The Top, Um, Seven Posts of 1922

Happy New Year, everyone! I’m full of New Year’s resolutions, including to do enough posts this year to actually do a Top 10 a year from now.*

Halfway through his Saturday Evening Post New Year’s baby cover run, J.C. Leyendecker weighs in with a cover that left me baffled. A prosperous gentleman with a treaty in his pocket is conversing with the baby. But the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919 and went into effect in 1920, so what treaty is this? A Google search revealed that the Treaty of Lausanne, which cleaned up some remaining Turkey-related bits and pieces from World War I, was signed in 1923. But the United States wasn’t a signatory, so why the U and S on either side of the baby? I have no idea.** The baby, on the other hand, seems totally up to speed.

J.C. Leyendecker

Meanwhile, they’re ringing in the new year at Pictorial Review

Nell Hatt

and Liberator in ways that you don’t have to have a Ph.D. in history to understand.

Frank Walts

Vogue is celebrating its 30th anniversary, with Miss 1892 and Miss 1922 holding the cake.

Pierre Brissaud

The Top Seven

Now on to the Top Seven! As was the case last year, they’re pretty much in chronological order, with the last post in the last spot, etc., except that the Top 10 Posts of 1921, which was the first post chronologically, politely steps back to the sixth position to make way for more substantive fare.

7. Children’s Books: Your 1922 Holiday Shopping Guide

As I do every year, I took a look at the latest crop of children’s books. I found a few that are now regarded as classics, some more deservedly so than others, along with some intriguing lesser-known books like one illustrated by a teenaged American Indian artist and one illustrated by Freud’s gender-nonconfirming niece.

6. The Top 10 Posts of 1921

A roundup of magazine ads took the top spot last year, with one of my favorite posts ever, a profile of illustrator Rita Senger featuring an interview with her granddaughter, in second place.

5. My Quest to Earn a 1920 Girl Scout Badge: Pathfinder, Part 1

I scaled my ambition way back from my previous quest to earn all the badges from the 1916 Girl Scout book and set my sights on just one badge this time—Pathfinder, where you learn all about your community, Washington, D.C. in my case. But even that turned out to be an ambitious goal, so I focused on one requirement. Then I went to Belgium for six weeks, then back to D.C., then to Cape Town, where I am now. I’ll wrap this up with some long-distance pathfinding soon.

4. My Magical Journey to 1922

Reading a bunch of children’s books for a project I look forward to telling you about soon inspired me to take a magical journey to the advertising pages of the June 1922 Ladies’ Home Journal.

3. In search of an extraordinary spring 1922 magazine cover

In a hard-to-please mood, I set out to find a magazine cover that didn’t look like I’d seen it a thousand times before. Luckily, I found some winners.

2. Jane Austen’s Life 100 Years Ago

I loved loved loved writing this post about a 1920 book about Jane Austen by eccentric professor and critic Oscar Firkins. Firkins on Mansfield Park: “We feel that Edmund is overstarched, that Fanny is oversweetened, and that the two Crawfords are unfortunate in their resemblance to unstable chemical compounds.” For more, read the post, or better yet, Firkins’ book.

1. Langston Hughes, Teenaged Poet

I was delighted to see this post, about Hughes’ first published writing in the children’s magazine The Brownies’ Book, in the top spot. His contributions included not just poems but also articles on Mexico, where he was living. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” which became his signature poem, was submitted to The Brownies’ Book but ended up in The Crisis instead.

The Best of the Rest

Meanwhile, the backlist was going strong, with the top eight pre-2022 posts outperforming the top 2022 post. (This isn’t a fair comparison, though, since views of current posts are credited to the home page.) Here are the top three. The Rita Senger post, mentioned above, was the fourth most read.

1. The Uncrowned King of Bohemia: The fascinating life of a not-so-great poet

This post about the eventful and tragic life of poet George Sterling, who founded the artists’ colony in Carmel-by-the-Sea, bumped My Quest to Earn a 1919 Girl Scout Badge out of its traditional top perch. Fame has its price: it also attracted my first angry reader, who didn’t appreciate my flippant tone.

2. My Quest to Earn a 1919 Girl Scout Badge

Girl Scout troop, 1916.

My somewhat deranged effort to earn all the Girl Scout badges was not far behind, however.

3. The doctor and the chorus girl: a heartbreaking tale of interracial love

Eugene Nelson and Helen Lee Worthing, 1929.

This post, which started out with my idle curiosity about what happened to a young woman who won one of those star of tomorrow contests in a movie magazine, turned into an obsession as I tracked down the fate of Helen Lee Worthing and her African-American husband, Eugene Nelson. I’ve never worked harder on a post, and I’m pleased that it’s still finding readers.

The Journey Continues

This month marks five years since I set off on my journey to 1918. It’s been more rewarding than I could have imagined. I’ve made a number of online friends, including my fellow members of a 1920s bestsellers book discussion group. Some of them became real-life friends when I joined them in Bristol, UK, over the summer for a roundtable at a conference of the British Association for Modernist Studies. I spoke about Edna Ferber and Dorothy Canfield Fisher (that’s me in the mask).

Then it was off to London for T.S. Eliot International Summer School. Here’s a selfie from our field trip to Burnt Norton:

The eccentric project that started with a report on a January 1918 cold snap has turned out to be quite an adventure!

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*Who knows how that resolution will go—not very well, if the timeliness of this post is any indication—but I can tell you about one that’s a rousing success so far: to lift 3-pound weights every day while listening to a Taylor Swift song. This is a hybrid of my failed weight-lifting resolution of last year and my aspiration to improve my credentials as a Taylor Swift fan. I’m catching up on the pre-Red era, starting with the first song on the first album. Best song so far: Our Song.

**Apparently there was a side agreement with the United States called the Chester Concession, but my interest in understanding this magazine cover does not extend to learning what this was all about. Besides, it was never ratified by the Senate.

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New on the Book List: The Secret Adversary, by Agatha Christie

Children’s Books: Your 1922 Holiday Shopping Guide

Happy holidays, everyone! It’s been a while.

Last year, I grumbled that my go-to children’s book resource, pioneering children’s librarian and Bookman columnist Annie Carroll Moore, was too busy waxing whimsical to make book recommendations. The year before, I moaned about the poor selection of books on offer.

Be careful what you wish for. This year I was hit with a veritable firehose of books. And I wasn’t the only one who felt that way: “Books for children continue to pour from the presses much faster than descriptions of them can be hammered out on the typewriter,” says the anonymous, but very relatable, writer of the Children’s Bookshelf column in the December 10, 1922, New York Times.

Over at The Bookman, Moore is back on form, wasting only the first page of her October 1922 column on flights of fancy (something about an imaginary train ride, don’t ask) before going on to six pages of solid recommendations.

Fellow children’s book columnist Marian Cutter weighs in in the December Bookman, but mostly about classics.* She and others, like Library Journal and The World’s Work,** are abuzz about a list of the best books for children that a group of librarians and educators had come up with. The idea is that, if you have a one-room schoolhouse and a limited budget, these are the books you should buy. Other than the boy-specific titles and some colonialism, the list holds up pretty well today. Little Women is the runaway winner, followed by the two Alice books, Robinson Crusoe, Tom Sawyer, and Treasure Island, followed by:

The World’s Work, December 1922

Publishers Weekly’s November 4 holiday issue has its usual extensive listing of children’s and every other kind of books, along with ads that are just as much fun. My only regret was that the snarky blurb writer of last year has been replaced with a more temperate colleagues (or else it’s the same guy and he’s recovered from last year’s burnout).

The October 1, 1922, issue of The Library Journal featured a charming article, originally published in the Manchester Guardian Weekly, called “The Books Children Like.” The writer, Evelyn Sharp, is a British suffragist and children’s book writer.*** “One has to be what is called a children’s author, perhaps, to know what it feels like, after writing a book for children, to discover that one has written a very nice story for fathers or aunts,” she sighs. The biggest mistake children’s writers can make, she says, is writing down to children, and the best children’s books are “the ones that make him feel on a level with the author, whether it is actually written for them or their elders.”

So here I am faced with an embarrassment of riches, which is great, except that the holiday season is ticking away, I have a huge (virtual) pile of books to get through, and seasonal activities keep getting in the way.**** So I’ll have to fly through the selection at a torrid pace. Here goes!

Fairy Tales, Nursery Rhymes, and Folk Tales

Katharine Pile, from Fairy Tales from Far and Near

I was underwhelmed by Fairy Tales from Far and Near, written and illustrated by Katharine Pyle, with its muted illustrations and plethora of thous, thees, and thys.

Rie Cramer, from Grimm’s Fairy Tales

Frances Jenkins Olcott’s retelling of Grimm’s Fairy Tales is a better choice. It’s told in refreshingly non-faux-archaic language, and Rie Cramer’s illustrations are brighter and more numerous than Pyle’s.

Back in 2020, I was charmed by Rose Fyleman’s Fairies and Chimneys, which mixed magic and city life a la Mary Poppins, but The Fairy Flute just isn’t doing it for me. It’s just a bunch of poems about what to do if you come across a fairy (bottom line: don’t run away), with no illustrations. Plus, the first poem, “Consolation,” tells you that the fairies will love you even if you are “very ugly and freckely and small.”

Lining pages from Mighty Mikko

Moore calls Parker Fillmore’s Mighty Mikko, a collection of Finnish tales, “a capital piece of work.” It’s an attractive volume, illustrated by Jay Van Everen, whose small wood-block drawings, like the ones on the lining pages above, I prefer to the full-page illustrations.

Fred Kabotie, from Taytay’s Tales

My most fascinating discovery of the year was Taytay’s Tales, a collection of American Indian stories collected by Elizabeth Willis De Huff. I skipped over it at first, since Moore said that “some of the tale are like Uncle Remus stories,” which wasn’t exactly a draw. It showed up on all the lists, though, so I decided to take a look. De Huff says that the book was illustrated by two Hopi teenagers, including 17-year-old Fred Kabotie. Since books by fake Native Americans are common even now, I was suspicious, but, it turns out that Kabotie not only was for real, but he went on to be a renowned artist whose honors included a Guggenheim fellowship and France’s Palme Academique. Two of his paintings are in the collection of the National Gallery of Art.

E.G. Morris, from The King of the Snakes

The stories in Rosetta Baskerville’s The King of the Snakes, advertised as Ugandan folk tales, also seem to be authentic—at least, the creation myth is—and E.G. Morris’s illustrations are respectfully done. On the other hand, “Ndaba kuki basebo, basebo ndaba kuki,” which is supposed to mean “The Song of the Forest Wanderer,” comes out in Google Translate as meaning “I see cookies, guys—guys, I see cookies!” in the Ganda language.

For Young Children

George Howard Vyse, from Perez the Mouse

Luis Coloma, a Spanish priest and Royal Academy member, was commissioned to write Perez, the Mouse (originally Ratoncito Pérez) in 1894 for eight-year-old King Alfonzo XIII, who had lost a tooth. Perez lives in a box of cookies with his family and runs through the city’s pipes to the rooms of children who have lost their teeth. To this day, children in Spanish-speaking countries to this day leave their teeth under the pillows for the mouse. This 1914 version, reprinted in 1922, was adapted by Lady Moreton with illustrations by George Howard Vyse. “A great favorite with children,” Moore calls it, and I can see the appeal.

Gertrude A. Kay, from The Boy Who Lived in Pudding Lane

Sarah Addington’s The Boy Who Lived in Pudding Lane, illustrated by Gertrude A. Kay, is Santa’s origin story. “The younger children will be amused to read how the very fat little boy who always wore a red suit came to make toys for all children the wide world over,” Cutter tells us.

