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HIST 1152 American History since 1877 Primary Source Readings 4: Prosperity, Depression, and War

HIST 1152 American History since 1877 Primary Source Readings 4: Prosperity, Depression, and War

Overview

A collection of primary source readings for American History since 1877.

Things Are in the Saddle by Samuel Strauss

The primary source readings in this course align with  The American Yawp open textbook by Stanford University Press.  While the original The American Yawp is accompanied by its own primary source reader called The American Yawp Reader, the selection of primary sources you will find in this course differ somewhat in that some of the text excerpts are from the same sources but might feature a different selection from the text. Some of the primary sources in this course are in addition to those found in The American Yawp Reader. 

Microsoft Word and PDF downloads of these readings are available.

To take this course for credit, register at Columbus State Community College.

This work, except where otherwise indicated, by Jennifer Nardone at Columbus State Community College is licensed CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Things Are in the Saddle

Samuel Strauss

 

Mass production of consumer goods increased dramatically from the 1890s through the 1920s. Mail order catalogues like Sears and Roebuck, mass media like the radio and popular music, and especially the advent of the automobile redefined American homes and families. Mass production requires mass consumption. By the 1920s, consumption defined the growing middle class. The definition of middle class (then and now) centered on purchasing power, access to credit, and visual cues that you were of the “respectable class.”

 

Business and political leaders argued that consumption was the essence of American freedom in the Modern era. For example, the modern housewife had the freedom to choose whether to buy Ivory soap or Palmolive soap for her family. The most important thing was that she bought some kind of manufactured soap, a requirement for middle class homes. Critics of mass consumption argued that a society based on material wealth was doomed to fall into corruption and immorality.

 

Journalist Samuel Strauss was one such critic. From 1917 to 1925, Strauss published a weekly periodical called The Villager out of his apartment in the West Village of New York City (on the Lower East Side). The magazine relentlessly criticized business, lending institutions, and the federal government for promoting “consumptionism” no matter the cost. In 1923, Strauss wrote, “No, business does not care a straw for its individual initiative any more than for its individual freedom. The only freedom it worries over is the freedom which is threatened by Government interference, and this freedom is the freedom to make and keep profits, nothing more.”

 

Strauss published his best-known article, Things are in the Saddle, in the November, 1924 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, where he later work as an editor and essayist[1].

 

 

Something new has come to confront American democracy. The Fathers of the Nation did not foresee it. History had opened to their foresight most of the obstacles which might be expected

to get in the way of the Republic—political corruption, extreme wealth, foreign domination, faction, class rule; what history did not advise them of, their truly extraordinary understanding of human nature and of political science supplied. That which has stolen across the path of American democracy and is already altering Americanism was not in their calculations. History gave them no hint of it. What is happening today is without precedent, at least so far as historical research has discovered[2]. And surely nothing approaching what has taken recognizable shape in the twentieth century ever entered the mind of any philosopher of the eighteenth century, or any economist a, any forward-looking salesman. No reformer, no utopian, no physiocrat, no poet, no writer of fantastic romances saw in his dreams the particular development which is with us here and now.

 

This is our proudest boast: “The American citizen has more comforts and conveniences than kings had two hundred years ago.” It is a fact, and this fact is the outward evidence of the new force which has crossed the path of American democracy. This increasing stream of automobiles and radios, buildings and bathrooms, furs and furniture, [ocean] liners, hotels, bridges, vacuum cleaners, cameras, bus lines, electric toasters, moving pictures, railway cars, package foods, telephones, pianos, novels, comic supplements—these are the signs. And it is just these which we accept naturally. We think of them as particularly American, as the logical growth from that particular beginnings which was ours; these we think of as America’s second chapter. The first chapter was concerned with the Fathers and their struggle, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. The second chapter is the present—the chapter in which we use the opportunity secured for us, the chapter in which every American comes into his own, the chapter in which every American lives better than once a king lived.

 

This America today, this vast magazine[3] of things, is regarded as the successful development of the Fathers’ work[4], the natural fruit of that democratic seed which they planted in the fertile American soil. But although to us this development may seem natural, be sure it would not have seemed natural to the Fathers; be sure it would have abnormal to them. Is this to say that the Founders of the Republic never looked forward to the time when every citizen would have his own conveyance, his own house, with abundant furniture, when every wife and daughter would have silk garments and a piano to play upon like a princess? No. It might be said that this was precisely that to which they did look forward; this was an essential part of their expectation…But they could not foresee what has happened. They could not foresee at what a rate the machine would multiply things; they could not foresee how the prosperity – indeed the very existence – of the nation would come to depend upon people being forced to use what the machine pours out.

 

What is the first condition of our civilization? In the final reason, is it not concerned with the production of things? It is not that we must turn out large quantities of things; it is that we must turn out ever larger quantities of things, more this year than last year, more next year than this; the flow from mill and mine must steadily increase. There ar ea thousand programmes cooking throughout the country, there are a thousand isms and causes and parties, each with its own notion of what must be done for the national good and the human good. Some of them are at war with each other, but at one point they are allies; some of them are worlds apart, speaking languages strange to each other – yet one word they have in common. The minister in the pulpit cries out upon materialism, commercialization, science, politics, rum, divorce, the young folks. He offers this or that or the other as the cure. But no minister in any pulpit offers any cure which requires that what is called the nation’s “standard of living” sag[5] back.

 

The Capitalist and the Socialist are at each other’s throats, but the issue between them is - Which can ensure the distribution of the most goods to the people? No statesman, no pacifist, no League-of-Nations enthusiast[6], would entertain his pet scheme for a moment longer if he believed it would mean that ten years later people would buy half of what they buy today. For the standard of living to sag back, for the people to buy half of what they used to buy—everybody knows that that means ruin, and not the ruin of business alone. The national prosperity gone, the national safety is in danger. This is not a fear; it is a fact. If anything were to happen to industry, there would be first confusion and then decline in all our institutions; our great system of free education for the nation would wither, our organized charities would dry up, the thorn and the nettle[7] would spring up in our parks, our slums would become fever spots, our roads would fall into decay. More than all, our ideals of political authority would be a heap of jackstraws; we should hold the kind of government the Fathers gave us to be a broken reed.

 

Production has played many parts in history; it has taken various forms. The form which it takes in this, the Machine Age, is strange and new. Consumptionism is a new necessity.

Consumptionism is a new science. Through the centuries, the problem has been how to produce enough of the things men wanted; the problem now is how to make men want and use more than enough things - the “science of plenty,” it has been called. Formerly the task was to supply the things men wanted; the new necessity is to make men want the things which machinery must turn out if this civilization is not to perish. Today we dare not wait until men in their own good time get around to wanting the things; do we permit this, the machine flies to pieces…The problem before us today is not how to produce the goods, but how to produce the customers. Consumptionism is the science of compelling men to use more and more things.

 

Consumptionism is bringing it about that the American citizen’s first importance to his country is no longer that of citizen but that of consumer.

 

[1] Samuel Strauss, “Things are in the Saddle,” originally published in the Atlantic Monthly, November, 1924.

[2] Interesting point. Strauss argues that the “Founders” had no precedent or context to understand mass production and consumption and how it would corrupt democracy. This argument only stands if you completely ignore the Atlantic Slave Trade, the domestic slave trade, an agricultural economy rooted in mass production of cash crops only possible from slave labor. The majority of the “Founders” were slaveowners and the Constitution protected slaveholders and their property rights. All you have to do is read the Debates from the Constitutional Convention to know the Founders were total aware of the threat of amoral capitalism on a nation. Nevertheless, Strauss’ point is well-taken. 

[3] “Magazine” originally referred to a unit of storage (originally from the ancient French verb “to store”),

later used in the title of books providing information useful to a particular group of people, which then became the word for a periodical (until recently, magazine referred to a print periodical, it now refers to any publication of regularity, in print or otherwise) that appeals to a particular group of people. Strauss refers to the term’s original meaning: a unit of storage.

[4] The “Founding Fathers.”

[5] Move backwards, roll back.

[6] The League of Nations was formed following World War I (1918) with the hope of solving international conflict through diplomatic solutions rather than war. President Harry Truman included the League as part of his plan for the post-WWI world, called the Fourteen Points. Every nation invited to join the League did so, except the United States. The Republican Congress argued that joining the League would leave the country vulnerable to attack and encourage immigrants to side with their home countries against the United States. Despite the fact that the US President organized the League of Nations, and later won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, Congress voted against the US joining the League.

[7] Briars and weeds.

Image: Palmer, A. T., photographer. (1943) Operating a hand drill at Vultee-Nashville, woman is working on a "Vengeance" dive bomber, Tennessee. Nashville Tennessee United States, 1943. Feb. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2017878542/.In the public domain.

Middletown: A Study in American Culture by Robert and Helen Lynd

Middletown: A Study in American Culture

Chapter 26: Inventions Remaking Leisure

Robert S. and Helen M. Lynd

 

In 1924, sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd moved to Muncie, Indiana for eighteen months to observe and record middle class life in an “ordinary” American town, whatever that means. In 1929, the Lynds published a record of their research entitled, Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture. They were particularly interested the effects of industrialization and consumerism (as Samuel Strauss called it) on everyday life since 1890, the year the frontier closed.

 

Helen Merrill Lynd earned her Master’s degree in the History of Ideas from Columbia University in 1922. She and her husband, Robert Lynd, led the team of researchers during the year and a half they lived and researched in Muncie. After publishing Middletown in 1929, Helen Lynd taught at Vassar College and Sarah Lawrence College before earning her PhD in philosophy and history from Columbia University in 1944.[1]

 

Robert Lynd worked as an editor and publicity director for several New York publishing houses before earning a Bachelor of Divinity from Union Theological University in New York City. He spent the summer of 1921 as a church missionary in the Wyoming oil camps owned by Standard Oil, and later wrote an expose of the harsh conditions he witnessed in the camps. John Rockefeller Jr. – not directly involved with his father’s oil company – found Lynd’s article so compelling he agreed to fund the Lynd’s research in Muncie through his Institute of Social and Religious Studies. In other words, the Rockefellers funded the Middletown project.

 

Robert Lynd returned to Columbia University following the research project, and earned his PhD in sociology in 1931. In old school academic tradition, Lynd became a professor of Sociology at Columbia shortly after graduating. He also worked as an advisor to the Consumers’ Advisory Board, part of the New Deal programs put in place to offset the impact of the Great Depression. In fact, the Lynds returned to Muncie in 1935 for a second study about the impact of the Great Depression in Middletown.

 

Both Robert and Helen were investigated as potential communists by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s House on Un-American Activities (HUAC) committee during the second Red Scare following World War II. In the end, McCarthy and the committee decided the Lynds were not a communist threat, just extremely liberal academics misleading their students with anti-capitalist rhetoric. This selection from their study, considers the automobile in a new, but already troubling phenomenon, in Middletown.[2]

 

 

The first real automobile appeared in Middletown in 1900. About 1906 it was estimated that "there are probably 200 in the city and county." At the close of 1923 there were 6,221 passenger cars in the city, one for every 6.1 persons, or roughly two for every three families. Of these 6,221 cars, 41 per cent were Fords; 54 per cent. of the total were cars of models of 1920 or later, and 17 per cent were models earlier than 1917. These cars average a bit over 5,000 miles a year. For some of the workers and some of the business class, use of the automobile is a seasonal matter, but the increase in surfaced roads and in closed cars is rapidly making the car a year-round tool for leisure-time as well as getting-a-living activities. As, at the turn of the century, business class people began to feel apologetic if they did not have a telephone, so ownership of an automobile has now reached the point of being an accepted essential of normal living.

 

Into the equilibrium of habits which constitutes for each individual some integration in living has come this new habit, upsetting old adjustments, and blasting its way through such accustomed and unquestioned dicta as "Rain or shine, I never miss a Sunday morning at church"; "A high school boy does not need much spending money"; "I don't need exercise, walking to the office keeps me fit"; "I wouldn't think of moving out of town and being so far from my friends"; "Parents ought always to know where their children are." The newcomer is most quickly and amicably incorporated into those regions of behavior in which men are engaged in doing impersonal, matter-of-fact things; much more contested is its advent where emotionally charged sanctions and taboos are concerned. No one questions the use of the auto for transporting groceries, getting to one's place of work or to the golf course, or in place of the porch for "cooling off after supper" on a hot summer evening; however much the activities concerned with getting a living may be altered by the fact that a factory can draw from workmen within a radius of forty-five miles, or however much old labor union men resent the intrusion of this new alternate way of spending an evening, these things are hardly major issues. But when auto riding tends to replace the traditional call in the family parlor as a way of approach between the unmarried, "the home is endangered," and all-day Sunday motor trips are a "threat against the church"; it is in the activities concerned with the home and religion that the automobile occasions the greatest emotional conflicts.[3]

 

Group-sanctioned values are disturbed by the inroads of the automobile upon the family budget. A case in point is the not uncommon practice of mortgaging a home to buy an automobile…That the automobile does represent a real choice in the minds of some at least is suggested by the acid retort of one citizen to the question about car ownership: "No, sir, we've not got a car. That's why we've got a home." According to an officer of a Middletown automobile financing company, 75 to 90 percent of the cars purchased locally are bought on time payment, and a working man earning $35.00 a week frequently plans to use one week's pay each month as payment for his car.

 

The automobile has apparently unsettled the habit of careful saving for some families. "Part of the money we spend on the car would go to the bank, I suppose," said more than one working class wife. A business man explained his recent inviting of social oblivion by selling his car by saying: "My car, counting depreciation and everything, was costing mighty nearly $100.00 a month, and my wife and I sat down together the other night and just figured that we're getting along, and if we're to have anything later on, we've just got to begin to save." The "moral" aspect of the competition between the automobile and certain accepted expenditures appears in the remark of another business man, "An automobile is a luxury, and no one has a right to one if he can't afford it. I haven't the slightest sympathy for anyone who is out of work if he owns a car."

 

Men in the clothing industry are convinced that automobiles are bought at the expense of clothing, and the statements of a number of the working-class wives bear this out:

 

"We'd rather do without clothes than give up the car," said one mother of nine children. "We used to go to his sister's to visit, but by the time we'd get the children shoed and dressed there wasn't any money left for carfare. Now no matter how they look, we just poke 'em in the car and take 'em along."

 

"We don't have no fancy clothes when we have the car to pay for," said another. "The car is the only pleasure we have."

 

Even food may suffer: "I'll go without food before I'll see us give up the car," said one woman emphatically, and several who were out of work were apparently making precisely this adjustment

 

Many families feel that an automobile is justified as an agency holding the family group together. "I never feel as close to my family as when we are all together in the car," said one business class mother, and one or two spoke of giving up Country Club membership or other recreations to get a car for this reason. "We don't spend anything on recreation except for the car. We save every place we can and put the money into the car. It keeps the family together," was an opinion voiced more than once. Sixty-one per cent. of 337 boys and 60 per cent. of 423 girls in the three upper years of the high school say that they motor more often with their parents than without them.

 

But this centralizing tendency of the automobile may be only a passing phase; sets in the other direction are almost equally prominent. "Our daughters [eighteen and fifteen] don't use our car much because they are always with somebody else in their car when we go out motoring," lamented one business class mother…"What on earth do you want me to do? Just sit around home all evening!" retorted a popular high school girl of today when her father discouraged her going out motoring for the evening with a young blade in a rakish car waiting at the curb.[4] The fact that 348 boys and 382 girls in the three upper years of the high school placed "use of the automobile" fifth and fourth respectively in a list of twelve possible sources of disagreement between them and their parents suggests that this may be an increasing decentralizing agent.

 

An earnest teacher in a Sunday School class of working class boys and girls in their late teens was winding up the lesson on the temptations of Jesus: "These three temptations summarize all the temptations we encounter today: physical comfort, fame, and wealth. Can you think of any temptation we have today that Jesus didn't have?" "Speed!" rejoined one boy…The boys who have cars "step on the gas," and those who haven't cars sometimes steal them: "The desire of youth to step on the gas when it has no machine of its own," said the local press, "is considered responsible for the theft of the greater part of the [154] automobiles stolen from [Middletown] during the past year."

 

The threat which the automobile presents to some anxious parents is suggested by the fact that of thirty girls brought before the juvenile court in the twelve months preceding September 1, 1924, charged with "sex crimes," for whom the place where the offense occurred was given in the records, nineteen were listed as having committed the offense in an automobile.[5] Here again the automobile appears to some as an "enemy" of the home and society.

Sharp, also, is the resentment aroused by this elbowing new device when it interferes with old-established religious habits. The minister trying to change people's behavior in desired directions through the spoken word must compete against the strong pull of the open road strengthened by endless printed "copy" inciting to travel. Preaching to 200 people on a hot, sunny Sunday in midsummer on "The Supreme Need of Today," a leading Middletown minister denounced "automobilitis—the thing those people have who go off motoring on Sunday instead of going to church."

 

"We had a fine day yesterday," exclaimed an elderly pillar of a prominent church, by way of Monday morning greeting. "We left home at five in the morning. By seven we swept into -----. At eight we had breakfast at -----, eighty miles from home. From there we went on to Lake ----- the longest in the state. I had never seen it before, and I've lived here all my life, but I sure do want to go again. Then we went to the Y.M.C.A. camp and had our chicken dinner. It's a fine thing for people to get out that way on Sundays. No question about it. They see different things and get a larger outlook."

 

"Did you miss church?" he was asked.

 

"Yes, I did, but you can't do both. I never missed church or Sunday school for thirteen years and I kind of feel as if I'd done my share. The ministers ought not to rail against people's driving on Sunday. They ought just to realize that they won't be there every Sunday during the summer and make church interesting enough so they'll want to come."

 

But if the automobile touches the rest of Middletown's living at many points, it has revolutionized its leisure; more, perhaps, than the movies or any other intrusion new to Middletown since the nineties, it is making leisure-time enjoyment a regularly expected part of every day and week rather than an occasional event.[6] The readily available leisure-time options of even the working class have been multiplied many-fold. As one working class housewife remarked, "We just go to lots of things we couldn't go to if we didn't have a car." Beefsteak and watermelon picnics in a park or a near-by wood can be a matter of a moment's decision on a hot afternoon.

