Happy New Year, everyone! I’m full of New Year’s resolutions, including to do enough posts this year to actually do a Top 10 a year from now.*
Halfway through his Saturday Evening Post New Year’s baby cover run, J.C. Leyendecker weighs in with a cover that left me baffled. A prosperous gentleman with a treaty in his pocket is conversing with the baby. But the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919 and went into effect in 1920, so what treaty is this? A Google search revealed that the Treaty of Lausanne, which cleaned up some remaining Turkey-related bits and pieces from World War I, was signed in 1923. But the United States wasn’t a signatory, so why the U and S on either side of the baby? I have no idea.** The baby, on the other hand, seems totally up to speed.
Meanwhile, they’re ringing in the new year at Pictorial Review
and Liberator in ways that you don’t have to have a Ph.D. in history to understand.
Vogue is celebrating its 30th anniversary, with Miss 1892 and Miss 1922 holding the cake.
The Top Seven
Now on to the Top Seven! As was the case last year, they’re pretty much in chronological order, with the last post in the last spot, etc., except that the Top 10 Posts of 1921, which was the first post chronologically, politely steps back to the sixth position to make way for more substantive fare.
As I do every year, I took a look at the latest crop of children’s books. I found a few that are now regarded as classics, some more deservedly so than others, along with some intriguing lesser-known books like one illustrated by a teenaged American Indian artist and one illustrated by Freud’s gender-nonconfirming niece.
I scaled my ambition way back from my previous quest to earn all the badges from the 1916 Girl Scout book and set my sights on just one badge this time—Pathfinder, where you learn all about your community, Washington, D.C. in my case. But even that turned out to be an ambitious goal, so I focused on one requirement. Then I went to Belgium for six weeks, then back to D.C., then to Cape Town, where I am now. I’ll wrap this up with some long-distance pathfinding soon.
I loved loved loved writing this post about a 1920 book about Jane Austen by eccentric professor and critic Oscar Firkins. Firkins on Mansfield Park: “We feel that Edmund is overstarched, that Fanny is oversweetened, and that the two Crawfords are unfortunate in their resemblance to unstable chemical compounds.” For more, read the post, or better yet, Firkins’ book.
I was delighted to see this post, about Hughes’ first published writing in the children’s magazine The Brownies’ Book, in the top spot. His contributions included not just poems but also articles on Mexico, where he was living. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” which became his signature poem, was submitted to The Brownies’ Book but ended up in The Crisis instead.
The Best of the Rest
Meanwhile, the backlist was going strong, with the top eight pre-2022 posts outperforming the top 2022 post. (This isn’t a fair comparison, though, since views of current posts are credited to the home page.) Here are the top three. The Rita Senger post, mentioned above, was the fourth most read.
This post about the eventful and tragic life of poet George Sterling, who founded the artists’ colony in Carmel-by-the-Sea, bumped My Quest to Earn a 1919 Girl Scout Badge out of its traditional top perch. Fame has its price: it also attracted my first angry reader, who didn’t appreciate my flippant tone.
This post, which started out with my idle curiosity about what happened to a young woman who won one of those star of tomorrow contests in a movie magazine, turned into an obsession as I tracked down the fate of Helen Lee Worthing and her African-American husband, Eugene Nelson. I’ve never worked harder on a post, and I’m pleased that it’s still finding readers.
The Journey Continues
This month marks five years since I set off on my journey to 1918. It’s been more rewarding than I could have imagined. I’ve made a number of online friends, including my fellow members of a 1920s bestsellers book discussion group. Some of them became real-life friends when I joined them in Bristol, UK, over the summer for a roundtable at a conference of the British Association for Modernist Studies. I spoke about Edna Ferber and Dorothy Canfield Fisher (that’s me in the mask).
*Who knows how that resolution will go—not very well, if the timeliness of this post is any indication—but I can tell you about one that’s a rousing success so far: to lift 3-pound weights every day while listening to a Taylor Swift song. This is a hybrid of my failed weight-lifting resolution of last year and my aspiration to improve my credentials as a Taylor Swift fan. I’m catching up on the pre-Red era, starting with the first song on the first album. Best song so far: Our Song.
