While looking through some of the newspaper clippings and photos that my grandmother Jessie saved from the early 1900s, I found that I had a photo from a costume dress ball that Jessie described in her diary. On Tuesday, March 7, 1916 she wrote, “To-night will long be remembered as one of the most wonderful times I ever had in my life. Went to the Chickasaw Guard Fancy Dress Ball. I went with Dr. Coppedge. He was “The Dude” in an orange and black striped suit. I went as “America First” in red, white and blue. Got more compliments to-night than ever before and the whole night seemed like a wonderful dream.” Interesting that my grandmother called her 1916 costume ‘America First.’ This was shortly before America entered the War in Europe and ‘America First’ was a policy and slogan used by President Woodrow Wilson (among other presidents). A few days earlier on March 3, 1916 she ended her diary entry with “Dr. Coppedge called later to ask what sort of a costume I am going to wear to the fancy dress ball. He is going to take me. I racked my brain to-night trying to think of some-thing unusual.” Within four days Jessie (or someone) had made her patriotic costume. As far as Dr. Coppedge’s costume, perhaps it was based on the character ‘Sammy the Dude’ in the 1916 silent film Reggie Mixes In.’
“I love you so much, you dear little Dutch.” My grandmother Jessie used to say this to me and my siblings, and my sister Karen carries on the tradition. While transcribing Jessie’s diary entries, I came upon this exact quote in the entry for March 16, 1915. It turns out that one of Jessie’s serious boyfriends, Doug Brooks, said this to her and it is a quote from a 1915 show called The Clock Shop – A Musical Fantasy. I don’t recall Jessie mentioning this show, but I did make note of some of the more interesting vaudeville shows or movies she saw and wrote about. For example, on March 9 she saw Norma Talmadge in the silent film A Daughter’s Strange Inheritance. The next day (March 10, 1915) Jessie went to a vaudeville show at the Orpheum. She commented that “The sketch Red Kate was certainly strange. It went backwards.” Thursday, March 3, “…went to the picture show, awfully spooky pictures such as Snatched from a Burning Death.”
One week in April 1915 Jessie saw three entertainment legends. “Had a date with Coach to-night. We went to see the Hypocrites. It is supposed to be the most wonderful picture ever shown. It was certainly marvelous. I was rather shocked myself at the nakedness of truth. We went from the sublime to the ridiculous and went to another picture show to see Charles Chaplin in The Tramp. He was a scream from beginning to end.” (Jessie, April 19, 1915) The film Hypocrites was written and directed by Lois Weber (1879-1939). It was quite controversial because of the full nudity of The Naked Truth, as portrayed by a naked Margaret Edwards. Weber’s personal reputation along with her innovative use of editing and double exposure effects convinced those in charge to go ahead and distribute the film. A week later (April 26) Jessie and Wiley saw Fanny Brice in a vaudeville show at the Orpheum.
On May 7, 1915, the British ocean liner Lucitania was sunk by a German submarine killing 1,128 people. This event was important in turning popular sentiment in the U.S and elsewhere against Germany during World War I.
On June 26, 1915, the Memphis Chicks baseball team was drawing in the crowds, including Jessie and her friends, and was for a time in first place. The Southern Association of Minor League Baseball operated in the U.S. from 1901 to 1961. An earlier team, the Memphis Egyptians, had won the Southern Association Pennant in 1903 and 1904, but a Memphis team did not win again until the Memphis Chicks won the Pennant in 1921.
September 15, 1915, Jessie wrote: “Wiley took Clint and me to town, Thompson’s, and got us sandwiches and dough-nuts. They surely tasted good.” According to Historic-Memphis.com, J. R. Thompson opened his first restaurant in Chicago in 1891, was very successful and expanded throughout the U. S. Within 30 years Thompson’s company had become one of the largest self-service lunchroom chains. In 1915, he opened his first restaurant in Memphis at 11 South Main. Thompson stressed cleanliness, nutrition, quality, and low prices. His motto was: “Eat Thompson’s Way for a Better Day.”
