd Jones (“the Aunts” as Frank called them), had a lasting influence on him as well as the students they taught in their progressive coed school.

In 1887, Nell and Jenny founded Hillside Home School on their family farm in Spring Green. They commissioned their young nephew (Frank was 19) to design the building.

Jenny and Nell came to their educational enterprise with a wealth of experience. Nell had been the head of the history department at River Falls State Normal School, while Jenny had directed a kindergarten-training school in Minnesota. Uniting farm, home, and school, the Hillside Home School was a progressive “learn by doing” school that educated students—girls and boys—from elementary through high school. It was perhaps the first coeducational home schools in the country.

The school’s location on a 100-acre farm was touted as an asset to education. “The location of the school removes them from the distraction of the city and surrounds them with the ennobling influences of nature,” proclaimed an 1893 Hillside Home School booklet. The sisters believed that education should teach the basics like math and reading while also attending to the development of empathetic and engaged human beings. Many classes were held outdoors. Older students taught younger ones about responsibility and good manners.

Jenny and Nell also believed that women should exercise and play sports, a view that was not yet common. Femininity throughout much of the 19th century was delicate and passive, not healthy and strong.

Girls play basketball outdoors at the Hillside School Wisconsin Historical Images
Girls play basketball outdoors at the Hillside School
Wisconsin Historical Images

Frank, an indifferent student himself, was inspired by the freedom of the educational curriculum offered by his aunts. He’d chafed against the rigidity of formal academic requirements. Among the students to attend the Hillside Home School were the architect’s sons Frank Lloyd, Jr., and John Kenneth as well as the three children of Robert La Follette.

The school closed in 1915. Nell and Jenny ran it for its entire existence. The school’s buildings were later repurposed as a school and studio for architecture students on the grounds of Taliesin.

Single Ladies – 19th Century Style

1897maids
Source: Bucknell University Archives

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

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