Can you beat me at this 1919 intelligence test? Probably!

My quest to earn a 1919 Girl Scout badge (here and here) got my competitive juices flowing. And what’s more competitive than an intelligence test? I set out to track one down.

Last year, I could only find one intelligence test from 1918. It equated intelligence with vocabulary, because of course familiarity with this

and this

isn’t class-dependent AT ALL. I did pretty well, scoring in the Superior Adult range.*

By 1919, magazines were full of intelligence tests. A test called the Army Alpha had been widely used on American soldiers during the war, and psychologists and business leaders were eager to use ability testing in civilian life. I settled on a bevy of tests in the March 1919 edition of  American Magazine.** “Try these tests on yourself and others,” the magazine urges us, although, in my experience, the “others” tend to flee.

Tests like this are, we learn in an accompanying article, completely scientific—it’s possible to give a job applicant or a soldier a set of tests that will accurately predict his job success. (“His” being the operative word. No one’s wasting time testing women’s intelligence.)

In the past, American Magazine tells us, soldiers were sorted into units based on where they lived rather than by skills. So, during the Civil War, all the men from one neighborhood would be assigned to the remount squad (the unit responsible for supplying horses), when it would have made more sense to staff it with people who know something about horses.

U.S. Army poster of remount depot, Fort Reno, Oklahoma, 1908.

Remount Depot, Fort Reno, Oklahoma, 1908 (U.S. Army poster)

When the United States entered World War I, some psychology professors were convinced that there must be a better way. They came up with

three great developments which have been not only factors in victory but will be of enormous importance to business, now that peace is here. They are:

  1. The Qualification Card
  2. The Intelligence Test
  3. The Rating Scale

The Qualification Card is, like it sounds, a card with a soldier’s qualifications listed on it. When the pipes froze at a military base, all of the plumbers in town were out on calls, so

in desperation, the quartermaster telephoned the Personnel office:

“Have you any plumbers on the list?”***    
“How many do you need?”
“Forty or fifty.”
“We’ll send you a hundred,” said the Personnel officer. And in less than an hour he had done so.

This scheme makes sense, although I don’t see why it required a team of brainiacs to come up with it.

American magazine cover, March 1919, woman and hands playing piano, How Smart Are You?

The Intelligence Test and Rating Scale, are, American Magazine assures us, equally useful.

Take a hundred men in the same line of business, whose incomes vary widely, and give the same tests to all of them. If, generally speaking, it rates them in about the same order in which the judgment of the business world has rated them, then the test is pretty likely to be a good one.

So the test is accurate because people who make more money do better. Logic doesn’t get more airtight than that!

The Tests

On to the tests! They work best on paper, and you can download and print them out from the magazine. (Hit “Download this page (PDF)” in the box to the left of the text.) If you can’t be bothered, you can do most of them by looking at the questions on the screen. The answers, where needed (most are self-evident), are provided below.

TEST 1

Number chart for intelligence test, American Magazine, 1919.

TEST 2

Word list for intelligence test, American magazine, 1919.

TEST 3

Number list for intelligence test, March 1919.

TEST 4

(On #14, note that there are two spaces between “beggar” and “money.”)

Fill in the blanks test, American Magazine, March 1919.

TEST 5

Fill in the blanks intelligence test, American Magazine, March 1919.

That’s it! Put down your pencils.

The Answers (and My Results)

TEST 1

The answers are  self-evident, but here are my 3’s, x’ed out in pink, in case you missed some:

Number finding puzzle, solved.

The first time I took this test, I got 2 minutes, 23 seconds. This is well into the Poor range, which starts at 88 seconds. I took it again and was almost at the 3-minute mark when the phone rang, putting me out of my misery.

I tried to come up with justifications for my sorry performance. The 3’s look so much like 8’s! Especially this one with a line through it (sixth row, fifth column),

3 with line through it, American Magazine, March 1919.

which cost me about ten seconds.

Then it occurred to me that the numbers, when printed out on standard printer paper, are way smaller than they would have been in the magazine. I copied them into a Word document, enlarged them, and got 2 minutes, 10 seconds. I put them into landscape mode and stretched them out even bigger. 2 minutes on the dot, still well within the Poor range. I gave up.

This didn’t come as a huge surprise. Rapid visual processing is not my forte. I would, I accepted long ago, be the world’s worst air traffic controller. But there are lots of tests to go!

TEST 2

There are no answers provided, but they should be self-evident—speed is the issue here.

Words are much more my thing, and I did well: 19 seconds, two seconds into the Excellent range. Feeling better!

TEST 3

Again, no answers needed.

I’m better at dealing with numbers when they’re not hiding in a jungle of other numbers. I remembered eight numbers, in the Good range.

TEST 4

Cover, Popular Science Monthly, April 1926, man on crane.

American Magazine doesn’t provide answers, but I found the same exam in the April 1926 issue of Popular Science, with answers. Here they are:

Test answers, Popular Mechanics, April 1926.

Popular Mechanics, April 1926

Add up the number of words you got right for your score. (This isn’t exactly fair, because the 1926 test imposes a four-minute time limit, but, well, life isn’t always fair.)

Here are my answers:

Fill in the blanks puzzle, solved.

I got 51 out of 69, well above the average score of 36, and bumped it up to a 53 because of confusion about the beggar sentence. But I’ve got some serious issues.

#10, “She ____ if she will,” is the only one that truly stumped me. After considerable thought, I wrote “knows.” I wasn’t thrilled with this, though, because “she knows whether she will” would be better syntax. The actual answer? “She CAN if she will.” Which made no sense to me until I figured out that “will” is being used in the sense of “wants to.” This struck me as archaic even for 1919.

Roderick Hudson, first edition, photo of 3 volumes.

Roderick Hudson, first U.K. edition (peterharrington.co.uk)

A Google search for “she can if she will” comes up with this quotation from Roderick Hudson, an 1875 Henry James novel that I never heard of:

Excerpt from Roderick Hudson by Henry James.

Roderick Hudson, 1917 edition

You see, Roderick, a young, impoverished sculptor studying in Rome, is engaged to Mary back home, but he falls in love with Christina, and Rowland, his patron, is in a quandary because he’s in love with Mary himself but feels obliged to break up the Roderick/Christina liaison because, well, I’m not sure why.

Never mind. My point is, just because someone says something in a Henry James novel doesn’t make it normal.

Then there’s #7, “The poor baby ______ as if it were ________ sick.” I wrote, “The poor baby cried as if it were very sick.” The “correct” answer: “The poor baby looked as if it were real sick.”

REAL sick? That’s just wrong. And, I was convinced, was just as wrong in 1919. Looking for examples of this usage from that era, I found this semi-literate letter, which was, for some reason, entered into the record of the Senate Select Committee to Investigate the Election of William Lorimer in 1912.****

Letter in record of Senate Select Committee to Investigate the Election of William Lorimer, 1912.

Proceedings of Senate Select Committee to Investigate the Election of William Lorimer, 1912

Other answers just seem arbitrary. Like #20, where I say “When one feels drowsy and tired…” and the “correct” answer is “When one feels drowsy and sleepy…” Either way, you’re using a pair of redundant adjectives.

But everyone else is presumably being judged by the same capricious standards, plus I had that time advantage, so I’ll stop quibbling.

TEST 5

There are no official answers, but they’re easy to figure out once you remove the time constraint. Here are mine:

Fill in the blanks test, solved.

I had fun with this one. It engages your mind and is tricky in the best  way. At 101 seconds, I fell into the Good category. Shaving off a couple of seconds for setting and shutting off the timer bumped me up to Excellent.

Except—what’s this?

Handwritten fill in the blank saying a horse has three feet.

A horse has HOW MANY feet? What was I thinking? Even given my dubious grasp of animal physiology, I know better than that. I was trying to go too fast, that’s my problem. I could argue that it says fill in a number, not the correct number, but that’s grasping at straws.

The quiz doesn’t say how to score yourself if you get something wrong, but this is a definite fail.

So, bottom line:
TEST 1 – Poor.
TEST 2 – Excellent.
TEST 3 – Good.
TEST 4 – No categories, but I say Good.
TEST 5 – Poor.

There’s no overall scoring system, but if you scale Poor at 1, Fair at 2, Good at 3, and Excellent at 4, I average out at exactly 2. You can’t get more mediocre than that.

