Tag Archives: history

Your 1918 Holiday Shopping Guide

It’s Christmas 1918, and everyone’s in the mood to celebrate! But what to get for that special someone?

Everyone’s already gotten the gift they wanted most,

US Food Administration, Educational Division, 1918

but there’s lots of other cool stuff out there.

For the Kids

A good place to start your search is Happyland at Bloomingdale’s, where

There’s every old manner of plaything and banner
In BloomingdaleS Showing of Toys,
U-boats and airships, death-and-despair ships
In BloomingdaleS Showing of Toys.

New York Times, December 15, 1918

If your kid’s more into reading than visiting death on the Allied forces, you’re still in luck. Recommendations from The Bookman include an edition of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, with illustrations by Harry Clarke,

Canadian Wonder Tales by Cyrus Macmillan, illustrated by George Sheringham,

English Fairy Tales by Flora Annie Steel, illustrated by Arthur Rackham,

Folk Tales of Flanders, written and illustrated by Jean de Bosschère,

and Dream Boats, Portraits and Histories of Fauns, Fairies, and Fishes, written and illustrated by Dugald Steward Walker, of which The Bookman says that “text and drawing tinkle with elfish laughter and scintillate with flitting wings.”

Or give the gift that keeps on giving, a subscription to St. Nicholas magazine. The kids will  spend many happy hours solving puzzles that leave me baffled, like this one:*

St. Nicholas, December 1918

 For the Men

Vanity Fair’s holiday shopping guide is full of ideas for the “Male of the Species,” but once you weed out the smoking presents

Vanity Fair, December 1918

and the war presents

Vanity Fair, December 1918

the selection’s a bit limited. There’s this extra speedometer for passenger’s seat viewing, but $50 ($834.56 in 2018 dollars) seems a bit pricey, plus, if given by a wife, isn’t this kind of passive-aggressive?

Vanity Fair, December 1918

These wallets ($13 and $7.25) are perfectly nice and all, but a wallet always smacks of “I couldn’t think of anything else so I got you this” desperation.

Vanity Fair, December 1918

The Bookman assures us that the poetry anthology Songs of Men, compiled by Robert Frothingham, is a “a book such as nearly everybody has been looking for.”

It is a collection of verse for men, with a swinging range of the gamut of emotions; it sings of camping and seafaring, of mining and mountain-climbing, of cow-punching and horse-wrangling, of prospecting, pioneering, loving and fighting. From the woodsman to the college professor, every man will read this small volume with keen delight.

If you’re still not convinced, here’s a random sample, from the poem “High-Chin Bob” by Badger Clark:

No? Well, then, a fourteen-year supply of alcohol might be appreciated. Get it while it lasts!

For the Ladies

Vanity Fair’s “Gifts for the Eternal Feminine” have stood the test of time better than the men’s gifts, with only the fur stoles (ranging in price from $75 (seal or nutria) to $150 (ermine)) likely to raise eyebrows today. Just as well, since I’d probably leave mine at the opera a week after I got it.**

Vanity Fair, December 1918

I’d probably do a better job of holding on to this gorgeous beaded bag,

Vanity Fair, December 1918

or, if you weren’t planning on spending $45 on me, I wouldn’t turn up my nose at this collarless guimpe, a steal at $2.75.

Vanity Fair, December 1918

If the lady in your life is as ladylike as the readers of Songs of Men are manly, how about the new novel You’re Only Young Once by Margaret Widdemer? It’s about five sisters who find love and is, according to the (male) Bookman reviewer,

the pinkest book it has ever been our fortune to read. It is as feminine as a powder-puff, as delicate as the frou-frou of silken skirts, and as appealing as the passing of a faint aroma of orris.***

Or, if she’s a debutante and is constantly being called on to be sprightly at teas, there’s always Vanity Fair itself:

New York Times, December 15, 1918

For the Whole Family

Hint hint: I’ve always dreamed of having a player piano, and this one’s a steal at $495! (Installment plan available.)

New York Times, December 15, 1918

On Second Thought…

You know what? My lifestyle doesn’t really call for beaded evening bags. I don’t even know what a giumpe is, to be honest. And there’s no room in my house for a player piano.

Which, now that I do the math, costs two years worth of wages for Lower East Side textile worker Elizabeth Hasanovitz, whose autobiography I just finished reading. (It was excerpted in the Atlantic in early 1918, and I wrote about Elizabeth here and here.) One day, when Elizabeth had just lost yet another job (her unionized shop had closed–it later reopened with more compliant workers), she passed a bread line and saw a man being angrily turned away because he’d arrived late. No weak coffee and stale bread today! She gave him a dime.

