Women and Housework

In my previous post, I discussed the role of women in promoting the arts and intellectual study in their communities.   This led me to some thought about the factors that enabled women such as the Gifford sisters to be active in their communities.   Women like the Giffords were from the upper middle-class, and this afforded them certain privileges,   access to education (either schools or tutors) and the means to travel and meet artists and intellectuals being two of the most important.   But we can’t overlook a critical element in their lives:  they had the money to pay other people to do their cooking, laundry, and housework, which freed up their own time to study, write, travel, and socialize with other like-minded women.

This is not something to be ignored.  Running a household was time-consuming for women in the 19th century (as it still is for many women).    Take a moment to ponder   the advancements we take for granted today.   There was no electricity in most homes before 1900, so baking and cooking had to be completed using wood-burning or coal-burning stoves  (coal stoves were particularly dirty, and coal residue had to be cleaned daily off the stove, walls and floor in the kitchen).   These stoves needed to be started before dawn so as to cook breakfast (and breakfast cereals were not widely available until the 1890s).    Getting the ovens to the correct temperature to bake bread, pies, and cakes or to roast meat could be tricky, and the kitchen itself grew very hot. There obviously were no refrigerators, so housewives relied on blocks of ice to keep milk, cheese, and butter from going bad,  but the lack of refrigeration required them to shop daily for meat and dairy products, although one convenience not widely available anymore was the daily visit from the milkman.

Keeping the rest of the house clean wasn’t easy, either.  Rugs and carpets needed to be swept or pulled up, taken outside, and beaten to get crumbs and other debris off of them.  Dust and dirt were constant problems, particularly in warm weather, when doors and windows were left open to bring in fresh air, but also brought in dust from the streets  (before automobiles became popular in the early 20th century, few roads or city streets were paved).

Then there was the chore of doing the laundry.   Before washing machines became popular, this task was done completely by hand, and usually took an entire day:   water had to be heated up on the stove, then divided into several wash tubs:  one for detergent (lye soap, which was very hard on the skin), a tub for rinsing, another tub for bluing (which removed other stains), then again for rinsing.   The process was made somewhat easier by the end of the 19th century, when wringer washers became available, but lifting wet laundry was still back-breaking labor.  Of course, the wet clothing, towels, sheets, and other items still had to hung up to dry, outside in good weather, inside in bad.

Household work 19th century tenement laundry

Another entire day was set aside for ironing the dry clothes.  Irons made out of cast-iron (hence the term “irons”) had to be heated up on the stove while the laundress applied starch to the dried clothes.   While one iron was being used, at least one other was being re-heated.  In the age before rayon, polyester and nylon, almost everything had to be ironed.

However, if we put this in a social context, it is easier to understand how a typical housewife could get this all completed.  First of all,  families tended to be larger, and girls from an early age were expected to help with these chores.  Unmarried adult women did not move out of their family’s home when they completed their education, nor did most of them seek paid employment;  they basically paid for their housing and food with their household labor.    My great-grandmother, for example, came from a family of nine children;  two of her older sisters never married nor left the family household, instead taking on responsibilities for childcare of younger siblings or nieces or nephews or handling household chores.

Even if there weren’t family members available to provide free labor, there were many other women in the community who would work cheaply.   Many women, particularly immigrant or African-Americans, needed to work outside of their own homes, either to supplement their husband’s or father’s income or because they were the sole breadwinner, and without  other skills, they were forced to sell their labor cheaply.   Families like the Giffords in Syracuse could afford to hire someone to shop for and cook their food, and also could pay someone to do the laundry and ironing.  Some families sent their laundry out to commercial laundries, but in fact, there was such a large labor pool of household workers that most middle-class families relied on at least one household worker well into the twentieth century:  my grandmother sent the laundry out weekly to a someone who returned it washed and ironed, and also hired a baby-nurse to take care of my father.   Many middle-class families hired someone to do major cleanings several times a year, as well as someone to tend to the lawn in warm weather.

