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. 


Monday, March 22, 2021

Beauty Culture and the Rise of the Hair Salon

by Rachel Dworkin, archivist


In 1895, Joannie De Liebertie launched her business as Elmira’s first French hair dresser. Known as “Dutch Annie,” she worked out of the Italian boarding house she ran with her husband at 104 W. Church Street. At the time, she was one of two dedicated hair dressers in the city. Neither woman ran what we would now think of as a salon. Instead, they worked out of their homes or made house calls, especially for wealthier clients. They were at the forefront of a rapidly expanding industry.

The first hair salon in the United States was opened in Rochester, New York in 1888 by Martha Matilda Harper (1857-1950). Traditionally, women’s hair dressing had been done in the home by servants, visiting hairdressers, or family members. The Harper Method Hair Parlour was designed to resemble a men’s barbershop with multiple work stations and places for clients to sit and socialize while they waited. Harper offered not only haircuts and stylings, but also shampooing using her own special formula. She even invented the first reclining salon chair and had specially designed sinks for hair-washing. In 1891, she authorized what would become the first of many franchise shops in Buffalo, New York. At the time of her death in 1950, there were 350 Harper Method Hair Parlours across the United States and Canada. The first hair salon in Elmira, Myers & O’Connor, opened in the Masonic Building at 205 Lake Street in 1908. It was not a Harper franchise, but it had many of the same hallmarks. A Harper franchise did eventually open here in 1919 in the Snyder Building run by Minnie F. Jones.

Newspaper ad for the local Harper franchise, 1919


The hair and beauty salon industry really took off in the 1920s. Elmira went from having just 12 hair dressers in 1920 to having 42 beauty shops in 1930. The changing name is important. Beauty shops didn’t just offer haircuts, they also offered shampooing, dying, permanents, manicures, and massage. It was during this period that beauty schools took off too.

Traditionally, hairdressers learned the trade through apprenticeship, assuming they didn’t just jump right in. That began to change in the early 20th century. In 1908, Madam C.J. Walker, aka Sarah Breedlove Walker (1867-1919), established Lelia College to train Black women in the art of haircare. Walker became America’s first female self-made millionaire after developing a line of hair-care and cosmetic products designed specifically for Black women. At Lelia College, she not only trained women in the use of her products, but also provided classes on budgeting and small business management. During the 1920s, Martha Harper also opened a series of beauty schools in the United States and Canada to train people in her methods. Locally, the Del Kader School of Beauty Culture, located at 158 Fox Street, offered classes on beauty culture including hair care, make-up, manicure, and massage from 1925 to 1939. Throughout the 1930s, several beauty salons also offered apprenticeship programs including Bailey’s Beauty Shop, Boston Beauty Shoppe, Cornelia Beauty Shop, and Gem Beauty Shop. Ads for the course at Bailey’s promised that entrants in the summer term could be earning a wage by fall. The Boston Beauty Shoppe promised to help students open their own shop. 

Students & staff of Del Kader School of Beauty Culture, ca 1930s


For many women, the beauty industry offered a way out of poverty. Harper and Walker had both worked as domestic servants before getting into the business. Both tried to help improve the lives of other women like them by helping them gain financial independence. Harper’s first 100 franchises were given to former servants and factory girls, often with Harper loaning franchisees the funds for upfront costs. Walker established a scholarship fund in her daughter’s name to help finance the educations of promising Black students. In 1917, the Walker scholarship fund gave the Elmira NAACP $75 to distribute to local students.


During the course of writing this, I discovered that we do not have any pictures of beauty salons or hair shops in our collections. If you have interior or exterior photos of any area beauty shop, we would love to have them. Stop on by or give me a call at (607) 734-4167 ex. 207 if you’d like to donate.

Monday, March 15, 2021

The Fabulous Derby Sisters

by Erin Doane, Curator

left to right: Cora, unidentified, Annie, and Eva Derby, 1895

Sisters Cora, Eva, and Annie Derby were avid cyclists, entrepreneurs, and life-long residents of Elmira. They all had strong independent streaks which were likely fostered by their parents. Their father Alden was a veteran of the Civil War and worked for over thirty years as a carpenter at the T. Briggs Brewing Company. Their mother Sarah was a longtime editor of the Young Women’s Banner magazine and was involved in efforts to improve the lives of young working women in the city.

At about 5 feet tall each, the Derby sisters were not to be underestimated. Cora was the oldest, born in 1871; Eva was the middle sister, born in 1873; and Annie was the youngest, born in 1876. All three attended School #2 then went on to EFA. As young women, the three were known to go off on long-distance bicycle rides to places like Rochester and Buffalo. They would ride until they were tired, rest overnight, then get on their bicycles again to finish the trip. They would then return to Elmira by train.

Annie in front of the American Girl Statue in Eldridge Park, 1899

Cora and Eva continued their educations by going to business school. Cora attended Elmira Business College while Eva was a student at Warner’s Business School. Eva was also a fan of informal education. In 1892, she kept a notebook entitled “Learn Something New Everyday.” Her new daily knowledge ranged from discovering “that ice cream isn’t quite as good in winter as summer” on January 20 to finding out “that Judd would rather hug me than any other girl he knows” on June 18. 

