Monday, April 12, 2021

A Private Woman: The Lucy Diven Diaries

 By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

As an avid diarist, I would be horrified if someone read my diary without my permission. As a historian and archivist, I really love reading other people’s diaries. Luckily, the Chemung County Historical Society has dozens to choose from. They range in date from the 1830s through the 1990s. Their authors are school children, soldiers, farmers, housewives, railroad workers, police officers, secretaries, carpenters, and laborers. Some are rich with detail and some are, well, rather terse.

The thing I like best about diaries is the way they open a window into the daily lives of the past. It’s especially important when the writers weren’t ‘important’ enough to make the papers or the history books. Take Lucy Diven (1833-1888), for example. We recently received a collection of 22 of her diaries dating from 1866 to 1888. She was the wife of lawyer and prominent local businessman, George M. Diven. There’s a local school named after him, but, when I looked her up, all I could find were her birth, death, and marriage dates. Thanks to her diaries, we know so much more. 

Lucy Diven, ca. 1870s

 Lucy Brown Diven was born to Alden and Minerva Brown of Clinton, New York on June 8, 1833. She married George M. Diven of Elmira on June 3, 1863 and the two of them lived in a stately mansion at 957 Lake Street. They had six children: Eugene, Josephine, George, Alexander, Louis, and Clarence. Two of them, Josephine and Clarence, died young and each time Lucy was grief-stricken. The day after baby Clarence died in 1878, Lucy was unable to get out of bed and could not bring herself to face any of the mourners at his funeral. Despite her grief and whatever else was going on in her life, Lucy wrote in her diary nearly every day until the summer before her death when she became too ill to do so. 

some of Lucy's diaries

 Her diaries reveal a busy woman. The Divens employed servants to handle the day-to-day cleaning and cooking, but homemaking was still a full-time job for Lucy. She directed the staff in their work, did all the shopping and fancy baking, and managed the household accounts. Lucy also made all her children’s clothes and most of her own, and did all the family’s mending. Except when her children were ill, it’s rare to find an entry which doesn’t mention one sewing project or another. When her six children were still small, she spent much of her time entertaining them, reading to them, taking them on outings, and caring for them when they were sick. She also had a fairly active social life, frequently paying calls to friends and her in-laws, and hosting them in turn. She liked to read, both for herself and aloud for family and friends. She was a member of a sewing/reading circle where one lady of the group would read aloud while the other ladies worked.

Lucy’s writing style tended to be terse and the amount of detail she put into her entries varied based on the space constraints of the diary itself. Her handwriting was tiny and neat, although it got noticeable harder to read as her health declined in the last few years of her life. Here are some examples:

Lucy's diary, April 10-15, 1866


April 12, 1866

Quicksilver and glue—30 cents

Scissor grinder—15 cents

Received Libbie’s package containing the drawers and sacques.  Wrote to acknowledge it this evening.

April 12, 1870

Hemming the coverlet for William’s bed while taking care of Baby. Freddy Palmer commenced playing with the children. Mrs. Palmer in.

April 12, 1876

Trimmed a pair of drawers and cut out and partially made a new pair for Alden. Julia called to borrow my hat and veil to wear at Mrs. Lowman’s funeral.

April 12, 1880

Wrote mother. Hemmed a night dress. Put the attic in order. Nellie swept it. Commenced finishing up the boys shirtwaists. Played solitaire until Geo. came, then read newspaper stories to him while he played.

April 12, 1886

Sprinkled the plants and did some mending. Afternoon went to see Miss Hunt, then to call on Mrs. Evans, Mrs. Thurston, and Mrs. G___. Missed a call from Mrs. D___. Alden and Louis began school again. Geo. went to N. York on evening train.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Beer Returns to Chemung County

by Erin Doane, Curator

It was 88 years ago this week that people in Elmira and surrounding towns tasted beer again after years of Prohibition. Nationally, Prohibition began on January 17, 1920 but Elmira had gone dry 15 months earlier on October 1, 1918. Between then and April 7, 1933, not a single drop of alcohol passed the lips of anyone in the county.

