Monday, July 25, 2016

Gender Bending in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries

by Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

Check out those bloomers!
We have a fantastic set of glass plate images in our collection of a group of friends or family in the early 20th century who seem to have been having a lot of fun swapping clothes. The men are dressed in skirts, women's hats, cloaks, accessories, and even some underpinnings. The women are in pants, men's hats, and even sport some fake facial hair. All in all, this group with their party scenes, complete with alcohol, counter some of people's preconceived notions about gender in the Gilded Age and Progressive eras. In a time we often assume is overrun with Victorian prudery, people played with gender norms and performance. The main way this manifested was in female impersonation. To be clear, this is not the same as our modern understanding of being transgender, gay, or a drag queen. Female impersonation, as discussed in this blog post, was a popular and respected theatrical specialization.
More from our glass plate negative collection

 The origins of men dressing as women in theater dates back centuries. Common in Shakespearean performances and in those by all-male troupes, female impersonation began, in part, as a necessity. Fast forward to the 19th century, and female impersonation was a staple of traveling minstrel troupes, which again, were mostly male. These roles were often played for comedic value, and in the case of minstrel shows, they often upheld racial and gender stereotypes.  

By the early 1900s, Julian Eltinge was the most famous female impersonator. Known for his uncanny portrayal of a woman in Vaudeville, on Broadway, and later in film, Eltinge was a celebrity. Eltinge toured the world, and made appearances in Elmira.
From 1918
But there were other performers, too, even if they didn't match Eltinge's fame. In 1892, Elmirans Fred Gibson and Harry Graves found fame in Vaudeville. In one act, the did "a small dude song and dance, changing in full view of the audience to a female impersonation skirt dance." Elmiran Matt Lockwood, an actor and costumer, was known for his humorous female portrayals, especially of old women. A performance by the Elmira Free Academy minstrels in 1910 featured, as its main plot point, a female impersonator who infiltrated a fraternity house. The humor came when "he unmasks to the dismay of his amiable fraternity brothers who have accorded him the most flattering courtesies." That same year, the members of Company L enjoyed a performance by a female impersonator named "Lottie Duval." The performance was so "clever" that some of the men didn't know he was a man until he took off his wig.

In 1923, the Cornell Masques performed "Listen to Me" at the Lyceum Theater, which featured student Al Force in the role of Peggy Lang. We have a composite photograph of Force in both his street clothes and his Peggy costume. The next year, former Elmiran George Bracken worked with the Neil O'Brien Minstrels, performing twice per show as a female impersonator.

Al Force as Peggy Lang
Cross-dressing in the theater served many purposes. It was sometimes about trickery, but often the actors were not really trying too hard to disguise their actual gender. And while I've focused primarily on female impersonation in this blog, male impersonation was also a popular theatrical attraction in this period. Ultimately, impersonation was supposed to be fun entertainment, and we can see from photographs like those from our collection, how this spirit of lighthearted gender-bending bled into the lives of non-actors.  
More from our collection


Monday, July 18, 2016

Sorry to Disappoint

by Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

I’m sorry, we don’t have that.  Despite working in an amazing archive, I find myself having to say that with surprising frequency, especially to genealogists.  The sad truth is, as a private repository, we don’t have a lot of the official records genealogists are looking for.  So, where can people find records? 
Birth, Death & Marriage Records

We do not have any birth, death or marriage records for Chemung County. Those are held by the Chemung County Office of Vital Statistics, a division of the Chemung County Department of Health (

Form for registering live births from the O'Connor Private Hospital in Elmira, ca. 1920s
The State of New York only began collecting official birth, death and marriage records in 1880, so if you are looking for earlier ones they simply do not exist.  So, when trying to prove your ancestors existed and were related to each other, you might have to get creative.  Like they do today, old-timey newspapers often posted birth, death and marriage announcements.  Both the Chemung County Historical Society and the Steele Memorial Library have fairly good runs of 19th century newspapers from the 1850s on.  Despite the name, the website Fulton County Postcards (, has a searchable, on-line database of scanned newspapers from around New York state.
Religious institutions are another excellent source of records.  Most churches, synagogues, and pastors kept a log of services preformed including baptisms, from the First Baptist Church of Elmira and itinerant preacher Joseph L. Riggs.  If you know which denomination your ancestors were, and if the church/synagogue still exists, the chances are good that you can find the records. 

Military Records
A lot of people’s ancestors served in the military.  U.S. military records for all branches of service are held by the National Archives and can be requested via their website:

Wills and other probate records dealing with inheritance are held by the Chemung County Surrogate’s Court ( They cover from 1835 onwards and are available upon request.  Some records were lost or damaged by various area floods, so keep that in mind.

