Friday, January 29, 2010

Settler's Rock - New Shoreham, Block Island

New Shoreham is the smallest town in the smallest state. This memorial, called Settler’s Rock, dedicated in 1911, commemorates the 250th anniversary of the purchase of Block Island and settlement here in 1661. The plaque lists all the names of the settlers. Think of it as an early directory.

For more on New Shoreham, Block Island, Rhode Island, have a look at this website.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

First Congregational Church - Gardner, Mass.

The First Congregational Church in the central Massachusetts town of Gardner was built in 1878. This distinctive brick Victorian gothic church and clock tower, in style very much a symbol of its era, replaced what would have been a much more simple-looking, traditional original meeting house, built in 1787.

For more,  have a look at this website.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Newport Bridge - Rhode Island

The Newport Bridge, renamed in 1992 for Claiborne Pell, U.S. Senator from Rhode Island, (who was responsible for the Pell Grants that gave so many financial aid to attend college), is the longest suspension bridge in New England, and among the longest in the world.

That might be why you get a little lightheaded and apprehensive driving over it. Don’t worry. Just enjoy the marvelous view of Narragansett Bay, New England’s largest estuary. Rhode Island may be the smallest state, but it’s got big chunk of ocean and a big bridge to ride over it.

The bridge had been in the planning since the 1940s, but did not get built until the late 1960s. If the picture above isn’t clear enough, you can also have a look at the bridge on the Rhode Island state quarter.

For more on the Newport Bridge, have a look at this website from the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

You Are Here: Historic Deerfield, Mass.

This historical marker on what is known as The Street, is located in Historic Deerfield, Deerfield, Massachusetts.

It is a mile-long world of its own, originally laid out in 1671 and along which you can visit museum houses from the 1730s to the 1840s on their original sites. This New England village is surrounded by working farms along the Deerfield River.

For more on Historic Deerfield, have a look at this website.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Molasses in January - The Great Molasses Flood

You’ve heard the saying about someone being as slow as molasses in January. On January 15, 1919, The Boston Molasses Disaster, sometimes called the Great Molasses Flood was not slow at all, but immediate, intense, and deadly.

A large tank of molasses burst in the North End neighborhood of Boston, poured through the streets at an estimated 35mph. One hundred and fifty people were injured; 21 were killed by it.

New England has a long, at times, checkered history with the sticky flavoring. British taxing of the American colonists on the product led to some of the earliest protests against the King and Empire by the New World. Later, during the 19th century, the Triangle Trade of molasses, rum, and slaves brought a healthy economy and everlasting shame to those who took part.

But, molasses wasn’t done with us yet. In 1919, the Purity Distilling Company stored molasses, which was to be fermented. Molasses not only produced rum, but also ethyl alcohol and a component in the manufacture of munitions.

Most of us look forward to that first break in winter weather called the January Thaw, but its effect on this particular molasses tank was to make it explode under pressure in the suddenly warming weather. The tank was constructed poorly to begin with, burst, and a 40-foot high wave of molasses hit the neighborhood like a locomotive. A nearby train was actually derailed, and buildings moved off their foundations. Waist-deep molasses engulfed the neighborhood in a terrifying and grotesque morass.

For more on this unusual tragedy, have a look at the book by author Stephen Puelo, The Dark Tide - The Great Molasses Flood of 1919 (Beacon Press, 2003).

Also, have a look at the Edwards Park article originally printed in The Smithsonian (November 1983), and reprinted on Eric Postpischil’s Molasses Disaster Pages.

Finally, have a listen to this brief segment on The American Storyteller that describes the event.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Mill Girls - Lowell and Chicopee

Above, "Bobbin Girl" by Winslow Homer.

English novelist Charles Dickens came on a book tour to the United States in 1842. Wherever he traveled, locals showed off to him what they were most proud of in their towns and cities. When he was in the Boston area, he was brought to Lowell to see the factories.

The Industrial Revolution had hit the United States in a profound way. Lowell personified it. On a planned grid of streets that formed a little world, workers housing stood right near the huge four and five-story factories. What amazed Dickens most of all were the workers. Most of them were young, unmarried women.

