Women and the Military

As we approach our nation’s annual observance called Memorial Day, it’s worth noting that not just men’s sacrifices should be honored.  According to the Veterans’ Administration, there are currently more than 2 million women veterans, as well as more than 214,000 women on active duty around the world.   Let’s review some history, shall we?

According to VA historians, the first American woman to serve our nation was Deborah Sampson, who disguised herself as a man and fought in the Continental Army for some 17 months.    Along with Sampson, hundreds of women supported the American cause by acting unofficially as cooks and nurses during the American Revolution;  women were also critical in obtaining much needed supplies and relaying messages and other information.

In the Civil War, women set up military hospitals and rounded up medical supplies;  they provided nursing care as well, which opened up new opportunities for women.  Dr. Mary E. Walker became the first (and so far only) female Medal of Honor recipient through her service in that war;  other women, such as Clara Barton, later transferred their Civil War experiences to the founding of organizations such as the American Red Cross or to the establishment of formal nursing programs.

Congress recognized the value of women in war by establishing the Army Nurse Corps in 1901, and for much of the 20th century, this remained the major route for military service, although the U.S. Navy permitted women to join, as auxiliary members, during World War I;  those women were used primarily in support roles as clerks.   More than 400 women died while being deployed overseas during WWI.  Female military members, though, did not earn the same benefits as male service members, and were limited in promotions.  Once the war ended, women were released from the military.

Despite these roadblocks, thousands of women volunteered to serve our nation in World War II as nurses, clerks, drivers, and pilots.   88 American female servicemembers were taken prisoners of war during that war, and dozens more died ferrying planes from factory to bases or by enemy attacks. Once again, though, despite their sacrifices, female veterans were denied access to most of the benefits provided to men by the G.I. Bill, and  again were pushed out of the military once the war ended. But women veterans had gained powerful allies during the war, and they lobbied Congress for change. In 1948, women were permitted to enter the military even in peacetime, and start building careers.  This came none too soon: the Korean War began in 1950, and women were needed to fill support roles.   However, all of the services were still uncomfortable with offering women command positions;  the first woman to have a command position in a combat zone was Navy Commander Elizabeth Barrett, who served in Vietnam, but she was a rare exception.

Getting  pressure from the women’s movement in the early 1970s, Congressional leaders forced the military establishment to re-examine its attitude toward women in combat, and this eventually led to significant changes in training, promotion, and command opportunities.  By the late 1970s, women could be trained in nearly all of the same fields as men, as well as gaining admittance to the military academies at Annapolis, West Point, and Colorado Springs.   Women pilots were trained in combat, and actually engaged in combat in the Bosnian wars of the late 1990s. Dual wars in Iraq and Afghanistan after 2001 demanded leadership, and women quickly moved into command positions in the field.

In recognition of this change, in 2013, the U.S. military officially reversed its policy of keeping women out of combat;  it opened all military specialties to women, and by 2017, both the Army and the Marines had female infantry officers.

So as we think about Memorial Day (and in November, Veterans’ Day), we have to erase from our minds the traditional image of a veteran as being a man, and recognize the sacrifices of both men and women in defending American ideas and freedoms.


The Year Without a Summer

The images of Hawaii’s Kilauea volcanic eruption are just stunning.   It is difficult to grasp the energy of this eruption,and it is equally challenging to recognize the effects on the environment of it.   The volcano has already released tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, and poor air quality is already being experienced in the Hawaiian Islands.

Volcano on Hawaii

But as environmentalists, meteorologists and geologists will tell you, there are long term consequences as well.  Sulfur dioxide can impact air quality for years, and also change weather patterns, as the experiences of Central New Yorkers in 1816  demonstrate.

In 1815, Mt. Tambora in what was then called the East Indies – we call it Indonesia today – erupted.   It was one of the most powerful volcanoes in history, and within weeks, some 71,000 deaths were attributed to it.   While thousands died immediately, others’ health had gradually weakened due to poor air quality, and they died of cholera and other infectious diseases.

But the damage was not confined to the southern and western Pacific.   One effect of releases of large amounts of sulfur dioxide is a cooling of temperatures as well as the creation of what meteorologists call “dry fog”.   By the late spring of 1816, these two phenomena were widely observable in the northeastern U.S. as well as in Ireland, Britain, and Germany.    Snow was reported in Albany, New York in June – and in August in Syracuse.    Crops grew more slowly than normal, leading to failed harvests.   Farmers reported unusual numbers of livestock deaths.  Many farms would fail, leading to migration westward.  While weather is capricious in central New York – in April it can snow on Sunday, and the temperature can rise to 88 degrees three days later – the weather pattern of 1816 was particularly baffling.

