Monday, January 25, 2016

Soap Sculpture in Elmira: How You Can Be a Part of Its History!

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

The Chemung County Historical Society is hosting a soap carving contest to celebrate our new exhibit, Clean. It’s free and open to all ages and you can find out how to participate here:

But, why soap carving, you might be thinking?  It’s a pretty obscure art form to us now, but in the 1920s and 1930s it was wildly popular here and across the country.  It really took off when Proctor and Gamble promoted national soap carving contests in an attempt to sell more of their product, Ivory soap.  Soap carving was touted as an activity that was accessible for people of all ages and abilities.  It was supposed to provide a wholesome outlet for children’s energy and also serve as a low-cost medium for amateur adult artists.
If our amateur artist staff at the museum can do it, so can you.
Beginning in the mid-1920s, the Arnot Art Museum periodically displayed soap sculptures, and the popularity of such exhibits led people to call for local contests.  In 1926, the Elmira Community Service provided 100 free instructional booklets to children interested in learning soap carving.  In 1945, the Arnot Art Museum displayed sculptures created by 7th and 8th grade students at Elmira’s George Washington School.  The entries were then to be entered in the National Soap Sculpture Contest in New York City.  
William Lavris and Marjorie Kolb inspect entries in the 1945 Arnot Art Museum display.
Even local businesses got in on the craze: this advertisement from The Junior Shop in 1929 tells of a soap display and contest hosted at boys’ clothing store.

So now, I encourage you to help us revive this once popular art form.  You don’t need to have any artistic background or special ability.  It can be done with a basic kitchen butter knife or you can come to the museum and use our special carving tools during our open carving workshop hours (see here for those times:  Your work will be on display at the museum and you could even win a prize.  And it’s free.  Give it a try and you might just uncover a secret talent you never knew you had!

Monday, January 18, 2016

Our Gang

by Rachel Dworkin, archivist

One of the latest additions to our collection in 2016 is the book Our Gang: A Racial History of the Little Rascals by Julia Lee.  In it, Lee places the Our Gang series in its historical racial context and explores how it helped to change that context.  The book is interesting and well-written, using research conducted all over the country, including right here in at the Chemung County Historical Society.
The book in question.
The story Hal Roach (1892-1992) liked to tell was that he came up with the Little Rascals in 1921 after watching a group of kids play in a lumber yard, but the idea could have just as easily come from his own youth.  Growing up on Elmira’s near-Westside at the turn of the 20th century, Roach was a scamp of the Tom Sawyer variety.  He and his friends ran around the neighborhood, paying games, staging photoplays, and scandalized old ladies by skinny dipping in the Chemung.  He took a series of odd jobs throughout his childhood, including one delivering groceries to the Reformatory.  Roach got sacked after he was caught smuggling tobacco to the inmates.  He was a cut-up at school too.  By the time he quit schooling altogether after being expelled from EFA, he had already been thrown out of half-dozen public and private schools throughout the city.

Hal Roach's brother Jack and little rascals Allen "Farina" Hoskins and Joe Cobb, ca. 1928

In the same way Roach’s youthful exploits informed the series’ plot, his childhood experiences with race likely influenced his choice to have a diverse cast.  By the time Roach was ten, Elmira had a population of approximately 35,000, including a moderately-sized black community.  The core of the community was centered around Fourth and Dickinson Streets on the Eastside, but there was also a cluster of black families living on Elmira’s Southside and many of those employed as domestic servants lived with their employers throughout the city.  Although few blacks lived in Roach’s neighborhood on Columbia Street, he almost certainly attended classes with black students.  He was also probably familiar with the Industrial School, which offered integrated recreational spaces and vocational training to the city’s poorer children.

Elmira Public School No. 1, class of 1895

When the first Our Gang shorts with their racially integrated cast came out, the public reaction was decidedly mixed.  Many blacks, including influential members of the press and the head of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), felt that it might be a vehicle for racial uplift and help to wear down old prejudice.  Others felt that the shorts simply recycled old minstrel show tropes and that the characters were, in effect, black children in blackface.  Whites too had mixed reactions.  In the Jim Crow South, where separate-but-equal kept black and white kids in different schools, theatres and theater-goers praised the series’ minstrel-like characterization even as they protested the integrated gang.  Northern whites also expressed certain racial anxieties over the films, but held no protests against them, unlike their southern brethren.