He was surprised to find them well-dressed. They wrote stories and poems submitted to a newspaper that they published themselves, called The Lowell Offering. They attended lectures on their free time. Many of them supported social causes like the abolition of slavery. They signed petitions and even donated money towards that cause. They went to church. All in all, they were very respectable, a high compliment for a 19th century woman, and they seemed to have a sense of great pride in their work and a sense of purpose that surprised Charles Dickens most of all.

Mill work had been a different experience for Dickens. The Industrial Revolution started in England, with sometimes devastating effects to the poorer populations. The workers of the mills were far more downtrodden and exploited.

Possibly because of the class system in England where one likely remained in the level of society one was born into, with scant prospects of upward social mobility, the people who worked in the mills were the lowest of the low. They were poor, uneducated. Many had been farmers and peasants whom the Industrial Revolution displaced off the land.

Some workers were from the debtor’s prisons, where people would be sent if they owed money, like an industrial servitude. Some people spent a good part of their lives repaying debt in the workhouses, and whole families were sent to workhouses: mothers, fathers, and children. When he was a young man, Charles Dickens was sent to work in a factory to pay off his father’s debt. It was a bitter memory.

But the mill girls he witnessed in Lowell seemed to stride into those factories as if they wanted to be there. They did.

Lowell was named for Francis Lowell, the member of a very famous, well-established Boston family. Francis Lowell went to England when he was young man to learn about the Industrial Revolution and to bring some ideas to North America.

He established a factory in Waltham outside of Boston, and made some of his own innovations on what he had learned. He built an enormous factory, intending to run the entire process of manufacturing cotton textiles in this factory, under one roof, which had never before been done. The whole process from start to finish, from raw bales of cotton to finished bolt of cloth would be made through a series of about ten or twelve steps. The cotton was carded and spun into the thread and put on the mechanical power looms.

Lowell’s other innovation was to hire women to run the machinery. Because the mill, with its hundreds of different machines, was such a huge endeavor, he needed a huge workforce. The biggest untapped labor market in the U.S. at that time was women. Not that there weren't a lot of men, but men were able to work any profession. Women had few other options.

They were not hired for jobs outside the home. They were not even being hired for teachers at this point. A woman could work as a servant, but if she lived in a small community with few wealthy families, even this opportunity was not available. It was an era when women were not allowed to own property, not allowed to inherit property. Women were totally dependent on men, on their fathers and on their brothers for support. If they did not have fathers or brothers who were willing or able to support them, then they needed to be married.

The economic need to be married sometimes was as great as, or greater than, the romantic desire to be married. But in a small village there are a limited number of available young people, and therefore a small marriage pool. A lot of marriages in the late 1700s and early 1800s were arranged, and marriage for some people became a matter as much for mutual survival as for love.

If a woman did not marry and had no male relatives to support her, she had two options: prostitution or the poorhouse. Prostitution obviously led to a very grim and short life. The poorhouse was almost as bleak a prospect.

Though a charitable institution in an age of growing enlightenment, nevertheless the poorhouse carried the stigma of shame. The sick, injured and elderly were sent there, with no families who either could or would take care of them. Widows and children were sent there. Once sent to the poorhouse, one was forgotten. Socially, it was the end of the line.

Francis Lowell offered the young women of New England a way to avoid the poorhouse and to provide for themselves. Hundreds responded. For the first time, someone important in society told them they were of value.

For many of them, this was an opportunity to help out their struggling families. Just by leaving home there is one less mouth to feed. Many young men were sent to school by their sister's factory earnings in this period. Some of the girls saved to send themselves to college. Not only could they contribute to their families and to society, but they could have their own dreams.

Lucy Larcom Park, Lowell.

Lucy Larcom, one of Lowell’s mill girls who wrote a book about her experience said she went to her first day at the mill “with a light heart…I thought it would be a pleasure to feel that I was not a trouble or a burden or expense to anybody.” She noted of her fellow mill girls, “It brought out in them a dormant strength of character which the world did not previously see, but now fully acknowledged.”

Francis Lowell died in 1817, and never lived to see the city that was named for him. He was part of a group of investors called the Boston Associates. They started an even grander project on the Merrimack River, which was to be an entirely planned city, that they would call Lowell. The Boston Associates were so successful they branched out and tried the experiment in other places, and one of them was the western Massachusetts town of Chicopee.