For Middle-Grade Readers

Homer Boss, from The Adventures of Maya the Bee

The Adventures of Maya the Bee by Waldemar Bonsels, illustrated by Homer Boss, was published in German in 1912 and (after a postwar cooling down period, presumably) first appeared in English in 1922. It’s the story of Maya, a bee who gets caught up in bee-hornet warfare. “One of the most delightful insect stories every written,” Cutter raves, which strikes me as a low bar. In any case, I’m not enthusiastic about the German militarism angle, plus the pictures freak me out, so I’m passing.*****

Kay Nielson’s illustrations for Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Engebretsen Moe’s retelling of the Norwegian fairy tale East of the Sun, West of the Moon are beautiful—she’s like the Erté of children’s book illustration—but the story itself is way longer than a fairy tale has any business being. Too bad, because I’ve always loved that title.

Tom Freud, from David the Dreamer

Ralph Bergengren’s David the Dreamer came out too late for Moore’s roundup, but Cutter gave it a rave review, and Tom Freud’s illustrations are sprinkled through the article. I couldn’t find a copy online, and when that’s the case I usually skip the book. Plus, who wants to read about someone else’s dreams? But then I found this blog post from The Marginalian (formerly Brain Pickings) about how Tom Freud started life as Sigmund Freud’s niece Martha but, at age fifteen, took on the name Tom and began wearing men’s clothes. Plus, just look at that illustration. (And lots more at The Marginalian.) Freud, sadly, committed suicide in 1930 at the age of 37.

For Older Children

From Gypsy and Ginger, illustrator unidentified

Moore is quite taken with the whimsy of Gypsy and Ginger, about a carefree couple who get married right after they meet, like Dharma and Greg without the sexual innuendo. Me, not so much.

“The Southern slaves were childlike people,” Maud Lindsay says in Little Missy, a tale of life on the old plantation. And that’s just on page 1. I didn’t make it to page 2.

For Older Children

From Red-Robin, illustrator not specified

“Books written for girls present the usual problem,” Moore says, but doesn’t explain what the problem is. This is my fourth year on the beat, so I think I know what she means: they’re boring. I had high hopes for Red-Robin by Jane Abbott, though, since it had gotten rave reviews. I was sorely disappointed. If you think I’m just being grumpy, here’s the opening:

“Maybe she’s just setting the scene,” I said, trying to be fair, so I skipped to the next chapter, which started with more description. As I browsed, I encountered dialect, our heroine calling her father “Father dear,” and a young man who seemed promising at first (walking out of the store he works at, whistling, paying not the slightest attention to the sky) but then ruined everything by saying, “Giminy Gee!”

Kay Nielson, from Tales from Shakespeare

Moore says that the 1922 edition of Charles and Mary Lamb’s 1807 Tales from Shakespeare, with illustrations by Kay Nielson, is “perhaps the most distinguished in form of the books of the year,” and I can see her point. I would definitely get this for 13-year-old me.******

Dugald Walker, from Rainbow Gold

The standout poetry anthology for children in a season full of them, the critics say, is Rainbow Gold by Sara Teasdale. “Miss Teasdale works on the assumption that children prefer the poetry of such figures as Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Swinburne to what may be termed professional children’s poetry, and she is correct,” the New York Times reviewer says. I agree—I would buy this for thirteen-year-old me too. The frontispiece is, disappointingly, the only color illustration in the book, but, as a Dugald Walker fan from way back,******* I’m happy with his black-and-white Art Nouveau illustrations.

From Won for the Fleet, illustrator unidentified

Oh, wait! I forgot something. As much as I balk at the gender-specific reading lists of 1922, I have to admit that there’s a good swath of the adolescent male population that isn’t going to happy with any of these choices. Well, I have just the thing for them! Won for the Fleet: A Story of Annapolis by Fitzhugh Green (Lt.-Commander – U.S.N.) is a rollicking tale of…well, I just skimmed through the beginning and there was Naval Academy hazing (with trash talk like “Oh, you slacker! Oh, you kindergarten kid!”) and someone’s father’s financial ruin and I think a battle in Cuba. It was a bit confusing, but definitely rollicking.

For Young Adults

Young adults want to read about actual adults, not about fake for-children’s-consumption adults like Gypsy and Ginger. And what could be more entertaining than reading about the out-of-control party couple Anthony and Gloria Patch in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s second novel, The Beautiful and Damned? Well, honestly, I found it a bit boring when I read it during my freshman year in college, and critics generally agree, but subpar Fitzgerald is better than peak almost anybody else.

From Dancing Made Easy, illustrator unidentified

Or, if that young person in your life needs help finding a partner (and hasn’t been scared away from the whole idea by The Beautiful and Damned), there’s always Dancing Made Easy, by Charles Coll and Gabrielle Rosiere. It is the tragedy of my life that I have never hung out with a crowd that does dances like this:

Dancing Made Easy, illustrator unidentified

Classic or Not?

The following 1922 books make a claim for the title of “classic,” or at least fall into the category “really old but I’ve heard of it.” Let’s see how well they hold up.

Hugh Lofting, from The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle

I remember being so eager to get back to The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle, Hugh Lofting’s Newbery Medal-winning sequel to The Story of Dr. Dolittle, that I woke up early to read it in bed. What can I say? My racial politics weren’t very evolved when I was nine. Luckily, I don’t have to dig around in the book for all the racism because Sara Beth West did it already in this excellent blog post, part of a series on Newbery winners, She says that, while some egregious passages have been removed, “the edition I read was still thoroughly offensive.” Example: a monkey successfully disguises himself as a black woman to get passage on a ship. Not a classic!

Maud and Miska Petersham, from Rootabaga Stories

Moore is a big fan of Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories, which plays a big part in the aforementioned incomprehensible whimsical journey. I looked at the first page, which featured characters named Gimme the Ax, Please Gimme, and Ax Me No Questions, and could get no further. Which may be unfair, but do you know of anyone who has actually read this book? I don’t. Not a classic!

William Nicholson, from The Velveteen Rabbit

The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams, is one of those books that was always lurking around when I was a child but that I never got around to. It was old and about animals, so it had two strikes against it. Adult me was charmed by it, though. It’s the story of a toy rabbit that is initially ignored in favor of flashier, but breakable, mechanical toys but eventually finds its way to a boy’s heart and, thereby, life as a real live rabbit. It has humor that I actually found funny, like the self-importance of the other toys: “Even Timothy, the jointed wooden lion, who was made by disabled soldiers, and should have had broader views, put on airs and pretended that he was connected with Government.” Finally—a classic!

So that’s it! This is definitely the best holiday children’s book selection I’ve come across. There’s something for everyone. And it’s only 9:30 p.m. at Christmas Eve Cape Town Time, which is 2:30 p.m. or earlier if you’re in the United States, which, if you’re celebrating Christmas, gives you HOURS to get your shopping done.

Best wishes for the holiday season, everyone!

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*I learned from this fascinating post on the blog “Bibliophemera” that Cutter was the founder of the first children’s bookstore in New York.

**I had the idea that The World’s Work was a socialist magazine, but it turns out to be a pro-business magazine with stories like “How a Business Man Would Run The Government.”

***Evelyn Sharp gossip: She and her best friend’s husband were in love for many years. They married after the friend died, when Sharp was 63 and her husband was 77.

****I returned to Cape Town from Washington, D.C., this week, and the obligations are along the lines of picking young people up at this beach, so I’m not expecting a lot of sympathy.

*****The film industry was more enthusiastic, and Maya’s story was recently made into a series of animated films.

******14-year-old me would have turned my nose up at Lamb and plowed uncomprehendingly through the original text.

*******Although I see I misidentified him both of the times I’ve mentioned him, calling him Dugald Steward Walker one time and Dugald Stewart the other time (although I may have fixed these errors by the time you read this). His actual name was Dugald Stewart Walker.

My Quest to Earn a 1920 Girl Scout Badge: Pathfinder, Part 1

It’s been almost three years since I set out to earn badges from the 1916 Girl Scout handbook, How Girls Can Help Their Country.* In the meantime, a 1920 edition has been published. Renamed Scouting for Girls, it’s full of new badges, as well as revamped old ones with new, generally more realistic requirements.

I’m on it! But I’m scaling back from my insanely ambitious effort last time, when I tackled all 36 badges over the course of just two posts. That was a bit much, what with all the knot tying and flower drawing and ironing and recorder playing. My poor husband! Plus, at that torrid pace I tended to give up on requirements I could have fulfilled if I’d been willing to devote more time to them, like memorizing the names of all the cabinet secretaries. I decided to take it slower this time, with one badge per post.

For my first badge, I chose Pathfinder, where you learn about your local area. I came fairly close to success last time, but I failed the requirement to know all the public buildings and public schools in my city. There’s a vastly improved set of requirements in the 1920 handbook, plus I’m in a different city—Cape Town, South Africa, then and Washington, D.C., now. (I rotate between the two.) I decided to focus my efforts, where possible, on the neighborhood of Mount Pleasant. It’s not my actual neighborhood, but it was developed in the early years of the 20th century so has a 1920s feel.**

Being a Pathfinder ended up being no simple task. At least, not in the overachiever way I decided to go about it, which included not just knowing about places in my community but photographing them and learning about their history. Where possible, I chose buildings that were at least a hundred years old. The project started to balloon out of control, so I decided to scale my ambition back further and devote this post to one particularly labor-intensive requirement. I’ll be back with additional pathfinding in a future post.

Here’s the requirement:

#4. Know the names and locations of the Post Office, Telegraph and Telephone Stations, Public Library, City or Town Hall, one hospital of good standing, one hotel or inn, three churches, one Protestant, one Catholic, one Synagogue, and the nearest railroad.***

As you see, a lot to unpack here.

Post Office

Cleveland Park Post Office

Mount Pleasant doesn’t have its own post office, so I photographed the one in nearby Cleveland Park. The 1941 building was designed by architect Carroll Meigs. When I looked him up, I found (after being sidetracked by the father-son civil engineering duo of Montgomery C. Meigs Sr. and Jr.****) a request to the D.C. government’s historic preservation office by the owners of a Meigs-designed Safeway in the Palisades neighborhood not to have the store designated as historically significant. As part of this effort, the owners dump all over Meigs and the store’s builder, calling its architecture “undistinguished” and saying that “despite the fact that both men had practices based in Washington, DC, neither are considered preeminent in their field.” The review board agreed, saying, “Even if its architect had been recognized as a creative master, this is not a master work or a manifestation of artistry.” The store, which was the oldest Safeway on the East Coast, closed in 2019.*****

Telegraph and Telephone Stations

With technological progress and the breakup of Ma Bell, telegraph and telephone stations have gone by the wayside. A search for nearby cell phone towers proved unexpectedly difficult—the sites I looked at were all difficult to navigate, insecure, or lacking in information. And the reward, a photo of a cell phone tower, didn’t particularly motivate me to persevere.

Former C&P Building

However, I did happen upon this old C&P Telephone building in Columbia Heights, a few blocks from Mount Pleasant, which is now a child care center. Apologies for the photo quality—there was a lot of glare on my phone, so I was blindly snapping away.

For extra credit, here’s a photo of women working at a C&P telephone exchange, from my post “Are You H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan’s Ideal Woman?”

Women at C&P Telephone Exchange, Washington, D.C., ca. 1920, Herbert French.
C&P Telephone Exchange, Washington, D.C., ca. 1920 (Herbert E. French)

Public Library

Mount Pleasant Library

The Mount Pleasant Public Library was built in 1925. It’s the third oldest D.C. library still in use and was the last to be built with funding from Andrew Carnegie.

This library, which was renovated and expanded in 2012, has been a constant in my life as I’ve moved in and out of Washington over the decades. I’ve checked out probably hundreds of books there and gone to a few yoga classes. During COVID, the library set up operations outdoors; you’d put a hold on a book, and when it arrived you’d give your name to a librarian sitting at a table outside the entrance and they’d go in and fetch it. That’s what I call service!

