When I talk to readers of My Year in 1918,* they often say, “My favorite thing about your blog is…” I wait eagerly for their next words: “the razor-sharp, witty writing,” maybe, or “your profound understanding of the era.” But in my heart I know what’s coming:
I don’t blame them. I love the pictures too.
It’s a beautiful August morning in Washington, D.C.,** and I’ve decided to use those pictures to imagine myself into an equally beautiful summer morning in 1919.
Like the woman in this Pears Soap ad, I wake up, turn my cheeks to the first clear rays of dawn, and say, “I am beautiful!”
Then I roll over and go back to sleep for a few more hours.
When I finally get up, I take a bath, then dust myself with talcum powder, which is quite the thing in 1919.
Ladies’ Home Journal, May 1919
Ladies’ Home Journal, June 2019
Ladies’ Home Journal, June 1919
Ladies’ Home Journal, July 1919
I’ve read all the horror stories about women who lack daintiness,
Ladies’ Home Journal, July 1919
Ladies’ Home Journal, August 1919
Ladies’ Home Journal, June 1919
Ladies’ Home Journal, April 1919
plus I don’t want to mess up my dress,
Ladies’ Home Journal, July 1919
so I dab on some deodorant powder. I get dressed
Ladies’ Home Journal, May 1919
and have a nice healthy breakfast,
Swift’s Premium Bacon ad, Ladies’ Home Journal, July 1919
with orange juice made from this recipe from Sunkist: “Just squeeze juice from an orange.”***
Ladies’ Home Journal, July 1919
Over breakfast, I flip through my August magazines,
George Wolfe Plank
Alex Bradshaw and W.H. Bull
stopping for a moment to wonder whether that’s a woman or a parrot on the cover of the Ladies’ Home Journal.****
But there’s no time to linger–there’s tennis to play,
Ladies’ Home Journal, May 1919
and beaches to relax on,
Ladies’ Home Journal, May 1919
and romance in the air!*****
Ladies’ Home Journal, June 1919
Meanwhile, back in 2019, the morning has come and gone, and so will the afternoon if I don’t get a move on.
Enjoy what’s left of the summer, everyone!
*That is, friends who read the blog. It’s not like I’m recognized on the street.
**I know, it sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s true:
***If you’re wondering, like I was, why Sunkist was explaining such an obvious concept, it’s because orange juice wasn’t very popular yet. There was a huge oversupply of oranges early in the 1910s, leading to the chopping down of 30% of the citrus trees in California, and the citrus industry was desperate to find more uses for its product. They turned to advertisers, who came up with the slogan “drink an orange,” which debuted in 1916.
None of Moore-Park’s other paintings of birds for the Ladies’ Home Journal (or, as it turns out to have been briefly and ill-advisedly named, the New Ladies’ Home Journal) show signs of being optical illusions, so I guess the parrot was just supposed to be a parrot.
Carton Moore-Park, New Ladies’ Home Journal, March 1916
Carton Moore-Park, Ladies’ Home Journal, June 1916
Carton Moore-Park, Ladies’ Home Journal, February 1917
Carton Moore-Park, Ladies’ Home Journal, October 1919
“Happy what?” you might be asking. That is, if you’re not from Utah, where July 24—the anniversary of the arrival of Brigham Young and the first Mormon* pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley in 1847—is a state holiday, a sort of second Fourth of July.
I’m in Provo for the week, in the role of conference spouse. Unfortunately, they moved the celebration away from downtown this year because Pioneer Park is being renovated, so I didn’t get to attend,
but last night I watched from my hotel room as fireworks went off all across town, the mountains that ring the city serving as a backdrop.
Provo, the home of Brigham Young University, is an attractive little city. Eighty-eight percent of greater Provo is Mormon, the highest proportion in the state (and, ergo, the country). This figure is a bit misleading because it counts BYU students, but still—it’s pretty Mormon. Especially on Sundays, when stores and restaurants are closed and the streets are empty except for people going to and from church. I felt self-conscious walking around in pants.**
Provo is surprisingly hip, though, with funky stores
I’m not a fan of used bookstores in general—I hate the musty smell, the lack of order, and the “here’s a bunch of stuff people didn’t want” atmosphere. Pioneer, though, is like a new bookstore where the books just happen to be (lightly) used. The sales counter is made of books
and there are displays highlighting categories from their 2019 reading challenge, like books by women,
books by writers born more than 100 years ago,
and books that you disagree with.
