Category Archives: My Life in 1918

Floor of Wanamaker's department store, 1920.

I Read a Random 1920 Book

In the three and a half years since I started this blog, I’ve read fifty-six books from a hundred years ago. Many of them, like The War-Whirl in Washington and Mary Marie, aren’t read much today.* But every one, no matter how obscure, was chosen by someone—me—with a contemporary sensibility. What if there were a way around this, I would occasionally wonder—a way to meet the world of a hundred years ago on its own terms, rather than through a 21st-century lens.

Last year, I thought of a way to do this: I’d read a random book. I picked up my copy of the 1920 Book Review Digest, flipped through it a few times, stopped, and, with my eyes closed, pointed to a place on the page.

And got…Elements of Retail Salesmanship, by Paul Wesley Ivey, Ph.D.!**

Title page, Elements of Retail Salesmanship by Paul Wesley Ivey

 I couldn’t have been more thrilled. I could have ended up with anything—Hugh Temple Sheringham’s Trout Fishing Memoirs and Morals, for example, or Newell Dwight Hillis’s Rebuilding Europe in the Face of World-Wide Bolshevism. But no, I got a book about a topic I find fascinating, and that I had so far encountered only in Edna Ferber’s short stories about exhausted department store saleswomen.

Plus, Elements of Retail Salesmanship got the equivalent of two thumbs up in Book Review Digest, which classifies each excerpted review as +, +-, or -. “The information is put clearly and intelligently and the book is a good one of its kind,” the New York Evening Post said.

Reviews of Elements of Retail Salesmanship in Book Review Digest, 1920.

Book Review Digest, 1920

Next step: acquiring a copy. These days, you can buy just about any out-of-copyright book online. Some companies put the text into Word documents and bind them, generally with a tiny font and/or horrible formatting. Some do OCR scans of book texts, with unintelligible results. Other companies just print out the scanned text from Google Books. This, I have learned from experience, is the best, even though you often end up with people’s underlining and marginal comments.***

That is, you can get almost anything unless it’s the first wave of COVID, which it was, plus something weird was going on in the printing industry. My favorite out-of-print publisher, Forgotten Books, finally admitted defeat and cancelled my order, so I tried again with my second-favorite, Scholar Select. Elements of Retail Salesmanship arrived in late August, just before my brother and I set off from D.C. by car for a month-long stay in Colorado.****

Book, Elements of Retail Salesmanship.

Ivey was thirty years old and just starting out his career as a professor at the University of Nebraska when Element of Retail Salesmanship was published. He sets out his ambition for the book on the first page. “If it serves to make the salesperson see the educational possibilities in her[1] work and the relation of better service to community welfare,” he says, “it will have served the purpose for which it was intended.” The “her” struck me as surprisingly woke for 1920, but Ivey explains in the footnote that “the feminine gender is used throughout this book because ninety-five percent of the customers and salespeople in department stores are women.”

Sometimes the idea of reading a hundred-year-old book is more exciting than the actual reading. And, to be honest, Elements of Retail Salesmanship dragged a bit at the start, while Professor Ivey walked us through the history of merchandising. There were some high points even here, though, like learning about how retail establishments used to employ “barkers” to lure people in from the street. Once the customer was inside, the retailer—who didn’t charge a fixed price, so every interaction was a bargaining session—was reluctant to let customers out until they bought something. I’m not sure how this was enforced, but it sounded alarming.

John Wanamaker, ca. 1890

John Wanamaker, ca. 1890 (Frances Benjamin Johnston, Library of Congress)

I was relieved, then, when John Wanamaker came along in the late 1800s, with his low-pressure sales tactics, fixed prices, and money-back guarantees. Like many visionaries, he was regarded as a lunatic at first, but eventually the mentality whereby, as Ivey puts it, “each merchant tried to climb to success over the dead body of his opponent” disappeared and the modern age of efficiency began.

In the next chapter, Ivey moves on to “Knowing the Goods.” This is, in his philosophy, the salesperson’s most important obligation. Take congoleum, for example. Few people, he says, know that it is merely tar paper printed on both sides. I consider myself one of the world’s foremost experts on congoleum by virtue of having heard of it, but I did not know this interesting fact!

Congoleum linoleum rug ad, Ladies' Home Journal, January 1921.

Ladies’ Home Journal, January 1921

Or take corsets. Ivey tells us that

during the reign of Catherine de Medici of France, no woman in her court could find favor in her eyes whose waist measure exceeded thirteen inches; that in order to reduce the waist measure to this figure corsets were laced by serving men while in some cases the figure was placed in a steel cage or corset frame which held the victim’s body in a vise-like and perfectly rigid grip; that the death rate increased among the women due to this custom, and, finally, Henry IV of France stamped out the injurious fashion by an imperial order.

Engraving of an iron corset held by the Musée de Cluny, 1893

This is a fascinating bit of history (or, actually, mythology–it’s been debunked), but it leaves me wondering what exactly the salesperson is supposed to do with it. “Did you know these things can kill you?” doesn’t seem like much of a sales pitch, as opposed to, say, claiming that women need an artificial exoskeleton to keep their internal organs in place.*****

Overall, though, Professor Ivey makes a convincing case for knowing the goods. You wouldn’t want to be like the salesperson who, asked why one pair of gloves cost $2.00 and a similar-looking pair cost $2.50, thought intensely for a few seconds and then answered, “I guess it is because they are marked that way.” Another giveaway about lack of product knowledge: excessive use of terms such as “nifty,” “swell,” “classy,” “great,” and “fine.”******

Ad for gloves, Harper's Bazar, February 1918

Harper’s Bazar, February 1918

Professor Ivey has high hopes for retail merchandising as a profession, musing that

four to six years of continuous study after graduation from high school is the rule rather than the exception for those entering law and medicine and in some cases dentistry. If a similar period of time was spent in study and laboratory work by those entering retail selling they would become just as truly expert in their line and would command incomes proportionate to their effectiveness.

I mentally debated the microeconomics of this with Professor Ivey for a while, then forced myself to move on.

Luckily, there are ways to learn about the goods even without sitting in a classroom. For example, Ivey tells us, you can take home the informational material that manufacturers send with the merchandise and peruse it in your leisure hours. Or you can go to the library and read the encyclopedia entries on textiles, shoes, household furnishings, novelties, and other goods, which, he promises us, are “both entertaining and of an educational value.”

I decided to give this a test run. I found the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica on HathiTrust, opened the 15th volume, which luckily had the entry for “Jewelry,” and picked a passage at random.

Excerpt from entry on Jewelry in 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.

Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911 edition, vol. 15

I thought about Edna Ferber’s saleswomen, heading back to the boarding house, exhausted after being on their feet all day. My thoughts turned, too, to my younger self, tired out after a long day at the embassy in Phnom Penh, trying to read Elizabeth Becker’s When the War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution, and just not having it in me. And the ambassador let me sit in a chair! I had my doubts about whether the extracurricular encyclopedia reading ever actually happened.

Luckily, Professor Ivey presents us with more enjoyable ways of improving our salesmanship. You can, for example, challenge yourself to engage as many of the customer’s senses as possible. You don’t just show her the aluminum kettle, you “ring” it. In the hands of a clever salesperson, he claims, silk can be made to “talk.’”

Picture of kettle in Mirro Kettle ad, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

Ladies’ Home Journal, February 1920

Then there’s the psychological angle. Ivey walks us through the different types of customer: the Impulsive or Nervous Customer, the Deliberate Customer, the Confident or Decisive Customer (“she walks into the store as a general would march into the camp of a defeated army”), the Silent or Indifferent Customer, and the Distrustful Customer. Selling to each type requires different tactics. One caveat, though, applies to all types: if a customer is considering an item of clothing, don’t say that you bought it yourself and are happy with it. Because who wants to dress like a salesclerk?

Salespeople, too, can be distinguished by personality. The ideal salesperson combines the traits of Enthusiasm, Honesty, Promptness (which turns out not to mean showing up for work on time but rather hopping to it when a customer needs help), and Cheerfulness.

Man talking to woman at store counter, Roast Beef Medium by Edna Ferber

Illustration by James Montgomery Flagg from Roast Beef, Medium, by Edna Ferber (1913)

Too often, Professor Ivey tells us, salespeople ask questions like, “Is there anything today,” “Waited on?” “Do you wish anything?” “Can I show you something?” or merely “Something?” Syntax aside, these seemed to me like normal salesperson inquiries, but Professor Ivey says that they indicate suspicion that the customer is a “looker” as opposed to a serious shopper. Better: “Do you desire service?” or “Do you wish attention?”