Household work 19th century

But new “labor-saving” devices, and social changes impacted this system by the early 20th century.  The availability of electrical service in urban areas and smaller communities by the 1920s, as well as the introduction of installment buying, enabled housewives to purchase vacuum cleaners, electric stoves, and refrigerators (still called “iceboxes” and tiny by today’s standards), thus freeing them from daily shopping and hard physical labor.

household-household-appliances-hand-operated-vacuum-cleaner-two-persons-BJTRG5 The irony is though, as social historians frequently point out,  while such devices made household chores “easier”,  such “conveniences” did not necessarily give the housewife more time for leisure: since she no longer could justify hiring other people to do the laundry, cooking, or shopping when she had new appliances,  she had to do them instead.

While the wealthy and upper-middle class women still might have some “help” around the house, most middle-class women by the 1930s were expected by society to do their own housework, cooking and laundry.   After all, didn’t they have new technologies to do it? And, for the women who had provided their labor, this social change made their skills unmarketable.    The Great Depression was particularly hard on this group, and even government programs instituted by the New Deal did little to address their situation.  Few New Deal programs employed women (except for the WPA’s Sewing Schools division, which  was not terribly popular with Congress), and Social Security refused to include household laborers in the system until the late 1950s.

I am amused by television commercials advertising services providing household help and child-care, because they demonstrate that despite new technology and social advancements, household chores are still problematic.   Women- and men- can go out and get good-paying jobs, but still have to come home to deal with cooking, laundry, and the countless other tasks involved in daily living.

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Women Educating Themselves – As Well as the Community

Several friends and I have season tickets for the Rosamund Gifford Lecture Series, sponsored by the county library.   This series, which has been in existence for decades, brings in a variety of authors every year;  in the years since I’ve been living in Central New York, guest lecturers have included Erik Larson, Bryan Stephenson, Elizabeth George, and Colson Whitehead.  Hundreds of people attend these lectures, and the authors inspire me to read more, and, more importantly, to read books that I might not choose on my own.  I find each series meaningful in the ways in which they inspire intellectual conversations as well as curiosity. This concept of bringing in lecturers is not new to Syracuse;  before the Civil War, guest lecturers such as Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison helped promote the abolitionist movement.  Other lecturers furthered women’s rights and temperance.

But these opportunities to expand their knowledge became increasingly important to women as the 19th century wore on.   Privately-run “Young ladies'” academies opened up in Syracuse by the 1850s, and New York state began to establish public-schools in the decades after the Civil War;  some colleges, including Syracuse University, Cornell,  and Elmira College also admitted women by the 1870s.  But, while many young women eagerly took advantage of these chances to become better educated, most families had neither the financial resources nor the desire to educate their daughters beyond secondary school.  Besides, daughters were brought up to become wives and mothers;   they were expected to run a household and rear children, not to pursue careers outside the home. Yet, many women found themselves less than satisfied with domestic activities  (particularly if they were unmarried).

In the early 1870s, the astronomer Maria Mitchell gave a series of lectures that proved to be an inspiration to a group of women in Syracuse. Eager to expand their own education, in 1875 they founded the Social Art Club, stating that its “object is to discuss practical and feasible means of improving conditions of women in America.”   Their founding document went on to point out, though, that they would avoid two controversial issues – women’s suffrage and free love (no readings of Victoria Woodhull for this group).  Instead, each year the membership would choose a subject to explore, such as “Women in Artistic Fields”.

Meetings were held monthly at members’ homes or at more public locations (such as in 1880 at the new high school) and each member served as either the hostess or the presenter.  Each presenter examined a subtopic, such as the work of one particular artist, and the lecture materials of the presenters were quite impressive.  In the age before public libraries or the internet, gathering information about particular artists was challenging, but these women proved themselves to be diligent researchers, as their notes in the files at the Onondaga Historical Association demonstrate.

A very important activity of this club was organizing art exhibits, usually of the art work owned by the members.  Several of the members came from prominent and wealthy families, such as the Giffords and the Crouse family (two important names locally even today), and they had the means to travel to Europe and New York and purchase art.  In 1882, for example, as members of the club began to plan their annual exhibition, they collectively owned “161 framed pictures and 93 unframed pictures”. Members of the club were eager to share their collections with the community, hoping to educate others about art.   Eventually, many of these pieces of art, which included Durer engravings and works by lesser known artists of the Italian Renaissance, became the seeds of the Syracuse Museum of Art (now known as the Everson Museum).