Dwight Mill gate, Chicopee.

Another powerful river, another grid of streets, more enormous factories, canals, and mill girls from all over western Massachusetts and up into Vermont worked here at this new mill town. The factory owners here often sent agents in wagons with handbills out into the Berkshires, and up into Vermont to recruit more girls.

The idea of these girls working and living away from home in the early 19th century required lot of cooperation between the girls and the factories and their families, with an understanding of mutual respectability.

Respectability was a quality of the 19th century that contained the condemnation of a societal judgment. In the 19th century even a little scandal could destroy a person. This was much worse for women than it was for men. Respectability for women had cache; it was like money in the bank. It was like insurance. It allowed one a job, a place to live, and social contacts, possibly a good marriage, all of which meant safety from the poorhouse.

Mogan Cultural Center, Lowell - former worker's dormitory.

The factories guaranteed a respectable environment for the young ladies. They would live in company-sponsored dormitories right by the mill. They would be chaperoned by matrons that the company picked. The landladies were usually older women, often widows, always very respectable. The mill girls would be required to go to church. Some factories actually took the pew fees out of the girls’ pay to make sure that they went to church. The young ladies had a 10 o’clock curfew.

The girls’ respectability reflected on the good name of the employers, and their employers’ good name reflected on the respectability of the girls. The girls usually would sign on for a year. They would be paid once a month, although the early days some companies only paid twice a year. In the meantime, they would charge what they wanted at the local stores and on payday, twice a year they would pay for what they bought.

Their room and board were deducted. The mill girls made about a $1.75 week to $3 week without board. Some jobs in the mills paid better than other. Weaving paid the best. The men earned twice as much as the women. Men performed the heavier work, serviced machinery, and were mechanics. The girls actually made the cloth.

Most of these “girls” ranged in age from 15 years old to 25 years old, though there were some older women as well. Child labor was also a part of the mill experience.

Depending on the size of the room, quite often there were as many as six girls to a room. Three double beds in a room, two girls to bed.

The girls worked at first eleven hours a day, and another eight hours on Saturday, around sixty hours a week. One must be understand of the lack of career opportunities for women at this time to understand how they could view this hard work and this much work as a good opportunity for them. In many ways, it was.

For the first time, in an era when women were not allowed to own property, women were earning their own money and saving it in bank accounts in their own names. They were saving for their futures, providing their own dowries for the time when they hoped to be married. Most of these mills girls worked in the mills only for a period of a few years. They always intended to either be married, or return to their own villages. When they did go home to visit, they often wore new clothes and brought presents.

They changed the American economy as well, because now that the factories were making cloth so cheaply, people no longer had to make their own cloth at home, which is what they did for centuries. Few average people before the Industrial Revolution even wore cotton cloth, as cotton could not be grown in New England and the cost of importing it from the South was expensive. Rich people wore cotton. Everyone else made their cloth on wooden looms at home from linen, which was grown from flax, or wool.

The United States began to transform itself from a subsistence agricultural economy to an industrial and consumer economy.

Mills girls also changed society. They married on average a bit later than their mothers’ generation, and had fewer children than their mothers’ generation. They chose their own spouses, most often from among men they met in either the mills or the brothers and cousins of the girls they worked and lived with from all over New England. The marriage pool became very large, and away from their parents’ supervision, the girls could decide whom to marry.

"Sophie", a spinner in Chicopee,  Lewis Wickes Hine, photographer, 1911.  National Child Labor Committee, Libarary of Congress.

What was negative about the mill working experience was also soon apparent. The long hours were arduous. The work could be dangerous. The power looms, the various machines ran constantly, and injuries occurred, occasionally deaths occurred. In the 1850s United States cities led the world in the highest death rate, due mostly to lung diseases and to mill work. In cotton textile mills, the machines would throw off little bits of cotton fiber. The fibers hung in the air like snow, and the workers breathed it in all day. Tuberculosis and other lung diseases were major killers at that time.

In the winter, it got dark early, so to keep the plant running until 6 or 7 o’clock at night, gas lighting was piped into the mills.

