The Flood of 1912 was one of the worst floods ever documented on the Mississippi River. It was also the first major flood on the Mississippi River to be photographed. Throughout March and especially at the end of the month, Jessie wrote several times in her diary of the rain. On Thursday, March 28, 1912 she wrote: Rain! Rain! Rain! Will it ever stop? Seems as though we have been swimming around for the last month. The River is awful high, highest it’s been in years. In fact, the Mississippi had reached flood stage (35 feet) several days before on March 24th and would not go below that mark for 60 days. There had been a lot of snow that winter in the northern U.S. It suddenly melted, flooding the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Levees all along the River failed. On April 1 a huge chunk of the levee failed at Greenfields Landing, just across the River from Cairo, Illinois. The water from that break covered most of Mississippi County in Missouri. I read that at one point during this flood, the Mississippi River was 60 miles wide in one section. Perhaps this was the area.
The River crested for 3 days (April 6-9) in Memphis at 45.3 feet. Levees on both sides of the River at Memphis failed. Because most of downtown Memphis is built on a bluff overlooking the River, much of the city was spared. But in the lower lying areas as many as 1200 people were driven from their homes, primarily from the flooding of the tributaries. In the northern part of Memphis near the Bayou Gayoso and Wolf River, homes were flooded by as much as 6 feet of water. People were camping out on the tops of levees. African Americans were disproportionately affected by the flood since many of their homes and farms were in these lower lying areas.
Here are a few cultural tidbits from December 1911.
On December 9, Jessie went to hear the Spanish child prodigy pianist Pepito Arriola. He was 13 at the time. Follow this link to a story about Pepito in the February 1910 issue of Etude magazine.
Jessie turned 17 on December 18, and was very busy going out on dates — to dances, card parties, dinners, movies, the theatre, etc., etc. In the 19th century courtship was done at home, in the parlor or on the porch, and under the watchful eyes of parents and siblings. But things changed in the early 20th century, and probably because of the spread of automobiles. Though some courtship took place in the home, for the most part everyone went out for dates.
A couple of days before her birthday, Jessie went to Gray’s photography shop and had pictures made. This photograph of Jessie, which I posted previously on her birthday, was taken at Gray’s and may be one of those photos. She looks about the right age, I think.
I took note of two small gifts Jessie mentioned in her diary. One was a hand painted hat pin holder given to her for Christmas by her good friend Willie Swift. The other gift, a cut glass nappe (or lemon slice plate), Jessie gave as a prize at her ‘Chanticleer’ party on December 29, 1911. The pictures below are examples and not the actual items that Jessie had.
October of 1911 was very pleasant in Memphis. Jessie and her mother spent some time shopping for clothes for the new season, looking especially for a suit, some new boots and a hat. Her brother “Bud” continued to recover from typhoid fever. His temperature seemed to come and go, and for the most part, he stayed at home in bed. Mid-way through the month, however, he was able to get up, dress, and even drive Jessie to school and downtown a couple of times.
Jessie seemed to be enjoying school, maybe a little too much! On Wednesday, October 25th she wrote in her diary, “They have moved all our seats in the study hall, it’s fierce. I have to sit right under the teacher’s nose *all the* time. Makes me bad.” Knowing Jessie as I did as her granddaughter, I’m sure it was because she talked too much! ‘Fierce’ seems to be one of Jessie’s new expressions since she used it a couple of times in her diary around this time.
The last couple of days in October were spent packing and making preparations to move to the Latham’s new home on Overton Park Avenue.
Enjoy these Hallowe’en postcards and photographs from 1911.
