Tag Archives: fashion

The “Bird Bills”: A Tale of the Plume Boom

Woman's Feathered Hat circa 1913

Did you know that environmental laws, labor and women once clashed, causing feathers to fly?  One little known battle from the days of the “plume boom” took place in 1913.  The setting?  The Indiana State House.

Nineteen-thirteen happened to be the same year that W.T. Hornaday, one of America’s foremost wildlife biologists and conservationists, published a book called Our Vanishing Wildlife. Born on a farm near Plainfield west of Indianapolis but raised in Iowa, Hornaday had traveled around South Asia, served as Chief Taxidermist at the Smithsonian, then became the first director of the New York Zoological Society, later renamed the Bronx Zoo. In 1889, the former Hoosier published the first great book on the near-total destruction of the American bison — the species seen bounding across Indiana’s state seal but which was wiped out here long ago by the pioneers.

Already an expert on the buffalo’s demise, by 1913 Hornaday had begun lashing out at the wholesale slaughter of birds:

From the trackless jungles of New Guinea, round the world both ways to the snow-capped peaks of the Andes, no unprotected bird is safe. The humming-birds of Brazil, the egrets of the world at large, the rare birds of paradise, the toucan, the eagle, the condor and the emu, all are being exterminated to swell the annual profits of the millinery [hat-making] trade. The case is far more serious than the world at large knows, or even suspects. But for the profits, the birds would be safe; and no unprotected wild species can long escape the hounds of Commerce.

Feathers have been part of human attire for millennia.  But by the early 1900s, massive depredations by European and American hunters around the globe had wreaked havoc on avian populations. Bird hunters were now the arm of industrial capitalism, with the harvesting of birds for ladies’ hats belonging in the same category with other natural resources like coal, diamonds and oil.

Although the center of the global feather trade in 1913 was London — where feather merchants examined skins and quills in enormous sales rooms, then bid on them like other commodities — New York and Paris were involved a big part of the trade.  All three cities had become epicenters of women’s fashion.  And women weren’t only the consumers of feathers:  of the roughly 80,000 people employed in the millinery business in New York City in 1900, the majority were women.

In 1892, Punch, the British satirical magazine, took a jab at women, who it considered the driving force behind the decimation of wild bird species and their consumption in the West.  It failed to point out, of course, that the hunters themselves — the ones who did the slaughtering — were men.


A Bird of Prey, Punch, May 14, 1892

(“A Bird of Prey,” Punch, May 14, 1892.)


Woman's Feathered Hat 4

(Woman with an entire bird in her hat, circa 1890.  Late-Victorian and Edwardian fashions led to the deaths of several hundred million birds in the days before state, national, and international laws stepped in to help prevent the extinction of many of them.  A moral crusade among consumers and nature-lovers — as well as changing fashions — were even more important factors.)


Millinery advertisement, 1911

(Millinery advertisement, 1911.)


In the U.S. and Europe, bird-lovers created several societies to stem the global slaughter, with scientists helping to provide the grisly details that would provoke moral outrage.  Women made up most of the membership in these societies, including the new Audubon Society — named for John James Audubon, the French-American naturalist who lived for years along the Ohio River across from Evansville, Indiana.  An especially well-known voice was the great ornithologist and writer William Henry Hudson, born to American parents in Argentina, where he spent his childhood bird-watching in the South American grasslands.  Yet in the days before zoom lenses and advanced photography came along, even respected field naturalists like Audubon and Hudson had relied on guns to “collect” species and study them.

In 1913, W.T. Hornaday gave specifics on the “plume boom.”  At one London feather sale two years earlier, ten-thousand hummingbird skins were “on offer.”  About 192,000 herons had been killed to provide the packages of heron feathers sold at a single London auction in 1902.  Other popular feathers came from birds like the egret, eagle, condor, bustard, falcon, parrot, and bird of paradise. When exotic bird feathers weren’t available or affordable, millinery shops used the feathers of common barnyard fowl.


Hummingbird Skins at Millinery Sale, August 1912

(Hummingbird skins at a millinery sale, August 1912.)