**Apparently there was a side agreement with the United States called the Chester Concession, but my interest in understanding this magazine cover does not extend to learning what this was all about. Besides, it was never ratified by the Senate.
New on the Book List: The Secret Adversary, by Agatha Christie
Happy 2022, everyone! I wish I had some memorable words of wisdom to share as we head into another uncertain year. But I don’t, so let’s look at some magazine covers, okay?
As always, the year starts out with a J.C. Leyendecker New Year’s baby at the Saturday Evening Post. I had a bit of trouble with the semiotics of this one. I knew that the dove with an olive branch in its mouth represented peace, of course, and I knew that salting a bird’s tail symbolized something, but I forgot what. All I could think of was that the baby wanted to eat the dove of peace, but that didn’t make much sense.
Fortuitously, Googling “salting bird’s tail” took me to a Wikipedia article that features this very illustration and explains that sprinkling salt on a bird’s tail is supposed to render the bird temporarily unable to fly, ergo the baby is trying to prevent the dove of peace from flying away.
This was Leyendecker’s 17th New Year’s baby, the middle of his 36-year run, and a lot of other magazines had gotten onto the baby (or sometimes young child) bandwagon. There was a mechanic baby at Collier’s,
a cowboy tyke at Sunset,
a toddler cutting off his or her golden locks at Woman’s Home Companion,
and, boringly, a just plain baby at Good Housekeeping.
Even high-art Vogue is getting into the spirit.
St. Nicholas rings in 1922 with a carload of revelers, which is irrelevant to the whole baby theme but I had to shoehorn it in so I could crop this cover for the featured image up top.
Now let’s turn back to 1921/2021 one last time to look at the top ten posts of the year.*
Or, more accurately, the ten posts. This year, everyone gets a participation trophy. As was the case last year, longevity was rewarded, with the posts’ number of views roughly in order of when they were published.
In which I read children’s books from 1921 so you don’t have to. Not that I imagine you were under much pressure. I did find some good ones, though, and one gem: Unsung Heroes by Elizabeth Ross Haynes, a series of biographic sketches of notable people of African descent.
For my Thanksgiving post during the first year of this project, I wrote about ten people from 1918 I’m thankful for. In 2019, I wrote about ten illustrators. In 2020, three women illustrators. Having painted myself into a corner with these increasingly narrow categories, I struck out into a new direction last year and gave thanks for real-life (well, virtual real-life) people I’ve met as a result of this project.
In my four years of trawling through the world of 100 years ago, I’ve unearthed a lot of potential projects that (as far as I knew) no one had tackled. I asked people to let me know if they were working on any of them, and was excited to hear from someone who has an extensive collection of Erté Harper’s Bazar covers (Project #1).
I test-drove the ads in the June 1921 issue of the Ladies’ Home Journal and found, along with some beautiful artistry, a passive-aggressive dish-breaking husband, a canned-meat picnic, and some vile Italian food.
This post, in which I read Elements of Retail Salesmanship by Professor Paul Wesley Ivey, picked at random from the 1920 edition of Book Review Digest, was one of my favorites of the year. I even ended up making a (kind of lame) pilgrimage to Professor Ivey’s place of employment, the University of Nebraska. This was so much fun that I decided to make it an annual tradition. I’ve picked my random book for 1921 but haven’t read it yet.
I don’t think I love anything from a hundred years ago as much as I love The Brownies’ Book, the NAACP’s magazine for African-American children. You know how people want to go back in time so they can buy Apple stock? I want to go back in time and give W.E.B. Du Bois a bunch of money so that The Brownies’ Book can last more than two years (1920-1921).
Nothing in this project has meant more to me than this post, in which I set out to find out what happened to the promising young illustrator Rita Senger and ended up interviewing her granddaughter. I’m thrilled that it reached so many readers.
For the second year running, a post about magazine ads tops the list. Note to self: do more posts about magazine ads.
It tops the list of this year’s posts, anyway. As was the case last year, the top-ranking of all my posts this year was 1919’s My Quest to Earn a 1919 Girl Scout Badge. While this post had more than twice as many views last year as the top 2020 post, it edged out the top 1921 post by only four views. The third most-viewed post this year was The Uncrowned King of Bohemia: The fascinating story of a not-so-great poet, a 2018 post about the poet George Sterling. At the other viewership extreme were a few posts that only got one view, including Exploring Provo—And Mormon History, which tied the record for daily views on the day it was published. Come to think of it, Provo may have been the last new place I explored before the world came to a halt.