 

Not only has walking for pleasure become practically extinct, but the occasional event such as a parade on a holiday attracts far less attention now.

 

***********

 

…Today Middletown lives by a credit economy that is available in some form to nearly every family in the community. The rise and spread of the dollar-down-and-so-much-per plan extends credit for virtually everything - homes, $200 over-stuffed living-room suites, electric washing machines, automobiles, fur coats, diamond rings - to persons of whom frequently little is known as to their intention or ability to pay.[7]

 

Likewise, the building of a house by the local carpenter today is increasingly ceasing to be the simple act of tool-using in return for the prompt payment of a sum of money. The contractor is extensively financed by the banker, and this more and more frequently involves such machinery as “discounting second-mortgage notes.” A veteran official of a local building and loan company summed up the present-day optimistic reliance upon credit for all things great and small: “People don’t think anything nowadays of borrowing sums they’d never have thought of borrowing in the old days. They will assume an obligation for $2,000 today as calmly as they would have borrowed $300 or $400 in 1890.”

 

The leading paper offered the following prescriptions for local prosperity: “The first duty of a citizen is to produce”; and later, “The American citizen’s first importance to his country is no longer that of citizen but that of consumer. Consumption is a new necessity.[8]

 

This diffusion of new urgent occasions for spending money in every sector of living is exhibited by such new tools and services commonly used in Middletown today, but either unknown or little used in the nineties, as the following: In the home - furnace, running hot and cold water, modern sanitation, electric appliances ranging from toasters to washing machines, telephone, refrigeration, green vegetables and fresh fruit all the year round, greater variety of clothing, silk hose and underwear, commercial pressing and cleaning of clothes, commercial laundering or use of expensive electrical equipment in the home, cosmetics, manicuring, and commercial hairdressing.

 

In spending leisure time - movies (attendance far more frequent than at earlier occasional “shows”), automobile (gas, tires, depreciation, cost of trips), phonograph, radio, more elaborate children’s playthings, more club dues for more members of the family, Y.M.C.A. and Y.W.C.A., more formal dances and banquets, including a highly competitive series of “smartly appointed affairs” by high school clubs; cigarette smoking, and expensive cigars. In education - high school and college (involving longer dependence of children), many new incidental costs such as entrance to constant school athletic contests.

 

[1] When referring to two people with the same last name, use both names for clarity. In every other circumstance, use the last name only after the first reference to a person.

[2] Robert and Helen Lynd, Middletown: A Study in Contemporary American Culture, 1929. The Center for Middletown Studies is now located at Ball State University, located in Muncie, IN.

[3] What do they mean by this? - The car means “the home is endangered” and “a threat against the church.”

[4] In this context, rakish means a stylish and fast car. When describing a person, “rakish” means a devious charisma.  

[5] Since the appearance of the car, young people have gone “parking,” meaning they found somewhere secluded, parked, and fooled around somewhere on the spectrum from kissing to sex. Local police patrolled for teenagers out parking, then hauled them into the police station for a vague charge like “sex crimes.” While it was accepted that young men needed to “sow their oats,” it was shameful for a young woman to be caught “riding in cars with boys,” as it was called. Young men were expected to explore sexual relationships as part of their transition to manhood. If we assume (as is so often the case) these men were heterosexual, who were they exploring sexual relationships with? Somehow women were necessary for this transition but were expected to resist and/or say no. Women who did resist often were frequently labelled a prude who unfairly tempted men. If a young woman enjoyed sexual relations, they were frequently labelled a slut who unfairly tempted men. Also – just FYI – young adults had plenty of sex during the 1920s, just like today. The whole “kids today don’t have morals like they did in the old days and are sexually promiscuous” is simply not true. Anyway, that’s what’s going on in this passage.

[6] The 1890s. Remember the Lynds were charting changes in middle class life since the frontier closed in 1890.

[7] Footnote from original source: This sudden expansion of the miraculous ability to make things belong to one immediately under the installment payment plan has telescoped the future into the present. It would be interesting to study the extent to which this emphasis upon the immediately possessed is altering Middletown’s habits as touching all manner of things involving the future, e.g., the increasing unwillingness today, noted elsewhere, of young working-class boys to learn more than is necessary to operate a single machine so as to earn immediate big pay, regardless of the future and of how this early specialization may affect their chances to become foremen. Elsewhere will be noted the frequent loss of homes today -with resulting disorganization of many kinds- by people who attempt to purchase “on time” with inadequate resources.

 

[8] This should sound very familiar. Where is this quote from?  

Selling Mrs. Consumer by Christine Fredericks

Selling Mrs. Consumer

Christine Fredericks[1]

Christine Frederick (1883-1970), was a writer and editor for Ladies’ Home Journal from 1912 through the 1930s. During the 1920s, she operated a “test kitchen” in her home, where she investigated, tested, and rated new products on their efficiency and desirability. Frederick was an avid supporter of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s scientific efficiency agenda, which she sought to apply to household management. In fact, her first major work was a book published in 1912, entitled, The New Housekeeping: Efficiency Studies in Home Management; the second chapter of her book was called, "Applying 'Standard Practice' and 'Motion Study' to Household Tasks" which directly references one of Taylor’s main principles – motion study.

In 1915, she offered a “correspondence class” for housewives called Household Engineering: Scientific Management in the Home, which consisted essentially of buying her book of the same name (the book was dedicated to Ladies’ Home Journal editor Edward Bok). Her best-known work, Selling Mrs. Consumer, was published in 1928, (and dedicated to Herbert Hoover). By that time, Frederick had moved away from Taylorism toward consumerism, advocating for the post-WWI emphasis on planned obsolescence as a positive force in the consumer marketplace, and accepting payment from companies to endorse and promote specific products as part of her consumer “studies.” The excerpt below is from Selling Mrs. Consumer.

 

The least understood thing in the entire chain of economics today is consumption and consumers. “Consumptionism” is the name given to the new doctrine; and it is admitted today to be the greatest idea that America has to give to the world: the idea that workmen and the masses be looked upon not simply as workers or producers, but as consumers. Pay them more, sell them more, prosper more is the equation. It is with the hope that a lifetime of work, study, and experience in just these matters may make an interesting mutual common ground, that I have written this book…

 

 For greater efficiency in production and distribution [Mrs. Consumer] positively must be consulted. Loss and bankruptcy may be the cost of failure to do it. This is the new knowledge which businessmen have, and in consequence great changes are taking place in manufacturing and marketing procedure through the use of consumer research. The producer and distributor cannot any longer impose their will upon consumers, for they are no longer docile as sheep. The consumer is partaking of the spirit of the times. Mrs. Consumer of today is the sophisticated flapper of yesterday, who - quite literally - “knows her groceries.” As a speaker at a southern manufacturers’ sales conference in 1928 said, “we face a consumer remarkably sophisticated, with a buying power greater than ever before…”

 

 A civilization like ours—unlike that of the Roman or the Greek— centers its genius upon improving the conditions of life. It secures its thrills from inventing ways to live easier and more fully; means to bring foods from more ends of the earth and add to the variety served on the family table, methods to bring more news and entertainment to the family fireside, ways to reduce the labor and hardships of living, ways to have more beauty and graciousness in the domestic domicile, ways to satisfy more of the instincts of more of the family group. 

 

Inevitably in such a civilization woman’s influence grows increasingly larger, for woman is the logical center of peaceful living, the improvement of civilization and the gratification of instincts…

 

Mrs. Consumer’s Close Partnership with American Industry. A reciprocal, practical, working partnership is now in operation between the best manufacturers of family goods and the American woman, which is the very spearhead of American progress, both domestic and industrial. Its tangible evidence of existence is the readiness with which American women “snap into” the adoption of new ideas for domestic advance. A good article does not go begging for years in America, nor a new idea for greater family health, sanitation, comfort or efficiency meet with cool indifference. Scientific advance is working in America in far closer cooperation with housewives than in any part of the world. I have in recent years traveled much in foreign countries, making a special point of studying kitchens, family budgets, foods and the attitude of foreign housewives toward new ideas in England, France, Belgium, Holland, Italy, Germany, and Switzerland. I was a speaker at the International Home Economics Congress at Rome in 1927 and presided over the Home Exposition (“Salon du Foyer”) at Paris in October 1927. I have no hesitation in saying that American housewives in the mass are fully twenty times more responsive to new ways, new foods, new devices than are foreign housewives…

 

Twenty times as responsive to new offerings, inventions and improvements by industry! That is a mighty makeweight in the balance of progress in America, both for individual health and happiness and for business. The American woman’s relation to American manufacturing is positively startling to foreign eyes, but a commonplace here. She writes letters to Home Service heads employed by the manufacturer and secures a woman-to-woman reply. She attends household lectures and secures free education. She is supplied with general household information, recipes and housekeeping aid that is only indirectly connected up with the manufacturer’s product. Abroad this would frankly be regarded as philanthropic folly. She is asked for her opinion both before a new product is put out, and afterward; she is offered prizes and rewards for participating in the improvement of the product and the widening of its scope of usefulness. She is given information in the newest developments, told promptly of new inventions, and is offered through reduced prices made possible by mass production, a dividend-share in the patronage she supplies. 

 

Mrs. Consumer Fully Approves Advertising.

 

The printed page acts as the constant inter-communicating telephone or radio between manufacturer and Mrs. Consumer. They were strangers before this was the fact, but are in effect now co-partners in advancing American standards of living. It is even not unusual for a parlor game to consist of a test of remembrance of advertising slogans, or for society costume balls to be sprinkled with characters representing advertising trademarks.     Little wonder then that we do not resent the very considerable amount of advertising in the women’s magazines. I believe I speak accurately for my sister American housewives when I say that we would certainly be distressed and discommoded if the magazines were to drop their advertising…

 

Advertising is a live part of our trade and technical information on women’s special fields - food, furnishings, children, equipment. I have often noted that the carping critics of advertising are not housewives, and do not possess, as we do, the manifold remembrances of the benefits and new ideas we derive from advertising. 

 

But always this attitude of ours toward advertising is unconscious. We inhale advertising as we breathe in air - and exhale unconsciously that part of it which is without interest, without merit, or without sincerity and sense. We live in a vast whirligig of advertising, to be sure, and shop-windows, signs, displays are all about us. To be conscious of it would invite irritation or surfeit. We women simply adapt ourselves to an advertising age as men adapt themselves to a machine age because it is an important element of modern life, and far more vital to it than casual criticism makes out. In fact, there is much absolute nonsense talked in the name of criticism of advertising, and none, when she thinks, knows it better than Mrs. Consumer. Her superbly practical mind quite readily grasps the basic economics involved not theoretically but in daily practice…

 

As a consumer I always think of advertising as a tremendous moving-picture device to keep ever and constantly changing before us, in film after film, reel after reel, all the good things that manufacturers make everywhere, set in a dramatic scenario which compels attention through the touch of advertising genius. Not only has it by force of example made a bath in a porcelain tub and a brushing of our teeth national daily rites, but it is performing the task that the churches have long given up - it is strengthening our characters. I am really serious. Advertising is truly forcing us to develop strength of will to resist its alluring

temptations to buy articles which we do not need.

Is it Worthwhile? by Edward Bok

Is it Worthwhile?

Edward Bok (1900)[1]

 

Edward Bok (1863-1930), immigrated with his family from The Netherlands to Brooklyn, New York in 1869. He was editor of Ladies’ Home Journal from 1889 until his death in 1930. Bok’s in-laws founded and edited the magazine during the 1880s, although it was Bok who turned Ladies’ Home Journal into a powerful arbiter of white, middle-class identity. Bok’s magazine taught women what their homes should look like, how they should raise their children, what they should cook for family and guests, how they should dress, and what they should buy. Bok’s in-laws were one of the wealthiest American families in history (not at “that time in history,” but in the whole history of the United States), and Bok amassed a fortune during his lifetime as well. His son, William Curtis Bok, was a Supreme Court justice during the 1930s, and his grandson Derek Bok, served as President of Harvard University from 1971 until 1991.

 

In this article, published in Ladies Home Journal in 1900, Bok promoted the Arts and Crafts Movement aesthetic of clean, simple lines and natural materials and railed against the Victorian emphasis on formal spaces and heavy, dark furniture. Bok’s editorials in Ladies Home Journal reinforced Gustav Stickley’s vision of the middle-class home, discussed in the next selection.

 

 

There are no people on the face of the earth who litter up the rooms of their homes with so much useless, and consequently bad, furnishing as do the Americans. The curse of the American home to-day is useless bric-a-brac. A room in which we feel that we can freely breathe is so rare that we are instinctively surprised when we see one. It is the exception, rather than the rule, that we find a restful room.

 

As a matter of fact, to this common error of over-furnishing so many of our homes are directly due many of the nervous breakdowns of our women. The average American woman is a perfect slave to the useless rubbish which she has in her rooms. This rubbish, of a costly nature where plenty exists, and of a cheap and tawdry character in homes of moderate incomes, is making housekeeping a nerve-racking burden. A goodly number of these women are unconscious of their mistakes. Others, if not absolutely conscious, feel that something is wrong in their homes, yet they know not exactly what it is. But all are loath, yes, I may say afraid, to simplify things.

 

They fear the criticism of the outside world that their homes are sparsely furnished; they dread the possibility that their rooms may be called "bare." They fear to give way to common-sense. It is positively rare, but tremendously exhilarating, to find a woman, as one does now and then, who is courageous enough to furnish her home with an eye single to comfort and practical utility, and who refuses to have her home lowered to a plane of mediocrity by filling it with useless bric-a-brac and jimcracks[2], the only mission of which seems to be to offend the eye and accumulate dust.

 

We have a prevalent folly of setting aside a room in our houses which we rarely use. If means are at our command we crowd such a room full of puny gilt chairs, upon which no one dares to sit; on the walls we hand impossible paintings, with equally impossible, massive gold frames; an “elegant’ sofa upholstered in silk or satin, with a gilded frame, is introduced; a gold clock which never runs is put on a mantel of solid onyx; a “Chippendale” cabinet is added – which always harmonizes so superbly with a Louis XV sofa or chair – and we have we call a “drawing-room.” Just whom or what it “draws” I have never been able to see unless it draws attention to too much money and no taste. If we are of moderate means, then we make the “drawing-room” as closely resemble one in some wealthy home we know of as possible, only with limited means we must purchase cheaper articles. Then we have as good an example of the showroom of a cheap furniture store as it is possible to obtain.

 

If we are poor, then we set around as stiffly and unnaturally as we can, like trees in a toy-garden, four or five black haircloth chairs; we put a marble-top table with a plus album on it in the center; a haircloth sofa which no one can possibly sit on; a Franklin stove that is never lighted: we hang a wreath of wax flowers in a glass case on the walls adding, perhaps, a coffin-plate to add a cheerful tone to the room[3]; a carpet riotous with the most gorgeous roses is put on the floor, and then , after we have carefully pulled down every shade int eh room, so as to exclude God’s pure sunshine and get a nice, musty and cemeterial smell int eh room, we have what we call, in America, a parlor. And in either case we have a “best room,” so best that we never use it, and people shown it are always glad to out of it. But we have a “drawing-room,” or a “parlor,” and, in the minds of some, without such a room, no house is complete.

 

We seem to lose sight of the fact that we are most comfortable when we are most natural. We strive to paint the lily. We begin with our hall and fill it with chairs, tables, and the Lord knows what we don’t put into a hall that doesn’t belong there. If we buy a rug for the hall we seem bent on getting one so heavy that no one in the house can lift it for cleaning. We try our best to turn a practical thing into a burden. We miss the chief purpose of a hall: which is simply to greet the comer to our house. It is where one enter, and it therefore should partake of welcome or cheerful greeting. Hence, it should be light, airy, free to move about in, of cheerful colors and bright, warm tones. Instead the majority of halls are full of furniture, which ought to be in the rooms – or truthfully speaking, in an auction room – and every device is used to subdue.

Then, when we get into the room which should be the sanctuaries of a home and restful to the eye and mind, we are confront with a perfect confusion of color and plan which dissipates and fails of one single central note. Libraries and sitting-rooms, which should be absolutely restful and subdued, are made so busy that the mind wanders hopelessly from one point to another in the hope of finding some quiet resting-place. The dignity and restfulness of wall space are not allowed: on the contrary, every inch of space must be filled with some picture. To heighten the garish effect, we frame our pictures in massive gilt frames where soft stained woods should be used. It never occurs to us to consider the purpose of a frame, or to see whether some other treatment of frame would add greater value to a picture or bring out its qualities better. We simply labor under the idea that gilt frames lend richness and elegance to a room, and so gilt frames it must be.

Now to suggest a departure from these atrocities is to suggest to many something so radical that they are absolutely afraid. Yet we must reach a more intelligent height with regard to furnishing our homes. True, it would mean a general clearing-out in many of our rooms. But that would be blessing. We must get to that point where we will allow nothing in our homes except those things for which we have an actual use. This does not mean that our homes would be “too plain,” as many will object. Simplicity is not plainness: it is, I repeat, the highest form of good art and good taste. No one can quarrel with it. It is beyond criticism. This is easy to believe and see if we will only allow ourselves to get away from the present notion that the ornate is the ornamental. We must believe that what is ornate is never ornamental, and never in good taste. Ornateness is simply artificiality, and nothing artificial can be ornamental…

 

More simplicity in our homes would make our lives simpler. Many women would live fuller lives because they would have more time. As it is, hundreds of women of all positions in life are to-day the slaves of their homes and what they have crowded into them. Instead of being above inanimate objects of wood and clothes and silks, their lives are dominated by them. They are the slaves of their furniture and useless bric-a-brac[4]. One hears men constantly complain of this. The condition is not a safe one for wives. No woman can afford to allow a lot of unnecessary furnishings to rule her life. She should be their master. Comfort is essential to our happiness. But with comfort we should stop. Then we are the safe side. But we get on and over the danger line when we go beyond…it is astonishing how much we can do without and be a thousand times the better for it.