While the Florida Everglades were a huge, popular hunting ground, the “Everglades of the North” — Indiana’s Kankakee Swamp, now mostly vanished — was another commercial source for feathers, mammal pelts, and another item that’s out of fashion today, frog legs.  Yet the worst of the commercial hunting was in Florida, where ornithologists wrote of how hunters shot mother birds, especially herons and egrets, and left nestlings to starve, endangering the entire population for quick profit, as the mother’s plumage was at its most spectacular during nursing.  Conservationist T. Gilbert Pearson described finding “heaps of dead Herons festering in the sun, with the back of each bird raw and bleeding” where the feathers had been torn off.  “Young herons had been left by scores in the nests to perish by exposure and starvation.”  The much-publicized murder of a young Florida game warden, Guy Bradley, in 1905 helped galvanize the anti-plumage campaign and spurred the creation of Everglades National Park.

Since bird feathers and skins were often valued at twice their weight in gold and were readily available to ordinary Americans and Europeans even in urban areas, women and children found a decent supplemental income in stoning birds to death or killing them with pea-shooters, stringing them up, and selling them to hat-makers. Children also robbed eggs for collections.  Farmers frequently shot or trapped even great birds like the eagle when they preyed on chickens, with one scowling, utilitarian farmer in New Hampshire blasting “sentimentalists” who thought the eagle had “any utility” at all.


Recreation, April 1902

(Recreation, April 1902.)


By 1913, legislators in the U.S. and Britain had been urged to consider “anti-plumage” bills.  Yet the profits involved in millinery — and the ability of consumers to buy hats in markets not covered by the laws — were big hurdles.  As early as 1908, anti-plumage bills were being debated in the British Parliament, but they took years to pass.  (Britain’s passed in 1921.)  States like New York and New Jersey were considering a ban on the trade in wild bird feathers around the same time.  New York’s went into effect in July 1911, but not without concern for its effects on feather workers, some of whom argued that they had no other way of supporting themselves.

The debate in New Jersey took a more comic turn.  If this news account can be trusted, women came to the Senate in Trenton and pelted legislators with paper balls.


The Inter Ocean, Chicago, April 8, 1910

The Inter Ocean, Chicago, April 8, 1910 (2)

The Inter Ocean, Chicago, April 8, 1910 (3)

(The Inter Ocean, Chicago, April 8, 1910.)


One crusader for wild birds was the former mayor of Crawfordsville, Indiana, Samuel Edgar Voris.  In 1913, he joined the likes of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Audubon Society by taking the battle to the Indiana Legislature.  For a few weeks early that year, Hoosier politicians and journalists debated what became known as the “Voris Bird Bill.”


Seymour Daily Republican, January 25, 1913

(Seymour Daily Republican, January 25, 1913.)


It was a strange fact that Voris authored the bill, since back in 1897 he’d been called “one of the crack shots of the United States,” often competing in shooting tournaments around the country.  Voris was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1854.  His father may have been the Jerry or Jeremiah Voris who ran a meat market in downtown Terre Haute. (According to one ad, that Jerry sold elk meat next door to the offices of the Daily Wabash Express, ran a grape farm, and might be identical with one of Crawfordsville’s first undertakers.  He also might have known something about preserving the bodies of birds — or at least had an interest in birds.  In 1870, the Terre Haute butcher offered one “fine healthy screech owl” to State Geologist John Collett to be put on display at the State Board of Agriculture.)

Samuel E. Voris was out West in 1876, the year the Sioux wiped out Custer and the 7th Cavalry at the Little Bighorn.  The 21-year-old Voris must have seen the slaughter of American bison up close as he traveled in an overland wagon train to the Black Hills of South Dakota.  His 1920 obituary in the Crawfordsville Daily Journal mentions that Voris’ wagon team was attacked by Indians on the way out.  Yet the future Crawfordsville mayor “had the honor of being in the wigwam of Spotted Tail, one of the big chiefs of a noted tribe of Indians at that time.”


Spotted Tail

(Spotted Tail, Brulé Lakota Indian chief, liked feathers on his head.)


Voris came back to the Midwest, settling in Crawfordsville, where he was a member of General Lew Wallace’s “noted rifle team,” a group of crack recreational sharpshooters.  (The Hoosier soldier, ambassador and author of Ben-Hur was also an avid hunter and fisherman, often visiting the Kankakee Swamp.)  Voris’ obituary noted that the mayor “was a man of peaceful disposition in spite of his love for firearms.”  He knew about animals:  his investments in livestock and insurance made him one of the richest men in Crawfordsville.  He also served as postmaster and was involved in civic-minded masonic organizations, including the Tribe of Ben-Hur, Knights of Pythias and Knights Templar. General Wallace, former U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, probably had something to do with the fact that in 1898, Voris was granted an audience with the Turkish Sultan while traveling in the Middle East.  Voris apparently loved camels, too:  in 1914, he fell off one in Crawfordsville when the camel got spooked by an automobile.  The man landed on his head and suffered a scalp wound.

