I cannot believe it has already been six years since I wrote my capstone project at university. I still remember all the work that went into it. I traveled back and forth from my university and Detroit. I spent hours in the Detroit Public Library archives combing over newspaper articles from the 1930s. I visited museums in Hamtramck and found the inspiration for my story. I was reading over it again recently and I realized I had not published this work anywhere. I posted a brief summary as one of my first blog posts on this page, but there is so much more detail in my final product. I want to continue to share the story of these incredible Polish-American women and their fight for survival during the Depression. It is local history that takes place mostly in Hamtramck and Detroit, MI. It started as a small, community driven strike, but became so much larger and started a national conversation about the corruption of certain industries and workers rights. I have included the link for my entire capstone paper at the end of this blog post.
A short summary:
My capstone project: War Against the High Cost of Living: How a Community of Polish-American Women Fought to Better Their Lives. This paper is focused on a housewife, Mary Zuk, who organized and lead many of the women-lead protests in Hamtramck against the high cost of meat during the Great Depression (1930s). It highlights how it was the housewife who truly held the family together. They were often the key to the financial management of the household. Their careful budgeting helped the family survive during long periods of their spouse’s unemployment. It was the women who took the daring step from the private sphere to the public sphere to fight for their families and make active change. The women were united, stubborn, and strong. They would not take no for an answer. They risked arrest and sometimes had to take forceful measures to get their point across. They had to fight through adversity as the media described them as “unfeminine and Amazons” in an attempt to undermine their cause. They were not taken seriously due to their sex.
The women did successfully lower some of the meat prices at local shops in Hamtramck. They increased their knowledge of labor politics and started reaching higher with their demands. These local women made it all the way to D.C. to confront President Roosevelt with their written petition. They demanded an investigation of the meat packer companies for profiteering and 20% reduction on all meat prices. It was the meat packers who were price gouging and hurting local butchers, livestock farmers, and the working class family. They did their research and started a new conversation nationwide about the corruptness of the meat packing industry. Though the women were not entirely successful in achieving their demands, they were an inspiration to others. In 1937, Polish women led cigar strikes for better working conditions and wages in the cigar factories. They also influenced other men and in women in other industries and ethnic groups to take a stand against unfair working conditions (auto strikes, Woolworth strikes, etc.). There was national attention on the Polish-American women strikes in the Detroit area as the New York Times would regularly report on it. They proved that the housewife was a key interest group and Mary Zuk went on to have a brief political career herself (1936 First Women elected to the Hamtramck City council). Their story has been hidden for years now, but this project brings their achievements to the forefront.
If you are interested, please take a look as I have attached the PDF file here:
This month recognizes the 110th anniversary of the Titanic disaster. It was a terrible tragedy, but the legacy provided better maritime safety measures that still assist us today. It is interesting to read stories from the survivors (most of the accounts were stories from women) and how their lives were impacted due to this disaster. Last month, I wrote about Mrs. Caroline Astor who was the pillar of Gilded Age society in New York City. I recently found out that her son was actually aboard the Titanic and, sadly, did perish during the sinking.
Her son was Colonel John Jacob Astor IV and he was the wealthiest passenger aboard the Titanic. Though his mother’s reign was now over, the Astors were still very popular with the press and the scandal sheets. Colonel Astor and his new wife, the eighteen year old Madeleine Force, were traveling home from their honeymoon in Egypt and Paris. They boarded with Mr. Astor’s valet, Victor Robbins, Mrs. Astor’s maid, Rosalie Bidois, Mrs. Astor’s nurse, Caroline Endres, and their pet dog named Kitty. Kitty was bonded to John Astor and they had been through a lot together, including his difficult divorce.
Ottawa, Illinois is a small town in the rural Midwest that is about 85 miles southwest from Chicago. In 1922, to the excitement of many of the residents, a small ad ran in the local paper which stated that young women were needed for fine brushwork. It advertised “ideal location and surroundings. Unusually clean and attractive work”. The ad was placed by a new company that had just set up their new factory in Ottawa, Radium Dial. The president was a man by the name of Joseph A Kelly. They already had loyal employees such as Lottie Murray and Mr. and Mrs. Reed who became household names in the area. Many young women began to apply in great numbers (just as we saw in NJ), as the pay was just too good to pass up.
In 1917, a new factory opened in New Jersey. It advertised that it was hiring young women of the local community. For a working-class woman, this was a great opportunity. The pay was above average and it was a skilled job where a young woman could gain experience. The advertised job was a dial painter. They would paint the faces of luminous watches (the numbers and hands of the clock). The paint that was used caused the watch face to glow in the dark. This was extremely useful for those in military service at this time. It was a very technical job as the watch faces were small and a fine pointed brush would have to be used. Women’s hands were smaller, so they were coveted for this detailed job. The girls were a paid commission per dial completed. Some of the top performers were able to make three times what their own fathers made. It seemed like a dream come true to many women which attributed to the high demand for employment at the company. Girls would quickly start to recommend family and friends to join them at the factory.
One of the most exciting things about this new job was that one worked closely with Radium. At this time, radium was the wonder drug and one of the most valuable substances on Earth. The media hailed this as the “miracle pill”. It was effective in cancer treatments and was sold in pharmacies in a pill form to cure just about anything. It was even included in toothpastes and cosmetics. The girls would become known as “ghost girls”. The dust from the radium would coat their clothes, hair, skin, etc. and give them an ethereal glow. The women would purposely wear their nice clothing to work at the factory so they would glow as they went out dancing later that night. Everyone was jealous of the girls who worked at the radium factory.
I took a bit of a hiatus from the blog as it has been difficult to find the motivation to research and write. It has been a bit of a struggle to find topics I am passionate with especially with the worries of the past year. I recently took a trip to New York City and I found a bit of that passion once again. I visited Ellis Island and it was a great museum where I learned quite a bit. One small information blurb at the museum really caught my attention. From 1854-1929 the Orphan Trains delivered about 200,000 children to different homes in the American West. I thought this was incredible and I quickly wanted to learn more.
I was watching the open ceremonies for the Olympic games this past week and was introduced to an amazing woman. Agnes Keleti is the oldest living Olympic champion and turned 100 years old this year. She was a 10 times Olympic medalist and five of those were gold. She lived through a lot of difficulties during her life, but in the end she came out on top. I find her to be very impressive and I wanted to highlight her here.
The turn of the century brought about a new era of suffragists. The previous generation attempted to fight for their suffrage rights while still trying to fit into the roles that society made for them. They wanted to fight for progress, but also could not afford to stand out in ways that may look badly on the cause as they would lose support. For this reason, the old generation of suffragists did not encourage street speaking, marches, or acts of civil disobedience. Victoria Woodhull (a woman who I profiled two years ago: historynavigator.org/2018/06/18/victoria-woodhull-first-female-presidential-candidate-and-activist/ ) was a woman ahead of her time and was a very popular figure. She was bold and headstrong. She even announced her candidacy for president in 1870 (prior to women receiving the vote!). Woodhull was a divorcee and lectured about women’s rights and their sexual freedom. It was the free love portion and her spiritualism beliefs that cause the suffragists to want to disassociate from Woodhull’s brand. They knew that this would be a discouragement to any politician who may have sided with their cause. Society was not ready to accept women’s suffrage AND their sexual freedom. Just like with the temperance movement, the women of the older generation were still very concerned with appearances despite their activism.
Yet, in the wake of the 20th century, the world was changing. In Great Britain, the “suffragettes” were making loud scenes to get what they wanted. The suffragettes held parades, gave speeches, performed skits, participated in hunger strikes , and , sometimes, even performed acts of violence. American suffragists, like Harriot Stanton Blatch (daughter of Cady Stanton) , traveled to Great Britain and were influenced by what they saw there.
“It must have been sad do you say? Well I am not sorry to have spent it there and the recollection of it will ever be one of imperishable beauty. At midnight a baritone stood up and in a rich resonant voice sang, Minuit Chretiens. The cannonade ceased and when the hymn finished applause broke out from our side and from the German trenches! The Germans were celebrating Christmas too and we could hear them singing two hundred yards from us. Now I am going to tell you something which you will think incredible but I give you my word that it is true. At dawn the Germans displayed a placard over the trenches on which was written Happy Christmas then, leaving their trenches, unarmed they advanced towards us singing and shouting “comrades!”. No one fired. We also had left our trenches and separated from each other only by the half frozen Yser, we exchanged presents. They gave us cigars and we threw them some chocolate. Thus almost fraternizing we passed the morning. Unlikely indeed, but true. I saw it but thought I was dreaming.” -Letter from a Belgian soldier printed in The Times, 1915
World War I began in July of 1914 with the expectation on both sides that it would be a quick victory. Over the course of 51 months the war would bring a devastating death toll of 15 to 19 million soldiers and civilians. This tragic event would practically destroy a whole generation and cause much pain to the families that had to endure. It is easy to remember the death and destruction this war brought, but it is also just as important to remember the positive points. There were moments that showed there was still hope, kindness, and generosity despite differences. In the spirit of Christmas, I wanted to dive into the unusual occasion of the Christmas Eve truce in 1914. This was truly brought on by the common soldier and the truce itself was unofficial and spontaneous. The men found that despite the death, destruction and bad feelings that had surrounded them since the summer; they could take the opportunity to still share a common experience with their enemy. It seems unbelievable to us now (and definitely to the soldiers then) that Christmas Carols were sung with their enemies. These were the same enemies that had fired shoots at them the day before. This is the story and experience of the Christmas Truce 1914.
“I suppose it is better to have had such splendid friends as those three were rather than not to have had any particular friends at all, but yet, now that all are gone, it seems that whatever was of value in life has tumbled down like a house of cards.”
-Letter from Edward to Brittain in response to the death of their friend, Victor
I have spent August reading a memoir from World War I, which really kept me thinking for days after. I believe this is a very important memoir and one most people should take the time to read. It is one of the few accounts from the era that is from a female point of view. Many accounts of World War I are from the men in the trenches, but what about the women they left behind? In Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain writes of her life during this era and a bit afterwards. Brittain was born in 1893 and had grown up in northern England. She had one brother named Edward and the siblings were very intelligent and talented. Brittain was very interested in furthering her education and in writing, while Edward was a musician. The two were part of a lost generation and much of the memoir focuses on how their generation was affected by a war of that scale. She discusses how the generations that came before or after could never really comprehend what they went through. They were on their own island.
In the 20th century, 11,000 wooden crates were brought across the Atlantic in order to rebuild one of the most beautiful (and oldest) buildings. I visited Miami this weekend and was able to tour this amazing place. I was astounded at the beauty and overall peaceful feeling while in this ancient Spanish Monastery. It is most likely the oldest building in America and I felt I needed to share its history (and my pictures!).
Currently this church is known as the St. Bernard de Clairvaux Church, but it was originally created in 1133 in Sacramenia, Spain. The construction was completed in 1141 and the Monastery was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It was built in the Cistercian Romanesque style and was located in a mainly Muslim area of Spain during this period. It would have originally contained some defensive structures (as the Christians and Muslims where at war during this period). This monastery also contains two of the only three known telescopic windows from the medieval period that exist today (pictured below). These are placed above the altar Continue reading “Places to See: Ancient Spanish Monastery, Miami, FL”→