Monday, September 26, 2016

This Story is Bananas!

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

The mysterious banana photo, c. 1900
For years I have been trying to figure out the historical explanation for this unusual banana photograph in our collection (and by “trying” I mean periodically thinking that I should look into it and then forgetting). I simply couldn’t understand why a single Elmira fruit dealer around the turn of the 20th century would have that many bananas in stock. I mean, how could they possibly sell them all before they spoiled? Was there really that big of a market for bananas here? Well, I think I’ve finally cracked the code.

A fruit dealer with a far more sensible amount of banana merchandise, c. 1895.
Bananas were available in the US after the Civil War, but they were at first expensive and a luxury. They cost a dime each, about $2 today. They were sold peeled and cut so that their shape would not offend prudish Victorians. By the 1870s, large-scale banana importation began, with American ships sailing to the Caribbean and South America for product. As refrigerated shipping increased the quantities of bananas on the market, prices dropped and they became a normal part of many American’s diets. They were billed as a nutritional powerhouse, particularly for poor families.

This 1894 Elmira price listing shows that banana prices were decreasing, but still weren't the cheapest food.
In the 1890s, smaller importers merged to create United Fruit Company, which dominated the market, squashing competition and putting pressure on small fruit retailers. The new banana trust was importing around 12 million bunches of bananas a year by 1900 and their monopoly allowed them to bully small businesses.

In Elmira, fruit dealers felt the pressure. They were charged exorbitant fees for the product and were forced to purchase more bananas than they wanted or could sell. Local merchants were forced to sign a contract to receive 300 bunches every week for the entire year. One anonymous fruit dealer said, “There is absolutely no redress for the merchant. And you must take the kind they ship you. Some of the bunches have to be thrown away because of decay.” This pressure forced some local dealers out of the banana game and ultimately led to a scarcity of bananas in the city by 1903.

Headline from the Elmira Star-Gazette, April 20, 1903.
The P. Laskaris and Brothers “Greek Fruit Dealers” shop in the photograph likely signed one of these unfair banana trust deals. They opened this shop in 1889 and sold fruit, candy, ice cream, and soda. And bananas. Lots and lots of bananas.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Fangirls Gonna Fan

by Rachel Dworkin, archivist

I am, I confess, something of a fangirl. These days there are a lot of ways for fangirls like me to get our geek on. There are entire industries which market toys and apparel to them.  Tabloids and Twitter help fans keep track of their favorite celebrities. Social media offers fans across the world a platform where they can discuss the latest episode of their favorite shows. Fans can cosplay and meet both fellow fans and content creators at conventions. They can share their fanfic, fanvids, and other fan-created stuff on websites like and Archive of Our Own.  Unless they’re stalking Jody Foster and shooting Ronald Reagan, there’s no wrong way to be a fan.
While there have always been fans, it wasn’t until the early 20th century when industries rose to cater to their interest. The first fan magazine, that is to say a magazine geared towards fans of a specific aspect of popular culture, was called Photoplay. When it first appeared in 1911, each issue was basically a condensed tie-in novel for recently released films.  In 1915, they reformatted to include reviews of films, actor interviews, and celebrity gossip. This became the hallmark of later fan magazines for all sorts of fandoms including film, radio, TV, and sports.

Screen Secrets, March 1930
Back during the 1920s and ‘30s, local teen Ruth Collin took full advantage of the fandom industry of her day.  Her first foray into fandom was a scrapbook made between 1926 and 1928, which she filled with advertisements and reviews of every one of the 87 films she watched during that period.  Starting in the late 1920s, she began subscribing to film magazines including The New Movie Magazine, Movie Mirror, Silver Screen, Screen Romances, and The Modern Screen Magazine. She got studios to send her autographed portraits of her favorite stars.

New Movie Magazine, April 1930
Signed photo of Joan Crawford sent by MGM Studio.  The dog did not sign.
In addition to the collection documenting Ruth Collin’s fanish obsession, we also have a collection of baseball scrapbooks from the 1940s and ‘50s, and a bunch of 1990s boy band posters.  Now all we need is a Star Trek fanzine from the 1960s and we’ll be all set.  Seriously though, if you have one of those, we really do need one.