Cheerfulness, Professor Ivey, tells us, is not merely a matter of smiling. There are smiles and there are smiles. There is “the pitying smile, when the customer signifies a desire to look at a cheaper article than the first shown her,” as well as the sarcastic, knowing, idiotic, and bored smiles, and, lastly, the “Heaven-help-me” smile, exchanged with a colleague when the customer finds difficulty in deciding between two silverware patterns. Oh, I know those smiles all too well!

Department store floor, Detroit, ca. 1910.

Department Store in Detroit, Michigan, ca. 1910 (Universal History Archive)

Enthusiasm, according to Professor Ivey, is not something that can be feigned. “All salespeople should have a feeling of admiration for the store in which they are working or else seek opportunities elsewhere,” he tells us. “Disloyalty can never be justified within an organization because sincerity would thereby be violated.”

And if you don’t wake up full of happiness? No problem. You just say to yourself, “This is a wonderful world. It’s great just to be alive,” or, “I feel fine, I feel happy.” Or you sing, or whistle.

With all due respect to Maria von Trapp, I’ve got some problems with this. I’m not expecting a marketing professor at the University of Nebraska in 1920 to be a Marxist, but seriously? “A feeling of admiration for the store in which they are working?” Have you ever HAD a job, Professor? (This is a rhetorical question–Ivey tells us that he has, in fact, worked in sales.) Also—where’s the chapter on what the salesperson can expect from her employer in exchange for all this expertise, psychological acumen, and sincere admiration?

Interior of Wanamaker's store, 1920.

Wanamaker Building, 1920 (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

I went back to my post on “What’s Your 1918 Girl Job?” to see what the Ladies’ Home Journal had to say about opportunities for women in sales:

The average pay is low, hours long, and the work is not easy, but employment is steady for the competent worker. Hours have been shortened, however, and conditions improved by the activity of the Consumers’ League. Chances for advancement are good, however, for the ambitious girl in the employ of a good firm. (July 1918)

Jane Addams reading to children at Hull House.

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

 The National Consumers’ League was an organization, founded by pioneering social worker Jane Addams and others, that advocated for better conditions for workers. Some of their causes seem odd today, such as their defense of an Oregon law that limited working hours for women, but not men, to ten hours a day (the case went to the Supreme Court and the law was upheld), but they were effective in combating poor working conditions, especially in sweatshops. We don’t hear a word from Professor Ivey about the National Consumers’ League. Or about trade unions, either.

Paul and Stella Ivey

Paul and Stella Ivey, date unknown (findagrave.com)

Politics aside, I had developed a fondness for the affable professor, and I set out to learn more about him. He was born in Bessemer, Michigan, in 1890, and attended Lawrence College in Appleton, Wisconsin. He earned a master’s degree from the University of Illinois, with a thesis titled “The Liquor Industry and Industrial Efficiency,” and went on to the University of Michigan for his doctorate. In 1915, a year after his arrival in Michigan, he married Stella Walker, a widow whose first husband, a dentist, had died of typhoid fever in 1912 at the age of 27. Ivey completed his dissertation, “The Pere Marquette Railroad,” in 1919, and started teaching at Nebraska that year. Here he is on the business administration department’s page in the university’s yearbook, bottom right, jokily captioned “Ivey-covered column.”

Photographs of Business Administration staff, University of Nebraska, 1920.

The Cornhusker, 1920 (yearbooks.unl.edu)

A new marriage, a professorship at a rapidly expanding university, and a book that was serialized in Publishers’ Weekly: all in all, a promising start. What was next? Mostly more of the same, as it turned out. Ivey left Nebraska for Northwestern University a few years later, and by 1932 he was teaching at the University of Southern California, where he would spend the rest of his career.

More books followed: Principles of Marketing in 1921, Salesmanship Applied in 1925, Getting Results in Selling in 1934, Successful Salesmanship in 1937, and Human Relations in Banking in 1941. His work was mentioned in the sermons of Lloyd Cassell Douglas, the minister and best-selling author of Magnificent Obsession and The Robe.

Professor Ivey died in Los Angeles in 1950, at the age of 60. Stella lived until 1967. They didn’t have any children, or at least any that I was able to track down. Ivey’s work outlived him; the fourth addition of Successful Salesmanship, updated by a co-author, was published in 1961.

As chance would have it, Lincoln, Nebraska, was my brother’s and my first overnight stop on our drive back to D.C. from Colorado, so I had an opportunity for a Professor Ivey pilgrimage. Or more of a mini-pilgrimage, rather. I hadn’t done enough research yet to find the  building where he taught,

Drawing of business administration building, University of Nebraska, 1920

The Cornhusker, 1920 edition (yearbooks.unl.edu)

and a house built in 1925 now stands at the address of his Lincoln home (which I found online and subsequently lost). Besides, it was pouring, and we needed to get a move on. I did sense Professor Ivey’s presence, though, as I had breakfast in a coffee shop in the historic Haymarket district near the university.*******

Mary Grace McGeehan at coffee shop

I’ve decided to make reading a random book an annual tradition, so stay tuned! I can’t imagine, though, that my 1921 book could possibly be as much fun as Elements of Retail Salesmanship.

Problems from Elements of Retail Salesmanship.

Problems from Elements of Retail Salesmanship

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*Although “aren’t read much” doesn’t mean “aren’t read at all.” One effect of the proliferation of free public-domain e-books is that people come across century-old books at random and post reviews on Goodreads that say things like “the writing was kind of old-fashioned.”

**I set a few ground rules: no books over 400 pages, no books I was already aware of, and no books about history, because reading a 1920 book about, say, Elizabethan England seemed beside the point. In any case, Elements of Retail Salesmanship won fair and square on the first try.

***This can actually be quite entertaining, as in this online copy of William Carlos Williams’ 1917 poetry collection Al Que Quiere!:

Al Que Quiere by William Carlos Williams, with handwritten note "Why the awful Spanish?"

HathiTrust

****This was, in case you’re wondering, a necessary trip and not an irresponsible pleasure jaunt.

*****When I was Googling around for a source for this, I found this comment from me from 2019 on witness2fashions’s website: “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 lost in the mists of time.

******This reminded me of the time I was trying on a dress in a Cape Town boutique and the salesperson said, “That’s a stunning dress!” I was mildly flattered, the way one is by even the most transparently insincere compliments, until I heard her say to a woman who was looking at a sweater, “That’s a stunning jersey!,” and then, to a woman standing in line to buy perfume, “That’s a stunning scent!”

*******One good thing about the Midwest (of many!) is the spaciousness, indoors as well as out. The coffee shop was huge, with tables at a safe distance from each other.

Rita Senger Vanity Fair covers

The Brief, Brilliant Career of Rita Senger

Remember Rita Senger, who illustrated the winning cover in the 1915/1920 Magazine Cover Smackdown? “Next time I write about illustrators I love, I’m going to write about Senger,” I promised.

Vanity Fair cover, September 1915, Rita Senger, woman with sleeping Pierrot.

September 1915

And I tried! As I prepared for my Thanksgiving post on 1920 women illustrators I’m thankful for, I scoured the internet for illustrations by, and information about, Senger.

And came up with…almost nothing. Just a handful of magazine covers, most of which I’d already seen, the last one this August 1919 Vanity Fair cover.

Vanity Fair cover, August 1919, Rita Senger, harlequin and woman on bridge.

August 1919

What happened? None of the usual suspects, like findagrave.com and Wikipedia, yielded anything. Then I came across a blog post by a quilter named Lori Kennedy saying that fellow quilter Patty Stein was Rita Senger’s granddaughter. The post included one of Senger’s Vogue covers and some photographs of her and her family.

Armed with the last name Stein, I found a listing for a Mrs. Rita Senger Stein of Highland Park, Illinois, among the life members of the Art Institute of Chicago in its 1925 annual report. That was it.

Cover, Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago, 1925.

If I wanted to find out more about Rita Senger, I realized, I was going to have to do something almost without precedent for this blog: contact an actual living person.*

So, one evening back in November,** I sent a message to Lori Kennedy asking if she could put me in touch with Patty Stein. By the time I woke up the next morning, there was an e-mail from Patty.

Patty turned out to be a delightful person, and we talked on the phone for almost an hour. She was making a cake as we talked, which I found extremely impressive, since I consider myself a decent baker but I can’t even focus if there’s music on in the background.

chocolate cake

Patty’s cake (Patty Stein)

This is Rita’s story, mostly as I heard it from Patty but incorporating some of my own research as well. Patty emphasized that she was only sharing the impressions of a granddaughter, which may not be entirely accurate. (The chronology of Senger’s magazine covers—and any possible inaccuracy in this respect—is mine.)

Rita Senger was born in New York City in 1893, the daughter of Adolph and Barbara (Ehrlich) Senger. (The name was sometimes spelled “Sanger.”) She was an art prodigy as a child, and she went to art school at the age of sixteen or seventeen.