My book list for this year is extremely feeble, only two books. For this I blame my 1920s best-seller discussion group. We’ve read a book a month over the past year, and I’ve kept up,** but most of them are from after 1921 so they don’t count. (Actually one of them was from the 1910s, but I haven’t written it up yet. (UPDATE 1/13/2022: Done!))
In 2018, I read almost nothing written after 1918. In 2019, I returned to the world of the present but went back to visit a lot. In 2020, I changed my the name of my blog from My Year in 1918 to My Life 100 Years Ago. In 2021, I posted about my first interview (which actually took place in 2020) and my first random book (although I read it 2020—there was a lot of catching up going on in 2021). So what will be new and different in 2022?
This year is the centennial of The Waste Land and Ulysses, so they’ll probably feature in some way. I’d like to look into what’s going with in the Harlem Renaissance. And I recently completed an ambitious project I look forward to telling you about soon.*** Other than that, who knows? If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past four years, it’s that there are surprises around every corner in the world of 100 years ago. I look forward to continuing the adventure.
*If you go back and look at any of these posts, the wacko sizing of the photos and images isn’t my fault. Some weird WordPress glitch resized everything a while back.
**Well, until this month. This month’s selection, J.B. Priestly’s 1929 tome The Good Companions, seems likely to be my Waterloo. (UPDATE 1/13/2022: I finished it just in time!)
***I hope this is vague enough to avert the Promised Post Curse.
On Thanksgiving every year, I’ve taken the opportunity to give thanks for some aspect of my adventures in the world of a hundred years ago. In 2018, I expressed gratitude for ten of the extraordinary people I’d come across during my year of reading as if I were living in 1918, like scholar/editor/activist W.E.B. Du Bois, food safety pioneer Harvey Wiley, and bra inventor Mary Phelps Jacob. The next year, I paid tribute to ten wonderful illustrators. The year after that, it was three women illustrators. (I had meant to cover more, but Neysa McMein proved to have such a fascinating life that I had to stop or the turkey wouldn’t have been done on time.)
As I was contemplating what to give thanks for this year, my thoughts turned to one of the best parts of this project—the twenty-first century people I’ve encountered along the way. I’ve given them shout-outs before, but now they’re front and center. Here they are, roughly in order of when I “met” them.
Pamela Toler and History in the Margins
One morning in February 2018, just five weeks into my project, I noticed a spike in my traffic. I soon discovered that Pamela Toler had recommended my blog, then titled My Year in 1918, on her own blog, History in the Margins. We’ve kept in touch through our blogs and Twitter since then.
Pamela has a job—“freelance writer specializing in history and the arts,” as she describes it—that I can imagine having in a parallel universe. She takes her readers down fascinating, little-known byways of history. Sometimes it’s a quick dive on a subject like the history of microphones, which end up being newer than she (or I) thought. Sometimes it’s a whole book, like Women Warriors, a fascinating history of women soldiers through the ages that combines the expertise of a Ph.D. historian (which she is) with the flair of the natural storyteller. Here’s a sample from the introduction: “As a nerdy tweenager I read everything I could find on Joan of Arc, from biographies designed to give young girls role models to George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan.* As a less obviously nerdy graduate student, I was fascinated by Lakshmi Bai, the Rani of Jhansi, who led her soldiers onto the battlefield to fight the British in the Indian mutiny of 1857.”
I’m thankful to have discovered Pamela the writer, and even more thankful to have gotten to know Pamela the online friend.
Connie Ruzich and the Forgotten Poets of the First World War
World War I Twitter led me to Robert Morris University professor Connie Ruzich and her blog, Behind Their Lines, which originated with a Fulbright project on World War I poets. She describes her blog as “a site for sharing lesser known poetry of the First World War, what I think of as lost voices and faded poems.”
Connie, like Pamela, has become an online friend. When I drove across the country last October,** pre-vaccination, it gave me a pang as I passed through Chicago and Pittsburgh not to be able to stop by and see Pamela and Connie.