So What Does it All Mean?

Title page, Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, 1919-21.

To buck myself up, I turned to the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, 1919-1921. Maybe I could, among the dozens of articles on intelligence tests, find one saying that they’re a bunch of nonsense.

And I did!

Cover, Literary Digest, May 10, 1919, mother reading schoolbook while annoyed son holds hoe.

To wit, an article in the May 10, 1919, Literary Digest called “Flaws in ‘Intelligence Tests,’” excerpted from Engineering and Contracting magazine. Halbert P. Gillette, the magazine’s editor, says that

an engineer, being trained to use mathematics, knows that before he can calculate the combined effect of different energies, he must reduce them to a common unit. He knows that one hundred horse-power plus ten British thermal units per second does not make 100 units of any kind whatsoever. Yet the same engineer will probably read, without criticism, an article in which a military officer is ‘rated’ thus:
            Physical qualities…………….……….9
            Intelligence……………………….……..12
            Leadership…………………………….…15
            Personal qualities……….…….…….9
            General value to the service….24
                                                              —–
           Total rating in scale of 100      69

Comparing men (them again!) by “adding” up their different qualities, Gillette concludes, is nonsense.

Some such calculation of the relative number of mental units in ‘character’ and in ‘knowledge’ may possibly be made by psychologists a century hence, but not until that is accomplished will it be rational to rate ‘character’ at twenty-four and ‘knowledge’ at fifteen. Any such rating is nonsense.

Halbert Gillette pointing to globe, Popular Science, 1930.

Halbert Gillette, Popular Science, 1930

These five tests are all about intelligence, but they measure very different types of mental ability. So maybe I shouldn’t worry. Maybe I should let the people who excel at finding 3’s be air traffic controllers***** and content myself with doing things that people who excel at shouting out antonyms are good at, like writing blogs about 100 years ago.

Plus, I reassured myself, there’s still my Superior Adult rating on last year’s vocabulary-based intelligence test.

Banner headling saying A Test of Your Intelligence, Literary Digest, February 16, 1918.

Literary Digest, February 16, 1918

Except that Gillette pooh-poohs that test as well. “It is claimed to give results approximating those obtained by applying the Binet-Simon psychological tests,” he says. (IQ tests, that is.) “But if the Binet-Simon tests are not satisfactory, the vocabulary tests cannot be more so.”

Oh, right. Good point.

Gillette is worried about Columbia University’s plan to use ability tests, rather than tests of general knowledge, as entrance exams. “To put it mildly, this is a radical experiment,” he says.

Postcard of Columbia University library, 1917.

Columbia University library, 1917 (librarypostcards.blogspot.com)

Gillette seems like a sensible guy. He might be disappointed that, in the “century hence” he ponders, we haven’t developed more accurate measures of intelligence. And he’d no doubt be appalled that we use standardized tests that correlate highly with wealth as a gateway to higher education—although now it’s your parents’ money, not yours, that counts.******

Still, I’ll never be able to resist an intelligence test. As I mentioned, there are lots more out there. Next time, I swear, I’ll know how many feet a horse has.

In the meantime, let me know if you have better luck than I did tracking down those pesky 3’s!

*Apparently there are lots of other test-taking fans out there—this ended up being my most popular post of 2018.

**American Magazine has an interesting history. It rose from the ashes of several failed magazines in the Leslie empire in 1906 and became the home of muckraking journalists like Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell. By 1919, it was a general interest magazine. It folded in 1956.

Ida Tarbell at desk, 1905.

Ida Tarbell (Pelletier Library, Allegheny College)

***I’ve often wondered whether people actually talked in this inverted way or if it’s just a journalistic/literary convention.

****Lorimer, a Chicago politician known as the “Blond Boss,” was eventually booted out of the Senate for vote-buying in the state legislature. This was right before the ratification in 1913 of the Seventeenth Amendment, which provided for election of senators by the popular vote, making it more expensive, though still possible, to buy elections. A lot of people in Chicago thought that Lorimer’s ouster was politically inspired, and there was a parade for him on his return.

Portrait photograph of Senator William Lorimer, ca. 1921.

William Lorimer, ca. 1921

*****Which wasn’t a job in 1919 but would become one in 1920, when Croyden Airport in London pioneered commercial air traffic control.

Croyden Airport, 1925.

Croydon Airport, 1925, control tower at left (airportofcroydon.com)

******Less so than in the past, though. More and more colleges are making standardized tests optional for undergraduate admissions. Princeton, my graduate alma mater, recently announced that 14 of its departments will, in the interest of diversity, no longer require the Graduate Record Exam.

My Quest to Earn a 1919 Girl Scout Badge, Part 2

Part 1 of my quest to earn a Girl Scout badge from a hundred years ago did not go well. In a world of runaway horses and ornithopters and captain ball matches, I was a washout.

While I was catching my breath after this dispiriting exercise, I read more of the 1916 edition of How Girls Can Help Their Country, the Girl Scout handbook of the time.

How Girls Can Help Their Country, Girl Scout handbook, cover, 1916.

I learned, among other things, that

in Europe, Girl Scout Patrols are sometimes formed by grown women who wish to carry out the Girl Scout program of preparedness. Members of such Patrols are called Senior Scouts.*

So I’m a legit Girl Scout! And you all are my patrol. Senior Girl Scouts don’t have regular meetings, so we can dispense with rules like this one:

Passage from 1916 Girl Scout handbook about disgraced scouts becoming "dead scouts."

How Girls Can Help Their Country

And I thought taking away the Cyclist badge if you ceased to own a bicycle was harsh!

All right, on to the next 18 badges.

  1. PERSONAL HEALTH

Personal Health Girl Scout badge, 1916 (crossed dumbbells).

I nailed a few of the requirements, like

#3. Walk a mile a day for three months

Mary Grace McGeehan walking at Gamla Uppsala, Sweden, 1916.

Me, Gamla Uppsala, Sweden, 2016

and

#5. Take a bath daily for a year, or sponge bath.

Williams' talc powder ad, woman sitting by tub with maid, 1919.

Ladies Home Journal, May 1919.

(Well, a shower.)

Unfortunately, there’s also

#1. Eat no sweets, candy, or cake between meals for three months

and

#2. Drink nothing but water, chocolate, or cocoa for a year.

I love cocoa at least as much as the next person,

Cup of cocoa on table.

but I doubt it would be good for my personal health, and it definitely wouldn’t be good for my diet, to swap it for my morning tea. Besides, a year? I’m on a timeline, people!

FAIL.

  1. PUBLIC HEALTH

Public Health Girl Scout badge, 1916 (seal with stars and stripes from U.S. flag).

For this badge, they make you write a 500-word essay about the country-wide campaign against the housefly, and that’s just the beginning. It’s too tedious for words. But I pledged that in this round I would try to fulfill at least one requirement for each badge, so for this one I decided on

#6. Tell how her community cares for its garbage.

The City of Cape Town’s solid waste management department turns out to have a lot of interesting information online. Here is a map of the waste disposal infrastructure

Map of Cape Town waste disposal infrastructure.

iwmsa.co.za

and here is a photo of one of the landfills, which could be titled “Cape Town: Where Even the City Dump is Photogenic.”

Photograph of Cape Town landfill site with Table Mountain in the background.

iwmsa.co.za

So I’ve learned where my trash goes, which is a good thing to know, but

FAIL.

  1. HORSEMANSHIP

Horsemanship Girl Scout badge, 1916 (spur).

#1. Demonstrating riding at a walk, trot and gallop.

Cosmopolitan cover, April 1919, young woman with horse.

I have no horse, so this is not to be. But I can do this:

#6. State lighting up time, city law.

South Africa requires drivers to drive with headlights on between sunset and sunrise and when visibility is less than 150 meters.

FAIL.

  1. HOME-NURSING

Home Nursing Girl Scout badge, 1916 (cross).

#1. Must pass test recommended by First Aid Department of the American Red Cross. These tests may be had from Headquarters, upon request.

Yeah, if you pay thirty bucks!

#4. Know how to prepare six dishes of food suitable to give an invalid (p. 114).