Young Rita Senger at easel, ca. 1910s.

Rita Stein, ca. 1910s (courtesy of Patty Stein)

Rita’s father moved to Arizona after becoming ill with asthma, leaving Rita to care for her mother, three sisters, and two brothers (both of whom went on to become architects). Success as an illustrator came early. Her first Vogue cover appeared in June 1915,

Rita Senger cover, Vogue, June 15, 1916, woman walking dog.

June 15, 1915

and her first Vanity Fair cover—the one that won my magazine cover contest—followed three months later.

Senger illustrated one cover for each magazine in 1916,

Rita Senger cover, Vogue, June 15, 191, woman in hoop skirt.

June 15, 1916

Rita Senger Vanity Fair cover, July 1916, woman dancing on beach.

July 1916

two Vogue covers in 1917,***

Rita Senger Vogue cover, July 15, 1917, woman drinking tea under tree.

July 15, 1917

Rita Senger cover, Vogue, September 1, 1917, woman holding large feather.

September 1, 1917

one Vanity Fair cover in 1918,

Rita Senger Vanity Fair cover, April 1918, Pierrot holding unconscious woman.

April 1918

and the August 1919 Vanity Fair cover, the last in her career.

Patty is not sure how Rita met her husband, Joseph Stein. It was an unusual match for the time; he was Jewish and Rita, who came from a non-religious family, was not. Stein’s grandfather was one of the first Reform rabbis in Chicago, but he himself was not a practicing Jew. He was a wealthy businessman, the owner of Lucien Lelong, Inc., the U.S. affiliate of the Paris-based Société des Parfums Lucien Lelong. (The two companies were sold to Coty in 1953.)

These drawings of Lucien Lelong’s Paris office appear on a blog about the company’s history. The magazine and date are unidentified, but they look like ca. 1920s Vanity Fair to me.****

Illustrations of Lucien Lelong studio, Paris, possibly from Vanity Fair, 1920s?

Joseph had a keen artistic sense himself, and he paid a great deal of attention to the appearance of his products. Here is his patent for a Lucien Lelong perfume bottle:

Patent application for Lelong perfume bottle, Lelong.

United States Patent and Trademark Office

When Rita and Joseph married, she joined him in Chicago. The couple later settled in the suburb of Highland Park. Their son Tom, their only child, was born in 1920.

When I saw a picture of Rita with her extended family on Lori Kennedy’s website, I hoped that, having given up her career, she had gained a fulfilling life of a different sort. Life is rarely so simple, unfortunately. Like many parents of their time and class, she and her husband sent Tom to boarding school from an early age. Living outside of the hustle and bustle of the city, she felt isolated. “I believe she was a very frustrated artist and wife,” Patty said.

Rita did appreciate the benefits of wealth, though. In addition to their home in Highland Park, she and her husband owned, over the course of their marriage, an apartment on the Champs-Élysées and houses in Maine and in the Long Island town of Oyster Bay.

New Yor Times Headline, 6-Acre Estate Sold in Nassau County, 1-22-1942.

New York Times, January 22, 1942

Patty remembers Rita, whom her grandchildren called Tita after a mispronunciation by one of the children, as a tiny woman with a mink collar, pearls, and diamonds. She smoked at a time when that was the mark of a sophisticated woman. “They had an African-American cook who was always baking stuff—it was out of Gone With the Wind,” Patty told me. “I never remember her eating anything except pound cake and butter.”

Rita Senger and others at party.

Rita Senger Stein, center, at her son’s wedding reception, October 1943 (courtesy of Patty Stein)

After her marriage, Rita expressed her artistic side through patronage of the arts. In addition to her association with the Art Institute of Chicago, she was a collector, purchasing works by modern artists including the sculptors Kenneth Armitage and Henry Bertoia.

When their son Tom grew up, he wanted his own family to be very different from the one he was raised in. He married Pauline Blume, the daughter of Ernest Blume, a Marshall Field’s home goods buyer. Ernest and Joseph had had a nodding acquaintance before the couple met. The two men, who shared an appreciation for aesthetics, saw each other occasionally at lunch at Marshall Field’s.

Rita Senger Stein with her son and daughter-in-law, cutting cake, at their wedding.

Rita Senger Stein, far right, at her son’s wedding reception, October 1943 (courtesy of Patty Stein)

Tom and Pauline eventually settled in Colorado with their five children, whom Patty, the youngest, describes as “boisterous, smart, and mouthy.” Their sophisticated grandmother, who thought children should be seen and not heard, didn’t know what to make of them. She enjoyed them one at a time, and developed a special bond with her oldest grandson, but “five was way too many,” Patty said. One time, when Patty was little, she drew paper dolls and showed them proudly to her grandmother. Rita pointed out that the figures were out of proportion.*****

Art was an important part of the family’s daily life. “I did not grow up with a mom who had crocheted doilies on the sofa,” Patty said. When the family went to an exhibition of Bertoia’s work, Patty’s sister was told to stop touching the tree sculptures. “My grandmother lets me,” she said.

Harry Bertoia in sculpture studio.

Harry Bertoia with samples of his sculpture in the early 1960s (Harry Bertoia Foundation)

“She had so much influence on us five and our extended family,” Patty said of her grandmother. One of Rita’s nephews went on to be an artist and designer. Patty herself went on to a different kind of artistic career, as a ballet dancer.

When Rita was 85 years old, she and her husband moved to Denver so Tom and his family could care for them. One day, Rita sat Patty down and pulled out a portfolio from the 1920s, with drawings of nudes in copper and black. Until then, Patty hadn’t known that Rita had continued drawing after her career ended. “She was so gifted,” Patty said, “to see curves and shadows and lines where none of the rest of us could.”

Rita died on December 30, 1990, at the age of 97. For her descendants, her art collection, her furniture, and her own art work serve as tangible reminders of her artistic sensibility and her talent. For the rest of us, her art lives on online. The Library of Congress, which has the original of the July 1916 Vanity Fair cover in its collection, featured it in a 2002 exhibition titled “American Beauties: Drawings from the Golden Age of Illustration.”

Rita Senger Vanity Fair cover, July 1916, woman dancing on beach.

July 1916

The website for the exhibition states that “Rita Senger’s lithe beauty dancing on a shore (ca. 1916) embodied a freedom based on insistent individuality. Compared with their predecessors, [fellow illustrator Ethel] Plummer’s and Senger’s figures move freely in more public, open spaces.”

If Rita had enjoyed that same freedom in her own life, the world would be the richer for it. Still, I feel lucky to have discovered the work she did leave us, and, through Patty, to have learned this remarkable woman’s story. I can think of no better way to celebrate Women’s History Month than telling it here.

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*The “almost” being because in 2018 I called the Huntington Museum of Art in West Virginia and talked to a very nice woman who confirmed that the museum still owned the painting “Lead Kindly, Light,” by William Edouard Scott, which was featured on the cover of the April 1918 issue of The Crisis. Also, I e-mailed the Library of Congress in 2019 for a post that’s still on my to-do list. But contacting people whose job it is to answer your questions is very different from reaching out to a stranger and saying, “Tell me all about your grandma!”

Crisis cover, April 1918, black couple on wagon going north.

**I know, not exactly lightning speed. In my (feeble) defense, I left Washington, D.C., where I’d unexpectedly spent almost a year, for Cape Town shortly after my conversation with Patty, and after that I had some time-specific posts to do for the holidays, Black History Month, etc. Still!

***Or possibly three. Vogue’s website identifies this September 15, 1917, cover as being Senger’s,

Vogue cover, September 15, 1917, woman with purse.

but credits the September 1 cover, which is definitely hers, to Alice De Warenn Little, so it’s possibly that they flipped the attributions. Vogue published two issues a month at that point, and I’ve never come across two covers by the same artist during the same month.

****The life of Lelong, who was also a prominent couturier, makes for fascinating reading. During his marriage (possibly of convenience) to Princess Natalia Pavlovna Paley, she had a messy entanglement with the writer Jean Cocteau, who was gay. Another one of Lelong’s wives later married Collette’s widower.

Lucien Lelong in 1925

Lucien Lelong in 1925 (National Photo Company)

*****When Patty told me this, I laughed and told her about the time my brother and I, aged about eight and nine, were designing houses on graph paper. My father took a quick glance at our floor plans and told us the plumbing was misaligned—the second-floor bathroom needed to be directly above the first-floor bathroom so that the pipes would line up.

Crop of illustration from Bernice Bobs Her Hair, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Bernice Bobs Her Hair–and I Bob Mine!

In 1920, 23-year-old F. Scott Fitzgerald was flying high. His first novel, This Side of Paradise, the story of a Princeton student who’s a lot like F. Scott Fitzgerald, was published in March. Reviews were glowing* and sales were strong.

