“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.
On March 10, 1911, Jessie and her mother went shopping. Jessie got a tan spring hat, a tan silk pongee coat and a tan silk dress. Of course, I was curious as to what kinds of dresses and hats Jessie might be looking at, and it turns out that this is right at the beginning of a revolution in women’s fashion that is still in effect today. In freeing women from the very restrictive undergarments that had been worn during the Victorian and Edwardian eras, some fashion designers, and especially Paul Poiret (1879-1944), went in the opposite direction. “Requiring less restrictive undergarments and conforming more to the natural shape of the body, Poiret’s designs of 1908–11 are regarded as pivotal in the transition from the rigidly corseted silhouettes of the Victorian and Edwardian eras to styles providing greater freedom and comfort in dress that would characterize twentieth-century fashion.” This from the Metropolitan Museum of Art‘s online exposition on Paul Poiret’s work. Check out this link to view the Metropolitan Museum’s Paul Poiret Collection. Poiret, who was the most important French designer of the first two decades of the 20th century, made clothes that were loose and sometimes draped. Ironic, since he is the designer responsible for the brief fashion craze over hobble skirts. He designed harem pants for women. Unheard of! No doubt Jessie’s new clothes were not designer duds from Paris, but you can see from some of the following images that the empire waistlines were already part of the trend toward less restrictive dresses.
In January 1911, Jessie was 16 years old. She was really past the point of playing with toys too much, but every once in a while she mentioned the big doll. On Christmas Eve Jessie said, “Hung up my stocking and my big doll’s too.” On January 5, 1911, the family spent a quiet evening at home and Jessie “dressed my big doll up pretty.” Since she started writing in her diaries after she received the doll, I don’t know how she got it or from whom. When Jessie had her own daughter (my mother Frances) she gave the doll to her, and when I was a little girl they gave the doll to me. I never had a formal ‘giving’ of the doll to my daughter Jessie, nor did I realize until after my Jessie was grown that I should have taken a photograph of her as a child with the Big Doll. Nevertheless, I’ve done it now! There is now a portrait of Jessie (21st century version) with the Big Doll, and the doll will move into her care eventually. As you can see from the photos, the doll’s hair has changed through the years.
Granny came back home on January 8th. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the house where Jessie and her family lived was Granny’s house. It had been her father’s, Col. E.H. Porter’s, country or farm home. (See the post, Late November 1909) Granny, whose name was Mary Porter Swayne, was Jessie’s maternal grandmother. She seemed to divide her time among all her children and their families, and had just returned home from spending Christmas in Gates. Within a few days Granny fell ill, and 2 weeks from the day she came home, she died, probably from a stroke. She was 77 years old. There really was no good treatment for strokes in the early 1900s. Granny was unconscious most of the time, but a nurse was hired to stay with her, which I am sure was a luxury that many people could not afford. On Monday, January 23, the day after Granny died, they had the funeral at the Old Brick Church (whose land the Porter family had donated many years earlier) and burial at Elmwood in the Swayne family plot. The grandsons were the pallbearers.
On a lighter note, Jessie’s father gave her a chafing dish for Christmas. That seems to have been one of Jessie’s favorite presents, and, in fact, there was a chafing dish craze going on at the time. College students, bachelors, society dames, teenagers, housewives — everybody seemed to use the chafing dish or know someone who did. Chafing dish recipe booklets were published. Perhaps the renaissance of the chafing dish was brought on by the increasing availability of convenience foods, but the chafing dish itself was an ancient method of heating or slow cooking foods and sauces. Welsh rarebit and fudge may have been the most popular dishes fixed in this early 1900s chafing dish craze. Jessie and her friends had many chafing dish parties in which they usually made fudge.
5. Basket ball team or club of which I am “captain”
6. Literary Society of which I am secretary
7. Debating Society
8. Amateur Musical Club.”
Jessie was busy, and as the end of the year holidays and parties approached, her life seemed to speed up. As for the Debating Society, Jessie wrote on November 11, 1910, “The decisions are getting quite monotonous as the affirmative wins every time.” On the day before Thanksgiving 1910, the Debating Society met at the High School for its final debate of the year. The opposing sides would argue either in the affirmative or the negative. The topic: “The Thanksgiving turkey is more important than the Christmas turkey.” Jessie spent the night before plotting the argument for the negative, and was the champion of the evening, winning the judges’ decision.
The next day, Thanksgiving, was an exciting whirl of activity for Jessie. Football games were popular on Thanksgiving, even in 1910. Jessie’s high school team was playing a game and she was chosen as a sponsor for one of the players, and so was in on all the activities for the day. Beginning early in the morning, the players and the sponsors met at the High School and all rode together in a tally ho to the game. After the game they rode in the tally ho all over town giving their “yells.” They ended up at a big supper given by the football team, followed by a show at the Orpheum. No mention of a Thanksgiving turkey with her family. She’s a busy teenager!
