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 theJune 1922 issue of The Ladies’ Home Journal.
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.
*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.
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’sHarper’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.**
This A. H. Fish Vanity Fair cover was solid but not memorable.
Are these either houses or gardens? I think not, House & Garden!
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.
The kids were up to their usual wholesome fun at St. Nicholas.
With Ireland newly independent, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations were especially festive.
There was a newcomer, Tom Webb, at the Saturday Evening Post,
The insanely prolific Rockwell was all over the place in March and April, at The Literary Digest
and The Country Gentleman
For the Ladies’ Home Journal, N.C. Wyeth (father of Andrew) painted a boy dreaming of stolen loot.
Over at Vogue, a Helen Dryden cover featured an old-timey couple,
and there were two new-to-me Vogue cover artists, Pierre Brissaud and Henry R. Sutter.***
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.*****
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.
Same minimalist design. Same clear lines. Same boyish silhouette on the woman.
Two years into the decade, the twenties have begun!
**Here is an examples of an attractive and haunting Erté cover:
***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.
*****I could do without the “Women can smoke too!” message, though.
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 Austentwo 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.”
“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.”
“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
“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.*****
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
“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.)
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.********
*The novelist Brandon Taylor, who is in my opinion the most entertaining and insightful literary critic writing right now, shared his thoughts on Mansfield Parkrecently 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.
*****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.
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.
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.****
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.
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.*******
*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 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.
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?
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,
a toddler cutting off his or her golden locks at Woman’s Home Companion,
and, boringly, a just plain baby at Good Housekeeping.
Even high-art Vogue is getting into the spirit.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
For the second year running, a post about magazine ads tops the list. Note to self: do more posts about magazine ads.
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.
*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.
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.’”
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!**
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
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
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.
For Young Readers
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 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
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 Healthas 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.
I washed my hands before every meal to-day. Check!
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.)
I kept fingers, pencils, and everything likely to be unclean or injurious out of my mouth and nose. Check!
I was on a roll!
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.”
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,
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.
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.
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
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 Hillis 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.
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.
More Newbery Runners-Up
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.
Charles Boardman Hawes’ The Great Questis 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 Kingsounded 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.
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.
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.)
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!
*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 Parentsis 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.
*****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.”
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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!*****
*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,
People sometimes complain that the world of a hundred years ago is so picked over that there’s nothing left to write about.* After spending a year reading as if I were living in that period, though, I can tell you that there’s a treasure trove of subjects just waiting to be turned into books, articles, dissertations, or academic projects. Here are ten topics that I’m mystified that no one has gotten to yet.**
1. Archiving Erté’s Harper’s Bazar covers
Over the (yikes!) almost four years of this project, I have spent many happy hours finding online copies of Harper’s Bazar covers by Erté, the legendary art deco artist, designer, and crossword puzzle clue stalwart who worked as the magazine’s regular cover artist from 1915 to 1936. I included him in my Thanksgiving lists of 10 1918 People I’m Thankful For and Ten 1919 Illustrators I’m Thankful For.***
But I have also spent many unhappy hours searching for Erté covers in vain. HathiTrust, the Google Books online archive, is missing some issues from 1918 and doesn’t have any at all for 1919 (or from 1923 to 1929, but I’ll worry about that in the future). I’ve found images for some, but not all, of these covers elsewhere, often on Pinterest, which is the source of most of my magazine cover images anyway. Those images that do exist aren’t at the level of quality that these important cultural artifacts deserve.
Someone needs to make high-quality digital scans of the full collection and archive them online**** before the original covers deteriorate any further. (Maybe Harper’s Bazaar—the extra A was added in 1930—has done this, but, if so, the archive isn’t available online, as Vogue’s is.) A book or scholarly article about the covers would be good, too. Get on this, digital humanities people!
2. A biography of cartoonist Percy Crosby
One of the most intriguing people I’ve written about for this blog is Percy Crosby, who penned the cartoon The Rookie from the 13th Squad. The hapless but ultimately stouthearted Rookie was the Sad Sack of World War I. Crosby, who received a Purple Heart after being hit in the eye with shrapnel, went on to create the popular cartoon Skippy, which the Charles Schulz website cites as an influence for Peanuts. He also, I kid you not, won the silver medal in the 1932 watercolors and drawing event in the 1932 Olympics.