I had already thrown up my hands on this when I was doing the Invalid Cooking badge, but out of curiosity I turned to page 114, where there’s a recipe for kumyss.**

Recipe for kumyss (sour milk) in Girl Scout book, 1916.

How Girls Can Help Their Country

Which, it occurred to me, is basically the same thing as amasi, a sour milk drink popular among African people in South Africa. Nelson Mandela wrote in his autobiography A Long Walk to Freedom that, when he was hiding out in a safehouse in a whites-only area in Johannesburg before his arrest, he used to make amasi and leave it on the windowsill to ferment. One day, he heard two men talking outside in Zulu. “What is ‘our milk’ doing on that window ledge?” one of them asked the other. He moved to another safe house the next day.

If I ever have to serve amasi to an invalid, though, I’ll just buy it at the store.

Bottle of amazi (sour milk).

Pick ‘n Pay

I’ve got this one, though:

#3. Know how to take temperature; how to count pulse and respirations.

FAIL.

  1. HOUSEKEEPER

Housekeeper Girl Scout badge, 1916 (crossed keys).

#2. Know how to use a vacuum cleaner, how to stain and polish hardwood floors, how to clean wire window screens, how to put away furs and flannels, how to clean glass, kitchen utensils, brass, and silverware.

I have no idea how to put away furs or stain hardwood floors. And I’m starting to suspect that the authors of How Girls Can Help Their Country are just out to get free child labor. I do know how to polish silver, though. With toothpaste! It’s super-easy.

Before:

Tarnished silver fork.

After:

Silver fork.

(Not the greatest photographs, but look closely at the tines.)

#4. Tell how to choose furniture.

I’d just go to the furniture store and say, “Make my house look like this!”

Bozart Rugs ad, 1918, bedroom with colorful rug and furnishings.

Ladies’ Home Journal, May 1918

So I have clean silver, but

FAIL.

  1. INTERPRETER

Interpreter Girl Scout badge, 1916 (shaking hands).

Over the course of my Foreign Service career, I was certified as proficient in five languages: Spanish, French, Afrikaans, Khmer (Cambodian), and Lao. So I was excited to see that there was an Interpreter badge.

Mary Grace McGeehan at Angkor Wat, 1996.

Me, Angkor Wat, Cambodia, 1996

Excited, but not cocky. After failing to earn the Civics badge despite having majored in government in college, I take nothing for granted.

#1. Be able to carry on a simple conversation in any other language than their own.

Here I am speaking Khmer:

 

Translation: “Hello, my name is Mary Grace. I’m American, but I live in South Africa. I used to live in Cambodia. Good-bye!”

Check!

#2. Write a letter in a foreign language.

A few years ago I took (and passed) the French government’s official language test for foreign language speakers at the Intermediate 1 and Intermediate 2 levels. For the Intermediate 1 test, we had to write a letter. I got a 22/25 on that section.

Check!

#3. Read or translate a passage from a book or newspaper in French, German, Italian, or in any other language than her own.

The second volume of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (or In Search of Lost Time, as the young folks call it) was published in 1919. In a fit of linguistic ambition, I bought a copy in French a while back.

Cover of A L'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, Marcel Proust.

Here’s my translation of the first page. (Summary: Whom should Marcel’s parents invite to dinner with M. de Norpois? There’s the unquestionably distinguished Professor Cottard, but he’s away. And Swann, but he’s a name-dropping upstart. Although some would argue that it’s the other way around. Added complication: Swann’s social stock has tanked since–SWANN’S WAY SPOILER ALERT–he married Odette.) I only got stuck once, on the word “esbroufeur,” which turns out to mean something along the lines of “twit” or “self-promoter.”

Handwritten translation of first page of A L'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs by Marcel Proust.

Check!

SUCCESS.

Well, that was anticlimactic. Let’s try it again, in library hand.

Handwritten word Success! with squiggles.

I could stop right here, proud to have finally earned a badge, but that wouldn’t be in the Girl Scout spirit. Plus, I always found it kind of sad when girls would wear vests with just a single badge. Onward!

  1. LAUNDRESS

Laundress Girl Scout badge, 1916 (iron).

#2. Press a skirt and coat.

“What is a skirt and coat?” was my first question. I know what they are separately, of course, but together? Fashion blogger Vintage Dancer helpfully explains that, ca. 1918, matching skirts and coats were sold together, like these:

Women in matching coats and skirts, Simpson's Catalogue, 1918.

Simpson’s Catalogue, 1918

I don’t have one of those, but I do have this beautiful Lao outfit that has been wadded up in my dry cleaning/ironing bag for several years.

Before:

Wrinkled Lao blouse and skirt on bed.

After:

Mary Grace McGeehan in traditional Lao skirt and blouse.

Check!

#3. Know how to use soap and starch, how to soften hard water, and how to use a wringer or mangle.

FAIL.

  1. MARKSMANSHIP

Marksmanship Girl Scout badge, 1916 (crossed rifles).

#2. Know how to load pistol, how to fire and aim or use it.

Let’s just skip this one, okay?

  1. MUSIC

Musician Girl Scout badge, 1916 (lyre).

By the time I was a Girl Scout, I’d given up my ambition to be an artist and shifted my interest to music. I took piano lessons, then guitar lessons. I learned to play the recorder on my own and would sit in my room tootling for hours. In eleventh grade or so, it dawned on me that I had no musical talent whatsoever, and I gave it all up.

Until now, that is.

There are three alternative paths to earning the Music badge: playing a musical instrument, singing, and bugle calls. I decided to dust off my recorder.

#1. Know how to play a musical instrument. Be able to do sight reading. Have a knowledge of note signs or terms.

The first challenge was to FIND my recorder, last seen in an immense pile of junk. Which I failed at, but a relative turned out to have one, luckily for you all because otherwise you would have had to hear me try to sing.

How Ya Gonna Keep 'em Down on the Farm (After They've Seen Paree) sheet music, 1919.

Library of Congress

I downloaded and printed the sheet music for that quintessentially 1919 song, “How ’Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)?”. Not having sight-read in three decades or so, I approached the task with a mix of excitement and trepidation. I sat down, stood the music in front of me, and…

It was all blurry! Sigh. I went to get my reading glasses. 

When I started playing, it was as if no time had gone by. I was sixteen all over again, playing in my room instead of doing my trigonometry homework. After a few runthroughs, I was able to produce this rendition:


My eleventh-grade assessment of my talent was not wrong. I am not Frank Hudson, nor was meant to be.*** But the requirement says nothing about playing a musical instrument well.****

Check! 

#2. Name two master composers and two of their greatest works.

Beethoven: Fifth Sympony and Ninth Symphony.
Mozart: Così Fan Tutte and Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.

Check!

#3. Be able to name all of the instruments in the orchestra in their proper order.

Children with string instruments, 1920.

Chicago Tribune, January 20, 1920 (csoarchives.wordpress.com)

There’s an order? What for? With a little digging, I found a guy on Quora who explains that there’s a set order in which instruments appear on a musical score, which goes like this.

  • Flute
  • Oboe
  • Clarinet
  • Bassoon
  • Horns
  • Trumpets
  • Trombones
  • Tuba
  • Timpani
  • Percussion
  • Harp and/or Keyboards
  • Soloists or Choir
  • Violin I
  • Violin II
  • Viola
  • Cello
  • Contrabass

After idly wondering for a few minutes how often 1919 Girl Scouts were called upon to score a symphony, I got down to business and memorized the list. It wasn’t too hard once I broke it down into reeds, woodwinds, percussion/vocal, and strings.

And now for the absolute, no question, best Girl Scout badge requirement of all time:

#4. Never play rag time music, except for dancing.

Check!

Handwritten Success! surrounded by squiggles.

  1. NATURALIST

Naturalist Girl Scout badge, 1916 (flower).

#1. Make a collection of sixty species of wild flowers, ferns and grasses, and correctly name them.

Or,

Colored drawings of wild flowers, ferns, or grasses drawn by herself.

Like everyone else, probably, I went for the second option. Here are my drawings of wild flowers in Cape Town’s Kirstenbosch Nature Reserve. (Well, of photos of them on the internet.)  Criticial reaction: “Definitely better than the dog.”

Sketches of wildflowers from Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden, Cape Town.

#2. Twelve sketches or photographs of animal life.