Going to musical and theatrical performances, either with friends or her mother, was an important part of Jessie’s life. In early November she saw the famous soprano Bernice de Pasquali, whom she thought “perfectly grand.” About a week later she saw Verdi’s opera Il Trovatore peformed by the Aborn English Grand Opera Co. It was performed in English and Jessie loved it. In December she saw the play The Traveling Salesman with the comedian Frank McIntyre in the leading role. “It was grand… Frank McIntyre was the funniest thing.”
On December 16th, Jessie, her mother, Sara and her mother Mrs. Campbell went to the Fairgrounds to see the return of the Birdmen, as many people called the aviators of the new flying machines. Cosmopolitan magazine called them “Wizards of the air” for their daring feats. One of the aviators who took part in the December Aviation Exposition in Memphis that year was C.K. Hamilton, known to some as “the crazy man of the air.” He was a daredevil and became famous for thrilling the crowds with his stunts. That year in Memphis, Hamilton set a speed record of 79.2 mph, besting his own record of 64.6 mph. Check out this article from General Aviation News for more information about C. K. Hamilton.
December 18, 1910 was Jessie’s 16th birthday. “My birthday! Just think, I am 16 to-day and — never been kissed.” She celebrated by having a dinner party with all her girlfriends. Most of her friends gave her handkerchiefs and books. She received some little gold pins from Swayne and Granny, a book from Bud and a gold necklace from her father. Her mother gave her a pair of blue satin dancing pumps with silk hose, a party hat and a cloak.
Christmas came and went with a swirl of parties and shopping. But when New Year’s Eve came, Jessie turned down all invitations to go out. Instead, her whole family stayed home and welcomed the New Year in.
*Photo credits: Memphis H.S. and High School Annex photos – historic-memphis.com; Il Trovatore – virtualmuseumofcinema.org; Charles K. Hamilton – General Aviation News.
A big event in October in Memphis was the huge production of Jappyland. As Jessie writes in her diary on October 21, 1910, “The cast includes 300 and oh! such acting. They all wore hobble skirts.” My impression is that a small professional cast of actors/singers were augmented by a huge cast of local people. A newspaper clipping about a production in Portland, Oregon in 1913 is headlined Society Folk To Be Seen In Spectacular “Jappyland.” Perhaps something similar happened in Memphis. Jessie and others she knew rehearsed all month for the production, which took place at the Jefferson Theatre on October 28 & 29, 1910. Jessie was a “Geisha maid,” as she put it.
It is very difficult to find, online at least, and from the comfort of my own home, much information about this musical. Jappyland: a Japanese Musical Spectacle. It sounds disrespectful and completely politically incorrect, but we must remember the times. The world was just opening up through faster electronic communications. Airplane travel, which would make the world seem much smaller, was just at its naissance. From the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th century a growing interest in the exotic was expressed in the visual arts (e.g., Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings) and music (e.g., Scheherazade, versions by Rimsky Korsakov and Ravel; the opera Turandot by Puccini). This fascination with the foreign and exotic made its way to the U.S and to our vaudeville and musical formats.
Jessie mentioned that the actresses all wore hobble skirts. Here are some examples.
Another example of exoticism in Alphonse Mucha’s work (and because I like Mucha so much):
I have always wondered what Jessie’s dad, F.S. Latham, did for a living. His father, also F.S. Latham, was a well-known newspaperman in early Memphis, editor of the Memphis Eagle, and later, Postmaster in Memphis. Jessie’s dad was a businessman of some kind, and Jessie wrote in her diary on September 3, 1910, “Went down to Dad’s office and got a great big bottle of olives and watched them make and bottle Gay-Ola. Also sampled it.” On September 6th she wrote, “Walked down to Dad’s office [at] the Gay-Ola Co. and drank *heartily* of Gay-Ola.” Since this is the first time Jessie has ever mentioned her Dad’s office at the Gay-Ola Co., and because Gay-Ola, a brand new soda in competition with Coca Cola, had just started being produced in Memphis, this must have been a new job for Jessie’s dad.
Coca Cola sued the Gay-Ola Co. for copyright infringement. Notice the similar script on the watch fob and the bottle, and the red and white colors of the watch fob. Gay-Ola won the first suit, but eventually was required to change the font of their script.
Later in the month (on the 23rd) Jessie’s Mother took her and her friend Sara to tea at Lowenstein’s Department Store. Tearooms became very popular around the turn of the century as some women had more leisure time.
That same day Jessie had to go to the oculist for glasses for distance vision. She got nose glasses.
The last cultural tidbit I wanted to mention was Elmo’s motorcycle. Elmo was one of Jessie’s regular callers, and what they often did (see September 26, 1910) was ride on Elmo’s motorcyle, or, as Jessie always called it, “moto-cycle.” In print ads they are also called “autocycles.” Jessie loved riding that motorcycle with Elmo!