Reading a record of day to day life in 1915 Memphis, over two decades before antibiotics were available to the public, I am again reminded how much more fragile life was just 100 years ago. On the 24th of October of that year Wiley was to have had a date with Jessie, but he “…phoned he couldn’t come. His hand is so much worse. They lanced it to-day. Were so afraid it was blood poison. How sorry I am that he is laid up.” Wiley’s hand improved and whatever infection he had, his own immune system beat it. Shortly after Wiley’s episode, what Jessie called the Grippe, or the flu, was beginning to spread among Jessie’s friends. On December 14th she mentioned that Clara had “La Grippe.” On December 15 Doug became ill. Then Wiley came down with the flu on December 20, followed by Sadie and Virginia Yerger on December 22nd. A few years later the Spanish Flu pandedemic of 1918 would kill 50 million people, or 3 to 4% of the world’s population at the time. The outbreaks of influenza in France, the UK, Norway, Germany and the USA in the years 1915 to 1917 may have been early manifestations of the so-called Spanish Flu (Early herald wave outbreaks of influenza in 1916 prior to the Pandemic of 1918 ). That incarnation of the influenza virus was especially deadly for the young and otherwise healthy.
On January 3, 1916, Jessie went to a vaudeville performance at the Orpheum and saw the Marx Brothers. As she says, “The show was dandy. The Four Marx brothers in Home Again were remarkably clever. One could certainly play a harp.”
And finally, lovers. My last post Boyfriends, 1915 left out a very important person – Richard Armistead. As Jessie writes in her diary on January 2, 1916, Richard was her “first real sweetheart.” They started dating in 1909, and in all that time he went with no other girls. Here is the last part of her diary entry for January 2, 1916: “Had a late date with Richard. The dear boy is more in love than ever before. Says he will never change. Every few minutes he says, ‘You know I’m a fool about you.’ He doesn’t talk very much. When I’m with him I’m perfectly happy, forget most every-thing else in the world. He plays the part of a lover so wonderfully. He said, ‘God pity me if it’s possible for me to love you any-more.” I left Richard out of the Boyfriends post because he disappeared from Jessie’s life for months at a time. Then they would go out and Jessie would seem so in love, then they would have a blowup and Jessie would say she never wanted to see him again. There was something that prevented Jessie and Richard from having a consistent romantic relationship, but she never says in her diary what that is. He swore to Jessie that no other woman would ever interest him, and it appears from looking for his death records, that Richard died in 1937 having never married. That’s sad. But I also know that my grandmother Jessie kept Richard’s name card and his picture in a beautiful gold jewelry box that I inherited, and that he gave Jessie for Christmas in 1912.
Jessie had a lot of boyfriends, and by that I mean friends who were boys (or men). She was outgoing and vivacious, related well to men/boys and loved to be around them. Quite possibly it had to do with being the middle sister to two brothers whom she adored. And don’t get me wrong – she had lots of girlfriends too. That’s apparent from her diary. She had a wide circle of friends and didn’t much like to be alone.
When Jessie started dating Wiley Graham in April 1915, she wrote a comment in her diary regarding his looks that caught my eye.
March 25, 1915: “… He is so good looking, it is seldom that I like really good looking boys.”
First of all, Wiley was not quite a boy. I believe he was four years older than Jessie, and for most of 1915 Jessie was 20 years old. And secondly, is that Wiley in the picture above with my grandmother Jessie? I don’t know, but I hope it is since I think this fellow is quite attractive. Of course, he looks attractive in this photograph and with my modern sensibilities. Jessie, however, was attracted to something different. It mattered more to her that the guy she was with be interesting and smart.
For most of 1915 Jessie’s most serious beaux, that is, the men with whom she had a more romantic relationship, were Doug Brooks from Deeson, Mississippi and Wiley Graham from Memphis. But Doug traveled a lot on business, and Wiley was probably frustrated that his proposal of marriage was not taken seriously by Jessie, leaving plenty of time for Jessie to go out with other men (or boys, as she liked to call them).
Here is a small gallery of some of Jessie’s ‘boyfriends’ in 1915.
Is that definitively Doug Brooks? I think so, but I have deduced that from the things I have read in Jessie’s diary and some of the captions in Jessie’s photo album from that time period. As for Edgar Poague, I know from Jessie’s diary that he was a good friend of the Brooks family and was with them quite a lot during the houseparty at the Brooks plantation in Deeson the summer of 1915. Likewise with the identification of Adolph and Alex. Jessie was truly great friends with them both and enjoyed their company, but for her it was not romantic. She identified Adolph in her photo album, and I recognized the pictures from the description she writes of a day Alex, Adolph, she and another girl went ‘kodaking’ in downtown Memphis.
