Sunday, April 30, 2023

Reached their Quota: The Short History of Elmira's Quota Club

by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

Elmira businesswomen were galvanized, back in the spring of 1919, by the news that a woman in Buffalo had founded the International Quota Club—an organization similar to the various men’s business clubs, but solely for women. In hopes of starting an Elmira chapter, a group of local women advertised in the Star-Gazette for potential members. The ad ran in May, and by June, more than 75 women had applied for a Quota Club charter. In August, however, before the charter paperwork had even arrived, the group abruptly disbanded. The Quota Club of 1919 never took hold in Elmira.

Quota International Logo

Clubs have been around a long time, and the first ones were formed primarily around sports or social causes. Two of the earliest examples include the Schuylkill Fishing club in Delaware, which can be traced back to 1732, and the Sheffield football club in England, formed in 1857. Business clubs didn’t show up until the early 20th century, and offered professionals the chance to network and do good deeds.

Three of the earliest business clubs - Rotary, Optimist, and Kiwanis - began near the turn of the century and are still going strong. The oldest of these is the Rotary Club, which was formed in Chicago in 1905. The name comes from the fact that the group rotated official meetings among the members’ different business locations. In 1912, with the addition of clubs in Canada and Europe, the name was changed to the International Rotary Club. Early rules prohibited women from being members, and each chapter allowed only one representative member per job classification. They did not have official restrictions on race, though many early clubs excluded Black members until 1980. The restriction on job classifications was eliminated and women were allowed to join in 1989. Elmira’s International Rotary chapter was started in 1916.

The Optimist Club was formed in 1911 in Buffalo. As the name suggests, members sought to take a positive approach when addressing societal problems. It wasn’t until 1989 that the Optimists accepted women as members. Today there are over 3,000 Optimist clubs with more than 80,000 members. Elmira’s chapter was founded in 1988.

Perhaps most directly influential on the Quota Club was the Kiwanis organization, founded in Detroit in 1915. First known as the Supreme Lodge Benevolent Order Brothers, they soon changed their name to Kiwanis. Early members thought the word was a Native American word that meant to trade or build. It actually is a misunderstanding of an Ojibwa phrase meaning “to fool around.” The organization became Kiwanis International in 1916 when chapters from Canada joined.

Like the two other professional service organizations, Kiwanis was slow to offer membership to Blacks and women. Blacks were officially invited to become members in 1980, and women were invited in 1987. In Elmira, the Kiwanis chapter started in 1974.

These three business clubs became immediately popular and offered businessmen a chance to network, hang out, and work together. Not to be left behind, women wanted their own club. In 1919, Buffalo businesswoman Wanda Frey Joiner established the Quota Club.

Wanda Fry Joiner

Born in Russia, Wanda Frey immigrated to Buffalo with her family as a child. At 28 years old, she married Robert Parks Joiner, who owned a company in the paint and glass industry. He died three years later, leaving her to run his business. She was a guest attending a Kiwanis Christmas party when she was inspired to form a similar professional club exclusively for women.

Women’s rights were in the news. One year earlier, women in New York State had earned the right to vote, and now the United States was poised to give all women that right, having passed the 19th amendment. (However, it would take the adoption of the Voting Rights bill decades later to address voting barriers for Black women.)

News of the newly formed Quota Club spread quickly. As the Star-Gazette pointed out, “Combining social, business and civic activities in the manner of these clubs is a quite modern idea.”

The Elmira group elected a board of directors and waited for their chapter to be officially recognized. They elected officers and held planning luncheons. To celebrate their upcoming formation, they scheduled their first “annual” event for July. They had originally planned to meet at Sullivan’s Monument, but changed locations when a heavy rainstorm came through the area. They went instead to Brand Park, where 60 members participated in pie-eating contests, footraces, and skilled sports competitions like baseball throwing and unnamed “stunts.” Apparently, some of the footraces created a ruckus; according to the newspaper, a few of the heftier racers insisted on entering footraces for slim or lightweight women, though everyone seemed to enjoy themselves. Events finished with an excursion to Rorick’s Glen to attend an opera that evening.

Less than one month later, the Star-Gazette reported that one of the local organizers had said the “reputation and character of the national organizer of the club has been assailed,” and the local group refused to accept official recognition. They would be returning all paperwork when it arrived.