Speaking of the dog, I think we can all agree that photography is my best bet here. The neighborhood cats and dogs kept running away before I could unlock my phone to take their pictures, though, and all I had after several outings was this photo of a pigeon:

Photograph of pigeon on street.

I was starting to worry that the neighbors would think I was crazy, so I decided to waive my policy of not giving myself credit for past work.

Kruger Park, South Africa, 2009

Rhinos in Kruger Park, South Africa.

Bird in Kruger Park, South Africa.

Impalas in Kruger Park, South Africa.

Elephant in Kruger Park, South Africa.

Zebras and giraffe, Kruger Park, South Africa.

Kunene region, Namibia, 2013

Elephants in front of rocky hill, Kunene region, Namibia.

Antelope in front of hills, Kunene Region, Namibia.

Giraffe in front of hills, Kunene Region, Namibia.

Boulders Beach, Cape Town, 2018

Penguins at Boulders Beach, Cape Town.

Close-up of penguin at Boulders Beach, Cape Town.

Penguins in distance in front of ocean, Boulders Beach, Cape Town.

Penguins at Boulders Beach, Cape Town.

Handwritten Success! surrounded by squiggle.

Two in a row! I’m on a roll!

  1. NEEDLEWOMAN

Needlewoman Girl Scout badge, 1916 (scissors).

#1. Know how to cut and fit. How to sew by hand and by machine.

#3. Bring two garments cut out by herself; sew on hooks and eyes and buttons. Make a button-hole.

Longtime readers may remember the dress that I presented as evidence that Seamstress should not be my 1918 Girl Job:

Mary Grace McGeehan in homemade dress, 1983.

Me, 1983

I don’t think any more cotton needs to die to underscore this point.

#2. Know how to knit, embroider, or crochet.

I do know how to knit! I learned at the Girls’ Club, which I belonged to at the same time that I was in Girl Scouts.***** Here I am wearing a scarf that I knitted myself:

Mary Grace McGeehan in dress with knit scarf, Tegucigalpa, Honduras, 2012.

Tegucigalpa, Honduras, 2012

#3. Produce satisfactory examples of darning and patching.

Closeup of portion of striped shirt with inexpert darning.

“Satisfactory” is pushing it. I think I’ll skip the patching. Luckily, we have Witness 2 Fashion to fill the seamstress/historian niche.

FAIL.

  1. PATHFINDER

Pathfinder Girl Scout badge, 1916 (pointing finger).

#2. Know how to use the fire alarm.

Why is this in the Pathfinder badge, I wondered. It turns out that if there was a fire a hundred years ago you ran down the street to an emergency call box that worked by telegraphy.

Photograph of policeman at call box, Washington, D.C., 1910s.

Police call box at corner of D St. and 13½ St. NW, Washington DC, 1912 (Library of Congress)

In modern-day South Africa, you contact the fire department by calling the emergency number, which for cell phones is—and I’m ashamed to say I did not know this—112.

Check!

#4. Know the distance to four neighboring towns and how to get to these towns.

Map of Western Cape, South Africa.

Google Maps

  1. Stellenbosch: 45 km via the N2 and R310.
  2. Hermanus: 115 km via the N2 and R43.
  3. Paarl: 60 km via the N1.
  4. Worcester: 115 km via the N1.

Check!

#5. Draw a map of the neighborhood with roads leading to cities and towns.

I drew a very nice map, but you’ll have to take my word for it. I know you’re not a robber, but putting a map to my house on the internet is a recipe for getting my bike stolen.

A solid performance, but sadly there’s also

#1. Know the topography of the city, all the public buildings, public schools, and monuments.

Seriously, Girl Scouts? Even taking into account the growth of cities in the past hundred years, you’re stretching the limits of the human capacity to memorize. Here is a list of the high schools in ONE of Cape Town’s districts:

List of high schools in Cape Town's Metro Central district from Wikipedia.

Wikipedia

I did visit a monument for this blog, though: the Cape Town Cenotaph, memorializing soldiers who died in World War I, on the 100th anniversary of the Armistice.

Cape Town Cenotaph with wreaths, November 11, 2018.

FAIL.

  1. PIONEER

Pioneer Girl Scout badge, 1916 (crossed pick and axe).

This one only has two requirements.

#1. Tie six knots.

I skipped over the knots in the Boatswain badge, but here they are, back to haunt me. Girl Scouting is all about knots—leaders are even advised to have a knot-tying session during their troop’s first meeting—so I should get on this.

Here are the knots in How Girls Can Help Their Country

Illustrations of knots from 1916 Girl Scout handbook.

and here are my knots:

Six knots in yellow yarn on a table.

Check!

#2. Build a shack suitable for three occupants.

What?

FAIL.

  1. PHOTOGRAPHY

(The badge isn’t illustrated, but they tell us it’s a camera.)

1919 Kodak ad, girls looking at photo album.

Ladies’ Home Journal, September 1919 (Hathitrust)

#1. Know use of lens, construction of camera, effect of light on sensitive films and the action of developers.

#2. Be able to show knowledge of several printing processes.

#3. Produce 12 photos of scout activities, half indoor and half outdoors, taken, developed, and printed by herself, also 3 pictures of either birds, animals, or fish in their natural haunts (3 portraits and 3 landscapes).

I could quibble with the confusing math in #3, or I could reuse my animal photos from the Naturalist badge, admit defeat on the rest of the requirements, and declare myself done here.

FAIL.

  1. SCRIBE

Scribe Girl Scout badge, 1916 (book).

A literary badge! And me with a master’s degree in creative writing! I’ll skip the journalism option, which involves a lot of tedious memorizing and the writing of 12 news articles, and go straight to the creative one.

#3. Write a good story.

Good timing! I just had my first post-MFA publication, a short story in this anthology:  

Writing My City anthology, Cape Town, 2019

Check!

#2. Write a good poem.

A poem, maybe. A good poem? Not going to happen.

FAIL.

  1. SIGNALING

Signaling Girl Scout badge, 1916 (crossed flags).

#1. Send and receive a message in two of the following systems of signaling: Semaphore, Morse. Not fewer than twenty-four letters a minute.

#2. Receive signals by sound, whistle, bugle or buzzer.

I think I’ll stick with WhatsApp.

FAIL.

  1. SWIMMER

Swimmer Girl Scout badge, 1916 (life buoy).

#1. Swim fifty yards in clothes, skirt and boots.

Again with the swimming in clothes! Can’t these people just wear life preservers? And I’m not going to put someone’s life at risk so I can check off

#6. Saving the drowning.

FAIL.

  1. TELEGRAPHY.

Telegraphy Girl Scout badge, 1916 (telegraph pole with wires).

#1. Be able to read and send a message in Morse and in Continental Code, twenty letters per minute, or must obtain a certificate for wireless telegraphy. (These certificates are awarded by Government instructors.)

I think they’re starting to run out of ideas–this is an awful lot like the Signalling badge. And we have to learn Morse Code AND Continental Code? As nice as it would have been to go out on a high note,

FAIL.

But I’ve earned three badges, a huge improvement over my previous score of zero. I’m an interpreter, a musician, and a naturalist!

Interpreter Girl Scout badge, 1916 (shaking hands). Musician Girl Scout badge, 1916 (lyre).Naturalist Girl Scout badge, 1916 (flower). 

I’ve done some things I’ve been putting off doing for ages: mending my shirt, polishing the silver, and ironing my Lao outfit. I know what number to dial in an emergency and where my garbage goes. And I’ve opened my mind to a huge array of new (or newly rediscovered) activities. I’ve drawn flowers, played a song, and translated Proust.

Being an adult is way better than being a kid in most ways. There’s a satisfaction that comes with having reached a high level of skill in your professional specialty or personal area of interest. You have autonomy. And no one natters away at you anymore about keeping yourself pure.****** But one thing we lose is that endless sense of possibility. Kids play the recorder and tie knots and draw pictures of flowers because it’s fun and, who knows, it might lead to something someday. Or might not. That’s okay too. Why worry about the future when there’s a whole afternoon to while away?

This has been my most enjoyable My Year in 1918 project yet, and I say that as someone who had a LOT of fun taking a 1918 IQ test and searching for 1918 love and going on a 1918 diet. Now that I’ve finished earning badges, I’ll try to hold on to some of that that Girl Scout spirit in my day-to-day life.

