Monday, December 30, 2013

Hats Off: The Menfolk Edition

by Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

While today a man in a hat is a rare thing, there was once a time when no respectable person would venture out of doors without one.  A man’s hat said a lot about him.  Different styles were worn by different classes of people.  Some styles were worn only for certain occasions or seasons.  Here is a handy-dandy visual guide based on our photograph collection.

Bower or Derby Hat

Man with bowler hat, ca. 1880s
The bowler hat, also known as a derby, is a hard felt-covered hat with a rounded crown.  It was originally designed by the London haberdashers Thomas and William Bowler for Lord Edward Coke in 1849.  He wanted a durable work hat for his gamekeepers which could stay on through rough riding and not lose it shape in the face of tree branches.

The hat quickly became the preferred hat of the working class on both sides of the Atlantic.  In America, it was worn by rural and urban laborers alike, everyone from cowboys to cops.  By the late-1800s, it had also become an informal hat worn by middle class types as well.


Man with homburg, 1880s
The homburg is a formal felt hat characterized by a single dent running down the center of the crown and a stiff brim with curled up edges.  During the 1800s it was worn by middle and upper class professional types for everyday wear and by working-class men on formal occasions. It has since fallen out of style.


Man with fedora, ca. 1930s
The fedora began as the women’s equivalent of the homburg.  In fact, it closely resembles the homburg but is pinched on either side of the center dent.  During the 1890s and early-1900s, it was, along with the shirtwaist, part of the uniform of the new professional woman.  In the 1910s and ‘20s, men began to wear them too and, by the 1940s, the fedora had replaced the homburg as the preferred hat for professional men. 

Top Hat

Knights of Columbus in top hats, ca. 1920s
The top hat is a tall, flat-crowned hat with broad brim.  It first appeared in the 1790s among the gentlemen and dandies of Europe but, within 20 years, became popular with all classes of men.  The top hat peaked in popularity in the 1850s.  By the late-1800s it had, once again, become a style associated with wealthy urban elites and formal occasions. 

Pork Pie Hat

Like the fedora, the pork pie hat was originally worn by women.  The pork pie hat is a small, round hat with a narrow brim and a low crown with a crease running around the inside top edge.  Apparently it resembles a pork pie (hence the name), but not one that I’ve ever seen.  It first appeared on the scene in the 1830s and was a popular ladies’ hat on both sides of the Atlantic through the 1860s. 

Around 1900, it came back in England as a men’s hat, but didn’t catch on in the United States until the 1920s when actor Buster Keaton made it the hat for the cool young man-about-town.  The style had its heyday in the 1930s and 40s, especially among artists, jazz musicians and the urban youth.  Even today it remains popular among African-Americans, jazz aficionados and hipsters.       

Newsboy Cap

American LaFrance workers
and their hats, ca. 1920s
Despite the name, the newsboy cap was popular with males of all ages.  The cap has a full, rounded body and a stiff brim in front.  The style was made famous by the newsboys of New York City during the late-1800s, but it was actually worn by laborers of all ages.  By the 1920s, it had supplanted the bowler as the hat for the working class man.  It was also popular among wealthier types for outdoor sporting activities like hunting, driving or golf.    


Man with boater, ca. 1890s
The boater hat was a formal summer hat worn by both men and women which came into use in the late-1800s.  It is a stiff straw hat with a flat crown and brim usually decorated with a ribbon around the crown.  The boater was originally associated with outdoor summer activities like boating or sailing, hence the name.  These days it is also associated with barber shop quartets and fancy prep school uniforms.  

Now for the test.  Can you name all the hats in this picture?

Men in hats, ca. 1900s

Monday, December 23, 2013

Festivus: A Celebration (For the Rest of Us) through Artifacts

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

December 23rd is Festivus, the satirical holiday popularized by Seinfeld in the late 1990s.  A reaction against the commercialization of Christmas, Festivus was an annual tradition of the family of show writer Dan O’Keefe before it got the TV treatment.  Festivus celebrations feature an unadorned Festivus pole, the Airing of Grievances, and Feats of Strength.  

Now, how does Festivus relate to the history of Chemung County?  Well, truthfully it doesn’t really.  However, since Festivus has become such a cultural phenomenon (for example, I’ve never celebrated it yet somehow I have learned all of its traditions through cultural osmosis), I thought that it would be fun to use it as a lens through which to highlight some objects in our collection.  No, they aren’t Festivus objects, but we can still have some fun looking at them in the spirit of the day.