Frank Hudson and the Parlando Project
Early on in this project, when I was posting several times a week, I’d occasionally feel overwhelmed. Whenever this happened, I’d give myself a little lecture, saying, “Well, Frank Hudson posts as often as you do AND writes a song for every post AND sings it.”
Amazing guy, that Frank.
For the typical Parlando Project post (tag line: “where words and music meet”), Frank takes a poem that’s in the public domain, puts it to music, and shares his thoughts about the writer and the poem. He covers a much wider time period than I do, all the way back to classical Chinese poetry, but he often records poems from 1910s and 1920s, including a multi-year serial performance of The Waste Land to celebrate National Poetry Month.
Maybe I’m biased because it was my idea (okay, there’s no maybe about it), but my favorite of Frank’s songs is his interpretation of the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem “Snow-Flakes,” featuring the wonderful line “This is the poem of the air.” In Frank’s rendition, recorded on Christmas 2018, “Snow-Flakes” and another Longfellow poem, “A Psalm of Life,” are being performed in a Beat Generation-era jazz club. If you’re in the mood for something seasonal but weary of the holiday standards, check it out!
Witness2Fashion and Century-Old Styles
Susan, the creative force behind the blog Witness2Fashion, is, like Frank, only a part-time resident of the world of a hundred years ago, but she stops by often. She’s a former theater costume designer who casts an expert eye on the fashions of the past while also tackling broader societal issues.
Witness2Fashion rang in the current decade, for example, with a visit to the January 1920 issue of Delineator magazine, showing us some Butterick patterns but then moving on to an article on sexual harassment called “It Won’t Do! A Warning for Business Women.”
Sometimes the posts take a more personal turn, like this one, featuring her detective work about the life of a TB patient named Ollie, a friend of her mother’s, whom she came to know through family photographs. My favorite Witness2Fashion post, with the irresistible title “Prudery in Advertising Used to Confuse Me,” is a mix of the personal and the historical.
Susan and I check in with each other in the comments sections of our blogs every once in a while. When I wondered, a few months back, why hand-washing wasn’t one of the many uses listed for P and G White Naptha soap, she explained, “Naptha is a petroleum product, akin to mineral spirits (aka “Paint thinner,”) so you wouldn’t want to use it on your skin.” Mystery solved!
On a Witness2Fashion post about the evolution about corsets, I posted this comment: “I just came across a fascinating article in a 1922 issue of Printer’s Ink magazine, aimed at panicky corset sellers, assuring them that going corsetless is just a fad and reminding mothers to educate their daughters on the health benefits of corsets, including supporting internal organs and strengthening back muscles.” The actual Printer’s Ink article is unfortunately, as I have noted, lost in the mists of time.
It’s nice to have a kindred spirit!
Patty Stein and Rita Senger
Last year, I was wondering what happened to Rita Senger, a talented illustrator who disappeared from the covers of Vogue and Vanity Fair in 1919. A Google search led me to the blog of quilter Laurie Kennedy, who mentioned that Patty Stein, a fellow quilter, was Senger’s granddaughter. I e-mailed Laurie one night last November telling her of my interest in Rita Senger, and by morning I had heard from Patty.
Soon after that, I called Patty, who, while baking a cake, shared her memories of her grandmother, who traded her artistic career for marriage to a wealthy businessman. Rita came to life through Patty’s vivid stories, and hearing and writing about her was one of the high points of this project.
Old Books and New Friends
Last October, when I was out in Colorado, I spent two happy days virtually attending the annual meeting of the International T.S. Eliot Society. “Annual meeting” makes it sound like people introducing motions and voting, but it’s actually an academic conference. This was the year of the unveiling of the Emily Hale Archive at Princeton, which consists of over a thousand letters from Eliot to Hale, his long-distance companion of many years. The Eliot world was abuzz! But I digress.***
After the meeting, I followed some of the people I’d come across on Twitter. Just a few days later, one of them, Birkbeck/University of London lecturer Peter Fifield, tweeted that he was planning to start a 1920s best-seller discussion group. Needless to say, I was thrilled. In the year since, the group, which spans three continents, has read good books (The Home-Maker, So Big****) and not-so-good books (The Middle of the Road, The Green Hat) and problematic books (The Sheik, God’s Stepchildren), and we’ve had a great time talking about them all. (Sometimes, the worse the book, the better the discussion.) It’s become a group of friends that I look forward to seeing every month.