There’s also an entire long wall of books on Mormon history.
Yes, history. I’m getting to that.
A hundred years ago, the Mormon church was in transition. Longtime president Joseph F. Smith died in November 1918 after a long period of ill health. This 1914 New York Times article about his imminent death is totally accurate except that he lived for four more years, was 76 at the time, not 82, and was church founder Joseph Smith’s nephew, not his son.
When Smith actually did die, the Times (having gotten the facts about his age and paternity straight by now) noted that he was the last of the Mormon leaders to have made the trek to Utah. He was five years old when Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum, who was Joseph F.’s**** father, were killed by a mob that stormed the Illinois prison where they were being held. When he was eight, he set out with his mother for Utah, driving an ox team. Smith married his 16-year-old cousin when he was 21, married five other wives, and had 45 children.
It was under Smith’s leadership, though, that the church cracked down on polygamy, or plural marriage as it was known. His predecessor, Wilford Woodruff, had prohibited new plural marriages in the Manifesto of 1890, but many church members (and, apparently, leaders) took a wink-wink-nudge-nudge attitude, seeing the Manifesto as a political move. The Supreme Court had just upheld a law prohibiting polygamy, and the issue was standing in the way of statehood for Utah. Smith, who took over as church president in 1901, issued the “this time we really mean it” Second Manifesto in 1904.
The Second Manifesto was issued during a bizarre political episode following the 1903 election of Reed Smoot, a Utah Republican, to the U.S. Senate.***** A number of Protestant groups petitioned the Senate to refuse to seat Smoot, who was a Mormon apostle. They had precedent on their side, in a way: Utah Democrat B.H. Roberts, who was elected to the House of Representatives in 1898, was barred from taking his seat because he was a polygamist. Reed, though, had only one wife. That didn’t deter his critics, who argued that as a senior church member he was part of a conspiracy to promulgate polygamy. Smith was allowed to take his seat, but the matter was referred to the Senate’s Committee on Privileges and Elections, which deliberated for four years. Some three million people signed petitions opposing Smoot, and the committee hearings attracted standing-room-only crowds. Smith spent six days testifying in 1904, wearing a pin depicting his slain father. He discussed Mormon church doctrine in detail, but it was the revelation that he had five wives that riveted the press and public.
Smoot’s fate was finally settled in 1907, when the Senate voted 42-28 to allow him to remain. (It would have taken a two-thirds majority to expel him.) He went on to co-sponsor the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930, a piece of protectionist legislation that is widely considered to have contributed to the Great Depression.
In October 1917, Smith made one last effort to eradicate plural marriage, leaving his sickbed to denounce its continued secret practice at a church conference.
Smith, though, stayed married to his five wives,****** arguing that, having married them while plural marriages were still allowed, he couldn’t abandon them.
So what was it like to be a woman living in a society where plural marriage was widely practiced? In 1915, Harper’s Weekly published an article, titled “Harp Strings and Shoe Laces,” telling an anonymous Mormon woman’s story. The author writes that she was serving as the head of the music department at “one of the largest institutions on the coast,” with marriage far from her mind, when, at the age of 21, she was swept off her feet by a Mormon colleague. The 28-year-old married father of two gave her a ride in his carriage, presented her with a box of bonbons, and declared, “I’ve been in love with you ever since I first saw you.” The woman writes that
to a girl raised in any other way, such a confession from a married man would have been shocking and repulsive. I had been raised to revere every tenet of my religion. The principle of polygamy was a sacred thing. It was a revelation from God.
To lightly turn aside a confession of love from a single man was my woman’s prerogative when I chose to use it. To refuse an opportunity to enter that “sacred covenant” carried with it a superstitious dread of ill consequences to follow—I dared not invoke.
Harper’s Weekly, October 16, 1915
Her suitor tells her that he knows an apostle who will marry them despite the church ruling against plural marriage. She tells him to write to her father, who agonizes about whether to give his blessing, hesitant to subject his own daughter to the arrangement despite being a polygamist himself. Meanwhile, she starts to have second thoughts.
While I was still under the glamour of it all—in love as a girl can be only once, whether it be real or false—suddenly the thought came: two was polygamy—a test of the principle—a preparation for eternity—would he ever want a third? My heart contracted at the thought.