People at that time were very alarmed by these changes, and looked for explanations.  Many in upstate New York became convinced that these weather changes indicated the “end of times” – the belief by some Christians that the last chapter of human history was at hand.   Eventually, a man named William Miller would predict (based on his reading of Revelation in the New Testament) that the world would end in 1843, and thousands of people waited for this to happen.  (Obviously, he had miscalculated, but, being resourceful, Miller channeled this belief into a new religious sect, the 7th Day Adventists).   Others in the Northeast took less radical steps in turning to religion, and upstate New York was swept by the fervor of new religious denominations in what historians call the “Burnt-Over District”.   Drive through any small town in central New York, and you will find old churches founded between 1816 and 1845.

In Europe, crop failures created widespread famine, leading many to emigrate to Canada and the United States (the first wave of Irish immigrants, for example, came to the U.S. in the  early 1820s).    In Germany, there was widespread unrest, making many of the monarchs of tiny German kingdoms distinctly uneasy.

In Switzerland in the summer of 1816, a young Mary Shelley, her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and his best pal, Lord Byron, were renting a villa, and they frequently discussed the weather changes, and possible causes and effects.   The weather was dreadful, and kept them indoors most of the time, but their daily conversations about the weather ultimately led to incredible poetry from Percy and Byron. More consequently, the unpredictable weather inspired Mary Shelley to write a horror story:  Frankenstein, published in 1818.



Here in central New York, the cultural effects of the “Year Without a Summer” were less momentous.  In the 1830s, a group of young men, all born in 1816, organized a group called the “Sons of 1816”, and they met regularly as a social group.    While the weather continues to be an unending topic of conversation, though, so far we haven’t experienced another summer like that of 1816.

The First Lady and Princess Alice

Much has been written about Eleanor Roosevelt, the First Lady who became an activist and advocate for the powerless.  Hers is a remarkable story of courage and resiliency:  born into a politically ambitious family (her uncle was Theodore Roosevelt), her father was sent to an insane asylum to “cure” his alcoholism; she was orphaned by the age of 10, and then shuttled among relatives until she met and married her distant cousin, Franklin Roosevelt, in 1905.

Eleanor in her teens

 Naturally shy, she was forced to take a more public role after her husband was stricken by polio in 1921:  in order to keep his political dreams reachable, she acted as her husband’s surrogate for several years while he tried, unsuccessfully, to recover fully.   Her efforts began to reap benefits when Franklin was elected governor of New York in 1928.   Ironically, by the time Franklin was elected President in 1932, Eleanor was so comfortable in her public role – giving speeches, campaigning for her husband and other Democratic candidates, and advocating for women and minorities- that she dreaded having to take on the traditional role of First Lady (hosting dinners and teas, visiting schools and hospitals, and smiling at every utterance of the President).   Fortunately, her husband recognized what an asset his wife was, and he supported her activities outside the White House.

Eleanor Roosevelt as First Lady

You must do the thing you think you cannot do” – Eleanor Roosevelt

After FDR’s death in April 1945, Eleanor once again assumed that her political and public roles were finished, but that was not to be so.   FDR’s successor, Harry Truman, appointed her as a delegate to the new United Nations, and Eleanor authored one of the most significant documents of the 20th century – the International Declaration of Human Rights.

Eleanor in the United Nations

She also remained a force to be reckoned with in the Democratic Party, and it was an unspoken requirement that any Democrat seeking the presidency had to gain the approval of Eleanor Roosevelt – as did Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy.    When Eleanor died in 1962, world leaders, governors, and prominent politicians and diplomats attended her funeral.

However, there was another Roosevelt woman who, for over 30 years, was also considered an important political force:  Alice Roosevelt, the eldest daughter of Theodore Roosevelt.  Born a few months before Eleanor, Alice also knew loss:  her mother died a few hours after giving birth to her, Alice’s only daughter committed suicide at the age of 26, and Alice lost three of her  half-brothers prematurely. (Theodore and his second wife, Edith, had five children:  Ted, who died during the Normandy invasion in 1944 in France, Kermit, who committed suicide after years of fighting depression and alcoholism in 1943, Archie, and Quentin, who was shot down in France in 1918, and a daughter, Ethel).