In the 1890’s, Cora and Eva worked as clerks at Fitch & Billings’ bookstore at 112 Baldwin Street. (The aforementioned Judd also worked there doing odd jobs.) When Hosmer Billings retired in 1914, the sisters purchased the business and renamed it the Derby Book Shop. Annie invested in the store as a silent partner and Eva did most of the bookkeeping. They sold books, stationery, writing implements, bridge sets, holiday cards, and gifts for over thirty years until 1946 when the Langdon building which housed the store was sold. Rather than reestablish the businesses at a different location, they decided to retire from the book business.

Inside the Derby Book Shop, 1910s

Each of the sisters had rich lives beyond work. Cora had a very active social life as a young woman. Her name appeared often in the newspaper when she visited friends and family throughout the northeast. In 1905, she reportedly caught the bride’s bouquet at the wedding of Grace M. Wilcox and Charles S. Colby. The superstition of her being the next to marry did not come to pass. In fact, none of the three sisters ever got married. Cora was an active member Zonta and represented the local club at the national convention in St. Paul Minnesota in 1928. She also served in the American Red Cross during World War II. She passed away in 1959.

While Annie was a silent partner in the bookstore, she made a name for herself as a talented milliner in Elmira. She worked for several years at the Cornish Millinery Shop at 180 North Main Street. She was also an active supporter of the Elmira Association for the Blind. She passed away at the Arnot-Ogden Hospital on May 5, 1947 after an extended illness.

Eva and Cora at Rorick’s Glen with their father Alden and their uncle Warren Newell, 1898

Middle sister Eva was the longest lived of the Derby sisters. She was a resident of the Elcor Nursing Home in Horseheads when she passed away on October 3, 1973 at the age of 100. Eva was a nature enthusiast who loved birds and flowers in particular. She was a member of the Audubon Society and the Elmira Garden Club. She taught Sunday school at the Park Church and at Lake Street Presbyterian Church. Upon her death, she left a fairly substantial estate that included bequests to several local organizations including the Elmira Zonta Club, the American Cancer Society, the Elmira Association for the Blind, and the Order of the Eastern Star.

The three sisters share a single headstone with their mother in Woodlawn Cemetery.

Cora, Annie, and Eva, October 3, 1909

Monday, March 8, 2021

Elmira History Forge: Discovering Local Stories

by Andrea Renshaw, Elmira HistoryForge Project Coordinator, and Missy Rozengota, Elmira HistoryForge volunteer

[HistoryForge is a digital mapping and transcription project that has partnered with the Chemung County Historical Society to create Elmira HistoryForge. The digital history project combines historic maps and photos with census records of the people who lived in Elmira, creating a way to visualize the history of Elmira in the early 1900s.  HistoryForge is made possible by generous support from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.]

Elmira HistoryForge is off to a running start after our first weekend! We have 363 records down and 36,813 to go in the 1910 census. Thank you to all of our new volunteers! Check out all of their hard work at They have been transcribing Elmira's first ward downtown near Railroad Avenue and heading west toward Davis Street. By selecting The Forge, you can see these records populated in their homes on the 1903 Sanborn map. Transcribing census records is volunteer work that you can do from the comfort of your own home, on your own schedule. The only thing you will need is a computer and an internet connection. Come join us in our goal to preserve the stories of past Elmirans. You will be amazed at the interesting people you will find. For more information, contact me at  

- Andrea Renshaw


To kick off Women's History month one of our volunteers, Missy Rozengota, is sharing an amazing woman she found in the 1910 census; Mrs. Anna Campbell Palmer. 

Mrs. Anna Campbell Palmer


Anna Campbell Palmer was a lifelong Elmiran and a renowned writer who began her career at age 10 after publishing a poem in the Ithaca Journal. At just 14, Anna was orphaned; undaunted by such a tragedy she became a teacher at age 16. She was a beloved teacher at School #2 (Arthur W. Booth school) on Davis street where she worked for the next ten years.  After marrying George Archibald Palmer she gave up her career as a teacher and focused on her family and her writing.

Arthur W. Booth School


She wrote articles for The Evening Star, The Telegram Advertiser and The NY Globe.  Her career advanced her to the position of editor of several local papers, and in 1889 she became the only woman editor to a young man's journal in the world when she worked for the YMCA's "Young Men's Journal".


Anna was also well known for her Young Adult books. She might have been better known to some of her readers as Mrs. George Archibald, her husband's given name which she took as her pen name. The Lady Gay books, A Little Brown Seed, and A Dozen Good Times are some of her most cherished books for children. Along with books for children Anna wrote a biography of her beloved teacher Joel Dorman Steele in 1900.  She even began her own history of the Chemung Valley, but was forced to hand the task over as her eyesight failed in later years.


1910 census

In 1910 we find Anna living at 363 College Ave (building is no longer there) with her family; her husband George and her daughters George Anna (Georgianna) and Sally. Sharing her home we also see her Mother-in-law Sally Palmer and 73 year old border name Martha Nicks. 