It occurs to her that this may be how her suitor’s wife—who hadn’t entered into her thoughts until now—is feeling. When she expresses her hesitation, he offers to divorce his wife.
“Divorce her!” I exclaimed, amazed. “But that would not be polygamy!”
She turns him down, her heart broken, and becomes aware of the shattered lives around her. She tells of her father, a successful businessman and community leader whose career was destroyed when he took a second wife. Of a young woman who went to Mexico to become a seventh wife and returned home with her baby, heart and health broken, to die. A woman whose children were taken away from her so her plural marriage would not be discovered.
Day by day, from an upper window, she watches her two sturdy little sons trudging to school—her heart aching to clasp them in her arms—not daring to let even them know of her whereabouts.
Harper’s Weekly, October 16, 1915
This woman’s story is intriguing and well told, but it left me wondering whether it was actually true, as Harper’s Weekly insisted. The writer speaks of polygamy rather than plural marriage, the term used within the church. The writing is surprisingly polished for a non-professional writer. Would a music instructor barely out of her teens write this?
I am not criticizing my church. I am not palliating the principle. If ever there were a people honest and sincere in their belief, it is my people; but they have ruined their lives for a pathetic fallacy.
I have my doubts.
I’ll ponder this, and think about Utah’s history, as I spend my last day in Provo.
Or maybe I’ll take a break from history and get some ice cream. Did I mention the ice cream?
*Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints were recently instructed by their president not to use the word “Mormon” or the abbreviation “LDS” anymore. This has required a great deal of reshuffling. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, for example, is now the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square. “Mormon” is still used in historical contexts, though.
**This list of things to do in Utah on a Sunday includes, I kid you not, “take a nap.”
***Yes, Provo does have coffee shops, although they’re not as ubiquitous as in other cities. I was surprised to see a large number of Coke and Pepsi dispensers around town, including in the BYU student common (highly recommended, and practically the only place to eat on Sunday, after church ends at 1-ish). It turns out that that the church made an official statement in 2012 saying that caffeinated soda is allowed.
****That was what church members called him—Joseph F.
*****In case you’re thinking, like I did, this is a mistake and it’s supposed to be 1902, members of the Senate were elected by state legislatures at the time, and Utah’s election took place in January 1903.
******His first wife, unhappy with the plural marriage arrangement, had divorced him.
New on the Book List: The Circular Staircase, by Mary Roberts Rinehart (1908)
I only have a sample of three to draw from,* but I doubt that there’s any college anywhere that beats Princeton, where I recently attended my 20th graduate school reunion, for school spirit.
The school mascot, the tiger, is all over town, at Firestone Library
and Palmer Stadium
and in store windows along Nassau Street.
So are the school colors, which, naturally, are orange and black. There are even teeny-tiny orange and black onesies so that you can give your baby a head start on feeling terrible if he or she applies for the Class of ’31 and, like the great majority of applicants, is rejected.**
And the jackets—
oh, the jackets!
They were everywhere, including on the Amtrak train on the way up from D.C., where I restrained myself from taking photos. Not being an undergraduate alum, I didn’t have a jacket of my own, but luckily some classmates organized a class t-shirt, which I wore with pride in the P-rade, the graduate promenade that’s the centerpiece of Princeton reunions. (That’s where the jacket photos are from.) Unfortunately you can’t see much of it in my selfie, but let the record show that I wore orange.
At this point, you may be saying, “This is very gung-ho and all, but what does it have to do with 1919?” Well, there was my trip to Firestone Library to visit some 1919-era books,
and this painting I saw at the university art museum by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, paramour and eventual husband of Elizabeth Gardner, whom I wrote about here,
and representation in the P-rade by the 100+-year-old Class of 1939.
I know–pretty slim pickings. My search for a hook continued.
I considered writing about Princeton’s early 20th-century history as “the pleasantest country club in America,” where academics took a backseat to socializing. F. Scott Fitzgerald has already covered that ground, though,
and in any case Princeton had already started to change by the time This Side of Paradise was published in 1920.
After the Armistice, it began a period of soul-searching aimed at becoming a “national university.” This led to a revamp of the curriculum that, as School and Societyreported in April 1919, eliminated entry requirements, like Greek, that kept out public school students, divided the university into departments, and put Princeton on the path to becoming the first-rate institution that it is today.
