Friday, March 20, 2015

Keep the Home Fires Burning

by Rachel Dworkin, archivist

            One day in November 1915, Lena Gilbert Brown Ford received a phone call from the young composer Ivor Novello at her London home.  World War I was raging across Europe and Novello wanted to write an inspirational, patriotic tune before joining the Royal Flying Corps.  Working together, with Ford on lyrics and Novello on music, the two wrote “Keep the Home Fires Burning,” one of the most popular songs of the war, in a half-an-hour.  By 1918, the song had sold over 2 million copies and been translated into seven languages including French, Russian, Italian, Welsh and, bizarrely enough, German.    

'Keep the Home Fires Burning' sheet music
            Lena Gilbert Brown was born in Elmira in 1870, the daughter of James L. Brown, a prosperous tobacco dealer and his wife, Antoinette.  From a young age, Lena enjoyed giving poetry readings and even once swooned after an especially epic reading of the chariot scene from Ben Hur.  She graduated Elmira College with a B.A in 1887 and an M.A. in 1892.  Shortly after graduating she married local physician Harry Hale Ford and the couple had a son, Walter.  Unfortunately, it turned out that, to quote her obituary, “Mrs. Ford’s temperament was not suited for married life” and she ended up taking Walter and going to Europe.  There, she tooled around France and Italy for a while before settling in London. 

Lena Gilbert Brown Ford

            While living in London, Ford became friends with George W. James, the editor of The Anglo-American, who encouraged her to get into journalism.  For the next 22 years, she wrote columns for his paper as well as The Irish Independent.  She also was an editor for Madame, Pears Cyclopedia and The Lady of Fashion.  In addition to her work in journalism, she was also a well know poet. 

            At the outbreak of World War I, Ford was living in London with her widowed mother, Antoinette Brown, and her son Walter.  She helped to organize a series of concerts to benefit soldiers’ hospitals and even opened her house as a convalescent home.  On March 7, 1918, Ford and her son were killed when her house was leveled by a German air raid.  They were the first American civilian casualties of the war.  Her mother was seriously wounded, but pulled to safety by a brave housemaid.  The Fords were both buried in London but Elmira College built a memorial fireplace in her honor in Hamilton Hall. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

In the Spotlight: Theatrical Makeup from the 1930s

by Erin Doane, curator

Every once in a while, I come across a box tucked away in storage that I haven’t opened in my almost four years here. Sometimes, such a box contains unexpected treasure. Recently, I found one that contained a collection of theatrical makeup used at a local theater in the early 1930s. There were greasepaint sticks and powders and even little boxes of hair. I don’t know much at all about early 20th century theater makeup so I did a little digging.

Various colors of hair for creating theatrical mustaches, beards, and sideburns
There were quite a few pieces made by E.M. Stein Cosmetic Company in the box. The narrow cardboard tubes contain sticks of greasepaint in a variety of colors from skin tones to blues, greens, and pinks. Greasepaint became widely used by stage actors once gaslights became standard in theaters in the late 19th century. The powder makeup that had been used up until that point did not look good under the new brighter lights. If actors went without makeup at all, they looked washed-out and unexpressive. Applied correctly, greasepaint made actors look more natural under gaslight and under newer electric lights.

Collection of Stein’s greasepaint sticks, early 1930s
Stick greasepaint is made of dry pigments, such as zinc oxide, ochre, and lampblack, mixed with a waxy base, like lard, tallow, beeswax, or paraffin. To apply greasepaint, actors first covered their faces with an oily base like Vaseline so that the makeup would come off more easily later. A flesh-tone base color was applied first followed by darker and lighter shades for shadows and highlights. Then color was added to the eyes and lips. Finally, loose powder was dusted all over the face to set the makeup.

Face powder was needed to set the greasepaint and keep it from smearing.
Commercial greasepaint first became available in the 1890s. The makeup moved from stage to screen in the early days of motion pictures. Traditional greasepaint, however, proved to be too heavy and did not look good on film. In 1914, Max Factor developed a lighter cream greasepaint for use in movies. His new formulation was sold commercially as Supreme Greasepaint. Max Factor is also credited with coining the term “makeup.” Before the 1930s, proper women did not wear cosmetics but as Hollywood starlets began wearing makeup in public, regular women followed suit.

Max Factor makeup, including Supreme Greasepaint, early 1930s

Color chart and instructions for applying Max Factor greasepaint, 1930s
This collection of theatrical makeup was a wonderful find. I can just imagine actors at a local theater putting on their costumes and makeup so they could step out on stage and entertain a packed house.