Tag Archives: Jessie Redmon Fauset

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

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.

Roman Petrovich Tyrtov (Erté)
Roman Petrovich Tyrtov (Erté), date unknown

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

Rookie from the 13th Squad cartoon, Percy Crosby
From The Rookie from the 13th Squad, 1918

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.

Percy Crosby, date unknown

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

Cover of How Girls Can Help Their Country, Girl Scout handbook 1916

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.

Pictures of girl scout uniforms, 1960s.
Junior Girl Scout Handbook, 1960s

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?

Daisy Ashford, frontispiece, The Young Visiters (1919)

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.

Jessie Redmon Fauset
Jessie Redmon Fauset, date unknown

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?

Helen Dryden, July 1, 1921

How did Gordon Conway make it to the top of her profession without taking a single art class?

Gordon Conway, January 1918

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.)

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

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.

Saturday Evening Post Neysa McMein cover, 1916, woman wearing hat.
Nisa McMein, May 13, 1916

And there are lots more! Edna Crompton!

Metropolitan cover, September 1920, Edna Crompton, woman serving at tennis.
Edna Crompton, September 1920

Harriet Meserole!

Vogue cover, March 15, 1920, Harriet Meserole.
Harriet Meserole, March 15, 1920

Anne Harriet Fish!

Anne Harriet Fish Vanity Fair cover, March 1920, couples dancing.
Anne Harriet Fish

More on these amazing women, please!

7. The Life of James Hall

James Hall in the Lafayette Escadrille, 1917
James Hall in the Lafayette Escadrille, 1917

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!

First edition, 1932

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, date unknown (State Historical Society of Wisconsin Visual Archives)

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.********

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)

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

Coles Phillips in his New Rochelle Studio, ca. 1921 (saturdayeveningpost.org)

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

J.C. Leyendecker (vogue.com)

and about his brother Frank’s short life and tragic death.

Frank Leyendecker, June 1915

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.

Coles Phillips, October 1916

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!

Norman Rockwell cover, Saturday Evening Post, February 7, 1920
Norman Rockwell, February 7, 1920

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!

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*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.

The Brownies' Book header

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

I spent much of today binge-reading the first fourteen issues of The Brownies’ Book, the NAACP’s magazine for African-American children. Doing this on the last day of Black History Month is the blogging equivalent of cracking open the textbook for the first time on the night before the final exam, but I had a wonderful time taking in the stories for and about African-American children, reading the poems and games chosen especially for them, and, most of all, hearing from the children in their own words.

The Crisis October 1918 cover, photo of toddler

In 1919, W.E.B. Du Bois, the editor of the NAACP magazine The Crisis, announced the upcoming launch of a new magazine “designed for all children, but especially for ours.” The Crisis ran a children’s issue every October, featuring African folk tales, stories and poems about African-American children, and photos of cute babies; The Brownies’ Book included these and many other features. Jessie Redmon Fauset, the literary editor of The Crisis, served in this position at The Brownies’ Book as well, and later as its managing editor.

Jessie Redmon Fauset

Jessie Redmon Fauset, date unknown

There’s no way I could do justice to this wonderful magazine in one blog post, so I’ll just share a few of my favorite items.*

“The Jury,” a page of letters from young readers, is the part of The Brownies’ Book I enjoyed the most. In the January 1920 inaugural issue, a boy named Franklin Lewis, who dreams of being an architect but isn’t sure if this is possible, writes in asking “if you will please put in your paper some of the things which colored boys can work at when they grow up.”**

Letter to editor, The Brownies' Book, January 1920.

The Brownies’ Book, January 1920

This photograph of children in the “Silent Parade,” the famous 1917 march protesting violence against African-Americans, also appeared in the inaugural issue.

Children marching in Silent Parade, 1917, The Brownies' Book.

The Brownies’ Book, January 1920

A profile of child violinist Eugene Mars Martin, with this accompanying photo, ran in the “Little People of the Month” feature. Mars, I was saddened to learn, died suddenly at the age of 22 while working as the director of a music school.