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Beginning of Licensed Toys

by Erin Doane, curator

If you have walked down the toy aisle lately, I’m sure you’ve noticed that it is very difficult to find a toy that is not connected to a television show, cartoon, movie, or video game. The unbranded stuffed animal and generic bouncy ball seem to be things of the past. That was not always the case, however. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that licensed toys began to be mass-produced. During the Great Depression, toy sales dropped dramatically. To boost sales, companies began making toys that tied in to movies and cartoons of the time. Here at the Chemung County Historical Society, we have a small collection of these types of toys.

Shirley Temple doll, 1930s
Shirley Temple started acting in 1932 at the age of three. She quickly became America’s sweetheart during the Great Depression, starring in a string of popular movies. In 1934, the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company approached the young singer/actress’s family about creating a doll in her likeness. The Shirley Temple doll quickly became Ideal’s best-selling product despite being relatively expensive at $3.00 for the smallest doll.

Hopalong Cassidy’s “Dairy Lea” toy gun, 1950s
Author Clarence E. Mulford created Hopalong Cassidy in 1904. The cowboy was the hero of a series of novels and short stories through the 1930s. Hopalong Cassidy first appeared on the silver screen in 1935 with William Boyd in the starring role. In all, 66 movies were made through the 1930s and 1940s about the cowboy’s adventures. Hopalong Cassidy also appeared in television and radio shows. His name and likeness were put on products of all sorts from lunch boxes and cameras to watches and cap guns.  

My Pal Lassie stuffed dog, 1950s
In 1940, the novel Lassie Come-Home by Eric Knight was published. Three years later MGM released a feature film version of the story. Ten more Lassie films were made between 1945 and 2005. A dog name Pal played the first Lassie on film and a series of his descendants have played the character through the years. In 1954, Lassie first appeared on television. The Emmy Award winning series was on the air for 19 years. Fans of the show could own their own My Pal Lassie stuffed dog.

Bendix bicycle stick shift, c. 1958
The teenage character Archie Andrews first appeared in 1941 in Pep Comics #22. He became so popular that he got his own series of comics, Archie Comics, in 1942. In the 1950s, Bendix used Archie to sell its bicycle stick shift. The Eclipse Machine Co. in Elmira was a division of the Bendix Corporation. The company produced bicycle brakes and components throughout the 1950s and 1960s including the stick shift that let you “shift your bike like a racecar driver!” Archie is still appearing in comics today and a television series entitled Riverdale about Archie and his high school friends is scheduled to air on the CW network during the 2016-2017 season.

Monday, September 5, 2016

The Elmira Vocational School

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

Since my turn to write our weekly blog post has fallen on Labor Day, I thought that this would be a perfect opportunity for me to share some images of the Elmira Vocational School, which are part of one of my favorite photograph collections at the museum. The Elmira Vocational School was public school in the Elmira district. It opened in 1913 to teach boys mechanical, industrial, and construction trades. The school opened in an abandoned building owned by the city at 717-721 Lake Street.  The building needed significant remodeling to make it a working school, but that challenge itself provided an important opportunity for the school. In fact, the students did most of the remodeling as part of their course work. This involved building classrooms and workrooms, doing plumbing and electrical work, and metal work and carpentry.

Above: Students working on concrete forms for new school building annex
Below: Framing done by students on the school building

Students’ time in school was divided equally between traditional book work and their vocational training. The school taught intermediate and high school boys. Intermediate students (those who had completed 6th grade) took a two year course before they had the opportunity to move on to the high school program.
Above and below: students in various workshops and classrooms at the school, learning carpentry, plumbing, metalwork, and drafting.

 The Elmira Vocational School was operating at a time of new emphasis on formalized vocational training.  A few years ahead of its time, the school was already in operation for four years before the 1917 Smith-Hughes Act, or the National Vocational Education Act, gave federal funds to states to support job training in business and industry, agriculture, and home economics.
Getting a lesson about electricity
Learning how to use the lathe.
Ultimately, the school’s success led to it being merged with Southside High School in the mid-1920s. Its methods and faculty served as the foundation for the new vocational program at the high school.