Another of Jessie’s suitors was Coach Sullivan, known as Sully. He was actually the football coach at Central High School, and Swayne’s current football coach. He looks to be quite the catch, nevertheless Jessie just thought of him as a great friend.
We all know that names become fashionable and go out of style. A naming trend that must have been common in Memphis at the time, at least among Jessie and her acquaintances, was names that can be used by either sex, or names that are typically used for one sex being used by the other sex. Jessie herself has a name that has always been a female name in her family’s history, but it can also be a male name when spelled ‘Jesse.’ Here are some people that Jessie knew:
Ethel – She is Jessie’s cousin and was named for her uncle Ethel (who died young) and grandfather Ethel.
Clinton (called Clint) – a girlfriend from Deeson, Mississippi and the sister of one of Jessie’s beaux.
Aunt Jim – I don’t know who this is, but Jessie mentions her from time to time.
Freddy – a girl in Jessie’s circle of friends who has dated….
Blythe – a guy in Jessie’s circle of friends.
Ashley – a guy.
Bernice – a boy Jessie knows in Gates, TN.
Carroll – a Memphis boy that Jessie knows.
There was another interesting naming tradition in Jessie’s family. Her brother Swayne’s given name was his mother’s maiden name, Jessie Gray Swayne. When Swayne married, that tradition was carried on in his family. One of his sons was given the name Davant, his wife’s maiden name.
The first roof top night club in Memphis opened in 1914. It was the Alaskan Roof Garden on top of the Falls Building, Memphis’ tallest building at the time. Quickly it became a favorite place for Jessie and her friends to go dance. The music was great – W.C. Handy and his band played there regularly and premiered St. Louis Blues there in 1914 – and the breezes off the Mississippi River were cool on those sultry summer nights in Memphis.
Many automobile companies lived and died in the early 1900s. Since I like to keep track of all the kinds of cars Jessie rides in, here are a few more that she named:
Lozier – The family car for one of Jessie’s friends, the Lozier was the top of the line in luxury cars from 1900-1915, and for a time was the most expensive car produced in the U.S.
Buick – Jessie talks about her friend Babe’s big 6 cylinder Buick.
Oakland Roadster – From 1909 to 1932 the Oakland Motor Car Co. operated in Pontiac, Michigan. In 1914 the roadsters the company produced were large 6 cylinder vehicles on a 130″ wheel base.
Packard – A luxury automobile produced by the Packard Motor Car Co. of Detroit, MI. Packard autos were produced from 1899 to 1956.
Ford – Ford produced the Model T from 1908 to 1927. It was advertised as a more affordable automobile. Several of Jessie’s friends drove Fords. Coach Sullivan, one of her beaux, must have driven a large Model T because she calls it his “mighty Ford.” Max Sansing can carry several people in his Ford, but Doug (one of her most serious boyfriends) drives a 2-seater.
If you read Jessie’s diaries, you know that she goes to the “moving picture show” a lot, most days in fact and sometimes more than once a day. She loves the movies. In December 1914 and also in January 1915 Jessie remarked that she had gone to see a Keystone Comedy. Mack Sennett founded the Keystone Studios in 1912 in California. He was the originator of the slapstick comedy routines seen in the Keystone Cops films. Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, W.C. Fields, and Carole Lombard, among others, all worked with Mack Sennett at Keystone Studios early in their careers.
And finally, on Sunday, January 10, 1915, Jessie’s brother Swayne, who was two weeks away from turning 17 years old, got his first real job. Jessie wrote in her diary: Swayne decided he wanted to get out in the woods – to go to work. At noon today Mr. Kerr gave him a splendid position – as rodman for a surveyor across the river from Cairo, Ill. Chappy was over all afternoon and we all helped Swayne pack up. He was gone by supper time. Mother just cried and cried, in fact we all did. Sure will miss Swayne, he is always so bright, and he certainly is a sweet good boy. I sure love him.