Alice, who was three when her father remarried, never felt part of the Roosevelt family.   She bristled at her stepmother’s attempts to guide her, and she argued with her father about everything from her secret smoking to the expenses of her wardrobe.   She ignored her curfew (and as “First Daughter”, that became something of a scandal) and flirted openly with men.   However, her media-savvy father recognized that his eldest daughter could also bring positive publicity, and he consented to her giving interviews to reporters.


The newspapers labeled her “Princess Alice”, and her wardrobe and activities were widely recorded.   Her father sent her, as his representative, on a Pacific tour with his new navy (the Great White Fleet), during which Alice visited Japan and China.  Theodore Roosevelt also allowed reporters to cover her White House wedding to Ohio Congressman Nicholas Longworth in 1906;  sadly, at the end of the ceremony, when Theodore left the reception, so did everyone else, leaving the bride and her groom abandoned.

Alice’s marriage quickly deteriorated, as she discovered her husband was a philanderer and alcoholic;  she turned her energies toward politics.   By the time her father decided to seek the Presidency as a third-party candidate in 1912, he relied upon Alice to edit and shape his speeches, quietly negotiate with other politicians behind the scenes, and give him her blunt reactions to his actions.   Theodore Roosevelt lost his 1912 bid, but Alice continued to support her father’s political ambitions through the rest of his life.  After his death in 1919, Alice became a staunch advocate for her brother Ted’s political ambitions;  she campaigned for him when he ran (unsuccessfully) for governor of New York in 1924.  None of her brothers, though, were successful politicians, and Alice was really the one with the political instincts – and ruthlessness – but she was a woman ahead of her time.  Women just gained the right to vote in federal elections in 1920, and few women had elected positions at the state or federal level.

Alice Roosevelt 1912
Alice Roosevelt Longworth in 1912

Alice was a fierce critic of the other Roosevelt – FDR.   Although she was included in family dinners at the White House during FDR’s 12 years as President, she continued to criticize Eleanor and Franklin, and hated FDR’s New Deal.  She deeply resented his insistence that he was carrying on the Progressive policies of her late father, and wrote newspaper columns and articles attacking New Deal policies.  While she had a quick wit, Alice could also be very petty, even making nasty comments about FDR at a family wedding.

“If you haven’t got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me” – Alice Roosevelt Longworth

But Alice, unlike Eleanor, always seemed to be on the wrong side of history after 1920.  Her newspaper column was dropped by 1940, and after WWII, Alice retreated from public life.  She raised her only grandchild after her daughter’s death in 1951, and while she was still regularly invited to dinners and parties, politicians regarded her with amusement, not respect.

Alice Roosevelt with Tricia Nixon
Princess Alice meets a First Daughter:  Alice Roosevelt Longworth and Tricia Nixon, 1970

Alice died at the age of 96 in Washington, D.C.

Two Roosevelt women, two cousins, Eleanor and Alice.  Two modern women who tried to shape their worlds.

Matched and Mismatched Royal Couples

The big news this week has been the engagement of Britain’s Prince Harry to American actress Meghan Markle, with the wedding scheduled for May at Windsor Castle.  Although Prince Harry is currently fifth in line to inherit the throne (after his father, Prince Charles, elder brother Prince William, and nephew George and niece Charlotte), and thus this marriage won’t have political ramifications, the engagement is important in a symbolic way:  the British royal family, widely regarded as stuffy, intolerant, and tradition-bound, is now welcoming into their family a divorced, bi-racial, American actress.  (Although I can’t help wondering what Meghan’s African-American maternal grandparents think of welcoming a blue-eyed, red-haired Englishman into their family!). Given the attitudes of the royal family in the past to interlopers or rogue relatives,  the official approval of the engagement is momentous.

The importance to royal families of choosing the right marriage partner, though, has had very interesting effects in the past.   Certainly, the experience of Harry’s father, Charles, in finding the right consort was a lesson in what can go wrong.  Charles fell in love as a young man with Camilla Parker-Bowles, but he took so long in deciding to propose that she married someone else.  Charles eventually gave in to the pressure of his parents, and married a young woman who seemed, at least on paper, to have all the right credentials:  of noble ancestry (Spencers), young, innocent, and photogenic.   Yet, apparently within weeks of their marriage in July of 1981, it became obvious to friends, family, and the couple themselves, Charles and Diana, that this was no fairy-tale romance.  Eventually, after producing two sons (William and Harry), the couple divorced, but only after Charles had been forced to publicly admit he was still seeing his old flame Camilla.  Diana, of course, was a media superstar up until her tragic death in a car crash in 1997. (And Charles has since married Camilla, who is known as the Duchess of Cornwall).