Finished earning badges for now, that is. There’s an all-new 1920 handbook, full of new badges, to look forward to next year!

In the meantime, I promise never, ever to play rag time music, except for dancing.

*As opposed to this ca. 1963 Senior Girl Scout in a spiffy stewardess-like uniform. Seniors were in the upper grades of high school in those days. In theory, anyway—I never met anyone who stuck it out that long. I quit in seventh grade, a few months into Cadettes, because we spent all our time brainstorming about what we were going to do as opposed to actually doing anything. Besides, no one wore uniforms and badges were suddenly uncool, so what was the point?

Drawing of Senior Girl Scout in uniform from Junior Girl Scout Handbook, 1963.

Junior Girl Scout Handbook, 1963

**Along with the wackiest omelet-making method ever:

Text from 1916 Girl Scout handbook about someone dropping eggs on the floor when making omelets but still using them.

How Girls Can Help Their Country

***Blogger in-joke.

****For a more competent rendition of this song, here’s Arthur Fields singing it in 1919, with lots of cool pictures:

*****Don’t worry, How Girls Can Help Their Country assures us that Girl Scouts are allowed to belong to other organizations.

******Girl Scout Law #6.

A Girl Scout keeps herself pure in thought, word, and deed, Girl Scout Law, 1916.

Girl Scout troop, 1916.

My Quest to Earn a 1919 Girl Scout Badge

Back in the day, I was really into Girl Scouts. Like, really into it. I had so many badges that they went all the way down the front of my sash and halfway up the back.*

Pictures of girl scout uniforms, 1960s.

Junior Girl Scout Handbook, 1963

So I was eager to set about earning some Girl Scout badges from a hundred years ago.

First, though, I needed to figure out what was going on in Girl Scouting back then. I had a head start because in fifth grade I wrote, directed, and starred in a play my troop put on about Girl Scouting founder Juliette Gordon Low.** But not a huge head start, because the only things I could remember about her were that she was born in Savannah, Georgia, and that she went deaf in one ear following a rice-throwing mishap at her wedding.

Juliette Gordon Low in Girl Scout uniform, 1917.

Juliette Gordon Low, 1917 (Harris & Ewing Collection/Library of Congress)

Low was born in, yes, Savannah, in 1860, the daughter of a wealthy cotton broker who fought for the Confederacy yet somehow ended up being close friends with General Sherman. At age 25, she married William Mackay Low. They moved to England, where their social circle included Rudyard Kipling and the Prince of Wales. Her husband proved to be a drinker, gambler, and philanderer, though, and they separated in 1901. He died in 1905.

Boy Scouts founder Robert Baden-Powell in uniform, ca. 1919.

Robert Baden-Powell, ca. 1919 (Library of Congress)

Low met Boy Scouts founder Robert Baden-Powell in 1911, and the two became close friends. She got involved with the Girl Guides, which were headed by Baden-Powell’s sister Agnes, and traveled with Baden-Powell to the United States in 1912 to launch the American Girl Guides, soon renamed the Girl Scouts.

Other interesting things happened, like a feud with the Campfire Girls, who refused Low’s merger proposal because they thought some GS activities were too masculine, and controversy over the “Girl Scouts” name, which some thought would have a sissifying effect on the Boy Scouts. But I skimmed over this in my eagerness to set about earning some badges.

I got hold of the Girl Scout handbook of the time, a 1916 update of the original 1913 edition. It’s titled How Girls Can Help Their Country, and I was delighted to see that it’s chockablock with badges—36 in all.

I knew going in that I couldn’t hold a candle to a 1919 Girl Scout in some respects—animal husbandry, for instance. Still, How Girls Can Help Their Country informs us that the purpose of scouting is to prepare girls to be housewives. I’ve been a wife for almost sixteen years now, so how hard could it be?

Selection from 1916 Girl Scout handbook on housewifery.

How Girls Can Help Their Country

Well, let’s see.

  1. AMBULANCE

Ambulance Girl Scout badge, 1916, Maltese cross.

#1. To obtain a badge for First Aid or Ambulance a Girl Scout must have knowledge of the Sylvester or Schafer methods of resuscitation in case of drowning. Must complete one year of regular attendance and know:

  1. What to do in case of fire.
  2. How to stop a runaway horse.
Drawing of a person performing resuscitation, 1916.

How Girls Can Help Their Country

FAIL.

  1. ARTIST

Artist Girl Scout badge, 1916, palette with brushes.

To obtain an artist’s badge a Girl Scout must draw or paint in oils or water colors from nature; or model in clay or plasticine or modeling wax from plaster casts or from life; or describe the process of etching, half-tone engraving, color printing or lithographing; or

            Arts and Crafts:

Carve in wood; work in metals; do cabinet work.

When I was in kindergarten, our teacher asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up and wrote down the answers, which I still have in a scrapbook. The girls mostly said mommy. One aspired to be a teenager. Another wanted to be a cheerleader. I wanted to be an artist. Admirable from a gender equality perspective, but delusional. To check whether I was underestimating myself, I tried to draw a dog. This is, I swear, my best effort:

FAIL.

  1. ATHLETICS

Athletics Girl Scout badge, 1916, Indian clubs.

I can do some of these things! This, for example:

#4. Must be able to float, swim, dive and undress in water.

(Okay, I’ve never actually tried the undressing part, but I bet I could do it if I could find a pool that allowed this kind of shenanigans.)

Others posed more of a challenge.

#3. Understand the rules of basket ball, volley ball, long ball, tether ball, and captain ball.

I’m solid on basket ball, volley ball, and tether ball. Long ball turns out to be a simplified form of cricket. But I got totally muddled up trying to master the rules of captain ball.

Captain Ball diagram.

Captain Ball diagram, funandgames.org

FAIL.

  1. ATTENDANCE

(There’s no picture of this badge, but it’s a silver star, they tell us.)

Must complete one year of regular attendance.

So participation trophies aren’t just a millennial thing! Not in the cards for me, though.

FAIL.

  1. AUTOMOBILING

Automobiling Girl Scout badge, 1916, wheel.

#1. Must pass an examination equal to that required to obtain a permit or license to operate an automobile in her community.

I live in Cape Town, and I’ll be able to convert my U.S. license to a South African one without taking a test once my South African ID comes through. Just as well, because I took a practice test and got 4 out of 10. In my defense, the questions were like this:

Question from South African practice driver's test, how far from a bridge must you park.

salearners.co.za

and this:

Question on practice South African driver's license test, for how long can you park a car on a rural road?

salearners.co.za

Since I never, ever park anywhere near a bridge or abandon my car on a rural road for even one minute, I’m not too worried. But I’m not getting a badge either.

FAIL.

  1. AVIATION

Aviation Girl Scout badge, 1916, monoplane.

To obtain a merit badge for aviation, a Scout must:

  1. Have a knowledge of the theory of the aeroplane, helicopter,*** and ornithopter, and of the spherical and dirigible balloon.
  2. Have made a working model of any type of heavier than air machine, that will fly at least twenty-five yards; and have built a box kite that will fly…

FAIL.

  1. BIRD STUDY

Bird Study Girl Scout badge, 1916, bird.

 To secure this badge, a Scout must:
#1. Give list of 50 well-known wild birds of the United States.
#2. State game bird laws of her state.
#3. Give list of 50 wild birds personally observed and identified in the open…
#5. Name 10 birds that destroy rats and mice….
#8. Tell what the Audubon Society is and how it endeavors to conserve the birds of beautiful plumage.
#9. What an aigret is, how obtained, and from what bird.

I can answer #9! It’s a long, colorful feather, usually from an egret, used for adorning a hat. (Thank you, Google!) You presumably obtain it from plucking it out, which the Audubon folks might take a dim view of. (UPDATE 11/5/2019: For the horrifying truth about aigret feathers, see the comment from Witness2Fashion below.)

Woman wearing hat with aigret feather, 1911.

Chapeau à Aigrette, Maison Lewis, 1911

FAIL.

  1. BOATSWAIN

Boatswain Girl Scout badge, 1916, anchor.