Happy Thanksgiving to All!
I haven’t met any of the people mentioned here (yet) in person, but my interactions with them, on Twitter, in blog comments, on the phone, and on Zoom, have greatly enriched my life—a silver lining to the virtual world we’re living in. So, to all of them, and to the rest of you who have shared my adventures in the world of a hundred years ago, happy Thanksgiving!*****
*This is me, except Eleanor of Aquitaine.
**Okay, sat in the passenger’s seat. My brother did all the driving.
***The T.S. Eliot gang almost got its own entry, but my interest in Eliot precedes this project, so they were disqualified.
****Going out on a limb here—this is next month’s selection so I’m only speaking for myself. But it’s Edna Ferber! And it’s wonderful!
*****I was going to round up this post with some charming Thanksgiving magazine covers, but this Norman Rockwell Literary Digest cover doesn’t look at all like a Rockwell,
and this pilgrim/Indian warfare-themed Rockwell Life cover leaves me scratching my head,
People sometimes complain that the world of a hundred years ago is so picked over that there’s nothing left to write about.* After spending a year reading as if I were living in that period, though, I can tell you that there’s a treasure trove of subjects just waiting to be turned into books, articles, dissertations, or academic projects. Here are ten topics that I’m mystified that no one has gotten to yet.**
1. Archiving Erté’s Harper’s Bazar covers
Over the (yikes!) almost four years of this project, I have spent many happy hours finding online copies of Harper’s Bazar covers by Erté, the legendary art deco artist, designer, and crossword puzzle clue stalwart who worked as the magazine’s regular cover artist from 1915 to 1936. I included him in my Thanksgiving lists of 10 1918 People I’m Thankful For and Ten 1919 Illustrators I’m Thankful For.***
But I have also spent many unhappy hours searching for Erté covers in vain. HathiTrust, the Google Books online archive, is missing some issues from 1918 and doesn’t have any at all for 1919 (or from 1923 to 1929, but I’ll worry about that in the future). I’ve found images for some, but not all, of these covers elsewhere, often on Pinterest, which is the source of most of my magazine cover images anyway. Those images that do exist aren’t at the level of quality that these important cultural artifacts deserve.
Someone needs to make high-quality digital scans of the full collection and archive them online**** before the original covers deteriorate any further. (Maybe Harper’s Bazaar—the extra A was added in 1930—has done this, but, if so, the archive isn’t available online, as Vogue’s is.) A book or scholarly article about the covers would be good, too. Get on this, digital humanities people!
2. A biography of cartoonist Percy Crosby
One of the most intriguing people I’ve written about for this blog is Percy Crosby, who penned the cartoon The Rookie from the 13th Squad. The hapless but ultimately stouthearted Rookie was the Sad Sack of World War I. Crosby, who received a Purple Heart after being hit in the eye with shrapnel, went on to create the popular cartoon Skippy, which the Charles Schulz website cites as an influence for Peanuts. He also, I kid you not, won the silver medal in the 1932 watercolors and drawing event in the 1932 Olympics.
Crosby’s personal life was troubled, though. He ran with a hard-drinking crowd that included Jerome Kern, Ring Lardner, John Barrymore, and Heywood Broun. Following a violent episode, his wife divorced him and got a restraining order, and he never saw her or their four children again. He began taking out two-page ads in major newspapers, espousing left-wing views and taking on targets like the FBI, the IRS, and Al Capone. After a 1948 suicide attempt, he was confined to a mental hospital and diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. One of the purported symptoms of his paranoia was his endless ranting about how Skippy Peanut Butter had violated the trademark on his character’s name. Now, I’m no intellectual property rights lawyer, but that doesn’t sound all that paranoid to me. Crosby himself believed that his left-wing views contributed to his prolonged confinement. He died in the mental hospital in 1964.
A biography of Crosby was published in 1978, but his life, and his long confinement, deserve a closer look.