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, the monarch and her husband, perhaps had been so desirous of Charles choosing the right woman to marry because of a previous royal scandal that had significant political ramifications – the decision by Elizabeth’s uncle, King Edward VIII, in 1936 to marry an American divorcee, Wallis Warfield Simpson.

Edward VIII was the handsome, charming, and somewhat lazy eldest son of King George V.   He loved sports, particularly hunting and horseback riding, parties, and beautiful women. Known as the Prince of Wales, he also loved to travel, so as a young man he was regularly sent abroad by his father to visit nations within the British commonwealth.   Young women in particular crowded train stations and parade routes to see this “prince charming”.

Duke of Windsor as a young man
The Young Prince Edward, wearing a turtleneck sweater that became a fashion sensation

But, much to his parents’ despair, the Prince seemed to prefer the company of married women, and seemed in no hurry to marry a suitable woman and produce an heir to the throne.   In the mid 1930s, one of his mistresses introduced him to the wife of an English businessman, and the Prince and the American divorcee, Wallis Warfield Simpson, became inseparable.   Of course, the King and Queen were horrified, and even banned any mention of “that woman” in their household, and British newspapers also agreed not to write anything of the affair.   American journalists were fascinated, however, and by mid-1935 ran flattering and not-so-flattering stores and photos of the couple vacationing in the Mediterranean, golfing together in France, and partying with their friends in England.

King George died in January of 1936, and very quickly his Cabinet of advisers became concerned with the new king’s behavior.  Not only was he indiscreet with his new paramour, but he also seemed too friendly with certain Nazis.   He and Wallis actually visited Hitler and both were very impressed with him and his “New Germany.”

Duke and Duchess of Windsor with Hitler

Granted, Edward was not the only Brit who was very friendly with the Nazis;  there was a large group of the British aristocracy that also was pro-German, but Edward’s inability to look beyond the carefully choreographed facade of Hitler and his regime was very troubling to a number of British politicians.

In the autumn of 1936, though, the tipping point was reached when British newspapers decided to reveal the romance between the King and the now divorced (again) American.   Edward tried to get Parliament to approve of his marriage to Wallis, but she remained unacceptable to Parliament and his family. So, in December 1936,  Edward went on the radio to announce that if he could not have the “Woman I Love” next to him as his wife, he didn’t want to be king.    He abdicated and handed off the throne to his younger brother, George VI (father of Queen Elizabeth).  He and Wallis married quietly in June 1937 in France.

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor on their wedding day.  Both loved fashionable clothes, and her dress was widely copied.

Apparently, though, Edward, now formally known as the Duke of Windsor,  thought he still could have all of the rights and privileges of a king, and he spent the rest of his life trying to wring more money and respect from his family.   When WWII began, he went back into the army, stationed in Paris, but when the Germans attacked France, he and Wallis packed up their belongings and fled to their home on the Riviera, much to the embarrassment of the British royal family.   He and Wallis then went to Spain, where they became the center of a German plot to kidnap them and put them on the British throne after the Nazi’s planned conquest of England – although there is evidence that Edward was not so much a victim of the plot as a collaborator in it.   By the summer of 1940, the British government decided to move the troublesome Duke of Windsor and his bride across the pond to the Bahamas.

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor returned to Paris after the war, and remained very active on the party set.   He died in 1972, still angry with his family’s poor treatment of Wallis.  She died in Paris in 1989.  However, the Duke’s sister-in-law, the Queen Mother, never forgave the Duke for abandoning his duty to be king;  she, and to some degree, her daughter Queen Elizabeth II, also blamed the Duke for the premature death of King George VI, who had to shoulder the responsibilities of a job – king – that he felt unprepared for.   Both women were very sensitive to public opinion, and both also were deeply committed to public service, and thus marriage choices were not to be made lightly.

So, indeed, it is remarkable that Prince Harry will be marrying Meghan Markle – or maybe it isn’t so remarkable, given that we’re in the second decade of the 21st century.