Social change was slower in coming. In 1917, Grover Cleveland’s son led a boycott against Princeton’s exclusive eating clubs, but these efforts, like an earlier one by Princeton president Woodrow Wilson to abolish them altogether, had little impact.
As for diversity, Princeton lagged behind other Ivy League schools for many years. I didn’t need to look up statistics; I could see it in the P-rade, where no class until the 50th reunion Class of ’69 had more than a handful of students who weren’t white.
With so many wives*** in the parade, coeducation was harder to track, but these Class of ’73 alums made sure this historic event wasn’t forgotten.
As the classes marched by, I wondered what the deal was with the jackets. Once the reunion was over, I did a Google search–and found my 100-years-ago hook. In the spring of 1912, some seniors were sitting around at the Nassau Inn,
drinking beer and sloshing it all over their spiffy college-man togs, like the suits these members of the Triangle Club are wearing. (Try to spot F. Scott Fitzgerald. If you can’t read the tiny writing under the picture, the answer is below.****)
With lots of mental energy to spare after four years of not studying very hard, the seniors turned their attention to this vexing problem. The obvious solutions, 1) dress like normal people, or 2) drink moderately enough that you don’t spill your beer, apparently weren’t on the table.
Instead, they designed an outfit consisting of denim workmen’s overalls and a jacket. The class of 1913 came up with the “beer suit” moniker, and the class of 1914 upped the fashion ante by substituting white duck for denim. When World War I came along, the suits were abandoned, such pursuits presumably deemed too frivolous during wartime, but they reappeared in 1919. The class of 1920 added a black armband to protest prohibition, and the tradition of the class logo was born. There were strict rules surrounding the jackets: they were for seniors only, and washing them was forbidden. Here are the earliest beer-suited students I could find, from the class of 1926.
The overalls were phased out after World War II, and “beer suits” became “beer jackets.” The jackets became official university attire for graduating seniors and the more dignified moniker “senior jacket” was adopted. At the 25th reunion, the senior jacket is traded in for a reunion jacket, which is worn from then on.
So a drinking hack by a small group of upper-class white men at a college that proudly called itself a country club lives on as a beloved tradition at a world-class university where white students are now in the minority.
Princeton hasn’t become a post-racial utopia, and the legacy of snobbery and hard drinking hasn’t died, but the “best old place of all” has come a long way in a hundred years.
*The other ones being Harvard, where I attended my undergraduate reunion last year, and NYU, where I did my MFA, but low-residency with residencies in Paris, so I didn’t have much of a chance to experience Violet Pride.
**On the bright side, his/her odds are way higher because you went there!
***Wives march alongside their husbands in the P-rade, often in outfits made of the same material as the jackets.
It’s been five months since the end of my year in 1918, but I still haven’t fully readjusted. A few weeks ago I was reading one of the recent novels I had looked forward to during my sojourn. There’s a child in the book who is so brilliant and sweet that I said, “Uh-oh, he’s too good to live.”
Take me back to 1918, I said, and put the book down.
Since it’s Asian Pacific American Heritage Month,* I decided to read a book by an Asian-American writer of that era. Or, rather, the Asian-American** writer of that era, Winnifred Eaton, author of, among many other books, Marion: The Story of an Artist’s Model.
Winnifred Eaton was the younger sister of Edith Maude Eaton, who wrote about the Chinese community in Seattle and San Francisco under the pseudonym Sui Sin Far. I read Mrs. Spring Fragrance, a collection of Sui Sin Far’s stories, last year, but she died before 1918 so I didn’t write about her beyond a brief write-up on the Book List.*** It was when I was looking into Edith’s life (okay, reading her Wikipedia entry) that I learned about Winnifred.
Edith and Winnifred were two of the fourteen children of a British merchant named Edward Eaton and his wife Grace, who had been a Chinese slave, performing in the circus as the target in a knife-throwing act, before being rescued and adopted by British missionaries. (UPDATE 6/9/2019: I thought the knife-throwing story seemed kind of bogus, but it was in Edith’s Wikipedia entry with a footnote so I decided to include it–we’re not exactly the New Yorker here at MYI1918 when it comes to fact-checking. I’ve since looked this up in biographies of Edith and Winifred. Both say that their mother’s origins are hazy and there is no evidence of the circus story beyond family legend.) Edith was born in England in 1865, shortly before the family moved to Canada. They moved back to England and then back to Canada, where Winnifred was born in 1875. Their father struggled to support his large family, working first as a clerk, then as an artist, then turning to smuggling Chinese people into the United States from Canada.**** Both Edith and Winnifred began writing for magazines as teenagers.