3. Girl Scout badges through the ages
What gives you a better sense of what was expected of girls in a given era than its Girl Scout badges? Well, lots of things, probably, given that the 1920 edition of Scouting for Girls included badges for telegraphy (“send 22 words per minute using a sounder and American Morse Code”), bee keeping (“have a practical knowledge of bee keeping and assist in hiving a swarm…”), and rock tapping (“collect two or three scratched or glaciated pebbles or cobblestones in the drift”). But, as I discovered during my quest to earn a 1919 Girl Scout badge,***** Girl Scout badges do provide an interesting window into the era. I learned all about caring for sick relatives and found out what a cruel practice plucking egret feathers for women’s hats is.
My own Girl Scout book was written closer to 1920 than to today (it had been around a while, but still!). There are some cool badges in that book, like Observer, where you learn about constellations and rock formations and make a conservation exhibit. Others, like Indian Lore and Gypsy, wouldn’t pass muster today.
The current badges look kind of trippy and feature topics like cybersecurity, coding, entrepreneurship, and preparing for STEM jobs. That all sounds way too stressful and careerist for me. Personally, I’d rather learn telegraphy.
Well, I’d better stop before I end up writing the book myself.
4. Did Daisy Ashford really write The Young Visiters?
The Young Visiters, nine-year-old Daisy Ashford’s unintentionally hilarious account of sometimes unsavory high-society goings-on, became a runaway bestseller following its 1919 publication. The manuscript, written in 1890 or so, was discovered by the adult Daisy and circulated among her friends until it reached novelist and publisher’s reader Frank Swinnerton, who arranged for its publication, with an introduction by L. Frank Baum.
Or so the story goes. Some reviewers at the time were skeptical, and there was speculation that Baum himself was the author. When Ashford died in 1972 at the age of 90, her obituary in the New York Times mentioned the doubts about her authorship.
Here is the opening paragraph. You decide for yourself whether you buy it as the work of a preteen or if, like me, you’re with the skeptics.
Except you don’t have to leave it at that! Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, you can figure out the authorship for yourself. In recent years, researchers have used computer software that analyzes similarities between texts to discover new sources for Shakespeare’s plays and help unmask J.K. Rowling as the author of the mystery novel The Cuckoo’s Calling, published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. I wonder what a comparison between The Young Visiters and the works of L. Frank Baum (or maybe Frank Swinnerton) would reveal. Go for it!******
5. The Crisis Press, The Brownies’ Book, and Jessie Redmon Fauset
The life and work of W.E.B. Du Bois is not exactly lost to history. To cite only one recent example of his place in the culture, the novel The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois was an Oprah book club pick and was long-listed for this year’s National Book Award. The Crisis, the NAACP magazine that he edited, is rightly celebrated as a groundbreaking publication for and about African-Americans. Less well-known are the side projects of the magazine’s publishing company, including books like Hazel, by Ruth White Ovington, the first children’s book to figure an African-American protagonist, and The Brownies’ Book, an all-too-short-lived magazine “designed for all children, but especially for ours.” Recent high school graduate Langston Hughes published his first poems in the magazine. There have been a number of academic articles about The Brownies’ Book, as well as a 1996 anthology, but the magazine and the Crisis Publication Company’s other ventures deserve to be better known today.
While you’re at it, how about a biography of The Brownies’ Book managing editor Jessie Redmon Fauset, who was a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance?
6. Women Illustrators of the 1920s
Career opportunities for talented women in the 1920s were limited, but magazine illustration was one field where women could, and did, succeed. Their work and their lives are worth revisiting.
Why did Helen Dryden, once the highest-paid woman artist in the United States, end up living in a welfare hotel?
How did Gordon Conway make it to the top of her profession without taking a single art class?
Why did talented illustrator Rita Senger disappear from the covers of Vogue and Vanity Fair in 1919? (Well, I told you all about that here.)
As for Neysa McMein, suffragist, Saturday Evening Post illustrator, best friend of Dorothy Parker, lover of Charlie Chaplin, Ring Lardner, Robert Benchley, and others, I just want to spend a winter afternoon reading a gossipy account of her life.
In May 2018, I read a May 1918 New York Times article about the apparent death of popular aviator Jimmy Hall, who had been shot down behind enemy lines. I decided to Google him to see if by any chance he had survived. But James Hall is a common name, and I kept getting articles about the co-author of Mutiny on the Bounty. Eventually I realized that the courageous aviator and the successful writer were…one and the same!