DaVinci, Vermeer, and the Question of Forgery

Last week, Christie’s auction house in New York stunned the art world (and the media) by negotiating the sale of a recently restored DaVinci painting for the sum of (gulp) $450 million.   This sale has raised a lot of eyebrows, not only because of the purchase price (making this the most expensive painting ever), but because there are still some doubts as to the authenticity of the painting itself.   Then there’s the mystery of who would buy a painting with a questionable provence – for $450 million?  The media has made some guesses, ranging from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos to some anonymous Chinese billionaire, but the public may never find out, just adding to the mystery of the painting.

The DaVinci painting, dubbed “The DaVinci Christ”, was last sold in 1958 for around $90.00 to an English buyer;  not only were there questions even then about its painter, but the painting itself was in very bad shape.  Painted on a piece of wood (not canvas), because of an imperfection in the wood the painting had begun to split.   But, for some reason- this story just gets “curiouser and curiouser”- about ten years ago, the anonymous owner  sent this $90  painting to a well-known art restorer in Manhattan, who had the painting x-rayed, then subject to infrared rays, which showed underlying layers.   It was in those layers that she found evidence of DaVinci’s work.  Yet, not everyone in the art world is convinced that this painting is indeed the Italian master’s, many restorers and art experts pointing in particular to the clear sphere in Christ’s left hand – an object never used by DaVinci in any of his other work.Salvator Mundi attributed to Leonardo da Vinci

But such is DaVinci’s spell that the painting still brought in nearly half a billion dollars…quite a return on a $90 investment, and not only for the owner, but for the dealer and Christie’s as well.

But then again, art lovers and dealers have deluded themselves as well as the public before.  One of the most famous instances is the case of the fake Vermeers.

Johannes Vermeer was a 17th century Dutch painter who specialized in scenes of domestic life:  women doing household chores, men writing or reading, and so on.   At the time he painted, his work was not considered particularly remarkable, but by the 20th century, art critics and lovers had grown to appreciate his subtle use of color, light and shadow.

Vermeer globe
Man With a Globe by Johannes Vermeer

However, Vermeer was not a particularly prolific painter, so it was thought by the 1930s that all of his work had already been found.  Thus the art world and collectors were very excited when a new Vermeer seemed to have been discovered in the late 1930s by a Dutch art dealer, Hans van Meegeren. By the early 1940s, he claimed to have found others.

Among those who were eager to obtain a “new” Vermeer was none other than Hitler’s deputy, Hermann Goering.  Goering had begun building a sophisticated art collection since the 1920s, and as the Nazi war machine conquered most of the European continent by 1940, Goering and other Nazis began to add to their art collections from museums and art dealers in Poland, France, and the Netherlands.  Some of these art works were snatched from Jewish dealers and collectors, while others were “appropriated” from museums.

Amsterdam art dealer Han van Meegeren became known as the man who could “find” particularly rare or valuable pieces of art, including Vermeers.  In 1943, van Meegeren sold a reputed Vermeer called “Christ and the Adulteress” to Goering for a substantial amount of cash and an exchange of 137 Dutch paintings.  Van Meegeren also sold several other “newly found” Vermeers to Nazi-run museums, and one of these paintings even made its way into Hitler’s personal art collection.

Vermeer forgery
Two of the “Vermeers” sold by Han van Meegeren to the Nazis during World War II

But even during World War II there were rumors about van Meegeren and his uncanny ability to “find” previously unknown Vermeers.  Art experts in London and New York, unafraid of Nazi retaliation, pointed out the inconsistencies of the newly found Vermeers with the previously authenticated Vermeers, such as the famous “Girl with a Pearl Earring”, shown below:

Vermeer Girl With a Pearl Earring


At the end of the war, van Meegeren was arrested  by the Dutch government as a Nazi collaborator, and it was then, as prosecutors began to build their case against him, that his role as a forger was exposed.  In fact, van Meegeren, who was a gifted painter in his own right, admitted to having begun to forge Vermeers back in 1937 as a way to make money, then, in the 1940s as a means to trick the Nazis. Rather than being convicted as a Nazi collaborator, he argued, he should be celebrated as a national hero for having swindled the Nazis and protected those 137 Dutch paintings!

Van Meegeren negotiated with the Dutch government, and was allowed to plead guilty to forgery and fraud (punishable with a one-year prison sentence) instead of being tried for treason (with a death sentence).   He never completed his sentence, though, dying of a heart attack in the last month of his his prison term.