 

We need only to be natural: to get back to our real, inner selves. Then we are simple. It is only because we have got away from the simple and the natural that so many of our homes are cluttered up as they are, and our lives full of things that are not worth the while. We have bent the knee to show, to display, and we have lowered ourselves in doing it: surrounded ourselves with the trivial and the useless: and fining our lives with the poison of artificiality and the unnatural, we have pushed the Real: the Natural: the Simple: the Beautiful—the best and most lasting things—out of our lives. Now, I ask, in all fairness: Is it worth-while?

 

 

[1] Originally published as an editorial in Ladies’ Home Journal, November, 1900. Full source here: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015012341650;view=2up;seq=524;size=300.

[2] “Jimcrack” (alternative spelling: gimcrack) means a cheap, but showy object, i.e., tacky (and also cheap). Booker T. Washington called this kind of stuff “gewgaws” in the speech we read.

[3] A coffin-plate is just what it sounds like – a decorative metal plate attached to a coffin inscribed with the name of the deceased, the date of their death, or other personal information. During the Victorian Era, (mid-to-late nineteenth century) the plates were taken home by family members for display, so clearly this was a sarcastic (or sardonic, perhaps?) comment.

[4] Another term for cheap knick-knacks intended to pass as good taste (according to Bok).

The Craftsman Home by Gustav Stickley

The Craftsman Home

Gustav Stickley[1]

 

Gustav Stickley, (1858-1942) was born in Osceola, Wisconsin to German immigrant family. Stickley worked in various aspect of the furniture-making business through the 1890s, and by 1901, his furniture and house designs had gained a considerable following among progressive reformers and the growing white middle-class. Stickley’s style, which he called Craftsman, emphasized clean, simple lines, lack of ornamentation, and natural materials like wood and glass. Stickley’s Craftsman style took inspiration from the Arts and Crafts Movement, which begin in Europe as a rejection of the Victorian aesthetic of elaborate ornamentation, mass-produced materials, and heavy, dark furniture.

 

In 1901, Stickley started publishing The Craftsman monthly magazine, which included essays on art and design, crafts and gardening, as well as fiction, poetry, and even sheet music. Stickley steadfastly decried the effects of industrialization in the monthly editorial, and instead advocated for simplicity in design (and life), and encouraged a do-it-yourself ethic and aesthetic. Readers of The Craftsman could order architectural plans for homes published in the magazine. These designs became so popular that the title of the magazine became ubiquitous for an affordable, middle-class home in the early twentieth century – the Craftsman Bungalow. The Craftsman magazine, along with Ladies’ Home Journal, not only shaped the new middle-class home literally; they also indelibly linked consumption and respectability, a key component of middle-class identity.[2]

 

 

That the influence of the home is of the first importance in the shaping of character is a fact too well understood and too generally admitted to be offered here as a new idea. One need only turn to the pages of history to find abundant proof of the unerring action of Nature's law, for without exception the people whose lives are lived simply and wholesomely in the open who have a high degree of the sense of the sacredness of the home, are the people who have made the greatest strides in the progress of the race. When luxury enters in and a thousand artificial requirements come to be regarded as real needs, the nation is on the brink of degeneration…

 

Even in the rush and hurry of life in our busy cities we remember well the quality given to the growing nation by such men and women a generation or two ago and, in spite of the chaotic conditions brought about by our passion for money-getting, extravagance and show, we have still reason to believe that the dominant characteristics of the pioneer yet shape what are the salient qualities in American life.

 

To preserve these characteristics and to bring back to individual life and work the vigorous constructive spirit which during the last half-century has spent its activities in commercial and industrial expansion, is, in a nutshell, the Craftsman idea. We need to straighten out our standards and to get rid of a lot of rubbish that we have accumulated along with our wealth and commercial supremacy. It is not that we are too energetic, but that in many ways we have wasted and misused our energy precisely as we have wasted and misused so many of our wonderful natural resources. All we really need is a change in our point of view toward life and a keener perception regarding the things that count and the things which merely burden us. This being the case, it would seem obvious that the place to begin a readjustment is in the home, for it is only natural that the relief from friction which would follow the ordering of our lives along more simple and reasonable lines would not only assure greater comfort, and therefore greater efficiency, to the workers of the nation, but would give the children a chance to grow up under conditions which would be conducive to a higher degree of mental, moral and physical efficiency.

 

Therefore, we regard it as at least a step in the direction of bringing about better conditions when we try to plan and build houses which will simplify the work of home life and add to its wholesome joy and comfort. We have already made it plain to our readers that we do not believe in large houses with many rooms elaborately decorated and furnished, for the reason that these seem so essentially an outcome of the artificial conditions that lay such harassing burdens upon modern life and form such a serious menace to our ethical standards. Breeding as it does the spirit of extravagance and of discontent which in the end destroys all the sweetness of home life, the desire for luxury and show not only burdens beyond his strength the man who is ambitious to provide for his wife and children surroundings which are as good as the best, but taxes to the utmost the woman who is trying to keep up the appearances which she believes should belong to her station in life. Worst of all, it starts the children with standards which, in nine cases out of ten, utterly preclude the possibility of their beginning life on their own account in a simple and sensible way.

 

Boys who are brought up in such homes are taught by the silent influence of their early surroundings, to take it for granted that they must not marry until they are able to keep up an establishment of equal pretensions, and girls also take it as a matter of course that marriage must mean something quite as luxurious as their childhood home or it is not a paying investment for their youth and beauty. Everyone who thinks at all deplores the kind of life that marks a man’s face with the haggard lines of anxiety and makes him sharp and often unscrupulous in business, with no ambition beyond large profits and a rapid rise in the business world.

 

Also, we all realize regretfully the extravagance and uselessness of many of our women and admit that one of the gravest evils of our times is the light touch-and-go attitude toward marriage, which breaks up so many homes and makes the divorce courts in America a by-word to the world. But when we think into it a little more deeply, we have to acknowledge that such conditions are the logical outcome of our standards of living and that these standards are always shaped in the home.

 

That is why we have from the first planned houses that are based on the big fundamental principles of honesty, simplicity and usefulness - the kind of houses that children will rejoice all their lives to remember as "home," and that give a sense of peace and comfort to the tired men who go back to them when the day's work is done. Because we believe that the healthiest and happiest life is that which maintains the closest relationship with out-of-doors, we have planned our houses with outdoor living rooms, dining rooms and sleeping rooms, and many windows to let in plenty of air and sunlight.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Excerpt from John Hollitz, Thinking through the Past: A Critical Thinking Approach to US History, 3rd Edition, Volume II since 1965, (New York: Centage Publishing, 2008). The original essay was published in a book of essays edited by Stickley called Craftsman Homes. Full source available here: https://books.google.com/books?id=Ut4DAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false.

[2] The online archive of The Craftsman magazines from 1901-1916 is here: http://digicoll.library.wisc.edu/cgi-bin/DLDecArts/DLDecArts-idx?type=browse&scope=DLDecArts.HomeDesign.

 

The Shape of Fear by W.E.B. Du Bois

The Shape of Fear

W.E.B. Du Bois

 

You already read a short biography of W.E.B. Du Bois included with his earlier essay, On Mr. Washington and Others. By the 1920s, Du Bois was an internationally known scholar, writer, and political leader. During the 1910s and 20s, he became increasingly involved with the fight to end European colonialism in Africa and the Middle East. In 1919, he formed the Pan-African Congress, a group of black leaders from across the world who hoped to influence the post-World War I world. In fact, the first Pan-African Congress met in Paris, France during the summer of 1919, not too far from the Paris Peace talks where President Woodrow Wilson presented his plan for the post-war world called the Fourteen Points. Decolonization was not included in the Treaty of Paris, leaving Du Bois increasingly disillusioned with the possibility of racial equality in the United States and Europe.

 

Anti-immigrant sentiment and violence increased dramatically following WWI. During the first Red Scare, law enforcement, the Federal Government, and every day Americans targeted immigrants as communist operatives working for the newly formed Soviet Union or simply here to destroy the country from within. Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924 (sometimes called the Johnson-Reid Act) which effectively ended immigration from southern and eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East. The Ku Klux Klan was at the height of its power during the 1920s. Hundreds of “Klan candidates” were elected to all levels of the government, and “Klan culture” was embedded in American popular culture. In addition to immigrants, the KKK continued to target African Americans, particularly in northern cities where the black population had significantly increased during the ongoing Great Migration.

 

In this essay, published in the Summer 1926 edition of the prestigious literary journal, The North American Review, Du Bois addresses the rhetoric and power of “Klan culture.[1]

 

 

Faced by the fact of the Ku Klux Klan, the United States has tried to get rid of it by laughing it off. We have talked of masquerading “in sheets and pillow cases”; we have caricatured the Klan upon the stage; we have exposed its silly methods, the dishonesty of some of its leaders, and the like. But we have not succeeded in scaring it away by ridicule. It is there. It is a fact, that those who do not wish to believe the sinister meaning of its existence should go to the nearest movie and see that Washington parade, that tremendous outpouring of hosts, white-gowned and hooded if not masked[2].

 

It is quite beside the point to compare the present Ku Klux Klan with the Ku Klux Klan of Reconstruction days[3]. They have nothing in common except their birthplace and their methods. The present Klan is a different movement from the older Klan. It has simply made the older movement’s name its present starting point.

 

Until last year I was of those mildly amused at the KKK. It seemed to me incredible that in 1925 such a movement could attract any number of people or become really serious. And then at first hand at second I saw the Klan and its workings in widely different places. I was lecturing in Akron, Ohio. Now Ohio is one of those States upon whose essential Americanism and devotion to the finer ideals of democracy I have long banked. There in the Middle West that finer flower of democracy, born in in New England, and later choked by the industrialism of the East, had, to my mind, gone for replanting and renewal[4]. I looked for sanity in the United States to come from a democratic appeal to the Middle West. And yet, there in Akron, in the land of Joshua R. Giddings[5], in the Western Reserve, I found the Klan calmly and openly in the saddle. The leader of the local Klan was president of the Board of Education and had just been tremendously busied in driving a Jew out of the public schools. The Mayor, the secretary of the YMCA, prominent men in many walks of life, were either open Klansmen or secret sympathizers. I was too astonished to talk. Throughout parts of Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana I found a similar state of affairs.[6]

 

I am not saying that the Klan was triumphant everywhere, but it was there; it was influential; it was recognized; it was important. Again, and further west, the work of the Klan has been manifest. Today there are under arrest at Detroit, Michigan, a young colored physician, well-trained and successful; his wife, torn from her infant child, and nine of his friends; and they are on trial for murder in the first degree because they shot at the mob that tried to drive them out of their own homes and that had a few months before driven out another Negro physician and destroyed his furniture; and that mob was there because the Ku Klux Klan aroused it and sent it; and the Ku Klux Klan is so tremendous a power in that city which, in some ways, the most significant of American cities, that the Mayor is openly appealing against its activities.[7]

Or again: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People held its annual meeting in May, 1925, in Denver, and there appeared before it two speakers: one, a little man, nervous with energy and shrill of speech. He was, without doubt, one of the notable figures which American has given to the world, Ben Lindsay, the maker of the Children’s Court[8]. The other had been one of the most successful and enlightened Governors in America[9]. And yet they stood speaking in self-defense; defending themselves against this city and this State; and the great, dark menacing thing that turned them from social uplift and political reform was the Ku Klux Klan.

 

In the East, New England and New Jersey, the Klan has been mobilized; and need one mention the South?

 

What is the cause of all of this? There can be little doubt but that the Klan in its present form is a legacy of the World War. Whatever there was of it before that great catastrophe was negligible and of little moment. The wages of War is Hate; and the End, and indeed the Beginning, of Hate is Fear. The civilized world today and the world half-civilized and uncivilized are desperately afraid. The Shape of Fear looms over them. German fears the Jew, England fears the Indian; America fears the Negro, the Christian fears the Moslem, Europe fears Asian, Protestant fears Catholic, Religion fears Science. Above all, Wealth fears Democracy[10]. These fears and others are ancient or at least long-standing fears. But they are renewed and revivified today because the world has at present a severe case of nerves; it feels it necessary to be nervous because the Unexpected has happened.

 

For years we talked of the possibility of European War with bated breath; then we talked of it jauntily; and then we almost joked about it. While here was a Fear, it was one so far away that it did not seem possible for it ever to materialize, at least not in our day. And then suddenly it became a terrible fact, horrible beyond the dream of men. Abd-el Krim[11] may be the vanguard of the launching of Asian against Europe; Ghandi and Das may be at the point of destroying the British Empire[12]; the American Negro, despite all precautions, may force himself into a place where he will enter Congress, storm Wall Street and marry white women.

 

Now against such fears as these there three possible attitudes. One is the attitude of reason and examination. What does the ferment in the colored world mean and how far is our fear of it but a reflex of its fear of us? What do colored folk really want, and do their wants interfere with and oppose the just desires of the white world? How far is free, scientific inquiry going to undermine religious sanction? What is there in the objects of the Bolsheviki which should not appear in the objects of American social reformers[13]? These questions indicate one attitude, mental, moral, and practical, toward great pending questions; but it is not the attitude which we are disposed to take today in the world.

 

On the contrary so imminent does our danger seem to some people that they turn to one of two other methods. They are both forms of Force; one an open appeal to force: Fascismo, either in its bold, physical form as it is appearing in Italy and Spain or in its more spiritual form as it appears in American Fundamentalism; in the determination to drive out of the Church every person who will not honestly or by perjury subscribe to a certain, narrow, outworn and partially false creed.

The other method is the method of Force which hides itself in secrecy, and that is the method of the Ku Klux Klan[14]. It is a method as old as humanity. The kind of thing which men are afraid or ashamed to do openly and by day, they accomplish secretly, masked and at night. The method has certain advantages. It uses Fear to cast out Fear; it dares things at which open methods hesitate; it may with a certain impunity attack the high and the low; it need hesitate at no outrage of maiming or murder; it shields itself in the mob mind and then throws over all a veil of darkness which becomes glamor. It attracts people who otherwise could not be reached. It harnesses the mob.

 

How is it that men who want certain things done by brute force can so often depend upon the mob? Total depravity, human hate and schadenfreude[15], do not explain fully the mob spirit in this land. Before the wide eyes of the mob is ever the Shape of Fear. Back of the writhing, yelling, cruel-eyes demons who break, destroy, maim and lynch and burn at the stake is a knot, large or small, of normal human beings and these human beings at heart are desperately afraid of something. Of what? Of many things but usually of losing their jobs, of being declassed, degraded or actually disgraced; of losing their hopes, their savings, their plans for their children; of the actual pangs of hunger, of dirt, of crime. And of all this, most ubiquitous in modern industrial society, is that fear of unemployment.

 

It is this nucleus of ordinary men that continually gives the mob its initial and awful impetus. Around this nucleus, to be sure, gather snowball-wise all manner of flotsam[16], filth and human garbage and every inhibition of alcohol and current fashion. But all this is the horrible covering of this inner nucleus of Fear.

 

How then is the mob to met and quelled? If it represents public opinion, even passing, passionate public opinion, it cannot permanently be put down by the police which public opinion appoints and pays. Three methods of quelling the mob are at hand, analogous to the three attitudes noted above: the first, by proving to its human, honest nucleus that the Fear is false, ill-grounded, unnecessary; or secondly, if its Fear is true or apparently or partially true, by attacking the fearful thing openly either by the organized police power or by frank civil war as did Mussolini and George Washington; or thirdly, by secret, hidden and underground ways, the method of the Ku Klux Klan.

 

Why do we not take the first way? Because this is a world that believes in War and Ignorance and has no hope in our day of realizing an intelligent majority of men and Peace on Earth. There are many, many exceptions but in general it is true that there is scarcely a Bishop in Christiandom, a priest in New York, a President, Governor, mayor or legislator in the United States, a college professor or public school teacher who does not in the end stand by War and Ignorance as the main method for the settlement of our pressing human problems. And this despite the fact that they many deny it with their mouths every day.

 

But here again open civil war like Italy’s is difficult, costly and hard to guide. The Right toward which it aims must be made obvious even if it is Wrong. In 1918 in order to win the war we had to make Germans into Huns and rapists. Today we have to make Negroes into rapists and idiots. Tomorrow we must make Latins, South-Eastern Europeans, Turks, and other Asiatics into actual “lesser breeds without the law.” Some seem to see today anti-Christ in Catholicism and in Jews, international plotters of the Protocol. Even if these things be true it is difficult to bring the truth clearly before the ignorant mob and guide it toward the overthrow of evil. But if these be half true or wholly false, the mob can only be stirred by wholesale lying, and this is costly; or by secret underground whispering, the methods of night and mask, the psychology of vague and unknown ill, the innuendo that cannot be answered.

 

Now there are two things that stand out in this explanation of the mob and the Klan. First, the double tongues of our leaders in religion and social uplift; and secondly, this fear of losing jobs. Dayton, Tennessee brought the first vividly to our minds. We heard of a sudden, people talking a religious patois which educated folk had well nigh forgotten: Biblical Truth; the Plan of Salvation; the Blood of Christ. And suddenly we began to see what results widespread ignorance of modern science not only had brought but could bring under the leadership of the demagogue. It sent a thrill of amazement through us.[17]

 

But whom had we to blame? Manifestly, not the farmers and shopkeepers of Tennessee, but those intellectual leaders of the United States who have been willing to subscribe to a religious dogma that they did not honestly believe and yet which they were willing that the mass of people should think they were believing. Was there any surer way of destroying the ability of the Man of the Street to think straight and argue logically? And to stop even his endeavor to think, comes the Fundamentalist; and his answer to Science is Dogma; and his reason for bringing it forward is again, not perverse hatred of the Truth, but the Shape of Fear. The religionist of today sees the sanctions of moral conduct being swept and battered away, laughed at and caricatured. How shall he meet this wicked thing? He can do it by intelligence and argument and persuasion or he can do it by dogma which is spiritual mob-violence; today he is choosing the mob.

 

Or again; why is it that in a rich country like the United States, in many respects the richest and most prosperous organization of men in the world, we continually have mobs fighting and unutterable things because at the bottom men are afraid of being unable to earn a respectable living? The answer is that our postwar prosperity is built more on gambling than on honest productive industry. Gambling was the result of war, born in war time and coming from the sudden demand for technique machinery and goods, which paid those who happened to hold them enormous marginal rents. The chance to the gamble, the promoter and the manipulator of industry has come during the reconstruction since the war, in the monopoly of land and homes, in the manipulation of industrial power, in the use of the new inventions and discoveries, in the reorganization of corporate ownership.