Hall, it turned out, had been captured by the Germans. After the war, he moved to Tahiti, where he and co-author Charles Nordhoff penned Mutiny on the Bounty and other best-sellers.******* His wife was partly of Polynesian descent. Their son, cinematographer Conrad Hall, won three Oscars, including one for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Amazingly, no one seems to have written a biography of this fascinating man. If I haven’t done enough to persuade you to take on this project, it would definitely require a trip to Tahiti, where his modest house is now a museum.
8. Edna Ferber biography and revival
Edna Ferber checks a number of boxes to spark contemporary interest: she took on racism and sexism in her novels and short stories, and she may have been a lesbian. On top of that, she was a wonderful writer, at least judging from the early novel and short stories that I’ve read, featuring the dreams, disappointments, and, very occasionally, triumphs of department store saleswomen and accountants and stenographers. Ferber was a regular at the Algonquin Round Table, which would make for entertaining research.********
Harper Perennial Classics has reissued some of Ferber’s novels, which is a good start, but she’s due the kind of revival that Tim Page sparked for novelist Dawn Powell a few decades back when he published her diaries, her letters, and a biography. Any volunteers?
9. The Illustrators of New Rochelle, New York
High on the list of nonexistent books I’m longing to read is a group biography of Norman Rockwell, Coles Phillips, the Leyendecker brothers, and the other illustrators who turned suburban New Rochelle, New York, into one of the country’s most important artists’ colonies. If you can believe Wikipedia, New Rochelle was the source of more than half of the illustrations in major publications in the early 1920s.
I want SO much to read about J.C. Leyendecker’s romantic relationship with the model for his Arrow shirt ads
and about his brother Frank’s short life and tragic death.
I want to read about Coles Phillips’ apparently happy marriage (one of all too few I’ve read about in the period) to his wife Teresa, who served as his primary model, “making up in keen interest and endurance what I lacked in pulchritude,” as she wrote in the Saturday Evening Post after his death in 1927 at the age of 46.
I want to read about Normal Rockwell’s…well, I can’t think of anything I want to read about Norman Rockwell. But, if you write it, I’ll read it!
10. This one’s for me!
By now, you may be wondering why I’m asking the rest of the world to do all of these projects and not saving any for myself. Well, don’t worry—I’ve set aside a project, or two, or three. I’m not sure when I’ll be able to finish, or, um, start them, but I look forward to telling you more when I can.
In the meantime, get to work, everyone!
*Actually, this is mostly an amateur opinion. The academics I know who are working on this period have more than enough to keep them busy.
**That I know if. If I’m wrong, please let me know!
***I’ve noticed recently that some of my old posts have gone all Alice in Wonderland on me, with small photos suddenly huge, like this squiggle from the Thanksgiving 2019 post.
I’ll get with WordPress to see what this is about and in the meantime am resizing the giant photos as I come across them.
****Or at least the covers (currently up to 1925) that are out of copyright.
*****Actually, a 1916 Girl Scout badge. My logic in using 1919 in the title was that this was the Girl Scout book being used 100 years ago at the time of the post. If I had known that this would go on to be by far my most popular post, read by many people who didn’t have a clue about my 100 years ago project, I would have used the 1916 in the blog post title.
******Go for it yourself, you might reasonably say. I tried once, with some different texts, and it’s kind of hard.
*******Speaking of fake child authors, Hall confessed in 1946 that he had written the critically acclaimed 1940 poetry collection Oh Millersville!, supposedly the work of a 10-year-old girl named Fern Gravel.
********That’s Ferber on the bottom right corner, looking like she’s wearing a skeleton mask, in the Al Hirschfeld cartoon of Algonquin Round Table members. I can’t post it here because it’s still under copyright.
Objectively speaking, winter in Cape Town is not all that bad. The temperature rarely dips below the high 40s, and a cold day is one when it doesn’t make it into the 60s. Subjectively speaking, though, winter in Cape Town is miserable. It rains a lot, and houses don’t have central heating, so we sit around freezing and grumbling.*
What I needed to improve my mood, I decided, was some summer fun from the covers of 1921 magazines. I could pretend I was somewhere hot, hanging around at the beach**
or the pool
or playing golf
or basking in the moonlight
or cavorting about in the altogether,
or just hanging around,
maybe at the summer house.