Other club topics included “Oriental Art”, “French Literature”, and “India”, but the club also responded to world events over the years.  One lecture in the 1920 season was “The Wise Protection of Art Objects and the Devastation in France and Belgium”, reflecting the effects of the Great War.

One of the leaders of the Social Art Club from its founding was the seventh of the eleven children of businessmen Henry Gifford, Frances.  Born in 1838, she never married, but devoted her energies to promoting education.   She was a close friend of Mrs. Russell Sage, a philanthropist in her own right.    One of Frances’ younger sisters, Isabella, was a sculptress who spent most of her life working in Florence, Italy, and Frances along with  another sister, Helen, frequently travelled to Europe to visit;  Isabella, in turn, introduced her sisters to many other artists and art-lovers.   Her travels deeply influenced Frances Gifford, and she became deeply committed to educating the Syracuse community in art, history and literature.   She remained active in the Syracuse Literary Art Club until shortly before her death in 1923;  upon her death, her considerable estate was distributed to a variety of arts organizations.   Her niece, Rosamund Gifford, continued her work in the arts and the community, particularly working with the local library and the zoo.

The activities of clubs such as the Social Art Club kept the arts alive in Syracuse, and provided an important means for women to keep their own intellectual lives vibrant.   Their work behind the scenes has added to the quality of life for thousands of people in Central New York.

 

The End of the “American Century”

This week, the current occupant of the Oval Office announced that the U.S. was withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords.   His rationale was that the agreement harmed the U.S. more than it helped and was costing our nation too much in terms of money and jobs.   America First seems to be the theme.

White House storm clouds

I was struck by the timing of this withdrawal, just one hundred years after the U.S. stepped onto the world stage when it entered the Great War.  In 1917, according to journalist Walter Lippman, the U.S. entered what he termed “the American Century.” Up until 1917, the U.S. had shied away from “foreign entanglements” (the term used by President George Washington), reluctant to be sucked into foreign conflicts.   Yet, despite a great deal of opposition, in the spring of 1917, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany, citing the interests of the nation.   The U.S. depended heavily on foreign trade, and in an age before transatlantic air travel, foreign trade was conducted on the high seas;  the Germans, desperate to limit the resources of France and Great Britain, released their U-boat (submarine) commanders to attack neutral shipping (particularly U.S. ships).  Wilson, and most of Congress, saw this as a direct threat to national security, and entered the “war to end all wars”.

But Wilson had loftier goals than just protecting trade;  a trained historian and political scientist, as well as a politician, he truly believed that the U.S. could provide the moral leadership the world so desperately seemed to need at that time.   Yes, the U.S. participation in the war could “make the world safe for democracy”, but it also could serve as a beacon of hope and integrity in a time when those two qualities seemed lacking.   Wilson also had a longer view – he wanted the U.S. to have a say in the post-war world.   Thus, after the Armistice, he left the White House to sail to Paris for six months of intense negotiations with many (not all) of the combatants, and the resulting document, the Versailles Treaty, met two of Wilson’s most dearly held goals:  to create a world forum to handle disputes (the League of Nations), and to establish the leadership of the U.S. in foreign affairs.

Woodrow Wilson in Paris 1919
Woodrow Wilson in Paris, 1919

Of course, we know that the League failed, and a second world war began just twenty years after the Versailles Treaty was signed in Paris, but many historians argue that the failure of the League, and the rise of tyrants such as Mussolini and Hitler, could have been avoided, or minimized, if the U.S. had not tried to turn its back on the world in the 1920s and 1930s.    The U.S. Senate failed to ratify the Versailles Treaty (a failure as much Wilson’s fault as the fault of isolationists in Congress), and thus the U.S. never joined the League of Nations.   It merely acted as an observer as Mussolini seized control of Italy, as Japan gobbled up Manchuria, and as Hitler blatantly ignored the Versailles Treaty.   The U.S. also failed to offer advice or caution to Britain and France when they scrambled about to respond to Hitler’s seizure of the Sudetenland in 1938.    The U.S. came out of the Great War the most powerful – and arguably, the most respected – nation in the world.  Our economy boomed during and after the war, bringing up living standards in the U.S. and in other nations;  the importance of our economic stability was so important that when the U.S. stock market crashed in 1929, the effects of that debacle were felt throughout the world.  But U.S. leaders, for various reasons, were reluctant to fulfill the obligations of leadership.