Crosby’s personal life was troubled, though. He ran with a hard-drinking crowd that included Jerome Kern, Ring Lardner, John Barrymore, and Heywood Broun. Following a violent episode, his wife divorced him and got a restraining order, and he never saw her or their four children again. He began taking out two-page ads in major newspapers, espousing left-wing views and taking on targets like the FBI, the IRS, and Al Capone. After a 1948 suicide attempt, he was confined to a mental hospital and diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. One of the purported symptoms of his paranoia was his endless ranting about how Skippy Peanut Butter had violated the trademark on his character’s name. Now, I’m no intellectual property rights lawyer, but that doesn’t sound all that paranoid to me. Crosby himself believed that his left-wing views contributed to his prolonged confinement. He died in the mental hospital in 1964.
A biography of Crosby was published in 1978, but his life, and his long confinement, deserve a closer look.
3. Girl Scout badges through the ages
What gives you a better sense of what was expected of girls in a given era than its Girl Scout badges? Well, lots of things, probably, given that the 1920 edition of Scouting for Girls included badges for telegraphy (“send 22 words per minute using a sounder and American Morse Code”), bee keeping (“have a practical knowledge of bee keeping and assist in hiving a swarm…”), and rock tapping (“collect two or three scratched or glaciated pebbles or cobblestones in the drift”). But, as I discovered during my quest to earn a 1919 Girl Scout badge,***** Girl Scout badges do provide an interesting window into the era. I learned all about caring for sick relatives and found out what a cruel practice plucking egret feathers for women’s hats is.
My own Girl Scout book was written closer to 1920 than to today (it had been around a while, but still!). There are some cool badges in that book, like Observer, where you learn about constellations and rock formations and make a conservation exhibit. Others, like Indian Lore and Gypsy, wouldn’t pass muster today.
The current badges look kind of trippy and feature topics like cybersecurity, coding, entrepreneurship, and preparing for STEM jobs. That all sounds way too stressful and careerist for me. Personally, I’d rather learn telegraphy.
Well, I’d better stop before I end up writing the book myself.
4. Did Daisy Ashford really write The Young Visiters?
The Young Visiters, nine-year-old Daisy Ashford’s unintentionally hilarious account of sometimes unsavory high-society goings-on, became a runaway bestseller following its 1919 publication. The manuscript, written in 1890 or so, was discovered by the adult Daisy and circulated among her friends until it reached novelist and publisher’s reader Frank Swinnerton, who arranged for its publication, with an introduction by L. Frank Baum.
Or so the story goes. Some reviewers at the time were skeptical, and there was speculation that Baum himself was the author. When Ashford died in 1972 at the age of 90, her obituary in the New York Times mentioned the doubts about her authorship.
Here is the opening paragraph. You decide for yourself whether you buy it as the work of a preteen or if, like me, you’re with the skeptics.
Except you don’t have to leave it at that! Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, you can figure out the authorship for yourself. In recent years, researchers have used computer software that analyzes similarities between texts to discover new sources for Shakespeare’s plays and help unmask J.K. Rowling as the author of the mystery novel The Cuckoo’s Calling, published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. I wonder what a comparison between The Young Visiters and the works of L. Frank Baum (or maybe Frank Swinnerton) would reveal. Go for it!******
5. The Crisis Press, The Brownies’ Book, and Jessie Redmon Fauset
The life and work of W.E.B. Du Bois is not exactly lost to history. To cite only one recent example of his place in the culture, the novel The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois was an Oprah book club pick and was long-listed for this year’s National Book Award. The Crisis, the NAACP magazine that he edited, is rightly celebrated as a groundbreaking publication for and about African-Americans. Less well-known are the side projects of the magazine’s publishing company, including books like Hazel, by Ruth White Ovington, the first children’s book to figure an African-American protagonist, and The Brownies’ Book, an all-too-short-lived magazine “designed for all children, but especially for ours.” Recent high school graduate Langston Hughes published his first poems in the magazine. There have been a number of academic articles about The Brownies’ Book, as well as a 1996 anthology, but the magazine and the Crisis Publication Company’s other ventures deserve to be better known today.
While you’re at it, how about a biography of The Brownies’ Book managing editor Jessie Redmon Fauset, who was a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance?
6. Women Illustrators of the 1920s
Career opportunities for talented women in the 1920s were limited, but magazine illustration was one field where women could, and did, succeed. Their work and their lives are worth revisiting.
Why did Helen Dryden, once the highest-paid woman artist in the United States, end up living in a welfare hotel?
How did Gordon Conway make it to the top of her profession without taking a single art class?
Why did talented illustrator Rita Senger disappear from the covers of Vogue and Vanity Fair in 1919? (Well, I told you all about that here.)
As for Neysa McMein, suffragist, Saturday Evening Post illustrator, best friend of Dorothy Parker, lover of Charlie Chaplin, Ring Lardner, Robert Benchley, and others, I just want to spend a winter afternoon reading a gossipy account of her life.