#1. Be able to tie six knots.
#2. Be able to row, pole, scull, or steer a boat.
#3. Land a boat and make fast.
#4. State directions by sun and stars.
#5. Swim 50 yards with clothes and shoes on.
#6. Box the compass and have a knowledge of tides.

I lived on a lake when I was growing up and we used to putter around in canoes, rowboats, and small sailboats, so I’m pretty confident of my ability to do most of these things. And I bet that, if I tried, I could swim 50 yards with clothes and shoes on, although can’t I can just take them off like in the Athletics badge? Boxing the compass sounded daunting but turns out just to mean reciting the 32 points and quarter points on a compass, North by Northwest and the like.

How Girls Can Help Their Country

Telling direction by the stars, though? Especially in the southern hemisphere, with no Little Bear to guide me?

sketch of constellations Little Bear and Great Bear, 1916.

How Girls Can Help Their Country

FAIL.

  1. CHILD-NURSE

Child-Nurse Girl Scout badge, 1916, cross.

#1. Take care of a child for two hours a day for a month, or care for a baby for one hour a day for a month.

FAIL.

  1. CLERK

Clerk Girl Scout badge, 1916, pen and book.

#1. Must have legible handwriting;

Check!

ability to typewrite;

Screenshot of online typing test, 66 wpm, 99 percent accuracy.

speedytypingonline.com

Check!

a knowledge of spelling and punctuation;

You can judge for yourself, but I’m giving myself this one.

a library hand;

Wait! What’s a library hand?

It turns out to be a special kind of handwriting taught in library school to make card catalog entries legible. It looks like this:

Illustration of library hand handwriting.

A Library Primer, John Cotton Dana, Chicago Library Bureau, 1899

Here is my library hand:

Not great, but not terrible. I’m on the edge here. But it’s a moot point because of

#4. Keep complete account of personal receipts and expenditure for six months.

FAIL.

  1. CIVICS

Civics Girl Scout badge,1916, eight-point star.

I majored in government in college, and I worked for the government for 28 years. Feeling good about this one!

#1. Be able to recite the preamble to the Constitution.

I knuckled down and memorized it in fifteen minutes. Check!

Words We the People from the original United States Constitution.

#2. Be able to state the chief requirements of a voter, in her state, territory, or district.

I looked at the West Virginia state website and nailed down some details I was wobbly on, like how long you have to have lived in the state to vote (30 days). Check!

#3. Be able to outline the principal points in the naturalization laws in the United States.

I was a consular officer at one point, so it was my job to know this. Check!

#4. Know how a president is elected and installed in office, also method of electing vice-president, senators, representatives, giving the term of office and salary of each.

President Woodrow Wilson addressing a joint session of Congress, April 2, 1917 (AP)

Solid on this except some of the salaries. I knew the president’s ($400,000) and looked up the vice president’s ($235,100) and senators’ and representatives’ ($174,000).**** Check!

But then I got to:

#5. Be able to name the officers of the President’s Cabinet and their portfolios.

Like, all of them? Even the ones who are about to resign?

FAIL.

  1. COOK

Cook Girl Scout badge, 1916, gridiron.

Maybe this will be it. I cook every day! Okay, every day that we don’t eat out or get takeout or have leftovers. Okay, once a week.

#1: Know how to wash up, wait on table, light a fire, lay a table for four, and hand dishes correctly at table.

Mary Grace McGeehan at Christmas table, 1915.

Me, Christmas 2015

Check!

#2: Clean and dress fowl.

FAIL.

  1. INVALID COOKING

Invalid Cooking Girl Scout badge, 1916, palm leaf.

#1. How to make gruel, barley water, milk toast, oyster or clam soup, beef tea, chicken jelly, and kumyss.

In case you’re wondering, kumyss, or kumis, is fermented mare’s milk. It’s an important part of the diet of the people of the Central Asian Steppes. Whom I don’t anticipate ever having to cook for when they’re sick.

FAIL.

  1. CYCLIST

Cyclist Girl Scout badge, 1916, wheel.

#1. Own a bicycle.

A bicycle standing on end in a garage.

Check! (Okay, it doesn’t get out a lot.)

#3. Pledge herself to give the service of her bicycle to the government in case of need.

I’m on board with this, although I doubt South Africa will ever need this particular bicycle.

#4. If she ceases to own a bicycle, she must return the badge.

Harsh! Having some kid steal your bike is bad enough without having to turn in your badge like a disgraced FBI agent. But I think I can hold on to mine, and if I don’t I have another one in D.C.

Unfortunately, there’s also

#2. Be able to mend a tire.

FAIL.

  1. DAIRY

Dairy Girl Scout badge, 1916, sickle.

#1. Know how to test cow’s milk with Babcock test.

Advertisement for Babcock milk testing machine, 1904.

Hoard’s Dairyman, 1904

Oh well, this badge is a little too Bolshiviki to be walking around with in 1919 anyway.

FAIL.

  1. ELECTRICITY

(No picture of this one either, but it’s lightening. (UPDATE 10/21/2019: I mean lightning! So much for spelling and punctuation.))

#1. Illustrate the experiment by which the laws of electrical attraction and repulsion are shown.
#2. Understand the difference between a direct and an alternating current, and show uses to which each is adapted. Give a method of determining which kind flows in a given circuit.
#3. Make a simple electro-magnet.

Etc., etc., etc.

Picture of electromagnet, 1919.

An Elementary Book on Electricity and Magnetism and Their Applications, 1919.

Here in Cape Town, we’re experience “load shedding,” a euphemism for power cuts, and I’m sitting here in the dark. I wish some Girl Scout would come along and straighten out the whole mess. It’s not going to be me, though.

FAIL.

  1. FARMER

Farmer Girl Scout badge, 1916, sun.

What? Not farmerette?

#1. Incubating chickens, feeding and rearing chickens under hens.

There’s lots more, knowledge of bees and curing hams and the like. The only one I got was

#2. Storing eggs.

Eggs in refrigerator.

FAIL.

  1. GARDENING

Gardening Girl Scout badge, 1916, trowel.

#1. Participate in the home and school garden work of her community.
#2. Plan, make and care for either a back-yard garden, or a window garden for one season.

Here’s my back-yard garden:

Garden pots with dead plants in them.

I have a good excuse for this. Cape Town was under severe water restrictions during last year’s drought, so I let my garden die. But they don’t give badges for good excuses.

FAIL.

So here I am, halfway through and no closer to earning a badge than I was at the beginning.

Girl Scout troop, 1916.

How Girls Can Help Their Country

My quest has left me full of admiration for those model airplane-flying, milk-testing, bird-identifying, chicken jelly-making, electricity-explaining 1919 Girl Scouts. And for Juliette Gordon Low, who, for all her talk about “hussifs,” didn’t dumb down these badges for the girls. But will I ever be able to earn one? I’m beginning to despair.

But then that old Girl Scout spirit kicks in. I turn for inspiration to the words of our founder and find…well, this:

Passage from 1916 Girl Scout handbook urging scouts to build men up.

But also this:

Which turns out to be mostly about the joyful exercise of vigorous outdoor games, but good enough.

I will go on! Stay tuned for Part 2.

In the meantime, you can try for a badge yourself. Drop me a line if you earn one!

*Unfortunately I have no photos of myself as a Girl Scout. My dad was an excellent photographer, but he wasn’t into candid shots. Anyone looking through our family scrapbooks would get the impression that I spent my entire childhood sitting in a wicker chair outdoors in darling outfits.

Mary Grace McGeehan in wicker chair, ca. 1967.

Me, ca. 1967

**Like I said: really into it. Although, in my defense, Girl Scouts is, or at least was back then, a bit of a JGL personality cult.

***What??? I thought helicopters weren’t invented yet!

****In 1919, the salaries were $75,000 for the president, $15,000 for the vice president, and $7,500 for senators and representatives.

Nobel Prize Laureate Selma Lagerlöf: A Swedish storyteller whose own story couldn’t be told

Hello from Sweden, the land of ubiquitous candy

Candy in a store in Uppsala, Sweden.

and adorable groceries

Swedish groceries.

and clothes made of garbage

H&M label for pants made of recycled household waste.

and quaint swear words (“Devil!”)!

I’m spending September in Uppsala, half an hour outside Stockholm. The town is home to a 500-year-old university, so history is ever-present.

