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’s book, International Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology of Lost Voices, came out late last year. Even though it wasn’t priced for general readers, I was seriously tempted to use some of my COVID stimulus check to buy it. I left the U.S. for South Africa shortly after it was published, though, and didn’t get around to it. So I was thrilled to discover while writing this post that that a paperback edition is on the way.
Connie still posts occasionally on her blog—her most recent post combines a number of my interests, including Amy Lowell, Harvard, and T.S. Eliot/Ezra Pound snarkiness—and she links to older posts on Twitter on poets’ birthdays, National Beer Day, and other relevant occasions.
Connie, like Pamela, has become an online friend. When I drove across the country last October,** pre-vaccination, it gave me a pang as I passed through Chicago and Pittsburgh not to be able to stop by and see Pamela and Connie.
Frank Hudson and the Parlando Project
Early on in this project, when I was posting several times a week, I’d occasionally feel overwhelmed. Whenever this happened, I’d give myself a little lecture, saying, “Well, Frank Hudson posts as often as you do AND writes a song for every post AND sings it.”
Amazing guy, that Frank.
For the typical Parlando Project post (tag line: “where words and music meet”), Frank takes a poem that’s in the public domain, puts it to music, and shares his thoughts about the writer and the poem. He covers a much wider time period than I do, all the way back to classical Chinese poetry, but he often records poems from 1910s and 1920s, including a multi-year serial performance of The Waste Land to celebrate National Poetry Month.
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,
and what the hell, J.C. Leyendecker?
I think someone spiked the Thanksgiving cider over in New Rochelle.