The gas lighting in mills, because the open floors were so large, didn't always give off a lot of light. The dim lighting made working around the machinery even more unsafe, and being an open naked jet of flame, it was dangerous, particularly with all the cotton fiber being thrown into the air. It was a fire hazard.

The gas lighting was used from about September to about March and then the gas lighting was turned off for the summer season, usually about March 20th. The mill girls would observe the occasion and looked forward to it. Some factories even had little parties to celebrate the blowing out of the gas lighting. These parties were called blowouts. If you've ever heard of a big party, or even an ad in the newspaper referring to a big sale as a "blowout", that's where we get the term, courtesy of the mill girls.

There was no sick pay; if injured or sick, one did not work for a few days and did not earn any money.

Boott Cotton Mill, Lowell.

The worst trial for the mill girls was simply a consequence of successful capitalism. The efforts of the Boston Associates were so successful, they were copied all over the northeast, and competition drove prices down. The cotton textile industry reached a plateau.

Factory owners needed to cut costs to increase their profits. The girls were already working eleven hours a day in the 1830s. By the 1850s, they were working thirteen and a half hours a day, plus eight hours on Saturday. They were working over seventy hours a week.

They were given more machines to tend at once, and the machines were sped up, made to go faster, which also increased the danger of the work and increased the girls’ exhaustion.

Salaries were reduced. Average salaries were lower in the 1850s than they were in the 1830s.

Occasional strikes occurred. Most were not successful. Some unions began to form, but they had no political clout. Going out on strike was a dangerous thing for the men because they could lose their jobs and be blacklisted. But for the women, it was even more dangerous because they would lose something else. They would lose their respectability.

Young women did not leave jobs and disobey their employers, and just walk out. Women didn't walk around the street with banners and shouting slogans, drawing attention to themselves.   In 19th century sensibilities, one step above being a prostitute.

Former Dwight Mill worker's dormitory, Chicopee.

A labor newspaper called The New York State Mechanic reported in 1843 on an attempted strike in Cabotville, a village which would later be part of the town of Chicopee, because wages had been decreased, and their work increased. The reporter noted of one group of strikers,

“They formed in solemn column, arrayed in their best bibs and tuckers, and marched to the music of fife and drum through the streets, waved their kerchiefs to the girls in the other mills to join them.”

No one joined them. They attempted another demonstration a few days later, but again, no one joined them. They were then fired.

At the time, a paper called the Cabotville Chronicle was run by an editor who supported the industrialist when he first started it. But after a while, he changed his editorial slant and began to write editorials in favor of the factory workers, which he described as slaves, and he described the mill owners as slave-owners, and he wrote very fiery and sometimes flowery reports about these poor downtrodden women. He also started a workers’ newspaper that was kind of like the Lowell Offering where the women factory workers themselves could submit stories and poems. It was called the Olive Leaf and Factory Girl’s Repository. This experiment lasted only a couple of years, as he was shut down and the factory owners practically chased him out of town. He was replaced by a new newspaper called the Chicopee Journal, which said absolutely nothing controversial about the factories.

The Cabotville Chronicle reported that the mills were “Forcing poor girls from their quiet homes, to become their tools, and like the southern slaves, to give up her life and liberty to the heartless tyrants and taskmasters.”

While the Chicopee Journal published a poem on its front page called “Song of the Factory Girls.”

Oh, sing me a song of the factory girl!
So merry and glad and free!
The bloom on her cheeks, of health how it speaks,
Oh, a happy creature is she.”

The end of this era of the Yankee mill girl was beginning in the 1850s, and ended by the Civil War. In the 1850s, three circumstances occurred that made this era come to a close, and the first was the influx of Irish immigrants. The Irish came from a country which had just suffered a very long famine.

The mills began to hire more Irish, until their population in the mills was greater than the Yankees. In the early days in the 1830s, Irish were not hired in mills because they were not respectable. The Irish man could dig canals or actually build factories, but not work in them. “No Irish Need Apply” signs were posted outside mill hiring offices. When some Irish women were first hired in Lowell, they were segregated.

By the 1850s the mill owners were willing to hire the Irish. They could be hired for less money.

The second occurrence which helped to bring to an end the era of the Yankee mill girl was the Panic of 1857. This financial crash didn't last very long, but was quite severe, especially New England. Factories closed, stores and businesses closed. Some factories when on half time, laid off workers, and cut wages.