I’m nostalgic for the days when the wide set of steps in front actually led to the entrance—access is now through a flight of stairs on the side—but I’m lucky to be able to call this my local public library.******

City or Town Hall

Postcard of District Building (now the John A. Wilson Building), 1914 (eBay)

My ambitious goal to photograph all the sites myself fell by the wayside with D.C.’s center of government, the John A. Wilson Building. It’s kind of far away, down past the White House. So you’ll have to make do with this vintage postcard.

I did learn a lot about the Wilson Building, though, starting with the fact of its existence. I realized when I saw this requirement that I had no idea where the seat of the D.C. government was—a shameful fact given that I have lived here on and off (mostly off) since 1983. This is partly due to D.C.’s neither-fish-nor-fowl administrative status, which makes City Hall less of an institution than it is in other cities. But still, shameful.******* Originally known simply as the District Building, the Wilson Building dates from 1908. It was renamed in 1994 after a former head of the city council.

Postcard of D.C. City Hall (now the D.C. Court of Appeals), early 1900s (streetsofwashington.com)

The original City Hall, built in 1822, now houses the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. I was familiar with this building, since it’s right in front of you when you get off the Metro at Judiciary Square on your way to the Mall.

I will definitely keep an eye out for the Wilson Building next time I’m in the area.

Hospital of Good Standing

Howard University Hospital, 2008 (AgnosticPreachersKid)

My effort to locate an old-timey hospital in D.C. provide futile. Several of the city’s hospitals are over a hundred years old as institutions, but all of them have relocated to modern buildings.

The closest hospital to Mount Pleasant, according to ushospitalfinder.com, is Howard University Hospital. It’s currently housed in a nondescript modern facility, but it has an interesting history, originating as the Freedman’s Hospital and Asylum in 1862. Beginning in 1863, it was headed by Dr. Alexander Augusta, the country’s first black hospital administrator and professor of medicine. After the Civil War, it became Howard’s teaching hospital but remained a federal facility.

Alexander Augusta, date unknown (blackpast.org)

New quarters for the hospital, previously located on a military base, were built in 1909. The hospital was transferred to the control of Howard University in 1967, and the building remained in use as a hospital until 1975. It still stands, now housing the university’s communications school.

Howard University Hospital, 1910 (from the book An Era of Progress and Promise)

The current hospital, built in 1975, is on the former site of Washington’s Griffiths Stadium.******** It’s been beset with scandals and financial problems in recent years, making the “good standing” criterion in the badge requirement debatable. It’s under new management now, though, and was allocated $100 million for the construction of a new facility under the infrastructure law passed earlier this year, which I’ll take as a thumbs-up.

Hotel or Inn

The Line Hotel

Finally, an easy one! The Line Hotel in the Adams Morgan neighborhood, just down the road from hotel-less Mount Pleasant, occupies a former Christian Science church that was built in 1912. The building sat empty for a quarter-century while the church retained a presence in the form of a reading room next door.

Postcard, Christian Science Church, 1921 (eBay)

The Line opened in 2017 and quickly became a trendy hangout, with music pouring out of the building and guests and local residents relaxing on colorful cushions on the steps. It soon became embroiled in a dispute with the city government about a $46 million tax abatement related to the hiring of D.C. residents, which was eventually resolved in its favor. (Learning about your local community turns out to lead to all sorts of cans of worms). The hotel shut down for a while, along with the rest of the hospitality industry, because of COVID. A visit to the Line on a recent Sunday afternoon showed that it was, if not exactly hopping, pleasantly buzzing.

Lobby, The Line Hotel

The two impressively stocked bars were deserted, but I wouldn’t necessarily call a deserted bar at 6 p.m. on a Sunday a bad thing.

Bar, The Line Hotel

Three Churches, One Protestant, One Catholic, One Synagogue

National Baptist Memorial Church

Mount Pleasant borders 16th Street NW, a boulevard that’s lined with houses of worship all the way up to the Maryland border, so I had an abundance of riches to choose from. To represent the Protestants, I selected the National Baptist Memorial Church, which is is exactly a hundred years old. Here’s  President Harding at the 1921 groundbreaking.

President Harding at National Memorial Baptist Church groundbreaking, 1921 (Library of Congress)

You can see the National Baptist Memorial Church on the left in the photo at the top of this post, along with All Souls Unitarian Church and the Unification Church’s National Family Church, which was built in 1933, with granite shipped from Utah, as the Washington, D.C. headquarters of the Mormon church.

St. Augustine Catholic Church, 2009 (AgnosticPreachersKid)

I had to go further afield to find a Catholic church and a synagogue. St. Augustine Catholic church has a storied history as the first African-American Catholic church in the District. It was founded in 1858, and its parish school was one of the first in the city to educate black children.

St. Augustine Church, ca. 1899 (Library of Congress)

St. Augustine subsequently merged with St. Paul’s, which had a dwindling congregation of white parishioners. The original church was torn down, and the longtime headquarters of the Washington Post was built on the site. The current church, built in 1897, is the old St. Paul’s.

Kesher Israel Synagogue

On a walk in Georgetown, I passed Kesher Israel, a Modern Orthodox synagogue that was founded in 1911. The congregation operated above a store on M Street at first, and in 1915 it moved into new quarters, pictured below. The current synagogue was built on the same site in 1931.

Kesher Israel Synagogue, 1915 (kesher.org)

Prominent members of Kesher Israel have included Herman Wouk, author of The Caine Mutiny, who called Kesher Israel “the best little shul in America,” and senator and vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman, who occasionally walked the three miles from the synagogue to the Capitol for votes that took place on the Sabbath.

Nearest Railroad

Union Station, 2015 (VeggieGarden)

Union Station is Washington’s Amtrack station—the railroad’s second busiest, I recently learned (after New York’s Penn Station, presumably). Busiest in terms of riders, that is. In terms of hustle and bustle in the station itself, not so much. I took the Metro there on my way to the Library of Congress recently and was taken aback to see how deserted the station, once a bustling shopping center, is now.

Curious about how this had happened, I did some Googling and found a recent Washington Post article about the sad state of affairs, which has to do with a drop in ridership during COVID, an influx of homeless people when libraries and other public buildings closed, and the station’s complex ownership/leasing/subleasing setup. Planning for a $10 billion renovation project is underway, but that will take a decade. I hope that the station will return to at least a semblance of its former glory well before then, and that I will once again be able to browse happily in its shops.

In the meantime, here’s a photo of the station’s lobby, taken a few years after it opened in 1908.

Postcard of Union Station waiting room, ca. 1910 (eBay)

Whew! That was quite a requirement! It was well worth the effort, though. When I walk around my community now, I see it with new eyes and feel an increased sense of belonging.

Stay tuned for Part 2!

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*How Girls Can Help Their Country was a spinoff of the British How Girls Can Help to Build Up the Empire.

**Mount Pleasant is one of Washington’s most diverse neighborhoods today, but, like many Washington neighborhoods, it has a troubling racial history. In the 1920s, almost all residents signed deeds prohibiting the sale of their homes to African Americans. You can learn more about the neighborhood’s history in this 2021 Washington Post article by a Mount Pleasant resident.

***I’m condensing this and other badge requirements, since there are separate instructions for city dwellers and residents of small towns or rural areas.

****Meigs Sr. served as the Union Quartermaster in the Civil War and supervised the construction of the U.S. Capitol. Meigs Jr. was, in addition to being a civil engineer, the father of boring children’s writer Cornelia Meigs.

*****Meigs has gotten enough grief, so I’ll refrain from commenting and let you be the judge:

Historic Preservation Review Board Application, 2018

******When I was a kid, they used to play a song about the “local public library” on Captain Kangaroo and show photos of the lions at the library at 5th Avenue and 42nd Street in New York. I assumed that was the name of the building, and I asked my mom if she could take me there. She pointed out that we had just gone to the library, I said, “No—the Local Public Library!” Naturally, she had no idea what I was talking about. The sad thing is that we lived in New Jersey at the time and she could easily have taken me to visit the lions (to the extent that anything is easy when you’re the mother of four small children).

nypl.org

*******I polled two friends and both of them knew that the Wilson building is the home of the D.C. government.

********I had to stop myself from going down a whole other rabbit hole about Griffith Stadium, former home to the Washington Senators, the Redskins (now the Commanders, although I prefer the interim moniker Washington Football Team), and the Grays, the Negro League baseball team. You can learn more about this, and about the history of Howard University Hospital, on this fascinating page on Howard’s website.

Opening Day, Griffith Stadium, 1918 (Library of Congress)

My Magical Journey to 1922

I’ve been reading a lot of children’s books lately,* and some of them feature magical adventures. This has left me longing for a magical adventure of my own. So I decided to set off on one, to the advertising pages of the June 1922 issue of The Ladies’ Home Journal.

Henry James Soulen

As my fellow magical adventurer Alice would be the first to tell you, even a magical day should start with a good breakfast,** so I’ll pour myself a bowl of Post Toasties.

I’ll celebrate my healthy food choice by having a doughnut fried in Snowdrift shortening.

After breakfast, I’ll wash up with Palmolive soap***

and dab on some some Woodbury skin products.****

Even magical adventurers have to do the laundry, but don’t worry, P and G white soap is as much fun as…arithmetic!

I’ll put on my L’Aiglon slip-over, which, get this, you just SLIP ON OVER YOUR HEAD,

walk the dog on the beach and take some snaps,

and spend a happy afternoon hanging out with friends on the Congoleum,

enjoying some Perfetto sugar wafers

and refreshing Coca-Cola.*****

Uh-oh, unexpected guests at dinnertime! No problem, we’ll scare them off by claiming that we’re having Libby’s canned meat

and then get out the real dinner, attractively served on Fry’s Oven Glass.

Washing up is a pleasure when you do it with Old Dutch Cleanser.

I’ll slip on my hair net and head out to a party.

My beauty powder is having its desired effect.

Could this be love????

I’m getting ahead of myself. For the moment, I’ll go home and, with the music still ringing in my ears, sit under the Mazda lamp with Mom****** and tell her all about my day.

She can’t believe her little girl who used to have nightmares about Jell-O is all grown up.

You might be thinking that these are not exactly Alice-level magical adventures. But I’m preparing to leave Cape Town for several months, and, although I’m looking forward to my trip, I’ve been savoring the time I have left here and thinking about how sometimes an ordinary day is the most magical thing of all.

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*For a new project I can’t wait to tell you all about!

**Of course, the Queen would argue that you need to believe six impossible things first.

***Palmolive may be exaggerating the virtues of the “schoolgirl complexion” (see: Woodbury skin products).

****Note to Woodbury: you shouldn’t have to squint to see the name of the product.

*****Did it have cocaine in it, you ask? I did some research and learned that the original recipe, from 1886, did include cocaine, or more accurately a precursor chemical, although not all that much. This was reduced to a trace amount in 1902, and Coke became completely cocaine-free in 1929.

******Who looks about 60 years older than me.

In search of an extraordinary spring 1922 magazine cover

I haven’t done a post on magazine covers since last August. I tried early this year, but the covers I found were uninspiring. Has the Golden Age of Illustration come to an end, I wondered.*

I decided to give it another shot, and I spent a long time looking at covers from March and April 1922. They weren’t bad. Most of them were quite good, in fact. But nothing seemed new or fresh or different.

I expect Erté’s Harper’s Bazar covers to be attractive and haunting, but the March one is haunting without being attractive and the April one is attractive without being haunting.**

Erte Harper's Bazar March 1922 cover, couple kissing in silhouette.
Erté, March 1922
Erte Harpers' Bazar April 1922 cover, woman strewing flowers.
Erté, April 1922

This A. H. Fish Vanity Fair cover was solid but not memorable.