If Elizabeth can spare a dime for the (even) less fortunate, I can do without more stuff. Better the money should go somewhere where it will really do good, like to one of

New York Times, December 15, 1918

The stories are harrowing–abusive fathers, parents dead of suicide, breadwinners locked up in insane asylums, and children living on the street. Thanks to social safety nets, the kind of abject poverty that existed in the United States in 1918 has, for the most part, been eradicated. But there are still plenty of people in need, and the Neediest Cases Fund, now in its 107th year, is still extending a helping hand. So you don’t even have to be a time traveler to contribute!

Happy holidays to all of you, wherever (and whenever) you are!

Lithograph for The Night Before Christmas by William Roger Snow, 1918

*On the other hand, there was a double acrostic on the same page with the hint “my primals and my finals name what every loyal American should own” and I instantly said, “Liberty Bond,” and completed the puzzle in about two minutes. “Thrift Stamp” was the rest of the answer.

**This actually happened a lot–the 1918 New York Times classifieds are full of expensive stuff that rich people lost at the theater or in taxis.

***I read the first chapter a few weeks ago, and I agree, it’s pretty damn pink.

1918 Miscellany: Perplexing ads edition

What to serve for breakfast to your two husbands and your children who are drawn in a completely different style.

Ladies’ Home Journal, November 1918

The whole point of UNDERwear has eluded this family.

Ladies’ Home Journal, November 1918

Cuuuuuute!

Ladies’ Home Journal, December 1918

And happy Hanukkah to all who celebrate!*

Carrying Chanuka gifts to hospitalized servicemen at the Ninth Naval District Hospital, Great Lakes, Illinois, 1918 (American Jewish Historical Society)

*The first night of Hanukkah in 1918 was on Thanksgiving (November 28). The holidays next coincided in 2013; they won’t do so again until 2070.

10 1918 People I’m Thankful For

1918 is a depressing year to look back on: war, influenza, rampant racism and sexism. But when something is depressing in retrospect that means we’ve made progress, right? I don’t mean to sound Pollyannaish about 2018—believe me, I’m not. For Thanksgiving, though, I decided to look at some of the people of 1918 who paved the way for the better world—and, for all its problems, it is a better world—we’re living in today.

So thank you, in no particular order, to

1. Jane Addams and the settlement movement

Jane Addams reads to children at Hull House (Jane Addams Memorial Collection, University of Illinois at Chicago)

Jane Addams is one of my 1918 heroes. I had heard of her as the founder of Hull House, the famous Chicago settlement house, which I vaguely imagined as a social services center for the immigrant community. Then I listened to an audiotape of her wonderful memoir Twenty Years at Hull-House and learned that it was so much more—a playhouse and dance hall and crafts museum and lecture theater and book discussion venue and art gallery and sanitation office and whatever else Addams and her fellow settlement workers thought would uplift immigrants from their miserable living conditions. Some of her ideas worked, others didn’t (she discusses the failures with self-deprecating good humor), but she brought astonishing energy and creativity to her mission. Addams received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931 and is now known as the “mother of social work.”

The rights of immigrants are under threat today, as they were in 1918, but today, at least, there are hundreds of organizations to protect and assist them.

Thank you, Jane Addams!

2. William Carlos Williams and my new favorite poem

William Carlos Williams with his sons, Paul and William, and his mother, circa 1918 (Beinecke Library, Yale, University)

There was a LOT of bad poetry around in 1918. Or not bad, exactly, just sentimental, bland, and innocuous—sitting in the background like wallpaper. Like this poem. (In the unlikely event you want to read the rest, you can do so here.)

Scribner’s, November 1916

Then the modernists came along and changed everything. They threw aside Victorian notions of beauty and upliftment, as well as meter and rhyme, and wrote about the world they actually saw. The poet I’ve come to know best over the year (after a rocky start) is William Carlos Williams. I recently memorized his relatively little-known but wonderful poem “January Morning,” an account of his early-morning amblings on a winter day. Here’s how it begins:

I have discovered that most of
the beauties of travel are due to
the strange hours we keep to see them:

the domes of the Church of
the Paulist Fathers in Weehawken
against a smoky dawn–the heart stirred–
are beautiful as Saint Peters
approached after years of anticipation.

(And yes, I typed that off the top of my head. You can check for mistakes, and read the rest of the poem, here.)

Thank you, William Carlos Williams!

3. W.E.B. Du Bois, the NAACP, and The Crisis

Portrait of W.E.B. Du Bois on the cover of The Crisis, February 1918

W.E.B. Du Bois is up there with Jane Addams in my 1918 pantheon. He gave up a successful academic career to edit The Crisis, the NAACP’s magazine for the African-American community. The Crisis took on discrimination and lynching and other horrors, but it also celebrated the achievements of the community’s “Talented Tenth” (like scholar-athlete Paul Robeson) and printed pictures of cute babies.

Thank you, W.E.B. Du Bois!