The third circumstance to bring an end to the era of the Yankee mill girl was the Civil War. At war with the South, cotton became very difficult for northern factories to obtain. Many cotton mills reduced operations until hostilities ended. Meanwhile, the Yankee mill girl got married, went back to her village, or moved west as a pioneer, and otherwise walked off into history.

The mill girls would probably like to be remembered for being both adventurous and industrious, and for being ambitious in a time when ambition was not supposed to be ladylike.

Being 19th Century women, perhaps they would most want to be remembered for being very respectable.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Esther's Scrapbook

This is the tale of a scrapbook and a girl named Esther DeGray.

Esther DeGray grew up in Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts. She was teenager when she kept this scrapbook from about 1915 to about 1919. Esther saved things. There are party invitations and theater programs, and newspaper clippings. There is the stub of a cigarette that I think belonged to her sweetheart. These things tell us a lot about what life was like for a young lady growing up in Chicopee at that time, but more specifically, what it was like for a middle class young lady.

Esther represents something new in America at that time, the new emerging middle class. In some ways Esther represented her family’s American dream.

She was educated, sent to a convent school in Quebec, kind of a finishing school. There is a notice here that her room and board for one term were $134, a great deal of money. She went to the Springfield Conservatory of Music and learned to play violin and piano. She attended classical music concerts. Though she lived just down the street from the brick workers’ housing of this factory town, Esther was not expected to work in a factory (though her sister Beatrice did work for a time in the office at the Fisk, which was later known as the Uniroyal tire manufacturing plant, a major employer in town), nor perhaps was she expected to marry a factory worker. She married a doctor.

Esther’s father was Joseph H. DeGray who ran the Hotel DeGray in the Falls, and the hall next to it called DeGray’s Opera House or DeGray’s Hall on Front Street, which later became Main Street.

The family had originally come from Quebec, and her father Joseph grew up in poverty in New York State. His father died in the Civil War when Joseph was still a boy. He hired himself to a nearby farmer, and that began a long career in business. Joseph DeGray eventually came to Chicopee, as so many people did in the late 1800s because of the enormous opportunities here.

Thousands upon thousands of immigrants came to work in the factories, but business entrepreneurs came as well, and this is what Joseph DeGray was. He was part of a new wave of white collar businessmen providing services rather than products. His sons Alva and Elmer would also work in the service industry in a wood and coal business, and Alva would run for local office. Esther was the youngest of Joseph’s children. Because she was a girl, she was not expected to run the family businesses. She was allowed, and perhaps expected, to live a more genteel life. She became in her own way the symbol of what Joseph DeGray accomplished, and he may have intended this.

Esther’s scrapbook is not a diary or a journal, so we don’t know all the details of her life, though she does write little notes beside many of the things she’s got in here. Under a picture of Al Jolson, probably from a theater program or a rotogravure section of the newspaper, she writes “He’s a dear.” Al Jolson some of you probably know was extremely popular at this period, a major star of vaudeville, silent films, and the new phonograph records.

She was also a big fan of Fritz Kreisler, the Austrian classical violinist, and went to see him at the Springfield Auditorium.

“Enjoyed this concert ever so much,” she wrote in the margin on the page.

What we know about Esther and about Chicopee Falls at this time we can read between the lines of all the things she saved. She’s got dance cards with the names of the boys she danced with filled in. On one of them, she danced a fox trot with a fellow named Don to a song called “Wicki Wacki Woo.” I hope she was chaperoned, it sounds like a wild evening. She’s got party invitations and party favors. A napkin from the old Jensen’s candy store and tea shop in Springfield. (Jensen’s also had a Hartford store, some of you may recall.) She loved the theater and she loved vaudeville.

She went to see Corse Payton’s stock company at the Court Square Theatre in August of 1915. $1.50 for orchestra seats. The show as a drama called “Madame X.” (We covered Corse Payton in my Tragedy and Comedy in New England blog here.)

In pencil in top Esther writes, “Went with Agnes. Cried a lot.”