In 1911 and again in 1913, Montgomery County elected their former mayor to the Indiana House.  Representative Samuel E. Voris was the author of at least two bills in 1913 concerning the treatment of animals. (Another bill, written by a different representative, proposed “a fine of $500 for anyone who willfully poisons [domestic] animals.”)

The “Voris bird bill” won strong support from conservation and animals rights groups in the Hoosier State, but sparked a bit of humor on the floor of the House of Representatives.


Indianapolis News, February 4, 1913

(Indianapolis News, February 4, 1913.  Ostrich feathers often came from farms in South Africa, where Jewish feather merchants dominated the trade.  Jews and women also led the millinery business in the U.S.  In 1870, hat-making was the fourth-largest employer of American women.)


The “Voris bird bill” passed the Indiana House, but objections arose in the Senate, with a Senator Clarke arguing that it would harm Indiana milliners while not prohibiting the sale of hats made outside the state from being sold here.  Another senator objected on the grounds that national legislation was needed to make it truly effective — even though that was slow in coming.  The bird bill was killed in February.

Yet while some women opposed it, one correspondent for the Indianapolis Star came out in defense of the anti-plumage campaign.


Indianapolis Star, January 19, 1913


Marie Chomel, who wrote under the pen name Betty Blythe, had a weekly column in the Indianapolis Star for years.  (She came from a newspaper family.  Her father Alexandre Chomel, son of a nobleman exiled by the French Revolution, had been the first editor of the Indiana Catholic & Record.)  As a reporter for the Star, Betty Blythe became the first woman ever to lap the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a race car, riding shotgun with Wild Bob Burman “at a terrific speed” on a day when two drivers were killed there.  It happened in August 1909.

Chomel frequently wrote about fashion, but thought that exotic plumage was inhumane and had to go.  She published her views on the bird bill in the Star on February 13, 1913.


Indianapolis Star, February 13, 1913

(“Our Lawmakers as Betty Blythe Sees Them,” Indianapolis Star, February 13, 1913.)


Chomel agreed with Voris’ motives.  Yet like English novelist Virginia Woolf, who criticized a sexist statement from British radical journalist H.W. Massingham that pinned the blame for bird deaths squarely on irresponsible women, the Indianapolis Star didn’t let men off the hook, either.


Indianapolis Star, March 3, 1913 (2)

(Indianapolis Star, March 3, 1913.  The “feminine correspondent” was probably Betty Blythe.)


Though wildlife protection laws and groups like the Audubon Society helped make the case for saving birds, two other events were even more influential in ending the feather trade.

Oddly, the outbreak of World War I saved millions of birds. Disruptions to international shipping and wartime scarcity made the flamboyant fashions of the Edwardian period look extravagant and even unpatriotic.  Tragically, as women went into the workplace and needed more utilitarian clothing, “murderous millinery” gave way to murderous warfare, fueled by the same forces of imperialism and greed that had killed untold creatures of the sky.

Even more effective, fashion changes and class antagonism caused upper-class women to adopt new apparel like the “slouch” and “cloche” hats and new hairstyles like the bob.  As hair was being cut back, elaborate feather ornaments made no sense.  In the U.S. and the UK, where upper-class and upper-middle-class women made up most of the membership in groups like the Audubon Society, female conservationists sometimes targeted women of other classes for sporting feathers.  Slowly, they instigated change.

Fortunately, most fashion enthusiasts would probably agree that the cloche hats of the 1920s — which drove hunters and feather merchants out of business — are more natural and beautiful than the most literally “natural” hats of a decade or two before.


Cloche Hat

(The cloche hat of the 1920s and ’30s spelled extinction to commercial bird hunters.)


Contact: staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

Movember: A Medical Moment

The Greencastle Democrat, January 26, 1900(The Greencastle Democrat, January 26, 1900.)


“Movember” or “No-Shave November” is a new tradition dating only back to 2003, when a group of Australians started growing “Mos” (Australian slang for “‘stache”) to raise awareness of men’s health issues, especially prostate cancer and depression.  As many cancer patients lose their hair, some men this season are paying homage to the golden days when spectacular whiskers grew wild and free.