In May 2018, I read a May 1918 New York Times article about the apparent death of popular aviator Jimmy Hall, who had been shot down behind enemy lines. I decided to Google him to see if by any chance he had survived. But James Hall is a common name, and I kept getting articles about the co-author of Mutiny on the Bounty. Eventually I realized that the courageous aviator and the successful writer were…one and the same!
Hall, it turned out, had been captured by the Germans. After the war, he moved to Tahiti, where he and co-author Charles Nordhoff penned Mutiny on the Bounty and other best-sellers.******* His wife was partly of Polynesian descent. Their son, cinematographer Conrad Hall, won three Oscars, including one for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Amazingly, no one seems to have written a biography of this fascinating man. If I haven’t done enough to persuade you to take on this project, it would definitely require a trip to Tahiti, where his modest house is now a museum.
8. Edna Ferber biography and revival
Edna Ferber checks a number of boxes to spark contemporary interest: she took on racism and sexism in her novels and short stories, and she may have been a lesbian. On top of that, she was a wonderful writer, at least judging from the early novel and short stories that I’ve read, featuring the dreams, disappointments, and, very occasionally, triumphs of department store saleswomen and accountants and stenographers. Ferber was a regular at the Algonquin Round Table, which would make for entertaining research.********
Harper Perennial Classics has reissued some of Ferber’s novels, which is a good start, but she’s due the kind of revival that Tim Page sparked for novelist Dawn Powell a few decades back when he published her diaries, her letters, and a biography. Any volunteers?
9. The Illustrators of New Rochelle, New York
High on the list of nonexistent books I’m longing to read is a group biography of Norman Rockwell, Coles Phillips, the Leyendecker brothers, and the other illustrators who turned suburban New Rochelle, New York, into one of the country’s most important artists’ colonies. If you can believe Wikipedia, New Rochelle was the source of more than half of the illustrations in major publications in the early 1920s.
I want SO much to read about J.C. Leyendecker’s romantic relationship with the model for his Arrow shirt ads
and about his brother Frank’s short life and tragic death.
I want to read about Coles Phillips’ apparently happy marriage (one of all too few I’ve read about in the period) to his wife Teresa, who served as his primary model, “making up in keen interest and endurance what I lacked in pulchritude,” as she wrote in the Saturday Evening Post after his death in 1927 at the age of 46.
I want to read about Normal Rockwell’s…well, I can’t think of anything I want to read about Norman Rockwell. But, if you write it, I’ll read it!
10. This one’s for me!
By now, you may be wondering why I’m asking the rest of the world to do all of these projects and not saving any for myself. Well, don’t worry—I’ve set aside a project, or two, or three. I’m not sure when I’ll be able to finish, or, um, start them, but I look forward to telling you more when I can.
In the meantime, get to work, everyone!
*Actually, this is mostly an amateur opinion. The academics I know who are working on this period have more than enough to keep them busy.
**That I know if. If I’m wrong, please let me know!
***I’ve noticed recently that some of my old posts have gone all Alice in Wonderland on me, with small photos suddenly huge, like this squiggle from the Thanksgiving 2019 post.
I’ll get with WordPress to see what this is about and in the meantime am resizing the giant photos as I come across them.
****Or at least the covers (currently up to 1925) that are out of copyright.
*****Actually, a 1916 Girl Scout badge. My logic in using 1919 in the title was that this was the Girl Scout book being used 100 years ago at the time of the post. If I had known that this would go on to be by far my most popular post, read by many people who didn’t have a clue about my 100 years ago project, I would have used the 1916 in the blog post title.
******Go for it yourself, you might reasonably say. I tried once, with some different texts, and it’s kind of hard.
*******Speaking of fake child authors, Hall confessed in 1946 that he had written the critically acclaimed 1940 poetry collection Oh Millersville!, supposedly the work of a 10-year-old girl named Fern Gravel.
********That’s Ferber on the bottom right corner, looking like she’s wearing a skeleton mask, in the Al Hirschfeld cartoon of Algonquin Round Table members. I can’t post it here because it’s still under copyright.
Objectively speaking, winter in Cape Town is not all that bad. The temperature rarely dips below the high 40s, and a cold day is one when it doesn’t make it into the 60s. Subjectively speaking, though, winter in Cape Town is miserable. It rains a lot, and houses don’t have central heating, so we sit around freezing and grumbling.*
What I needed to improve my mood, I decided, was some summer fun from the covers of 1921 magazines. I could pretend I was somewhere hot, hanging around at the beach**
or the pool
or playing golf
or basking in the moonlight
or cavorting about in the altogether,
or just hanging around,
maybe at the summer house.
(Okay, these are not all ACTUAL wishes. I’m not much of a fisherman, for example.)