A group of men eating, drinking, and being merry in 1886

Okay, that’s not true at all. Throughout the entirety of Prohibition, illegal beer and hard liquor had been available (clickhere to read about the Briggs Brewery operation) and some low-alcohol beverages were legal to sell and consume (click here to learn about “near beer” and cereal beverages). For law-abiding beer lovers, however, the years had been quite dry. So, many people were excited when President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Cullen-Harrison Act on March 22, 1933 which legalized beer with an alcohol content of 3.2 percent. Previously under the Volstead Act, all beverages with an alcohol content of over 0.5 percent were illegal. On April 7, 1933, 3.2 percent beer became legal to sell and consume in 19 states, including New York, that did not have state prohibition laws that would supersede the federal legislation.

Map of states (marked in black) where 3.2 percent beer became legal on April 7, 1933, Star-Gazette, March 16, 1933

As soon as the act was signed, breweries jumped into action to get beer legally to their customers. They had two weeks to ramp up production before thirsty men and women could again partake of their beverages. Distributors, wholesalers, and retailers also began scrambling to get the precious brew. For those in Chemung County, the new beer was coming from the American Brewing Company of Rochester, West End Brewing Company of Utica, and from several other breweries in New York or New Jersey. The Nectar Brewery on Tuttle Avenue in Elmira (previously Mander’s Brewery before Prohibition) did not restart its operation until later in April. Briggs Brewery, by the way, did not ever switch to producing the lower-alcohol beer, preferring to continue illegally producing the full-strength stuff. 

The rush between President Roosevelt signing the Cullen-Harrison Act into law and its implementation just 15 days later was not just a challenge for breweries and beer distributors. The new federal law went into effect so quickly that state governments and local municipalities did not have time to make their own regulations. Elmira Police Chief Elvin D. Weaver said that local police had no jurisdiction over the sale of beer until a state law was put into effect as there were no city ordinances governing beer traffic. All that was needed to become a legal beer seller was a retail license, which the federal government was reportedly giving out indiscriminately to anyone who paid the $20 licensing fee. Beer would soon be available at bars, hotels, restaurants, pool halls, grocers, gas stations, and even soft drink stands in parks. 

The intersection of Water and Main Street in Elmira, early 1930s
Some local businesses took polls of their patrons to see if they were interested in buying beer. One unnamed restaurant reported to the Star-Gazette that the vote was 10 to 1 in favor of the sale of beer there. The Mark Twain Hotel manager announced that beer would be offered for sale in the coffee shop and with room services. Other businesses decided to wait and see how the rollout went. There was still considerable opposition to the consumption of alcoholic beverages in Elmira and throughout the entire nation. Frank E. Gannett took a stand against any sort of beer advertisements in his newspapers. Clinton N. Howard of Rochester, one of country’s most militant dry leaders, who had spoken on several occasions in Elmira, sent a message to President Roosevelt that read in part, “with the single exception of the crucifixion of the Son of God by the politicians of Jerusalem, legalization of beer is the crowning infamy of the ages.”

Despite uncertainty and opposition, at the stroke of midnight on Friday, April 7, 1933 barrels and bottles of 3.2 beer were loaded into waiting trucks at the breweries and government seals were broken on railroad cars that had already arrived at distribution hubs. The first shipment arrived in Elmira at 8:00 a.m. with more quickly following. Wholesalers purchased the beer at $2 to $2.50 per case (around $40 to $50 today) then turned around and sold it for 20 cents ($4) a bottle or 10 cents ($2) a glass for draft beer. The demand, however, greatly outpaced the supply and by noon many were left disappointed as they moved from one watering hole to the next searching for the highly-desired beverage. Several restaurants had promised beer with lunch but were not able to deliver. By Saturday morning, the supplies had been replenished and plenty of 3.2 beer was available for the rest of the weekend.