Dust jacket, This Side of Paradise, first edition.

He married Zelda in April.**

F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald on their honeymoon, 1920.

F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald on their honeymoon, 1920 (Library of Congress)

The real money was in short stories, and his were starting to sell.*** “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” appeared in the May 1 edition of the Saturday Evening Post.

Saturday Evening Post cover, Norman Rockwell, May 1, 1920, man and woman at Ouija board.

Norman Rockwell

Meanwhile, back in 2020, my hair was getting long. Not this long,

Shampoo ad showing woman with long red hair, Ladies' Home Journal, April 1920.

Ladies’ Home Journal, April 1920

but long.

Mary Grace McGeehan with long hair, May 2020.

It could be months before the salons opened in D.C. Something had to be done.

Hey, I thought, how about a bob of my own to celebrate Bernice’s centennial? I had read the story in college and vaguely recalled it as the jolly tale of a popular young woman who gets her hair bobbed to the shock of all around her, but then all her friends decide she looks fantastic and they all go dance a celebratory Charleston.**** Or something along those lines.

Headline, Bernice Bobs Her Hair by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Saturday Evening Post, May 1, 1920.

The real story turned out to be nothing like that at all.***** Here’s what really happens.

Bernice, who hails from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, is visiting her aunt and cousin Marjorie, who live in an unnamed city that that could be Fitzgerald’s home town of Minneapolis-St. Paul. Bernice is attractive enough, but she’s a total buzz-kill. No one ever cuts in on her at dances. (She’s more popular in Eau Claire, but it hasn’t dawned on her that this might have something to do with her father being the richest man in town.) Warren, who’s miserably in love with Marjorie, has the misfortune of sitting with Bernice on the veranda at intermission at a country club dance. “He wondered idly whether she was a poor conversationalist because she got no attention or got no attention because she was a poor conversationalist,” Fitzgerald writes.

“She’s absolutely hopeless,” Marjorie complains to her mother one night. “I think it’s that crazy Indian blood in Bernice. Maybe she’s a reversion to type. Indian women all just sat round and never said anything.”

Marjorie’s mom calls her “idiotic,” more fondly than you should when your daughter’s being racist.

Bernice, you will not be surprised to hear (especially if you looked at the picture), has been standing behind the door the whole time. The next day at breakfast, she tells Marjorie that she heard everything. If that’s the way things are, she says, she might as well go back to Eau Claire. Marjorie is not as horrified by this concept as Bernice had expected, so she goes off and cries for a while.

Then she goes to confront Marjorie. She has barely gotten three words into her little lecture on kindness when Marjorie cuts her off, saying, in essence, “Cut the Little Women crap.” Bernice ponders this while Marjorie’s off at a matinee and when Marjorie returns she proposes a new plan: she’ll stay, and Marjorie will give her popularity lessons. Marjorie agrees—IF Bernice promises to do every single thing she tells her to. Deal, says Bernice.

Pillsbury ad, Saturday Evening Post, May 1, 1920.

Saturday Evening Post, May 1, 1920

The Eliza Dootlittle-ing of Bernice begins. There’s some eyebrow-tending and remedial dancing, but most of the focus is on repartee. A few days later, Bernice tries out her new line at a country club dance. “Do you think I ought to bob my hair, Mr. Charley Paulson?” she asks. “I want to be a society vampire, you see.” Mr. Charley Paulson has nothing useful to say on this subject, but Bernice announces that the bobbing is on. Servier Barber Shop. The whole gang’s invited.

Glidden ad, men on scaffolding, Satruday Evening Post, May 1, 1920.

Saturday Evening Post, May 1, 1920

Of course she’s not really going to have her hair bobbed. Short hair on women is considered immoral in respectable circles in 1920 (or 1919, if you allow for publication lead times). It’s just a line. But it works! The new Bernice and her inane babble are the toast of the town. As the weeks go by, she compiles an impressive list of admirers. Including—uh oh!—Warren. Remember him? Marjorie’s admirer who got stuck with Bernice on the veranda? Marjorie, who is not as indifferent to Warren as she lets on, is NOT amused.

At a bridge party, Marjorie confronts Bernice. “Splush!” she says. The hair bobbing business is just a line—admit it! Bernice is out of her league here, and next thing she knows the gang is at Servier Barber Shop. “My hair—bob it!” she says to the nearest barber.

Bernice at barber shop, Bernice Bobs Her Hair, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

And the barber does. Or, rather, he hacks it off. And…disaster! It turns out that Bernice’s lustrous brown locks were a major element of her attractiveness. Now, with her hair hanging in lank lifeless blocks, she looks, she thinks, “ridiculous, like a Greenwich Villager who had left her spectacles at home.” Warren and the other guys are instantly over her.

But Bernice has more spirit than we’ve given her credit for. That night, as Marjorie lies sleeping, her blond hair in braids, Bernice steals into her room and picks up a pair of shears. Snip snip, good-bye golden locks! As Marjorie sleeps on, Bernice heads out for the train station, braids in hand, and flings them into Warren’s front yard.

“Ha!” she giggled wildly. “Scalp the selfish thing!”
Then picking up her suitcase she set off at a half run down the moonlit street.

Hartford Fire Insurance ad, red wolf, May 1, 1920.

Saturday Evening Post, May 1, 1920.

All of this left me cheering for Bernice but second-guessing my choice of her as a tonsorial role model. The barber at Servier might not have been a bobbing expert, but at least he was a hair-cutting professional. Maybe I should leave well enough alone. Hardly anyone ever sees my hair these days, and when they do it’s tied up under a mask.

Mary Grace McGeehan outdoors in mask, May 2020.

But I have to look at my hair constantly, what with all the hand-washing while reciting 20-second snippets of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. I can’t take it anymore, I decide. Steeling my courage, I set a towel on the floor, wet my hair, and prop up my iPad to use  as a mirror.

Towel around my head, I tell myself it’s not too late. I can still back down. But Marjorie’s mocking voice says in my head, as it said in Bernice’s, “Give up and get down. You tried to buck me and I called your bluff.”

Mary Grace McGeehan, head in towel, May 2020.

Am I going to take that from a twit like Marjorie? No, I’m not! I lift the scissors****** to my head and start to snip.

Mary Grace McGeehan cutting hair, May 1920.

Halfway through, no turning back now. I smile bravely.

Mary Grace McGeehan halfway through haircut, May 1920.

Finished!

Mary Grace McGeehan haircut, May 2020.

I show myself the back, like a real hairdresser. A little crooked, but not too bad considering the awkward angle and lack of visibility.

Mary Grace McGeehan haircut from back, May 1920.

But the blow-dry is the true test. Which will it be? Limp, lifeless blocks, or chic new do?

Mary Grace McGeehan haircut horror, May 2020.

Just kidding. That’s Bernice. I love it!

Mary Grace McGeehan haircut thumbs-up, May 2020.

When the decade changed, a few friends asked me if I was excited to be moving into the 1920s. The answer was no, not really. Everyone knows about the Jazz Age and the Lost Generation. The 1910s felt more mine, somehow. But, as I read “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” in its original setting, with the illustrations and the ads and this photo stuck under the end of the story,

Photograph of house in country, Saturday Evening Post, May 1, 1920.

I felt like I was discovering Fitzgerald–not the canonic writer everyone reads in high school, not the man who knew so much disappointment and misery in his short life, but an ambitious and promising young man who brilliantly skewers the young people in his privileged social circle but rises above satire because he loves them too. I’m in at the beginning of something exciting and important, and I’m looking forward to seeing it unfold.

Stay safe, everyone, and don’t fear the scissors!

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*Here’s the opening of the New Republic review:

New Republic review, This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald, May 12, 1920.

The New Republic, May 12, 1920

**The timing was not a coincidence. The sale of This Side of Paradise sealed the deal on the engagement.

***Fitzgerald’s first published short story, “Babes in the Woods,” appeared in The Smart Set in September 1919. Summary: popular boy and popular girl meet at a party. Will they kiss? (UPDATE 12/20/2020: I realized while rereading This Side of Paradise  that “Babes in the Woods” is an excerpt from the novel. In the Smart Set version, Amory Blaine is still called Stephen Palms, Fitzgerald’s original name for him.)

Smart Set cover, September 1919, woman in hat.

****Yes, I know, the Charleston wasn’t actually a thing until 1923.

*****In my defense, college was quite a while ago.

******Presciently ordered way back in March.

Coles Phillips Luxite hosiery ad.

5 Old Posts That Might Come in Handy Around Now

Hi everyone, I hope you’re all where you want to be, with the people you want to be with. I’m in my studio apartment in D.C., feeling lucky that, unlike many people I know, I’m able to see friends and family (from a distance) and go for long walks.