Here is another ‘slice of life’ posting, cultural tidbits from Jessie’s life in the Spring of 1914.
On April 2nd, 1914, Jessie wrote in her diary that she and her friends ran from school over to Bowers grocery store at noon to buy food for a picnic lunch. They bought pickles, sweet rolls, adnas, fig newtons, Saratoga chips, chocolate cakes, Tit-bits, and candy. I have not found any reference to adnas in my research, so I have no idea what that is. Fig Newtons have been around for a long time, and in fact were first patented and made in 1891. Saratoga chips are the original potato chips invented in 1853 by Chef George Crum at a restaurant in Saratoga Springs, New York. Tit-bits was a general interest magazine with articles, as the sub-title read, “from all the most interesting books, periodicals and contributors in the world.”Jesse Reno in 1859 and Charles D. Seeberger in 1897 are both credited with inventing the escalator. Reno’s 1859 version was powered by steam. Seeberger, with the help of the Otis Elevator Company, entered his invention in the Paris Exhibition of 1900 where it won first prize. At different times both he and Reno sold their patent rights for the escaltor to the Otis Elevator Company. Jessie notes on April 4th that she and her friend Sara “went through all the 10 cent stores & rode the moving stairs or rather ‘escalator’ in the new Kress.”
Family history says that Jessie’s mother was very funny and often cracking jokes. Jessie had a good sense of humor too. One of the final senior assignments in English class was Shakespeare’s Macbeth. On April 28th Jessie wrote, “I read all of Macbeth this afternoon. When I finished I was sure glad for “If ’twere done, then ’tis done and its good if ’twere done quickly.”
Reading Jessie’s diary I am often reminded that driving and riding in a car in the early part of the 20th century could be dangerous. There was no driver’s ed. or driving school. A driving license cost little and people learned to drive on the road. On the evening of April 25th Jessie notes that they got their car out of the shop. The Latham’s Hudson had been in the shop for a while, and must have had some body work done because the auto was repainted dark blue from its original black. Five days later on April 30th Bud wrecked the car again. At around 11:30 that night he was bringing several of his work colleagues home from working late at the bank (or so he told Jessie) and must have been speeding, because the car skidded out of control throwing several of them out of the car and injuring some of them. Jessie was sure that was the end of their Hudson. The running board and the back wheels were ruined, but the Lathams had their car back from the shop again within a couple of weeks.
I am also reminded that everyone’s health was more fragile in the early 1900s before antibiotics, vaccinations, and sanitation improvements. On Mother’s Day (May 10, 1914), another one of Jessie’s friends died. Susie Fleece was her name, and though Jessie didn’t identify the disease, Susie seems to have died of tuberculosis.
Jessie graduated from Central High School in Memphis on June 2, 1914. She received many presents which she lists in her diary on June 1, 2 and 3 – “a perfectly exquisite diamond ring from mother and dad, a silver card case all filled with money, just beautiful, from Aunt Minnie,” many gold pins, a parasol, stationery, gauze fans, silver hat pins, gold dress clasps, slipper buckles, and so on. As Jessie would say, everything imaginable! On June 1, Jessie took part in her senior class play. They performed Endymion, and though she didn’t specify the author, I believe it was an Elizabethan era play by John Lyly (c.1588) based on the Greek myth. The auditorium was packed and according to Jessie they had to turn hundreds of people away as there was not even any standing room available. There were 83 classmates in the production and Jessie was a Dryad. The next day, June 2, Jessie graduated. Her class sang two songs as part of the ceremony, Glory to Isis ( Aida) by Verdi and The Heavens are Telling by Haydn.
This posting is another bit of odds and ends, or what I like to call cultural tidbits from Jessie’s life in late 1913 and early 1914. For example, on Monday, September 8, 1913, Jessie and her date Miller watched the Hagenbeck Circus parade in downtown Memphis. An interesting fact about Carl Hagenbeck, the owner and creator of this circus, is that he “was an animal trainer who pioneered use of rewards-based animal training as opposed to fear-based training.” (Wikipedia)
On November 29, 1913, Jessie was once again out with Miller. They had gone to see “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine” at the Lyceum. Jessie wrote, “Miller bought me a little fairy stone after the show – now can’t nobody talk bad about me.” I had never heard of fairy stones before and this piqued my interest. It turns out there are two kinds of fairy stones. One kind is found only in Georgia and Virginia (where there is a Fairy Stone State Park) and a few other places in the world, and I believe this is probably the kind Jessie got. This stone, which is brownish and is a staurolite crystal, naturally forms a cross, and so of course has many stories, myths and legends connected to it. Check out this blog for more information about the staurolite crystal fairy stones.