4. Harvey Wiley, the FDA, and healthy food

Dr. Wiley in his USDA lab (FDA)

If your turkey dinner isn’t full of dangerous preservatives, you have Harvey Wiley to thank. From his lab at the USDA, Wiley pioneered food safety by testing chemicals on a group of young volunteers known as the “Poison Squad.” While his methods wouldn’t get past the ethics committee today, his efforts on behalf of passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act earned him the nickname “Father of the FDA.”

Thank you, Harvey Wiley!

5. Anna Kelton Wiley and women’s suffrage

Anna Kelton Wiley with her sons

Anna who? you may be asking. Anna Kelton Wiley wasn’t America’s most famous suffragist. That would be Alice Paul. Paul deserves our thanks as well, but I thought of Wiley—Harvey Wiley’s much younger wife—because it’s not just the leaders who matter, it’s all the people in the rank and file who fight locally, day by day, for a better world. Women’s suffrage wasn’t a single victory, won in 1920, but a battle fought and won, state by state, over many years. Now more than ever, this is a lesson we need to remember.

Wiley wrote in Good Housekeeping that she and other suffragists decided to picket the White House—a highly controversial move—after less confrontational methods had failed. The demonstrations, she said, were

a silent, daily reminder of the insistence of our claims…We determined not to be put aside like children…Not to have been willing to endure the gloom of prison would have made moral slackers of all. We should have stood self-convicted cowards.

Thank you, Anna Kelton Wiley!

6. Mary Phelps Jacob and comfortable underwear

Mary Phelps Jacob, ca. 1925 (phelpsfamilyhistory.com)

Segueing from women’s suffrage to underwear might seem like going from the sublime to the ridiculous, but it’s all part of the same thing. Disenfranchisement was one way to keep women down; corsets were another. Corsets were still very much around in 1918, but they were on their way out, partly due to wartime metal conservation efforts. And bras were on their way in, thanks to Mary Phelps Jacob, a socialite who, putting on an evening gown one night in 1913, found that the whalebone from her corset was sticking out from the neckline. With the help of her maid, she improvised a garment out of two handkerchiefs and a piece of ribbon. She patented it the next year as the “Backless Brassiere,” and the rest is history.

Brassiere patent drawing, Mary Phelps Jacob, 1914

Thank you, Mary Phelps Jacob!

7. Amy Lowell and LGBT pride

Amy Lowell, ca. 1916

Amy Lowell wrote about love as she experienced it—with her partner, Ada Dwyer Russell, in the Boston home they shared. They weren’t able to live openly as lovers, and Dwyer destroyed their correspondence at Lowell’s request, but their love shines through in Lowell’s poems. Here’s one of my favorites:

North American Review, February 1918

Thank you, Amy Lowell!

8. Katharine Bement Davis and sexual freedom

Katharine Bement Davis, 1915 (Bain News Service)

We think of sexual freedom as the right to sleep with whoever we want, inside or outside marriage. It is that, of course, but it also involves rights that we take so much for granted today that we don’t even think about them. Like the right of a wife who has contracted a sexually transmitted disease from her husband not to be lied to by her doctor. The right of a young woman to know the facts of life rather than being kept in ignorance to uphold an ideal of “purity.” The right of a teenager not to live in fear that masturbation will lead to blindness and insanity. The right of a couple to practice birth control without risking prison.

Poster, War Department Commission on Training Camp Activities, ca. 1918

Katharine Bement Davis, a settlement worker and social reformer, was at the forefront of the fight against sexual ignorance. When the United States entered World War I, venereal disease turned out to be rampant among recruits. Davis wrote in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science that combating this epidemic required efforts—and knowledge—on the part of “both halves of the community which is concerned.” Davis and her team at the Section on Women’s Work of the Sexual Hygiene Division of the Commission on Training Camp Activities educated women on sexual issues with publications, films, and lectures by women physicians.

Okay, Davis’s solution was that no one, male or female, should have sex outside of marriage. And she, like so many progressives, was a eugenicist. Still, breaking down the walls of ignorance was an important step.

Thank you, Katharine Bement Davis!

9. Dorothy Parker and humor that’s actually funny

Dorothy Parker, date unknown

1918 humor was, for the most part, not funny. There were racist and sexist jokes, faux-folksy tales, and labored puns. Here is a joke I picked at random from Judge magazine:

Judge, November 9, 1918

Then Dorothy Parker came along, filling in for P.G. Wodehouse as Vanity Fair’s drama critic, and changed everything. The best way to make a case for Dorothy Parker is to quote her, so here are some excerpts from her theater reviews:

On the musical Going Up, April 1918: It’s one of those exuberant things—the chorus constantly bursts on, singing violently and dashing through maneuvers, and everybody rushes about a great deal, and slaps people on the back, and bets people thousands of stage dollars, and grasps people fervently by the hand, loudly shouting, “It’s a go!”