Whatever specific disagreements the Elmira group had aren’t clear, but the seeds were sown for discontent and soon the group broke apart. Some women moved away, while others reorganized into the Elmira Business Women’s Club. In December 1919, this group joined Zonta International and formed a chapter in Elmira. Zonta International was a businesswomen’s club formed in Buffalo, and the Elmira chapter was one of its first five chapters. It is the only Zonta chapter that owns its own house, and it is still going strong today, though I don’t know if they have any footraces scheduled.

Elmira's Zonta House
Author's note: Corning Painted Post had a Quota chapter for years though Quota International disbanded operations in 2020 due to dwindling membership. 


Monday, April 17, 2023

Sadie Belton or Millport’s Fairy Queen

By Rachel Dworkin, archivist

Everywhere she performed, Millport native Sarah “Sadie” Belton received rave reviews. In 1881, the Columbus Daily Evening Republic wrote, “The singing of Miss Sadie Belton is especially good, and her dramatic ability would do credit to any star actress.” The Cuba Evening Review described her as “The wonder and admiration of all.” Yet, it wasn’t her prodigious talent that made her famous. No, what Sadie Belton was most famous for was her height.

Sadie Belton, ca. 1880s

 At just 33 inches tall, Belton was one of the so-called midget performers who took the world by storm in the mid-1800s. Today, the word midget is considered highly offensive and the preferred terms are Little Person or dwarf. Born in Millport in 1842, she first took to the stage sometime in the 1860s touring under the stage name of “Fairy Queen.” In her early days, she mostly worked in traveling freak shows. In 1868, she was working at one called Miss Belton’s Museum of Wonders, although it was actually run by a man named Professor Carruthers. Around 1877, she joined Deakin’s Lilliputian Comic Opera Co. The company was different from the freak shows. They put on actual plays like Jack the Giant-Killer and Gulliver’s Travels. Most of the cast were fellow dwarfs with just a couple of conventionally-sized folk to play Gulliver or the giant. She worked with them until 1891 when she helped form the Royal Midgets before retiring from the stage by the end of the decade. 

Flier for Deakin's Lilliputian Comedic Opera Co.

At the time, dwarf performers were hugely popular. Like Belton, most of them got their start in freak shows as objects of curiosity. In 1842, showmen P.T. Barnum and Charles Stratton (better known as General Tom Thumb) changed things up by adding impersonations, musical numbers, and actual acting. By the time Deakin’s Lilliputian Comic Opera Co. was touring, dwarf entertainers had moved from carnival tents into respectable theaters. The actors were no longer “freaks,” but legitimate actors. And yet said actors’ size remained the main draw and source of the audience’s amusement. “The little folks show a keen appreciation of the humor of the situation in which they find themselves, and sustain their parts with a self-possession which is laughter-provoking,” the Swanton Courier wrote of Deakin’s Lilliputian Comic Opera Co. on January 3, 1879. More than a few reviewers marveled at just like real actors Belton and her co-stars were.

There are over 200 medical conditions which can result in dwarfism. Belton was a pituitary dwarf whose stature was likely the result of a growth hormone deficiency. Most of her co-stars had similar issues. Today, there is a debate among the Little Person community as to whether or not dwarfism is a disability. It’s certainly not for me to decide that, but their dwarfism certainly had a profound impact on the lives of Belton and her associates.

Display of Belton's clothing at the Schuyler County Historical Society, 1976

 Life for such performers wasn’t easy and they were often exploited. P.T. Barnum purchased Stratton from his parents when he was just five-years-old and his situation was in no way unique. Sadie Belton was at least an adult when she began touring, and even she ran into difficulties. It apparently wasn’t unusual for strangers to just pick her up and cuddle her. In 1868, she secretly married fellow freak-show performer George Luther Saxe (stage name Brother Joseph) in an attempt to protect herself from the abuses of her employer, Professor Carruthers. When Carruthers found out, a fight broke out and Saxe was arrested on the grounds the marriage must be somehow illegal owing to her childlike stature. In the end, the marriage was annulled without charges and Belton left the show in the company of her mother.

Deakin’s Lilliputian Comic Opera Co. turned out to be a much better fit for Belton. By the 1870s, she was raking it in. In 1878, she temporarily misplaced a diamond necklace at a Massachusetts hotel. The Elmira paper which reported the incident noted “It is unusual for Chemung County girls to have diamonds.” After retiring from the stage, she purchased a home in Harrisville, Rhode Island where she lived until her death on April 14, 1915 at age 73. She is buried in a family plot in Millport.