Monday, May 22, 2017

Sherlock Holmes in Elmira

by Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

May 22 is Sherlock Holmes Day, a celebration of the birthday of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the genius detective. That got me thinking: are there any local Sherlock connections? Happily, yes, yes there are!

On November 22, 1894, Arthur Conan Doyle delivered a speech in the chapel at Elmira College. Although a reporter from the Elmira Daily Gazette and Free Press stated that "knowledge of his books in this city is not as deep and broad as it might be," people filled the chapel to hear Doyle speak. Doyle shared some of his work, recounted his path to literary fame, and justified his decision to kill Sherlock so that the character didn't overstay his welcome.

If Doyle's work wasn't too popular in Elmira in 1894 as the reporter claimed, it didn't take too long for it to catch on. In fact, soon after, the local newspapers were filled with Sherlock references, jokes, and updates about the detective stories and plays. 

Advertisement from Star-Gazette, 3/2/1901
Advertisement from Star-Gazette, 10/19/1905
 In 1914, Elmira's Gosper-Kelly Shoe Store used the detective in one of its ads.

Elmira Star-Gazette, June 26, 1914.
There were also references to local Sherlock-like detective work (or the need for it). A satirical piece in early 1894 recounted a man's Holmes-esque attempts to solve the mystery of odd footprints in the snow in Wisner Park. In 1897, the Owego Record suggested the city might want to get a version of the famed sleuth to deal with its unsolved murder problem.

In perhaps the oddest story, in 1913, Elmira Humane Officer John Dilmore was hailed as a local Sherlock Holmes for his deductive skills. Investigating a residence on John Street, Dilmore confronted the owner about not feeding his duck. The owner asked how Dilmore knew he hadn't fed it and Dilmore replied that it hadn't snowed since five days past and there weren't any duck prints in the snow to the feeding area. Dilmore said the man needed to feed the duck or kill it, so the man killed it.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Well Born?: America's Troubling Fascination with Eugenics


By Rachel Dworki, Archivist
As part of their quest for more ‘scientific charity,’ the Elmira Federation for Social Services published a genealogical study of 67 impoverished local families as part of their 1912 annual report. The study tracked instances of alcoholism, criminality, blindness, deafness, feeble mindedness, insanity, epilepsy, tuberculosis, and sexual immorality amongst Elmira’s poor. “Since we are not a large manufacturing center, this problem of degeneracy rather than that of industrialism, is the chief cause of our poverty,” the report concluded. The main problem then was not a lack of quality housing, education or employment, but the fact that degenerates kept breeding with other degenerates. The question was what to do about it. “Has a community any right to allow the bringing into the world of offspring which it must in self-defense and for the children’s own sake, take away from the parents?” As far as the Federation was concerned, the answer was no. 

Genealogical chart from Elmira Federation for Social Services study. Alcoholic dad with feeble-minded brother produces feeble-minded kids & grandkids.

Eugenics, or the science of breeding better humans, was all the rage in Elmira in the first quarter of the 20th century. In fact, it was all the rage throughout the Western world. The term was first coined by British scientist Sir Francis Galton in 1883. Galton and his supporters argued that superior humans should breed more and inferior breed less. The cause was taken up in the United States by Charles Davenport, who established a eugenics laboratory and records office at Cold Spring Harbor, New York in 1904. 

For the next few decades, Americans on both sides of the political spectrum turned to eugenics as a cure for social ills. Eugenics, supporters claimed, would reduce infant mortality, save tax payers money, and reduce crime. In a 1919 study of repeat offenders incarcerated at the Elmira Reformatory, Superintendent Dr. Frank L. Christian concluded that nearly 50 percent of habitual criminality was caused by medical conditions like epilepsy and congenital insanity or feeble-mindedness. He was just one of many Elmirans calling for a program of practical eugenics. Other local supporters included Dr. Arthur Booth (founding member of CCHS), social worker Anna Pratt of the Elmira Federation, Elmira College professor Charles Reitzel, Rev. Arthur B. Rudd of Grace Episcopal Church, and the editorial staff of the Elmira Star-Gazette

The laws based on eugenic theory were deeply troubling. They impacted everything from immigration policy to marriage to reproductive health care. In 1896, Connecticut became the first state to mandate pre-marriage health screenings and ban people with certain conditions from marrying. Many other states quickly followed suit. Indiana became the first state to pass an involuntary sterilization law in 1907 and, once again, others soon did the same. Although the laws were aimed at the intellectually disabled and mentally ill, they were often used as population control against Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, and the poor. The practice of forced sterilization continued well into the 1980s and many of the laws are still on the books.
Poor Elmira family, ca. 1920.