 

We have today in the United States, cheek by jowl, Prosperity and Depression. Depression among those who are selling their services, raising raw material and manufacturing goods; prosperity among those who are manipulating prices, monopolizing land and mortgaging ability and output.

 

How shall we meet this situation? Again we revert to three paths: first and foremost by the spread of wider and deep understanding among the masses of men of the modern industrial process and the method of distributing income, so that intelligently we may attack Production and Distribution and remake industrial society. Or, a second method, by hue and cry and propaganda to stop all criticism and desire for change by dubbing every reformer “Bolshevik” and by frightening the wage earner with loss of the very foundation of his wage. And this is the kind of attack that again easily sinks to the whispering courses underground and attempt to save modern industry through mobs engineered by the secret Ku Klux Klan….

 

…Such are the elements that make for secret mob law: economic rivalry, race hatred, class hatred, sex rivalry, religious dogmatism and before all the Shape of Fear. For years and centuries this method of organized secrecy, sworn to unlimited and ruthless action, has been used to accomplish certain things. Strong arguments have bene brought to defend it and it maybe be admitted that one can easily see circumstances when the only way to make the survival of certain ideas and ideals certain, would be to force them through by secrecy and stealth.

 

What is there after all, of truth back of what the Klan attacks? And perhaps first, what does the Klan attack? I will not stop to argue this. I simply quote from their own blank application for membership seven of their twenty questions: “7 ---Were your parents born in the United States of America?” “8 ---Are you a Gentile or Jew?” “9 ---Are you of the white race or of a colored race?” “13 ---Do you believe in white supremacy?” “15 ---What is your religious faith?” “17 ---Of what religious faith are your parents?” “20 ---Do you owe ANY KIND of allegiance to any foreign nation, government, institution, sect, people, ruler or person?”

 

Here then is clearly the groundwork for opposition to the foreign-born, the Jew, the colored races and the Catholic Church…

 

What next then? Next comes the Ku Klux Klan. Next comes the leadership of mob and perpetuation of outrage by forces, secret, hidden and underground. And the danger and shame are not in the movement itself, so much as in the wide tolerance and sympathy which its methods evoke among educated and decent Americans. These people see in the Ku Klux Klan a way of doing and saying that which they themselves are ashamed to do and say. Go into any western town from Pittsburgh to Kansas City: “The Klan? Silly – but! – You see these Catholics, rich, powerful, silent, organized. Got all the foreigners corralled – I don’t know. And Jews – the Jews own the country. They are trying to rule the world. They are too smart, pushing, impudent. And niggers! And that isn’t all. Dagos[18], Japs; and then Russia! I tell you we gotta do something. The Klan? – silly, of course, but ---.”

 

Thus the Ku Klux Klan is doing a job which the American people, or certainly a considerable portion of them, want done; and they want it done because as a nation they have fear of the Jew, the immigrant, the Negro. They realize that the American of English descent is not holding his own physically or spiritually in this country; that America survives and flourishes because of the alien immigration with his strong arm, his simple life, his faith and hope, his song, his art, his religion. They realize that no group in the United States is working harder to push themselves forward and upward than the Negroes; and over all this rise the Shape of Fear.

 

The worst aspect of all this is that when we resort to the underground method it involves a conscious surrender of Truth. It must base itself upon lies. One of the greatest difficulties in estimating the power and spread of the Ku Klux Klan is that its members are evidently sworn to lie. They are ordered to deny their membership in the Klan; they are ordered to deny their participation in certain of its deeds; they are ordered above all to keep at least partially secret its real objects and desires. Now the lie has often been used to advance human culture, but it is an extremely dangerous weapon, and surely, we have lived beyond the need of it today.

Consequently the greatest thing we have to fear in any such underground movement as the Ku Klux Klan, a thing that makes it much more fearful than anything that has been alleged of Bolshevism or Fascism, is the danger and ease of its being used for exactly the opposite of the things for which it is established or which the thoughts or ideals which its leaders profess. If it is possible to establish a widespread underground movement against Jews, Negroes and Catholics, why isn’t it just as easy to establish similar against millionaires, machinery and foreign commerce, or against “Anglo-Saxons,” Protestants and Germans, or against any set of people or set of ideas which any particular group of people dislike, hate or fear? It may be said that at present it is possible to mobilize larger numbers of people in a common hatred against the Hebrew race, the black race, and the Catholic Church than against any similar things; but this is not necessarily true and it certainly is not true in all places and will not be true at all times.

 

Without a doubt, of all the dangerous weapons that civilized man has attempted to use in order to advance human culture the secret mass lie is the most dangerous and the most apt to prove a boomerang. This is the real thing we are to fear in the Ku Klux Klan. We need not fear its logic. It has no logic. Whatever there is of truth in its hatred of three groups of Americans can be discussed openly and fearlessly by civilized men. If Negroes are ignorant underbidders of labor, unhealthy and lazy aspirants to undeserved equality there are plan and well-known social restraints and remedies. First, to improve the condition of Negros so far as it is improvable; secondly, to teach them the reasons behind the objections to their rise so far as there are reasons; and above all to examine thoroughly and honestly what the real questions at issue are.  If the hierarchy of the Catholic church is in any way threatening democracy in America there is a chance for perfectly open and honest investigation and conference between this young democracy and that old and honorable government of the spirit of men. If the Jew in self-defense against age-long persecution has closed his fist against the world there is more than a chance to clasp that human hand.

 

In fine[19], unless we are willing to give up human civilization in order to preserve civilization we cannot for a moment contemplate turning to secret, underground methods as a cure for anything; and the appearance of such a movement is not a case where we stop to ask whether the movement in itself has at present laudable objects or not. It does not make any difference what the Ku Klux Klan is fighting for or against. Its method is wrong and dangerous and uncivilized, and those who oppose it, whether they be its victims like Jews, Catholics, and Negroes, or those who are lauded as its moral sponsors like the white Southerner, the American Legion and the “Anglo-Saxons;” it is the duty of all these people to join together in solemn phalanx against the method which is an eternal menace to human culture.

 

 

 

 

[1] W.E.B. Du Bois, The Shape of Fear, originally published in The North American Review, Summer, 1926

[2] In August, 1926, over 30,000 Ku Klux Klan members marched up Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC to the Lincoln Memorial.  Here is a good article from The Atlantic by Joshua Rothman, US historian and chair of the history department at the University of Alabama, about the resurgence of the KKK during the 1920s. The article has a lot of information about the 1925 marches, as well the parallels between the August 1925 KKK rally and the August 2017 White Nationalist rally in Charlottesville, VA. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/12/second-klan/509468/.

[3] The differences between the first and second KKK should be in your notes.

[4] Most of Ohio was settled by migrants from New England. Northeast Ohio (Cleveland, Youngstown) was originally the Connecticut Reserve, and what is now Washington Courthouse was land given to Revolutionary War veterans from New England (George Washington owned a large amount of the land, which he essentially flipped and sold to the federal government who then paid the veterans with the land).

[5] Joshua R. Giddings was an abolitionist whose home in Ashtabula served as a station on the Underground Railroad. He served in the House of Representatives from the 1830s through the 1860s, and was an outspoken critic of slavery.

[6] All facts. Ohio History Central entry on the KKK explains Klan politics in Ohio, including the interesting tidbit that the national concave (meeting) of the KKK took place at Buckeye Lake several times during the 1920s.

                Keep in mind that Middletown is Muncie, Indiana, heart of Klan country during the 1920s.

[7] In 1925, a mob of whites (led by the KKK), attacked the Detroit home of Dr. Ossian Sweet after he moved into a predominantly white neighborhood. Both the crowd and the Sweets were armed, two white men were wounded, and Sweet and his wife were arrested for attempted murder. After years in jail, both were acquitted. Gladys Sweet contracted tuberculous in jail. Within a year of her release, Gladys died of tuberculous as did the Sweet’s daughter, Iva, and Ossian’s brother Henry (all in the same year). Dr. Sweet struggled with mental illness, alcoholism, and bankruptcy for the rest of his life. Dr. Sweet committed suicide in 1960 at the age of 55.

[8] Ben Lindsey was a progressive reformer and lawyer who established the first juvenile court in Denver, Colorado in 1907. Interestingly, after witnessing an endless parade of young adults charged with “sex crimes” of one kind or another, Lindsey co-wrote a book called Companionate Marriage, which advocated for young couples to live together for a year before getting married so they could get to know each other, sexually and otherwise, as long as they didn’t have children while unmarried.

[9] William Ellery Sweet was governor of Colorado from 1923-25. Sweet was a Progressive who ran as a Democratic. Sweet opposed the Ku Klux Klan and believed he lost the 1925 election to Republican Clarence Morley who was a card-carrying member of the KKK.

[10] Above all, wealth fears Democracy.

[11] Krim was a Riffian Berber from North Africa who fought against French and Spanish colonialism of the region (specifically northern Morocco) during the 1910s and 20s.

[12] Ghandi led the fight against British colonialism during the first half of the twentieth century. Chittaranjan Das was an Indian statesman and part of the Indian Freedom Movement.

[13] The Bolsheviks led the 1917 communist revolution in Russia (called the Soviet Union after the Revolution). Much like Progressive reformers in Europe and the US, the Bolsheviks wanted to curb the power of business and industry and reign in government corruption. This is not to say that people calling for regulation of business are communists. There are a variety of ways to enact progressive reform. Nevertheless, Du Bois raises the same question Samuel Strauss did in Things are in the Saddle.

[14] Fascism is rooted in nationalism and authoritianism – ultraconservative, suppression of any political dissent or disagreement (hence one-party rule), and power and wealth concentrated among a small group of men. Modern Fascism emerged in Italy after WWI, culminating in the appointment of Fascist leader Benito Mussolini to Prime Minister in 1922. Mussolini, like all fascist leaders, developed a cult of personality, meaning people believed anything he did was good and right. As a result, Mussolini could (and did) destroy the country without his followers questioning his actions. Instead, fascists believe anyone who challenges the leader or his government is a traitor who deserves to be exiled, jailed, or killed. People who support fascist leaders even as they destroy the country and its principles, are themselves, fascists. Even if you disagree with some of the beliefs of a fascist leader, if you vote for a fascist, you are a fascist. If you support a fascist leader and his government, you are also a fascist. That’s the thing with fascism – there is no nuance, only undying loyalty at all costs. Hence, you cannot vote for one aspect of fascism (lower taxes, for example) and reject other aspects of the fascist leadership (shutting down immigration, misogyny, individual politicians making money off of government policy, etc). During the 1920s, Italy was fascist under Mussolini, Germany was quickly devolving into fascism (Nazism is fascist) as Hitler rose to power, and Spain struggled to fend off a fascist revolution led by General Francisco Franco. In 1936, Franco and parts of the Spanish military stage a coup d’état against the democratically elected socialist government. The United States refused to aid the elected government because it was socialist (which was more important than the fact that it was democratically elected). General Franco remained dictator of Spain until his death in 1975.

[15] Deriving pleasure from someone else’s suffering or pain.

[16] Flotsam is debris from a ship or cargo floating in the ocean, lake, or some other body of water.

[17] Du Bois is referencing the 1925 trial in Dayton, Tennessee of science teacher John Scopes, charged with violating the recently passed state law making it a crime to teach evolution in the classroom.

[18] Dago is an ethnic slur used against Italians and Spanish people, probably a reference to the fact that most were day laborers paid “as the day goes.”

[19] Finally.

Women on the Breadlines by Meridel Le Seuer

Six women in dresses sit on a bench waiting.

Women on the Breadlines

Meridel Le Sueur

 

Meridel Le Sueur was born in Iowa in 1900 (a true millennial) and grew up throughout the Midwest. Her stepfather, Arthur Le Sueur served as the social mayor of Minot, North Dakota before becoming President of The People’s College in Fort Scott, Kansas[1]. Her mother, Marian, travelled around the Midwest giving lectures about women’s suffrage, Native American land rights, temperance, and other progressive issues. The Le Sueurs fled to Minnesota after The People’s College was destroyed by an anti-socialist mob during WWI. In Minneapolis, the Le Sueurs worked with the Nonpartisan League, where they hosted meetings of the Wobblies, Populists, Socialists, and Union organizers[2].

 

Le Sueur became a prolific writer and dedicated social activist. She wrote children’s books, short stories, novels, poetry, and journals, but is best-known for her investigative journalism. Le Sueur travelled around the country writing about the lives of farmers, factory workers, African Americans in the South, Native Americans living on reservations, immigrants, and women. Minnesota was a center of political activism during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and Le Sueur wrote about the suffering around her. Her articles were published in mainstream publications as well as communist and socialist newspapers like the “Daily Worker” and “New Masses.”

 

Le Sueur was investigated by the House on Un-American Activities (HUAC) during the Second Red Scare of the late 1940s. She was blacklisted and, as a result, did not publish for over a decade. Le Sueur’s work inspired a new generation of feminists and social activists during the 1960s and 1970s, and she continued writing until her death in 1996. One of her best-known essays, “Women on the Breadlines,” recounts the suffering of poor women in the unemployment office in Minneapolis during the Great Depression.

 

The editors of New Masses included the following footnote with the original article: This presentation of the plight of the unemployed woman, able as it is, and informative, is defeatist in attitude, lacking in revolutionary spirit and direction which characterize the usual contribution to New Masses[3].

 

 

 

 

I am sitting in the city free employment bureau. It's the women's section. We have been sitting here now for four hours. We sit here every day, waiting for a job. There are no jobs. Most of us have had no breakfast. Some have had scant rations for over a year. Hunger makes a human being lapse into a state of lethargy, especially city hunger. Is there any place else in the world where a human being is supposed to go hungry amidst plenty without an outcry, without protest, where only the boldest steal or kill for bread, and the timid crawl the streets, hunger like the beak of a terrible bird at the vitals?

 

We sit looking at the floor. No one dares think of the coming winter. There are only a few more days of summer. Everyone is anxious to get work to lay up something for that long siege of bitter cold. But there is no work. Sitting in the room we all know it. That is why we don't talk much. We look at the floor, dreading to see that knowledge in each other's eyes. There is a kind of humiliation in it. We look away from each other. We look at the floor. It's too terrible to see this animal terror in each other's eyes.

 

So, we sit, hour after hour, day after day, waiting for a job to come in. There are many women for a single job. A thin sharp woman sits inside a wire cage looking at a book. For four hours, we have watched her looking at that book. She has a hard, little eye. In the small bare room there are half a dozen women sitting on the benches waiting. Many come and go. Our faces are all familiar to each other, for we wait here every day.

 

This is a domestic employment bureau. Most of the women who come here are middle-aged, some have families, some have raised their families and are now alone, some have men who are out of work. Hard times, and the man leaves to hunt for work. He doesn't find it. He drifts on. The woman probably doesn't hear from him for a long time. She expects it. She isn't surprised. She struggles alone to feed the many mouths. Sometimes she gets help from the charities. If she's clever she can get herself a good living from the charities, if she's naturally a lick spittle, naturally a little docile and cunning. If she's proud, then she starves silently, leaving her children to find work, coming home after a day's searching to wrestle with her house, her children.

Some such story is written on the faces of all these women. There are young girls too, fresh from the country. Some are made brazen too soon by the city. There is a great exodus of girls from the farms into the city now. Thousands of farms have been vacated completely in Minnesota. The girls are trying to get work. The prettier ones can get jobs in the stores when there are any, or waiting on table, but these jobs are only for the attractive and the adroit. The others, the real peasants, have a more difficult time.

 

Bernice sits next to me. She is a Polish woman of 35. She has been working in people's kitchens for fifteen years or more. She is large, her great body in mounds, her face brightly scrubbed. She has a peasant mind and finds it hard even yet to understand the maze of the city where trickery is worth more than brawn. Her blue eyes are not clever but slow and trusting. She suffers from loneliness and lack of talk. When you speak to her, her face lifts and brightens as if you had spoken through a great darkness, and she talks magically of little things as if the weather were magic or tells some crazy tale of her adventures on the city streets, embellishing them in bright colors until they hang heavy and thick like embroidery. She loves the city anyhow. It's exciting to her, like a bazaar. She loves to go shopping and get a bargain, hunting out the places where stale bread and cakes can be had for a few cents. She likes walking the streets looking for men to take her to a picture show. Sometimes she goes to five picture shows in one day, or she sits through one the entire day until she knows all the dialog by heart…

 

She wants to get married but she sees what happens to her married friends, left with children to support, worn out before their time. So, she stays single. She is virtuous. She is slightly deaf from hanging out clothes in winter. She had done people's washing and cooking for fifteen years and in that time saved thirty dollars. Now she hasn't worked steady for a year and she has spent the thirty dollars. She had dreamed of having a little house or a houseboat perhaps with a spot of ground for a few chickens. This dream she will never realize.

 

She has lost all her furniture now along with the dream. A married friend whose husband is gone gives her a bed for which she pays by doing a great deal of work for the woman. She comes here every day now sitting bewildered, her pudgy hands folded in her lap. She is hungry. Her great flesh has begun to hang in folds. She has been living on crackers. Sometimes a box of crackers lasts a week. She has a friend who's a baker and he sometimes steal the stale loaves and brings them to her.

 

A girl we have seen every day all summer went crazy yesterday at the YW[4]. She went into hysterics, stamping her feet and screaming. She hadn't had work for eight months. "You've got to give me something," she kept saying.

 

The woman in charge flew into a rage that probably came from days and days of suffering on her part, because she is unable to give jobs, having none. She flew into a rage at the girl and there they were facing each other in a rage both helpless, helpless. This woman told me once that she could hardly bear the suffering she saw, hardly hear it, that she couldn’t eat sometimes and had nightmares at night.

 

So, they stood there, the two women, in a rage, the girl weeping and the woman shouting at her. In the eight months of unemployment she had gotten ragged, and the woman was shouting that she would not send her out like that. “Why don't you shine your shoes?? she kept scolding the girl, and the girl kept sobbing and sobbing because she was starving.