Marion: The Story of an Artist’s Model was published in 1916. By this time, Eaton had written a number of best-selling romance novels under the fake Japanese name Onoto Watanna.***** She and her sister Sarah, whose married name was Bosse, had also published The Chinese-Japanese Cook Book, which reassured readers that “when it is known how simple and clean are the ingredients used to make up these oriental dishes, the Westerner will cease to feel that natural repugnance which assails one when about to taste a strange dish of a new and strange land.”
Marion wasn’t published under the pseudo-Japanese pseudonym; Eaton was identified on the title page only as “Herself and the author of ‘Me.’” Me: A Book of Remembrance was a semi-autobiographical novel published in 1915. It’s the story of Nora Ascouth, who, like Winnifred, moves from Canada to Jamaica and then to the United States.
Not having read Me, I assumed as I read Marion that it was autobiographical. It turns out, however, to be the story of Winnifred’s older sister (and cookbook co-author) Sarah. The Eaton family is clearly identifiable: there’s the struggling artist father (she leaves out the smuggling part); the foreign mother; killjoy older brother Charles (Edward Charles in real life), who complains about Marion looking at the naked Jesuses in the Catholic store; responsible older sister Ada (Edith), who’s always pestering Marion to send money home; and Nora again. The siblings’ Chinese heritage is never explicitly mentioned, but we do learn that they’re foreign-looking and that a neighbor calls them “heathenish.”
Marion is the flibbertigibbet of the family, and those around her predict that she’ll come to a bad end, but she’s a talented actress and artist. Also, as people constantly tell her, beautiful. She’s about to launch an acting career when she meets and falls in love with the Hon. Reginald Bertie (pronounced Bartie). He’s just her type, blond and handsome. Reggie convinces Marion to give up acting, they get engaged, and he strings her along for several years, afraid to tell his family about her. It’s because I’m poor, Marion tells herself, although her foreign origins probably aren’t helping.
When Reggie asks her to “be my wife in all but the silly ceremony,” Marion flees to Boston, where she gets work as an artist’s assistant and model. My first question, naturally, was, “Does she pose naked?” She does, but only once, when she’s practically starving, and it doesn’t go well. “The model is crying,” a student in the class she’s posing for observes. She yells at the class, calling them devils and beasts, and leaves.
When Reggie writes and says he’s coming for her (still no mention of a wedding), she takes off for New York. After turning down a job as a chorus girl, she settles in Greenwich Village and falls in with a group of artists, including one named Paul, who, if the book’s illustrations are to be trusted, looks exactly like Reggie. (That’s him at the upper left below.) Unlike the hacks who surround him, he has high artistic principles (which he expresses in vapid terms—art theory isn’t Eaton’s strength******). I won’t reveal the ending because I want you to read this book, but no prizes for guessing what happens.
Winnifred Eaton is no Jean Rhys or Edna Ferber as a stylist, but I loved reading about the large, bohemian Montreal family, the Boston art scene, and the struggling New York artists with their dingy boarding houses, cheap table d’hôte dinners, and unsanitary habits. (“Some of the artists in the building were pretty dirty,” Marion tells us, italics hers). There are wonderful period details, like when Marion is part of a “living pictures” show (symbolizing things like Youth and Rock of Ages) that takes Providence by storm. She gives us a wonderful sense of how a beautiful and educated but poor woman gets by in life, the compromises she makes, and the ones she refuses to make.
Eaton was evasive about her Chinese heritage even when writing under a pseudonym. She took her pretense of being Japanese beyond the made-up name, claiming to have born in Nagasaki, the descendant of noblemen. But she’s a vivid and honest chronicler of a fascinating milieu.
I can’t wait to read Me.