Sketch of Gustavianum at Uppsala University by Gustaf Johan Härstedt

Gustavianum, Uppsala University, Gustaf Johan Härstedt, ca. 1800

To get a sense of what was happening in Sweden a century ago, a relative blip in this ancient town, I turned to my trusty Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, 1915-1918. It pointed me in the direction of an article in the February 1918 issue of the women’s magazine The Delineator called “Women All Too Womanly – In Sweden.” The problem with Swedish women, it turns out, is that they’re not sparkling enough in society. They walk behind their husbands all self-effacing like this

Illustration of a Swedish woman entering a hotel behind her husband.

Rea Irvin, The Delineator, February 1918

instead of making a grand entrance like this

Illustration of a woman in an evening gown entering a room.

Rea Irvin, The Delineator, February 1918

and enchanting their dinner companions with bon mots.*

Not being convinced that skin exposure = emancipation, I decided to look elsewhere for insights into ca. 1919 Swedish women.** An article in the April 1915 issue of the children’s magazine St. Nicholas called “Selma Lagerlöf, Swedish Genius” seemed like just the ticket.

Portrait photograph of Selma Lagerlof, ca. 1915.

Selma Lagerlöf, St. Nicholas magazine, April 1915 (Brown Bros.)

Lagerlöf, I learned, was born in 1858 and grew up on an estate called Mårbacka in west central Sweden. A semi-invalid as a child, she sat at home listening to visitors’ stories while her siblings played outdoors. She heard about wolves chasing sea captains across the snow and the Devil*** paying social visits, rocking in a rocking chair while the lady of the house played the piano.

Portrait photograph of Selma Lagerlof, 1881.

Selma Lagerlöf, 1881

The family experienced financial setbacks that eventually forced them to sell Mårbacka, and  Lagerlöf set off for Stockholm to study teaching. While she was there, she started writing down those childhood tales. In 1891 she published her first novel, Gösta Berling’s Saga. It’s the fantastical story of a Lutheran minister who is sacked for drinking and carousing, takes up with a group of eccentric vagrants, and eventually comes to see the error of his ways.**** “And in less time that it takes to get around it,” St. Nicholas tells us, “the world hailed the writer as a genius.” Other novels, and other accolades, followed.

Like, for example, the Nobel Prize in Literature, which Lagerlöf won in 1909, beating out other contenders such as Leo Tolstoy and Mark Twain, both of whom died the next year. She was the first woman to be awarded the prize.

Illustration of Selma Lagerlöf receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature from King Gustav V.

Selma Lagerlöf receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature from King Gustav V (Svenska Dagbladet, December 11, 1909)

If you’re thinking something sounds off here, there are a few things you need to know about the early days of the literature Nobel, which was first awarded in 1901. One is that writers from the Nordic countries had a distinct home field advantage, winning seven of the first 18 awards.*****

Also, the award in its early days bore the stamp of the Swedish Academy’s conservative permanent secretary, poet Carl David af Wirsén, who thought Nobelists should display “a lofty and sound idealism.” This, in his mind, disqualified not only Tolstoy and Twain but writers closer to home such as playwrights Henrick Ibsen of Norway and August Strindberg of Sweden.******

Photograph of Carl David af Wirsén with signature, 1877.

J. Wolf (from Literärt album, 1877)

And also, for a while, Selma Lagerlöf, whose characters, redeemed in the end or not, weren’t wholesome enough for af Wirsén’s liking. Whenever her name came up as a possible Nobelist, he would put forward other candidates, sometimes equally “unwholesome” writers who at least weren’t Swedish. But his fellow Swedish Academy members finally had their way in 1909, leaving af Wirsén a broken man.******* He died in 1912.

With her Nobel Prize money ($40,000, St. Nicholas informs us), Lagerlöf bought back Mårbacka, where she lived for the rest of her life.

Selma Lagerlof at her desk in her library in Marbacka.

Selma Lagerlöf at Mårbacka (Dan Gunner, date unknown)

St. Nicholas tells us that

With all her fame and fortune, Selma Lagerlöf remains the pleasant, unpretentious, fun-loving, kind-hearted woman of her school-teacher days. She has never married, and, since she is now about fifty-six years old, she will probably remain a spinster. But her friends are thick as the leaves in her beloved forest in full summer.

A spinster! Fun-loving! Friends thick as leaves in the forest! What could this mean? Having been through this before, I had my suspicions. I Googled “Selma Lagerlöf lesbian,” and the true story of her life emerged.

Portrait photograph of Sophie Elkan, ca. 1893.

Sophie Elkan, ca. 1893

A few years after the publication of Gösta Berling’s Saga, Lagerlöf met fellow writer Sophie Elkan, who became her lifetime friend and companion. The daughter of German Jewish immigrants, Elkan had lost her husband and only daughter to tuberculosis in 1879, and she dressed in mourning for the rest of her life.

Lagerlöf, apparently, was smitten from the beginning. At their first meeting, she lifted up Elkan’s widow’s veil, unbidden, and said, “You are very beautiful. I know we will become friends.” In a letter to Elkan, she wrote,

These kisses of yours that you convey in your letters, they are a great puzzlement to me. How am I to understand such merchandise? Are they promissory notes, or ‘samples without value’? Are such debts to be repaid in rooms milling with people, or in the greenhouse at Nääs?…In Copenhagen I see so many relationships between women that I must try to comprehend in my own mind what Nature’s intention is with this.********

Posed photograph of Selma Lagerlof leaning against Sophie Elkan.

Selma Lagerlöf and Sophie Elkan, date unknown

Lagerlöf’s desire for physical intimacy seems to have been unrequited, though. In a letter written before a planned meeting, Elkan wrote, “Hands off!”

Still, the two remained devoted friends, traveling together to Italy and to Egypt and Palestine, the setting for Lagerlöf’s successful novel Jerusalem, which was published in parts in 1901 and 1902, with this dedication:

To Sophie Elkan, my comrade in life and literature

In 1902, Lagerlöf met Valborg Olander, an educator and suffragist, and the two began a passionate affair. Life became complicated. Elkan may not have wanted a physical relationship with Lagerlöf, but that doesn’t mean she wanted someone else filling this void.

Swedish educator and activist Valborg Olander.

Valborg Olander, date unknown

Jealousy and subterfuge ensued. Olander’s letters brimmed with passion, and Lagerlöf apparently destroyed many of them so that Elkan wouldn’t find them. Her own letters to Olander were equally ardent. “Every time you are here, I try to kiss you so I can be happy for a few days, but I long for you even before you are out of the gate,” she wrote in July 1902. In another letter, she expressed the wish that Olander would stay overnight—“that would be divine.”

Elkan grew desperate, writing, “Oh dear, you won’t take Valborg—is it Valborg?—instead of me, will you?”

Selma Lagerlöf and Valborg Olander in the 1930s.

Selma Lagerlöf and Valborg Olander, 1930s (Skodsborg Badesanatorium, Copenhagen)

Olander became deeply involved in Lagerlöf’s literary affairs as well, and Lagerlöf wrote to her saying that “you are becoming a real writer’s wife.” Eventually the trio reached an uneasy peace, which lasted until Elkan’s death of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1921.

Lagerlöf remained devoted to Elkan after her death. Toward the end of her life, she started writing down the stories that Elkan had told her about growing up as a Jewish girl in Sweden, thinking of tales of Vikings and kings as her own heritage until a schoolmate mimed a long nose and said, “Jew kid!” Lagerlöf never finished the project, but the stories she completed were published after her death, in 1940, at the age of 80.

I’ve found Lagerlöf’s books on sale at every bookstore I’ve visited in Sweden,

Books by Selma Lagerlof on a bookshelf.

Akademibokhandeln, Uppsala

but beyond her native country she’s a literary footnote, a hometown favorite who won the Nobel in the years before the award broadened its geographic and literary horizons. If she were alive today, she wouldn’t be a contender. On the other hand, if she were alive today, she would be able to live her life openly, and with pride.

Carlonia Rediviva, Uppsala, with pride flags

Carolina Rediviva, Uppsala

*The illustrations are by future New Yorker cartoonist Rea Irvin.

**In fairness, the writer of the article, American suffragist Frances Maule Björkman, does end up with a more nuanced view of Swedish women, who turn out to have not the slightest interest in sparkling in society but interesting thing to say under other circumstances.