Prison Records
Elmira is home to the New York State Reformatory and over the years, quite a few people have been incarcerated there. Unfortunately, we do not have their records.  Those are held by the New York State Archives.  A finding aide to the records can be found here: 


Monday, July 11, 2016

War Production at Eclipse

by Erin Doane, curator

During World War II, the Eclipse plant in Elmira Heights was part of the United States’ “arsenal for democracy.” Eclipse started making bicycles and coaster brakes at the plant in 1895. In 1938, the company became a division of the Bendix Aviation Corp. and began the switch from producing bicycle parts and engine starters to ordnance for the war effort. Over the course of the war, Eclipse Machine Division produced anti-aircraft shells, automatic time fuzes for the anti-aircraft shells, and 20mm aircraft cannons. It also continued to make Bendix starter drives for military vehicles, as well as, aircraft magnetos and fuel injection pumps for the B-29 Super-Fortress.

Eclipse Machine Division executives, 1943
The wartime production boom created thousands of jobs in the area. In January 1940, the Eclipse Machine Division employed 715 people. Just three years later, in January 1943, it hit its peak payroll of 8,594 workers. Most areas of the country were suffering from a labor shortage with so many people serving in the military. At Eclipse, 1,249 men and 152 women had gone off to fight. 36 of them died in service. Because of the labor shortage, many of the plant’s new employees were women. In fact, there were more women working as hourly-rated employees at the plant at one time than there were men.

Eclipse employee packing fuzes in a crate, 1942
Manufacturing work had traditionally been done by men, so Eclipse officials had to recruit women for jobs that had never been open to them at the plant before. One of their campaigns to draw more women into factory work was a bit condescending. In it, various jobs at the plant were compared to typical women’s work at home. June Nolan was able to weld contact points on aircraft magneto coils because the iron was so similar to the one she used to curl her hair. Mrs. Edith Houston could bake coils in a small oven at the plant because she baked cakes back home in her own kitchen. And Mrs. James E. Hemenway could wind magneto coils even though her only vocational background was tying corsages in her florist shop.

In 1941, Eclipse opened a modern air-conditioned plant with over 200,000 square feet of manufacturing space to meet the high demand for its wartime products. Employees at the new plant built 5,000 Army mechanical time fuzes and 3,000 Navy fuzes each day. Eclipse was the first company to mass produce the intricate automatic time fuzes that exploded anti-aircraft shells at desired altitudes. Three shifts of works produced the fuzes around the clock. By the end of the war, Eclipse had produced over 23 million of them.

Eclipse plant in Elmira Heights
Automatic time fuzes produces by Eclipse
The plant also produced 600 20mm aircraft cannons each month. Eclipse contracted with the War Department in 1940 to produce the cannons. Previously, the gun had been made in France and there were only three samples of it in the United States. Engineers at Eclipse used the existing guns to reverse-engineer the pieces. They measured and drew them, acquired the types of steel and fixtures needed, then tested their designs. In 1941, it is said that golfers playing the 6th hole at the Mark Twain Golf Course often heard muffled explosions as the Eclipse engineers tested the aircraft cannon in their underground range. The final plans for the cannon were then distributed by the Army to other contractors who also produced the cannons.

Army-Navy "E" award ceremony
On September 25, 1941, Eclipse Machine Division was one of the first companies nationwide to receive the Army-Navy “E” Award. The award was presented for excellence in the production of war equipment. Eclipse was awarded four more over the course of the war – two in 1942, one in 1943, and one with four service stars in 1945. At the award presentation ceremony, the plant received an award banner to display at the facility and each employee received a pin commemorating this shared honor.

Army-Navy "E" banner
"E" award pin
The total war contracts for the Eclipse Machine Division during World War II amounted to $176,800,000, or over $2 billion today. The Elmira Heights plant produced millions of 1.1 projectiles, 23,100,000 automatic time fuses for anti-aircraft shells, 22,500 20mm aircraft cannon, 10,775,000 anti-aircraft shells, 52,000 magnetos for aircraft, and over 22,000 fuel injection pumps.

Employee catching a ride to Eclipse

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Historical Tips For a Safe and Sane 4th of July

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

This 4th of July, take some inspiration from the past while planning your celebration. While some things have changed, more have stayed the same. Remember, people in the past liked to party as much as we do!