Compare this to American policies after World War II:  when famine and unrest threatened the economic, social, and political stability of Europe in the 1940s, the U.S. instituted the Marshall Plan (which while costing over $13 billion, created thousands of jobs in the U.S. and created economic growth lasting twenty-five years).   When the Soviets tried to take over all of Berlin, the U.S. began a massive airlift to the western sectors of Berlin, and then created NATO as a tool to fight Communist expansion; we recognized that the safety and security of the U.S. depended on the safety and security of other nations.

Europe devastation 1945

Skipping ahead to the 1970s and 1980s, American Presidents negotiated arms limitation deals with the Soviet Union that ultimately bankrupted the Soviets.     All of these policies took time, attention to detail, and a willingness to recognize the interdependence of nations.

Being a leader means more than just shoving aside less powerful nations;  it means learning to cooperate and recognize the validity of others’ viewpoints while also staying focused on your own interests;  leadership on the world stage demands an understanding of history and politics.  Sadly, the U.S. leadership in 2017 doesn’t see value in those things, nor in getting along with others (apparently they never went to kindergarten), and is like a spoiled child who demands friendship but doesn’t want to share toys.  Is it the end of the American Century?   I fear that the U.S. abandonment of a leadership role in climate change creates a vacancy that other nations, such as China, India or even Russia, will rush in to fill.  The U.S. won’t have a voice in an issue that affects the quality of life of all humans, and instead will leave the decision-making to other nations that we already fear.

Cars and more cars

The 101st Indianapolis 500 automobile race will start today at noon.   This is the iconic American car race – highly tuned vehicles racing around an oval track for 500 laps.     It doesn’t do much for me (but then again, car racing doesn’t really seem like a sport to me at all), but as a historical marker, the Indy 500 is fascinating.

The first Indy 500 was run in May of 1911, after a group of Indianapolis businessmen, eager to attract visitors and customers to their hometown, had been trying to organize such a race for over two years.  Eventually, 46 cars entered the race;   automobile manufacturers as well as tire producers saw the benefits of the race in terms of free advertising for what was still a luxury item – automobiles.    They raced on a surface paved with 3.2 million paving bricks (hence, the term “Brickyard Classic”).  The bricks would eventually be paved over with asphalt, the most recent repaving taking place in 2004.

1911-indy-500_custom-35cc77dfb5a88953f3b2afc65e547665232ea2e3-s900-c85

 

 

Interesting note:  23 different car makes were included in that inaugural Indy, but only three of those have survived to 2017:  Buick, Fiat, and Mercedes.  Henry Ford, while attending the 1911 race, having chosen not to enter a car, but then again, the Model T probably wouldn’t have done well against the better powered European models.

In 1914,  the organizers of the race banned the drinking of alcohol by drivers during the race…apparently, the winner of the 1913 Indy had polished off an entire bottle of champagne while driving to victory, and the race promoters wanted to discourage such behavior.  Probably a good idea.

The Indianapolis 500 was suspended during U.S. involvement in World War I and World War II.   Fuel and oil were desperately needed by the military, and in fact, during World War II, gasoline and motor oil were rationed items.   It was considered patriotic to suspend automobile racing during World War II, but also, the race organizers were concerned that gas rationing would affect attendance.

Attendance was at its highest in the 1950s and 1960s, reflective of America’s love affair with cars and speed, but attendance has declined since then at various times;  NASCAR has proven to be a big rival of Indy racing, as well as the growing importance of television,  yet there still is nothing like the Indianapolis 500.