There’s more than a little five-o’clock foreshadowing, then, in that mustachioed dandy from 1900 pictured above.  “Nervita pills” were  one of many old-time panaceas that purported to relieve some of the more difficult masculine ailments, though this one, of course, wouldn’t cure one of the worst, cancer.  Contrary to the cartoon version of history, the American public really did talk about sex-related issues back then — not necessarily on the front page, but certainly in the ads section, which was often full of treatments from doctors and drug store owners.

Since Hoosier State Chronicles often highlights episodes of American medical history,  here’s our tribute to “No-Shave November.”  We waded through a plethora of debonair mustachios and culled some worthy ones.  Many yet remain for your discovery.

Amazingly, as an Indianapolis barber feared in November 1902, these bold bristles would soon enough go out of style.  The Hoosier State’s own Benjamin Harrison was among the last generation of unshorn presidents.  Since William Howard Taft in 1913, no president has sported facial hair, with the possible exception of Richard Nixon, whose disastrous five-o’clock shadow contributed to his loss to JFK in 1960.  Even the boldest and most unconventional candidates in the coming election year don’t appear prepared to change this.

It was good business for the barber, at least.


Indianapolis Journal, November 16, 1902Indianapolis Journal, November 16, 1902 (2)Indianapolis Journal, November 16, 1902 (3)

(Indianapolis Journal, November 16, 1902.)


Indianapolis Recorder, January 15, 1910(Indianapolis Recorder, January 15, 1910.)


The Greencastle Democrat, October 30, 1903 (2)(The Greencastle Democrat, October 30, 1903.)


The Greencastle Democrat, January 16, 1897(The Greencastle Democrat, January 16, 1897.)


Indianapolis Recorder, February 19, 1910(Indianapolis Recorder, February 19, 1910.)


Indianapolis Recorder, July 30, 1910(Indianapolis Recorder, July 30, 1910.)


Indianapolis Journal, July 7, 1891(Indianapolis Journal, July 7, 1891.)


The following image from the cover of The Jewish Post (a national paper first printed in Indianapolis in 1933) isn’t Santa Claus, but a rabbi.  The paper’s Rosh Hashanah or Jewish New Years’ edition came out in September 1939, just a few weeks into World War II.


Jewish Post, September 14, 1939

(The Jewish Post, September 14, 1939.)


Indianapolis Journal, May 3, 1892

(Indianapolis Journal, May 3, 1892.)


Fort Wayne Daily News, August 29, 1896

(“A mix-up in bicycle polo,” Fort Wayne Daily News, August 29, 1896.)


Some native Hoosiers were known to sport impressive facial — or overgrowth, depending on your point of view.  Lew Wallace, the Crawfordsville native who became colonel of the 11th Indiana Infantry (a Zouave regiment), Civil War general, territorial governor of New Mexico, author of the novel Ben Hur, and U.S. Minister to Turkey.  Wallace’s Ben Hur came out on “this day in history,” November 12, 1880.


Lew Wallace(Major General Lew Wallace.)


Benjamin Harrison(A younger Benjamin Harrison, Indiana’s only president.)


Lawrenceburg’s James Henry “Jim” Lane became one of the most famous Jayhawk border fighters in Kansas during the run-up to the Civil War.  A fiery abolitionist, Lane served as Lieutenant Governor of Indiana before he became a U.S. Senator from Kansas and a Civil War general.  Wracked by depression, the famous wild and unkempt Hoosier Plainsman committed suicide in 1866 by shooting himself in the head while jumping out of a carriage.


Jim Lane(Jim Lane, Hoosier native and Kansas “Jayhawk.”)


In 1852, Lane was part of the welcoming committee at the State House when one of the most famously hairy men of his time, Hungarian revolutionary Lajos Kossuth, paid a visit to Indianapolis.  Kossuth — after whom a town in Washington County, Indiana, and a county in Iowa was named — had just escaped from Hungary via Turkey, been carried into exile on the USS Mississippi, and was touring the U.S., where crowds hailed him as a hero of democracy. Kossuth also inspired some Indianapolis men to become “hairy-faced bipeds.”


Kossuth in Washington D.C.(Lajos Kossuth, photographed in Washington, D.C., before he traveled west to Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and St. Louis in early 1852.)