 

"We can't recommend you like that," the harassed YWCA woman said, knowing she was starving, unable to do anything. And the girls and the women sat docilely, their eyes on the ground, ashamed to look at each other, ashamed of something. Sitting here waiting for a job, the women have been talking in low voices about the girl Ellen. They talk in low voices with not too much pity for her, unable to see through the mist of their torment. “What happened to Ellen?” one of them asks. She knows the answer. We all know it.

 

A young girl who went around with Ellen tells about seeing her last evening back of a cafe downtown, outside the kitchen door, kicking, showing her legs so that the cook came out and gave her some food and some men gathered in the alley and threw small coin on the ground for a look at her legs. And the girl says enviously that Ellen had a swell breakfast and treated her to one too, that cost two dollars.

 

A scrub woman whose hips are bent forward from stooping with hands gnarled like water-soaked branches clicks her tongue in disgust. No one saves their money, she says, a little money and these foolish young things buy a hat, a dollar for breakfast, a bright scarf. And they do. If you've ever been without money, or food, something very strange happens when you get a bit of money, a kind of madness. You don't care. You can't remember that you had no money before, that the money will be gone. You can remember nothing but that there is the money for which you have been suffering. Now here it is. A lust takes hold of you. You see food in the windows. In imagination you eat hugely; you taste a thousand meals. You look in windows. Colors are brighter; you buy something to dress up in. An excitement takes hold of you. You know it is suicide but you can't help it. You must have food, dainty, splendid food, and a bright hat so once again you feel blithe, rid of that ratty gnawing shame.

 

"I guess she'll go on the street now," a thin woman says faintly, and no one takes the trouble to comment further. Like every commodity now the body is difficult to sell and the girls say you're lucky if you get fifty cents.

 

It's very difficult and humiliating to sell one's body.

 

Perhaps it would make it clear if one were to imagine having to go out on the street to sell, say, one's overcoat. Suppose you have to sell your coat so you can have breakfast and a place to sleep, say, for fifty cents. You decide to sell your only coat. You take it off and put it on your arm. The street, that has before been just a street, now becomes a mart, something entirely different. You must approach someone now and admit you are destitute and are now selling your clothes, your most intimate possessions. Everyone will watch you talking to the stranger showing him your overcoat, what a good coat it is. People will stop and watch curiously. You will be quite naked on the street. It is even harder to try to sell one's self, more humiliating. It is even humiliating to try to sell one's labor when there is no buyer.

 

The thin woman opens the wire cage. There's a job for a nursemaid, she says. The old gnarled women, like old horses, know that no one will have them walk the streets with the young so they don't move. Ellen's friend gets up and goes to the window. She is unbelievably jaunty. I know she hasn't had work since last January. But she has a flare of life in her that glows like a tiny red flame and some tenacious thing, perhaps only youth, keeps it burning bright. Her legs are thin but the runs in her old stockings are neatly mended clear down her flat shank. Two bright spots of rouge conceal her pallor. A narrow belt is drawn tightly around her thin waist, her long shoulders stoop and the blades show. She runs wild as a colt hunting pleasure, hunting sustenance.

 

It's one of the great mysteries of the city where women go when they are out of work and hungry. There are not many women in the bread line. There are no flop houses for women as there are for men, where a bed can be had for a quarter or less. You don't see women lying on the floor at the mission in the free flops. They obviously don't sleep in the jungle or under newspapers in the park. There is no law I suppose against their being in these places but the fact is they rarely are.

 

Yet there must be as many women out of jobs in cities and suffering extreme poverty as there are men. What happens to them? Where do they go? Try to get into the YW without any money or looking down at heel. Charities take care of very few and only those that are called "deserving.[5]" The lone girl is under suspicion by the virgin women who dispense charity. I've lived in cities for many months broke, without help, too timid to get in bread lines. I've known many women to live like this until they simply faint on the street from privations, without saying a word to anyone. A woman will shut herself up in a room until it is taken away from her and eat a cracker a day and be as quiet as a mouse so there are no social statistics concerning her.

 

I don't know why it is, but a woman will do this unless she has dependents, will go for weeks verging on starvation, crawling in some hole, going through the streets ashamed, sitting in libraries, parks, going for days without speaking to a living soul like some exiled beast, keeping the runs mended in her stockings, shut up in terror in her own misery, until she becomes too super-sensitive and timid to even ask for a job. Bernice says even strange men she has met in the park have sometimes, that is in better days, given her a loan to pay her room rent. She has always paid them back. In the afternoon the young girls, to forget the hunger and the deathly torture and fear of being jobless, try to pick up a man to take them to a ten-cent show. They never go to more expensive ones, but they can always find a man willing to spend a dime to have the company of a girl for the afternoon. Sometimes a girl facing the night without shelter will approach a man for lodging.

 

A woman always asks a man for help. Rarely another woman. I have known girls to sleep in men's rooms for the night on a pallet without molestation and be given breakfast in the morning.

It's no wonder these young girls refuse to marry, refuse to rear children. They are like certain savage tribes, who, when they have been conquered, refuse to breed.

 

Not one of them but looks forward to starvation for the coming winter. We are in a jungle and know it. We are beaten, entrapped. There is no way out. Even if there were a job, even if that thin acrid woman came and gave everyone in the room a job for a few days, a few hours, at thirty cents an hour, this would all be repeated tomorrow, the next day and the next. Not one of these women but knows that despite years of labor there is only starvation, humiliation in front of them.

 

Mrs. Gray, sitting across from me, is a living spokesman for the futility of labor. She is a warning. Her hands are scarred with labor. Her body is a great puckered scar. She has given birth to six children, buried three, supported them all alive and dead, bearing them, burying them, feeding them. Bred in hunger they have been spare, susceptible to disease. For seven years she tried to save her boy's arm from amputation, diseased from tuberculosis of the bone. It is almost too suffocating to think of that long close horror of years of child-bearing, child-feeding, rearing, with the bare suffering of providing a meal and shelter.

 

Now she is fifty. Her children, economically insecure, are drifters. She never hears of them. She doesn't know if they are alive. She doesn't know if she is alive. Such subtleties of suffering are not for her. For her the brutality of hunger and cold. Not until these are done away with can those subtle feelings that make a human being be indulged. She is lucky to have five dollars ahead of her. That is her security. She has a tumor that she will die of. She is thin as a worn dime with her tumor sticking out of her side. She is brittle and bitter. Her face is not the face of a human being. She has borne more than it is possible for a human being to bear. She is reduced to the least possible denominator of human feelings. It is terrible to see her little bloodshot eyes like a beaten hound's, fearful in terror. We cannot meet her eyes. When she looks at any of us we look away. She is like a woman drowning and we turn away. We must ignore those eyes that are surely the eyes of a person drowning, doomed. She doesn't cry out. She goes down decently. And we all look away.

 

The young ones know though. I don't want to marry. I don't want any children. So, they all say. No children. No marriage. They arm themselves alone, keep up alone. The man is helpless now. He cannot provide. If he propagates he cannot take care of his young. The means are not in his hands. So, they live alone. Get what fun they can. The life risk is too horrible now. Defeat is too clearly written on it. So, we sit in this room like cattle, waiting for a nonexistent job, willing to work to the farthest atom of energy, unable to work, unable to get food and lodging, unable to bear children—here we must sit in this shame looking at the floor, worse than beasts at a slaughter.

 

It is appalling to think that these women sitting so listless in the room may work as hard as it is possible for a human being to work, may labor night and day, like Mrs. Gray wash streetcars from midnight to dawn and offices in the early evening, scrub for fourteen and fifteen hours a day, sleep only five hours or so, do this their whole lives, and never earn one day of security, having always before them the pit of the future. The endless labor, the bending back, the water-soaked hands, earning never more than a week's wages, never having in their hands more life than that. It's not the suffering of birth, death, love that the young reject, but the suffering of endless labor without dream, eating the spare bread in bitterness, being a slave without the security of a slave.

 

[1] The People’s College was founded by members of the social party in Fort Scott, Kansas, including Hellen Keller, Eugene Debs, and Arthur Le Sueur. Meridel’s mother, Marian, created an English textbook and curriculum called “Plain English,” intended for the working classes. The People’s College did not charge tuition, relying on monthly donors. Almost all were members of the Socialist Party, the IWW, and Farmer’s Alliance.

[2] The Nonpartisan League was a political organization founded by Socialist Party members in Minneapolis in 1915. Much like the Populists, the League advocated for state control of grain elevators, granary mills, and other farm-related industries and wanted to curb the power of the railroads and other corporations.

“Wobblies” were members of the radical labor union, The International Workers of the World.

[3] Meridel Le Sueur, “Women on the Breadlines,New Masses, 1932.

[4] Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA).

[5] “The worthy poor.” Where else have see heard this?  

Image: Lee, R., photographer. (1939) Women waiting for streetcar at terminal, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Oklahoma Oklahoma City Oklahoma City. United States, 1939. July. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2017740635/.

Field Report to Harry Hopkins by Lorena Hickok

A mother and her two children wearing filthy clothing stand in front of their make-shift home. Clothes hang on the line to dry in he background.
People living in miserable poverty, Elm Grove, Oklahoma County, Oklahoma

Introduction

 

Like Oscar Ameringer and Meridel Le Sueur, Lorena Hickok grew up in the Midwest during the first decades of the twentieth century, surrounded by Populists, Wobblies, and socialists. Hickok left college and started working as a journalist in Milwaukee and Detroit, eventually becoming the first woman to have a byline for the Associated Press. The AP assigned Hickok to cover Eleanor Roosevelt during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first Presidential election in 1932. Hickok resigned from the AP after she began a romantic relationship with the First Lady. Instead, Hickok worked as a chief investigator for Harry L. Hopkins, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration.

 

For three years, Hickok visited thirty-two states and sent detailed - and salty - reports on the living and working conditions of Americans and the impact of New Deal programs worked on a ground level. Below is her report from Tucson, Arizona[1].

 

 

Primary Source

 

Phoenix, Arizona, May 4, 1934

 

Dear Mr. Hopkins:

 …I lost a day this week. On Sunday, driving across desert from Lordsburg, N.M., to Tucson, I turned over in loose gravel on a road which seems to be a sort of political football. The towns of Douglas and Bisbee, wishing to keep the road as bad as possible, have enough influence at the Statehouse to prevent its being repaired. The result is about one wreck a week, with a couple of fatalities every month or so. Douglas and Bisbee are interested because it diverts traffic away from them…So, since I had apparently carried most of the weight of the car on the back of my neck during the split second while it was rolling over, the doctor seemed to think it might be a good idea for me to spend Monday in bed, which I did. Incidentally sir, you have to have a darned good neck to get away with anything like that. I think mine had no doubt got toughened up these last five or six weeks from carrying the weight of the world on it.

 

…Since Monday I've been moving fast, with little opportunity to write. Anyway, I haven't felt much encouraged to write. Damn it, it's the same old story down here, wherever I go. Two classes of people. Whites, including white collar people, with white standards of living, for whom relief as it is now, is anything but adequate. No jobs in sight. Growing restive. Mexicans - or, east of the Mississippi, Negroes - with low standards of living, to whom relief is adequate and attractive. Perfectly contented. Willing to stay on relief the rest of their lives. Able, many of them, to get work, but at wages so low that they are better off on relief. So many Mexicans and Negroes on relief that, with a limited amount of money, we are compelled to force the white man's standard of living down to that of the Mexicans and Negroes.

 

I believe that in the whole Southern half of the United States you will find this to be the big relief problem today. Certainly it is in every urban community. I've encountered it everywhere I've been on this trip: Alabama, Texas, Louisiana, New Mexico, although not so bad there, and Arizona. Add to it newspaper publicity - carried out of Washington by the press associations, I am told - that has led the population to believe that everyone in the state on relief is going to get $21 a month cash, no more and no less, under the new program, and you have Arizona's problem. The Mexicans all want "the $21 a month the Government has promised us." The whites, who have actually been getting more than that on direct relief, don't see how they can get along on it and are worried stiff. It represents a "raise" for the Mexicans, from relief with which they were perfectly satisfied and which apparently was adequate, and a "cut" for the whites…

 

I have been writing you right along that the only way I could see to clean up this Negro-Mexican business would be to reinvestigate thoroughly the Negro and Mexican case-loads, closing the intakes to get them out of the habit of registering for relief for a few weeks and to turn the case workers loose for the reinvestigation, and to force every Negro or Mexican who could get any work at all, at WHATEVER wages, to take it and get off the relief rolls…I must admit that there are people in the set-up who don't agree with me on this. They argue first of all that we are forcing these people into peonage. Employers, particularly farmers and housewives - the two worst classes of employers in the country, I believe - will take advantage of the situation.

 

 I've written you about housewives who think Negroes, Mexicans, or even white girls ought to be glad to work for their room and board. And last week in New Mexico I heard about sheep growers who want to hire herders at $7 a MONTH! It is also argued that, particularly in cities, thousands of the Mexicans and Negroes actually CAN'T get work - that, if there is any job, no matter how lowly and how poorly paid, a white man will take it, and that there would be Hell to pay if a Negro or a Mexican got it. I don't believe that, however, to the extent that some people do.

 

It's almost impossible to get to the bottom on this farm labor proposition. The farmers - sheep and cattle men, cotton growers, and so on - are all yelling that they can't get the Mexicans to work because they are all on relief. But when Mexicans and Spanish-Americans won't go out and herd sheep for $7 a month because they can get $8 or $10 on relief, it seems to me that the farmer ought to raise his wages a little. Oh, they don't admit trying to get herders for $7 a month. If you ask them what they are paying, they will say, "Anywhere from $15 a month up." But our relief people looked into the matter and found out what they actually were willing to pay. A thing that complicates the whole situation right now is our hourly rate under the new program. In Arizona, for instance, the minimum is 50 cents an hour. We adopted it because it is the hourly rate on public works in the state of Arizona. But, don't you see, it's a "political" hourly rate? Jobs on highways on public works in Arizona are dealt out as political patronage. The ACTUAL prevailing wage in Arizona is nowhere nearly that high. Up to now there haven't been many people getting 50 cents an hour in Arizona-and damned few Mexicans. Now we come along and announce we are going to pay everybody on relief 50 cents an hour. You can imagine the furor.

 

You've got the Latin temperament to deal with down here, too. Latin and Indian. They don't "want" things. They haven't any ambition. A man who is half Spanish and half Indian has an entirely different slant on life from ours. To begin with, it's a semi-tropical country. The Spaniards came here generations ago. They are easy-going, pleasure loving. It isn't in their makeup to "get out and hustle." And the Indian in them certainly wouldn't make them ambitious. The Indian never was a hustler. He wanted just enough' no more. Your Mexican, or your Spanish-American, is a simple fellow, with simple needs, to be obtained with the least effort.

 

And if he could work five days a week at 50 cents an hour or three days a week at 50 cents an hour, he'd work three days, even though it meant less income. His attitude is: "Why work any more, after you've got enough?" And when it comes to working seven days a week, 10 hours a day, for no more than, or even less than, he'd be getting on relief - well, he just can't see that at all[2].

 

…And so, this 50-cent hourly rate is just swell for a Mexican, even though the number of hours he can work and the amount of money he can get per month on it are limited. And $21 a month, earned at the rate of 50 cents an hour-why, that's just Heaven to him! He'd have a grand time on $10 or $12. And has been. The Mexican or Spanish-American diet is so different from ours. Chili beans, red beans, a little grease, flour or cornmeal, a few vegetables and a little fruit in the fall. It's a cheap diet. But they've thrived - or would it be "thriven?” - on it for 500 years. We're silly to try to change it. As a matter of fact, doctors over in New Mexico have been making a study of that diet, observing the effect on the children. They've had the surprise of their lives.

 

Those children are a darn sight better off physically, on that diet, than most of our white children are in families living on minimum subsistence rations. In Tucson not long ago arrived a huge shipment of surplus commodity butter. They had no place to keep it. They had to ration it out to Mexicans and Indians as well as whites. The Mexicans and Indians had never tasted butter before. They didn't even like it. They tried to fry beans in it - and came back yelling for lard! Now if these people can live on $10 or $12 a month and be reasonably healthy and so contented that they won't even take work when it is offered them, let alone go out and look for it, why, in the name of common sense, raise them above that? Especially when we have a limited amount of money.

 

I’ll grant that the work that is offered them pays darned little - that it's practically peonage - but it's all they've ever known, and I doubt if the Relief administration is financially in a position to battle low wage scales all over the South and Southwest. There is a way of handling the problem, other than throwing the Mexicans and Negroes off relief - and the local relief administrations have been doing it. Discrimination.

 

Two standards of relief. The idea will sound horrible in Washington, but - I'm beginning to wonder. The only place where they've come right out and admitted to me that they've been doing it is in Tucson. They were doing it before Federal money came in, there, and during April, between CWA and the new program[3], which went into effect May 1, they went back to it. They said April had been the smoothest month they'd had for a long time. In Tucson - without any publicity, but so quietly that people didn't even know they were being classified - they divided their case load into four groups, Classes A, B, C, and D. They have about 2,800 families on relief there: 1,200 Mexicans, American citizens, but with a low standard of living; 800 Yaqui Indian families, political refugees from old Mexico; 800 white families.

 

Into Class A went 60 families. Engineers, teachers, lawyers, contractors, a few former businessmen, architects, and some chemists who used to be connected with the mines. They and each of the other three groups had their own intakes. No mixing. They gave this group a $50 a month maximum, 50 per cent cash. It took care of them fairly adequately, rents, clothing, and everything. They set up projects for them, manning their auxiliary staff with them. Although they were required to work only a few hours a week for what they were getting, these people have been giving full time, voluntarily.

 

Into Class B went 250 families, on a maximum of $36 a month, from 33 1/3 to 40 per cent cash. It consisted of some white collar people-clerks, stenographers, bookkeepers, and so on-and skilled labor. Many of these people were able to augment their incomes by a few days’ work now and then.