Hostesses, make sure your table decor is on point
No pressure, but your reputation as a host is riding on your ability to create a festive, yet tasteful, decorative scheme. Fear not, here are some tips from 1915 to help you out: find red, white, and blue flowers and “arrange the blossoms in moist sand in pyramidal form.” Also “at each place there may be a miniature drum concealing bon-bons in its depths.” You can’t go wrong with a drum full of bon bons! Serve thematically colored foods, like tomato soup, whipped cream, jellied bouillon, crabs, and tartar sauce. Mold Uncle Sam and Miss Columbia out of ice cream and you’re ready to go. Quiz your guests on American History and give a special, dubious award to the “greatest ignoramus present.”
Looks easy, right? Just add some jellied bouillon and you're ready to entertain.
Leave the fireworks to the professionals
This one has always been controversial, but in 1910, Dr. Charles Haase implored Elmirans to do away with the dangerous tradition of amateur fireworks. The American Medical Association attributed 215 deaths to fireworks in 1909. These also included conditions like lockjaw (Tetanus) contracted from fireworks-related injuries. He argued that if Elmira was really a “progressive” city, it would eliminate “this barbarous way of celebrating.”
You probably shouldn't let your small children play with fireworks, no matter what this early 20th century postcard depicts.

Stock up on flags
Iszard’s has got your back on this one. Check out these amazing deals on flags from 1911! Every home should have one! And while you’re there, make sure to get your ice cream-making supplies: how else are you going to mold Uncle Sam out of ice cream. Think of your guests!

When invited to parties, make sure to bring your lady
Being the popular person you are, certainly you’ve been invited to a lot of parties this 4th. Do your best to make an appearance at them all, like these parties on the same day at the same time in Wellsburg and Southport in 1867. And make sure you bring both yourself and your lady.

The Eldridge Park Casino is the place to be
These pictures are from the Centennial celebration in 1876. Looks pretty fun! Go out and plant a celebratory tree!

Play pin-the-goatee on Uncle Sam
This was all the rage for children in 1914. Flag hunts are good, too. 

When in doubt, just get a big flag and a small dog
You can’t go wrong with this combination, as evidenced below:

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

by Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

So, the other day I was reading an issue of The Investigator from 1822 when I came across this little gem:
Notice posted in The Investigator, an Elmira paper, on March 16, 1822
It got me thinking.  How common was divorce in the early 1800s?  How did it even work?  Why did James Decker feel compelled to announce it in the paper?

 Today in America, half of all marriages end in divorce, but it wasn’t always that way. While today couples have the option to dissolve their union with relative ease, in the early 1800s, New York law made getting a divorce really difficult.  The Divorce Act of 1787 (originally proposed by Alexander Hamilton) officially transferred the right to grant divorces from the New York State Legislature to the courts.  The law stipulated that divorces could only be granted in cases where one party had been convicted of adultery and barred the guilty party from ever marrying again. 
Not every act of adultery resulted in divorce, however.  In 1817, Elmiran John McCann was successfully sued by Miss Betsey Jennings for the upkeep of their bastard child, which he fathered while his wife was pregnant with their first child.  Why didn’t Mrs. Susannah McCann divorce her cheating husband?  Maybe because she was already pregnant with her second child when John’s lovechild was born.  Or maybe it was because divorces were expensive and she was entirely depended on her husband’s financial resources.  Or just maybe she loved him enough to forgive him.  I guess that’s always a possibility. 

Court order requiring John McCann to pay for the upkeep of Betsey Jennings' bastard daughter, 1817

Even without adultery, there were plenty of reasons a couple might want to split.  Some common complaints included abuse, abandonment, and excessive drinking.  Unfortunately, unless someone was cheating, unhappy couples were all legally stuck together.  Around the turn of the 19th century, several states with more lenient laws became divorce havens.  During the 1800s, nearly one-third to one-half of all divorces obtained by New York State residents actually occurred out of state.  For couples who could not afford the move, separating and posting a notice in the paper renouncing each others’ debts was the best they could do.
The only change in New York marriage law in the 19th century came in 1830, when the legislature decreed that annulments could be granted if the participants were underage, related, had been married under duress, were insane, or were physically incapable of consummating the marriage. 

Happy couple or trapped in a loveless marriage?  You decide

Monday, June 20, 2016

A Puzzling History

by Erin Doane, curator

I really enjoy jigsaw puzzles. Give me a good 1000-piecer and I will stay happily busy for some time. The museum has a nice little collection of historic jigsaw puzzles.

Jigsaw puzzles were first commercially produced in England around 1760. Early puzzles had images painted or adhered to thin wood sheets that were hand-cut into pieces. The term “jigsaw” was first used around 1880. Maps were particularly popular subjects of early puzzles and were used as education tools. By around 1900, adults were taking an interest in completing puzzles as a leisure activity. By 1908, adult jigsaw puzzles had become a full-blown trend in England and the United States.

Tuck's Zag-Zaw Picture Puzzle, wood, c. 1927
The museum has two hand-cut, wooden jigsaw puzzles made by Raphael Tuck & Sons of London, England. They were given to Elmira musician and artist TalithaBotsford in 1927 and then found their way to the museum some 40 years later. The company was founded in 1908 and started its Zag-Zaw line of puzzles in 1909. The puzzles were known for including figurative pieces along with the standard-cut pieces. Tuck & Sons continued making puzzles until World War II when its factory was destroyed during the German blitz.