Mary Grace McGeehan, March 2020

Me in my studio apartment

Here are some old posts that might come in handy if you’ve had enough Marie Kondo-ing and binge-watching and need something to occupy your mind. And, if you’re feeling competitive, there’s a prize!

1.  Are you a superior adult? Take this 1918 intelligence test and find out!

photograph of cameo, girl looking at hand surrounded by gemstones.

Tobias “ToMar” Maier

For this post, my most popular of 2018, I took a totally scientific intelligence test from the February 16, 1918, issue of Literary Digest that measures your intelligence by your ability to define 100 words. You, too, can find out whether you’re a superior adult!

2. Did College Shrink Your Breasts? A Quiz

Barnard College, 1918

In 1875, an awful guy named Dr. Henry Maudsley wrote an article called “Sex in Mind and Education” in a British journal. It was about how women are unfit to go to college with men, because menstruation. (And other things too, but that’s the main deal-breaker.) In 1918, the Education Review, an American journal edited by Columbia University’s horrible president Nicholas Butler,* for some reason saw fit to republish it. I took Maudsley’s arguments one by one and turned them into a quiz where you, too, can see if you’re unfit to go to college. (And like any highly scientific inquiry it needs a control group–that’s you, men!)

3. Can you beat me at this 1918 intelligence test? Probably!

American magazine headline, How High do You Stand on the Rating Scale? March 1919.

American magazine, March 1919

All smug over my 1918 performance, I set out to take a 1919 intelligence test. And, well, the title says it all. Would you fare better than me in the post-WWI workplace?** Find out here!

4. Are You A Stagnuck? A 1918 Year-End Quiz (With a Prize!)

False Armistice headline, New York Evening World, November 7, 1918.

New York Evening World, November 7, 1918 (Library of Congress)

In December 2018, as I wrapped up my year of reading as if I were living in 1918, I posted this quiz. The response was a resounding, “I give up! This is way too hard!” A year of immersion in 1918, it turned out, had left me severely delusional about normal people’s knowledge about the false armistice, the staffing of the Wilson administration, modernist literary criticism, and the like. But you have way more time on your hands now, so here’s your chance to give it another shot! The prize for the highest number of correct answers received by April 15, 2020 (or the first person to get them all right if more than one person does, which judging from previous experience is highly unlikely), is a book of your choice that was written in 1920 or before and is priced at $25 or below on Amazon or through your local independent bookseller. Answers are all on the blog, and there’s a hint right here on this page!***

5. Ten 1919 Illustrators I’m Thankful For

Coles Phillips January 1916 Good Housekeeping cover illustration, woman and easel.

Coles Phillips

Maybe by now you’re thinking, “Really? She thinks what I need right now is to take a test? She doesn’t get me at all.” If that’s the case, you can relax your mind and feast your eyes on these wonderful illustrations from some of my favorite illustrators of 1919. I’ve been obsessed with Coles Phillips since I wrote this. The image at the top is from a 1917 ad of his from the Overland automobile company.

Stay safe and healthy, everyone!

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*Last May, when I was watching Jeopardy, Alex Trebek said, “The 1931 Nobel Peace Prize was shared by 2 Americans…” and I yelled from the kitchen, “Nicholas Butler!” He continued, “…Nicholas Butler and this Hull House cofounder.” “Jane Addams!” I yelled, as the contestants all sat there like dummies.

**Leaving aside that if you’re a man you definitely would.

***Submit your answers through the Contact page. If you win and you live outside the United States, I can’t promise to be able to send you your prize, but I’ll do the best I can.

The Top 10 Posts of 1919…and a new name for a new decade

Happy New Year, everyone!

The beginning of a new decade is a good time for a fresh start. A time to review your diet, and your exercise routine, and your blog title. When I launched My Year in 1918 on January 1, 2018, I expected it to be a one-year journey to the world of a hundred years ago. Which it was, in the sense that I spent that year reading ONLY as if I were living 100 years ago. Since this is not something one can do indefinitely, I reentered the 21st century at the beginning of 2019. I found I didn’t want to leave the 1910s behind, though, so I continued reading and writing about the world of 1919.

Vanity Fair cover, January 1920, cartoon of people driving cars.

Which, since I didn’t listen to my friend Emily, who warned me about this exact scenario, left me with an outdated blog name. I didn’t worry about this too much in 2019, seeing the year as an extended victory lap. But, as the 1920/2020s approached, I was growing tired of having to give long-winded explanations about why my blog was called My Year in 1918.

So I’m excited to announce this blog’s new, non-expiring, name: My Life 100 Years Ago.*

The Crisis cover, January 1920, woman wearing turban.

Now on to the most popular posts of the year.

The Top 10 wasn’t as competitive a category in 2019 as it was in 2018, when, posting with monomaniacal zeal, I ended up with 94 contenders. Last year I only published 21 posts. Still, thanks to the magic of Google search engine optimization—the more you’ve written the more important Google thinks you are, so you end up being, say, the go-to person on glamorous spy ring leader Despina Storch—I ended up with a slightly higher number of views in 2019 than in 2018.**

Here are the top 10 posts, starting with #7 because there is, weirdly, a four-way tie in that position.

#7 (tie). Ten 1919 Illustrators I’m Thankful For

Coles Phillips Vogue cover, woman with hat,

I had a great time learning about the lives and art of these illustrators. My favorite discovery was Coles Phillips, who pioneered the Fadeaway Girl technique.***

#7 (tie). Can you beat me at this 1919 intelligence test? Probably!

Number chart for intelligence test, American Magazine, 1919.

Last year, I took a vocabulary-based intelligence test from 1918 and did pretty well. This year, I took a series of intelligence tests from 1919 and, well, the title says it all.

#7 (tie). My Perfect 1919 Summer Morning

I woke up one day in D.C. to find it was a miraculously beautiful August morning, then spent the whole day inside writing this blog post. It was worth it, though. For one thing, I now know way more than I used to about 1919 deodorant.

#7 (tie). Nobel Prize Laureate Selma Lagerlöf: A Swedish storyteller whose own story couldn’t be told

Posed photograph of Selma Lagerlof leaning against Sophie Elkan.

While spending a month in Sweden, I looked into the life of the first woman Nobel Prize laureate in literature and found lots of romantic intrigue.

#6. Princeton interlude: Orange and black is the new black

Princeton students in beer suits, ca. 1926.

In which I go to my Princeton grad school reunion and take on a burning question: What’s with those goofy jackets?

#5. And the best novel of 1918 is…

Good news—clickbait works! So I won’t tell you what it is here either. Hint: it’s based on the real-life woman pictured with her family in this photograph.

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

I have had a huge amount of fun doing this blog. The intelligence tests! The quizzes on What’s Your 1918 Girl Job? and Did College Shrink Your Breasts?! The search for 1918 love! But setting out to earn badges from the 1916 Girl Scout handbook was the most fun of all. In this second round, I polished silver and translated Proust and played the recorder and…well, read for yourself!

#3. Children’s Books: Your 1919 Holiday Shopping Guide

Man shooting duck, illustration by Boyd Smith, Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes.

This was another of my favorite projects of the year, and readers must have agreed—this post shot up to #3 in only twelve days. One surprise was the amount of violence in children’s books of 100 years ago. The illustration here is from a NURSERY RHYME.

#2. April 1919 Ladies’ Home Journal Ads: A Riot of Color for Spring

1919 Uneeda Biscuit ad with slogan Peace and Plenty, illustration of cornucopia.

The popularity of this post taught me this lesson: “People don’t care what you write, just put up a bunch of cool pictures and they’ll be happy.”

#1. My Quest to Earn a 1919 Girl Scout Badge

The humongous success of this post—it had three time as many views as the next most popular post of the year—shows that readers had as much fun as I did with the Girl Scout badge quest. Luckily, there are more badges to be earned this year, with a new edition of the Girl Scout handbook out in 1920. And if you missed the second installment, it’s just a click away at #4!

Honorable Mentions:

Downtown Provo

Exploring Provo–and Mormon History: Sometimes initial popularity hurts a post in the stats, because if you read the post at the top of the blog without clicking on it then it’s credited to the home page. This is what happened with this post, which tied the record for daily views when first published but ended up as #18 of 21 for the year.

Celebrating 100 Posts: 2017 Me Interviews 2019 Me about My Year in 1918: There’s no particular reason to give this post an honorable mention except that I like it, it wasn’t far out of tied-for-tenth place, and it’s a good introduction to the blog if you’re just discovering it now.