The scrapbook also contains a program for the old Poli’s Palace on Worthington Street in Springfield, a vaudeville theater run by Sylvester Poli. For more on the Poli’s Palace, have a look at this post from my Tragedy and Comedy in New England blog.

Also, here is an invitation to a party for Esther’s brother’s 20th wedding anniversary. There’s a photo here of her brother Elmer and his wife, Bessie. Their anniversary party was held on Long Island, New York. Inside is a dance card with the typical fox trots and waltzes.

Interesting here is that one of the dances they list is a Paul Jones, which some of you may recall was a kind of community square dance formation, where everybody would constantly change partners. This dance was once very popular in New England but it died out shortly around World War II, and I don’t think younger people have ever heard of a Paul Jones dance.

As we can guess from these programs and parties Esther lived a fairly pleasant and active social life. Her family was prominent, lived comfortably, and were able to afford to send her away to school. Esther was the youngest of Joseph DeGray’s six children. There was some probably some 18 years difference between her elder brother Alva and her, so we might expect that Esther’s childhood was even more comfortable, even more genteel than Alva’s was.

When Alva was a boy, his father Joseph was just starting in business. Alva also was a musician like Esther, and went to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. Why he decided not to pursue music as a career we don’t know, except that perhaps his businessman father told him that being a musician wasn’t a stable profession. But it was an acceptable avocation for a genteel young lady like Esther, who did not have to support a family.

Esther did play occasionally for parties and weddings for money (she received the princely sum of $2 for one gig), and just before her marriage is listed in the city directory as a music teacher, but I don’t think we need assume she needed to support herself. It was more likely a genteel activity for an educated young woman, who was being educated not necessarily to be a career woman, but to be the wife of an educated man.

Esther would become the wife of Dr. Armand Metivier, who was originally from Quebec. At the time this scrapbook was kept, during World War I, Dr. Metivier was in the Army. He was stationed in Camp Greenleaf, Georgia. There are some typewritten poems that were tucked into the scrapbook that he wrote and sent to her. They were poems about camp life written in the style of popular poetry then like Robert Service’s tales of the gold rush and Rudyard Kipling, very manly, muscular poetry. Not very good poetry, but typical for its time.

One line went:

“I stood and guarded o’er him while the bullets rained all day,

Until the stretcher bearers came and took my pal away.”

This was in August 1918 and Dr. Metivier was in Georgia at the time, so he was not involved in any battle. This scene came from his poetic imagination.

I don’t know if Dr. Metivier was ever sent overseas during that war. I don’t think he was. I don’t even really know if he was a recruit at this camp or if perhaps he was on the camp medical staff and this was his post. He had returned, at least on leave in April 1919, some five months after the war ended, to dance a waltz with Esther at the Easter Monday Ball.

That her fiancé was in the Army was certainly a connection to the war in Europe that probably gave her some anxiety, but for Esther, World War I seems to be more about the whist party her mother gave in 1917 to benefit the Red Cross only a few weeks after America entered the war. It was about little paper flags stuck into party favors, and perhaps newsreels she saw at the movies. She was far removed from it.

In a way, her innocence and her removal from the war reflects America’s own innocence at this time. The war had been going on for some few years before we became involved, and so America entered that war with a certain naïve enthusiasm that was not shared by the Europeans who had utterly lost their innocence and enthusiasm by the time we joined.

But we do see in the scrapbook that Esther couldn’t be shielded from tragedy at home. There is a newspaper clipping about a teacher of hers at the Springfield Music Conservatory who was leaving her position because of failing health, and going to New Zealand where she had spent some time in her younger years. A few pages later, there is another newspaper clipping on the death of this teacher in New Zealand. She was in her early 40s. It’s likely that this woman knew she was going to die, but we don’t know if Esther knew that. Probably not.

There is a piece of paper tucked into the scrapbook, a list of names handwritten in pencil. This is a list of friends Esther intended to invite to a party. One of the names is Ernest Lemieux. A few pages later in the scrapbook, we see a newspaper clipping about Ernest. He died skating on the Chicopee River by the Oxford Country Club January 1916, and Esther notes that it was a shock.

There are clippings about the fire that destroyed the old Chicopee High School. Invitations to the Chicopee High Senior Promenade in 1916. Do students today going their prom even know that it stands for promenade?