Flaherty wins a soggy 1956 Indy 500
The 1956 Race was won by Patrick Flaherty

This weekend also marks the anniversary of another iconic vehicle – the VW.  Eighty years ago, in 1937, Adolph Hitler launched the manufacture of a “People’s car” – the Volkswagon.  With a design coming from Austrian Ferdinand Porsche, this vehicle was supposed to enable all German citizens to enjoy the freedom (a relative term in Nazi Germany!!!) of driving around beautiful Germany.    Production, however, was delayed, and the first cars intended for ordinary citizens did not come off the assembly line until mid-1939 – and almost immediately suspended as the Germans began World War II.

VW1941
Australian troops enjoying a ride in a captured VW

In fact, the VW was almost entirely a military vehicle used in the North African campaign, and then in Russia, during World War II.  At the end of the war, because of its association with the Nazis, the VW company nearly went bankrupt;  it did produce a limited number of vehicles, but it was unable to penetrate foreign markets for over a decade after the end of the war.

Volkswagon WW2

But a new generation of management hired a prominent New York advertising firm in 1959 to try to gain entry into the U.S. automobile market, and the advertising campaigns initiated in the 1960s dramatically expanded sales in the U.S.  In an age when Americans were motoring around in 6 or even 8 cylinder cars that gulped gasoline, the VW stood out for its small size and temperate use of fuel, as well as its low price.    The timing of the VW’s entry into the American car market was also important in that American families were beginning to add a second car, either for the housewife to run errands or for her husband to drive back and forth from work – and the VW seemed perfect.  (One of the only problems, though, was that most of the VWs still relied on a stick shift, and many Americans had gotten used to automatic transmissions.  I was lucky – my father believed that every driver should know how to use a stick shift, and I learned to use a clutch and shift when I was only 11!).

VW advertising 1959

The “Punchbug”, as one advertising campaign called it, became one of the most popular small cars on American roads in the 1960s, so popular that even Walt Disney produced a series of movies based on “Herbie the Lovebug”.   When the gas crisis hit the U.S. in the early 1970s, VWs became even more beloved.

Eventually, the VW company stopped selling the Punchbugs here in the U.S., only to revive the style in the early 21st century, at a much higher price than those of us who grew up in the 1960s could ever have anticipated.  They are something of a luxury item now, and certainly many generations removed from Hitler’s idea!

Is it Sunday morning already?

I woke up this morning to the news that Trump had fired the FBI director suddenly – and had a deep sense of Deja Vu.  Memories of the shock of what historians call the Saturday Night Massacre immediately came back to me.

The Saturday Night Massacre refers to a major turning point in the Watergate scandal that began in  June of 1972, when a group of men were arrested for burglarizing the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C.  Within days, reporters had found ties between the burglars and White House employees.   Over the following months, President Richard Nixon denied any knowledge or involvement in “dirty tricks” that had been designed to silence political opponents or rivals,  and he won his 1972 re-election bid in a landslide (admittedly, against a weak opponent).  But by early 1973, the President’s cover-up was beginning to unravel.   As his trusted associates began to defect – or Nixon began to throw them overboard- he claimed that it was the media’s fault (hmm…more deja vu?)  Both the House and the Senate set up committees to investigate, and in May of 1973 the Attorney General, independent of the President, appointed a Special Prosecutor to also conduct an investigation.

In the summer of 1973, the Senate committee held riveting hearings that ultimately revealed the existence of tape-recordings of conversations in the Oval Office, and the Special Prosecutor, Archibald Cox, was eager to listen to them.  He issued a subpoena to President Nixon in the autumn of 1973, but Nixon refused to turn them over, citing “executive privilege” – a concept he interpreted as meaning the President was above the law.   When Cox continued to pressure the White House to comply with the subpoena, Nixon ordered the Attorney General to fire Cox;  Attorney General Richardson refused, and resigned in protest.  When the Deputy Attorney General also refused to fire Cox,  he also was asked to resign – which he did.  Both men had promised Congress, back in May, that the Special Prosecutor would truly be independent, and they had meant it.

The Justice Department was now leaderless, and eventually the Solicitor General of the U.S. had to fire Cox.   Congress appointed another Special Prosecutor, but the damage to Nixon was immense.   He now looked like he had something to hide (which he did, as we know now).

