1910 was an exciting year in astronomy. Halley’s Comet was expected to become visible in May of that year after an absence of 75 years, and there was great anticipation of that event, both scientifically and culturally. But something unexpected happened first — the Great Daylight Comet of 1910, so-called because it could be seen in the daylight with the naked eye. First seen by workers in South Africa earlier in January, by the end of January and the beginning of February it was at it’s most impressive display in the Northern Hemisphere. These two black and white pictures were taken at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. The vertically aligned picture was captured on January 28, 1910 by Carl Lampland and Vesto Slipher. Jessie notes in her diary on January 24th and 26th that she saw the comet in Memphis.
Below is a picture of the Daylight Comet of 1910 and Venus, January 27, from Biskra, North Africa, after a drawing by W. B. Gibbs.
December 18, 1909 was Jessie’s 15th birthday. She celebrated by having 7 girls over for dinner, and got lots of nice presents which she lists in the back of her diary:
What I got on my 15th birthday 1909
Silver toilet set (comb, brush, mirror) – Papa; two pair of silk hose, dress, and party – Mamma; book “Little Women” – Granny; box of paper – Swayne; turquoise ring – Ethel; cake – Aunt Lady; silver file – Othella; bottle of perfume – Sallie; hat pin holder – Mildred H.; pretty handkerchiefs – Emma, Sara, & Donna.
Jessie was still in school through December 23rd, although she took half a day off because her brother, Bud, came home from college. On Christmas Eve, as was the tradition, Jessie and her family decorated the Christmas tree, and Jessie hung a stocking for herself and one for her big doll too. Christmas trees were still commonly lit with candles. Electric lights on a string (called a ‘festoon’) had been introduced by General Electric in 1903, but were far too expensive for average people to use. Interestingly, in 1908 insurance companies in the USA tried to have candles on Christmas trees banned because of the many fires they caused.
A phrase that Jessie uses several times on Christmas Day is “have a Christmas tree,” as in “Went to Aunt Sallie’s for dinner and a Xmas tree,” and “Had everybody here at night for a Xmas tree.” Typically in the early 1900s, presents might not be wrapped, and sometimes they were hung on the Christmas tree. I’m guessing that when they had friends or relatives over “for a Xmas tree,” that was an occasion to light the candles on the tree and exchange presents.
On December 29th, 1909, Jessie and two of her best friends (and fellow Merry Maids), Donna and Emma, went downtown and had their picture taken.
Jessie is almost too old to play with toys, so she doesn’t mention many, but on a cold day when all the children were playing inside, she writes that Swayne fixed the Humpty Dumpty Circus. It could have been very similar to this Humpty Dumpty Circus from 1905.
Every once and a while Jessie mentions that her mother has washed her hair. Shampoos were only just becoming available in stores, and liquid shampoo was not invented until 1927. In any case, women might only wash their hair every 3 or 4 weeks. Eggs or egg whites were thought to be excellent cleaning agents for hair, and there were various other potions or tinctures that one could mix up and use for oily or dry hair. In between washes women used a dry shampoo of cornstarch to soak up excess oil, which they brushed out thoroughly with a long soft-bristled brush. Margaret Mixter wrote the book Health and Beauty Hints (1910)
in which she describes ways a woman can enhance and prolong her ‘beauty.’ One tip: “By the time a woman is twenty-five years old she should devote at least ten minutes, night and morning, to massaging her throat under the chin. She may see no reason at that period for massage, but should she take the trouble, by the time she is forty she will not have the hanging “dewlap,” which, more than anything else, proclaims her no longer young.” Hmm… perhaps I should have been massaging!
In the cold weather Jessie and her friends loved to roast marshmallows in the fireplace. When I looked to see when marshmallows were invented, I was surprised to find that the marshmallow candy actually originated in ancient Egypt and was made from a mallow plant which grew in the marshes. Drawing the sap from the roots of the marsh mallow plant, which acted as a thickener and binder, the Egyptians mixed it with eggs or egg whites, honey and nuts to make a medicinal sweet treat that soothed sore throats and mouth ulcers. In the mid-nineteenth century marshmallows were so popular that a quicker way of producing them became necessary. Gelatin replaced the mallow plant sap in the new production method, so all medicinal value of the sweet was lost.
Several of Jessie’s friends were sick in the latter part of November, but Jessie managed to remain healthy. Since a deadly yellow fever epidemic killed around 5,000 people in 1878, Memphis had been gradually undertaking many health reforms. This was still ongoing in 1909 with new city departments created to help improve sanitation and fight infectious disease. Check out the Tennessee4me website for a more in-depth look at the history of Memphis’ work to combat infectious disease.