A.H. Fish April 1922 Vanity Fair cover, ballerina with pierrot.
A.H. Fish, April 1922

Are these either houses or gardens? I think not, House & Garden!

George Brandt House & Garden March 1922 cover, floral display.
H. George Brandt, March 1922
B.W. Tomlin House & Garden April 1922 cover, flowers in front of bas relief.
Bradley Walker Tomlin, April 1922

Okay, maybe I was just in a bad mood. I’ll stop carping now and just tell you what I found.

Regular Good Housekeeping cover illustrator Jessie Willcox Smith was her usual competent, family-friendly self.

Jessie Willcox Smith March 1922 Good Housekeeping cover, mother putting coat on child.
Jessie Willcox Smith, March 1922
Jessie Willcox Smith Good Housekeeping April 1922 cover, girl with green umbrella in rain.
Jessie Willcox Smith, April 1922

The kids were up to their usual wholesome fun at St. Nicholas.

St. Nicholas March 1922 cover, boy and girl with dogs.
March 1922
St. Nicholas April 1922 cover, boy and girl feeding birds.
April 1922

With Ireland newly independent, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations were especially festive.

Judge March 11, 1922 cover, woman in green beret with Irish Free State slogan.
March 11, 1922
J.C. Leyendecker March 15, 1922 Saturday Evening Post cover, girl dressed as Statue of Liberty with harp, Ireland independence.
J.C. Leyendecker, March 18, 1922

There was a newcomer, Tom Webb, at the Saturday Evening Post,

Tom Webb March 25, 1922 Saturday Evening Post cover, cowboy looking at Spring Styles ad.
Tom Webb, March 25, 1922

along with old Post hand Neysa McMein,

Neysa McMein March 11, 1922 Saturday Evening Post cover, woman in black dress sitting in chair.
Neysa McMein, March 11, 1922

as well as Norman Rockwell, already a SEP veteran at 28.

Norman Rockwell April 29, 1922 Saturday Evening Post cover, skinny boy lifting weights with poster of muscleman.
Norman Rockwell, April 29, 1922
Norman Rockwell April 8, 1922 Saturday Evening Post cover, man threading needle.
Norman Rockwell, April 8, 1922

The insanely prolific Rockwell was all over the place in March and April, at The Literary Digest

Norman Rockwell Literary Digest cover, March 25, 1922, man with girl reading book.
Norman Rockwell, March 25, 1922

and The Country Gentleman

Norman Rockwell Country Gentleman cover, April 29, 1922, auctioneer holding headless figure.
Norman Rockwell, April 29, 1922
Norman Rockwell Country Gentleman cover, March 18, 1922, smiling boy holding two dogs.
Norman Rockwell, March 18, 1922

and Life.

Norman Rockwell, March 23, 1922

For the Ladies’ Home Journal, N.C. Wyeth (father of Andrew) painted a boy dreaming of stolen loot.

N.C. Wyeth Ladies' Home Journal March 1922 cover, boy reading book with picture of daydream of pirates.
N.C. Wyeth, March 1922

Over at Vogue, a Helen Dryden cover featured an old-timey couple,

Helen Dryden Vogue cover, March 1, 1922, woman in long dress and flowery hat with whiskered man in top hat.
Helen Dryden, March 1, 1922

and there were two new-to-me Vogue cover artists, Pierre Brissaud and Henry R. Sutter.***

Pierre Brissaud Vogue cover, April 1, 1922, woman and girl under umbrellas.
Pierre Brissaud, April 1, 1922
Henry R. Sutter Vogue cover, April 15, 1922, woman in cape looking down at valley.
Henry R. Sutter, April 15, 1922

So, this is all very nice, and if I hadn’t been looking at hundred-year-old magazine covers for over four years I might be impressed. It’s just that there wasn’t anything that hadn’t been done before.

And then I came across this Vanity Fair cover from March 1922, by newcomer Eduardo Garcia Benito, who had arrived in New York from Spain the year before.**** I hadn’t seen anything yet like the sleek, clear lines and bold colors of this cover, which would come to typify Art Deco illustration.*****

Eduardo Gracia Benito Vanity Fair cover, March 1922, man lighting cigarette for woman in front of foliage, Art Deco style.
Eduardo Garcia Benito, March 1922

And then I took a second look at the other March Vogue cover, by Georges Lepape, which, maybe because of the muted colors, I hadn’t paid particular attention to.

Georges Lepape Vogue cover, March 15, 1922, man putting fur coat on woman, Art Deco style.
Georges Lepape, March 15, 1922

Same minimalist design. Same clear lines. Same boyish silhouette on the woman.

Two years into the decade, the twenties have begun!

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*I had already expressed concern about this in my 1915/1920 Magazine Cover Smackdown post.

**Here is an examples of an attractive and haunting Erté cover:

Erté Harper's Bazar cover, February 1918, masked woman looking out window at man.
Erté, February 1918

***UPDATE 5/1/2022: I looked into this some more and these both seem to be Vogue debuts. Brissaud went on to be a regular Vogue cover artist. Sutter only did six covers that I could find (i.e. that appear on art.com, which I think has all of them), all in 1922 and 1923. I haven’t been able to find much information about him other than that he lived in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

****This wasn’t Benito’s Condé Nast debut, though. This November 15, 1921, Vogue cover was his first (as far as I can tell) of many for the magazine.

Eduardo Garcia Benito, November 15, 1921

*****I could do without the “Women can smoke too!” message, though.

Jane Austen’s Life 100 Years Ago

Happy Women’s History Month, everyone! Celebrating isn’t generally a heavy lift for me, since I write about women a lot anyway and everything on this blog is history by definition. This year, though, I decided to take a look at someone who was already history in 1922—Jane Austen, who had died just over a hundred years before.

I ordered Oscar Firkins’ 1920 book Jane Austen two years ago, while I was in Washington during the early months of COVID. I figured it would shed interesting light on how Austen was viewed at the time. What I wasn’t expecting was a delightful romp through her work that brightened some lonely afternoons during that terrible spring.

Our own century, of course, is not lacking in writing about Austen. There is scholarship focusing on all sorts of topics, including material culture and her depiction of slavery. There are memoirs and novels about reading Austen. What we don’t have, at least to my knowledge, is a book that makes you feel like you’re talking about Austen with a witty, perceptive friend.* So I was delighted to find that friend in Firkins.

Rather than describing Firkins’ writing on Austen, I’ll let him speak for himself. I realize the risk this poses, as does Firkins, who prefaces a long passage from Pride and Prejudice by acknowledging that “extracts, like other transplantations, are likely to be disappointing.” (If you’re not in the mood for transplantations, you can skip down to the first squiggle and read about Firkins’ intriguing life.)

If Firkins comes across as overly critical here, that’s my fault, not his—he’s an Austen fan, with plenty of good things to say, but criticism is so much more fun to read than praise. Also, admiration of Austen is a bit of a civic religion, so it’s refreshing to encounter someone who’s willing to look at her work through a non-adulatory lens.

On Sense and Sensibility

“Our liking [for Elinor Dashwood] passes through crises at every turn, and its final safety is a form of miracle. The reader is aided by the fact that under Miss Austen’s convoy he takes up his abode in the mind of Elinor, and a well-bred person feels a difficulty in quarreling with his hostess.”

On Pride and Prejudice

“When he [Darcy] first appears, he speaks insultingly of a young girl within her hearing. After that, all is over, and to search the character for virtues is to delve among ruins for salvage.”**

“A family, as Americans understand that term, they [the Bennets] are not; they are a congeries.*** They are bedded and boarded in the same enclosure, but a family life is unimaginable in their case. Even under the double disadvantage of the father’s neglect and the mother’s attention it is difficult to conceive that Kitty and Lydia should have sprung from the same stem from which Jane and Elizabeth were the primary offshoots.”

On Northanger Abbey

“I think I am drawn to Catherine by the fact that she is the only one of the heroines who acts like a young girl. Anne Elliot’s youthfulness is past; she already wears the willow,**** and her attitude imitates its droop. Emma, Elizabeth, and Elinor (they run to E’s like the early Saxon kings) are not really young. I reject the futility of baptismal registers and the vain umpireship of the family Bible. They all impress us as having sat on boards; we are lucky if we do not feel that they are sitting on boards in our very presence. Marianne’s conversation is ten years older than her behavior. I shall be told that Fanny Price is a young girl. Miss Becky Sharp was obliged by circumstances to be her own mamma; to my mind, Fanny Price is obliged by nature to be her own maiden aunt. But Catherine Morland is young in the fashion of young girls whom I actually know, simple, warm-hearted, pleasure-loving, diffident between her impulses and eager behind her shyness.”

On Mansfield Park

“Transferred to Mansfield Park, the ten-year-old girl [Fanny] grows up with the marvellous rapidity with which that operation—so tedious in real life—is accomplished by the heroines of fiction.”

“The elopement of Henry Crawford and Maria Rushworth in a story of this kind is like the firing of a pistol shot at an afternoon tea. The story, naturally enough, flees to the nearest hiding-place, crouches down, and puts its fingers in its ears.”

“We feel that Edmund is overstarched, that Fanny is oversweetened, and that the two Crawfords are unfortunate in their resemblance to unstable chemical compounds.”

On Emma

“We respect [Mrs. Weston] for bearing a child; that is an act of refreshing solidity in a world in which the people are mostly idle observers of each other’s idleness.”

“He [Mr. Knightley] is almost cruel in his rebuke of cruelty; one feels that he is the sort of master who would damn a servant for a lapse into profanity. I cannot but feel that this world must be far better and far better-natured than it now is before a mere flick of satire at another person’s obvious and obtrusive folly can deserve the avalanche of reprobation which Emma receives for her treatment of Miss Bates.”

“As for her [Jane Fairfax’s] sufferings, there are people who have a talent for endurance which is little short of an entreaty to destiny to unload its carload of misfortunes at their door.”

On Persuasion

“A doctor’s resource for a troublesome case and a novelist’s expedient for an invalid story are one and the same. They must go to Bath.”

“Even the exertions of a novelist can no longer keep the lovers [Anne and Captain Wentworth] apart, but the contrivance by which understanding is brought about is so clumsy and artificial that perhaps it ought not to surprise us to hear that it has been warmly admired.”

“For my own pleasure, I could wish that Anne was less subject to agitation. I feel the same mixture of pity and irritation before the quivers and tremors that I should feel for a woman whose veils and draperies were blown hither and thither in the turbulence of a high wind. The embarrassment may be real, but the costume seems to invite it.”

On the novels as a group

maggs.com

“If a novelist wants to portray many persons, he must choose between logic and nature, in other words between artifice and incoherence. Dickens, in his populously intricate fiction, to his gain and to his loss, chose artifice. But for Jane Austen the grand scale of Dickens was impracticable. Her world was a Belgium—populous but minute.”

This is just a small sample of what Firkins has to offer. If you open the book at random, there’s a good chance that you’ll come upon something as clever as what I’ve quoted here.*****

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As I was reading through these passages, it flashed through my mind that Firkins, with his biting wit, might have been a worthy partner to Austen in life. I immediately swatted that thought away, though. In the first place, there’s no need to think that a single novelist must be in want of a husband. Also, pairing Austen with someone by virtue of his put-downs of her is veering into Mr. Knightley territory. And there are other obstacles that we’ll get to by and by.

Oscar Firkins ca. 1920 (Minnesota Historical Society)

Who, I wanted to know, was Firkins? I knew nothing about him when I read Jane Austen other than that he was a college professor. When I started researching this post, he proved elusive at first. No Wikipedia entry. No grave at Find a Grave. No photo. (I eventually found the ones included here on the website of the Minnesota Historical Society.)