There is a note written in October 1916 that she took back to her academy in Quebec, from Esther’s doctor here, testifying that Esther has not been in contact with poliomyelitis. Do students today even know what polio is or how frightening the word was back then? (Have a look here for a discussion on how polio was treated in film at my Another Old Movie Blog.)

The scrapbook gives lots of clues and images of Chicopee Falls, of Chicopee’s French-Canadian community, of a privileged young girl whose whole world was comprised of a few streets, yet traveled outside the U.S. to go to school, and who was aware of events happening on the other side of the world.

We see a world where people got together more. Today with what little leisure time we have, we tend to shut ourselves up with television or the computer, and live vicariously in virtual worlds. Esther and her community interacted constantly at St. Joachim’s Church Hall on Maple Street, at the Poli’s Palace, at the Elks Club, the Woman’s Club, the Franco-American Club, the Kiwanis Club, the Chicopee Falls Eagles, down at Toomey’s Academy of Dance on East Street where lessons were 50 cents, and in the front parlors of all their families and friends.

Esther’s brother Alva also celebrated a wedding anniversary with a reception at home for his friends, and Esther played the violin.

It was a world where two girls, Esther and her friend Beatrice Rivard as we see in this newspaper clipping, going on vacation to a rustic lodge in Chester made the social column. In only a few more years, silent movies would completely surpass the popularity of vaudeville.

It was a world before radio. In the scrapbook there is a sliver of an ivory piano key. Before radio, any home that could afford one had a piano, and a phonograph. Many people, even poor people, played musical instruments. In the 1914 Springfield directory, there are close to 200 music teachers listed.

Dr. Metivier and Esther were married probably about 1920. He set up his practice on Broadway in Chicopee Falls, and they lived in a house on Court Street, only a few streets away from the house where she lived as a child. Esther lived here for the rest of her life. After her husband died in 1942, she remained here as a widow, sometimes teaching music. She died in 1972.

That Esther was in herself, a kind of American dream for her family, we can only guess at what that might have been like, to represent your family’s ambitions for a kind of life that was not just wealthier, but more genteel. It might not have been always easy for her, being the sheltered youngest daughter of a prominent, self-made family.

We can see what a high point it was for the DeGray family, and for a lot of middle class families at that time, when we consider that things were probably never as easy for the generations that followed. Esther’s children would have grown up during the Depression and would have been young adults during World War II. Her son Richard served in the Army and received the Purple Heart. We can assume he faced conflicts in his war that Esther and her husband never faced in World War I.

Perhaps even her grandchildren would not have lived so sheltered and privileged a life. They would have been Baby Boomers, and we though we often think of Baby Boomers as being the most spoiled and privileged generation up to that time, and in many respects they were, even many of them had jobs when they were teenagers, and when they married, many of them discovered they couldn’t get by on one income, that both spouses had to work. Today we sometimes hear about the shrinking of the middle class.

Not in Esther’s time, not for Esther. The middle class was in its first flush, its heyday, and had reached a stage of comfort and gentility we seem to have lost. We have more things to spend our money on, more time-saving conveniences and less free time, but have lost that goal of living a life of polite leisure and self improvement that was the once goal of the middle class back then, it was the point of making all that money, and that was what Esther embodied. When we think of self improvement, we tend to think of lowering our cholesterol. In Esther’s world, self improvement had more to do with lessons in languages, in music, in dance, and in the proper protocol of social interaction.

Scrapbooking is a very popular hobby now. Craft stores have entire sections devoted to scrapbooking. Maybe some of you keep scrapbooks, probably a lot more fancy than Esther’s. She just stuck every napkin and party favor and raffle ticket she found in there.

But, someday your souvenirs are going to be somebody else’s historical artifacts.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Happy New Year

Here’s a couple of ads from theatre programs in the early 1950s, when urban downtowns, carried the veneer of elegance and sophistication right through to the print ads attempting to both create and capitalize on that illusion.

Perhaps your recent New Year’s celebration did not involve Music America Loves best at the Mayfair Room at the Hotel Bridgway (no cover charge), or require looking like a million bucks in evening clothes from Haynes. The scene is Springfield, Massachusetts, though the orchestra is “direct from New York.”