Madison Daily Banner, March 3, 1852 (4)

(Madison Daily Banner, Madison, Indiana, March 3, 1852.)


One famous mustachioed American who often showed up in Indiana was the great boxing champion John L. Sullivan.  Sullivan was from Boston but often came to the small-town Midwest for championship matches and general showmanship.  He and his whiskers showed up in Logansport, Fort Wayne, and other towns in 1896.

Yet even the athletic Sullivan could have paid more attention to his own health.  A heavy drinker for most of his life, the boxer later gave up the bottle and turned Prohibitionist  Yet his overindulgence in food and booze led Sullivan to an early death at the age of just 59.  It was said he died with “barely ten dollars in his pocket.”


John L Sullivan(John L. Sullivan, 1858-1918.)


The Fort Wayne News, August 22, 1896 (The Fort Wayne News, August 22, 1896.)


Here’s another wild but lesser known visitor to the state.  The famous shagginess of Polish pianist and composer Ignaz Jan Paderewski, “Wizard of the Keys,” was something that newspapers often noticed and editorialized.

In April 1902, Paderewski performed at Tomlinson Hall (above the “city catacombs”) in Indianapolis.  This performer led a life as wild and varied as the direction of his hair.  In addition to his global career as a concert artist, Paderewski later become a wine-grower in California and a politician who helped re-establish Polish independence after World War I.  After Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1940, he became the head of the Polish parliament exiled in London. Paderewski died in New York in 1941.


Indianapolis Journal, April 6, 1902 (2)

(Indianapolis Journal, April 6, 1902.)


Indianapolis News, November 6, 1900(Indianapolis News, November 6, 1900.)


One last forgotten visitor worthy of note for his ‘stache was the spectacular Captain Jack Bonavita (real name John F. Gentner). The Indiana Tribüne announced Bonavita’s visit to “the Zoo” in 1901.  This wasn’t the Indianapolis Zoo, but the old Zoo Theater, a vaudeville venue that once sat next to the Cyclorama across from the State House.

A famous animal trainer in New York and Hollywood, Captain Bonavita also worked with the silent film industry.  Not long after this photo was taken, he was bitten by one of his trained lions in Indianapolis and spent some time at the City Hospital.  He recovered from that bite in 1901.  Tragically, in 1917, Bonavita was killed by a polar bear he was training.


Indiana Tribune, January 13, 1901

(Indiana Tribüne, January 13, 1901.)


While ladies are often divided on the virtues of male facial hair. . .

(Plymouth Tribune, March 5, 1903.)


. . . if you’re sporting any extra growth this season, Hoosier State Chronicles invites you to  take a bow.

Indianapolis Journal, February 2, 1890

(Indianapolis Journal, February 2, 1890.)

The Where and the What of The When

THE WHEN (3)

Hoosier State Chronicles is getting ready to upload a large run of issues of the Indianapolis Journal from the mid-1890s.  Dominating the front page of Sunday editions in those days are massive, elephantine ads for one of the most colorful clothing stores ever to exist anywhere in the U.S.  This was downtown Indy’s great shopping emporium, The When.

In the days before parking garages and flight to the suburbs plunged downtowns into decline, urban cores all over America were a fascinating architectural wonderland.  Panoramic images of Indianapolis 120 years ago often leave me wondering if I live in the same town, so devastating has been the toll of the wrecking ball, the termite, and (yes) bad urban planning.  Before the auto, pedestrians walked or were funneled down to the business district on trolleys or carriages from neighborhoods not very far out.  And amid the amazing visual spectacle that met shoppers’ eyes at the turn of the century, there stands the ingenuity, humor, and incredible marketing smarts of John Tomlinson Brush.

Born in upstate New York in 1845 and orphaned at age four, Brush was raised by his grandfather, went to business college, then served in the 1st New York Artillery during the Civil War.  Moving from Troy to Indianapolis in 1875 at age thirty, he purchased a brand new, Napoleon the Third-style building at 36 N. Pennsylvania St. and planned to open a branch store of a New York City clothing wholesaler there.

Brush kept changing the opening date.  Probably as a tease to drum up interest, in February 1875 he hung a huge sign outside the store with the simple word (more an exclamation than a question) “WHEN?”  Advertisements in the local newspapers also carried just that one-word tease.  The name stuck, and the lavishly decorated clothing outlet became an instant consumer hit, soon ranked as the biggest of its kind in Indiana.