*But we are not, you will notice, “celebrating” APAHM. If you look to the right, you’ll see that I’ve fallen into a naming rut—my recent posts are a veritable fiesta. If you’re reading this in the future (which I realized as I proofread this that you definitely will be, since this post will push the last celebration off the list), here’s what I’m talking about:
***I highly recommend this collection, especially the first two stories.
****There’s a story on this topic in Mrs. Spring Fragrance.
*****That is, it’s not only not her real name, it’s also not a real Japanese name.
******Eaton does do a good job, though, of depicting social gradations among artists—the ones who paint on plates and cloth, the ones who knock off old masters, the society artists, and the art for art’s sake ones like Paul. Then there are the different levels of models—the ones like Marion who won’t take their clothes off so don’t make much money; the nude models at the art schools who drop their drapes when the teacher shouts, “Pose,” and at the lowest end, Marion’s friend Lil, who prances around in her birthday suit in the studio where Marion works.
Mother’s Day 1919 was dedicated to the mothers whose sons fought for freedom. President Wilson decreed that flags be flown at all government buildings (wasn’t this done normally back then?) and requested that people fly the flag at their homes “as a public expression of our love and reverence for the mothers of the country.” The carnation was the flower of the day, the New York Times said–“white carnations for a mother dead, and pink ones for those who are still the center of the home.”
New York Times, May 11, 1919
President Wilson called on America’s soldiers to write to their mothers. The order made its way down the line in messages from Secretary of War Newton Baker
and up-and-coming Acting Secretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt.
National Archives (Identifier 6283187)
If penning a few sentences to Mom was just too hard, maybe because you were busy saying good-bye to your little French mother,*
Norman Rockwell, Life magazine, March 13, 1919
or because you didn’t know how to read and write,** you could just copy off of this handy-dandy flyer. I wonder how many mothers scratched their heads and asked, “Who’s Timmy?”
Red Cross et al., 1919
I was going to suggest that we celebrate the mothers of 1919 with this song,
but luckily I listened to the words first. It starts out as you’d expect: the singer misses Mammy down south, is feeling blue, kisses her picture every night, etc. Then comes this spoken verse:
When I was bad and started crying Remember how you laid me across your lap? Mammy, ain’t no use denying You sure swung a wicked strap.
The song ends with the singer saying that she’s been too busy to write, and that
There’s only just one thing keeping me
From being with you all down there. If you’re anxious to see your honey-lamb, Mammy, Send me up my fare.
A little research confirmed that, in its original version, “Mammy o’ Mine” doesn’t devolve into a joke. It’s just about missing Mammy. The song was written by 20-year-old African-American composer Maceo Pinkard, and it was his first big hit.*** Many more were to come, including “Sweet Georgia Brown.” Pincard later helped Duke Ellington break into show business, introducing him to important Tin Pan Alley figures (including his future manager), and arranging his first recording session.
Pincard and his song deserves a more respectful rendition. So do the moms of 1919, and the moms of today. Let’s celebrate them, instead, with this version by Harry Yerkes, an early proponent of jazz and blues.
Happy Mother’s Day!
*Here’s another Rockwell mom cover, from April. It doesn’t have a title as far as I know, so I’m calling it “Back off, Mom!” (Update 6/10/2019: It’s called “Boy Musician.” I like my title better.)
**Which is quite possible. There were a number of tests to judge soldiers’ literacy, such as the Devens Literacy Test, which asked Dada-esque questions like “Is a guitar a kind of disease?” and “Do vagrants commonly possess immaculate cravats?” You can take it yourself here.
***The melody, that is. The words were written by prolific Tin Pan Alley lyricist William Tracey, who would go on to collaborate with Pincard on a number of other songs.
Happy Children’s Book Week! This year marks its 100th anniversary.
This week doesn’t mark its anniversary, though—the 1919 Children’s Book week was held in November, as were all subsequent ones until 2008, when new management took over and the celebrations were moved to May. So I can’t tell you (yet) about the new children’s books the New York Times recommended in connection with the 1919 celebration.
Anne Carroll Moore in her office at the New York Public Library, ca. 1906
I can tell you, though, about Anne Carroll Moore, who was one of the founders of Children’s Book Week, and of children’s libraries as we know them. If you have fond memories of going to the library as a child—and if you don’t, you’re probably not a reader of this blog—then you have Anne Carroll Moore to thank.
I first came across Moore as the innovative critic for the Bookman who, facing a pile of children’s books to review for a December 1918 Christmas roundup, invited an actual child, Edouard, to look them over. Edouard didn’t pull any punches. “I think my teacher would like that book because it seems like a geography trying to be a story,” he said of Mary H. Wade’s Twin Travellers in South America. I checked it out, and he was right.