Photograph of Frances Maule Bjorkman with a suffragist banner.

R.C. Beadle, A.H. Brown, and Frances Björkman, 1913 (Bain News Service)

***Oops, sorry, I mean the Evil One.

****It was Greta Garbo’s performance in the 1924 film adaptation of this novel that brought her to the attention of Louis B. Mayer and launched her American career. You can watch some scenes from the film, with commentary, in this interesting five-minute clip.

Greta Garbo in Gösta Berlings saga

*****This was partly because, during most of World War I, the prize was awarded only to writers from non-combatant countries. To this day, only France, the United Kingdom, and the United States have more literature Nobelists than Sweden, which is tied with Germany at eight.

******The Nobel Prize website fesses up to the errors of its ways: “As to the early prizes, the censure of bad choices and blatant omissions is often justified.”

*******Or, as a vivid if probably not very accurate Google Translate translation from this essay in Upsala Nya Tydning puts it, “a lonely and isolated loser.”

********This translation is from a fascinating article called “Selma and her Lovers” in the June 2007 issue of Scanaroma, the SAS inflight magazine (!). Other translations are mine, with the help of Google Translate.

My Perfect 1919 Summer Morning

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:

“The pictures.”

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!”

Pears soap ad, 1919, woman in bed looking out of window.

Ladies’ Home Journal, July 1919

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.

Williams' talc powder ad, 1919.

Ladies’ Home Journal, May 1919

Vivaudou Mavis face powder ad, 1919.

Ladies’ Home Journal, June 2019

Talc Jonteel advertisement, woman with talcum powder, 1919.

Ladies’ Home Journal, June 1919

Colgate's talc powder ad, 1919.

Ladies’ Home Journal, July 1919

I’ve read all the horror stories about women who lack daintiness,

Deodorant ad, 1919, False modesty has caused this subject to be ignored.

Ladies’ Home Journal, July 1919

Deodorant ad, 1919, The most delicate problem I have met.

Ladies’ Home Journal, August 1919

Deodorant advertisement headline, 1919, What you hesitate to tell your dearest friend.

Ladies’ Home Journal, June 1919

Deodorant powder ad, 1919, One Woman to Another.

Ladies’ Home Journal, April 1919

plus I don’t want to mess up my dress,

Lux soap ad, 1919, Perspiration hurts fabrics

Ladies’ Home Journal, July 1919

so I dab on some deodorant powder. I get dressed

Wolfhead underwear ad, 1919, two women getting dressed.

Ladies’ Home Journal, May 1919

and have a nice healthy breakfast,

Swift's {remium Bacon ad, 1919, bacon with fried eggs.

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.”***

Screenshot (2637)-2

Ladies’ Home Journal, July 1919

Over breakfast, I flip through my August magazines,

Vanity Fair cover, August 1919, Ruth Sener, harlequin and woman on bridge.

Rita Senger

Vogue cover, August 1919, George Wolfe Plank, woman by door with carriage.

George Wolfe Plank

Screenshot (2685)-1

Alex Bradshaw and W.H. Bull

House and Garden cover, August 1919, fireplace with items on mantle.

Harry Richardson

stopping for a moment to wonder whether that’s a woman or a parrot on the cover of the Ladies’ Home Journal.****

Screenshot (2648)

But there’s no time to linger–there’s tennis to play,

Jack Tar Togs advertisement, 1919, woman playing tennis.

Ladies’ Home Journal, May 1919

and beaches to relax on,

Indian Head Cloth ad, 1919, family under umbrella.

Ladies’ Home Journal, May 1919

and romance in the air!*****

Pompeian Beauty Powder ad, 1919, young man and woman flirting.

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:

Yahoo Weather forecast, Washington, D.C., August 11, 2019.

Yahoo Weather

***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.

****Unlike this more recent woman-parrot optical illusion, I’m not sure whether this one is intentional.

UPDATE 9/5/2019: After an extensive search, I identified the artist as Carton Moore-Park, whose name is, um, written under the cover illustration. (As Moorepark, which is how he signed his paintings, but he’s referred to elsewhere, including in this undergraduate thesis, as Moore-Park or Moore Park.)

Screenshot (2750)-1

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.

Ladies' home journal cover depitcing two cockatoos.

Carton Moore-Park, New Ladies’ Home Journal, March 1916

June 1916 Ladies' Home Journal cover depicting pink flamingos.

Carton Moore-Park, Ladies’ Home Journal, June 1916

Carton Moore-Park February 1919 Ladies' Home Journal illustration of three cranes.

Carton Moore-Park, Ladies’ Home Journal, February 1917

October 1919 Ladies' Home Journal cover depicting two parrots nestling.

Carton Moore-Park, Ladies’ Home Journal, October 1919

*****Again with the powder!

Downtown Provo

Exploring Provo–and Mormon History

Belated happy Pioneer Day, everyone!

“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,

1912 Pioneer Day reenactment, Salt Lake City

1912 Pioneer Day reenactment, Salt Lake City (Shipler Commercial Photographers)

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

Unhinged sign, Provo

and a cool coffee*** shop

Coffee shop, Provo

and my favorite used book store ever, Pioneer Book.

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

Pioneer Book counter, Provo

and there are displays highlighting categories from their 2019 reading challenge, like books by women,

Display shelf, Pioneer Book, Provo

books by writers born more than 100 years ago,

Pioneer Book display shelf

and books that you disagree with.

Pioneer Book, Books You Disagree With

There’s also an entire long wall of books on Mormon history.

Pioneer Book, LDS history section

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.

New York Times article on imminent death of Joseph F. Smith, 1914

New York Times, November 28, 1914

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.

Joseph F. Smith, 1905

Joseph F. Smith, 1905

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.

Senator Reed Smoot, 1909

Senator Reed Smoot, 1909

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.

Washington Evening Star headline, Now Has Five Wives

Washington Evening Star, March 3, 1904

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.

Joseph F. Smith and family, ca. 1904

Joseph F. Smith and family, ca. 1904

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 illustration

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 headline

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?

Rockwell Ice Cream sign

rockwellicecream.com

*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.

Coke mural, Provo, Utah

****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)

Princeton interlude: Orange and black is the new black

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

Tiger sculptures outside Palmer Stadium, Princeton University.

and in store windows along Nassau Street.

Princeton memorabilia in store window

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.**

Princeton insignia wear for toddlers, U-Store

And the jackets—

Princeton P-rade, 2019

Princeton P-rade, 2019

Princeton P-rade, 2019

oh, the jackets!

Princeton P-rade, 2019.

Princeton P-rade, 2019

Princeton P-rade, 2019

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.

Mary Grace McGeehan at Princeton P-rade, 2019

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,

Pile of library books by and about Winnifred Eaton.

Frontispiece and title page of The Love of Azalea by Onoto Watanna.

Frontispiece and title page of When Patty Went to College, by Jean Webster.

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,

Woman with Iris, William-Adophe Bouguereau, 1895

and representation in the P-rade by the 100+-year-old Class of 1939.

Princeton P-rade, 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,

Dust jacket, This Side of Paradise, first edition.

and in any case Princeton had already started to change by the time This Side of Paradise was published in 1920.

Like many other universities, Princeton transformed itself into a military training institution during World War I.

Picture of Princeton student drill squad.

American Review of Reviews, August 1918

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 Society reported 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.

School and Society headline, Educational Events, The Princeton Curriculum.

School and Society, April 19, 1919

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.

Headline, Can a College Abolish Snobs?

Independent, March 19, 1917. (Answer: no.)

The clubs still exist today—more egalitarian, but still controversial.

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.

Princeton P-rade, Class of 1969

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.

Princeton P-rade banner, Coeducation Begins.

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,

Postcard of Nassau Inn, ca. 1910.

Postcard of Nassau Inn, ca. 1910

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.****)

Princeton Bric-a-Brac photo wih F. Scott Fitzgerald

Princeton Bric-a-Brac, Classes of 1915-19

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.

Princeton students in beer suits, ca. 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.

THEN:

Nassau Literary Society, Princeton Bric-a-Brac, Classes of 1915-1919

NOW:

*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.

Marchers in Princeton P-rade, 2019.

****Second from right, third row.