In 1911 the Business Men’s Club of Memphis created the first Fall Festival, a 3-day event, September 26-28. On Monday night, September 25th, Jessie and friends “went to town in the machine to see Main Street. It was beautiful, a regular fairyland.” The next day was the opening of the Tri-State Fair, coinciding with the first day of the Fall Festival. Because it was the first day of the fair, children got off school early. Most of them probably went to the afternoon parade celebrating Arts & Industries. On Wednesday there was a parade of the Blue and the Gray, a reunion of old Civil War veterans from both sides who marched together down Main Street. Swayne was a drummer boy in the parade. That was followed by a barbecue in East End Park. Jessie wrote, “Never have I seen so many people down town on one night. The parade was worth it though.” And finally, the last day of the Festival culminated in the grand DeSoto celebration, a historical pageant and parade celebrating the life of the explorer Hernando DeSoto. “It was the most beautiful I ever saw. The floats were all about DeSoto with torches burning on all sides, with fireworks too.”
On September 10, 1911, Jessie mentions that her good friend Sara C. “gave me such a pretty little gold maple leaf, the emblem of Canada.” Sara, whom Jessie often calls Taby or Tab, had recently returned from a trip to Canada.
Egg Creams. Did you know there are no eggs in an egg cream? In the September 30, 1911 entry in her diary, Jessie talks about giving her brother Bud, who is recovering from typhoid fever, an egg cream. This piqued my curiosity. The recipe is actually very simple. Follow this link to watch Martha Stewart preparing a Vanilla Egg Cream.
This posting is a bit of odds and ends — some cultural tidbits of 1911.
On September 7, 1911, Jessie wrote in her journal, “Got some lunch at the Baltimore Dairy. It was grand.” The Baltimore Dairy Lunch was one of the first chain restaurants in the U.S. Founder James A. Whitcomb started the restaurants in the late 1880s in Baltimore and Washington D.C., and within 30 years most big cities had a Baltimore Dairy Lunch. They were quick lunch counters where patrons made their orders and carried their lunch to their seats, one-armed wooden chairs (patented by Whitcomb) that discouraged long, lingering lunches.
Jessie’s older brother Bud (Frank) left Memphis for the University of Tennessee in Knoxville on Monday, September 11, 1911. By the next weekend he was back home with a case of typhoid fever. As the 20th century progressed, cases of typhoid fever became less frequent, thanks to the introduction of vaccines and improvements in public sanitation and hygiene. But in 1911 typhoid outbreaks were still occurring. This was, after all, the decade of Typhoid Mary, a healthy carrier of the pathogen living in New York. She worked as a cook and is thought to have infected 51 people, 3 of whom died. Back in Memphis at the end of September 1911, Bud seems to be recovering.
On September 18, 1911, school starts again in Memphis. Jessie went to Memphis High School. (You can see a picture of Memphis High in my posting of April 20, 2015, Debating Societies, Tally Ho Rides & the Birdmen Return.) This year a new school, the successor to Memphis High, opened and was called Central High School. On September 19, 1911, Jessie notes that “The desks haven’t come yet so we have to sit on the floor in the classrooms. Just like a circus. We cut up to beat the band.”
On September 23, 1911, Jessie, Winnie, Alma and Alta Mai go see the musical or comic opera Madame Sherry at the Lyceum. Jessie can’t get the song Every Little Movementout of her head!
The Lathams bought a new house on Overton Park Avenue and will soon move there. On September 24, 1911 Jessie writes, “Auntie, Swayne & I went out to see our new home on Overton Park Ave. It is beautiful.” The farmhouse where they had been living was Granny Swayne’s house, formerly her father Col. E.H. Porter’s country house. Granny died in early January, so perhaps the Lathams needed or wanted to move so that Granny’s estate could be settled. It is likely that they wanted a smaller and newer home closer to downtown Memphis. Of course I don’t know this since Jessie never wrote about that in her diary. Incidentally, the address written at the top of the photo below is incorrect. Jessie was a very old woman when she went back through many of her old pictures, writing on some of them, and she confused the number with an address from later in her life. The address of the Latham’s soon to be new home was 1759 Overton Park Avenue.