(Okay, these are not all ACTUAL wishes. I’m not much of a fisherman, for example.)
Lo and behold, I did actually make it to the northern hemisphere in time for the last few weeks of the summer. It turns out, though, that my image of Washington in August was a teeny bit romanticized. Life has been more like this
But I’ve had a great time hanging out with my friends,
and even though I haven’t spent much (okay, any) time working on my manuscript
I swear that’s going to happen before the fall sets in.
But fall is weeks away, so let’s not think about it right now. After all, in the words of the #1 hit song of late summer 1921, “In the meantime, in between time…”
*Of course, I always keep in mind how fortunate I am compared to most people in Cape Town.
Happy new year, everyone! I’m sure you’re as glad to say good-bye to 2020 as I am.
It is, incredibly, my fourth New Year’s here at My Life 100 Years Ago. That’s four Saturday Evening Post covers by J.C. Leyendecker. In 1918 we had a baby soldier,
in 1919 a baby celebrating peace,
and in 1920 a shushing baby,
which didn’t make much sense until I realized that it was a censored version of this original:
This year we have a baby coal miner.
This puzzled me, because the violent conflicts in the mining industry seem more up The Liberator’s or The Crisis’s* alley than the business-friendly Post’s. The magazine’s website explains that “the 1921 cherub anticipates an end to the bitter coal miners’ strike in Alabama.” If Leyendecker were still at it (his streak ran from 1907 to 1943), this year’s baby would be getting a vaccine.
Meanwhile, Good Housekeeping and Sunset have New Year’s babies of their own, going for cute and creepy respectively.
Jessie Willcox Smith
The Top 10 Posts
I only published 15 posts total this year, and the top ten were the first ten. This struck me at as strange and a little alarming at first, but when I looked more closely at the numbers it made sense. Four out of the top five were from March, April, and May—i.e. peak COVID lockdown time, when everyone was desperate for entertainment.
Smart Set co-editors H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan may have been the greatest critics of their era, but their attitude toward woman left a lot to be desired. I had a wonderful time writing this post on July 4 and managed to finish it just in time to watch the fireworks from the roof of my building. This is probably my favorite post ever as far as the pictures go.
It was fun comparing magazine covers from 1915 and 1920, and I enjoyed hearing about your favorites. Rita Senger’s winning 1915 Vanity Fair cover took me in a fascinating direction that you’ll be hearing about soon. (UPDATE 4/6/2021: You can read more about Rita Senger here.)
This Valentine’s Day post started out with idle curiosity—what happened to four aspiring actresses after they won a movie magazine contest? It turned into a bit of an obsession as I delved into the lives of popular Follies girl Helen Lee Worthing and her husband Eugene Nelson, a prominent African-American physician. Of all the posts I’ve done, I may be proudest of this one, and I’m glad it found so many readers.
Okay, I get the hint! I’ll do another ad roundup soon.
A Pioneering Gay Novel of 1919. Not that being #11 out of 15 is such a spectacular achievement, but I can’t resist giving this post a plug. Finding a novel about a loving gay couple who just wanted to live like normal people was my biggest surprise of the year.
My Quest to Earn a 1919 Girl Scout Badge. This was my most fun post ever, and it lives on, with more than twice as many views in 2020 as the #1 post published during the year. In the meantime, a new edition of the Girl Scout handbook has been published—I should get on it.
Best Readership News
You know how when you’re just starting out in your profession you work like crazy, and then when you get more senior you can just coast? Yeah, me neither, but blogging works like that. In 2018, when I was reading full-time as if I were living in 1918, I published 94 posts. In 2019, I had 21. This year, 15. But here’s what happened to the numbers.
There are technical and highly boring reasons for this having to do with the impact of longevity on how search engines assess websites, but whatever! I’ll take it!
Happy 2021! May it be better than your 2020.
*The January 1921 Liberator and Crisis covers:
**Although not as bad of a rut as the time back in 2019 when four out of five posts in a row started with “Celebrating.”