The other kind of fairy stone, and the one that intrigues me the most, is the Canadian fairy stone. These rocks are found in northern Quebec and were created as glaciers advanced and then retreated, leaving them on lake and river banks. Known as clay stone glacial concretions, their smooth, rounded, disk-like shapes make them look like little sculptures. The Algonquins found these stones/pebbles on the lake and river banks and kept them as good luck charms. Others they used in their homes to ward off evil spirits and to insure good health and prosperity. Check out this link for more information about these very interesting pebbles.
On February 9, 1914, The old Mercantile Bank of Memphis closed its doors after the president of the bank embezzled enough funds to break the bank. As Jessie said, “So many people lost their money.”
Many things were different back in the 1910s. One of those things was schooling. Jessie turned 19 in December 1913, and she was a senior in high school. According to her diary, she could have skipped her senior year and gone on to college (she was recruited by at least one college), but she chose to stay on for her final year. Reading her diary, it’s hard to believe she is in school. She doesn’t mention it that much (except to complain about going to school), but she does mention going out almost every night of the week. She goes to dances, shows, parties, dinners, etc. etc., and as Jessie points out, “Going out every night sure makes you tired at school the next day.” (Feb. 27, 1914)
Two of Jessie’s best friends, Sara and Sue John, got married in the first few months of 1914, and there were many parties in celebration of those two engagements. On February 28, 1914, Jessie, who was a bridesmaid in Sue John’s wedding, gave a luncheon for her. She had gone to town the previous day and bought favors to give with each course, and most of the favors had a symbolic meaning. Jessie got a little spoon in one of the favors. “That’s the sign I’m the spoonest girl. How perfectly absurd!” The Oxford Dictionary says that a dated and informal meaning of spoon or spooner is “a person kissing and cuddling another person amorously.” Jessie did date quite a few boys! She got another sign from the universe at Sue John’s wedding to Boyd in Covington, Tennessee (March 24, 1914). An old Victorian custom that had mostly died out with the beginning of the 20th century, but evidently was still popular in more rural areas like Covington, had to do with the wedding cake. Typically there were three cakes at the wedding. One was for the guests, the groom had a cake, and the bride had a cake. In the bride’s cake there were little favors baked into the cake, and it was cut and divided between the bridal party. Jessie wrote, “The most dreadful thing happened. I cut the thimble in the wedding cake. ‘Twas awful.” Getting the thimble meant you were destined to never marry. (Spoiler alert! Jessie did eventually get married, but like most of the women in our family, she married rather late.)
On Monday, July 21, 1913, Jessie and about 30 of her friends left on the train for a house party at Moon Lake, Mississippi. It was given by Mary Carr in honor of her visitor, and included 18 boys and 10 girls. They spent three days full of of fun and games, food, ragtime dancing, boating, fishing, and playing pranks on each other, returning to Memphis on Thursday the 24th of July.
*Please remember that you can click on each photo to see a larger version. Captions in quotation marks are Jessie’s.
I get a little thrill when I can match up Jessie’s photos with her diary entries. Here is another example from Jessie’s diary written Saturday, March 22, 1913: “Winnie, Cooper and I were some sports in our silk kimonos and boudoir caps at breakfast this morning. We took more cute pictures. I hope they are good…”
In Jessie’s photo album she titled the following two pictures – “As they look in the morning.”
Glued into Jessie’s album right next to those two pictures are a photo of Dorothy Jane Kerr, who is either a cousin or a close family friend, and a photo of Jessie’s mother, also named Jessie.
On Wednesday, March 19, 1913, Jessie wrote in her diary: “I went to the Orpheum tonight with Elmo – the show was splendid. Saw and heard the talking moving pictures. They were wonderful. This is the first time they have ever been heard. Edison is certainly a wonderful man. You forget it was only pictures you were looking at and would think it was the persons themselves.” Five days later on March 24, 1913, she wrote again: “Went to the Orpheum to-night with William F. Had the talking moving pictures again, ‘The Temptation Scene from Faust.'” Jessie was a witness to one of the earliest public presentations of a moving picture with sound.
