Monday, October 26, 2015

The Forgotten War

by Rachel Dworkin, archivist
            During our Ghost Walk trivia contest I asked the contestants which war the Hiker Monument in Wisner Park was dedicated to.   The answer is the Spanish-American War of 1898, but none of the contestants were able to guess that without first cycling through every American war.  Some folks like to claim that the Korean War is America’s forgotten war, but after 10 seasons of MASH, I think we can all agree that the Spanish-American War is the one that no one can actually remember. 

Postcard of the Hiker Monument in Wisner Park
            So just what was the Spanish-American War and how did it start?  The Spanish colony of Cuba had been rebelling against Spain on-and-off since the 1860s.  In 1895, the third war for Cuban independence began.  America, by and large, supported the rebels.  Cuba was a major American trading partner and there was a strong desire among hawks to obtain a Caribbean military base.  The Cuba Libre movement, centered around Florida and New York City, helped to provide money and smuggled weapons to the independence movement and while working hard to lobby the cause to the American public.  President McKinley was reluctant to get involved militarily and instead tried to force a peaceful solution to the conflict.  On November 15, 1897, Spain ratified autonomy decrees for Cuba and Puerto Rico, but it did little to quell unrest.   
Elmira Telegram, April 4, 1898
          And then came the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898.  A series of riots had broken out in the city in early January and the ship had been sent to protect American shipping interests.  The ship went down in an explosion which caused the deaths of 266 of the 355 crewmen, the causes of which are still unknown.  Newspapers like Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Hearst’s New York Journal claimed the explosion was Spanish plot and helped push the country towards war.  When Congress officially declared war on April 25, 1898, “Remember the Maine” was the rallying cry.
Front page of the Elmira Telegram, May 1, 1898
            On May 1, 1898, the City of Elmira gave a rounding sendoff to the men of the local 30th Separate Company of the New York National Guard as they marched from the Armory to the trains that would take them to Long Island.  The streets were packed with well wishers including a delegation and marching band from Corning.  The policemen assigned to crowd control were forced to use their billy-clubs to clear the soldiers’ path to the train.   The company of 112 men from Elmira and Horseheads were eager to go but they never actually made it to the conflict.       

            Their first stop was Camp Black, Long Island where they were assigned to the First Battalion and re-designated as Company L.  From there they went for training at Camp Alger in Virginia.  The sanitary conditions at Camp Alger were so appalling that an epidemic of typhoid fever broke out among the men, killing several.  Those not afflicted practiced marching, earning themselves the nickname of “The Hikers.”  Meanwhile, the war in Cuba was doing so well the army decided to send the entire First Battalion home on September 12th.  The men of Company L were officially mustered out December 10, 1898.

Company L men at Camp Alger, July 4, 1898
            Hostilities in the Spanish-American War were officially halted on August 12, 1898, although the Battle of Manila ended up taking place the following day.  After months of negotiations, the Treaty of Paris was signed on December 10, 1898 and ratified by Congress on February 6, 1899.  As a result, Cuba became an independent nation and the United States gained the territories of Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines.  Thanks to the Camp Alger disaster, they also learned a valuable lesson about sanitation.  Following the war, the Army Medical Corps issued new regulations about sanitation standards which greatly reduced the loss of life due to disease in later wars.   

Company L on the steps of City Hall,  December 10, 1898

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Amusing Instructor

by Erin Doane, curator

Board games have been around since the earliest days of human civilization.  By the late 19th century, families in the United States were seeing an increase in their leisure time and sought new things to do. Companies responded by producing more board games in greater varieties. The Amusing Instructor is a board game invented in 1887 by Joseph H. Beach of Elmira. This educational game includes a game board with a central spinner and two chalk boards and a booklet containing instructions for playing 35 different games that can be adapted to all grades of intelligence.

Joseph H. Beach is first listed in the Elmira City directories in 1878 as a yard keeper at the Elmira Reformatory. By 1880 he was the principal keeper there. It is not certain whether he was still working at the Reformatory when he invented The Amusing Instructor in 1887. By 1889, though, he had gone into real estate as a career. He retired around 1922 and either moved or passed away around 1935. He is no longer listed in the directories at that point.

On the first page of The Amusing Instructor’s instruction booklet, Beach explains why he chose to create this educational game. In his own words he had, “at various times, had occasion to search through store after store for the purpose of selecting suitable games to present to his young friends, and it has occasionally transpired that after having made careful selections, after patient investigation, he has still felt that he was not quite satisfied with his purchase, for the reason that he had been looking for something that he could not find. He desired to procure games that possessed not only the merit to amuse, but also desired, if possible, to procure games that possessed the additional advantage of imparting useful knowledge; and he ofttimes found himself wondering why persons devising new games had not more frequently had in view, in their construction, the idea of the development of the mind.”

The game board Beach created was designed so that people could play games of letters, words and sentences, games of numbers, and geographical games all on the same board. Children could learn the alphabet, orthography, figures, the locations and sizes of lakes, and many other things playing this game. On the game’s cover there is the claim that “The Amusing Instructor is the most desirable game board in existence.” Several of the 14 reasons for this claim are that the games played afford pleasure by harmless amusement; that useful knowledge is rapidly acquired by persons playing the games; that in many of these games there are elements of the greatest uncertainty; and that the board itself is not cheaply made.