 

Into Class C went 1,000 families, on a $25 maximum, 30 per cent cash. It consisted of white unskilled labor and Mexican and Spanish-American unskilled labor with standards of living higher than those of most Mexicans. And into Class D went 1,490 families, on a $10 maxi_ mum, all in kind. These were the low class Mexican, Spanish-American, and Indian families. They have a commissary in Tucson - and I’m beginning to wonder, too, if a commissary IS such a bad thing where you've got a large crowd of people with low standards of living to feed. As a work project, they raise two-thirds of the vegetables distributed through the commissary. They buy milk wholesale, giving it out at 8 cents a quart instead of 15 cents as charged retail Incidentally, from school districts where these low class Mexicans and Indians live and where distribution of milk to children has been going on for years there came a few weeks ago word that the health of the children had improved to such an extent that they no longer needed to distribute the milk!

 

"Now this all may seem pretty bad to you…,” the relief administrator told me, "but you're going to quit some day and leave us, here in these communities, to you. We’ll never be able to carry on under the conditions Washington is imposing on us now."

 

And so - I'm wondering if perhaps we should try to set up a national standard and impose it on a state like Arizona, a town like Tucson. I'm wondering if we shouldn’t give these state and local committees a little more latitude, a little more discretionary power…Don't think I can’t see the dangers in it. And I realize the terrific pressure brought to bear by the Labor crowd on those wage scales. But, dammit, man, our job is to feed people and clothe them and shelter them, with as little damage to their morale as possible. And that’s all, as I see it. We haven't got the money to do any more. I can’t see – I’ve never been able to see - that it was the job of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration to fight the battle of the American Federation of Labor[4]. We ARE feeding people, clothing them, and providing shelter for them as best we can. But what are we doing to their morale? I’ve been on the road nearly a year now. More and more I’ve come to the conclusion that, the less we interfere with the normal lives of these families, the less damage we're going to do to their morale. If by relief, we raise a family's income beyond whatever [it] has been before or beyond what it has any chance of becoming normally, we are damaging the morale of that family. And if we lower a family’s standard of living too much, we are going to ruin its morale, too - or make a rebel out of the head of that family.

 

In Tucson, if we enforce that 50-cent hourly wage rate with the limit on hours, we're going to do both of those things, I'm afraid. I was in Tucson May 1, the day the new program went in. All the Mexicans who could read - and even more who couldn't - were over at their intake, demanding the $21 a month "the Government has promised us.”

 

In the office of the administrator, I sat talking for an hour with half a dozen white collar clients. Among them were a landscape painter, a certified public accountant, a former businessman, an architect, a former bank cashier. All save the artist were men of 45 or thereabouts. All had been in the group of 60, Class A. We went over their budgets, to see if they could possibly get along on that $2l maximum.

 

Said the painter:

"I pay $6.50 a month rent. There are three of us, my wife, my l8-months-old baby, and myself. We have three rooms in a garage. No water. An outside toilet. The baby’s food costs us $6.03 a month – $4.11 for milk, .46 for Cream of Wheat, .26 for prunes, $1.20 for vegetables. He should have more, but he can get by on that. Our lights and coal oil for fuel come to $4.30 a month. Add $6.50 for rent, $6.03 for the baby food, and $4.30 for light and oil, and you get $16.83. Subtract that from $21, and you see my wife and I will have $4.17 a month for food for ourselves. Can't do it…

 

The certified public accountant was trying to hang onto his home. "If I lose that," he said, "it's the end-that’s all…He has a Federal Home Loan, which requires that he pay $10 a month interest. That leaves him an $11 balance, and he has six in the family and a baby coming. In April he got $40 and managed to get by, although, of course, he had to keep one of the children out of school to help his wife because he couldn't hire anyone. He wasn't kicking about that, however.

 

The former bank cashier also had six in the family, himself, his wife, his parents, his crippled sister, and her child. He wasn't paying rent. They had moved in with friends. But they were paying half of the electric, water and fuel bills. "I'm afraid for my parents," he said. "Lord only knows how we'll get along. They are unhappy now and feel they are in the way. It's a bad situation."

 

The former businessman, who told me that, when the depression hit, he was worth $60,000 - and other people told me he was telling me the truth - had only three in his family, his wife, himself, and a son, who had to leave college, but who has been unable to get steady work of any kind. He is paying $15 a month rent, having recently moved out of a $25 apartment. That leaves $6 a month for food for the three of them.

 

“All this - it breaks you down,” he said quietly. “We men who have been the backbone of commerce, who have had ambitions and hopes, who have always taken care of our families-what is going to become of us? I've lost twelve and a half pounds this last month, just thinking. You can't sleep, you know. You wake up about 2 A.M., and then you lie and think.”

 

"Why, I've sat across the tables from Jesse Jones and talked contracts with him, running up into many thousands of dollars! But I'd be afraid to face him now. You get so you feel so whipped!" There was a moment's silence. Then the former bank cashier spoke. "Yes,” he said, “all those years of practical experience you and I have had don't count for anything now.

 

"When you're 45 and trying to get a job, they say to you, 'I'll get in touch with you later, Mr. So-and-So. Mighty glad you dropped in.”

 

 “But you never hear from them." In Albuquerque the other day, I was talking with a lawyer, a former judge, who is one of the big men in the town. "The Government has got to take care of these people," he said, "if it takes your hat and mine. Why, we don't know the beginning of taxation in this country yet. And if society, as it is now organized, can't give a man a job, then the Government, representing all the people, must do it-a decent job, at a living wage.[5]"

 

 

This work by Jennifer Nardone at Columbus State Community College is licensed under CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0, except where otherwise indicated.

 

[1] Lorena Hickok, Report to Harry L. Hopkins, May 4, 1934. Hickok donated the copyrights to all her papers to the U.S. Government. It is believed that because Hickok wrote this letter in the course of her duties as an employee of the U.S. Federal Government that this letter is in the public domain.

[2] Remember Indian Reformer, Merrill Gates: The tribal organization tends to retain men in such barbarism. It is a great step gained when you awaken in an Indian the desire for the acquisition of property of his own, by his own honest labor

[3] The Civilian Works Administration was a short-lived New Deal program from1933-34. The CWA, along with FERA, was replaced by the Works’ Progress Administration in 1935.

[4] Hopefully you remember the AFL. The Knights of Labor lost support after the Haymarket Riot in 1886. The more conservative AFL replaced the Knights as most powerful union, discouraging strikes and encouraging “business unionism.” 

[5] I just want to point out that five years after Lorena Hickok’s report, Luther Standing Bear died on the set of the movie Union Pacific, directed by Cecille B. DeMille, a pioneer of the modern cinematic drama. (Do you know the infamous line, “I’m ready for my close up, Mr. DeMille?” – Norma Desmond, played by the incomparable Gloria Swanson, Sunset Boulevard, 1950, directed by Billy Wilder). I assume you remember Luther Standing Bear and his memoir, Land of the Spotted Eagle, recounting his life at Carlisle Indian Industrial School. We read it Week 3, back in September. I want to pause here and consider this:

Luther Standing Bear lived through every single thing we have studied this semester. An Oglala Sioux, born on unceded land in the Dakota Territory in 1868. In the first few months of his life, the Federal Government forced the Sioux to sign a treaty turning that same land into Pine Ridge Reservation. Standing Bear left for Carlisle in 1879, two years after Reconstruction ended and the Great Railroad Strike began. He left Pine Ridge just weeks before the Massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890. He attended the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 as part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. He witnessed World War I and the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. He watched the country become electrified, and was one of the first people on the planet to speak on a telephone. One of the first people to hear recorded music, one of the first to hear a baseball game on the radio, and one of the first to watch a motion picture. He was among the first people on the planet to ride in a car. He was among the first people on the planet to watch a basketball game (invented in 1891) or watch soccer turn into football. He died in 1939, the year Nazi Germany invaded Poland and Franklin Roosevelt received a letter from German physicists Leo Silzard and Albert Einstein warning that Germany had the technology to built an atomic bomb. What a life.

Image: Lange, Dorothea [photographer]. (1936) People living in miserable poverty, Elm Grove, Oklahoma County, Oklahoma. Library of Congress. Retrieved from https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2017763118/ In the public domain.

Testimony on Unemployment (1932) by Oscar Ameringer

Oscar Ameringer, seated, wearing suit and bow tie, slight smile on his clean-shaven face.
Oscar Ameringer in 1920

Testimony on Unemployment (1932)

Oscar Ameringer

 

Oscar Ameringer migrated from Germany to Cincinnati, Ohio when he was fifteen years old. He arrived in 1885, one year before the Haymarket Riot in Chicago[1]. He joined the Knights of Labor the same year. In 1903, he moved to Columbus, Ohio and started working for the union newspaper, “Labor World”. He travelled around the country reporting on labor disputes and unfair working conditions. In 1932, the same year Meridel Le Sueur published “Women on the Breadlines,” Congress called Ameringer to testify on the condition of farmers around the country. Part of his testimony before Congress is below[2].

 

 

During the last three months I have visited, as I have said, some twenty states of this wonderfully rich and beautiful country. Here are some of the things I heard and saw:

 

In the state of Washington, I was told that the forest fires raging in that region all summer and fall were caused by unemployed timber workers and bankrupt farmers in an endeavor to earn a few honest dollars as firefighters. The last thing I saw on the night I left Seattle was numbers of women searching for scraps of food in the refuse piles of the principal market of that city.

 

A number of Montana citizens told me of thousands of bushels of wheat left in the fields uncut on account of its low price that hardly paid for the harvesting. In Oregon I saw thousands of bushels of apples rotting in the orchards. Only absolutely flawless apples were still salable, at from 40 to 50 cents a box containing 200 apples. At the same time, there are millions of children who, on account of the poverty of their parents, will not eat one apple this winter.

 

While I was in Oregon, the Portland Oregonian, bemoaned the fact that thousands of ewes[3] were killed by the sheep raisers because they did not bring enough in the market to pay the freight on them. And while Oregon sheep raisers fed mutton[4] to the buzzards, I saw men picking for meat scraps in the garbage cans in the cities of New York and Chicago. I talked to one man in a restaurant in Chicago. He told me of his experience in raising sheep. He said that he had killed 3,000 sheep this fall and thrown them down the canyon, because it cost $1.10 to ship a sheep, and then he would get less than a dollar for it. He said he could not afford to feed the sheep, and he would not let them starve, so he just cut their throats and threw them down the canyon.

 

The roads of the West and Southwest teem with hungry hitchhikers. The camp fires of the homeless are seen along every railroad track. I saw men, women, and children walking over the hard roads. Most of them were tenant farmers who had lost their all in the late slump in wheat and cotton. Between Clarksville and Russellville, Ark., I picked up a family. The woman was hugging a dead chicken under a ragged coat. When I asked her where she had procured the fowl, first she told me she had found it dead in the road, and then added in grim humor, “They promised me a chicken in the pot, and now I got mine.[5]

 

In Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana I saw untold bales of cotton rotting in the fields because the cotton pickers could not keep body and soul together on 35 cents paid for picking 100 pounds....

 

As a result of this appalling overproduction on the one side and the staggering underconsumption on the other side, 70 per cent of the farmers of Oklahoma were unable to pay the interests on their mortgages. Last week one of the largest and oldest mortgage companies in that state went into the hands of the receiver. In that and other states we have now the interesting spectacle of farmers losing their farms by foreclosure and mortgage companies losing their recouped holdings by tax sales.

 

The farmers are being pauperized by the poverty of industrial populations, and the industrial populations are being pauperized by the poverty of the farmers. Neither has the money to buy the product of the other, hence we have overproduction and underconsumption at the same time and in the same country.

 

I have not come here to stir you in a recital of the necessity for relief for our suffering fellow citizens. However, unless something is done for them and done soon, you will have a revolution on hand. And when that revolution comes it will not come from Moscow, it will not be made by the poor Communists whom our police are heading up regularly and efficiently. When the revolution comes it will bear the label “Laid in the U. S. A.” and its chief promoters will be the people of American stock....

 

Some time ago a cowman came into my office in Oklahoma City. He was one of these double-fisted gentlemen, with the gallon hat and all. He said, “You do not know me from Adam’s ox.”

I said, “No; I do not believe I know you.” He said, “I came to this country without a cent, but, knowing my onions, and by tending strictly to business, I finally accumulated two sections of land and a fine herd of white-faced Hereford cattle. I was independent.”

 

I remarked that anybody could do that if he worked hard and did not gamble and used good management. He said, “After the war, cattle began to drop, and I was feeding them corn, and by the time I got them to Chicago the price of cattle, considering the price of corn I had fed them, was not enough to even pay my expenses. I could not pay anything.” Continuing, he said, “I mortgaged my two sections of land, and to-day I am cleaned out; by God, I am not going to stand for it.” I asked him what he was going to do about it, and he said, “We have got to have a revolution here like they had in Russia and clean them up.”

 

I finally asked him, “Who is going to make the revolution?”

 

He said, “I just want to tell you I am going to be one of them, and I am going to do my share in it.”

 

I asked what his share was and he said, “I will capture a certain fort. I know I can get in with twenty of my boys,” meaning his cowboys, “because I know the inside and outside of it, and

I [will] capture that with my men.” I rejoined, “Then what?” He said, “We will have 400 machine guns, so many batteries of artillery, tractors, and munitions and rifles, and everything else needed to supply a pretty good army.” Then I asked, “What then?”

 

He said, “If there are enough fellows with guts in this country to do like us, we will march eastward and we will cut the East off. We will cut the East off from the West. We have got the granaries; we have the hogs, the cattle, the corn; the East has nothing but mortgages on our places. We will show them what we can do.”

 

That man may be very foolish, and I think he is, but he is in dead earnest; he is a hard-shelled Baptist and a hard-shelled Democrat, not a Socialist or a Communist, but just a plain American cattleman whose ancestors went from Carolina to Tennessee, then to Arkansas, and then to Oklahoma. I have heard much of this talk from serious-minded prosperous men of other days.

As you know, talk is always a mental preparation for action. Nothing is done until people talk and talk and talk it, and they finally get the notion that they will do it.

 

I do not say we are going to have a revolution on hand within the next year or two, perhaps never. I hope we may not have such; but the danger is here. That is the feeling of our people—as reflected in the letters I have read. I have met these people virtually every day all over the country. There is a feeling among the masses generally that something is radically wrong. They are despairing of political action. They say the only thing you do in Washington is to take money from the pockets of the poor and put it into the pockets of the rich. They say that this Government is a conspiracy against the common people to enrich the already rich. I hear such remarks every day.

 

I never pass a hitchhiker without inviting him in and talking to him. Bankers even are talking about that. They are talking in irrational tones. You have more Bolshevism among the bankers to-day than the hod carriers, I think.  It is a terrible situation, and I think something should be done and done immediately.

 

[1] Of course, you remember the Haymarket Riot of 1886. A clash between striking workers at the McCormick factory and Chicago police resulted in the death of several strikers. A rally in support of the striking workers on May 4 also turned violent. In the end, 8 men were arrested, most immigrants, and four were executed for the riot

[3] Female sheep.

[4] Sheep flesh, used as food.

[5] Herbert Hoover’s 1928 campaign slogan was “a chicken in every pot.”

 

Image: Bain News Service. (1920) Oscar Ammesinger [i.e. Ameringer]. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014710589/. In the public domain.

The Bronx Slave Market by Marvel Cooke and Ella Baker

The Bronx Slave Market

Ella Baker and Marvel Cooke

 

The collapse of the economy in the early 1930s resulted in massive layoffs, foreclosures, and displacement for many Americans. When Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1932, the national unemployment rate hovered around twenty percent. Unemployment among African American and Latinx communities was double the national average as white men took jobs traditionally considered beneath them, i.e., service work, or, day laborers in the agricultural fields of California. Women of all races experienced high unemployment, but no group of workers suffered more than African American women, many of whom were employed by white families as domestic and/or childcare workers. Many white families fired their regular staff when the Depression hit, but learned quickly that they could hire the same women as day laborers for nearly no wages. African American domestic workers had no choice but to work for any wages they could, and often waited on particular street corners for someone to offer work. Often, these were white women who were not interested in paying for labor but wanted the status of having a domestic staff. Wages fell so low that even white families who could not afford a housekeeper before the Depression could boast they had one working for them.

 

Journalist and Civil Rights activist Marvel Cooke, moved to Harlem, New York City, in 1925 during the height of the Harlem Renaissance. Cooke worked as W.E.B. Du Bois’ assistant at the NAACP for several years before she starting writing for The Crisis. Cooke went on to work as a journalist for the one of the largest the Amsterdam News, one of the largest black-owned newspapers in the country. While working at the NAACP, Cooke met fellow activist and writer, Ella Baker, who like Cooke, was particularly interested in issues of labor, gender, and race. Baker, by the way, went on to become one of the most influential Civil Rights activists of late twentieth century. She co-founded the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in 1960, and offered an alterative to the hierarchy of the Civil Rights Movement which emphasized the “great leaders,” such as Martin Luther King, Jr. Baker supported decentralized, grassroots movements rather than centralized leadership.

 

In 1935, Cooke went undercover as part of the “paper bag brigade” referring to the African American women who waited every morning with their uniforms in paper bags, waiting for someone to hire them for the day. Cooke and Baker wrote five articles based on Cooke’s experiences undercover. The articles captured the humiliation and despair faced by African American women in need of employment during the Depression. The title alone, “The Bronx Slave Market” indicates how serious Cooke and Baker thought the situation was by 1935. Below is an excerpt from the articles.[1]

 

The Bronx Slave Market! What is it? Who are its dealers? Who are its victims? What are its causes? How far does its stench spread? What forces are at work to counteract it?

 

Any corner in the congested sections of New York City’s Bronx is fertile soil for mushroom “slave marts.” The two where the traffic is heaviest and the bidding is highest are located at 167th street and Jerome Avenue and at Simpson and Westchester avenues.[2]

 

Symbolic of the more humane slave block is the Jerome avenue “market.” There, on benches surrounding a green square, the victims wait, grateful, at least, for some place to sit. In direct contrast is the Simpson avenue “mart,” where they pose wearily against buildings and lampposts, or scuttle about in an attempt to retrieve discarded boxes upon which to rest.

 

Again, the Simpson avenue block exudes the stench of the slave market at its worst. Not only is human labor bartered and sold for slave wage, but human love also is a marketable commodity. But whether it is labor, or love that is sold, economic necessity compels the sale. As early as 8 a.m. they come; as late as 1 p.m. they remain.

