Monday, July 25, 2016

Gender Bending in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries

by Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

Check out those bloomers!
We have a fantastic set of glass plate images in our collection of a group of friends or family in the early 20th century who seem to have been having a lot of fun swapping clothes. The men are dressed in skirts, women's hats, cloaks, accessories, and even some underpinnings. The women are in pants, men's hats, and even sport some fake facial hair. All in all, this group with their party scenes, complete with alcohol, counter some of people's preconceived notions about gender in the Gilded Age and Progressive eras. In a time we often assume is overrun with Victorian prudery, people played with gender norms and performance. The main way this manifested was in female impersonation. To be clear, this is not the same as our modern understanding of being transgender, gay, or a drag queen. Female impersonation, as discussed in this blog post, was a popular and respected theatrical specialization.
More from our glass plate negative collection

 The origins of men dressing as women in theater dates back centuries. Common in Shakespearean performances and in those by all-male troupes, female impersonation began, in part, as a necessity. Fast forward to the 19th century, and female impersonation was a staple of traveling minstrel troupes, which again, were mostly male. These roles were often played for comedic value, and in the case of minstrel shows, they often upheld racial and gender stereotypes.  

By the early 1900s, Julian Eltinge was the most famous female impersonator. Known for his uncanny portrayal of a woman in Vaudeville, on Broadway, and later in film, Eltinge was a celebrity. Eltinge toured the world, and made appearances in Elmira.
From 1918
But there were other performers, too, even if they didn't match Eltinge's fame. In 1892, Elmirans Fred Gibson and Harry Graves found fame in Vaudeville. In one act, the did "a small dude song and dance, changing in full view of the audience to a female impersonation skirt dance." Elmiran Matt Lockwood, an actor and costumer, was known for his humorous female portrayals, especially of old women. A performance by the Elmira Free Academy minstrels in 1910 featured, as its main plot point, a female impersonator who infiltrated a fraternity house. The humor came when "he unmasks to the dismay of his amiable fraternity brothers who have accorded him the most flattering courtesies." That same year, the members of Company L enjoyed a performance by a female impersonator named "Lottie Duval." The performance was so "clever" that some of the men didn't know he was a man until he took off his wig.

In 1923, the Cornell Masques performed "Listen to Me" at the Lyceum Theater, which featured student Al Force in the role of Peggy Lang. We have a composite photograph of Force in both his street clothes and his Peggy costume. The next year, former Elmiran George Bracken worked with the Neil O'Brien Minstrels, performing twice per show as a female impersonator.

Al Force as Peggy Lang
Cross-dressing in the theater served many purposes. It was sometimes about trickery, but often the actors were not really trying too hard to disguise their actual gender. And while I've focused primarily on female impersonation in this blog, male impersonation was also a popular theatrical attraction in this period. Ultimately, impersonation was supposed to be fun entertainment, and we can see from photographs like those from our collection, how this spirit of lighthearted gender-bending bled into the lives of non-actors.  
More from our collection


Monday, July 18, 2016

Sorry to Disappoint

by Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

I’m sorry, we don’t have that.  Despite working in an amazing archive, I find myself having to say that with surprising frequency, especially to genealogists.  The sad truth is, as a private repository, we don’t have a lot of the official records genealogists are looking for.  So, where can people find records? 
Birth, Death & Marriage Records

We do not have any birth, death or marriage records for Chemung County. Those are held by the Chemung County Office of Vital Statistics, a division of the Chemung County Department of Health (

Form for registering live births from the O'Connor Private Hospital in Elmira, ca. 1920s
The State of New York only began collecting official birth, death and marriage records in 1880, so if you are looking for earlier ones they simply do not exist.  So, when trying to prove your ancestors existed and were related to each other, you might have to get creative.  Like they do today, old-timey newspapers often posted birth, death and marriage announcements.  Both the Chemung County Historical Society and the Steele Memorial Library have fairly good runs of 19th century newspapers from the 1850s on.  Despite the name, the website Fulton County Postcards (, has a searchable, on-line database of scanned newspapers from around New York state.
Religious institutions are another excellent source of records.  Most churches, synagogues, and pastors kept a log of services preformed including baptisms, from the First Baptist Church of Elmira and itinerant preacher Joseph L. Riggs.  If you know which denomination your ancestors were, and if the church/synagogue still exists, the chances are good that you can find the records. 

Military Records
A lot of people’s ancestors served in the military.  U.S. military records for all branches of service are held by the National Archives and can be requested via their website:

Wills and other probate records dealing with inheritance are held by the Chemung County Surrogate’s Court ( They cover from 1835 onwards and are available upon request.  Some records were lost or damaged by various area floods, so keep that in mind.

Prison Records
Elmira is home to the New York State Reformatory and over the years, quite a few people have been incarcerated there. Unfortunately, we do not have their records.  Those are held by the New York State Archives.  A finding aide to the records can be found here: 


Monday, July 11, 2016

War Production at Eclipse

by Erin Doane, curator

During World War II, the Eclipse plant in Elmira Heights was part of the United States’ “arsenal for democracy.” Eclipse started making bicycles and coaster brakes at the plant in 1895. In 1938, the company became a division of the Bendix Aviation Corp. and began the switch from producing bicycle parts and engine starters to ordnance for the war effort. Over the course of the war, Eclipse Machine Division produced anti-aircraft shells, automatic time fuzes for the anti-aircraft shells, and 20mm aircraft cannons. It also continued to make Bendix starter drives for military vehicles, as well as, aircraft magnetos and fuel injection pumps for the B-29 Super-Fortress.

