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4 posts from February 2017

24 February 2017

First Ladies, Fashion, Funerals

The 89th Academy Awards are almost upon us, and Natalie Portman has received a nomination in the best actress category for her portrayal of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy in the film Jackie (2016, Pablo Larrain).  An unflinching portrayal of the first lady in the traumatic days following the assassination of her husband, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Jackie asks what it means to be a woman in a public position of power.  Given the office’s lack of definition, this is an especially pertinent question for a first lady who has to learn to balance the role’s often unsolicited obligations and public exposure, and to negotiate the distinction between her own personal and political identity and that of her husband.[1]

In Jackie we are shown how Bouvier Kennedy reshaped the role to her interests, taking on responsibility for the preservation and restoration of the White House as a historic building, and introducing cultural activities into the Presidential calendar. 

Designing Camelot

James A. Abbott and Eleaine M. Rice, Designing Camelot: The Kennedy White House Restoration. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1998. [YC.2001.b.760]

While these are now considered to be standard responsibilities of the office, she was on the receiving end of contemporary criticism as some considered these activities to be a misuse of public funds.  However, Bouvier Kennedy was by no means the only first lady to interpret the role in this light.  Indeed, one of the most popular first ladies in American history, Dolley Payne Todd Madison, was appreciated precisely because she infused the role with non-partisan nationalist sentiment at a precarious moment in the young nation’s history – the War of 1812.

As official host for receptions in Jefferson’s White House during her husband’s tenure as Secretary of State, Dolley Madison assumed the position with substantial prior experience and a higher public figure than her predecessors and many of her successors.  Such was her popularity and profile that James Madison’s political opponents complained that they had to “run against both the Madisons.”[2]  Once her husband assumed the Presidential office, together with White House architect Benjamin Latrobe, Dolley took on the project of decorating and furnishing the bare building to a standard designed to impress foreign dignitaries.  Believing her role to be one of public service to her husband’s citizenry, she mastered the ceremonial and social aspects of the position.  She placed substantial weight on fashion, and dressed in a manner that demonstrated a keen understanding that her public presentation would help her to forge an independent identity and, at official occasions, also reflect positively on the nation. 

Gowns of 1st Ladies 1

The Editors of American Heritage Magazine and the 1969 Inaugural Book Committee, The Inaugural Story 1789 – 1969. American Heritage Publishing Co., 1969.

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that Dolley Madison organised the first inauguration ball.  Additionally, she expanded activities in the White House to include a weekly formal banquet, and a regular informal gathering at which political colleagues with opposing views were able to meet and converse socially outside the restrictions of their office.  Much praised for her diplomatic manner, social grace, and non-interference in political matters, by the time of their departure from the position, she was widely referred to as ‘Queen Dolley’.

The esteem in which she was held, and the political influence she had, is perhaps most visible post-mortem.  Under the refrain “Liberty and union, now and forever, one and inseparable” the notice of her death published in The Daily National Intelligencer reveal quite clearly how traditional feminine values were aligned to the virtues of nationalism: “she continued until within a few weeks to grace society with her presence, and lend it those charms with which she adorned the circles of the highest, the wisest, and best, during the bright career of her illustrious husband.  Wherever she appeared, every one became conscious of the presence of the spirit of benignity and gentleness, united to all the attributes of feminine loveliness.”[3]  Much like for President Kennedy, her funeral was attended by political and Military and Navy officials including the President and the Cabinet, and included a “very large and imposing” funeral procession through Washington to the Congress Cemetery.[4]  Dolley Madison’s funeral remained the only instance of a woman’s funeral being treated as a state occasion until Rosa Parks’ lying in honor ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda in 2005.

The parallels with Bouvier Kennedy’s approach to the office are clear and, given the latter's keen sense of history, occasion, and public duty it is conceivable that she drew on Madison’s legacy although perhaps not consciously.  At no point were these underlying tenets more visible than in the four days following the assassination of her husband, and particularly at his state funeral.