 

Rain or shine, cold or hot, you will find them there – Negro women, old and young – sometimes bedraggled, sometimes neatly dressed – but with the invariable paper bundle, waiting expectantly for Bronx housewives to buy their strength and energy for an hour, two hours, or even for a day at the munificent rate of fifteen, twenty, twenty-five, or, if luck be with them, thirty cents an hour. If not the wives themselves, maybe their husbands, their sons, or their brothers, under the subterfuge of work, offer worldly-wise girls higher bids for their time.[3]

 

Who are these women? What brings them here? Why do they stay? In the boom days before the onslaught of the depression in 1929, many of these women who are now forced to bargain for day’s work on street corners, were employed in grand homes in the rich Eighties, or in wealthier homes in Long Island and Westchester, at more than adequate wages.[4] Some are former marginal industrial workers, forced by the slack in industry to seek other means of sustenance. In many instances there had been no necessity for work at all. But whatever their standing prior to the depression, none sought employment where they now seek it. They come to the Bronx, not because of what it promises, but largely in desperation.

 

Paradoxically, the crash of 1929 brought to the domestic labor market a new employer class. The lower middle-class housewife, who, having dreamed of the luxury of a maid, found opportunity staring her in the face in the form of Negro women pressed to the wall by poverty, starvation and discrimination.

 

Where once color was the “gilt edged” security for obtaining domestic and personal service jobs, here, even, Negro women found themselves being displaced by whites. Hours of futile waiting in employment agencies, the fee that must be paid despite the lack of income, fraudulent agencies that sprung up during the depression, all forced the day worker to fend for herself or try the dubious and circuitous road to public relief.

 

As inadequate as emergency relief has been, it has proved somewhat of a boon to many of these women, for with its advent, actual starvation is no longer their ever-present slave driver and they have been able to demand twenty-five and even thirty cents an hour as against the old fifteen and twenty-cent rate. In an effort to supplement the inadequate relief received, many seek this open market.

 

And what a market! She who is fortunate (?) enough to please Mrs. Simon Legree’s scrutinizing eye is led away to perform hours of multifarious household drudgeries.[5] Under a rigid watch, she is permitted to scrub floors on her bended knees, to hang precariously from window sills, cleaning window after window, or to strain and sweat over steaming tubs of heavy blankets, spreads and furniture covers.

 

Fortunate, indeed, is she who gets the full hourly rate promised. Often, her day’s slavery is rewarded with a single dollar bill or whatever her unscrupulous employer pleases to pay. More often, the clock is set back for an hour or more. Too often she is sent away without any pay at all.

 

How it Works

We invaded the “market early on the morning of September 14. Disreputable bags under arm and conscientiously forlorn, we trailed the work entourage on the West side “slave train,” disembarking with it at Simpson and Westchester avenues. Taking up our stand outside the corner flower shop whose show window offered gardenias, roses and the season’s first chrysanthemums at moderate prices, we waited patiently to be “bought.”

 

We got results in almost nothing flat. A squatty Jewish housewife, patently lower middle class, approached us, carefully taking stock of our “wares.”

 

“You girls want work?”

“Yes.” We were expectantly non-committal.

“How much will you work for?”

We begged the question, noting that she was already convinced that we were not the “right sort.” “How much do you pay?”

 

She was walking away from us. “I can’t pay your price,” she said, and immediately started bargaining with a strong, seasoned girl leaning against the corner lamp post. After a few moments of animated conversation, she led the girl off with her. Curious, we followed them two short blocks to a dingy apartment house on a side street.

 

We returned to our post. We didn’t seem to be very popular with the “slaves.” They eyed us suspiciously. But, one by one, as they became convinced that we were one with them, they warmed up to friendly sallies and answers our discreet questions about the possibilities of employment in the neighborhood.

 

Suddenly it began to rain, and we, with a dozen or so others, scurried to shelter under the five-and-ten doorway midway the block. Enforced close communion brought about further sympathy and conversation from the others. We asked the brawny, neatly dressed girl pressed close to us about the extent of trade in the “oldest profession” among women.

 

“Well,” she said, “there is quite a bit of it up here. Most of ‘those girls’ congregate at the other corner.” She indicated the location with a jerk of her head.

“Do they get much work?” we queried.

 

“Oh, quite a bit,” she answered with a finality that was probably designed to close the conversation. But we were curious and asked her how the other girls felt about it. She looked at us a moment doubtfully, probably wondering if we weren’t seeking advice to go into the “trade” ourselves.

 

“Well, that’s their business. If they can do it and get away with it, it’s all right with the others.” Or probably she would welcome some “work” of that kind herself…

 

Cut Rate Competition

The rain stopped quite as suddenly as it started. We had decided to make a careful survey of the district to see whether or not there were any employment agencies in the section. Up one block and down another we tramped, but not one such institution did we encounter. Somehow the man who gave us a sly “Hello, babies,” as he passed was strangely familiar. We realized two things about him-that he had been trailing us for some time and that he was manifestly, plain clothes or notwithstanding, one of “New York’s Finest.”

 

Trying to catch us to run us in for soliciting, was he? From that moment on, it was a three-cornered game. When we separated he was at sea. When we were together, he grinned and winked at us quite boldly…

 

We sidled up to a friendly soul seated comfortably on an upturned soap-box. Soon an old couple approached her and offered her a day’s work with their daughter way up on Jerome avenue. They were not in agreement as to how much the daughter would pay – the old man said twenty-five cents an hour – the old lady scowled and said twenty. The car fare, they agreed, would be paid after she reached her destination. The friendly soul refused the job. She could afford independence, for she had already successfully bargained for a job for the following day. She said to us, after the couple started negotiations with another woman, that she wouldn’t go way up on Jerome avenue on a wild goose chase for Mrs. Roosevelt, herself.[6] We noted, with satisfaction, that the old couple had no luck with any of the five or six they contacted.

 

It struck us as singularly strange, since it was already 10:30, that the women still lingered, seemingly unabashed that they had not yet found employment for a day. We were debating whether or not we should leave the “mart” and try again another day, probably during the approaching Jewish holidays at which time business is particularly flourishing, when, suddenly, things looked up again. A new batch of “slaves” flowed down the elevated steps and took up their stands at advantageous points.

 

The friendly soul turned to us, a sneer marring the smooth roundness of her features. “Them’s the girls who makes it bad for us. They get more jobs than us because they work for anything. We runned them off the corner last week.’ One of the newcomers was quite near us and we couldn’t help but overhear the following conversation with a neighboring housewife.

 

“You looking for work?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“How much do you charge?”

“I’ll take what you will give me…”

What was this? Could the girl have needed work that badly? Probably. She did look run down at the heels…

 

“All right. Come on. I’ll give you a dollar.” Cupidity drove beauty from the arrogant features.

The woman literally dragged her “spoil” to her den.[7]

 

…But what of the girl? Could she possibly have known was she was letting herself in for? Did she know how long she would have to work for that dollar or what she would have to do? Did she know whether or not she would get lunch or care fare? Not any more than we did. Yet, there she was, trailing down the street behind her “mistress.”

 

“You see,’ philosophized the friendly soul. “That’s what makes it bad for the rest of us. We got to do something about those girls. Organize them or something.” The friendly soul remained complacent on her up-turned box. Our guess was that if the girls were organized, the incentive would come from some place else.

 

Business in the “market” took on new life. Eight or ten girls made satisfactory contacts. Several women – and men – approached us, but our price was too high or we refused to wash windows or scrub floors. We were beginning to have a rollicking good time when rain again dampened our heads and clothes. We again sought the friendly five-and-ten doorway….

 

Miniature Economic Battlefront

The real significance of the Bronx Slave Market lies not in a factual presentation of its activities; but in focusing attention upon its involved implications. The “mart” is but a miniature mirror of our economic battlefront.

 

To many, the women who sell their labor thus cheaply have but themselves to blame. A head of a leading employment agency bemoans the fact that these women have not “chosen the decent course” and declares: “The well-meaning employment agencies endeavoring to obtain respectable salaries and suitable working conditions for deserving domestics are finding it increasingly difficult due to the menace and obstacles presented by the slavish performances of the lower types of domestics themselves, who, unlike the original slaves who recoiled from meeting their masters, rush to meet their mistresses.”

 

The exploiters, judged from the districts where this abominable traffic flourishes, are the wives and mothers of artisans and tradesmen who militantly battle against being exploited themselves, but who apparently have no scruples against exploiting others.

 

The general public, though aroused by stories of these domestics, too often think of the problems of these women as something separate and apart and readily dismisses them with a sign and shrug of the shoulders.

 

The women, themselves present a study in contradictions. Largely unaware of their organized power, yet ready to band together for some immediate and persona gain either consciously or unconsciously, they still cling to that American illusion that any one who is determined and persistent can get ahead.

 

The roots, then of the Bronx Slave Market spring from: (1) the general ignorance of and apathy toward organized labor; (2) the artificial barriers that separate the interest of the relief administrators and investigators from that of their “case loads,” the white collar and professional worker from the laborer and the domestic; and (3) organized labor’s limited concept of exploitation, which permits it to fight vigorously  to secure itself against evil, yet passively or actively aids and abets the ruthless destruction of Negroes.

 

To abolish the market once and for all, these roots must be torn away from their sustaining soil. Certain palliative and corrective measures are not without benefit. Already the seeds of discontent are being sown.

 

The Women’s Day Workers and Industrial League…has been, and still, a force to abolish the existing evils in day labor.[8] Legitimate employment agencies have banded together to curb the activities of the racketeer agencies and are demanding fixed minimum and maximum wages for all workers sent out. Articles and editorials recently carried by the New York Negro press have focused attention on the existing evils in the “slave market.”

 

An embryonic labor union now exists in the Simpson Ave “mart.” Girls who persist in working for less than thirty cents an hour have been literally run off the corner…

 

 

 

[1] Ella Baker and Marvel Cooke, “The Bronx Slave Market,” originally published in The Compass, November 1935.

[2] African American photographer Robert McNeill documented the Bronx “market” found up and down Jerome Avenue. The photographs are now part of the collection at the Museum of Modern Art.

[3] What does she mean by this?

[4] “The rich eighties” refers to street numbers on the very exclusive Upper West Side of Manhattan. Long Island and Westchester are affluent suburbs of New York City.

[5] Plantation mistress in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book about the horrors of slavery.

[6] First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

[7] Cupidity means greed for money and material wealth.

[8] The League for Industrial Democracy formed in 1905 by several members of the newly formed Socialist Party of America – Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle (we read an excerpt from this a few weeks ago), served as the first Chairperson. By the 1920s, the League focused on supporting Union organizing and labor rights in the US and Europe. In 1960, students at the University of Michigan changed the League’s name to Student for a Democratic Society, but within a few years, internal disagreements about the focus of SDS led to a split between the League of Industrial Democracy and Students for a Democratic Society. Both LID and SDS are still active organizations. The first International Women’s Day was organized by women in the Socialist Party of America in 1910 to protest the lack of suffrage and equality in the US and around the globe. The more recent Women’s Marches in 2016 and 17 are not related to the earlier IWD marches, although many of the inequalities women protested in 2017 were the same as 1910.

Fanny Hill's Wartime Experience

A female, African American worker wearing a head scarf sits on top of the aircraft she is building
Riveter at Lockheed Aircraft Corp., Burbank, CA

Fanny Hill's Wartime Experience

 

Fanny Christina Hill was born in Hempstead, Texas in 1918. Her father, a struggling farmer, died when she was young, leaving Hill’s 30-year-old mother alone to care for five children. Her mother worked as a domestic laborer for a white family, although the onset of the Great Depression, which Hill dates in the interview to 1926, when the agricultural economy began to collapse. During the Great Depression, Hill and her sister worked various domestic services jobs throughout Texas. By 1940, Hill and her sister had saved enough money working in Tyler, Texas, to relocate to Los Angeles, California. Los Angeles was a major destination for African Americans from Texas and Louisiana[1].

 

 

I left Tyler. I was saying, "I don't like it here because you can't make any money." I discovered I didn't have any trade. I had nothing I could do other than just that, and that wasn't what I wanted. So I decided I'd better get out of this town. I didn't like Dallas because that was too rough. Then someone told me, "Well, why don't you try California?" So then I got Los Angeles in my mind. I was twenty and I saved my money till I was twenty-one. In August 1940, I came here.

 

I knew I would make it. I was determined that whatever I would do, I was going to do it well. I

was going to make it because I had to make it. There was no turning around…When I first came, when my aunt met me down at the station, I had less than ten dollars. I went on to her house and stayed. In less than ten days I had found a job living on the place doing domestic work. I stayed there from sometime in August until Christmas. I was making thirty-five dollars a month. That was so much better than what I was making at home, which was twelve dollars a month. I saved my money and I bought everybody a Christmas present and sent it. Oh, I was the happiest thing in the world!

 

…I liked to go on outings a lot. So when I first came to California, when I'd have my day off, I'd go to the parks and to the beach and museum. Just go sightseeing; walking and look in the windows. Sometimes my aunt would go along with me or I'd find another girlfriend. But then I had a sister here pretty soon. Los Angeles was a large city but I adjusted to it real well. It didn't take me long to find a way about it. I knew how to get around, and I knew how to stay out of danger and not take too many chances. I read the Eagle and I still get the Sentinel once in a while.[2] I have to get it to keep up with what the black people are doing. I used to read those papers when I was a child back home. That's what give me a big idea. I used to read a little paper called the Kansas City Call, and they had a Pittsburgh Courier that all the Negroes read.

 

Anyhow, then I decided I wanted to get married (she returns to Texas to marry) … But I knew I was only going to Texas to marry, and then I was going to persuade him to come back to Los Angeles. I stayed there for about nine months until he went into the service. Then I came to Los Angeles. I told my sister, "Well, I better get me a good job around here working in a hotel or motel or something. I want to get me a good job so when the war is over, I'll have it." And she said, "No, you just come on out and go in the war plants and work and maybe you'll make enough money where you won't have to work in the hotels or motels." Well, I was very good on taking advice from another person. And what I liked about it was the money. I felt like if I could make more money, I could do more with it.

 

Hill returned to Los Angeles in 1943, and applied at North American Aviation, which was located close to the heart of the black community living in South Central Los Angeles. Both because of its location and because of the pressure placed on it by the United Auto Workers union and the local civil rights groups, North American had a higher proportion of black workers than any other aircraft plant.

 

I don't remember what day of the week it was, but I guess I must have started out pretty early that morning. When I went there, the man didn't hire me. They had a school down here on Figueroa and he told me to go to the school[3]. I went down and it was almost four o'clock and they told me they'd hire me. You had to fill out a form. They didn't bother too much about your experience because they knew you didn't have any experience in aircraft. Then they give you some kind of little test where you put the pegs in the right hole.

 

There were other people in there, kinda mixed. I assume it was more women than men. Most of the men was gone, and they weren't hiring too many men unless they had a good excuse. Most of the women was in my bracket, five or six years younger or older. I was twenty-four. There was a black girl that hired in with me. I went to work the next day, sixty cents an hour. I think I stayed at the school for about four weeks. They only taught you shooting and bucking rivets and how to drill the holes and to file. You had to use a hammer for certain things. After a couple of whiles, you worked on the real thing. But you were supervised so you didn't make a mess.

 

When we went into the plant, it wasn't too much different than down at the school. It was the same amount of noise; it was the same routine. One difference was there was just so many more people…I was a good student, if I do say so myself. But I have found out through life, sometimes even if you're good, you just don't get the breaks if the color's not right. I could see where they made a difference in placing you in certain jobs. They had fifteen or twenty departments, but all the Negroes went to Department 17 because there was nothing but shooting and bucking rivets. You stood on one side of the panel and your partner stood on this side, and he would shoot the rivets with a gun and you'd buck them with the bar. That was about the size of it. I just didn't like it. I didn't think I could stay there with all this shooting and a'bucking and a'jumping and a'bumping. I stayed in it about two or three weeks and then I just decided I did not like that. I went and told my foreman and he didn't do anything about it, so I decided I'd leave.

 

I went over to the union and they told me what to do. I went back inside and they sent me to another department where you did bench work and I liked that much better. You had a little small jig that you would work on and you just drilled out holes. Sometimes you would rout them or you would scribe them and then you'd cut them with cutters. I must have stayed there nearly a year, and then they put me over in another department, "Plastics." It was the tail section of the B-Bomber, the Billy Mitchell Bomber[4]. I put a little part in the gunsight. You had a little ratchet set and you would screw it in there. Then I cleaned the top of the glass off and put a piece of paper over it to seal it off to go to the next section. I worked over there until the end of the war. Well, not quite the end, because I got pregnant, and while I was off having the baby the war was over.

 

Fanny Hill and her sister moved to the South-Central Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts, one of the few places where African Americans could buy property. Neighboring Compton remained all-white until the 1955 Shelly v. Kraemer Supreme Court decision which ruled housing covenants unconstitutional.

 

…Negroes rented rooms quite a bit.  It was a wonderful thing, 'cause it made it possible for you to come and stay without a problem. My sister and I was rooming with this lady and we was paying six dollars a week, which was good money, because she was renting the house for only twenty-six dollars a month. She had another girl living on the back porch and she was charging her three dollars. So you get the idea.

 

…I started working in April and before Thanksgiving, my sister and I decided we'd buy a house instead of renting this room. The people was getting a little hanky-panky with you; they was going up on the rent. So she bought the house in her name and I loaned her some money. The house only cost four thousand dollars with four hundred dollars down. It was two houses on the lot, and we stayed in the little small one-bedroom house in the back. I stayed in the living room part before my husband came home and she stayed in the bedroom. I bought the furniture to go in the house, which was the stove and refrigerator, and we had our old bedroom sets shipped from Texas. I worked the day shift and my sister worked the night shift (Hill’s sister worked at Douglas Aircraft). I worked ten hours a day for five days a week. Or did I work on a Saturday? I don't remember, but I know it was ten hours a day. I'd get up in the morning, take a bath, come to the kitchen, fix my lunch -- I always liked a fresh fixed lunch -- get my breakfast, and then stand outside for the ride to come by. I always managed to get someone that liked to go to work slightly early. I carried my crocheting and knitting with me.