On the farce Toot-Toot!, May 1918: I didn’t have much of an evening at “Toot-Toot!” I was disappointed, too, because the advertisements all spoke so highly of it. It’s another of those renovated farces—it used to be “Excuse Me,” in the good old days before the war. I wish they hadn’t gone and called it “Toot-Toot!” When anybody asks you what you are going to see tonight and you have to reply “Toot-Toot!” it does sound so irrelevant.

Thank you, Dorothy Parker!

10. Erté and gorgeous magazine covers

Roman Petrovich Tyrtov (Erté), date unknown

Okay, this doesn’t fit into my theme, because 1918 was the golden age of magazine covers and I get depressed whenever I pass by a 2018 magazine rack. But the beautiful cover art of the era is worth celebrating anyway. There were many wonderful artists, but the master was Erté, who turned twenty-six on November 23, 1918.

Thank you (and happy birthday), Erté!

The common thread on this list, I see, is freedom. Freedom for women, immigrants, people of color, and the LGBT community, but also less obvious but still important types of freedom: to wear clothes you can move around in, to know the facts of life, to eat healthy food, and to write about and laugh about the world as it really is.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! And thanks to all of you out there who, in large ways and small, are working to make the world of a hundred years from now better than the one we live in today.

Did College Shrink Your Breasts? A Quiz

I’m angry, people!

Over the past year, I’ve traded the horrible news of today for the even more horrible news of 1918, when the world was disease-ravaged and at war, suffragists were greeted with condescending amusement, there was a “Darkies” section in the leading humor magazine, and progressives debated about who should be allowed to breed.

I hate what was happening then, and I hate what’s happening now. But, unlike a lot of my friends, I haven’t fallen into a permanent state of anger and/or depression. It’s a question of temperament, I guess. At heart, I’m a sunny soul.

But then I read an article in the Educational Review called “Sex in Mind and Education,” and I was livid.

I was expecting an entertaining romp through the world of social hygiene, as sex education was known back then.* Instead, I got an article—two, actually, spread over the May and September 1918 issues—about why women are unfit for higher education.

An issue for another day, I thought, since I’ve been trying to focus more on World War I with the centenary of the armistice approaching. But then I remembered the suffragists being asked to put aside their demands because there was a war on. And, skipping back to the present, this West Virginia constitutional referendum I just voted on, which, whatever your views on abortion, is legally meaningless as long as Roe v. Wade is in place and also maybe not the most urgent issue in a state that’s awash in opioids. (UPDATE 11/7/2018: The amendment was approved, 52%-48%.)

German imperial ambition is, I think we can say with confidence, safely in check. The war on women, not so much. So I retrieved “Sex in Mind and Education” from the “later” pile.

The article, written by British psychiatrist Henry Maudsley, turns out to date back to an 1874 issue of the Fortnightly Review. The Educational Review justifies its republication by noting that it was reprinted and given wide circulation in Mr. C.W. Bardeen’s Series of School Room Classics. Which happened in 1884, so I’m not sure why it was considered timely in 1918. Maybe because Maudsley had just died? Maybe to keep women in their place with suffrage on the rise? Maybe because the journal’s editor was Columbia University’s horrible, reactionary president Nicholas Butler? Maybe all of these things? Who knows?

Henry Maudsley, 1881

Maudsley’s bottom line: women shouldn’t go to college with men, because menstruation.

Of course, there’s more to his argument than that. He has a LOT of reasons why women shouldn’t go to college with men. But, for someone so esteemed that Britain’s largest mental health training institution bears his name to this day**, he’s not exactly rigorous about evidence. He’s all “it is quite evident that” this and “when we thus look the matter honestly in the face” that.

So I decided to subject his arguments to evidence-based testing by pulling out his assertions so that we college-educated women can compare them to our own experience. And turned them into a quiz, because what woman doesn’t love a quiz? (No need to feel left out, men—we need a control group, so you can take it too.)

Get out your pencils!

  1. If you have a delicate constitution, with little vitality to spare, did you break out into disease when you reached puberty?

YES                         NO                        N/A

  1. In your experience at university, could the difference between between male and female students accurately be described by the expression “for valor he” is formed and “for beauty she and sweet attractive grace”?***

YES                         NO                       N/A

  1. Have childbearing and raising been the most important offices of the best period of your life?

YES                         NO

  1. Did your laborious days of intellectual exercise and production cause injury to your functions as the conceiver, mother, and nurse of children?

YES                         NO

Radcliffe College physics class, 1912 (Radcliffe College archives)

  1. Has this intellectual exercise resulted in your children being puny, enfeebled, and sickly?

YES                         NO                         N/A

  1. If your household has a male primary caregiver, is he almost as much out of place in caring for the babies as he would be in attempting to suckle them?

YES                         NO                         N/A

  1. If your household has a male primary caregiver, has he abandoned the task in despair or disgust, and concluded it not to be worth while that mankind should continue on earth?