“First Shipment of Legal Beer Arrives This Morning,” Star-Gazette, April 7, 1933
It is estimated that within the first 24 hours, 1.5 million barrels of beer were sold in New York State. Despite not having passed laws yet regulating the new beer trade, Governor Lehman had signed a dollar-a-barrel beer tax in time to collect some substantial revenue for the state. New York City alone made $200,000 in fees from issuing retail permits. Nationally, the stock market rose in the hopes that legal manufacturing and distribution of beer would stimulate business in general.

Locally, the grand rollout of 3.2 beer seemed to have gone smoothly, despite shortages. Elmira police encountered no unusual disturbances that first weekend and reported that it was, in fact, unusually peaceful downtown. By Monday, April 10, “wet hysteria” had died down. In his ‘Round Town column in the Star-Gazette, Matthew Darrin Richardson summed it up by writing, “Beer ought to pretty well recover from its hysteria this week and settle down to regular traffic…By this time Elmirans should have satisfied their curiosity, if not their thirst entirely.”


Monday, March 29, 2021

W. Clyde Fitch, A Father of the American Stage

 by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

Playwright William Clyde Fitch once said he “would rather be misunderstood than lose his independence” and embraced his individualism. As a gay man living at the turn of the twentieth century, Fitch had always lived the life he wanted to, often going against established expectations.

Born in Elmira in 1865, Fitch grew up in Schenectady. His father, William G. Fitch was a former captain in the Union army during the Civil War, and his mother was a vivacious southern belle. Clyde, as he was known, was their only child and he showed an early ability to tell amusing stories and entertain others.

By the time he was in his early teens Fitch was considered a dandy by his peers. He attended Amherst College, graduating in 1886. While a student at Amherst he was known for his keen sense of fashion and amateur acting. He was thought to capture women’s roles quite believably, often dressing in women’s clothing for the stage.

The cast of The Rivals at Amherst College, 1885. Clyde Fitch is seated on the far right.
 Photo courtesy of the Archives & Special Collections blog at Amherst College.
Courtesy of the Archives & Special Collections blog at Amherst College.

After graduation Fitch’s father encouraged him to pursue architecture or business as a career. Fitch had other ideas. The two came to an agreement that his father would support him as a writer in New York City for three years, and if unsuccessful, Fitch would return home and follow his father's advice. He moved to the city and began writing short stories for Life and Puck magazines. His work caught the attention of the renowned New York Times drama critic, E. A. Dithmar and they became good friends. Through this relationship he was commissioned to write his first play “Beau Brummel” (1890) for the popular actor Richard Mansfield. The play dramatizes the life of Brummel, a character in British history who set the standards for men’s good looks and style, and was the very definition of a dandy. The play was a great success and launched Fitch’s playwriting career.

The social satire, biting wit, and intriguing character studies in his plays were popular. Clyde Fitch’s work was so successful that he once had five plays running on Broadway at the same time. He worked with leading actors of the day including Ethel Barrymore, Maude Adams and John Drew Jr. His playwriting earned over $250,000, a sum roughly equivalent to over 7 million dollars today. He spent lavishly on his own lifestyle, and bought residences that included a Manhattan townhouse and “Quiet Corner,” a summer estate in Connecticut.

Between 1890 and 1909, Fitch wrote and adapted more than sixty plays for the stage. In 1909, after suffering many appendicitis attacks, he chose to avoid surgery and to follow the advice of European specialists who suggested an alternative cure. However, Fitch died of sepsis in France, at the age of forty-four. He left his Connecticut estate to the Actor’s Fund of America, and today, his writing is housed in a special collection at Amherst College. He is known as one of the fathers of American drama.

Although Fitch’s work has faded from popularity, Elmira College theater students have recently been studying his drama The Girl with the Green Eyes. At its peak, this 1902 play had a run of 108 performances at the Savoy Theater in New York City and starred top actor Robert Drouet in the lead role. Elmira College Theater Professor Hannah Hammond’s students were blind gender-cast in their roles to honor Fitch, and have shared their reading for you to enjoy.