It turned out that I wasn’t the only one who had trouble pinning Firkins down. In an introduction to his essay on O. Henry in the 1921 collection Modern Essays, literary man-about-town Christopher Morley, the volume’s editor, wrote that he had been surprised not to find an entry for Firkins in Who’s Who. “It seemed hardly credible,” he wrote, “that a critic so brilliant had been overlooked by the industrious compilers of that work, which includes hundreds of hacks and fourflushers.” Morley wrote to Firkins asking for biographical details, but “modestly, but firmly, he denied me.”

Finally, in an entry on Firkins in the SNAC Archive,****** I learned that he was a professor at the University of Minnesota and a well-known critic, and that he also wrote plays and poetry. He was born in 1864 and died in 1932.

A 1934 New York Times review of Firkins’ posthumously published memoirs and letters revealed that he suffered from severe vision problems all his life. The reviewer calls the book “the quiet record of a quiet and scholarly life,” which isn’t exactly jacket blurb material, but he ends up praising it and calling Firkins “a good citizen of the American intellectual world.”

And then I found it, the Rosetta Stone of Oscar Firkins studies: a 1938 University of Arizona master’s thesis by Lena Smith Doyle titled “Can the Plays of Oscar W. Firkins Succeed on the Stage?” Her answer, in brief, is “sort of,”******* but, more to the point for my purposes, the thesis includes a ten-page chapter on Firkins’ life.

Firkins, Doyle tells us, was described by those who knew him as a man whose “gentleness of nature but inflexibility of intellect and morals” was most “eccentric and original.” He was “capable of being both depressed and exalted.” While “a recluse when he chose,” he “could be most charmingly entertaining when he accepted social responsibility.”

Oscar Firkins ca. 1868 (Minnesota Historical Society)

Doyle tells us of Firkins’ early life that “one cannot help feeling that the twig had been severely inclined if not bent in childhood,” but, infuriatingly, she tells us nothing more of the twig-bending. (His memoirs may shed light on this, but they’re still under copyright.) With his “strange, gifted, and almost mysterious personality,” she writes, Firkins “was not of the earthly earth but lived within the cloistered circles of a constructive educational atmosphere and imposed upon himself rigid rules of living which had limiting tendencies toward the idealistic and spiritual personality.”

Soon after his graduation from the University of Minnesota, Firkins began teaching there. He was to remain at the university for the rest of his life except for the years 1919 to 1921, when, after being “called to New York,” he served as the drama critic for the Weekly Review. The prominent British critic William Archer called Firkins “the ablest of the living American critics of the drama.” The Weekly Review was absorbed into The Independent in 1921, which may have put Firkins out of a job.

The Weekly Review, July 21, 1921

In Minnesota, Firkins lived with his mother and sisters, who supported his career, reading to him to save his eyes and taking care of the practical details of life. He went to New York for Christmas every year, taking in plays and lecturing on them when he returned. A student said of his teaching that “those present could not but feel that they were listening to scholarship interpreted by wit and epigrammatic analysis of a Damascus-blade sharpness and brilliance.” Along with the study of Austen, Firkins also published books on Emerson and William Dean Howells, as well as essays, poems, and plays.

This sounds like a career to be proud of, but Firkins considered himself a failure. In a letter to a friend, he described himself as experiencing “a moral as well as a material November, a season of blankness, grayness, depressions, finalities.” He went on to say that “the sum of evils is, as commonly happens with me, far less imposing in recital than painful in experience, consisting in brief of a marked aggravation of my chronic nervous disorder, a series of vexations and disappointments in my literary and quasi-literary work, and a moral shock, the slight ground of which has been redoubled and multiplied by a sensitiveness which refuses to yield to my clear sense of its irrationality.”

Ina Firkins, date unknown (University of Minnesota Library)

Firkins’ sister Ina, who worked as a librarian at the University of Minnesota and edited his posthumous memoir, described him as suffering from “social maladjustment” and “chronic nervous exhaustion.” His emotional life, she said, was “repressed and starved.”

Firkins died of pneumonia at the age of 67, shortly before his planned retirement. After his death, a friend commented that “the deepening of character that come through marriage and the knowledge of womanhood and parenthood were not his,” yet his treatment of “the sex relations” was “rich profound, and many-sided.”

New York Times, March 8, 1932

“Dare one suggest,” Doyle asks in her thesis, “that had Firkins possessed and experienced the love of an immediate family he could have reached even greater heights?”

No, Lena, one daren’t! These descriptions show us a man who was nervous and depressed, reclusive and secretive, and subject to morbid introspection and vaguely defined “moral shock.” At the same time, he was witty, companionable, and fond of travel. A modern reader—or at least this modern reader, but I doubt I’m alone here—looks at this and sees a closeted gay man. (Or maybe an uncloseted gay man whose sexual orientation his friends and family members were tiptoeing around. That could be what Doyle’s bent twig reference was about.)

University District, Minneapolis. ca. 1920s (Minnesota Historical Society)

Firkins, as I imagine him, had a blast during his holiday sojourns and the two years he lived in New York, finding kindred spirits and, perhaps, romance. I picture him returning reluctantly to the bosom of his family and to the university. (I think of T.S. Eliot in England, so desperate to avoid returning to his preordained life as a Harvard philosophy professor that he married a woman he hardly knew in order to be able to stay there.)

It may be, as the author of the biographical sketch in his memoir pointed out, that Firkins “loved the sparkle of a fine phrase more than he could love the somber fact behind it.” He was more of a reader than a scholar. But, like any good Jane Austen fan, I can’t resist a sparking phrase. I’m grateful that Firkins left his lively prose behind, and eager to read more of it.********

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*The novelist Brandon Taylor, who is in my opinion the most entertaining and insightful literary critic writing right now, shared his thoughts on Mansfield Park recently in his Substack newsletter, Sweater Weather.

**In case Darcy’s take-down isn’t fresh in your mind, here it is: “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humor at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men.”

***I.e. a jumble.

****I.e. mourning.

*****That’s exactly what I had to do with Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, since apparently I didn’t have my Post-It Notes on hand when I was reading these chapters in 2020.

******The Social Networks and Archival Context (SNAC) Archive is an online biographic database compiled by a consortium of archives. It’s such an amazing resource that I was embarrassed that I had never come across it until I learned, in a 2017 article on the University of Virginia website ominously titled “Digital Social Network Linking the Living and the Dead Expands,” that it’s fairly new.

*******Judging from their titles, like The Bride of Quietness and The Revealing Moment, I don’t picture Firkins’ plays packing them in on Broadway.

********His poetry, not so much. Here are the opening lines of a typical example, which was published in an anthology of war poems after appearing in The Nation.

A Treasury of War Poetry, Second Series (1919)
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New on the Book List:

The Way of an Eagle, by Ethel Dell (1911)

Langston Hughes, Teenaged Poet

Last year, I celebrated Black History Month by writing about The Brownies’ Book, the groundbreaking magazine for African American children that was edited by W.E.B. Du Bois. Sadly, the magazine failed to reach its subscription goals and, after a two-year run, ceased publication in December 1921. While it lasted, The Brownies’ Book not only provided young African Americans with a chance to read about young people like themselves but also gave them a chance to see themselves in print by sending in letters to the editor, photos, poems, or stories. Aspiring writer Langston Hughes did all of these things.

Langston Hughes, The Brownies’ Book, June 1920

Hughes, who graduated from Cleveland’s Central High School in 1920,* made his first appearance in the pages of The Brownies’ Book in July of that year. Along with his graduation photo, he submitted a letter saying, “It might interest you to know that I have been elected Class Poet and have also written the Class Song for the graduates. I am, too, the editor of The Annual and am the first Negro to hold the position since 1901, when it was held by the son of Charles W. Chestnut. I thank you for the honor of having my picture in your publication.”**

After his graduation, Hughes went to Toluca, Mexico, to live with his father, who had separated from his mother shortly after he was born. Hughes was hoping to convince him to pay for his education at Columbia University. There was tension between the two, in part because Hughes’ father disliked what he thought of as his son’s sissified demeanor.*** Hughes’ father eventually agreed to pay his tuition, but only if he studied engineering instead of literature, which Hughes agreed to do.

In September 1920, Hughes submitted three poems to The Brownies’ Book. Jessie Redmon Faust, the magazine’s literary editor, wrote to Hughes accepting one of the poems, “The Fairies,” which she considered “very charming.” She asked if he had any stories about Mexico, or if he knew of any Mexican games. Hughes sent her an article about Mexican games, along with some more poems. “Fairies” and another poem, “Winter Sweetness,” appeared in the January 1921 issue of The Brownies’ Book, along with the article.

You can judge the poems for yourself, but, as something of a connoisseur, I have to say that “The Fairies” is not top-tier ca. 1920 fairy poetry. It is, however, the kind of writing that gets you published in The Brownies’ Book, which is what Hughes was aiming for.

On to the games! In one of them, called Lady White, a girl is chosen as Lady White and another as her suitor, Don Philip. The other players circle her in Ring Around the Rosie formation and sing a song about how Lady White’s suitor must break a window to behold Lady White. Some more singing goes on, and then Don Philip tries to break through the circle to get inside. Curious about this Freudian game, I Googled “Doña Blanca” and found this video from a children’s program, which I beg you to drop everything this instant to watch. In this version, the children don’t try to ram through each other’s enlaced hands, so it’s safer but makes for kind of a lame game.****

Toluca, ca. 1920, Hugo Brehme (mexicoenfotos.com)

More publications soon followed. The March 1921 issue included another poem, and an article about the Mexican city of Toluca appeared in April. In the article, Hughes recounts interesting details of daily life, such as, “On the second of November, which is a day in honor of the dead, they sell many little cardboard coffins and paper dolls dressed as mourners, and if a person meets you in the street and says ‘I’m dying,’ you must give him a gift unless you have said ‘I’m dying’ first; then, of course, he has to treat you to the present.”***** Also, Hughes notes that people’s houses have hardly any furniture except chairs, 27 in the case of one of his friends. “Perhaps it is a good idea, for on holidays there is plenty of room to dance without moving anything out,” he philosophizes.

In July 1921, there was a play by Hughes about a young couple who earn a gold piece selling pigs at the market, fantasize about what they can buy with it, and end up giving it to a poor old woman with a blind son. This is as close to hack work as Hughes gets.

The November 1921 issue featured a poem by Hughes, “Thanksgiving Time,” as well as a story, “Those Who Have No Turkey,” about a country girl who, visiting her snooty city cousins on Thanksgiving, is shocked to hear from a newsboy that his family has no turkey to eat and invites him and his family to dinner at her relatives’ house. It’s an engagingly told story, although Hughes spends too much time on buildup and rushes through the dinner in two paragraphs.

Hughes’ account of accompanying a high school class on a hike up Xinantecatl, an inactive volcano near Toluca, appeared in the December 1921 issue, the magazine’s last. Again, there are lots of interesting details, like the list of items he was told to bring along: “first, plenty of lunch; then, two warm blankets because we were to sleep in the open mountains; my camera for pictures; a bottle for water; a small amount of cognac or some other liquor in case of mountain sickness in the high altitude; and a pistol. ‘But above all,’ they said, ‘take onions!” The reason, it turned out, was that smelling them helps with altitude sickness. Indeed, Hughes reports, the onions turned out to be a lifesaver in the thin mountain air.

Langston Hughes, The Brownies’ Book, December 1921

Hughes’ work in The Brownies’ Book shows us an aspiring writer who knows his audience and has a flair for words, but there’s no evidence of budding genius. There’s more to the story, though. Early in 1921, he sent Faust a poem that he had written in July 1920, after crossing the Mississippi on his way to Mexico. She told him that she would publish it–not in The Brownies’ Book but in The Crisis, the NAACP’s magazine for adults.

The poem was “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” It appeared in the June 1921 issue of The Crisis and became Hughes’ signature poem.******

The career of one of America’s greatest poets had begun.*******

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*Hughes believed throughout his life that he was born on February 1, 1902, but, as this fascinating 2018 New York Times article recounts, a writer and poet researching his own family history came across several 1901 references to the infant Langston Hughes in the Topeka Plaindealer, an African American newspaper. February 1, 1901, is now widely accepted as his date of birth. So “Teenaged Poet” is a bit of a stretch–but he thought he was a teenager in 1921.

Charles W. Chesnutt, ca. 1898 (Cleveland Public Library)

**Charles Waddell Chesnutt was a well-known writer and political activist. His daughter Helen Chesnutt was Hughes’ Latin teacher and a figure of inspiration to him. Chesnutt’s Wikipedia entry says that he had four daughters but does not mention a son.

***Information about Hughes’ personal relationships is scant, but many scholars now believe that he was gay.

****We used to play a version of the ramming through the hands game when I was a kid, which, like many aspects of 1960s-1970s childhood, is horrifying in retrospect.

*****I lived in Mexico City in the 1980s, but sadly never observed this particular Day of the Dead tradition in practice. I suppose it would have been impracticable in a city with a population of 20 million.

******Unfortunately in retrospect, The Crisis often used swastikas in the magazine’s graphic design. The symbol had no political significance at the time, of course.

*******Blogger/composer Frank Hudson of The Parlando Project has been focusing on Hughes’ early work this month. His post about “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is here.

The Top 10 Posts of 1921

Happy 2022, everyone! I wish I had some memorable words of wisdom to share as we head into another uncertain year. But I don’t, so let’s look at some magazine covers, okay?

J.C. Leyendecker

As always, the year starts out with a J.C. Leyendecker New Year’s baby at the Saturday Evening Post. I had a bit of trouble with the semiotics of this one. I knew that the dove with an olive branch in its mouth represented peace, of course, and I knew that salting a bird’s tail symbolized something, but I forgot what. All I could think of was that the baby wanted to eat the dove of peace, but that didn’t make much sense.

Fortuitously, Googling “salting bird’s tail” took me to a Wikipedia article that features this very illustration and explains that sprinkling salt on a bird’s tail is supposed to render the bird temporarily unable to fly, ergo the baby is trying to prevent the dove of peace from flying away.

This was Leyendecker’s 17th New Year’s baby, the middle of his 36-year run, and a lot of other magazines had gotten onto the baby (or sometimes young child) bandwagon. There was a mechanic baby at Collier’s,

a cowboy tyke at Sunset,

Dan Sayre Groesbeck

a toddler cutting off his or her golden locks at Woman’s Home Companion,

and, boringly, a just plain baby at Good Housekeeping.

Jessie Willcox Smith

Even high-art Vogue is getting into the spirit.

Georges Lepape

St. Nicholas rings in 1922 with a carload of revelers, which is irrelevant to the whole baby theme but I had to shoehorn it in so I could crop this cover for the featured image up top.

Now let’s turn back to 1921/2021 one last time to look at the top ten posts of the year.*

Or, more accurately, the ten posts. This year, everyone gets a participation trophy. As was the case last year, longevity was rewarded, with the posts’ number of views roughly in order of when they were published.

#10. Summer 1921 Magazine Covers, Viewed Longingly from Wintery Cape Town.

This underachieving post from August bucked the “last published, lowest ranked” trend. It has lots of amazing artwork, though.

#9. Children’s Books: Your 1921 Holiday Shopping Guide.

In which I read children’s books from 1921 so you don’t have to. Not that I imagine you were under much pressure. I did find some good ones, though, and one gem: Unsung Heroes by Elizabeth Ross Haynes, a series of biographic sketches of notable people of African descent.

#8. Giving Thanks for the Friends I’ve Met Along the Way.

For my Thanksgiving post during the first year of this project, I wrote about ten people from 1918 I’m thankful for. In 2019, I wrote about ten illustrators. In 2020, three women illustrators. Having painted myself into a corner with these increasingly narrow categories, I struck out into a new direction last year and gave thanks for real-life (well, virtual real-life) people I’ve met as a result of this project.

#7. 10 books, articles, and PhDs about the world of 100 years ago that are just sitting there.

In my four years of trawling through the world of 100 years ago, I’ve unearthed a lot of potential projects that (as far as I knew) no one had tackled. I asked people to let me know if they were working on any of them, and was excited to hear from someone who has an extensive collection of Erté Harper’s Bazar covers (Project #1).

#6. Magazine Ads of 1921: Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down, and Meh.

I test-drove the ads in the June 1921 issue of the Ladies’ Home Journal and found, along with some beautiful artistry, a passive-aggressive dish-breaking husband, a canned-meat picnic, and some vile Italian food.

#5. The Top 10 Posts of 1920.

J.C. Leyendecker 1921 New Year's cover, baby coal miner.

Last year’s champ: Magazine Ads Take Baby Steps Into the 1920s.

#4. I Read a Random 1920 Book.

Floor of Wanamaker's department store, 1920.

This post, in which I read Elements of Retail Salesmanship by Professor Paul Wesley Ivey, picked at random from the 1920 edition of Book Review Digest, was one of my favorites of the year. I even ended up making a (kind of lame) pilgrimage to Professor Ivey’s place of employment, the University of Nebraska. This was so much fun that I decided to make it an annual tradition. I’ve picked my random book for 1921 but haven’t read it yet.

#3. The Brownies’ Book: A pioneering magazine for African-American children.

Brownies' Book cover, July 1920
Albert A. Smith

I don’t think I love anything from a hundred years ago as much as I love The Brownies’ Book, the NAACP’s magazine for African-American children. You know how people want to go back in time so they can buy Apple stock? I want to go back in time and give W.E.B. Du Bois a bunch of money so that The Brownies’ Book can last more than two years (1920-1921).

#2. The Brief, Brilliant Career of Rita Senger.

Rita Senger Vanity Fair covers

Nothing in this project has meant more to me than this post, in which I set out to find out what happened to the promising young illustrator Rita Senger and ended up interviewing her granddaughter. I’m thrilled that it reached so many readers.

#1. The Best and Worst Magazine Ads of January 1921.

Indian Head cloth ad, woman with child, Ladies' Home Journal, January 1921.
Ladies’ Home Journal

For the second year running, a post about magazine ads tops the list. Note to self: do more posts about magazine ads.

How Girls Can Help Their Country

It tops the list of this year’s posts, anyway. As was the case last year, the top-ranking of all my posts this year was 1919’s My Quest to Earn a 1919 Girl Scout Badge. While this post had more than twice as many views last year as the top 2020 post, it edged out the top 1921 post by only four views. The third most-viewed post this year was The Uncrowned King of Bohemia: The fascinating story of a not-so-great poet, a 2018 post about the poet George Sterling. At the other viewership extreme were a few posts that only got one view, including Exploring Provo—And Mormon History, which tied the record for daily views on the day it was published. Come to think of it, Provo may have been the last new place I explored before the world came to a halt.

My book list for this year is extremely feeble, only two books. For this I blame my 1920s best-seller discussion group. We’ve read a book a month over the past year, and I’ve kept up,** but most of them are from after 1921 so they don’t count. (Actually one of them was from the 1910s, but I haven’t written it up yet. (UPDATE 1/13/2022: Done!))

In 2018, I read almost nothing written after 1918. In 2019, I returned to the world of the present but went back to visit a lot. In 2020, I changed my the name of my blog from My Year in 1918 to My Life 100 Years Ago. In 2021, I posted about my first interview (which actually took place in 2020) and my first random book (although I read it 2020—there was a lot of catching up going on in 2021). So what will be new and different in 2022?

This year is the centennial of The Waste Land and Ulysses, so they’ll probably feature in some way. I’d like to look into what’s going with in the Harlem Renaissance. And I recently completed an ambitious project I look forward to telling you about soon.*** Other than that, who knows? If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past four years, it’s that there are surprises around every corner in the world of 100 years ago. I look forward to continuing the adventure.

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*If you go back and look at any of these posts, the wacko sizing of the photos and images isn’t my fault. Some weird WordPress glitch resized everything a while back.

**Well, until this month. This month’s selection, J.B. Priestly’s 1929 tome The Good Companions, seems likely to be my Waterloo. (UPDATE 1/13/2022: I finished it just in time!)

***I hope this is vague enough to avert the Promised Post Curse.

Children’s Books: Your 1921 Holiday Shopping Guide

Immersing myself in the children’s books of a hundred years ago has become one of my favorite holiday traditions, and it’s one that I especially appreciate during a season when many of our more extroverted traditions have to be set aside.

For my third annual children’s books holiday shopping guide (the previous ones are here and here), I turned first, as always, to pioneering children’s librarian and The Bookman columnist Annie Carroll Moore.

Who totally let me down. Her November 1921 holiday roundup starts out as a foray into incomprehensible whimsicality that seems to have something to do with an imaginary trip to France and England. Example: “Put a paper cover on John Farrar’s ‘Songs for Parents’ and paste up the title-page until you get to ‘Fairy London,’ then ask Rose Fyleman to give new titles to some of its enchanting verses and to the book itself while she autographs your last year’s copy of her ‘Fairies and Chimneys.’”

“What?” I asked in utter bafflement, and I’m someone who has actually read (some of) Fairies and Chimneys, which I recommended in last year’s holiday shopping guide.*

Moore, it transpires, actually made a trip to Europe. “I came back too late to do full justice to our own output of children’s books,” she tells us blithely, before rushing through the entire American national output, much of which she has not had time to read, on the last page. YOU HAD ONE JOB, ANNIE!**

November 5, 1921

Luckily, I had other help. Publishers Weekly’s November 5 Christmas Bookshelf issue included  an encyclopedic children’s book roundup, penned by an uncredited writer whose task of reading through dozens of children’s books had left him (or her, but it sounds like a him) entertainingly grumpy.*** The Survey magazine, which was published by the Charity Organization Society of the City of New York but is way more interesting than that makes it sound, ran an article called “The Season’s Books for Children” that includes some charity-ish selections like “a group of health rhymes and jingles written by the children of Public School Fifteen in New York,” but others that looked promising. One, which wasn’t reviewed anywhere else, turned out to be my Children’s Book of the Year. I recommend that you check it out if you’re otherwise just scrolling through and looking at the artwork (which is fine! You’re a busy person!).

Also, the Newbery Medal for excellence in children’s literature was first awarded in 1922 for books published in 1921. There were some runners-up as well (later designated as Newbery Honor Books), so that provided several good candidates.****

Without further ado, here are the books of the season.

Fables, Folk Tales, and Songs

An Argosy of Fables

Paul Bransom, from An Arbosy of Fables

Moore says that “Paul Bransom’s fine illustrations for ‘The Argosy of Fables,’***** selected by Frederic Taber Cooper, bespeak special consideration for this book, which is to be issued in two editions, both too expensive for most libraries I fear.” I fear too! When I saw the price–$7.50—in the Publishers Weekly roundup, I thought that it must be a typo. That’s $116.46 in today’s money.

The illustrations are fine indeed, but there are only 23 of them in the 500-page book, way too low a ratio of pictures to text to be worth plowing through prose like “The mouse besought him to spare one who had so unconsciously offended.”

Cantilene Popolari and Grilli Canterini

Cantilene Populari
Grilli Canterini

Moore devotes a huge amount of real estate in her column to Cantilene Popolari and Grilli Canterini, two books of children’s songs published in Italy. She says of Grilli Canterini that “the pictures are so full of the detail children love as to tell their own story to children of any race.”

These books may not be quite the thing, though, for children who (unlike me) have not been studying Italian. Also, the dedication in Cantilene Populari to the “future defenders of the rights and honor of our nation,” which Moore finds “refreshing,” is chilling in retrospect.

American Indian Fairy Tales

Publishers Weekly calls American Indian Fairy Tales “enchanting,” and John Rae’s illustrations are lovely, but I’m leery of a book that depends on the research of an “ethnologist and government agent” from 1837, as this one does.

John Rae, from American Indian Fairy Tales
John Rae, from American Indian Fairy Tales

For Young Readers

Orphant Annie Story Book

Johnny Gruelle, from Orphant Annie Story Book

Orphant Annie Story Book, written and illustrated by Johnny Gruell of Raggedy Ann and Andy fame, purports to be a collection of stories told by Little Orphant Annie, the household servant of the James Whitcomb Riley poem (and inspiration for the later cartoon character). Books featuring color pictures on every page hadn’t been introduced yet in 1921, but this one comes as close as any I’ve seen, so, even though the goblin illustrations freak me out, this is going on my list.

Bubble Books

Rhoda Chase

Bubble Books are slender books that come with records. There are fourteen so far, Publishers Weekly tells us, with two new ones out for the 1921 holiday season. Cooooooool! “The happy owner of the ‘Chimney Corner Bubble Book’ may snuggle up on a rug, close to the warm fire, and listen to the howling of the winter wind as the phonograph plays ‘The North Wind Doth Blow,’” PW says. Throw in some cocoa and some snow and you have my ideal life. The Child’s Garden of Verses Bubble Book sounds cool, too, as does the cut-out Bubble Book that you can find on this website devoted to all things Bubble Book.

For Middle-Grade Readers

Midsummer

Edward C. Caswell, from Midsummer

Katharine Adams’ Midsummer, which Moore called “a girl’s book of great charm,” seemed promising. It’s about two American children who visit Sweden, where I’ve spent a lot of time but, thanks to COVID and work, not lately. And it was a timely read, seeing that it was the summer solstice here in South Africa. But Midsummer started slowly, and also there was this,

so I was about to give up. But when a new day dawned (at 5:32, but luckily I slept later than that), I decided to give it another try. I figured that the sun might have been making me, like Audrey, our heroine, a little cranky. I skipped ahead to the chapter about the midsummer festival, and there were pancakes with strawberry jam, and slabs of sticky gingerbread, and a merry-go-round, and folk dancing, and a bonfire, and “Astrid wore her new pink and white dress and there were wide pink ribbons on her stiff little braids.” Also Swedish kids who think it would be much more exciting to visit Coney Island. I’m glad I gave it another try.

Modern Physiology, Hygiene, and Health

Survey magazine isn’t suggesting Mary S. Haviland’s Modern Physiology, Hygiene, and Health as a gift for a child; it’s more of a resource for teachers. I found it strangely compelling, though. First I checked out whether I was following the eleven steps to be a Modern Health Crusader.

  1. I washed my hands before every meal to-day. Check!
  2. I washed not only my face but my ears and neck and I cleaned my finger-nails today. Check! (Well, my finger-nails were already clean.)
  3. I kept fingers, pencils, and everything likely to be unclean or injurious out of my mouth and nose. Check!

I was on a roll!

From Modern Physiology, Hygiene, and Health

I failed a few of the later steps, though, like being in bed for at least ten hours with the windows open, drinking no tea, coffee, or other injurious drinks, and trying to sit up straight. (I am slouching on the sofa with my laptop as I write this.) And I wasn’t sure what to make of “I went to the toilet at my regular time.”

Margaret F. Brown, from Modern Physiology, Hygiene, and Health

Most of the rest of the book consists of Ruth and Paul talking to Uncle George in great detail about what should be in your house. There’s a lot of sensible talk about the need for fresh air, and some fun activities like picking out furniture for your living room from pictures in a magazine.

Still, as much as I, personally, might find Modern Physiology, Hygiene, and Health a delightful gift, it’s the book equivalent of giving a kid socks for Christmas. Even though it’s a bargain at eighty-three cents, I’m going to have to give it a pass.

Games—School, Church, Home

Survey magazine says that George O. Draper’s Games—School, Church, Home is “a convenient volume for the play director,” but, unlike Modern Physiology, I think it would be an excellent gift for children as well. They can play some of the games on their own, like Fox Den, which involves chasing each other around this diagram marked on the ground or in the snow,

From Games–School, Church, Home

and they can devoutly wish that they went to the kind of school where complete chaos reigns and games like Seat Vaulting Tag are played.

For Older Children

The Story of Mankind

Last year, I was startled by Hendrik van Loon’s contemporary-looking illustrations in his 1920 book Ancient Man, and I found the narrative interesting, if dated.

Ancient Man by Hendrik Willem Van Loon, 1920, pyramids on yellow background.
Hendrik van Loon, from Ancient Man

So I had high expectations for Van Loon’s The Story of Mankind, which was awarded the first-ever Newbery Medal in 1922.****** The illustrations were less bold and less numerous than those in Ancient Man, though, and, despite Van Loon’s claim that “this is a story of mankind and not an exclusive history of the people of Europe and our western hemisphere,” the vast majority of the book’s 465 pages are devoted to Europe and the United States.

Hendrik van Loon, from The Story of Mankind
Hendrik van Loon, from The Story of Mankind
Hendrik van Loon, from The Story of Mankind

Still, I kept coming across interesting facts as I flipped through the book, like that “Jesus” is a Greek rendition of the name that we know in English as Joshua, which is one of those things that everyone else probably knows but I didn’t. And, while I’m sure careful perusal would reveal some howlers, Van Loon’s treatment of non-Europeans is respectful by the standards of the day. Plus, no one can accuse Van Loon of dumbing down history for children. Here’s a sample:

If I ever decide to learn, for example, who exactly the Phoenicians were, I may turn to Van Loon. So might your favorite teenager, if he/she is of an intellectual bent.

The Old Tobacco Shop

Reginald Birch, from The Old Tobacco Shop

Moore assures us that William Bowen’s The Old Tobacco Shop “will give pure joy to boys and their fathers,” and it was a runner-up for the Newbery Medal. All of this did little to inspire my confidence in what I feared would be a heartwarming story about a boy’s coming of age as a smoker. The book’s opening—a father sends his little son, Freddie, out to buy tobacco for his pipe—didn’t help.

The Old Tobacco Shop turned out, far more weirdly, to be a trippy tale of why preschoolers shouldn’t smoke opium. Freddie disobeys the tobacconist’s warning never to smoke the “magic tobacco” stored in a pipe shaped like a Chinaman’s head, and tediously surreal adventures ensue. For anyone who’s on the fence as to whether to leave their head shop in the hands of a small boy, this is an instructive read. Everyone else can take a pass.

The Windy Hill

Another Newbery runner-up, Cornelia Meigs’ The Windy Hill is the story of a brother and sister who go to the country to stay with their uncle. He’s acting mysteriously, and they try to get to the bottom of it.

Edward C. Caswell, from The Windy Hill

And presumably succeed, but you couldn’t prove it by me. I wasted an hour two years ago on Meigs’ The Pool of Stars, about a girl who goes to the country and tries to figure out why her neighbor is acting mysteriously, and I’m not going to make that mistake again.

The Scottish Chiefs

The period of 1890 to the 1920s is referred to as the golden age of illustration. No one has ever accused it of being the golden age of children’s literature, though,******* so there were a lot of reissues of classic books with new illustrations. One of them Moore mentions is Jane Porter’s 1810 book The Scottish Chiefs, illustrated by N.C. Wyeth. I checked it out and it turned out to be a rip-roaring tale of Scottish nationalism, although not rip-roaring enough for me to commit to reading all 503 pages. (The Scottish Chiefs, like many books that make their way into the childhood cannon, was intended originally for adult readers.) There were a lot of “thees” and “thys” for a story that starts out in Scotland in 1296, and sentences like, “I come in the name of all ye hold dear to tell you the poniard of England is unsheathed!” But there are also strong women characters, and an Elizabeth and Darcy-like marriage between our hero, William Wallace, and his wife Marion: “Affection had grown with their growth; and sympathy of taste and virtues, and mutual tenderness, had made them entirely one.” And the Wyeth illustrations are wonderful and numerous.

N.C. Wyeth, from The Scottish Chiefs
N.C. Wyeth, from The Scottish Chiefs
N.C. Wyeth, from The Scottish Chiefs

More Newbery Runners-Up

Bernard Marshall, from Cedric the Forrester

If you don’t want your kid to grow up with a one-sided view of 13th-century English-Scottish tensions, you can add Newbery runner-up Cedric the Forester, Bernard Marshall’s tale of an English nobleman and his squire in the days of Richard the Lionheart, to your gift list. Moore says that Cedric the Forester “is written in somewhat stilted style, but the idea of freedom is admirably brought out.” Apparently forgetting that she had just reviewed The Scottish Chiefs, she adds that “the historical period represented is one for which little story writing has been done.” Perusal of the first few pages includes the inevitable faux-Shakespearean dialogue and someone saying “gadzooks.” But there are also several aperçus by our narrator, Dickon (Cedric is the squire), like “My father laughed as one laughs at the sorriest jest when he is gay,” that left me inclined to follow him on his adventures.

Willy Pogany, from The Golden Fleece and the Story of the Heroes who Lived Before Achilles

Padraic Colum’s The Golden Fleece and the Story of the Heroes who Lived Before Achilles sounded promising, seeing as it was illustrated by acclaimed artist Willy Pogany, but the illustrations are in black and white and the stories are flatly told, so I passed.

George Varian, from The Great Quest

Charles Boardman Hawes’ The Great Quest is about a Massachusetts lad’s adventures fighting against slave traders in Africa. I figured that, despite the anti-slavery message, any 1921 book on this subject was going to be super-problematic. It was.

A Princeton Boy Under the King

“If Princeton is hovering in the background of your boy’s day dreams,” Publishers Weekly tells us, “he will want to read a story of student life at the College of New Jersey in the middle of the eighteenth century.”******* The history of my graduate alma mater is an interest of mine, so A Princeton Boy Under the King sounded like just the thing. I gathered from my own reading that the university’s early years consisted mostly of drunkenness and food fights in Nassau Hall, and I wondered whether A Princeton Boy Under the King would present a sanitized version. But no, that’s pretty much what goes down. It’s like an 18th-century This Side of Paradise.

The Children’s Book of the Year

Last year, I couldn’t find any books about people of color at all, so I recommended the magazine The Brownies’ Book, from the publisher of The Crisis magazine, which was described as being “designed for all children, but especially ours.” (I wrote about The Brownies’ Book in more detail during Black History Month this year.) Sadly, the magazine failed to meet its circulation goals and the December 1921 issue was the last of its two-year run.

Elizabeth Ross Haynes (photographer unknown)

As I learned in the Survey article, there’s a silver lining. “What is there in the autumn output to open up to the boy or girl any of the avenues of civic life; any of the nationalities with which we have been brought into greater contact since the war; of the Negroes, neighbors of the children of the South…?” the magazine asks. (Since almost no one else was asking this kind of question, I’ll skip over the “neighbors” issue.) The magazine points us in the direction of Unsung Heroes, by Elizabeth Ross Haynes, an African-American social worker, which was also published by The Crisis’ publishing company.

C. Thorpe, from Unsung Heroes

Each of the book’s seventeen chapters is a portrait of a notable person of African ancestry from the United States or elsewhere, including Frederick Douglas, Booker T. Washington, Harriet Tubman, Haitian general Toussaint Louverture, Alexandre Dumas, and Alexander Pushkin. (I knew that Dumas was of partly African descent, but I didn’t know about Pushkin.)

C. Thorpe, from Unsung Heroes

The profiles in Unsung Heroes start out, like the children’s biographies of my youth, with fictional scenes from the subjects’ childhoods and go on to recount their later achievements. Some of the language wouldn’t make it into a book published today (“Many years ago a keen-faced little boy with protruding lips, Toussaint by name, was busy, day by day, tending a great herd of cattle on the Island of Hayti in the West Indies”), but I don’t care. The stories are compelling, and the fact that this book was written and published at all in 1921 is a small miracle.