Let’s start with the Festivus pole.  The centerpiece of any Festivus celebration, this is typically an unadorned aluminum pole.  Here is a flag pole from our collection.  Now, this is wood and the eagle at the top and the tassel would make it a little overdressed for a traditional Festivus pole, but we’ll go with it anyway.

Next, we’ll move on to the Airing of Grievances.  In this tradition, one tells others all of the ways that they have been a disappointment during the year.  To illustrate the Airing of Grievances, I present to you samples from a newspaper column written by Robert Quillen in the 1920s and 1930s.  In these articles, Quillen discusses all of the problems that he sees with modern society, from immoral ways to a lack of “proper” education.  He also wrote a series of open letters to his “flapper” daughter that I will explore in a future blog post.  Below are two examples of Quillen’s work, colorfully titled, “Woe to the Man Who Has Only a Fork When the Soup is Served” and “If You Flavor the Ice Cream with Garlic, Why Blame the Freezer?”

Finally, the main event: Feats of Strength.  In a Festivus celebration, after dinner the guests wrestle or otherwise vie for physical dominance against their host.  I’ve selected a couple of items that showcase various types of strength. 

Cyclone Williams was a local African-American boxer.  His wonderful letterhead features him in his boxing attire and bills him as “Elmira’s Sensational Battler.”

This is an image from an early Chemung County fair.  An acrobat performs his impressive stunts as a crowd of dapper spectators look on.  Notice the acrobat hanging from the bar with one arm- a feat of strength indeed, especially as there is no safety net below.    

Monday, December 16, 2013

A Big Change Coming in the New Year

by Erin Doane, Curator

Nearly fifteen years ago the exhibit A Community Album opened here in the Museum’s main gallery. While the exhibit has seen updates over the years with additions of some new and different objects it is certainly time for a change.  With the generous support of the Community Foundation of Elmira-Corning and the Finger Lakes, Inc., that major change is about to take place.

A Community Album - on display through December
Over the past year we have been collecting information to help us redesign the gallery. (See how we collected some of that information here.)  We learned about what visitors like and don’t like in the current exhibit and about what they want to know more about.  Some of the old favorites will remain – everyone loves the tusk! – but the gallery will have an entirely different look when it reopens in early 2014.  The new exhibit will tell a general history of Chemung County from its earliest settlement to the end of the 20th century.  We look forward to adding more personal quotes from those who actually lived the history and to offering more opportunities for visitors to interact with the history.  The portion of the exhibit dedicated to Mark Twain will be expanded slightly and will focus on the places and people he knew in Elmira. 

Mark Twain in A Community Album
We will be closing A Community Album to the public at the end of December in order to make these big changes.  The new exhibit will be unveiled just a couple short months later at an exclusive members only event.  If you are not already a member of CCHS this is the perfect time to join and be one of the first to see this new exhibit.

Don’t worry that there will be nothing else to see at the museum in January and February while this one gallery is closed.  ‘Til Death Do Us Part: Wedding and Funeral Traditions in Chemung County will still be on display in the Brick Barn Gallery and Civil War in the Attic: A Showcase of Local Civil War Collectors remains in the Howell Gallery.  In addition, we will be opening our newest exhibit Elmira Will See it Through! WWI Fundraising Posters in early January.
'Til Death Do Us Part and Civil War in the Attic
So, visit the Museum for one last look at A Community Album before the end of the year and then come back again and see what has changed in early spring 2014.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Things We Don't Like To Talk About

by Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

A patron recently told me about his grandfather’s involvement in the KKK.  It wasn’t something he was proud of, but he felt it was something he needed to acknowledge, the darkness within his family, the darkness within America’s past.  Talking about the Ku Klux Klan is incredibly difficult.  For African-Americans, it can be a traumatic reminder of oppressive violence.  For whites, it is often something shameful.  Still, it is something which we, as Americans, need to discuss precisely because it is difficult.
In the years following the Civil War, previously enslaved blacks began to educate themselves, acquire wealth and even hold elected office.  For the whites who used to own them, this was deeply troubling.  The Ku Klux Klan was formed as a way to reestablish and maintain power over newly freed blacks through intimidation, violence and murder.  With the end of Southern Reconstruction and the disenfranchisement of African-Americans, the Klan started to die out.