And it’s that appearance of trying to hide something that troubles me about Trump’s firing of the FBI Director.   The FBI is supposed to be independent of politics, and admittedly James Comey has not been apolitical (just ask Hillary Clinton).  But, more importantly for our political process, his agency was the only agency diligently investigating the role of a foreign nation – Russia – in our democratic process.   We know the Trump team has had ties to Russia:  Michael Flynn was chummy enough with the Russian ambassador in December to text message him!   A former Justice Department official in a position to know has already testified to Congress that Flynn had been “compromised”.  What exactly does that mean?   And was it just Flynn who had suspicious relationships with Russian officials?   We don’t know, and as ordinary citizens, we have to depend on our government officials to find out for us.  Without the government doing it, we then have to rely on the media, which may or may not be accurate.

I’ve already written to my Congressman and Senators about this, since I passionately believe in the power of the ordinary citizen to make change.    We have a right to know, and we need to know.  Otherwise, this democratic experiment of nearly 250 years will collapse.

“Canteen Girls” in World War I

World War I YMCA Canteen II

 

The U.S. entered World War I a century ago next month, and this was a dramatic event.  Up until then, the U.S. had avoided foreign entanglements, taking the advice of our first President, George Washington.  Although thousands of men had volunteered for the Spanish-American War in 1898, that was a relatively brief skirmish and had little effect on the civilian population.  But our entry into World War I would demand participation by women as never before.

American women had certainly supported our combatants before, particularly during the Civil War, when the U.S. Sanitary Commission relied on women to knit, sew, and roll bandages as well as volunteer as nurses.   But women would fill additional roles in World War I, both here and abroad.   Women became train conductors, traffic guards, telegraphers, and telephone operators;  some went out into the fields to work as “farmerettes”, while millions of housewives voluntarily gave up meat on Mondays and wheat on Wednesdays as well as knit socks, vests, and scarves for our boys in the trenches.

But hundreds of young American women wanted to do more.  These women, what many historians refer to as representative of the “New Woman”, had already been supporting themselves as office clerks, teachers, or saleswomen, and many lived independent of their families.   Mainly white and with at least a high school education, they desired to play a larger part in the war effort.

Some volunteered  for the military, where they primarily were confined to either nursing or clerical work.  Some, though, found work as “Hello Girls!”, working as switchboard operators both in the U.S. and in Europe.   Some particularly courageous women volunteered as ambulance drivers;  this was particularly risky, as they were working close to the front as well as trying to navigate muddy, dangerous roads in perilous circumstances.

Many women went to work in Europe as part of private efforts.  A woman from Syracuse, Dora Sedgewick Hazard, for example, created a hospital unit to train and place local women in nursing jobs in the Endell Street Hospital in London.  A suffragist, she was contacted by a British suffragist, Dr. Flora Murray, to help recruit an all-female nursing staff.  Eventually, Hazard made arrangements for twenty women from central New York to get basic training and then travel to London as part of the “Hazard Hospital Unit” to serve as nursing orderlies.  The first group arrived in London in July of 1918;  while most of the women returned to their homes at the end of their six-month contract, others prolonged their stay to continue to care for soldiers after the war.

Hundreds of women also volunteered to go to Europe to staff YMCA Canteens.  These Canteens were established early in our involvement in the war to provide wholesome recreational facilities for American men either stateside or in Europe.   One of the big worries about sending American “boys” abroad was that they might get caught up in immoral activities (drinking and sexual dalliances) and come home with venereal disease (my grandmother’s uncle apparently caught “the Frenchwoman’s disease” and died a few years after the war).   The Canteens were set up to provide simple, non-alcoholic refreshments, such as cocoa and doughnuts, as well as offering a safe place to read American newspapers and magazines, write letters home, read, and relax.  While some of the Canteens travelled with specific Army units, and thus were little more than a tent, others were more permanent structures.

To provide our fighting men with another reminder of home, women staffers were hired.  They first had to attend a six-week training course, in which they were given lessons in singing, dancing, first-aid and French, then they travelled overseas on a military vessel.  One of these Y girls was from Syracuse, and she wrote home to a friend of the new adventures she was having.  She also took a camera with her, and her photo album from the time period shows her sightseeing in Paris as well as visiting devastated villages and abandoned trenches.

C848 f. 431 #215
A “Y Girl” with other people during World War I in France.

