the 1910s Promise and Peril
by Jo Allison
The 1910s were promising and perilous years in America and across the world. Many pages on this site deal with St. Louis, Missouri, a city representative of all the 1910s had to offer—and the setting of many of my novels.
Where did I start when I wanted to know all these details? And where have I ended up as the topics get more detailed? Here are a few answers in case you want to follow up on St. Louis or investigate what was happening in another place a hundred years ago.
For every city of any size, there is a history somewhere. Find it in a local library or the library of a research-one university. (The highest ranked research schools tended to have “one of everything” at one point in time. That standard has been hard to maintain, but you’ll find a lot, some of it in storage if it’s old enough.) Start with the standard histories, but don’t stop there. They will give you leading-citizen history, dates, legalities, maybe a few “legends.” That is the most basic level of understanding a city. For example, there is a history of St. Louis entitled, Fourth City. The title alone says something about St. Louis and its image, but it doesn’t tell you where the street car lines were or who rode them or what streets looked like with wires trailing over them. You need more. You need “little-picture” history as well as the standard “big-picture.”
Dig in libraries and special collections for individuals who happen to write down their memoirs. These resources will have the opposite problem from the “big-picture” histories. The memoirs and such are good on details, but only from the viewpoint of one individual. Take that individual’s background into account. I found a wonderful memoir written by a woman whose memories started in the late 1920s. Still, I thought she might talk about women getting the vote or her mother going to the polls. Not a word. And that was illuminating. With an amendment to the Constitution to mark its advent, voting by women stands out in the history books, but not necessarily in the lives of everyday people.
Do you want histories and memoirs and news stories set close to the time you’re investigating? In general, yes. If you’ve read the transportation section, you’ll see that I used a book on old cars that was itself old. It exploits the memories of an older man who was young when the early cars rolled out. That’s good. But you can find current writings that exhibit good history, “little history,” very often. I will trumpet the work done by economic historians here, as well as purer historians. If records exist someone is looking for them, because good stories—and publishable theses—abound. I particularly enjoyed Common Fields, the environmental history of St. Louis that I used in the “Dirty City” section. Good historians with a particular specialty provided a picture of St. Louis that would have been very real to its residents.
So, I started with the big-picture books and quickly moved to more precise histories. I read histories of the Germans in St. Louis, Irish in St. Louis, immigrants in St. Louis (from an early investigator for the social work school at Washington University); I read biographies of the editors of two of the leading newspapers. I found the wonderful book by Katherine Corbett on women in St. Louis, a topic that illumines both genders. An old reporter myself, I started checking out newspapers, most of which are only available on microfilm these days. If you’re at a library that has Pro-Quest newspaper service, you can find articles from the 1910 Post-Dispatch if you know an approximate date and a topic. If you want to simply scroll through pages and pages of any of the St. Louis dailies, you can find them on microfilm in the Genealogy section of the St. Louis city library, main branch on Olive Street. I have pages and pages of notes on stories from the paper that was the leading morning paper for years, the Globe-Democrat, the employer of one of my main characters. Some are trivial, fodder for the little moments that support dialog in my stories. Others are contemporaneous accounts of major national and international events.
The next stop for me was the research library of the Missouri Historical Society, located on Skinker Boulevard, a few miles down from Washington University. (Check its hours if you go; they are even more limited than the downtown public library. Be prepared to leave most of your possessions in a locker outside and take a pencil inside. No marking up rare—and to writers like me, precious—documents.) I have found many items of interest there. The St. Louis police put out a year book every year in the early 1900s and that’s how I learned the structure of the department. My very favorite items there are the Gould’s City Directories, which I’ve mentioned in several places. They list every residence, every business, every governmental office, every singing society, every church, every you-name-it. (I figure out what I want from the actual book and then go to the microfilm version so that I can copy the page.) Best of all, the wonderful staff found for me a map of 1916 St. Louis put out by the parks department. Someone had noted wards on it. We had to copy it in pieces, which I carefully taped together. Over the years, I have put in police districts and traced streetcar routes. It is the single best day-in/day-out resource I have.
If you want to know details about an organization, say the League of Women Voters (from 1919 on) or the YWCA, even the YMCA, the place is the Western Historical Manuscript Collection, housed at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Again, the librarians are incredibly helpful. They like people who care as much as they do about history.
The final general resource is probably only for nerds like me. Number nerds. I love the U.S. Census. Let me remind you how it works. Every ten years—starting in 1790—census takers go house to house and ask questions. If you’re lucky these days, you might get a more detailed paper survey, but in 1910, it was a matter of asking questions on the door step and writing down the answers. Someone with good eyesight and a tolerance for varying handwriting then tallied up the numbers to see how many people were in the City, how many 5 to 10 year-olds were in the City, how many Russians (read that Jews, in most cases) were in Ward Four of the City, etc. The actual survey forms are locked up for seventy years because these forms tell you details that are personal. How many people were in that Russian family? Did they all speak English? Did the young women work outside the home? At what age? What were their names? What you see published within a year or two of the Census is the summaries. What you see seventy years later are the details of home and family. I went into the 1940 census, the latest released under the seventy-year rule and found out things I didn’t know about my parents.
Who would start looking through the census records of a city with 683,000 people in 1910? Well, I would. It tells me not just who lived in what ward, but what kinds of jobs they had and what patterns of living were predominant. The Fourth Ward had tenements and old houses with multiple families. “Boarders” are a separate category within the family structure. And if there were young women in the poor immigrant households, they may well have started working at age 14, in shoe factories, waist factories, candy factories. Unless the father was a widower: if there was no mother in the household, the oldest daughter stayed home to keep house, presumably, and the next oldest daughter (and sons) went to work at age 14. That’s the sort of thing you learn if you’re willing to wade through census documents yourself.
Where do you find those? Believe it or not, it’s increasingly hard to get even the summaries from the Census Bureau online. I worked hours trying to find summaries of wards and realized that whoever had scanned the documents hadn’t gotten the columns that lay in the folds of the books. Two wards were missing. So, I ran down the actual census books in the Virginia Tech library. But Virginia Tech is a research-one institution and a repository for government documents. Look for a library like that.
And what about the detailed, raw, data? Believe it or not, the easiest place I have found is through ancestry.com. Yep. I maintain a subscription so I can check the work status of 14-year-old Russian girls in Ward Four. The easy way to use Ancestry for this was suggested to me by librarians in the genealogy department of the city library. Thanks again.
You should be able to find all the books I’ve used in the particular sections. Most of them were in libraries or available via a search in Amazon. I have great books about prohibition, the Women’s Trade Union League, all kinds of clothing (including underwear—harder to find out about than you think) from those sources. But my last suggestion is old used book stores. Or flea markets. Almost every flea market has a booth with old books. Look for the oldest ones, pick them up and check the publication date. You can learn about the time by reading the fiction of the time. And you occasionally find a pearl. I have a long novel that deals with sexual slavery. Several people have asked, with a small smirk, how I came up with that one. The answer is a book called The Social Evil in Chicago, published in 1911. It is the report of a Chicago city commission formed to deal with what was called the white slave trade as well as prostitution in general. The result of the commission’s works was a crack-down on the “vice” in Chicago, which had a dedicated vice district. And where would a white slaver go if the heat was on in Chicago? St. Louis, of course. Voila: a plot, one full of details about the Chicago situation, turned into a sad and deadly scenario for my characters. (That book is Heaven Will Protect the Working Girl.)
Small wonder I write about detectives in 1910. Bringing 1910 to life is an act of detection in and of itself. ß