In 1915 pioneer filmmaker D.W. Griffith made The Birth of a Nation based off of the 1905 novel The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan.  Both the film and the book portrayed the Klan, not as a terroristic organization, but as valiant knights fighting to protect virtuous white women from scary black men.  When the film came to Elmira’s Lyceum Theatre, local African-Americans drafted a resolution condemning it and asking that it be banned in the city.  After previewing the film, Mayor Hoffman told the theatre to cut certain scenes which he found particularly offensive and wound up being sued by the film’s producers.  The Elmira Advertiser printed a rather scathing indictment of the movie, but none of it stopped the theatre from showing it or Elmirans from flocking to see it.

Following the release of the film the Klan had a massive resurgence, not just in the South, but in the nation as a whole.  This time, the focus was not only on blacks, but also the perceived threat to white Anglo-Saxon Protestant hegemony posed by Catholic and Jewish immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe.  The new Klan was part social-fraternal order and mutual aid society, part political organization and part violent criminal and terrorist organization.  At its peak in the 1920s, there were over 4 million members. 

KKK Song Book, ca. 1920s

The Klan was quite active in the Southern Tier during this period.  In July 1925, Elmira was host to a Klorero, or annual gathering of New York State Klansmen, which lasted for days.  The event included tours of area historic sites, lectures, marching band and drill competitions, a parade down Church Street and a cross burning at the Fairgrounds.  Over 6,000 people attended and numerous local business and organizations, including the Elmira Association of Commerce, took out ads in the event program.

Elmira Klorero program, 1925

The history of the Ku Klux Klan is uncomfortable and unsettling.  How could otherwise decent people participate in an organization which was explicitly racist and anti-immigrant?  How did their activities impact the people around them? How did others respond and fight back?  All of these are important, if difficult, questions which need answering.  To do that, we must be willing to talk about those parts of history most people would rather not discuss. 

Klan on parade down Church St., July 1925

Monday, December 2, 2013

Marvelous Living Pictures: Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope in Elmira

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

Film is such a significant and omnipresent part of modern life that it is difficult to imagine an era with “motion picture shows.”  That is one of the reasons that I have long found the early years of film making so fascinating.  Once motion picture technologies were developed, they evolved quickly leading to the rise of the silents and beyond.  In this blog post, however, I want to bring us back to the earliest public introduction of moving images and the first time people from the Chemung Valley would have encountered this radically transformative medium.

In 1894 Thomas Edison and his assistants introduced the kinetoscope to the American public.  When he patented the invention years earlier, he named it from the Greek "kineto" meaning "movement" and "scopos" meaning "to watch."  Edison wasn’t the first to experiment with this technology, with Eadweard Muybridge and his Zoopraxiscope notably coming before.  However, his invention was the first to have such a public impact.

A Kinetophone- A kinetoscope combined with phonography technology, circa 1895
A kinetoscope is a personal film viewer.  A person looked through a peephole in the top of the machine as a film strip on a spinning wheel passed over a light.  Kinetoscope parlors popped up in major cities and individual machines would pass through other areas as a kind of traveling curiosity.  Businesses in Elmira first hosted kinetoscopes in September of 1894.  The Water Street carpet and drapery shops of Albert Samuel and T.S. Pratt both advertised their temporary possession of one of these new machines for public viewing.  The machine was also displayed at the Chemung County fairgrounds.  By 1897, the Elmira Telegram asserted that almost every man, woman, and child in Elmira had probably encountered a kinetoscope.  An article explained the technology behind the moving images to those who doubted what they saw through the viewers.
A handbill advertising a kinetoscope in Elmira in September of 1894.
In addition to creating the viewing machines, Edison and his team made many films from their "Black Maria" studio in New Jersey.  Many of the early kinetoscope films were targeted at male audiences, meaning they featured boxing matches and “salacious” ankle-showing dancing girls (literal “peep shows”).  While these sights would be considered tame by today’s standards, they did cause quite a bit of controversy when they were introduced.  The Women’s Christian Temperance Union protested the violence of the boxing films and were successful in getting those kinetoscope films banned in a few states.  Watch some of the early films below:

Film technology has clearly progressed from the kinetoscope days.  Just a few years after the kinetoscope’s introduction, the advent of projection technology turned film from an expensive curiosity into a mass culture phenomenon.  Still, in an era of HD, 3D, and whatever technology is soon to come, it is interesting to reflect on our cinematic roots and appreciate the pioneering work of late 19th century inventors.