Figurative pieces from Tuck's puzzle
All of the Tuck’s puzzles came in basic red or orange boxes without any image of the subject. Each had a paper label on the bottom with a handwritten title, the name of the artist, the approximate piece count, and size. One of Talitha’s puzzles was entitled Glorious Days of Summer Flowers by E. Fisher. It has around 100 pieces and measures 10 x 7 ½ when completed. Unfortunately, I could not read the label on the second puzzle so I am not entirely sure of its subject. My guess is that it is a Dickensian scene as the company seemed to specialize in creating puzzles of subjects from Dickens' novels. Someday I may have a chance to put the puzzle together and find out for sure.

Glorious Days of Summer Flowers, wood, c. 1927
Label on the back of the puzzle box
Cardboard jigsaw puzzles were first made in the late 19th century. During the Great Depression in the 1930s they became very popular. Hand-cut, wooden puzzles were expensive while die-cut, cardboard puzzles could be purchased for as little as ten cents each. In 1932, a newsstand in Boston, Massachusetts offered different weekly puzzles. Cardboard puzzles were also popular in advertising and as promotional items for various products.

Arabian Chiefs Perfect Picture Puzzle, cardboard, c. 1930s-40s
The museum has a cardboard “Perfect Picture Puzzle” made by the Consolidated Paper Box Company of Somerville, Massachusetts. The company was organized in 1931 and began making cardboard jigsaw puzzles a year later. They started including a picture of the puzzle’s subject on the box lid in 1934. The Arabian Chiefs was probably made sometime in the late 1930s or 1940s. It is die-cut cardboard with a color image. The fun thing is that it appears to be printed on both sides. Picture Perfect Puzzles were made until around 1961.

Two-sides of the same Perfect Picture Puzzle piece
The popularity of jigsaw puzzles as adult entertainment began to wane in the 1950s. I blame television. Yet, they did remain common as children’s educational toys. I’m sure many people remember Playskool’s brightly colored wooden puzzles. The Playskool Institute was founded in 1928 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The company made durable, educational, wooden toys for young children.  The museum has a collection of four Playskool puzzles from the 1960s including two rabbits, a duck, and a panda.

13-piece wooden panda puzzle by Playskool, 1960s
One additional puzzle that was just added to the museum’s collection two years ago is one that I find a bit odd. It is a die-cut cardboard puzzle made by F.M. Howell & Company of Elmira. It shows an aerial view of the city taken at 2:30pm on Friday, June 23, 1972 – during the massive flood caused by Hurricane Agnes. The Howell factory is circled in red. It is a wonderful, commemorative piece but it is also only cut into 12 pieces, which makes me think that it was intended for children. Puzzling, but historically interesting.

F.M. Howell & Company puzzle, cardboard, 1972

Monday, June 13, 2016

The Mayor’s Pet Porcupine

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

I’m writing a book tentatively called Curiosities of Elmira that will be published by The History Press next year. When I was doing additional research on Elmira’s bear pit for the book (you can read a little about the bear pit here), I found a delightful little story that didn’t make the cut. In December 1909, Charles Rodburn of Erin presented Elmira Mayor Daniel Sheehan with an odd gift: a live porcupine.

Rodburn left a note stating that porcupines had become rare in this area and that he thought the mayor might like to domesticate it because “it would make a great watch dog.” He alternatively suggested that, if the mayor didn’t want it as a pet, he could keep it in the bear pit because the spiny critter could stand up to the larger predators. I’m not sure if this was a politically-motivated message or a genuine gift, but it’s odd either way.

Mayor Daniel Sheehan, proud pet porcupine parent
Reportedly, Mayor Sheehan was happy with the gift and relayed a story of a friend who once had a pet porcupine in his orchard. The Star-Gazette suggested that the mayor might want to let this animal free in an orchard, too. There's no word of what Sheehan ever decided to do with his new pet, but I suspect it was likely freed in a suitable habitat (although I much prefer to imagine that it just ran around City Hall).

An orchard like this would be a far more suitable habitat for a porcupine than City Hall.
This odd story got me wondering if there was a time when it was more common to see porcupines as pets. The short answer: I don’t think so. I did find a few scattered references to pet porcupines around the country, but, understandably, the trend never caught on. There was one other notable local pet porcupine incident, however.

In 1933, City Clerk William T. Coleman had a strange complaint come across his desk. A man’s pet porcupine routinely followed him to the store and, one time, had an unfortunate run-in with another person’s dog. The dog owner complained to Coleman that the “porky” shouldn’t be allowed on the streets. Coleman talked to the porcupine owner and they agreed on reasonable limits for the spiky pet.