During the 1930s and 40s, Nazi Germany took American eugenic theory and practices to their horrifyingly logical conclusion by systematically murdering ‘unfit’ individuals like the physically and mentally disabled, the mentally ill, homosexuals, and ethnic minorities. For American eugenicist, it was a sobering mirror to look into and the movement fell out of favor in the 1950s. Despite now being considered ablest, racist junk science, many eugenics-based laws still remain on the books.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Fickle Fashion: The Bustle

by Erin Doane, Curator

Many fashion trends are loved by some and loathed by others. I’ve always been a big fan of the bustle; especially the outrageously large ones of the 1880s. The bustle, a pad or framework worn under a dress to support the back drapery of the skirt, became very popular in the early 1870s. It came back into fashion about ten years later and was at its most exaggerated around 1885. At that time, the perfect bustle was so prominent and substantial that a tea tray could be comfortably balanced upon it.

Fashion plate showing bustled dresses, mid-1880s, from Wikipedia Commons
 Until I began digging more into the social history of the bustle rather than just the fashion history, I did not realize how hated the garment was. It was the source of aggravation and embarrassment. Trolley conductors rejoiced when it began going out of style in the late 1880s. Fashion writers in the late 1890s and early 1900s, called the bustle “unsightly” and declared it unbecoming, ungraceful, and uncomfortable.

Portrait of an unidentified couple, 1880s
An incident dubbed “one of the most distressing of the year” took place in Elmira in 1888. The Elmira Telegram reported on a local lady living in the first ward who had a terrible experience with her bustle. The unnamed woman was the wife of a well-to-do gentleman. She was not obliged to do her own housework but she chose to because she was such a good homemaker. One day, she was in a hurry to run an errand and decided it was not worth getting all dressed up. She was already wearing a good calico wrapper so she put on her sacque coat and tied on her bustle underneath it to give it “the proper swing.” She returned home after a successful trip, took off the sacque, and went about her day’s work. When the milkman arrived at her door she greeted him then remained on her front stoop to enjoy a passing parade of young minstrels. She enjoyed the music but she wondered why many in the crowd look at her with so much interest. Upon going back inside, she caught sight of herself in the hall mirror. She was still wearing her bustle on the outside of her wrapper! “The lady will not be comforted,” the Telegram reported. “It is said that in her dreams she sees bustles of all sorts, shades and sizes floating around in space, and after each one is a crowd of grinning boys.”


Advertisement for Langtry bustles, for sale in Elmira at
Dey Brothers, Durland & Pratt, and B. Erlich & Son, 1888
TheElmira Telegram reported that conductors in Philadelphia were glad to see the bustle go as the trend began to fade in the late 1880s. Part of a conductor’s job was to efficiently fill the seats, making sure as many passengers as possible could ride. In the morning, that was a relatively easy task. Women who were up and on the trolley before 9:00am generally had work to do and were not wearing bustles. By mid-day, however, middle and upper class women came out to shop dressed in the latest, greatest fashions. One conductor observed that “some of the appendages [bustles] are so large that when eight or ten women are standing up not even a thin man can get a chance at a strap.”


Bustles in CCHS's collection, 1880s, left to right: padded bustle; bustle made
of three coiled metal springs with cotton cover; metal mesh bustle
One man who was not entirely pleased with the sudden decline of the bustle was a furniture maker who developed a new design for a sewing chair. An article in the Telegram in 1888 reported that the unnamed craftsman created a chair that extended out in the back to accommodate the bustle. He patented the design and built a stock of the chairs to display for sale just as the bustle went out of fashion. I searched for the ill-timed patent but, since the newspaper did not give the man’s name or any other specific information, I had no luck in finding it.

Cage crinoline/bustle combination, 1883
The bustle abruptly disappeared from fashion around 1890. An article in the Elmira Daily Gazette and Free Press on July 18, 1891 asked “What has become of the bustle?” The writer explained that “in their palmy days there were millions of the unsightly things worn by women in every station of life” but now the garment can no longer be found for sale. A Gazette article a year and a half later stated that “thousands of women protested that they would perish beside their bustles before giving them up but now the bustle is as extinct as the dodo or the plesiosaurus.”

Group portrait of ladies wearing dresses with bustles, 1880s
Rumors of the bustle’s return to fashion appeared throughout the 1890s and the early 1900s. The garment’s reappearance was not seen as a good thing. The Dress Gossip column in a 1906 issue of the Elmira Telegram addressed the newest round of rumors. “It does not seem credible that sensible women, women with an eye to her own personal appearance and grace of movement, would for one moment contemplate with any degree of patience an attempt to bring into vogue the unbecoming fashion of a past generation.” Nevertheless, the writer declared it was “just as well to prepare for the worst,” i.e. the return of the bustle to mainstream fashion, despite the opinion that “it always was an ungraceful, uncomfortable fashion, this bustle business, and partook considerably of the character of an absurdity.” Those who disliked the bustle so much were likely relieved that it never did return as a major fashion trend.