In the presence of Lincoln

United Press International, Four Days: The Historical Record of the Death of President Kennedy. American Heritage Publishing Co., 1964. [YA.1990.b7099]

A Catholic who had experienced personal loss and with a respect for the healing power of ritual, a journalist by training, a fashion icon, and instilled with a rich appreciation for the arts, Bouvier Kennedy had a heightened awareness of how the performative and visual aspects of the state funeral ceremonies would be received.  Drawing on these strengths, she challenged military protocol, political will and the Kennedy family in order to achieve her vision for her husband’s final rites.  By marshalling the collective manpower of her husband's political allies to carry out her instructions, and with whom she had forged loyal and useful political relationships, she assumed her position as iconic mourner-in-chief for the nation.

Last Salute

Diagram 58: Main funeral procession, St. Matthew's Cathedral to Arlington National Cemetery.  B.C. Mosmman and M.W. Stark, The Last Salute: Civil and Military Funerals, 1921 – 1969. Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, 1991. [A.S.573/59]

Of course, the category of 'widow' has a similarly weighted set of gendered expectations around social decorum, and carries inflections of motherhood.  In this respect, and as cultural critic David M. Lubin has pointed out, Bouvier Kennedy had a 'neoclassical aura' at the funeral. [5]  Larrain captures and explores these connections in the most interesting scene in Jackie: on a mixture of tranquilisers and alcohol the clearly traumatised widow Kennedy wanders through the now desolate rooms of the White House she redesigned, alternating between her many ballgowns to the soundtrack of ‘Camelot.’  It is a powerful anti-montage that deconstructs the foundations upon which the former First Lady built her identity.  In doing so, Jackie examines the constraints of femininity and inter-dependent subjectivity that are imposed on first ladies and more broadly women in public positions of political power, and enquires what this means for our understanding of American nationalism.

Jackie leaving White House

Jacqueline, Caroline, and John Kennedy Jr. leave the White House for the final time. United Press International, Four Days: The Historical Record of the Death of President Kennedy. American Heritage Publishing Co., 1964. [YA.1990.b7099]

 

Fran Fuentes

 

[1] Such was the uncertainty over the role of early presidential spouses that there wasn’t an accompanying title.  Early presidential spouses were occasionally referred to as ‘Presidentress’ and the now commonly used ‘First Lady’ did not have wide usage until Charles Nirdlinger’s play The First Lady in the Land popularised it in 1914.

[2] Dorothy Schneider and Carl J. Schneider, First Ladies: A Biographical Dictionary 3rd Edition, p.vi. New York: Facts on File, 2010.  p.28.  [YC.2011.a.1553]

[3] Daily National Intelligencer, July 14, 1849. [NEWS12419]  Also, The Dolley Madison Project http://www2.vcdh.virginia.edu/madison/exhibit/widowhood/img/art1.html

[4] Daily National Intelligencer, July 17, 1849.  [NEWS12419] Also, The Dolley Madison Project http://www2.vcdh.virginia.edu/madison/exhibit/widowhood/img/art3.html  

[5] David M. Lubin, Shooting Kennedy: JFK and the Culture of Images.  Berkeley, London: University of California Press, 2003.  p.256. [YC.2005.a.5008]

15 February 2017

The Tale of Josefa

Hannah Kohler is one of this year’s Eccles British Library Writer’s Award winners. She is researching her novel, Catspaw, which follows two women during the California Gold Rush. In researching female criminals and vigilante justice in California, she came across the tale of Josefa.

Josefa Segovia—also known as Juanita and Josefa Loaiza—was the first and only woman to be hanged in California. A Mexican woman living in the mining town of Downieville, she was accused of murdering Frederick Cannon, a miner, on 5 July 1841, and was summarily hanged from a bridge over the Yuba River.

Hanging of the Mexican Woman

William Downie, Hunting for Gold. San Francisco: California Publishing Company, 1893. Shelfmark: X.809/2834

Contemporary accounts are conflicting, but suggest Cannon entered Josefa’s house on 4 July, possibly assaulting her.  The following day, Josefa and José Loaiza, with whom she lived, confronted Cannon. Cannon called Josefa a whore; she challenged him to insult her inside her own home; he followed her inside, whereupon Josefa fatally stabbed him. An impromptu judge and jury were assembled, but the man defending Josefa was rolled down the hill in a barrel. Within hours, Josefa was executed.

The story first appeared in the Daily Alta California four days later. Referring to Josefa only as ‘the Spanish woman’, it noted her extreme anger, stating that when Cannon came to her door to ‘apologize,’ she met him with a ‘large bowie knife, which she instantly drove into his heart’. Subsequent accounts called her by the generic Mexican name ‘Juanita’; most dwelled on her beauty; many implied she was a prostitute. Underlying these narratives was an assumption of Josefa’s culpability, implicitly or explicitly linked to her ethnicity and sexuality. In his memoir, Hunting for Gold (San Francisco, 1893; shelfmark X.809/2834), William Downie lamented the incident in a chapter named ‘Lynching a Beauty’, calling it ‘one of those blots that stained the early history of California’.

Lynching a Beauty

William Downie, Hunting for Gold. San Francisco: California Publishing Company, 1893. Shelfmark: X.809/2834

Josefa’s treatment – both her lynching and the way in which her identity and version of events were obscured – reflects the oppression of and violence towards Mexicans in mid-nineteenth-century America. However, in recent years, Chicano scholarship has sought to restore Josefa’s identity and reputation. In 1976, Martha Cotera demonstrated that Josefa’s last name was Segovia. Further scholarship contested the notion that she was a prostitute, and established that she was likely married to Loaiza, who appears to have filed a claim in 1868 against the United States for the murder of his wife (he lost).  The remaining details of Josefa’s experience are likely lost to history. She is consigned to Gold Rush lore, and on websites dedicated to the Old West, she has become a ghost story, her specter drifting along the Yuba River, haunting the old gold country.

Gold Region of California

 C. D. Gibbes, A New Map of the Gold Region of California. Stockton, CA. & New York, 1851. (Shelfmark: Maps 71865 (3)) 

Hannah Kohler

Sources: Irene I. Blea, U.S. Chicanas and Latinas Within a Global Context: Women of Color at the Fourth World Women’s Conference. Westport, Conn; London: Praeger, 1997 (Shelfmark: Document Supply 98/02749); William Downie, Hunting For Gold. San Francisco: California Publishing Company, 1893 (Shelfmark: X.809/2834); Ken Gonzales-Day, Lynching in the West, 1850-1935. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006 (Shelfmark: Document Supply m06/42195); F. Arturo Rosales, Chicano! The History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement. Houston, TX: Arte Publico Press, 1996 (Shelfmark: YA.1997.b.3535); Maythee Rojas, 'Re-Membering Josefa: Reading the Mexican Female Body in California Gold Rush Chronicles', Women’s Studies Quarterly, 35: 1/2  The Sexual Body (Spring/Summer 2007) pp. 126-148 (Shelfmark: Document Supply 9343.705700); Kerry Segrave, Lynchings of Women in the United States, The Recorded Cases, 1851-1946. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2010 (Shelfmark: YC.2011.a.9418).

Eccles British Library Writer’s Award: For more information, please see www.bl.uk/ecclescentre

11 February 2017

The Flint Sit-down Strike, 1936-37

Eighty years ago today – following a 44-day sit-down strike at their plant in Flint, Michigan – General Motors (GM) formally recognised the United Automobile Workers (UAW) as the sole bargaining authority for the striking workers.

Flint Wikimedia
Wikimedia Commons, provided by Farm Security Administration. LC-USF34-040028-D.

It is almost impossible to over-estimate the impact this recognition had upon both the unionisation of the American automobile industry and the labour movement across the United States.

In the early years of the Great Depression, increased workloads and cuts in pay were commonplace across the auto industry. In 1935, the average auto worker’s income was barely half that deemed by the government to be a minimum for a family of four. The following summer, hundreds of workers died in Michigan auto plants due to the heat wave and on-going poor working conditions. Theoretically, such conditions made these plants ripe for union organisation. However, strikes in 1930 and 1934 had been viciously broken up by the Flint police, aided by company informers; indeed, GM paid $839,000 for detective work in 1934 alone (1).

In 1935, the passage of the National Labor Relations Act – which legalised strikes – invigorated the Congress of Industrial Organizations' efforts to unionize industrial plants across the US. The following summer, UAW officials unaffiliated with existing (GM-infiltrated) locals began organising in Flint – an audacious plan, given it was essentially a company town; yet, they recognised the pay-off could be enormous. To avoid detection, they met with workers in their own homes and encouraged them to join; many did so. General Motors’ reaction was swift. On 29 December union leaders learned that over the New Year’s holiday the company planned to remove the huge and vital ‘dies’ used to make car bodies. If this happened, cars could be made elsewhere, thereby weakening the union’s strategic position. Recognising what was at stake, the workers refused to leave the plant.

The next 44 days were unprecedented in the history of American labour. Inside the plant, the workers organised themselves into committees for cleaning, defence, entertainment and exercise, while supporters outside brought them food and supplies.

  Flint wikimedia meal

Wikimedia Commons, provided by Farm Security Administration (LC-USF34-040031-D).

Finally, on 11 February 1937, GM signed an agreement recognising the UAW, and agreeing not to discriminate against those workers who had struck. The following year, nearly one-hundred sit-down strikes took place in auto plants across the country; UAW membership rose from 50,000 to 300,000; and auto worker wages rose by as much as 300%. This historic sit-down strike presaged a decade of intense union activity across American industry, and an extraordinary improvement in the lives of ordinary workers.

The British Library holds a wide variety of materials documenting the labour movement within the United States, including: reports, newspapers and recruiting pamphlets by individual unions, the CIO and the American Federation of Labor (AFL); Congressional hearings, reports, and federal legislation; publications by political parties, including the Socialist Party and the Communist Party of America; and reports by civil rights organisations. Additionally, the rise and activity of the unions may also be documented through our extensive collection of American newspapers, secondary sources, and electronic databases.

 Witch hunt CIO

George E. Novack, Witch-hunt in Minnesota: the federal prosecution of the Socialist Workers Party and Local 544, CIO. New York: Civil Defense Committee, [1941?]. Shelfmark: YD.2005.a.6863; The CIO: what it is and how it came to be. Washington, DC: Committee for Industrial Organization, 1937. Shelfmark: YD.2009.a.1501

AFL Communist party

Communist Party of the United States. For a Powerful, United A.F. of L. New York: Workers Library, 1936. Shelfmark: YD.2007.a.1654; Communist Party of the United States. Greetings to the American Working People on the Occasion of the First Anniversary of the Great Labor Merger, AFL-CIO! New York: Labor Committee, Communist Party, USA, [195?]. Shelfmark: YD.2009.a.1322

  UAW local

John G. Kruchko, The Birth of a Union Local: the history of UAW Local 674, Norwood, Ohio, 1933 to 1940. Ithaca, NY: New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Cornell University, 1972. Shelfmark: q72/20497

1. "The 1936 - 37 Flint, Michigan Sit-Down Strike," BBC, Retrieved May 18, 2012, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/place-london/A672310 

Jean Petrovic

03 February 2017

Have you tried the Electroburger? A 1962 menu for the North Shore Line’s Electroliner dining car

Restaurant cars in trains are disappearing fast and with them a lot of the charm of travelling by train, including the possibility of encounters of the kind depicted in films from North by Northwest to, more recently, Almodóvar's Julieta . For train lovers who daydream of dining on board the Orient Express but are more likely to find themselves eating a sandwich squeezed in the seat of a budget airline, our collection of menu cards can provide some inspiration. 

The Chicago North Shore and Milwaukee Railroad, also known as the North Shore Line, was an interurban railway line that covered the route between Chicago and Milwaukee.  This striking menu card [YD.2016.b.444], printed in 1962, shows the dishes on offer at the Electroliner’s Tavern-Lounge car, where passengers could sit down and enjoy a full service diner-style meal or a snack.

  Electro1

The star item in the menu is the Electroburger, served on a roll with potato chips and relish for the price of $1, including coffee.  The menu also contains a wide selection of sandwiches, including ‘flavor-rich’ sardines’, ‘young, tender, selected tongue’, and ‘Milwaukee-style liver sausage’. Passengers had an ample choice of drinks available, from sherry to a dry martini, and could even purchase playing cards for entertainment.

Image2

Those travelling in the morning could also enjoy a cooked breakfast, as shown in this earlier Electroliner menu from c.1955 [YD.2016.b.443]

Electro3

The British Library holds a rich collection of menus, including a collection of menu cards spanning the years 1890–1904 which were donated by the American collector Miss Frank E. Buttolph – for more information please see this blog post. All of them are available from our Explore catalogue.