 

…Then we'd work and come home. I was married when I started working in the war plant, so I wasn't looking for a boyfriend and that made me come home in the evening. Sometimes you'd stop on the way home and shop for groceries. Then you'd come home and clean house and get ready for bed so you can go back the next morning. Write letters or what have you. I really wasn't physically tired.

 

Recreation was Saturday and Sunday. But my sister worked the swing shift and that made her get up late on Saturday morning, so we didn't do nothing but piddle around the house. We'd work in the garden, and we'd just go for little rides on the streetcar. We'd go to the parks, and then we'd go to the picture show downtown and look at the newsreel: "Where it happens, you see it happen." We enjoyed going to do that on a Sunday, since we was both off together.

 

Joseph Hill had been stationed in northern California and returned home in January 1944, and their only child, Beverly, was born the following year.

 

Some weeks I brought home twenty-six dollars, some weeks sixteen dollars. Then it gradually went up to thirty dollars, then it went up a little bit more and a little bit more. And I learned somewhere along the line that in order to make a good move you gotta make some money. You don't make the same amount every day. You have some days good, sometimes bad. Whatever you make you're supposed to save some. I was also getting that fifty dollars a month from my husband and that was just saved right away. I was planning on buying a home and a car. And I was going to go back to school. My husband came back, but I never was laid off, so I just never found it necessary to look for another job or to go to school for another job.

 

I was still living over on Compton Avenue with my sister in this small little back house when my husband got home. Then, when Beverly was born, my sister moved in the front house and we stayed in the back house. When he came back, he looked for a job in the cleaning and pressing place, which was just plentiful. All the people had left these cleaning and pressing jobs and every other job; they was going to the defense plant to work because they was paying good. But in the meantime he was getting the same thing the people out there was getting, $1.25 an hour. That's why he didn't bother to go out to North American. But what we both weren't thinking about was that they did have better benefits because they did have an insurance plan and a union to back you up. Later he did come to work there, in 1951 or 1952.

 

I worked up until the end of March and then I took off. Beverly was born the twenty-first of June. I'd planned to come back somewhere in the last of August. I went to verify the fact that I did come back, so that did go on my record that I didn't just quit. But they laid off a lot of people, most of them, because the war was over. It didn't bother me much -- not thinking about it jobwise. I was just glad that the war was over. I didn't feel bad because my husband had a job and he also was eligible to go to school with his GI bill[5].

 

I went and got me a job doing day work…When North American called me back, was I a happy soul! I dropped that job and went back. That was a dollar an hour. So, from sixty cents an hour, when I first hired in there, up to one dollar. That wasn't traveling fast, but it was better than anything else because you had hours to work by and you had benefits and you come home at night with your family. So it was a good deal. It made me live better. I really did.

 

But they had to fight. They fought hand, tooth, and nail to get in there. And the first five or six Negroes who went in there, they were well educated, but they started them off as janitors. After they once got their foot in the door and was there for three months -- you work for three months before they say you're hired -- then they had to start fighting all over again to get off of that broom and get something decent. And some of them did.

 

But they'd always give that Negro man the worst part of everything. See, the jobs have already been tested and tried out before they ever get into the department, and they know what's good about them and what's bad about them. They always managed to give the worst one to the Negro.

The only reason why the women fared better was they just couldn't quite give the woman as tough a job that they gave the men. But sometimes they did.

 

…There were some departments, they didn't even allow a black person to walk through there let alone work in there. Some of the white people did not want to work with the Negro. They had arguments right there. Sometimes they would get fired and walk on out the door, but it was one more white person gone. I think even to this very day in certain places they still don't want to work with the Negro. I don't know what their story is, but if they would try then they might not knock it.

 

But they did everything they could to keep you separated. They just did not like for a Negro and a white person to get together and talk. Now I am a person that you can talk to and you will warm up to me much better than you can a lot of people. A white person seems to know that they could talk to me at ease. And when anyone would start -- just plain, common talk, everyday talk -- they didn't like it…And they'd keep you from advancing. They always manage to give the Negroes the worst end of the deal.

 

…I happened to fall into that when they get ready to transfer you from one department to the next. That was the only thing that I ever ran into that I had to holler to the union about. And once I filed a complaint downtown with the Equal Opportunity.

 

The way they was doing this particular thing -- they always have a lean spot where they're trying to lay off or go through there and see if they can curl out a bunch of people, get rid of the ones with the most seniority, I suppose. They had a good little system going. All the colored girls had more seniority in production than the whites because the average white woman did not come back after the war. They thought like I thought: that I have a husband now and I don't have to work and this was just only for the war and blah, blah, blah. But they didn't realize they was going to need the money. The average Negro was glad to come back because it meant more money than they was making before. So we always had more seniority in production than the white woman.

 

All the colored women in production, they was just one step behind the other. I had three months more than one, the next one had three months more than me, and that's the way it went. So they had a way of putting us all in Blueprint. We all had twenty years by the time you got in Blueprint and stayed a little while. Here come another one. He'd bump you out and then you went out the door, because they couldn't find nothing else for you to do -- so they said. They just kept doing it and I could see myself: "Well, hell, I'm going to be the next one to go out the door!"

 

So I found some reason to file a grievance. I tried to get several other girls: "Let's get together and go downtown and file a grievance" [a discrimination complaint with the Equal Opportunities Employment Commission]. I only got two girls to go with me. That made three of us. I think we came out on top, because we all kept our jobs and then they stopped sending them to Blueprint, bumping each other like that. So, yeah, we've had to fight to stay there.

 

…When I bought my house in '49 or '48, I went a little further on the other side of Slauson, and I drove up and down the street a couple of times[6]. I saw one colored woman there. I went in and asked her about the neighborhood. She said there was only one there, but there was another one across the street. So I was the third one moved in there. I said, "Well, we's breaking into the neighborhood."

 

I don't know how long we was there, but one evening, just about dusk, here comes this woman banging on my door. I had never seen her before. She says, "I got a house over here for sale, you can tell your friends that they can buy it if they want to." I thought to myself, "What in the hell is that woman thinking about?" She was mad because she discovered I was there. Further down, oh, about two streets down, somebody burned a cross on a lawn…

 

Working at North American was good. I did make more money and I did meet quite a few people that I am still friends with. I learned quite a bit. Some of the things, I wouldn't want to go back over. If I had the wisdom to know the difference which one to change and which one not to, I would. I would have fought harder at North American for better things for myself.

 

I don't have too many regrets. But if I had it to do over again, if I had to tamper with page one, I would sure get a better education. I would never have stopped going to school. I took several little classes every so often -- cosmetology, photography, herbs. For a little while, I did study nursing. I would have finished some of them. I would have went deeper into it.

 

We always talking about women's lib and working. Well, we all know that the Negro woman was the first woman that left home to go to work. She's been working ever since because she had to work beside her husband in slavery -- against her will. So she has always worked. She knows how to get out there and work. She has really pioneered the field. Then after we've gotten out here and proved that it can be done, then the white woman decided: "Hey, I don't want to stay home and do nothing." She zeroed in on the best jobs. So we're still on the tail end, but we still back there fighting.

 

 

[1] Fanny Christina Hill, interviewed by Jan Fisher, June and July, 1980, and February, 1981, as part of the

 the Rosie the Riveter Oral History Project at the University of California, Berkeley.

[2] The California Eagle and the Los Angeles Sentinel were local black newspapers

[3] Figueroa Street.

[4] William (Billy) Mitchell was a US Army General credited as the founder of the Air Force. The B-52 bomber used during WWII was nicknamed the Billy bomber in honor of him.

[5] The Serviceman’s Readjustment act, passed in 1944, guaranteed a variety of benefits to veterans, including healthcare, low-interest mortgages, and free college.

[6] Hill moved to neighboring Compton.

Image: U.S. Department of Labor, Women's Bureau. (1940-45) Riveter at Lockheed Aircraft Corp., Burbank, CA. National Archives. Retrieved from https://catalog.archives.gov/id/522880

Charles Kikuchi on Life in a Japanese Internment Camp

Charles Kikuchi on Life in a Japanese Internment Camp[1]

 

 

 

 

 

 

During the war years, the rise of defense industries triggered a massive social migration. Millions left rural areas and moved to cities seeking defense jobs. While this population shift made Americans more cosmopolitan, it also generated social tensions as migrants competed for jobs and housing. In 1943 alone, forty- seven cities reported racial clashes. The bloodiest occurred in Detroit, where a June riot left thirty-four people dead and two million dollars in property damage. The following month, hostilities between white servicemen and Latino pachucos (youth gang members) degenerated into four days of violence in Los Angeles.

 

The internment of 112,000 Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast was the era's most notorious racial incident. California had a long history of intolerance toward Asians and Asian Americans. Unlike Italian Americans or German Americans, Japanese Americans were a relatively small and isolated community focused in three states. Following the Pearl Harbor attack, fears of Japanese subversion and racism fueled popular demands that "Japs" be imprisoned. In February 1942, despite the fact that not a single Japanese-American had been found guilty of disloyalty or espionage, Franklin Roosevelt succumbed to political pressure and issued Executive Order 9066. The directive forced Japanese Americans living in California, Oregon, and Washington to live in relocation camps for the duration of the war. The decision outraged Japanese Americans, more than two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens. Receiving only seventy-two

hours’ notice, they were forced to sell their property and possessions at very discounted prices and then report to internment centers scattered throughout the West.

 

Armed guards patrolled the camps and living conditions were usually poor. Ironically, the order did not apply to Hawaii, the U.S. territory with the highest percentage of Japanese Americans. Weaknesses in the relocation policy became apparent. A shortage of agricultural workers prompted the government to release several internees almost immediately. Private humanitarian groups secured the release of hundreds of young people by offering them college scholarships or vocational training. Thousands of Japanese-American men got out of the camps by enlisting in armed services. Although the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the internment policy in Hirabayashi v. United States (1943) and Korematsu v. United States (1944), the government began releasing internees as wartime hysteria subsided. In 1988, the U.S. Congress issued an apology and awarded $20,000 to each of the 80,000 survivors of the relocation program. In these diary excerpts,

 

Charles Kikuchi, an American-born child (Nisei) of Japanese immigrants (Issei), documents his internment at Tanforan, a relocation center in Sun Bruno, California. In 1943, Kikuchi was released from the camp in order to participate in a work program in Chicago.

 

 

April 9, 1942, Berkeley

Japanese Town certainly looks like a ghost town. Al the stores are closed, and the windows are bare except for a mass of “evacuation sale” signs. The junk dealers are a roman holiday, since they can have their cake and eat it too. It works like this! They buy cheap from the Japanese leaving and sell dearly to the Okies coming in for defense work. Result, good profit.

 

April 30, 1942, Berkeley

Today is the day that we are going to get kicked out of Berkeley. It certainly is degrading. I am down here in the control station, and I have nothing to do so I am jotting down these notes! The Army Lieutenant over there doesn’t want any of the photographers to take pictures of these miserable people waiting for the Greyhound bus because he thinks that the American public might get a sympathetic attitude towards them.

 

I’m supposed to see my family at Tanforan as Jack told me to give the same family number. I wonder how it is going to be living with them as I haven’t done this for years and years? I should have gone over to San Francisco and evacuated with them, but I had a last final to take.[2] I understand that we are going to live in the horse stalls. I hope that the army has the courtesy to remove the manure first.

 

This morning I went over to the bank to close my account and the bank teller whom I have never seen before solemnly shook my hand and said, “Goodbye, have a nice time.” I wonder if that isn’t the attitude of the American people? They don’t seem to be bitter against us, and I certainly don’t think I am any different from them…Mitch just came over to tell us that I was going on the last bus out of Berkeley with him. Oh how lucky I am!...

 

The Church people around here seem so nice and full of consideration saying “can we store your things?” “Do you need clothes?” “Sand you,” the Issei smile even now though they are leaving with their hearts full of sorrow. But the Nisei around here seem pretty bold and their manners are brazen. They are demanding service. I guess they are taking advantage of their college educations after all. “The Japs are leaving, hurrah! Hurrah!” some little kids are yelling down the streets but everybody ignores them. Well, I have to go up to the campus and get the results of my last exam and will barely be able to make it back here in time for the last bus. God, what a prospect to look forward to living among all those Japs!

 

May 3, 1942, Sunday

The whole family pitched in to build our new home at Tanforan. We raided the Clubhouse[3] and tore off the linoleum from the bare table and put it on our floor…

 

There are still many problems to be solved such as heating, cleaner dishes, more variety of foods, recreational and other social problems but they will most likely be settled in time.

 

I saw a soldier in a tall guardhouse near the barbed wire fence and did not like it because it reminds me of a concentration camp. I am wondering what the effects will be on the Japanese so cut off from the world like this. Within the confines of Tanforan our radios and papers are the only touch with reality. I hardly know how the war is going now, and it is so significant that the Allied forces win even though that will not mean that democracy will by any means be perfect or even justified. The whole post war period is going to be something terrific. Sometimes I feel like a foreigner in this camp hearing so much Japanese although our family use English almost exclusively.

 

May 4, 1942, Monday

There are such varied reactions to the whole thing: some are content and thankful; others gush “sank you” but are full of complains within their own circles. Still others are bolder and come right out with it. We thought we would not have any dinner tonight because the cooks went on a strike. They really are overworked – preparing 300 meals. Then there have been considerable “personality difficulties.” The battle for prestige here is terrific – everyone wants to be somebody, it seems – any kind of work will do as long as they get the official badges that distinguish them…

 

Oh, I sure could go for a hamburger now: the big juicy kind. I’ve eaten so much canned food the past week that it becomes tasteless. Many of the boys ae worried about being fed saltpeper[4] because they think it will ruin their manhood.

 

A contrasting reaction is the number of victory gardens that are being planted: these industrious Japanese! They just don’t seem to know how to take it easy – they’ve worked so hard all of their lives that they just can’t stand idleness – or waste. They are so concerned that water is not left running or that electricity is not being wasted.

 

May 8, 1942, Friday

…A lot of Nisei kids come in and mix their Japanese in with their English. Now that we are cut off from the Caucasian contacts, there will be a greater tendency to speak more and more Japanese unless we carefully guard against it. Someday these Nisei will once again go out into the greater American society and it is so important that they be able to speak English well – that’s why education is so important. I still think it is a big mistake to evacuate all the Japanese. Segregation is the least desirable thing that could happen and it certainly is going to increase the problem of future social adjustments. How can we expect to develop Americanization when they are all put together with the stigma of disloyalty pointed at them? I am convinced that the Nisei could become good Americans, and will be, if they are not treated with much suspicion. The presence here of all those pro-Japan Issei certainly will not help things out any…

 

May 10, 1942, Sunday

…As far as I am concerned, I don’t like the reasons why we are put here, but I am finding it interesting so far. I don’t know how I will feel a month from now though. But I haven’t got so much service in years. The girls make the beds and clean house. I don’t have to do my laundry; Mom darns my socks and my shirts are ironed. I don’t have to wash dishes or cook’ in fact I am getting all-around service without worrying about finances like I did when I went to school last term. I lived on about $25.00 a month budget and had to skimp like hell to make it; here I bet it costs the government a lot more per month for my upkeep. But then – all this still doesn’t compensate for my liberty and freedom of movement from place to place…The more Americanized Nisei are finding adjustment a bit more difficult. They are more aware of the motives behind the evacuation and can’t take it so easily as some of the others…

 

May 11, 1942, Monday

…There was a terrific rainstorm lass night and we have had to wade through the ‘slush alleys” again. Everyone sink up to the ankles in mud. Some trucks came in today with lumber to build new barracks, but the earth was so soft that the truck sank over the hubs and they had a hell of a time pulling it out. The Army certainly is rushing things. About half of the Japanese have already been evacuated from the restricted areas in this state. Manzanar, Santa Anita, and Tanforan will be the three biggest centers. Now that San Francisco has been almost cleared, the American Legion, the Native Sons of the Golden West, and the California Joint Immigration Committee are filing charges that the Nisei should be disfranchised because we have obtained citizenship under false pretenses, and that “we are loyal subjects of Japan” and therefore should never have been allowed to obtain citizenship. This sort of thing will gain momentum and we are not in a very advantageous position to combat it. I get fearful sometimes because this sort of hysteria will gain momentum…I think that they are stabbing us in the back that there should be separate concentration camp for these so-called Americans. They are a lot more dangerous than the Japanese in the US every will or have been…

 

July 8, 1942

…I keep saying to myself that I must view everything intellectually and rationally, but sometimes I feel sentiments compounded of blind feelings and irrationality. Here all my life I have identified my every act with American but when the war broke out I suddenly find that I won’t be allowed to become an integral part of the whole in these times of national danger. I find I am put aside and viewed suspiciously. My set of values gets twisted; I don’t know what to think. Yes, an American certainly is a queer thing. I know what I want, I think, yet it looks so beyond my reach at times, but I won’t accept defeat. Americanism is my only solution and I may even get frantic about it if thwarted. To retain my loyalty to my country, I must also retain my family loyalty or what else do I have to build upon? So I can’t be selfish and individualistic to such a strong degree. I must view it from either angle and abide by the majority decision. If I am to be in a camp for the duration, I may as well have the stabilizing influence of my family…

 

August 17, 1942, Monday, 8:00

…There are so many interesting people in camp. They are Americans! Sometimes they may say things that arise out of their bewildered feelings, but they can’t throw off the environmental effects of the American way of life which is ingrained in them. The injustices of evacuation will someday to light. It is a blot upon our national life – like the Negro problem, the way labor gets kicked around, the unequal distribution of wealth, and a multitude of things. It would make me dizzy just to think about them now.

 

 

[1] Except and introduction from Laura Belmonte, Speaking of America: Readings in US History, Vol II Since 1865, second edition (New York: Centage Publishing, 2006). Original source: Charles Kikuchi, The Kikuchi Diary: Chronicle from an American Concentration Camp; The Tanforan Journals of Charles Kikuchi, ed. John Model. (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1973)

[2] Kikuchi was studying social work at the University of California, Berkeley.

[3] Tanforan had been a horse racing park hurriedly converted into a relocation center.

[4] Potassium nitrate.