Judging from Goodreads (0 ratings, 0 reviews) and Google Scholar (one hit, for a 1990 article on the history of African-American children’s literature that I had already read for my post on the children’s novel Hazel), Unsung Heroes is little remembered today. Haynes is my new unsung hero, and Unsung Heroes is my choice for Best Children’s Book of 1921.

Some Final Thoughts

Moore complains in The Bookman that “in robbing fairy tales of all their terrors and poetry of all its sadness, we have let loose a new sort of made-to-order story, which needs the cleansing wind, wide spaces, and hearty laughter created by Mary Mapes Dodge in her time.” My perusal of the Publishers Weekly roundup left me with some sympathy for Moore’s argument that children’s books were becoming generic. On the other hand, after all the morbid stories I came across last year, I was relieved to see 1921’s children better protected from the horrors of the world. There are worse things for a child than blandness.

Happy holidays, and happy holiday reading, to all of you!

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*Further research revealed that 1) John Farrar, who later founded Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, was the editor of The Bookman in 1921, and 2) Songs for Parents is a truly awful book of poetry.

**I also checked out Moore’s other 1921 Bookman column, from May. It starts out with the magazine’s new editor (Farrar) saying, “Won’t you give us something new and different in place of the old omnibus review? Make it purely fanciful if you like.” Dangerous words when spoken to someone who had a puppet as an inseparable companion. My desperate cries of, “No! Do the old omnibus review!” failed to turn back time, and this column turned up nothing useful.

***1920s Publishers Weekly is one of those magazines where the ads are as good as the editorial content, and this issue had a treasure trove. This one left me scratching my head, though.

****Sadly for me, there were no more runners-up until 1925. One of the 1925 runners-up, in an act of blatant favoritism by the American Library Association, was Moore’s horrible book about her puppet.

Nicholas: A Manhattan Christmas Story, by Anne Carroll Moore
Cover of Nicholas: A Manhattan Christmas Story, by Anne Carroll Moore

*****It’s actually An Argosy of Fables, not The. 1920s book reviewers make an amazing number of mistakes with the titles of books.

******I first came across The Story of Mankind at the top of the list of Newbery Medal winners that was posted in my school library, and it totally creeped me out. The 1920s seemed like the stone age back then. Now they’re twice as far away and they seem like yesterday!

*******UPDATE 12/28/2021: Well, this syllabus for a class on the Golden Age of Children’s Literature dates it from 1865 to 1926, but the latest book on the reading list is Pollyanna, from 1913.

********Publishers Weekly’s holiday roundup includes a “Books for Boys” section and a “Books for Girls” section, along with a section for both boys and girls and others for younger readers. I was fuming about the sexism of this until I came across three books in a row on railroads in “Books for Boys.” “Fine, I admit it, I’m a girl!” I said. “Just give me a story about two friends who make a cake on a snowy day and leave out the baking powder, with disastrous consequences.”         

Giving Thanks for the Friends I’ve Met Along the Way

On Thanksgiving every year, I’ve taken the opportunity to give thanks for some aspect of my adventures in the world of a hundred years ago. In 2018, I expressed gratitude for ten of the extraordinary people I’d come across during my year of reading as if I were living in 1918, like scholar/editor/activist W.E.B. Du Bois, food safety pioneer Harvey Wiley, and bra inventor Mary Phelps Jacob. The next year, I paid tribute to ten wonderful illustrators. The year after that, it was three women illustrators. (I had meant to cover more, but Neysa McMein proved to have such a fascinating life that I had to stop or the turkey wouldn’t have been done on time.)

As I was contemplating what to give thanks for this year, my thoughts turned to one of the best parts of this project—the twenty-first century people I’ve encountered along the way. I’ve given them shout-outs before, but now they’re front and center. Here they are, roughly in order of when I “met” them.

Pamela Toler and History in the Margins

One morning in February 2018, just five weeks into my project, I noticed a spike in my traffic. I soon discovered that Pamela Toler had recommended my blog, then titled My Year in 1918, on her own blog, History in the Margins. We’ve kept in touch through our blogs and Twitter since then.

Cover of "Women Warriors" by Pamela D. Tonder.

Pamela has a job—“freelance writer specializing in history and the arts,” as she describes it—that I can imagine having in a parallel universe. She takes her readers down fascinating, little-known byways of history. Sometimes it’s a quick dive on a subject like the history of microphones, which end up being newer than she (or I) thought. Sometimes it’s a whole book, like Women Warriors, a fascinating history of women soldiers through the ages that combines the expertise of a Ph.D. historian (which she is) with the flair of the natural storyteller. Here’s a sample from the introduction: “As a nerdy tweenager I read everything I could find on Joan of Arc, from biographies designed to give young girls role models to George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan.* As a less obviously nerdy graduate student, I was fascinated by Lakshmi Bai, the Rani of Jhansi, who led her soldiers onto the battlefield to fight the British in the Indian mutiny of 1857.”

I’m thankful to have discovered Pamela the writer, and even more thankful to have gotten to know Pamela the online friend.

Connie Ruzich and the Forgotten Poets of the First World War

World War I Twitter led me to Robert Morris University professor Connie Ruzich and her blog, Behind Their Lines, which originated with a Fulbright project on World War I poets. She describes her blog as “a site for sharing lesser known poetry of the First World War, what I think of as lost voices and faded poems.”

Connie’s book, International Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology of Lost Voices, came out late last year. Even though it wasn’t priced for general readers, I was seriously tempted to use some of my COVID stimulus check to buy it. I left the U.S. for South Africa shortly after it was published, though, and didn’t get around to it. So I was thrilled to discover while writing this post that that a paperback edition is on the way.

Connie still posts occasionally on her blog—her most recent post combines a number of my interests, including Amy Lowell, Harvard, and T.S. Eliot/Ezra Pound snarkiness—and she links to older posts on Twitter on poets’ birthdays, National Beer Day, and other relevant occasions.

Connie, like Pamela, has become an online friend. When I drove across the country last October,** pre-vaccination, it gave me a pang as I passed through Chicago and Pittsburgh not to be able to stop by and see Pamela and Connie.

Frank Hudson and the Parlando Project

Early on in this project, when I was posting several times a week, I’d occasionally feel overwhelmed. Whenever this happened, I’d give myself a little lecture, saying, “Well, Frank Hudson posts as often as you do AND writes a song for every post AND sings it.”

Amazing guy, that Frank.

For the typical Parlando Project post (tag line: “where words and music meet”), Frank takes a poem that’s in the public domain, puts it to music, and shares his thoughts about the writer and the poem. He covers a much wider time period than I do, all the way back to classical Chinese poetry, but he often records poems from 1910s and 1920s, including a multi-year serial performance of The Waste Land to celebrate National Poetry Month.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Julia Margaret Cameron, 1868)

Maybe I’m biased because it was my idea (okay, there’s no maybe about it), but my favorite of Frank’s songs is his interpretation of the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem “Snow-Flakes,” featuring the wonderful line “This is the poem of the air.” In Frank’s rendition, recorded on Christmas 2018, “Snow-Flakes” and another Longfellow poem, “A Psalm of Life,” are being performed in a Beat Generation-era jazz club. If you’re in the mood for something seasonal but weary of the holiday standards, check it out!

Witness2Fashion and Century-Old Styles

Susan, the creative force behind the blog Witness2Fashion, is, like Frank, only a part-time resident of the world of a hundred years ago, but she stops by often. She’s a former theater costume designer who casts an expert eye on the fashions of the past while also tackling broader societal issues.

Delineator, January 1920

Witness2Fashion rang in the current decade, for example, with a visit to the January 1920 issue of Delineator magazine, showing us some Butterick patterns but then moving on to an article on sexual harassment called “It Won’t Do! A Warning for Business Women.”

Sometimes the posts take a more personal turn, like this one, featuring her detective work about the life of a TB patient named Ollie, a friend of her mother’s, whom she came to know through family photographs. My favorite Witness2Fashion post, with the irresistible title “Prudery in Advertising Used to Confuse Me,” is a mix of the personal and the historical.

Ladies’ Home Journal, June 1921

Susan and I check in with each other in the comments sections of our blogs every once in a while. When I wondered, a few months back, why hand-washing wasn’t one of the many uses listed for P and G White Naptha soap, she explained, “Naptha is a petroleum product, akin to mineral spirits (aka “Paint thinner,”) so you wouldn’t want to use it on your skin.” Mystery solved!

On a Witness2Fashion post about the evolution about corsets, I posted this comment: “I just came across a fascinating article in a 1922 issue of Printer’s Ink magazine, aimed at panicky corset sellers, assuring them that going corsetless is just a fad and reminding mothers to educate their daughters on the health benefits of corsets, including supporting internal organs and strengthening back muscles.” The actual Printer’s Ink article is unfortunately, as I have noted, lost in the mists of time.

It’s nice to have a kindred spirit!

Patty Stein and Rita Senger

Last year, I was wondering what happened to Rita Senger, a talented illustrator who disappeared from the covers of Vogue and Vanity Fair in 1919. A Google search led me to the blog of quilter Laurie Kennedy, who mentioned that Patty Stein, a fellow quilter, was Senger’s granddaughter. I e-mailed Laurie one night last November telling her of my interest in Rita Senger, and by morning I had heard from Patty.

Soon after that, I called Patty, who, while baking a cake, shared her memories of her grandmother, who traded her artistic career for marriage to a wealthy businessman. Rita came to life through Patty’s vivid stories, and hearing and writing about her was one of the high points of this project.

Old Books and New Friends

Last October, when I was out in Colorado, I spent two happy days virtually attending the annual meeting of the International T.S. Eliot Society. “Annual meeting” makes it sound like people introducing motions and voting, but it’s actually an academic conference. This was the year of the unveiling of the Emily Hale Archive at Princeton, which consists of over a thousand letters from Eliot to Hale, his long-distance companion of many years. The Eliot world was abuzz! But I digress.***

After the meeting, I followed some of the people I’d come across on Twitter. Just a few days later, one of them, Birkbeck/University of London lecturer Peter Fifield, tweeted that he was planning to start a 1920s best-seller discussion group. Needless to say, I was thrilled. In the year since, the group, which spans three continents, has read good books (The Home-Maker, So Big****) and not-so-good books (The Middle of the Road, The Green Hat) and problematic books (The Sheik, God’s Stepchildren), and we’ve had a great time talking about them all. (Sometimes, the worse the book, the better the discussion.) It’s become a group of friends that I look forward to seeing every month.

Happy Thanksgiving to All!

I haven’t met any of the people mentioned here (yet) in person, but my interactions with them, on Twitter, in blog comments, on the phone, and on Zoom, have greatly enriched my life—a silver lining to the virtual world we’re living in. So, to all of them, and to the rest of you who have shared my adventures in the world of a hundred years ago, happy Thanksgiving!*****

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*This is me, except Eleanor of Aquitaine.

**Okay, sat in the passenger’s seat. My brother did all the driving.

***The T.S. Eliot gang almost got its own entry, but my interest in Eliot precedes this project, so they were disqualified.

****Going out on a limb here—this is next month’s selection so I’m only speaking for myself. But it’s Edna Ferber! And it’s wonderful!

*****I was going to round up this post with some charming Thanksgiving magazine covers, but this Norman Rockwell Literary Digest cover doesn’t look at all like a Rockwell,

and this pilgrim/Indian warfare-themed Rockwell Life cover leaves me scratching my head,

and what the hell, J.C. Leyendecker?

I think someone spiked the Thanksgiving cider over in New Rochelle.