Dishonorable Mention

More beautiful images from 1918: I always hope that the least-viewed post of the year doesn’t turn out to be a labor of love that I spent days and days on. Luckily (and perhaps not coincidentally), this hasn’t been the case so far. 2019’s worst performer, with 10 views**** (which is at least better than last year’s two), is one of three posts of images that I published in the first weeks of 2019, when I was shell-shocked after emerging from 1918. So I guess the “people only want to look at pictures” rule isn’t infallible.

Best-Performing Post from 2018

In search of a good mother poem: Posts originally published in 2018 didn’t qualify for Top 10 honors. Which is bad luck for this one, which only came in 17th last year but was this year’s second most viewed overall. I hope that all these visitors weren’t seeking inspirational Mother’s Day verse, since they would have been disappointed. That is, I think “Dedication for a Plot of Ground,” William Carlos Williams’ tribute to his fierce grandmother, is inspiring, but I can’t imagine it on a needlepoint sampler.

All the best for the new year! I’m looking forward to sharing the Roaring Twenties with you.

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*UPDATE 1/2/2020: This blog’s URL is now officially mylife100yearsago.com. Myyearin1918.com redirects to this site, so everything should happen seamlessly from your end regardless of how you access it, except maybe RSS feeds. (Drop me a line if it doesn’t.) Everyone on the internet made this process sound incredibly scary–“you’ll want to brush up on your FTP skills,” etc.–but it ended up taking five minutes on WordPress.

**Another thing about search engine optimization: Google severely punishes broken links, which my blog suddenly has lots of. The Modernist Journals Project recently revamped its site, breaking my many links to magazines such as The Smart Set, The Crisis, and The Little Review. I’m fixing them one by one. If you encounter a broken link to something you need (or just want) to see, send me a message on the Contact page and I’ll send you the link. (To the person who clicked eight times last week trying in vain to get to the issue of The Smart Set with H.L. Mencken’s review of My Ántonia in it, here it is.)

***Phillips seems to have been the inspiration for Grace Lin’s children’s book A Big Bed for Little Snow, which was just reviewed in the New York Times, with a fadeaway illustration from the book of a mother and child. In the book, Lin writes, “Little Snow listened to Mommy’s footsteps fade away,” which I suspect is a shout-out. (UPDATE 1/18/020: I sent a message to Grace Lin’s website to ask about this and got a response saying that Lin discusses the connection in this video. It’s well worth watching if you’ve got five minutes, and not just because of the Phillips connection.)

****But, remember, more people read it on the home page.

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New on the Book List:

I have been very lazy about updates. I’ve recently added mini-reviews for the latest (and last) entries for 2019:

The Girl from the Marsh Croft, by Selma Lagerlöf (1908; translated 1910)
Understood Betsy, by Dorothy Canfield Fisher (1916)
Pictures of the Floating World, by Amy Lowell (1919)

American magazine headline, How High do You Stand on the Rating Scale? March 1919.

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

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

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

and this

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

in desperation, the quartermaster telephoned the Personnel office:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tests

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

TEST 1

Number chart for intelligence test, American Magazine, 1919.

TEST 2

Word list for intelligence test, American magazine, 1919.

TEST 3

Number list for intelligence test, March 1919.

TEST 4

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

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

TEST 5

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

That’s it! Put down your pencils.

The Answers (and My Results)

TEST 1

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

Number finding puzzle, solved.

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

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

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

which cost me about ten seconds.

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

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

TEST 2

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

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

TEST 3

Again, no answers needed.

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

TEST 4

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

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

Test answers, Popular Mechanics, April 1926.

Popular Mechanics, April 1926

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

Here are my answers:

Fill in the blanks puzzle, solved.

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

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

Roderick Hudson, first edition, photo of 3 volumes.

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

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

Excerpt from Roderick Hudson by Henry James.

Roderick Hudson, 1917 edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TEST 5

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

Fill in the blanks test, solved.

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

Except—what’s this?

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

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

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

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

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

So What Does it All Mean?

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

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

And I did!

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

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

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

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

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

Halbert Gillette pointing to globe, Popular Science, 1930.

Halbert Gillette, Popular Science, 1930

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

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

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

Literary Digest, February 16, 1918

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

Oh, right. Good point.

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

Postcard of Columbia University library, 1917.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ida Tarbell at desk, 1905.

Ida Tarbell (Pelletier Library, Allegheny College)

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

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

Portrait photograph of Senator William Lorimer, ca. 1921.

William Lorimer, ca. 1921

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

Croyden Airport, 1925.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I learned, among other things, that

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

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

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

How Girls Can Help Their Country

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

All right, on to the next 18 badges.

  1. PERSONAL HEALTH

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

I nailed a few of the requirements, like

#3. Walk a mile a day for three months

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

Me, Gamla Uppsala, Sweden, 2016

and

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

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

Ladies’ Home Journal, May 1919.

(Well, a shower.)

Unfortunately, there’s also

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

and

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

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

Cup of cocoa on table.

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

FAIL.

  1. PUBLIC HEALTH

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

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

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

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

Map of Cape Town waste disposal infrastructure.

iwmsa.co.za

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

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

iwmsa.co.za

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

FAIL.

  1. HORSEMANSHIP

Horsemanship Girl Scout badge, 1916 (spur).

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

Cosmopolitan cover, April 1919, young woman with horse.

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

#6. State lighting up time, city law.

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

FAIL.

  1. HOME-NURSING

Home Nursing Girl Scout badge, 1916 (cross).

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

Yeah, if you pay thirty bucks!

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

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

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

How Girls Can Help Their Country

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

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

Bottle of amazi (sour milk).

Pick ‘n Pay

I’ve got this one, though:

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

FAIL.

  1. HOUSEKEEPER

Housekeeper Girl Scout badge, 1916 (crossed keys).

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

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

Before:

Tarnished silver fork.

After:

Silver fork.

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

#4. Tell how to choose furniture.

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

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

Ladies’ Home Journal, May 1918

So I have clean silver, but

FAIL.

  1. INTERPRETER

Interpreter Girl Scout badge, 1916 (shaking hands).

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

Mary Grace McGeehan at Angkor Wat, 1996.

Me, Angkor Wat, Cambodia, 1996

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

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

Here I am speaking Khmer:

 

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

Check!

#2. Write a letter in a foreign language.

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

Check!

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

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

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

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

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

Check!

SUCCESS.

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

Handwritten word Success! with squiggles.

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

  1. LAUNDRESS

Laundress Girl Scout badge, 1916 (iron).

#2. Press a skirt and coat.

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

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

Simpson’s Catalogue, 1918

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

Before:

Wrinkled Lao blouse and skirt on bed.

After:

Mary Grace McGeehan in traditional Lao skirt and blouse.

Check!

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

FAIL.

  1. MARKSMANSHIP

Marksmanship Girl Scout badge, 1916 (crossed rifles).

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

Let’s just skip this one, okay?

  1. MUSIC

Musician Girl Scout badge, 1916 (lyre).

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

Until now, that is.

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

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

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

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

Library of Congress

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

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

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


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

Check! 

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

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

Check!

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

Children with string instruments, 1920.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Check!

Handwritten Success! surrounded by squiggles.

  1. NATURALIST

Naturalist Girl Scout badge, 1916 (flower).

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

Or,

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

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

Sketches of wildflowers from Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden, Cape Town.

#2. Twelve sketches or photographs of animal life.

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

Photograph of pigeon on street.

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

Kruger Park, South Africa, 2009

Rhinos in Kruger Park, South Africa.

Bird in Kruger Park, South Africa.

Impalas in Kruger Park, South Africa.

Elephant in Kruger Park, South Africa.

Zebras and giraffe, Kruger Park, South Africa.

Kunene region, Namibia, 2013

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

Antelope in front of hills, Kunene Region, Namibia.

Giraffe in front of hills, Kunene Region, Namibia.

Boulders Beach, Cape Town, 2018

Penguins at Boulders Beach, Cape Town.

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

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

Penguins at Boulders Beach, Cape Town.

Handwritten Success! surrounded by squiggle.

Two in a row! I’m on a roll!

  1. NEEDLEWOMAN

Needlewoman Girl Scout badge, 1916 (scissors).

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

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

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

Mary Grace McGeehan in homemade dress, 1983.

Me, 1983

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

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

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

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

Tegucigalpa, Honduras, 2012

#3. Produce satisfactory examples of darning and patching.

Closeup of portion of striped shirt with inexpert darning.

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

FAIL.

  1. PATHFINDER

Pathfinder Girl Scout badge, 1916 (pointing finger).

#2. Know how to use the fire alarm.

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

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

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

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

Check!

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

Map of Western Cape, South Africa.

Google Maps

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

Check!

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

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

A solid performance, but sadly there’s also

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

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

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

Wikipedia

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

Cape Town Cenotaph with wreaths, November 11, 2018.

FAIL.