Lantern slide used to advertise "School Begins" (1928) in a local theater.  Note the integrated classroom with a side order of racism. 
 Of course, I’ve only discussed America’s initial reaction to the Our Gang films.  There were over 200 Our Gang films made between 1922 and 1944, and then those shorts were later re-cut and re-released for television syndication from the 1950s through the 1980s.  As American’s views about race and race relations changed, so too did their views on the series.  If you’re interested in learning more about this, I suggest you do what I did:  read Julia Lee’s book.   
Label for an "Our Gang" doll of George "Freckles" Warde, ca. 1922

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Exploding Vault

by Erin Doane, curator

Visitors often ask us about the big, black metal door in the museum’s bank gallery. A lot of children think it must be a jail cell because there are bars behind the door. We tell them that no, it is not a jail cell. It is the Exploding Vault. In 1884, an explosion in that very vault led to the death of John Arnot, Jr.

The "Exploding Vault" with the door closed (l) and the door open (r)
John Arnot Jr. was born in Elmira on March 11, 1831. He was the second son of entrepreneur and businessman John Arnot. In 1852, when his father took over control of the Chemung Canal Bank, he became cashier. Upon his father’s death, he became president of the bank. His duties at the bank were what eventually led to his untimely death.

The Chemung Canal Bank, c. 1900
On the morning of Monday, October 20, 1884, Arnot went to work at the Chemung Canal Bank. He and several clerks began getting ready for the day’s business. At about 9:00am he went into the vault to open the inside safe. He stuck a match to light the gas lamp inside. A massive fireball instantly erupted. The explosion blew Arnot across the room and he struck a cashier’s desk. His clothes were torn from his body, his face was burned black, and his whiskers and hair were completely burned off. He was still conscious, however. When a clerk told him they were sending for a doctor, Arnot said there was no need. The clerk called for one anyway. Arnot had severe burns on his hands and face. The doctor feared that he might lose the sight in one if not both eyes. He also feared that Arnot has suffered severe internal injuries.

The explosions was so immense that nearly every window in the bank was shattered by the concussion. In some cases, the window sashes were completely blown out. It twisted the vault door and tore off the locks. The banking apartments upstairs were even damaged. The blast could be heard and felt for blocks around the bank. People gathered around the building that morning to try to learn what had happened. Reports of the explosion appeared in dozens of newspapers throughout the state and country. The most accepted theory as to the cause of the explosion was that someone left a small gas jet burning in the vault when the bank closed on Saturday afternoon. As soon as the air in the vault was exhausted, the flame went out but gas continued to escape. When Arnot lit a match on Monday morning, the accumulated gas instantly ignited.

John Arnot, Jr.
Arnot was slow to recover from the explosion. Though his injuries were severe, he did not lose his sight. After a time, he was able to return to his seat in Congress. Not only was Arnot a millionaire banker. He was also involved in politics. He served as president of the village of Elmira in 1859, 1860, and 1861 and became the city’s first mayor in 1863. He held that position in 1870 and 1874 as well. In 1882 he was somewhat reluctantly nominated as a candidate for the 28th congressional district. He was asked twice before he finally accepted. Although he was a member of the Democratic Party in a Republican district he was easily elected. He was reelected in 1884 with little opposition.

John Arnot's letter accepting the nomination for congress, 1882

Arnot returned to his duties in congress but the lingering shock from the accident left him weak and unwell. His fellow congressman notice the change. Congressman Wilkins of Ohio commented, “When he returned to his seat in the first session of the Forty-ninth Congress it was a subject of common remark he was not the same John Arnot as before. At times during this session he would rally and seem to grow stronger, encouraging the hope for his ultimate restoration to health, but for months prior to his death his rapidly failing strength gave unmistakable evidence the end was near.”

Memorial Addresses on the Life and
Character of John Arnot, Jr. Delivered
in the House of Representatives and in
the Senate, February 8, 1887
Ultimately, the injuries he received in the explosion were too great. John Arnot, Jr. died at his home in Elmira on November 20, 1886. His death was announced in the U.S. House of Representatives on December 6 and he was eulogizes by nine of his fellow congressmen on the house floor on February 8, 1887. Locally, he was remembered as one of the most popular and respected men in Elmira. He was known for his kindness and generosity. His contributions to charity helped countless people in the region and were sorely missed after his passing.