Canteen work, though, was difficult;  the female staffers had little time off, and many of them suffered from stress-related illnesses.  They were responsible for the daily routine of the Canteens, which were open 12 to 18 hours every day, as well as organizing dances and concerts for entertainment.  Living conditions also were less than ideal, as the photo above indicates.  Some of the Y girls found it difficult to walk the fine line between being a friendly face at the Y and turning into a  potential romantic partner, while others chafed at the demands of male supervisors.   The Syracuse girl mentioned above eventually chose to work for the Y in Paris as a stenographer rather than at a Canteen.

The Canteens remained open even after the Armistice, providing moral support to  homesick men eager to get back to their families, and the Y girls eventually sailed home as well.   Many of them remained active in their communities, particularly during World War II.

 

African-Americans and the Movies

We’re in Oscar season, once again,  and one of the most talked about films this year is
“Hidden Figures”, featuring strong performances from black actresses.  Other films starring African-Americans were also nominated:  “Moonlight” and “Fences”.   After the controversy over the absence of black faces from last year’s nomination lists, the Academy of Motion Pictures changed its membership procedures to include more African-American members in recognition of their long participation in movie-making.

African-American movie-making actually goes back to the silent era;  the first film featuring an all-black cast was made by a French studio in 1912.   The first of what film historians call “race films” made by an American company was in 1915 (the same year D.W. Griffiths released his controversial epic “The Birth of a Nation”), and over five hundred movies starring black actors and actresses would be produced into the 1950s.  Before the modern civil rights movement would put pressure on many institutions to open new opportunities, most of the major film studios in Hollywood would not cast African-Americans in anything other than stereotypical roles (think servants – cooks, maids, chauffeurs, and “mammies”), knowing that movie houses in much of the nation – particularly in the South- would refuse to show such films.

Yet, there was a huge demand among African-Americans around the country for films starring black actors and actresses, and some white investors quietly formed film companies to produce “race films”.  Yes, there were some black-owned studios, the most famous being the Micheaux Film Company of Chicago, but most of the race films were financed by white-owned companies such as Million Dollar Productions.   But while the money came from white entrepreneurs, the films themselves were written and directed by blacks, and of course had black casts.

 

The focus of most of these films was “racial uplift”;  writers carefully avoided the issues of poverty, crime, and social injustice.  Many of the characters were solidly middle-class, and the genres were similar to those found in mainstream movies:  romance, westerns, comedies, and musicals.  Many black comedians such as Moms Mabley, who would appear on the Johnny Carson Show and Laugh-In, got their first national exposure in these race movies. Black musicians, such as Duke Ellington, also were highlighted in these films.  Singer/dancer/actress Lena Horne made her film debut in 1938’s “The Duke is Tops” (the Duke is of course Duke Ellington) when she was only 20 years old.

race-films-lena-horne

Another black actress whose career was launched in race films was singer Dorothy Dandridge, whose first credited role was in “Four Shall Die” in 1940.  She, like Lena Horne,  would crossover into mainstream films shortly after this role, appearing in numerous movies until her premature death in 1959.

 

 

race-films-dorothy-dandridge

 

Just as major movie studios had white singing cowboys (Gene Autrey and Roy Rogers among them),  race films had singing cowboys as well.  Perhaps the most famous was Herb Jeffries, who starred in several westerns, including “Harlem on the Prairie” and “The Bronze Buckaroo”.   Jeffries eventually left acting to focus on a variety of other ventures, particularly singing with various jazz bands.

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Black audiences flocked to these movies.  In the South, of course, these films only were shown in black-owned movie theaters, and while many northern theaters were still segregated,  race films were regularly scheduled in larger cities such as New York, Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia, where there were large populations of blacks, most of whom had migrated North during the Great Migration.  In search of better jobs, good schools, and no Jim Crow laws, more than one million African-Americans fled the South after 1914, and found jobs in the automotive industry and steel mills.   They established black-owned businesses such as beauty parlors, barbershops, restaurants, newspapers, and radio-stations, and also opened up movie theaters that could show race movies.   Seeing black faces, in often complex roles, was important to a population largely ignored by the media until the 1960s.race-films-movie-poster