Lo and behold, I did actually make it to the northern hemisphere in time for the last few weeks of the summer. It turns out, though, that my image of Washington in August was a teeny bit romanticized. Life has been more like this
But I’ve had a great time hanging out with my friends,
and even though I haven’t spent much (okay, any) time working on my manuscript
I swear that’s going to happen before the fall sets in.
But fall is weeks away, so let’s not think about it right now. After all, in the words of the #1 hit song of late summer 1921, “In the meantime, in between time…”
*Of course, I always keep in mind how fortunate I am compared to most people in Cape Town.
Turns out that you can use this soap for laundry, dishwashing, and cleaning around the house. No mention of washing your hands, surprisingly. (UPDATE 7/2/2021: As Susan of witness2fashion points out in the comments, naphtha is a petroleum product and not suitable for use on the skin.) I don’t know how the ship fits into the story, but the illustration is appealing. I’ll take it!
Mmm, a can of fat! But look at those baked goods. Plus, you can send away for a free book of recipes by Mrs. Ida C. Bailey. I’m in!
I love this cozy scene, complete with a bedside bookshelf. The text brags that “wamsutta” made it into the dictionary, which sounds to me like the first step toward losing your trademark, but if Wamsutta’s happy I’m happy. I’ll take a set of percales!
I’m not sure why the owners of this mansion need a fold-out sofa, and if they do why it needs to go in the doorway, but this one is nice-looking as sofa beds go, and I’m impressed that it opens by one easy, well-balanced motion.** Yes, please send me handsome illustrated booklet and name of nearest dealer!
I’m a little freaked out by the clown, but real food, what a novelty!
I’m not QUITE convinced that the men looking downward in their dinner partner’s direction are admiring her vanilla dessert. But look at that cake! I’ll go to my grocer and insist on Burnett’s.
More cake? It would be rude to say no!
I know I’m supposed to be focusing on the products, not the ads, but I looked at this, said, “Coles Phillips!”, zoomed in, and saw his initials under the seat of the rocker. I’ll take the polish and buy the white shoes later.
If I were in D.C., I would be saying, “Are you out of your mind? It’s 95 degrees! I don’t even want to THINK about black stockings!” But I’m in freezing Cape Town–well, in the 50s, but no one here has central heating–so bring on the hosiery!***
Thomas Edison is offering $10,000 to whoever can come up with a phrase of no more than four or five words to convey the idea that his phonograph is not a mere machine but “an instrumentality by which the true beauties and the full benefit of music can be brought into every home.” That doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, so I can see why he’s looking for help. I’ll get on it.
If it’s not a corset, I’m all in.
The small print says you have to send them a name of a new LHJ subscriber, and I usually balk at selling out my friends to corporations. Plus, I already have a copy. Still, I love the idea of this giveaway.
I’ll take all the gingham! And sure, what the hell, send me the free book about Mrs. Prentiss’s humorous gingham-related experiences.
Can I skip the camera and buy the dress?
Brown soap is so 1919.
Sure, I WANT an olive spoon and a pickle fork. But do I NEED an olive spoon and a pickle fork?
This bedspread is the definition of meh.
No! Nooooo! Traumatic flashbacks of the awful government-issued furniture that I had in my Foreign Service housing, and that my friend Emily once took the desperate step of jamming into a spare bedroom. Granted, they’re not selling furniture here, they’re selling Congoleum. Which, as attentive readers will remember, is actually tar paper.
This canned meat picnic might be fun for Mother, but it’s not going to be much fun for anyone else.
No offense to exploding fairies, but this is “fragrantly Parisian” and I have fragrance allergies.
Ditto for giant perfume bottle worshipers.
Not buying the “corn syrup is health food” claim.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud, it is not conditional on what kind of soap you use.
As an expert on Italy–as in, I’ve never been there but I’m taking a beginning Italian class–I take offense at this.
“They are fresh peaches…” Yeah, and I’m a debutante.
This one almost made “Meh” but was a victim of its placement in the magazine, right next to this story,
which made me wonder why she’s living the laundry dream all alone.
Speaking of helpful husbands, this one is so beguiled by this cabinet that he comes to the kitchen to give his wife a hand with the dishes. “What matter a few smashed pieces? Think how quickly he will learn.” Not even the nifty flour dispenser would make me willing to put up with this nitwit.
If I were judging artistry, this one would get kudos for the surprisingly modern graphics. However…prunes.
I don’t believe judging anyone by their appearance, let alone a baby, so I’m strictly commenting on the skill of the artist in replying “That it has a nice personality?”****
*Well, there was the time when this ad left me desperately craving bread.
**But frankly a little skeptical given my life-endangering experiences with ca. 1970 sofa beds at childhood sleepovers.