On November 16th Jessie writes that “granny came home.” Granny’s name was Mary Katherine Porter Swayne and she was Jessie’s maternal grandmother. The house in which Jessie and her family lived was the house Granny had inherited from her father, Col. E.H. Porter. Col. Porter (Jessie’s great-grandfather) had a town house at 3rd and Exchange, but he also had a big house and farm on what was then the outskirts of Memphis. This house and what was left of the farm is where Jessie was born and her family lived. (On the other side of the locket holding the picture of Mary Swayne is a picture of her husband and Jessie’s maternal grandfather, J.T. Swayne.)
Jessie read another Little Colonel book — The Little Colonel’s Holidays. School, music lessons, concerts, and basketball practice took up most of her time. Thanksgiving was especially busy. Although Jessie does not mention a big meal in her diary, she writes that she went to church in the morning, then to a football game between Memphis High School and M.N.S.(?), and finally to the Rhoda Royal Circus at the Auditorium.
*M.H.S. 1908 football team photo credit to the George Whitworth Collection, historic-memphis.com.
On November 1st, Jessie and her mother went to the Bijou to see singer, David Bispham. Mr. Bispham was the first American-born baritone to make an international name for himself. He must have sung at this concert, though Jessie didn’t mention it. But she did remark upon his recitation of Poe’s The Raven, which she thought was “fine.”
Early in November Jessie read The Little Colonel’s House Party (1900) by Annie Fellows Johnston, another offering in The Little Colonel series for children. Jessie and her mother went to the Goodwyn Institute to see the the play Polly of the Circus by Margaret Mayo. Mayo was an actress, a playwright, and later a screenwriter. Polly of the Circus became a silent film in 1917 and was made again in 1932 with Marion Davies and Clark Gable.
Several times in her diaries Jessie mentions that she has gone ‘nutting’ out in the country. Imagine — autumn, the leaves have turned beautiful colors, the sun is warm, and the youngsters are gathering nuts in the the woods — what a lovely scene that must have been!
The last week of October, 1909 was a normal active week for Jessie with school, music lessons, basketball practice, club meetings and parties. MXX (Mystic Twenty) had a Hallowe’en Party at Jessie’s home. The next night the Merry Maids gave a Hallowe’en Party at Mildred Higham’s home. Everyone came as a ghost, but quickly took off their sheets at the party. Too hot, I guess! Trick-or-treating was not yet popular on Halloween, but parties were popular.
The other big event of the week was a visit to Memphis by President William Howard Taft to formally open the new YMCA. Governors of 40 states came to Memphis for the occasion. Taft arrived via the Mississippi River aboard the steamer Oleander. Of course, Jessie was there to see the boats come in and the big parade which followed with the governors and over 200 autos taking part.
One final interesting thing to report for October — Jessie got her permit (October 6, 1909). She is 14 years old, will turn 15 in December, so I am guessing that it is her driving permit.
In 1909 Memphis, going to see a fire was big entertainment, and there seemed to be quite a few of them. It wasn’t until around 1912 that Memphis got its first motorized fire engine, so the horse-drawn steam pumper wagons and ladder wagons were still in use. Large hoses for fire-fighting had been developed in the late 19th century, and fire departments also used chemicals and large extension ladders to help douse fires.
The week of October 18, 1909, seems to have been ‘Shakespeare Week’ in Memphis. Jessie went to two lectures by Shakespearean actor, Frederick Warde. He spoke on “Hamlet” and on “The Wit and Wisdom of Shakespeare’s Fools.” This took place at the Goodwyn Institute, followed later in the week by performances of “Julius Caesar” and “The Merchant of Venice.”
Jessie read “St. Elmo” by Augusta Jane Evans, originally published in 1866. Later in October she began reading “The Little Colonel at Boarding School” (1904). This was one from a series of “Little Colonel” books. The character became popular to later generations with the Shirley Temple movie “The Little Colonel.”
*Credit to George Whitworth for the photo of Engine House 1, and to historic-memphis.com for the two other fire fighting photos.
The school year is in full swing and Jessie’s days are getting more and more busy. This month she just became a member of the Junior Beethoven Club, an offshoot of the Beethoven Club, for which her piano teacher, Mrs. Tobey, was one of the early organizers. The Junior Beethoven Club was one of the first music clubs for young musicians, and from the beginning the purpose of the the Beethoven Club was (and is) to promote classical music and performance. Follow this link to the modern day Beethoven Club’s history page.
Jessie’s gotten her team uniform and spends many afternoons practicing basketball. She plays center on her school team. Unfortunately, I can find no picture of her in her uniform, so I am including some photos of girls basketball teams from 1909 so you can see the kinds of uniforms they may have had.
Nickel shows were very popular during this time, and there were several theaters in competition for customers. Short silent films were popular, and sometimes they were interspersed with live vaudeville type entertainment. Jessie mentions going to the Majestic Theatre in some of her diary entries.
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show was touring in 1909. Jessie and her friends went, escorted by one friend’s father, and they had a ‘fine’ time. The cowboys in the the cabinet card photo below were performers in the Wild West Show.
*Credit to historic-memphis.com for the photo of the Majestic Theatre’s lobby.