Van Meegeren’s tale is a fascinating one, and I suspect that the story of this new DaVinci painting is not yet over, and will contain a few more twists and turns!

Halloween, Houdini, and other Oddities

When did Halloween become such an important holiday?   There seems to now be a huge Halloween industry, churning out costumes, recipes, activities, and events for people of all ages.   Stores pop-up or hire extra help just for Halloween.   And by November 1st, the Christmas decorations will be up and America will be preparing for another round of celebrating and ritual!

Now that I’ve vented about Halloween, let’s look at a man whose life – and death- remain mysterious:  Harry Houdini, who died on October 31, 1926.  Born in Budapest, Hungary as Erik Weisz, son of a rabbi, he and his family immigrated to Wisconsin in the 1880s;  by the time he was nine, Erik had run away to join the circus (not an uncommon dream of children), where he proved to be adept at contorting his body, doing trapeze stunts – and picking locks.  He changed his name to a Houdini – supposedly after an obscure European performer, and his family abandoned Wisconsin to follow him to New York City.  His fame spread quickly, and in 1900 he returned to Europe and gave performances to huge crowds in which he escaped from manacles, locked boxes, and all manner of restraints.   Houdini admitted he possessed great concentration and unusual dexterity, but he also knew how to draw out the suspense and entertain even the most skeptical audiences.  Still, some of his escapes are still hard to fathom, even today.

As time went by, his performances became even more dramatic.  He often was bound by chains or other restraints, then dropped into a tank of water; of course, he was able to break free.   One of his most popular performances was in New York City, where he was dangled from a skyscraper, bound by a strait-jacket.   He also appeared in early movies, although he was disappointed that he wasn’t offered extended contracts.


Various “escape artists”, magicians, and other sleight-of-hand performers attracted huge crowds in the early 20th century, but Houdini had little respect for many of his colleagues who claimed supernatural powers or used tricks.  He insisted that his success was based not on tricks but on skill, dexterity, and concentration, although perhaps part of the attraction was the revealing outfit he wore!

Houdini stunt

Though he did secretly consult mediums after the death of his beloved mother in 1913, Houdini spent considerable energy attacking spiritualism. Spiritualism was very popular after the Great War ended in 1918 among women, in particular, eager to contact dead husbands, fathers or brothers, but Houdini believed that most of those who offered psychic services were charlatans. He got into some very public spats with spiritualist advocates, the most famous being British writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of charater of Sherlock Holmes.

Houdini against spiritualism poster

Houdini was a cautious man, though:  not only did he meticulously plan out all of his stunts, he and his second wife agreed that the surviving spouse would try to contact the deceased partner through a seance.  Houdini’s widow, Rosabelle, kept to the bargain for ten years after his death, but apparently never heard from her late husband.

Houdini died under tragic circumstances, but not from deliberately risking his life in an attempted escape nor from his hobby of flying;  no, Houdini died from a ruptured appendix, brought on by an incident of bragging.  Before a performance in Montreal, Houdini was approached by a group of young men who asked what his secret of success was.  Houdini proudly proclaimed that much of his talent was attributed to supreme physical fitness  (“abs of steel” would be the term used today), so one of the young men tested that claim by punching Houdini in the stomach.  By the next day, after arriving in Detroit, Houdini had to enter a hospital, where doctors concluded that the blow had ruptured the performer’s appendix, and before they could operate to remove the appendage, Houdini died of complications.  His funeral, held in New York City, was attended by over 2,000 people.  He is buried in Queens, near his parents.

People around the world were shocked by the circumstances of Houdini’s death, and of course conspiracy theorists quickly found other causes of Houdini’s death, one particular group arguing Houdini had actually been killed by spiritualists outraged by Houdini’s public attacks on their art.   One of his grand-nephews has tried to have Houdini’s body exhumed so another pathological exam can be performed to re-affirm the cause of death.

Since Houdini’s death, popular culture has remained fascinated by him.  A popular movie released in 1962 starred rising star Tony Curtis, and a made-for-TV movie featuring Wil Wheaton was broadcast in 1987.  One of my favorite Broadway musicals, “Ragtime”, also featured Houdini.  Just the word “Houdini” conjures up an escape artist or magician.

There is now a Houdini Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania, as well as other museums highlighting Houdini’s work.  The American Society of Magicians pays to maintain Houdini’s gravesite in Queens.  And, of course, Houdini’s influence on other performers such as David Copperfield and Siegfried and Roy is significant.


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.