Georgianna Palmer

Her daughters' talents came in the form of music; Georgianna being a piano teacher and Sally a vocal teacher. If the name Georgianna Palmer rings a bell you may be recalling her from CCHS’s exhibit, The Band Played On Following in her mother’s footsteps Georgianna became a teacher, and is listed as one of 58 music teachers in our 1910 census. Georgianna’s career spanned over 70 years, beginning at the young age of 15. She honored the city of Elmira by sharing her musical talents, and they honored her with a scholarship in her name; The Georgianna Palmer Music Scholarship. At her passing in 1968, Georgianna, just like her mother, had lived a life to make her community proud.


I picture their home now as I drive down College Ave, not as the parking lot it is now, (a parking lot on the corner of College and Second St.), but a beautiful home full of music and literature. I cannot wait to see these amazing women again in the 1920 census!


- Missy Rozengota


Join us at  HistoryForge by contacting the Project Coordinatorat  or visiting

Monday, March 1, 2021

Women Drivers

by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

While living in Vienna, Austria, German born Siegfried Marcus invented the first successful gasoline-powered car in the late 1880s. Not long after, the wife of another automotive inventor took it upon herself to prove that her husband's vehicles were equally worthy. In August of 1888, Bertha Benz, set out on a long drive with her two teenage sons. Stories about her journey include her resourcefulness when it came to making necessary repairs. Hatpins, garters and shoemaker’s leather soles came in handy when dealing with clogged valves, rapidly worn engine parts and wooden brake fatigue. Bertha Benz’s 120-mile journey blazed a trail for other women drivers.

Early 20th century women who were lucky enough to have the means eagerly learned to drive and some even owned their own cars. Automobiles offered a new freedom and promised adventure.

unknown driver, Circa 1909

The first successful transcontinental US drive was made by Dr. Horatio Jackson in 1903 in a Winton touring car. The first successful cross-country drive by a woman followed six years later by Mrs. Alice Huyler Ramsey. She drove a Maxwell DA. At the time, the Maxwell-Briscoe Company of Tarrytown, NY was the nation’s largest automobile company, and would go on to become the Chrysler Corporation in 1925. The company recognized the growing number and interest of women drivers and saw a cross-country drive as a good publicity tool. In 1909, they sponsored Ramsey, a twenty-two year old wife and mother from New Jersey, to drive from coast to coast.

Ramsey was accompanied by three other women, none of whom knew how to drive. It took them 59 days to complete their adventure. Inspired, Ramsey would make a second trip six months later, this time by herself and over the next seven decades made dozens of cross-country drives. The attention that the Maxwell company received prompted them to align with the women’s rights movement and the company pledged to hire equal numbers of men and women in its sales force. At a promotional reception in NYC they featured a woman assembling and disassembling a Maxwell engine, and the event was attended by well-known suffragettes including Elmira’s Crystal Eastman. (See a blog on Eastman here.)

Elmira featured heavily in the second woman’s quest to drive coast to coast. In 1910, twenty-six year old Miss Blanche Stuart Scott from Rochester, NY was sponsored by the Willys-Overland company to drive an Overland automobile nicknamed the Lady Overland. The Willys-Overland company was owned and operated by John Willys, a businessman from Elmira.

John North Willys had moved to Elmira from his hometown of Canandaigua and had been running a bicycle building and repair business. Seeing changes ahead, he opened a dealership called Southern Tier Motor Company, and one of the line of cars he sold was the Overland.

The Southern Tier Motor Company, Elmira. Cars are Willys-Overland,1916-1917

In 1908 supply issues interfered with Overland distribution, and Willys solved this problem by purchasing the struggling Indiana company. Over the next four years, Willys would lead the company to become second only to the Ford Motor Company in annual sales.

For Scott's 1910 drive from New York City to San Francisco, CA. she was accompanied by reporter Miss Gertrude Buffington Phillips who documented the tour, and the drive took sixty-eight days to complete. They arrived in San Francisco to great fanfare.

Clearly there was a viable market for selling cars to women. Willys-Overland advertising from the mid-teens through the mid-twenties targeted women drivers with images of independent women driving with other women or children as passengers. However, as it was for women’s voting rights, equality was hard fought and less than complete.

1919 Willy-Overland advertisement

Scott went on to operate other early machinery. Publicity from her drive across the country caught the eye of Hammondsport’s Glenn Curtiss. A pioneer in American motorcycling and aviation, Curtiss was looking to increase public awareness of the viability of powered flight. He agreed to give Scott flying lessons and there’s some question as to whether he really intended for her to fly.

Curtiss rigged up a plane for her to practice taxiing back and forth, but when the rigging slipped, she took off. On September 6th, 1910 her plane lifted forty feet off the ground briefly before making a gentle landing. Today Scott is known for being the first US woman to fly a plane. To think that driving could lead to such adventures, I’m just glad that I don’t have to repair my own car, especially with hairpins and garters.

The Glenn Curtiss Museum displays a 1915 Willys-Overland owned by Blanche Stuart Scott.