Eugene Mars Martin, The Brownies' Book, Januar 1920.

The Brownies’ Book, January 1920

This cri de coeur by a reader, addressed to The Crisis but printed in “The Jury,” is both sad and hilarious. “P.S. I’m only fifteen years old, so please have a little pity,” she concludes.

Letter to the editor, The Brownies' Book, 1920

The Brownies’ Book, April 1920

Here are some drawings sent in by readers.

Illustrations from readers, The Brownies' Book, May 1920

The Brownies’ Book, May 1920

The pageant in this photo took place at Atlanta University, where Du Bois had formerly served as a professor.

Pageant, Atlanta University, The Brownies' Book, 1920

The Brownies’ Book, September 1920

The Brownies’ Book encouraged readers to send in their high school graduation photos and printed them all. Check out the graduate in the middle row on the right.

The Brownies' Book graduation photos Langston Hughes.

The Brownies’ Book, July 1920

Here he is with a byline, describing games children play in Mexico, where he had gone to live with his father after his graduation. (UPDATE 5/1/2021: After reading this post, Frank Hudson of The Parlando Project put the words of a Langston Hughes poem from The Brownies’ book to music.)

Langston Hughes article, The Brownies' Book, December 1920.

The Brownies’ Book, December 1920

I also love “The Judge,” the monthly column where a wise elder (could it be Du Bois? (UPDATE 5/1/2021: no, it was Fauset)) teaches lessons to children in a nuanced and non-preachy way. I was sorry to see the Judge explaining to children why they shouldn’t have done the things that led to whippings, but happy to see him back in the next issue gently telling the parents that there are more effective ways to discipline children.

Particularly popular among readers were the stories of African-American role models like Frederick Douglas, surveyor and almanac writer Benjamin Banneker, and Katy Ferguson, a freed slave who founded the first Sunday school in New York.

Katy Ferguson, The Brownies' Book, June 1920

Katy Ferguson, The Brownies’ Book, June 1920

And then there were the covers. Unlike The Crisis, which frequently used well-known white illustrators as cover artists, The Brownies’ Book featured work by African-American illustrators, including many women.

Brownies' Book cover, March 1920.

Albert Smith

The Brownies' Book cover, May 1920, girls dancing around maypole.

Laura Wheeler

Brownies' Book cover, July 1920

Albert Smith

As ahead of its time as it was, The Brownies’ Book was of its time as well. There were some head-scratching features, such as the stories about babies who scored impressively on eugenics tests.*** I didn’t know quite what to make of the story of how Mississippi Senator Blanche Bruce saved his former owner from the poorhouse by intervening with the President to get him a shipyard job, and then, to save him from the humiliation of knowing he had been rescued by his former slave, asked Mississippi’s white senator to make the nomination in his place. (UPDATE 2/1/2021: The blogger at Whatever It Is, I’m Against It, who writes about the New York Times of 100 years ago, points out in the comments that Bruce’s owner was also his father. This sheds a fascinating new light on the story.)

Drawing of Senator Blanche Bruce, The Brownies' Book, March 1920.

The Brownies’ Book, March 1920

These are minor quibbles, though, about a magazine that, in the face of the uniform whiteness of children’s literature, gave African-American children stories about children who looked like them, and about adults whose achievements they could aspire to emulate.

The Brownies’ Book only lasted two years. The magazine wasn’t able to meet its circulation target, and the December 1921 issue was its last. As much as that breaks my heart, it seems like a small miracle that it existed at all.

I’ve only scratched the surface. For more, you can read the magazine here.

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*I’d promise to return to The Brownies’ Book later but fear invoking the Promised Post Curse.

**I do have my doubts about whether Franklin was real. This and some other letters strike me as suspiciously on the nose in espousing the magazine’s beliefs. Others are unmistakably from real children.

***One baby was declared perfect except for a slightly imperfect left tonsil.