The instruction booklet also includes “A Paradise for Puzzlers” containing puzzles, conundrums, tricks, fortune tellers, etc. If one wanted the correct answers to all the puzzles and explanations of how to do the trick, one only had to send five 2-cent postage stamps to him in the mail. Unfortunately for us, neither of our two copies of The Amusing Instructor came with the answer key!

Monday, October 12, 2015

George "Cyclone" Williams: Elmira's Sensational Battler

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

George “Cyclone” Williams was a local African-American boxer during the 1910s and 1920s, who billed himself as "Elmira's Sensational Battler." He earned the nickname “Cyclone” for his speed and tenacity. A lightweight, The Buffalo Courier called him "a slam-bang fighter, who fights every minute." The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle said he "has a bag full of tricks." The Elmira Herald called him "a pocket edition of Jack Dempsey."
Williams' letterhead
During this era, often white boxers wouldn’t fight black boxers.  In a 1912 fight in Buffalo,  no fighters would go against him. A report stated, “Nobody wanted anything of Williams’ game. Some wouldn't make a match because they drew the color line. Hitherto they had been fighting all shades and all kinds. Others developed sore hands, bum arms, boils, and anything else that sounded good.”  Fans showed their support of Williams after he was disqualified from a 1919 fight in Waverly for allegedly hitting below the belt.  Williams had out boxed his opponent the entire match.  A report said of Williams, “Williams has been a conspicuous figure in the boxing game here and throughout this vicinity for many years. During that time he has earned an unusual reputation as a sportsmanlike fighter. His ring tactics and conduct have always gained him the popularity and confidence of the boxing public.”
Cyclone boxed for 20 years. When he retired, he figured that he’d been through 20 years of fighting with fewer injuries than most fighters, so he owed God for protection.  A group of his Elmira friends got money together to send him to Elmira Free Academy, Cook Academy, and then Berkeley Divinity School in New Haven, CT.  He was a pastor in several cities and towns, including Elmira, Corning, and Waverly.
He picked up other jobs to support himself while he was a pastor: he was a theater janitor, owned a valet service, and was a steam bath operator and masseur. He briefly ran a newsstand and shoe shine under the Erie Viaduct, about which he joked he ran a business with a million dollar overhead.
Later in life Cyclone reflected on his boxing career and thought that he’d have been world champion if he was white.  He claimed that politics kept him out of the matches that he should have been in.  He also hated modern boxing because it wasn’t aggressive enough.   He said unlike modern fighters, he always fought until the bell rang.

He died of an apparent heart attack in 1958 at age 70.  In 2011, author Andrea Davis Pinkney, Williams’ great-granddaughter, wrote the children’s book, Bird in a Box, a fictional story of a black boxer, inspired in part by Williams.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Puttin’ on the Ritz

by Rachel Dworkin, archivist
Most people have a pretty good idea of what a 1920s-era flapper looked like, but do you know how a fashionable young man of the period would have looked?  Using examples from Sears catalogs, here’s a look at what the well-dressed man of the 1920s was wearing from the top of his hat to the tips of his shoes.

Hats – During the 1920s, no respectable person would be seen out of doors without a hat, and that included men.  Different types of men wore different types of hats.  Laborers wore the newsboy, professionals wore fedoras or homburgs, and summer sportsmen wore boaters.  For more information on men’s hats, check out this blog post for details.
All sorts of hats, 1929
Hair – A man’s hair was to be worn 5” to 7” long and was slicked down and back.  The sides and back were kept short.  To keep hair in place, not to mention looking glossy, men used hair oils like Hair Silk, Glostora or Brilliantine.  While the oils helped keep hair smooth and flat, they often stained hats, pillows, chair backs, and pretty much anything hair came in contact with.  
A selection of products to make your hair extra slick
Facial hair – These days the perma-stubble look is in, but in the 1920s, your average young man would have been clean-shaven.  A mustache, maybe, but anything more would be pushing it.  New technologies like safety razors made shaving a breeze.  For more on the history of shaving, check out this blog post.

Ties – The bowtie had been the preferred neckwear of the 1800s, but by the 1920s it was losing ground to the necktie.  Bowties, especially in vibrant colors and patterns, remained popular as summer wear, but for the rest of the year the necktie was king.  Bright colors and patterns were in, especially stripes.  Since most people wore them with three piece suits, ties tended to be short.  For formal wear, white bowties remained a must. 
I wish this ad was in color
Shirts and Collars – Victorian shirt collars were detached for easy washing and so starched they could stand on their own.  The 1920s were a period of transition between this older style and the attached, soft collars we have today. 
Note the mix of shirts with and without collars.
A selection of detachable collars, cuff links and garters for keeping up your socks.
Suits – For a gentleman out on the town, a three piece suit was a must.  Most older business men tended to wear double-breasted suits with slightly cinched-in waists and hip-length jackets.  Fashionable young men preferred the so-called Ivy League or Cake Eater suits which were single-breasted with narrow lapels, longer jackets and very wide pants.  Conservative dressers preferred darker, solid colors like Navy blue, black, dark gray or brown.  They younger set went in for lighter shades with stripes, chevrons and twills.  In the summer, less conservative types might often forgo the vest under the jacket. 
Fashionable young Cake Eaters and that one weird kid in a double-breasted suit
Shoes – The lace-up book had been the style for decades.  While they remained popular with workers and conservative types, the Oxford shoe became the style of the day.  Most were either brown or black, but two-toned shoes became popular in more casual settings.   

An assortment of Oxford shoes.
If you’d like to learn more about fashion in the 1920s, be sure to come to today’s Out to Lunch Lecture on life in the 1920s.