Toward the end of the summer of 1911, Jessie and about 20 friends and relatives went on a riverboat cruise to Arkansas City and back. Jessie’s mother and cousin Mary chaperoned, and for some reason there were only 5 girls on the trip and the rest were boys. The boat was the Kate Adams, a luxury riverboat that ran from Memphis to Arkansas City twice a week. There were three Kate Adams, the last of which burned at dock in Memphis on January 8, 1927. These riverboats were 240 feet long and had staterooms on the upper deck. There was also a large dining/dance hall with electric chandeliers surrounded by a promenade deck. The lower deck was used for storing cotton and other cargo. Memphians called the last Kate Adams, which was built in Pittsburgh in 1898, the “Lovin’ Kate.” According to the diary entries Jessie wrote for August 21-24, 1911, it seems there was a lot of dancing, eating, and merry-making, but not much sleeping.
“Sunday, August 6, 1911: Miss Anna was [not] able to come to S.S. this morning. Was so sorry. Miss Mamie taught us. Went to church. I tried to rest after dinner but in walked Val Williams, then Evan & Billy. I played & they sang. Mil came over and we took lots of Kodak pictures. I declare, Val is so sentimental. As they were leaving in came Everette Holmes — he is so cute. We saw an auto burn up. Everette acted a perfect monkey. E.S. then came. I finally got a little supper. Went to C.E. and church with Evan. He, Mil, Noble B., Billy, L.W. were over. We had a time. More good water-melon and hot tamales. The feast was sure good. It had its effects though.”
A perfectly ordinary day for 16 year old Jessie, but one that she and her friends documented in part with photographs. So we get to see her good friend Mil, a photo of her 13 year old brother Swayne driving the auto, a good look at the Lathams’ automobile, some of Jessie’s other friends and a nice view of their clothing. Most of the photos appear to have been taken outside Jessie’s home. I hope you enjoy this look at a day in the life of Jessie Latham.
On July 19, 1911, Jessie, her mom, Swayne, Bud and Jessie’s friend Kathleen left on a road trip to Mississippi. They were going to Tupelo to visit Antoinette, or Aunt Nettie, a dear friend and college roommate of Jessie’s mother, and to tour Mississippi. Incredibly, they did not have a single flat tire on the trip, but they did have a couple of “narrow escapes.” The roads were terrible, sometimes impassable, and of course there were no motels. The first mishap occurred on the first day, way out in the country in Mississippi. The road was so bad that the car ended up stuck in a ditch. They got help from a family that had a farm nearby who gave them a delicious country dinner, put them up for the night and helped them pull the car out of the ditch the next morning. The family had five children, all Vs: Vera, Vesta, Velma, Victor & Virgil Luke. And finally, on the way back to Memphis near Grand Junction, Tennessee, late at night out in the middle of the woods, the car became hopelessly stuck in the sand. They walked until they found a house. It was a beautiful old colonial home with (as Jessie points out) hand carved woodwork throughout. The very nice people by the name of Pulliam gave them a late dinner, put them up for the night and helped them get the car out of the sand the next morning. Sandwiched in between these events was a lot of family, friends, fun, food and frivolity.
So far Jessie’s summer has been filled with joy-rides in the “machine,” visits to East End Park, band concerts and picnics. Richard Armistead, Jessie’s first boyfriend, is mentioned more frequently in her diaries. He is a year older than Jessie and goes away to school, returning home on holidays and the summer. On June 18, 1911 Jessie makes this cryptic entry: “…Richard came. Sure was glad he got here. We fixed things up a trifle better. There were lots of stars out. I wish I had some-body by the neck. I might forget some things but not others.”
I thought it was interesting that the vaudeville show that Jessie saw at East End Park on June 27th included opera singers (!) and also an apparent Annette Kellerman knockoff, Lottie Mayer, the Diving Venus. She gave a diving exhibition and seems to have worn a swimming costume very similar to Annette Kellerman’s costume with the black tights. Later in July the Oklahoma City Daily Pointer reported: Tights of ‘Diving Venus’ Shocking to Chautauqua, “If the management of Piasa Chautauqua had known what and how little Lottie Mayer, the “Diving Venus,” was going to wear when she gave an exhibition there yesterday, the show would have been canceled and the Piasa Chautauqua would have been saved a shock.”