YES                         NO                         N/A

  1. If you attended a coeducational college, was it at a cost to your strength and health which has entailed life-long suffering, and even incapacitated you for the adequate performance of the natural functions of your sex?

YES                         NO                         N/A

  1. If you attended a coeducational college, do you feel that the stimulus of study had a more harmful effect on you than on your male classmates, not only because of your greater constitutional susceptibility, but also because women do not have the compensating balance of competition on the playing field?

YES                         NO                        N/A

Basketball game, Stanford vs. University of California, E.J. Meeker, 1896

  1. In your experience, has the prediction been borne out that, due an increase in women’s education, the wives who are to be the mothers in our republic [the United States—Maudsley’s quoting a Harvard professor now] must be drawn from transatlantic homes?

YES                         NO

  1. Has study during the periodical tides of your organization [i.e. your period] led to pallor, lassitude, debility, sleeplessness, headache, neuralgia, and then to worse ills?

YES                         NO

  1. As a result of your studies, have you become the victim of aches and pains, unable to go on with your work, and compelled to seek medical advice?

YES                         NO

Women at the seaside, 1915

  1. If so, and if you were restored to health by rest from work, a holiday at the seaside, and suitable treatment, did you leave college a good scholar but a delicate and ailing woman, whose future life is one of more or less suffering? Did you fail to regain the vital energy which was recklessly sacrificed in the acquirement of learning?

YES                         NO                         N/A

  1. If so, and you subsequently married, were you unfit for the best discharge of maternal functions, and apt to suffer from a variety of troublesome and serious disorders in connection with them?

YES                         NO                         N/A

  1. Has the neglect of physical exercise, and the continuous application to study, left you lacking the instinct, desire, or capacity to nurse your offspring, forcing you to resort to a wet-nurse or feeding by hand?

YES                         NO                         N/A

  1. If you have not nursed, has this caused the organs which minister to this function to waste and finally to become by disuse as rudimentary as they are in the male sex, forcing you to invoke the dressmaker’s aid in order to gain the appearance of them?

YES                         NO                         N/A

Delineator, 1910 (witness2fashion.wordpress.com)

  1. During the best years of your life, are/were you, for one-quarter of each month, more or less sick and unfit for hard work?

YES                         NO

  1. Have you turned into a monstrosity—something which having ceased to be a woman is not yet a man?

YES                         NO

Okay. Pencils down.

In the spirit of fairness, Dr. Maudsley quotes John Stuart Mill’s argument in The Subjection of Women, to wit:

  • What we call the nature of women is essentially an artificial thing.
  • It is the result of forced repression in some directions, unnatural stimulation in others.
  • Women’s character has been disguised by their subjugation by men.
  • If given equal opportunities, they would perform as well as men.

He says that

if these allegations contain no exaggeration, if they be strictly true, then is this article an entire mistake.

Is it??? Let’s score the quiz and see! Disregard the N/A’s, count up the yeses, and divide them by the total number of questions you answered.

It would be terrible for humankind if even a significant minority of Maudsley’s concerns turned out to be valid. So let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and say that if most women score over 25% we’d better rethink this this whole going to college with men business.

I threw out a bunch of questions because I don’t have kids and calculated my score: 9%. My one “Yes” answer was to #4, about my laborious days of intellectual exercise causing injury to my functions as the conceiver, mother, and nurse of children. Most college-education women have children, but the percentage is lower than among women without college, so I’ll give this one to Maudsley.

Me graduating from college with no apparent ill effects, 1983

Granted, one is a small sample size if we’re trying to be scientifically rigorous, but it’s one bigger than Maudsley’s. And I’m guessing that my score is typical. Maybe some of you moms consider childbearing and raising the most important offices of the best period of your lives. But maybe some of you dads do too, so here’s where the control group comes in.

So, unless I’m gravely mistaken, Maudsley is hoist with his own petard.

But he’s not giving up so easily. Even if John Stuart Mill turns out to be right, he says,

there is a right in might—the right of the strong to be strong. Men have the right to make the most of their powers, to develop them to the utmost, and to strive for, and if possible gain and hold, the position in which they shall have the freest play.

If women were treated equally, and used their political power to pass laws that men didn’t like, he asks,

can it be supposed that, as the world goes, there would not soon be a revolution in the state by men, which would end in taking all power from women and reducing them to a stern subjection? Legislation would not be of much value unless there were power behind to make it respected.

You see what’s happening here, people? Maudsley’s admitting that, if women get too equal, the men are going to have a revolution! Throw out all the laws! Rely on brute force!

We have to do something, women!****

Starting with this:

League of Women Voters poster, 1920

*And which I can’t believe I’ve made it to November without writing about. On the list!

**Oh and he also gave them a lot of money.

***Hey Maudsley, you got the quote wrong! Here’s what Milton really said:

Not equal, as their sex not equal seemed;
For contemplation he and valor formed,
For SOFTNESS she, and sweet attractive grace.

****I realize that some men might be reading this, but if they managed to stomach all the menstruation talk they’re probably allies.

Miscellany: Magic machines, embarrassing problems, and the Worst. Recipe. Ever.

An all-ad miscellany.

Not to brag, but I have a machine that can do all this and more.

Little Review, September 1918

We’ve all been there, right?

Harper’s Bazar, June 1918

This deviled tongue mousseline is “just as good to taste as it is to look at.” Sometimes these things just write themselves.*

Good Housekeeping, September 1918

And sometimes I just have to throw up my hands in bewilderment.

I don’t think he’s really thought the naked fence-jumping through.

St. Nicholas, October 1918

If I’d seen this before bestowing the prestigious “Best Ad Depicting the Advertised Item as Humongous” award last month, things might have played out differently.

Harper’s Bazar, September 1918

I’m not that into cars, but I look at this, look at my white Toyota Corrolla, and sigh.

Harper’s Bazar, June 1918

*Plus it’s patriotic, because for some strange reason tongue has not been declared “Essential” for our fighting men.

Wish me luck on my 1918 diet!

Earlier this year, I was planning to write a post called “How I Lost 5 Pounds for My College Reunion on a 1918 Diet.” Well…that goal, modest though it was, was not achieved. But then last month my friend Emily* invited me to participate in a group diet contest on DietBet. (She invited all of her Facebook friends, so I didn’t take it personally.) I jumped at this opportunity to regain the silhouette of youth.

I had just the diet in mind, from this article in the March 1918 issue of the Ladies’ Home Journal by Eugene Lyman Fisk, M.D., who was the medical director of the Life Extension Institute and the co-author, with Yale professor Irving Fisher, of the bestselling 1915 book How to Live.**

I expected 1918 dieting wisdom to be dubious, but Dr. Fisk, like fellow nutrition doc Harvey Wiley of Good Housekeeping, turns out to be pretty sensible.***

Dr. Fisk starts out by saying that

At age 25, Miss Blank, an average young woman, fully grown, 5 foot 4 inches in height, weighs 128 pounds; at 40 she weighs 138 pounds; at 50, 144 pounds. This gain over age 25 is practically all fat, and its distribution has sadly changed Miss Blank’s silhouette.

I’ll spare you the TMI and leave it that the reaction of this 5’4” over-50 upon reading this was “No wonder I feel so at home in 1918!”

Dr. Fisk counsels against trying to lose weight through exercise. To the extent that we stout (Dr. Fisk doesn’t pull any punches) 40+ women do exercise, it should consist of walking, gentle hill climbing, and a few setting-up exercises. Substituting easy yoga for the setting-up exercises, this is exactly my routine!

Some recent gentle hill climbing in Cape Town

But, really, it’s all about the food. Starting with….

Breakfast

On my otherwise ill-fated pre-reunion diet, I did make a permanent switch from my previous granola, banana, and tea breakfast to the one outlined by Dr. Fisk. With maybe a LITTLE more butter than he recommends, but I don’t take milk or sugar in my tea or use butter to scramble my eggs, so it cancels out, right? And it’s worked—I find myself more energetic in the mornings, and less likely to snack before lunch.

Breakfast, with a rusk instead of toast

After much experimenting, I’ve come up with a great recipe for microwaved scrambled eggs. Here it is:

MARY GRACE’S 30-20-10 MICROWAVE SCRAMBLED EGGS

Break two eggs into a small bowl or teacup. Add salt and pepper as desired. Cook eggs in microwave without stirring for 30 seconds. Stir, then return to the microwave and cook for 20 seconds. Scramble, then cook for an additional 10 seconds or more as needed.

Lunch

Here I’ve followed Dr. Lyman’s plan more loosely, but I’ve kept to the basic spirit of something vegetable-y, something bread-y, and some fruit. Here’s a recent literal interpretation

and a 21st century variation, featuring homemade tabbouleh and (not-homemade) hummus.

Dinner

Dinner is your basic protein-starch-vegetable combo. Sometimes I cook a chicken breast it in a foil pack at 350F for half an hour with whatever I happen to have around (typical ingredients are lemon, kale, garlic, aniseeds, and red pepper flakes). Lately I’ve been cooking frozen boneless chicken breasts**** in a pan with root vegetables and rosemary, which comes out way better than you’d expect. I’ve been eating a lot of grilled hake as well.

A recent dinner

Dr. Fisk is a big defender of potatoes, saying that

There is no tragedy in a fat woman***** eating a potato; the tragedy lies in the big pat of butter that is often melted in it, more than equal in fuel value to the whole potato.

My last name notwithstanding, I’m not much of a potatoes person, so I usually substitute couscous or rice or root vegetables as a starch at dinner. And I skip the stewed fruits for dessert. Virtuous, huh?

So How Am I Doing?

DietBet weigh-in

DietBet works like this: if you don’t lose 4% of your body weight during the competition period, your ante is divided among the people who do. With just eight days of the one-month contest to go, I’m only halfway there, so I need to step it up if I want to keep my money.

Although not to the extremes described in Maria Thompson Daviess’ 1912 novel The Melting of Molly, which was the very first book I read for this project. The gist, in case you missed it: Molly, a 160-pound 25-year-old widow, goes on a crash diet when she learns that her high school sweetheart, who’s in the Foreign Service, is coming back to town and wants to see her in the blue muslin dress she wore back when she had a 20-inch waist. Here’s the diet, as prescribed by her doctor neighbor:

Breakfast—one slice of dry toast, one egg, fruit and a tablespoonful of baked cereal, small cup of coffee, no sugar, no cream.

Dinner–one small lean chop, slice of toast, spinach, green beans and lettuce salad. No dessert or sweet.

Supper—slice of toast and an apple.

“Why the apple?” Molly mourns. “Why supper at all?”

Molly, busted with a jar of jam by the doctor

But I’m not going to do that! Crash diets are unhealthy! Besides, who has the discipline?******

I’ll stick with Dr. Fisk. Whose diet is, as I said, pretty sensible. The one thing that strikes a modern reader as odd is the tolerance for carbs. This isn’t surprising, since I can well remember a time—up to the 1990s—when no one cared about carbs, it was all about fat. Still, it’s strange seeing even poor starving Molly allowed three slices of (butterless) toast a day. Dr. Fisk does emphasize the importance of cutting down on starches, fats, and sugars, but he still allows, along with the potato at dinner, a piece of toast at breakfast and bread or a roll at lunch. (He stipulates that the roll should be made of rye, bran, or graham flour, but this isn’t only a nutrition thing—there was a huge wartime drive for wheat conservation, led by food czar Herbert Hoover.) Bread and potatoes, I guess, were such an important part of the 1918 diet that cutting back any further than this was inconceivable.

In happier times

I’ve followed my 1918 diet fairly closely, with just a few slip-ups here and there. I’m eating more lean proteins and vegetables and I’ve cut out Indian take-out, a former weekly staple. When I go out, I have grilled fish with vegetables. I rarely feel hungry or have cravings.

On the other hand, I don’t have high hopes of meeting my DietBet goal. I’m not too worried, though. For one thing, the entertainment value of our WhatsApp chat group is worth the money I put up. And, while it’s good to have a jump-start, healthy eating isn’t a one-month affair. If I just keep at it, I will—maybe not this month but eventually—regain the silhouette of youth.

Wish me luck!

The silhouette of youth, wasted in a drop-waist dress

UPDATE 10/18/2018: I did it!!!

*Whose blog you should check out! She writes about dinner parties and travel and decor and the NYU Writers in Paris program, where we met, and, a favorite topic of mine, how hideous embassy furniture is.

**Of course, when you see that someone was the director of the Life Extension Institute, your first question is how old he was when he died. Answer: 64. He died suddenly in 1931 on a trip to Dresden, where he had gone to visit the Museum of Hygiene. How to Live had an introduction by William H. Taft. And this is now the most irony-packed footnote of My Year in 1918.

***Not just about dieting. He was also a strong opponent of tobacco. Unfortunately, like so many otherwise admirable people of 1918, he was a—and if you’re a regular reader, you’ll be able to recite this along with me—horrible eugenicist.

****This is legit—the USDA says so. You just have to cook it longer.

*****I told you he doesn’t pull any punches.

******Well, Molly did. But, unlike me, she had a houseful of servants under orders to keep food away from her.

The Year Mandela was Born: South Africa in 1918

A couple of months into this project, I was chatting with my 13-year-old nephew during an outing to Simon’s Town, a coastal village south of Cape Town. He’s a YouTuber, and we were talking about building an audience. He had a bigger following than I did, and I was hoping he could give me some tips.

“What do you write about again?” he asked me.

“Things that happened a hundred years ago,” I said.

“Kids don’t care about that,” he told me.

“I don’t write for kids,” I said.

“Who do you write for?” he asked. “Old people?”

“Yes,” I said.*

“Then you should write about things that old people care about, like Mandela,” he said.

Four months later, on the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth, I’m taking his advice.

Nelson Mandela, ca. 1941 (Nelson Mandela Foundation)

A baby being born in a village in the eastern Cape is not the stuff of international headlines, of course, so I can’t tell you about the birth itself. I can tell you, though, about the South Africa Nelson Mandela was born into and would grow up to transform.

With war raging in Europe, the outside world wasn’t paying much attention to South Africa. There was a fascinating article about the country’s “native problem,” though, in the December 8, 1917, issue of the New Republic. It was written by R.F. Alfred Hoernlé, who, despite his Afrikaans-sounding last name, was a British academic (with a German grandfather) who had taught for three years at what is now the University of Cape Town.