Congressman Timothy J. Campbell of New York recounted an incident following Arnot’s death: A very old and poverty-stricken couple, the husband more than eighty years of age and blind and the wife closely approaching the same period of life, froze to death within a few days of Mr. Arnot’s demise—he by the wayside in the midst of a severe snow-storm while out seeking something to provide warmth and food, and she while awaiting in her home his return. It was then ascertained for the first time that for years they had been the constant and regular recipients of the bounty of our friend. The hand and good heart that had protected and provided for them had been too suddenly withdrawn. No one can tell into how many households where there was want, sickness, and the disabled distress entered, although it is to be hoped not in such terrible shape as this, when our friend died.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Which Baby is Best?: Baby Contests in Chemung County

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

I admittedly, and ashamedly so, have spent some time watching TV shows like “Toddlers and Tiaras” in utter horror.  I don’t get the point of putting makeup on your infant so a panel of judges in a sad hotel ballroom can give them a trophy.  But my personal feelings on the subject aside, baby shows aren’t a new idea.  Certainly, modern kiddie pageants operate in the realm of extremes (Fake teeth? Really?!?), but baby contests date back more than a century, and for periods, were very popular locally.

See #16? Babies like winning contests! From 1907.
Baby shows started in England in the 1880s and soon became popular on our side of the Atlantic.  The earliest mentions of baby contests I have found in Chemung County are from the mid-1890s.  These earliest shows were primarily held at the County fair.  As the newspaper reported, “The baby show is usually a howling success.”
Handbill from the 1896 Chemung County Fair that highlights the baby show.
By the 1900s and 1910s, the contests started to evolve, but many still were in place to find the cutest or most popular baby.  A 1905 baby contest at Bethel A.M.E. Church ended when judges “found all so pretty” that it was unfair to choose a winner, so they instead awarded them all prizes.  Local babies placed in larger regional or national competitions, too.  In 1913, Elmiran Jacob Levine won a baby contest in Scranton, PA, defeating 800 other babies.  That same year, Phyllis Jane Dixon won one of the largest national contests at Asbury Park, NJ, earning a gold medal and $15 in gold.  She won “not for beauty alone, but for physical and mental perfection.”  Other types of contests began to emerge: in the 1910s, the Gerity’s Pharmacy awarded prizes to the first baby born in Elmira each New Year.     
Gerity's 1915 winner
In the 1920s and 1930s, the shows morphed into “Better Baby” contests.  Building on some of the less destructive ideas of the eugenics movement, Better Baby shows were developed to identify and award healthy babies and to educate mothers about best child-rearing practices.  Still, the winners were almost exclusively from white, middle-to-upper class families, so the ideals of the eugenics movement were definitely adhered to.  These contests were judged by doctors who gave each child a physical examination. 

Dr. Dale examines a baby at a Chemung County contest in 1924.
The competition was fierce and a lot of maternal pride was on the line.  As Elmira Telegram opined in 1923, “The man who can act as a judge at a baby show and escape without a scratch is a born diplomat.”

Winners of a 1925 Chemung County Better Baby Contest (the crying girl on the left probably wouldn't have won if she cried like that in judging).
In 1929, one-year-old Edgar Allen Terwilliger defeated 200 other babies to win the Chemung County Better Baby Contest.  The show's real purpose was said to be educational. 40 of the 200 babies were deemed “defective,” which was a warning to their families to “keep closer watch of their health.”  In 1925, 10-month-old Ruth Barber won 3rd place in the national Nestle’s Food Healthy Baby Show.  She won her picture and story in the “Pictoral Review,” a sterling silver loving cup, and $25 cash.
Nurses hold winning babies of a contest at St. Joseph's Hospital in 1937.
By the late 1930s through the 1950s, many of the contests again turned back towards popularity- or beauty-based judging. In 1939, the Big Flats Baptist Ladies Aid Society held a contest to “determine the most popular baby.”  Other local organizations held similar contests.  
Advertisement for entrants for the 1938 Daughters of America Baby Show (note the prizes for cutest and most popular babies).
Baby photo contest, 1945.
In 1954, the Big Flats American Legion Auxiliary hosted a snapshot photograph baby contest at Community Days.  Photos were posted on a bulletin board at Minier’s Grocery Store and judging was done by a penny vote.  The winners got to ride on a special parade float.

A rebellious 1938 local winner.
The baby show craze started to fade away after the 1950s, but clearly didn’t disappear entirely.  Early baby shows certainly had some positives, including putting a spotlight on infant health and wellness.  The wit and wisdom section of the Star Gazette suggested one other positive in 1928:
“Your baby may not win

In the Baby Show,
If you enter him. But he’ll meet
Some nice babies.”