  1. PIONEER

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

This one only has two requirements.

#1. Tie six knots.

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

Here are the knots in How Girls Can Help Their Country

Illustrations of knots from 1916 Girl Scout handbook.

and here are my knots:

Six knots in yellow yarn on a table.

Check!

#2. Build a shack suitable for three occupants.

What?

FAIL.

  1. PHOTOGRAPHY

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

1919 Kodak ad, girls looking at photo album.

Ladies’ Home Journal, September 1919 (Hathitrust)

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

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

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

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

FAIL.

  1. SCRIBE

Scribe Girl Scout badge, 1916 (book).

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

#3. Write a good story.

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

Writing My City anthology, Cape Town, 2019

Check!

#2. Write a good poem.

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

FAIL.

  1. SIGNALING

Signaling Girl Scout badge, 1916 (crossed flags).

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

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

I think I’ll stick with WhatsApp.

FAIL.

  1. SWIMMER

Swimmer Girl Scout badge, 1916 (life buoy).

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

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

#6. Saving the drowning.

FAIL.

  1. TELEGRAPHY.

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

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

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

FAIL.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Junior Girl Scout Handbook, 1963

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

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

How Girls Can Help Their Country

***Blogger in-joke.

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

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

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

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

Girl Scout troop, 1916.

My Quest to Earn a 1919 Girl Scout Badge

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

Pictures of girl scout uniforms, 1960s.

Junior Girl Scout Handbook, 1963

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

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

Juliette Gordon Low in Girl Scout uniform, 1917.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Selection from 1916 Girl Scout handbook on housewifery.

How Girls Can Help Their Country

Well, let’s see.

  1. AMBULANCE

Ambulance Girl Scout badge, 1916, Maltese cross.

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

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

How Girls Can Help Their Country

FAIL.

  1. ARTIST

Artist Girl Scout badge, 1916, palette with brushes.

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

            Arts and Crafts:

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

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

FAIL.

  1. ATHLETICS

Athletics Girl Scout badge, 1916, Indian clubs.

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

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

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

Others posed more of a challenge.

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

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

Captain Ball diagram.

Captain Ball diagram, funandgames.org

FAIL.

  1. ATTENDANCE

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

Must complete one year of regular attendance.

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

FAIL.

  1. AUTOMOBILING

Automobiling Girl Scout badge, 1916, wheel.

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

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

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

salearners.co.za

and this:

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

salearners.co.za

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

FAIL.

  1. AVIATION

Aviation Girl Scout badge, 1916, monoplane.

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

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

FAIL.

  1. BIRD STUDY

Bird Study Girl Scout badge, 1916, bird.

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

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

Woman wearing hat with aigret feather, 1911.

Chapeau à Aigrette, Maison Lewis, 1911

FAIL.

  1. BOATSWAIN

Boatswain Girl Scout badge, 1916, anchor.

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

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

How Girls Can Help Their Country

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

sketch of constellations Little Bear and Great Bear, 1916.

How Girls Can Help Their Country

FAIL.

  1. CHILD-NURSE

Child-Nurse Girl Scout badge, 1916, cross.

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

FAIL.

  1. CLERK

Clerk Girl Scout badge, 1916, pen and book.

#1. Must have legible handwriting;

Check!

ability to typewrite;

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

speedytypingonline.com

Check!

a knowledge of spelling and punctuation;

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

a library hand;

Wait! What’s a library hand?

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

Illustration of library hand handwriting.

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

Here is my library hand:

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

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

FAIL.

  1. CIVICS

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

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

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

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

Words We the People from the original United States Constitution.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then I got to:

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

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

FAIL.

  1. COOK

Cook Girl Scout badge, 1916, gridiron.

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

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

Mary Grace McGeehan at Christmas table, 1915.

Me, Christmas 2015

Check!

#2: Clean and dress fowl.

FAIL.

  1. INVALID COOKING

Invalid Cooking Girl Scout badge, 1916, palm leaf.

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

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

FAIL.

  1. CYCLIST

Cyclist Girl Scout badge, 1916, wheel.

#1. Own a bicycle.

A bicycle standing on end in a garage.

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

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

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

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

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

Unfortunately, there’s also

#2. Be able to mend a tire.

FAIL.

  1. DAIRY

Dairy Girl Scout badge, 1916, sickle.

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

Advertisement for Babcock milk testing machine, 1904.

Hoard’s Dairyman, 1904

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

FAIL.

  1. ELECTRICITY

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

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

Etc., etc., etc.

Picture of electromagnet, 1919.

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

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

FAIL.

  1. FARMER

Farmer Girl Scout badge, 1916, sun.

What? Not farmerette?

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

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

#2. Storing eggs.

Eggs in refrigerator.

FAIL.

  1. GARDENING

Gardening Girl Scout badge, 1916, trowel.

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

Here’s my back-yard garden:

Garden pots with dead plants in them.

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

FAIL.

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

Girl Scout troop, 1916.

How Girls Can Help Their Country

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

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

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

But also this:

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

I will go on! Stay tuned for Part 2.

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

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

Mary Grace McGeehan in wicker chair, ca. 1967.

Me, ca. 1967

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

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

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

 

 

My Perfect 1919 Summer Morning

When I talk to readers of My Year in 1918,* they often say, “My favorite thing about your blog is…” I wait eagerly for their next words: “the razor-sharp, witty writing,” maybe, or “your profound understanding of the era.” But in my heart I know what’s coming:

“The pictures.”

I don’t blame them. I love the pictures too.

It’s a beautiful August morning in Washington, D.C.,** and I’ve decided to use those pictures to imagine myself into an equally beautiful summer morning in 1919.

Like the woman in this Pears Soap ad, I wake up, turn my cheeks to the first clear rays of dawn, and say, “I am beautiful!”

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

Ladies’ Home Journal, July 1919

Then I roll over and go back to sleep for a few more hours.

When I finally get up, I take a bath, then dust myself with talcum powder, which is quite the thing in 1919.

Williams' talc powder ad, 1919.

Ladies’ Home Journal, May 1919

Vivaudou Mavis face powder ad, 1919.

Ladies’ Home Journal, June 2019

Talc Jonteel advertisement, woman with talcum powder, 1919.

Ladies’ Home Journal, June 1919

Colgate's talc powder ad, 1919.

Ladies’ Home Journal, July 1919

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

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

Ladies’ Home Journal, July 1919

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

Ladies’ Home Journal, August 1919

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

Ladies’ Home Journal, June 1919

Deodorant powder ad, 1919, One Woman to Another.

Ladies’ Home Journal, April 1919

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

Lux soap ad, 1919, Perspiration hurts fabrics

Ladies’ Home Journal, July 1919

so I dab on some deodorant powder. I get dressed

Wolfhead underwear ad, 1919, two women getting dressed.

Ladies’ Home Journal, May 1919

and have a nice healthy breakfast,

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

Swift’s Premium Bacon ad, Ladies’ Home Journal, July 1919

with orange juice made from this recipe from Sunkist: “Just squeeze juice from an orange.”***

Screenshot (2637)-2

Ladies’ Home Journal, July 1919

Over breakfast, I flip through my August magazines,

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

Rita Senger

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

George Wolfe Plank

Screenshot (2685)-1

Alex Bradshaw and W.H. Bull

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

Harry Richardson

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

Screenshot (2648)

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

Jack Tar Togs advertisement, 1919, woman playing tennis.

Ladies’ Home Journal, May 1919

and beaches to relax on,

Indian Head Cloth ad, 1919, family under umbrella.

Ladies’ Home Journal, May 1919

and romance in the air!*****

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

Ladies’ Home Journal, June 1919

Meanwhile, back in 2019, the morning has come and gone, and so will the afternoon if I don’t get a move on.

Enjoy what’s left of the summer, everyone!

*That is, friends who read the blog. It’s not like I’m recognized on the street.

**I know, it sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s true:

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

Yahoo Weather

***If you’re wondering, like I was, why Sunkist was explaining such an obvious concept, it’s because orange juice wasn’t very popular yet. There was a huge oversupply of oranges early in the 1910s, leading to the chopping down of 30% of the citrus trees in California, and the citrus industry was desperate to find more uses for its product. They turned to advertisers, who came up with the slogan “drink an orange,” which debuted in 1916.

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

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

Screenshot (2750)-1

None of Moore-Park’s other paintings of birds for the Ladies’ Home Journal (or, as it turns out to have been briefly and ill-advisedly named, the New Ladies’ Home Journal) show signs of being optical illusions, so I guess the parrot was just supposed to be a parrot.

Ladies' home journal cover depitcing two cockatoos.

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

June 1916 Ladies' Home Journal cover depicting pink flamingos.