The first known public presentation of a projected moving picture with sound was in Paris in 1900. Thomas Edison had been working on this problem of adding sound to moving pictures since the late 1800s. The three basic problems that Edison and the other inventors who were working on this project had were 1) synchronization of the sound with the visual image, 2) amplification of the sound, and finally 3) producing a good high quality recording. In the late 1800s Edison invented the Kinetoscope. This was a device that a single person could look through to see a short moving picture. Edison had also invented a camera which took many pictures rapidly. Running the film of many separate images past a light source created the ‘moving’ picture. This was the same method used in all movies until the invention of video. Around 1913, using belts and pulleys, he devised a way to sync the sound recorded on a cylinder to the film projector, and this was now called the Kinetophone. The resulting films could only last 6 minutes, limited by the size of the cylinder upon which the sound was recorded. February 17, 1913, Edison debuted this new Kinetophone system (click here to see a Kinetophone film from this presentation) at four vaudeville houses in New York City. The audiences loved it! Jessie and her friends loved it when they saw these films one month later in Memphis. Why then did it take until 1927 for The Jazz Singer, the first talkie feature length film, to appear? In the case of the Kinetophone, a projectionist had to carefully keep the sound and visual images synced by the speed of their manual cranking. Most of the time this didn’t work and the results were sometimes hilarious, but finally frustrating and not worth the public’s money. With the start of World War I in Europe and a fire in Edison’s laboratory in 1914 which destroyed all the original recordings, the Kinetophone was finished after only a year. It took 14 more years until the three basic problems of synchronizing the sound and visual images, amplifying the sound so that it could clearly be heard throughout an auditorium, and making high quality sound recordings was solved. By the 1930s the talkies were everywhere.
This comment, that because the crowd started ragging Jessie and her friends felt they should leave the dance, really made me curious. A few months earlier in the year (on July 9, 1912) Jessie wrote: “Went to a picnic supper and dance at Riverside Pk. this evening with Richard in our car… All that ‘raggy’ bunch went. They are the *society* crowd but they sure do rag.” On July 18th she went to another dance and wrote: “…danced until 2 o’clock but later the crowd got a little raggy.” But on July 27th Jessie seemed to do a little ragging herself when she wrote that a bunch of her friends came over to her house. “We took up the rug in the parlor and danced. Had cake, some class. Sure did have a rag-doll party. Had a grand time.” (I am guessing a ‘rag-doll’ party was a ragging party.)
In 1912 and 1913 the craze that was sweeping the country was ragtime dancing. These were simple dances that anyone could pick up without special lessons, dances such as the Turkey Trot, the Bunny Hug, the Grizzly Bear and the Boll Weevil Wiggle. The “animal dances,” as they were called, shocked genteel America because couples danced alone and held each other, sometimes closely. President Woodrow Wilson actually cancelled the inaugural balls for January 1913 to avoid ‘ragging’ dancers creating a scandal. Even the Vatican got involved. Archbishop Henry Moeller announced that Catholics in the Cincinnati diocese who danced the Turkey Trot and other such dances could not be forgiven for their sins. Some cities banned the Turkey Trot and such at all dances. In Spokane they even considered banning the dances in private homes. At least one scholar wrote a book proclaiming that all these dances were imitating sex actions of the ‘lower animals’ and this is what the dancers are thinking of when they dance the Turkey Trot, Fox Trot, Horse Trot, Fish Walk, Dog Walk, Tiger Dance, Buzzard Lope and Boll Weevil Wiggle. But societal changes have a life of their own and everything is connected. Women’s clothing was becoming less restrictive, dating was done in cars and away from the home, and women would soon get the right to vote. The last remnants of the Victorian Age were disappearing and the cultural separation between men and women was becoming a little smaller. The way the dancers held each other and the energetic and almost improvisatory steps to fast, syncopated music fit the times. The ragtime dance craze would fade away with the onset of World War I to be replaced a few years later with the Jazz Age of the Roaring Twenties.