Eclipse Machine Division executives, 1943
The wartime production boom created thousands of jobs in the area. In January 1940, the Eclipse Machine Division employed 715 people. Just three years later, in January 1943, it hit its peak payroll of 8,594 workers. Most areas of the country were suffering from a labor shortage with so many people serving in the military. At Eclipse, 1,249 men and 152 women had gone off to fight. 36 of them died in service. Because of the labor shortage, many of the plant’s new employees were women. In fact, there were more women working as hourly-rated employees at the plant at one time than there were men.

Eclipse employee packing fuzes in a crate, 1942
Manufacturing work had traditionally been done by men, so Eclipse officials had to recruit women for jobs that had never been open to them at the plant before. One of their campaigns to draw more women into factory work was a bit condescending. In it, various jobs at the plant were compared to typical women’s work at home. June Nolan was able to weld contact points on aircraft magneto coils because the iron was so similar to the one she used to curl her hair. Mrs. Edith Houston could bake coils in a small oven at the plant because she baked cakes back home in her own kitchen. And Mrs. James E. Hemenway could wind magneto coils even though her only vocational background was tying corsages in her florist shop.

In 1941, Eclipse opened a modern air-conditioned plant with over 200,000 square feet of manufacturing space to meet the high demand for its wartime products. Employees at the new plant built 5,000 Army mechanical time fuzes and 3,000 Navy fuzes each day. Eclipse was the first company to mass produce the intricate automatic time fuzes that exploded anti-aircraft shells at desired altitudes. Three shifts of works produced the fuzes around the clock. By the end of the war, Eclipse had produced over 23 million of them.

Eclipse plant in Elmira Heights
Automatic time fuzes produces by Eclipse
The plant also produced 600 20mm aircraft cannons each month. Eclipse contracted with the War Department in 1940 to produce the cannons. Previously, the gun had been made in France and there were only three samples of it in the United States. Engineers at Eclipse used the existing guns to reverse-engineer the pieces. They measured and drew them, acquired the types of steel and fixtures needed, then tested their designs. In 1941, it is said that golfers playing the 6th hole at the Mark Twain Golf Course often heard muffled explosions as the Eclipse engineers tested the aircraft cannon in their underground range. The final plans for the cannon were then distributed by the Army to other contractors who also produced the cannons.

Army-Navy "E" award ceremony
On September 25, 1941, Eclipse Machine Division was one of the first companies nationwide to receive the Army-Navy “E” Award. The award was presented for excellence in the production of war equipment. Eclipse was awarded four more over the course of the war – two in 1942, one in 1943, and one with four service stars in 1945. At the award presentation ceremony, the plant received an award banner to display at the facility and each employee received a pin commemorating this shared honor.

Army-Navy "E" banner
"E" award pin
The total war contracts for the Eclipse Machine Division during World War II amounted to $176,800,000, or over $2 billion today. The Elmira Heights plant produced millions of 1.1 projectiles, 23,100,000 automatic time fuses for anti-aircraft shells, 22,500 20mm aircraft cannon, 10,775,000 anti-aircraft shells, 52,000 magnetos for aircraft, and over 22,000 fuel injection pumps.

Employee catching a ride to Eclipse

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Historical Tips For a Safe and Sane 4th of July

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

This 4th of July, take some inspiration from the past while planning your celebration. While some things have changed, more have stayed the same. Remember, people in the past liked to party as much as we do!

Hostesses, make sure your table decor is on point
No pressure, but your reputation as a host is riding on your ability to create a festive, yet tasteful, decorative scheme. Fear not, here are some tips from 1915 to help you out: find red, white, and blue flowers and “arrange the blossoms in moist sand in pyramidal form.” Also “at each place there may be a miniature drum concealing bon-bons in its depths.” You can’t go wrong with a drum full of bon bons! Serve thematically colored foods, like tomato soup, whipped cream, jellied bouillon, crabs, and tartar sauce. Mold Uncle Sam and Miss Columbia out of ice cream and you’re ready to go. Quiz your guests on American History and give a special, dubious award to the “greatest ignoramus present.”
Looks easy, right? Just add some jellied bouillon and you're ready to entertain.
Leave the fireworks to the professionals
This one has always been controversial, but in 1910, Dr. Charles Haase implored Elmirans to do away with the dangerous tradition of amateur fireworks. The American Medical Association attributed 215 deaths to fireworks in 1909. These also included conditions like lockjaw (Tetanus) contracted from fireworks-related injuries. He argued that if Elmira was really a “progressive” city, it would eliminate “this barbarous way of celebrating.”
You probably shouldn't let your small children play with fireworks, no matter what this early 20th century postcard depicts.

Stock up on flags
Iszard’s has got your back on this one. Check out these amazing deals on flags from 1911! Every home should have one! And while you’re there, make sure to get your ice cream-making supplies: how else are you going to mold Uncle Sam out of ice cream. Think of your guests!

When invited to parties, make sure to bring your lady
Being the popular person you are, certainly you’ve been invited to a lot of parties this 4th. Do your best to make an appearance at them all, like these parties on the same day at the same time in Wellsburg and Southport in 1867. And make sure you bring both yourself and your lady.

The Eldridge Park Casino is the place to be
These pictures are from the Centennial celebration in 1876. Looks pretty fun! Go out and plant a celebratory tree!

Play pin-the-goatee on Uncle Sam
This was all the rage for children in 1914. Flag hunts are good, too. 

When in doubt, just get a big flag and a small dog
You can’t go wrong with this combination, as evidenced below: