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.
What neighborhood are you from?
So, where was ragtime played in St. Louis? Where did the Germans live? Where did the Italians live? What did the city look like in terms of its neighborhoods and ethnic groups? Then, as now, neighborhood matters, but it was a bit more fluid. St. Louis County was beginning to be developed, but was largely still rural in 1910. Specific sites, such as Kinloch, were being developed for specific purposes.
By 1910, St. Louisians might have talked about where new construction was happening, where the more desirable big homes were, and where the immigrants lived. The last was a hot topic, as it must have seemed that the number of immigrants pouring into the city was overwhelming. That tide would stop abruptly with World War I and subsequent laws that limited new arrivals. But in 1910, residents could identify Little Poland, Little Syria, an area known as “The Ghetto,” which was home to recent Italian and Eastern European immigrants, and areas frequently home to Hungarians, Bohemians, and Croatians. There were large numbers of people identified as “Russians” in the 1910 census, and identified as Jews by St. Louisians of the day.
As might be expected, the immigrant neighborhoods were near the river, located just to the north and just to the south of the main business corridor. The Ghetto, Little Poland, and the heavy Russian concentrations were in Wards Four and Five, which lie north of Washington Avenue. Little Syria was just south of Chouteau Avenue and close to the Mississippi River in Ward Seven. The Hungarian, Bohemian, and Croatian settlements intermingled with German Soulard in Wards Seven and Eight. The Hill, a neighborhood that took advantage of clay deposits for its industrial base, was much further inland, and came to house the more established Italian residents around this time period.
One of the features of the day was known as the Jewish migration and involved those ethnic groups moving west from Ward Five toward Ward Nineteen as their financial situations allowed.
See the section on African Americans in St. Louis for a discussion of the several neighborhoods that had large black populations. As to where ragtime was played, the easy answer is the Mill Creek Valley. The Mill Creek Valley was largely in the 16th ward and was defined by 20th street and Grand, Olive Street and the railroad tracks to the south. There was indeed once a Mill Creek which had been dammed up to form Chouteau’s Pond in the early19th century and then drained. Here is part of John Wright’s description from one of his books on the subject.
Beginning in the 1950s, Mill Creek Valley was home to a large African American population. Along with the substantial housing and the cheap tenements that housed black laborers, the area supported Chestnut Valley, a thriving honky-tonk district along Chestnut and Market Streets near Twentieth. Scott Joplin (1868-1917) and other musicians played ragtime and jazz music at Thomas Turpin’s Rosebud Cafe and other nightspots. (page 22)
(This description is found in the African-American section as well. See also the description in that section of The Ville.)
Soulard is a neighborhood we recognize today by its red brick houses, flat roofs, and public market. It was heavily German in 1910, but also housed the Bohemian and other eastern European groups noted above. It lies south of downtown, between Broadway and the modern-day boundary of Interstate-55.
Then, as now, there were nice neighborhoods, home to the professional class, near—and particularly north of—Forest Park. The entire Central West End was an upper class enclave in 1910. But relatively few families fell in that category.
The extension of street car lines meant that working-class families could hope to buy a single-family homes, or perhaps what we now call a duplex, in the developing neighborhoods away from the central business district and the slums. During the period from 1900 to 1920, neighborhoods developed to the south and west of Soulard, in the neighborhoods of Tower Grove, Oak Hill, and Marquette-Cherokee. Many of these houses would have been bungalows, the new fad in housing, much plainer in style than the Victorian era homes, and small enough for a single family on a budget. You can still see them in the southern reaches of the City. To the north of downtown, similar neighborhoods developed in the Grand Prairie area, and the Fairgrounds area. The latter featured more multi-family homes.
The 1910s saw the continued development of suburbs just beyond the western city limits. Citizens in the 1910 City of St. Louis would have been well aware of University City to the west and Manchester to the southwest. Webster Groves, Kirkwood, and Ferguson were all stops on rail lines, and therefore had commuting communities. And, of course, there was Kinloch. Kinloch had two claims to fame. First of all, it was an African-American town, mostly complete into itself although also tied to St. Louis by rail. Secondly, it was home to a field used for some of the earliest air activities. St. Louis businessman Albert Lambert, an early air enthusiast, organized the Aero Club of St. Louis, which used the Kinloch Field for early flights—including the international air exhibition of Columbus Day, 1910. That’s the day former President Theodore Roosevelt flew above Kinloch. See a description in the Current Events section. The Kinloch Field became Lambert Airport in 1923, and the little city lost a good deal of its land to the expansion of Lambert-St. Louis International Airport in more modern times.
There are excellent books and documents on St. Louis neighborhoods. What you see above is drawn from them and the contents overlap in my mind to form the 1910 patchwork. Let me recommend one source you can find easily online. The city of St. Louis government website has a link to a 1970s document on the “History of St. Louis Neighborhoods.” Written by Norbury Wayman, it divides the city into 27 neighborhoods. There are, of course, many more than that as marked by subdivisions, but these are 27 historic names. It is easy to navigate. I also recommend a Missouri Historical Society Guidebook, Where We Live: A Guide to St. Louis Communities. it is edited by Tim Fox. An interesting look is provided by George Lipsitz in The Sidewalks of St. Louis: Places, People, and Politics in an American City (1991.) A more academic view is St. Louis: The Evolution of an American Urban Landscape, by Eric Sandweiss, (2001.)