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

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

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

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

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

*****Again with the powder!

Downtown Provo

Exploring Provo–and Mormon History

Belated happy Pioneer Day, everyone!

“Happy what?” you might be asking. That is, if you’re not from Utah, where July 24—the anniversary of the arrival of Brigham Young and the first Mormon* pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley in 1847—is a state holiday, a sort of second Fourth of July.

I’m in Provo for the week, in the role of conference spouse. Unfortunately, they moved the celebration away from downtown this year because Pioneer Park is being renovated, so I didn’t get to attend,

1912 Pioneer Day reenactment, Salt Lake City

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

but last night I watched from my hotel room as fireworks went off all across town, the mountains that ring the city serving as a backdrop.

Provo, the home of Brigham Young University, is an attractive little city. Eighty-eight percent of greater Provo is Mormon, the highest proportion in the state (and, ergo, the country). This figure is a bit misleading because it counts BYU students, but still—it’s pretty Mormon. Especially on Sundays, when stores and restaurants are closed and the streets are empty except for people going to and from church. I felt self-conscious walking around in pants.**

Provo is surprisingly hip, though, with funky stores

Unhinged sign, Provo

and a cool coffee*** shop

Coffee shop, Provo

and my favorite used book store ever, Pioneer Book.

I’m not a fan of used bookstores in general—I hate the musty smell, the lack of order, and the “here’s a bunch of stuff people didn’t want” atmosphere. Pioneer, though, is like a new bookstore where the books just happen to be (lightly) used. The sales counter is made of books

Pioneer Book counter, Provo

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

Display shelf, Pioneer Book, Provo

books by writers born more than 100 years ago,

Pioneer Book display shelf

and books that you disagree with.

Pioneer Book, Books You Disagree With

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

Pioneer Book, LDS history section

Yes, history. I’m getting to that.

A hundred years ago, the Mormon church was in transition. Longtime president Joseph F. Smith died in November 1918 after a long period of ill health. This 1914 New York Times article about his imminent death is totally accurate except that he lived for four more years, was 76 at the time, not 82, and was church founder Joseph Smith’s nephew, not his son.

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

New York Times, November 28, 1914

When Smith actually did die, the Times (having gotten the facts about his age and paternity straight by now) noted that he was the last of the Mormon leaders to have made the trek to Utah. He was five years old when Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum, who was Joseph F.’s**** father, were killed by a mob that stormed the Illinois prison where they were being held. When he was eight, he set out with his mother for Utah, driving an ox team. Smith married his 16-year-old cousin when he was 21, married five other wives, and had 45 children.

Joseph F. Smith, 1905

Joseph F. Smith, 1905

It was under Smith’s leadership, though, that the church cracked down on polygamy, or plural marriage as it was known. His predecessor, Wilford Woodruff, had prohibited new plural marriages in the Manifesto of 1890, but many church members (and, apparently, leaders) took a wink-wink-nudge-nudge attitude, seeing the Manifesto as a political move. The Supreme Court had just upheld a law prohibiting polygamy, and the issue was standing in the way of statehood for Utah. Smith, who took over as church president in 1901, issued the “this time we really mean it” Second Manifesto in 1904.

Senator Reed Smoot, 1909

Senator Reed Smoot, 1909

The Second Manifesto was issued during a bizarre political episode following the 1903 election of Reed Smoot, a Utah Republican, to the U.S. Senate.***** A number of Protestant groups petitioned the Senate to refuse to seat Smoot, who was a Mormon apostle. They had precedent on their side, in a way: Utah Democrat B.H. Roberts, who was elected to the House of Representatives in 1898, was barred from taking his seat because he was a polygamist. Reed, though, had only one wife. That didn’t deter his critics, who argued that as a senior church member he was part of a conspiracy to promulgate polygamy. Smith was allowed to take his seat, but the matter was referred to the Senate’s Committee on Privileges and Elections, which deliberated for four years. Some three million people signed petitions opposing Smoot, and the committee hearings attracted standing-room-only crowds. Smith spent six days testifying in 1904, wearing a pin depicting his slain father. He discussed Mormon church doctrine in detail, but it was the revelation that he had five wives that riveted the press and public.

Washington Evening Star headline, Now Has Five Wives

Washington Evening Star, March 3, 1904

Smoot’s fate was finally settled in 1907, when the Senate voted 42-28 to allow him to remain. (It would have taken a two-thirds majority to expel him.) He went on to co-sponsor the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930, a piece of protectionist legislation that is widely considered to have contributed to the Great Depression.

In October 1917, Smith made one last effort to eradicate plural marriage, leaving his sickbed to denounce its continued secret practice at a church conference.

Joseph F. Smith and family, ca. 1904

Joseph F. Smith and family, ca. 1904

Smith, though, stayed married to his five wives,****** arguing that, having married them while plural marriages were still allowed, he couldn’t abandon them.

So what was it like to be a woman living in a society where plural marriage was widely practiced? In 1915, Harper’s Weekly published an article, titled “Harp Strings and Shoe Laces,” telling an anonymous Mormon woman’s story. The author writes that she was serving as the head of the music department at “one of the largest institutions on the coast,” with marriage far from her mind, when, at the age of 21, she was swept off her feet by a Mormon colleague. The 28-year-old married father of two gave her a ride in his carriage, presented her with a box of bonbons, and declared, “I’ve been in love with you ever since I first saw you.” The woman writes that

to a girl raised in any other way, such a confession from a married man would have been shocking and repulsive. I had been raised to revere every tenet of my religion. The principle of polygamy was a sacred thing. It was a revelation from God.

To lightly turn aside a confession of love from a single man was my woman’s prerogative when I chose to use it. To refuse an opportunity to enter that “sacred covenant” carried with it a superstitious dread of ill consequences to follow—I dared not invoke.

Harper's Weekly illustration

Harper’s Weekly, October 16, 1915

Her suitor tells her that he knows an apostle who will marry them despite the church ruling against plural marriage. She tells him to write to her father, who agonizes about whether to give his blessing, hesitant to subject his own daughter to the arrangement despite being a polygamist himself. Meanwhile, she starts to have second thoughts.

While I was still under the glamour of it all—in love as a girl can be only once, whether it be real or false—suddenly the thought came: two was polygamy—a test of the principle—a preparation for eternity—would he ever want a third? My heart contracted at the thought.

It occurs to her that this may be how her suitor’s wife—who hadn’t entered into her thoughts until now—is feeling. When she expresses her hesitation, he offers to divorce his wife.

“Divorce her!” I exclaimed, amazed. “But that would not be polygamy!”

She turns him down, her heart broken, and becomes aware of the shattered lives around her. She tells of her father, a successful businessman and community leader whose career was destroyed when he took a second wife. Of a young woman who went to Mexico to become a seventh wife and returned home with her baby, heart and health broken, to die. A woman whose children were taken away from her so her plural marriage would not be discovered.

Day by day, from an upper window, she watches her two sturdy little sons trudging to school—her heart aching to clasp them in her arms—not daring to let even them know of her whereabouts.

Harper's Weekly headline

Harper’s Weekly, October 16, 1915

This woman’s story is intriguing and well told, but it left me wondering whether it was actually true, as Harper’s Weekly insisted. The writer speaks of polygamy rather than plural marriage, the term used within the church. The writing is surprisingly polished for a non-professional writer. Would a music instructor barely out of her teens write this?

I am not criticizing my church. I am not palliating the principle. If ever there were a people honest and sincere in their belief, it is my people; but they have ruined their lives for a pathetic fallacy.

I have my doubts.

I’ll ponder this, and think about Utah’s history, as I spend my last day in Provo.

Or maybe I’ll take a break from history and get some ice cream. Did I mention the ice cream?

Rockwell Ice Cream sign

rockwellicecream.com

*Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints were recently instructed by their president not to use the word “Mormon” or the abbreviation “LDS” anymore. This has required a great deal of reshuffling. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, for example, is now the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square. “Mormon” is still used in historical contexts, though.

**This list of things to do in Utah on a Sunday includes, I kid you not, “take a nap.”

***Yes, Provo does have coffee shops, although they’re not as ubiquitous as in other cities. I was surprised to see a large number of Coke and Pepsi dispensers around town, including in the BYU student common (highly recommended, and practically the only place to eat on Sunday, after church ends at 1-ish). It turns out that that the church made an official statement in 2012 saying that caffeinated soda is allowed.

Coke mural, Provo, Utah

****That was what church members called him—Joseph F.

*****In case you’re thinking, like I did, this is a mistake and it’s supposed to be 1902, members of the Senate were elected by state legislatures at the time, and Utah’s election took place in January 1903.

******His first wife, unhappy with the plural marriage arrangement, had divorced him.

New on the Book List: The Circular Staircase, by Mary Roberts Rinehart (1908)