Frontispiece, Twin Travellers in South America, by Mary H. Wade
Moore was born in 1871, the eighth child and only surviving daughter of a Maine lawyer and his wife.* She dreamed of following in her father’s footsteps, and is the only person I’ve ever heard of to have been home-schooled in law. Her legal ambitions came to an end, though, when both of her parents died of influenza when she was twenty. She spent a few years helping to raise her brother Henry’s children after his wife died in childbirth. At his suggestion, she decided to become a librarian, and she studied at the Pratt Institute in New York. After graduating, she was given the job of setting up a children’s room at the institute’s library.
Children’s rooms in libraries are such a fact of now life that I never thought about anyone inventing them. It turns out, though, that until the early 20th century children were discouraged from using libraries, most of which, until Andrew Carnegie came along, were private. Often, you had to be 14 to use a library. Sometimes, you had to be a boy. When children’s rooms existed, they were generally little more than holding pens to ensure peace and quiet in the rest of the library.
Children reading in the reading room of an unidentified branch of the Queens Borough Public Library, ca. 1910 (William Davis Hassler)
Moore changed all that. At Pratt, and later in the New York public library system, where she served as the head children’s librarian for 35 years, she reinvented the children’s room. She installed open stacks, child-sized furniture, plants, and seasonal exhibits and scheduled story hours, puppet shows, and readings for children by famous writers (including W.B. Yeats). Moore was particularly passionate about making African-American children and children of immigrants feel welcome in libraries. In an era of “Americanization,” she insisted on stocking books in the foreign languages that many of New York’s children spoke at home. Dissatisfied with the quality of children’s literature, she championed talented writers. She was the first regular columnist on children’s books, writing first in The Bookman and later in the New York Herald Tribune and Horn Book.
Cover of Stuart Little, first edition, 1945
With many 100-years-ago personalities I come across, I end up with more or less a monopoly on them. If you Google alleged German spy/femme fatale Despina Storch, for example, you get Wikipedia, then me.** (I do, at least.) Moore, though, has been in the news quite a bit in recent years. New Yorker writer/Harvard historian Jill Lepore wrote an article in 2008 about Moore’s persistent-bordering-on-stalkerish attempts to get E.B. White to finish Stuart Little, followed by her efforts to make sure the finished product, which she hated, never saw the light of day. (She failed, obviously, but managed to keep Stuart Little out of contention for the Newbery Award, which is bestowed by the American Library Association.)
Cover of Nicholas: A Manhattan Christmas Story, by Anne Carroll Moore
Lepore and others have highlighted Moore’s eccentricities, which, to be fair, were considerable. She had a wooden puppet named Nicholas that she took everywhere and often held conversations with, including in professional meetings. (When Harper editor Virginia Kirkus stopped by Moore’s office to ask why she was ignoring Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, Moore kept turning to Nicholas and saying, “Nicholas, Miss Kirkus wants to know…”) Moore also wrote two children’s books about Nicholas. The first one, Nicholas: A Manhattan Christmas, was a runner-up for the 1925 Newbery Award, but this may have had more to do with Moore’s home-field advantage as a librarian than with its quality. It’s still under copyright so I couldn’t check it out myself, but here are excerpts from some Goodreads reviews (average rating: two stars):
“An oddly off-putting little book.”
“One of the worst books I’ve ever read.”
“Maybe it would be better reading at Christmas time, but I really don’t think so.”
“Very few people will live through the story unless it is an assignment.”
Eventually, Nicholas was lost in a taxi, to the delight of Moore’s colleagues.
Slate book critic Laura Miller came to Moore’s defense in 2016, highlighting her efforts on behalf of underprivileged children and saying that she “changed the world of children’s books for the immeasurable better. She deserves to be remembered for that, and not just for her aversion to a certain nattily dressed mouse.”
The controversies surrounding Moore’s later career were far in the future in 1919, though. So let’s leave Moore with her friend Edouard as they go through the pile of review copies for her December 1918 Bookman column.***
On Thornton Burgess:
“Is there a book here by Thornton Burgess?”
Without waiting for an answer he instinctively put his hand under a great pile of Boy Scout and war books and drew forth “Mother West Wind Where Stories” and clasped it to his heart.