R.F. Alfred Hoernlé, date unknown

Hoernlé gets to the crux of the problem right away:

The native problem dominates the South African scene. Whatever political issues and movements show in the foreground, it supplies the permanent background. However much the white population of South Africa may be absorbed in the racial** and economic rivalries of the immediate present, it cannot but be profoundly apprehensive about its future, as long as the native problem remains unsolved.

Hoernlé points out that

Though in name a democracy, South Africa is in fact a small white aristocracy superimposed on a large native substratum.

Not that he’s advocating anything crazy, like making it a real democracy.

It is not a question, mainly, of the natives’ present unfitness for the vote, which everyone must readily grant.*** It is a question of political development. No policy which would ultimately involve that the white should admit the mass of the blacks to political power has any chance of acceptance, on the face of the unalterable numerical superiority of the blacks.

Jan Smuts, Elliott & Fry, 1917 (National Portrait Gallery)

So what to do?

To that question a speech which General [Jan] Smuts delivered in London, in May of this year, furnishes an answer. He rightly characterizes the problem as one of maintaining “white racial unity in the midst of the black environment.” This depends, in part, on avoiding two mistakes, viz., mere exploitation of the natives, and racial intermixture. The white races, Smuts insists, must strictly observe the racial axiom, “No intermixture of blood between the two colors,” and the moral axiom, “Honesty, fair-play, justice, and the ordinary Christian virtues must be the basis of all our relationship with the natives.”****

And how does Smuts plan to achieve this?  Hoernlé tells us that

Any incorporation of the black into the structure of white society is bound to raise, in the long run, the problem of admitting them to citizenship, giving them the vote, and treating them as the white man’s political equals. There is only one way of avoiding this result, and that way is segregation of the native—the creation of the land in a chequered pattern of white and black areas. This is the policy to which General Smuts pins his hopes…

The idea is, wherever there are large bodies of natives, to assign to them definitive areas within which no white man may own land. The native, on his side, is to be forbidden to own land in white areas, though he is to be free to go and work for the white man. The races having been thus territorially separated, each is to live under its own political institutions…

A beginning has so far been made by the Natives’ Land act of 1913, a purely temporary measure designed chiefly to prevent speculation in land in anticipation of later legislation.

Sol Plaatje, ca. 1900 (From “Native Life in South Africa”)

That’s one take on the Natives Land Act. Another comes from black writer and activist Sol Plaatje, who wrote in the 1914 classic Native Life in South Africa that

Awaking on Friday morning, June 20, 1913, the South African native found himself, not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth.

Map showing areas allocated to black South Africans under the Natives Land Act of 1913

The Natives Land Act prevented South Africans from buying land in 93% of South Africa. It would also have disenfranchised non-white voters in the Cape, the only place where they had the right to vote (some of them, that is—there were education and property qualifications), but the courts struck that provision down. As far as the law’s “purely temporary” nature goes, its impact continues today: under post-apartheid land restitution legislation, South Africans have the right to claim land taken from their ancestors only after its passage.

Hoernlé calls the partition/self-determination scheme “promising in principle.” The challenge, he says, is to come up with a fairer division of land than the one proposed by a recent commission, which allocates South Africa’s five million black inhabitants a little over 12% of South Africa’s territory and reserves the rest to the 1,250,000 whites. (This was exactly the breakdown when the black “homelands” were created during apartheid.)

If the “natives” are treated justly, Hoernlé said, there is a path to peace. But he’s not hopeful.

At present, the eye that would pierce the future, sees the deepening shadow of the native problem creep slowly but surely over the sunny spaces of South Africa.

Me in Pretoria (in flowery sundress), December 1989

People often ask me if 1918 reminds me of our world today. For the most part it doesn’t, at least as far as the United States is concerned. There are similarities, of course, but a country where lynchings were commonplace and women couldn’t vote and want ads specified Christians only is, thankfully, not one I recognize. The South Africa Hoernlé describes, on the other hand, differs hardly at all from the country I arrived in as a young diplomat in 1988.

It would take over seven decades for the South Africa Mandela was born into to change fundamentally—decades during which he would grow up, become a lawyer, join the liberation struggle, spend 27 years in prison, and emerge to lead his people to freedom.

Earliest known photo of Nelson Mandela (back row, fifth from right), Healdtown Secondary School

*No offense! The baseline here is 13.

**That is, English vs. Afrikaner.

***“Everyone” meaning whites, of course. Black South Africans don’t have a say in this matter because…well, they don’t have the vote. (Mostly. We’ll get to that.)

****Jan Smuts was the Woodrow Wilson of South Africa, renowned statesman abroad and racist at home. He was considered a liberal in South Africa, which gives you an idea of why “liberal” remains a swear word among black South Africans today.