July 4th included a picnic at Riverside Park given by C.E. (I don’t know what C.E. is, but I believe it may be connected with her church. Jessie goes to C.E. every Sunday evening.) Many of the kids, including Jessie, went down to the park on a boat. In the bottom picture is Miss Anna (on the left) with Jessie (on the right) and some other girls on the boat. She is their Sunday School teacher and also works at the courthouse. All the girls seem to love her.
On March 11, 1911, Jessie wrote in her diary, “Went to the Orpheum with Douglas. It was the best bill that’s been there this year — ‘Twas grand. Antoinette (sic) Kellerman the ‘perfect woman’ was there. She sure was a beaut. Did some classy diving too.” Jessie misspelled her name, probably because she had some very dear family friends named Antoinette. Annette Kellerman was named the “Perfect Woman” reportedly by a Harvard professor who compared the measurements of the Venus de Milo with those of 3000 women, and proclaimed her to be that perfect woman.
She was an amazing woman in many ways. Kellerman (1887-1975) made her name as a swimmer and diver in her home country of Australia. Her parents, both musicians and teachers, were having financial problems, so Annette and her father set off for London. She began to do swimming exhibitions, swimming several miles in the oily Thames, swimming along the English coast from town to town. She went to Europe and did the same, racing 17 men in the Seine and coming in third. In 1905 she became the first woman to attempt to swim the English Channel. She tried and failed 3 times, reportedly saying that she had the endurance but not the strength.
Nevertheless, these attempts brought her great publicity, and she soon came to the States to perform in a giant glass tank in White City, Chicago (a huge amusement park) and the Hippodrome in New York. She performed underwater ballet, something totally new, and became a sensation. Her grace and skill in the water combined with her beauty and personal charisma, as well as the fantasy themes of her productions, eventually made her the highest paid vaudeville star in the U.S.
She also was a pioneer in her silent film career, becoming the first major film star to appear totally nude on screen in A Daughter of the Gods. In one of her films, she choreographed a scene with a large number of actors to perform with her underwater, thus creating the art/sport of synchronized swimming. In 1911 she starred in The Mermaid and became the first screen siren/mermaid with a mermaid costume that she actually swam in. Kellerman made quite a few movies after that with an aquatic theme. She became one of the most powerful women in the silent film industry in the control she exerted over almost every aspect of the films she was in, from script to location to lighting and costumes.
Kellerman also wrote several books on physical fitness and health, but she felt that the most important contribution she made to the world was her invention of the one-piece form-fitting swim suit for women. For hundreds of years women had effectively been banned from swimming because of the bulky and cumbersome attire they were expected to wear. Swimming is very difficult in woolen skirts and pantaloons. At the turn of the 20th century competitive swimming was just becoming popular in Australia, and it was not unusual for women swimmers there to wear the men’s swimming attire – a one-piece jumper with shorts to the mid-thigh and a tank top. This is what Kellerman wore for her swimming and diving exhibitions, and it was shocking to most of the rest of the world. In fact, on a U.S. beach she was arrested for public indecency for wearing such attire. To make her swimsuit more ‘respectable,’ she took a pair of black tights and sewed them to the bottom of the shorts, making the first unitard. This was her famous one-piece swimsuit. Pretty soon all women wanted a form fitting bathing suit. Seeing the demand, and ever an astute business woman, she designed a line of bathing suits with the close fitting short unitard underneath and a close fitting tank top that went to mid-thigh or the knee. These suits became known as Annette Kellermans.
Annette Kellerman was truly an amazing women. An athlete, actress, author, life-long vegetarian, inventor, business woman and visionary, she was an important part of the women’s revolution that was going on at the time – getting the right to vote and freedom from restrictive clothing. Through her career and life, she pushed all women forward toward greater personal responsibility and freedom of choice in all aspects of their lives. There has been much written about Annette Kellerman. For a good introduction to her life, check out the Australian official website page dedicated to Annette Kellerman.