“If I had a million dollars I would engage Thornton Burgess to write all the stories I could read.”
On Mother’s Nursery Tales, by Katharine Pyle:
Illustration from Mother’s Nursery Tales, by Katharine Pyle, 1918
The picture of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” is the only satisfying one I have seen. “She knows how to draw bears in a family”, was Edouard’s comment as he compared it with an illustration for the same story by another artist of which he said, “These bears are not a family, they are just colored to match the rest of the picture”.****
On Dream Boats by Dugald Stewart:
Its delicate illustrations in color and in black and white made no appeal to him. Both in conception and in rendering this book seems to have been planned for an audience of somewhat sophisticated children.
On Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island, illustrated by N.C. Wyeth:
Edouard wishes to own it for the sake of having “such a good picture of Captain Nemo”. He likes it better than the ones he has seen in the movies.
For writing like that—and for the many happy hours I spent in the library as a child—I’m willing to forgive some tone-deaf literary choices and a talking puppet. Thank you, Anne Carroll Moore!
*In 1919, Moore was still known as Annie Carroll Moore. Annie was the name on her birth certificate, but she had it legally changed in her fifties because—what are the odds?—there was another woman named Annie Moore who was writing about children’s libraries at the time.
**Unfortunately, you only get my post on her death on Ellis Island at age 23 and not the earlier one about her (alleged) career as a German spy.
***Her column didn’t become a regular feature until September 1919.
****I’m pretty sure the “Three Bears” illustrations Edouard panned were Arthur Rackham’s from Flora Annie Steele’s 1918 book English Fairy Tales. It’s just like Edouard said: the bears go better with the room’s decor than with each other. (On the other hand, I like the idea of a family of bears with a Van Dyck-style painting on their wall.)
I’ve been busy with non-blog-related writing projects lately, and over Easter weekend I found myself feeling homesick for 100-year-old artwork. So I looked through the April 1919 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal in search of some springtime color.
I found it in abundance. With wartime paper restrictions lifted, the magazine had swollen to 190 pages, up from 128 in April 1918, and the number of pages in color had increased from 30 to 50. As usual, the best part of the magazine was the ads.*
The women of 1919 were hard at work, cleaning up their (or their employers’) homes,
choosing summer fabrics,
and cooking disgusting-looking food,
maybe for a big party
at which people would stay all night, dancing to dashing music that sets a swift and joyous pace.
For more simple fare, there’s delicious-looking bread
and Cream of Wheat.**
In an ad for Nashua woolnap blankets, the child is, for a change, not packing heat.
Soap and perfume ads feature rich people
and Japanese people***
and the Middle Eastern oasis where Palmolive soap was born.
Fairies leap out of cars
and flitter around****
and chewing gum ingredients appear to movie stars in crystal balls.*****
The war was over and the world was celebrating.
Then I saw this ad, drawn by Coles Phillips.
It’s been haunting me, a reminder–in a hosiery ad!–that peace, for some, came at a terrible price.
Not to end on too sad a note, there were signs of social progress. The young woman in this Lady Sealpax ad leaps joyfully, wearing underwear that gives her “the same ‘Free as the Air’ feeling that ‘brother’ enjoys.” Cast off those corsets, so constraining to your golfing or nursing! The Roaring Twenties are on the way.
*The best illustrations, anyway. There are also a lot of surprisingly feminist articles that I haven’t had a chance to read yet.
**The model for the photograph on the poster was, apparently, Frank L. White, who was born in Barbados and was working as a master chef in Chicago when it was taken. It’s still used on the Cream of Wheat box today. (I say “apparently” because, while he said in later life that he had posed for the photograph, his name wasn’t recorded at the time.) Some early Cream of Wheat ads doctored the photograph in racist ways or used racist language, but the photograph as used here is, for the time, an unusually realistic depiction of an African-American.
***Jap Rose soap had a racist name but gorgeous illustrations.
****I wondered about Djer-Kiss, the unusually named French perfume. Unlike Bozart rugs and Talc Jonteel, it isn’t a fractured French spelling. These people, who have given considerable thought to the matter, aren’t sure what it means either, although they provide interesting information about the Parisian company that produced Djer-Kiss.
*****This is, if memory serves, the first celebrity endorsement I’ve seen.