When Building

(Bass Photo Company.)


the when November 23 1890

(Ads for The When dominated the front page of the Indianapolis Sunday Journal for over two decades.)


2163764238_f458a71d30_o

(New York native John Tomlinson Brush, 1845-1912, was a savvy salesman, razor-sharp humorist, and baseball magnate.)


John T. Brush (some thought his name was John “Tooth” Brush) was gifted with an ample sense of humor and, I hear, was also a clever cartoonist, though I haven’t seen any of his illustrations.  His knack for marketing was far-reaching.  Not only did he see The When “elegantly appointed” with iron balustrades, gas lighting, and a courtyard, he also outfitted it with an array of unusual attractions meant to lure shoppers.  The When had a baseball team, called The When Store team, and a resident brass band, The When Band.  Brush’s musicians played in a second-floor band shell and gave Saturday evening concerts outside on the street and even up on the roof.  As we’ll see below, other colorful attractions also greeted shoppers.

Brush got rich quick in Indianapolis, but unlike many capitalists with Eastern roots, he stuck around for good.  And in the 1880s, The When’s owner became a prominent pioneer of baseball both in the Hoosier State and around the country.

Originally conceived to drum up business for the store, the Indianapolis Hoosiers were a short-lived local baseball team bankrolled by the clothing merchant.  In 1882, he financed the creation of a ball park, Seventh Street Park, also called Tinker Park, at a site now occupied by Methodist Hospital.  The Hoosiers played in the National League from about 1885 to 1889, when they folded.  Brush later bought the St. Louis Maroons, the Cincinnati Reds, and eventually the great New York Giants, which he owned from 1902 until his death in 1912.

Baseball historian Bill Lamb writes:

Local legend has it that Brush first became enthusiastic about the game after reading a Spalding Guide confiscated from an idle store clerk. Or that Brush’s interest stemmed from acceptance of stock in an Indianapolis ball club as payment for a debt. The facts are more prosaic. Brush was first exposed to baseball while working at company stores in upstate New York, a hotbed of the early game. Later he seized upon baseball as a vehicle for advertising The When Store. In 1882 Brush organized a municipal baseball league, building a diamond with a grandstand in northwestern Indianapolis for league games and engaging Jack Kerins as player-manager of the When Store team.


1888_Indianapolis_Hoosiers

(The Indianapolis Hoosiers at Tinker Park, 1888.  I assume Jack Kerins is the man in the center.)


hoosiers 1


As a kind of New Year’s gift to his loyal shoppers in 1895, Brush helped bring a clever attraction to downtown Indy:  a pair of leopard cubs.  The adorable creatures, named Carl and Amanda, were loaned from the great Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, which wintered in its home base of Peru, Indiana.  The cubs spent about a week as a window attraction at Brush’s store while the circus performed at English’s Opera House nearby.


the when january 6 1895


the when january 8 1895


On January 9, the baby leopards got a letter from a bear — and from their mother down the street.  (Mrs. Puss Leopard was quite the gossiper.) The feline correspondence was featured on the front page, in The When’s usual space:

the when january 10 1895


the when january 11 1895


the when january 12 1895


chad ballard

(Chad Ballard, son of Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus owner Ed Ballard, around 1915, possibly in French Lick, Indiana.  French Lick West Baden Museum.)


john t. brush (2)

John Brush lived to see the New York Giants play in three World Series and was married to stage actress Elsie Lombard. Suffering from a nerve ailment after 1902, he died in his private railroad car near Louisiana, Missouri, in 1912.  He came home to a lavish funeral in Indianapolis, attended by many of the greats of the baseball world.

The When Building, which also housed Indianapolis Business College, was sold off to C.S. Ober in the 1940s and came to be known as the Ober Building.  Like much of the city’s former architectural splendor, it was demolished by a wrecking ball and is now the site of a parking garage.


WHEN building


30 N. Pennsylvania St


When Building 2

(Bass Photo Company.)


Though the When is “Gone With the When,” it’s worthy of our deepest praise.  Here are some of my favorite advertisements from Way Back When.


the when December 25 1892 (2)


the when November 9 1890


the When November 22 1891


the when May 20 1888


the when january 14 1895


the when january 22 1895


THE WHEN (4)

(The When Clothing Store stands in the right foreground in this panoramic image of Indianapolis from 1907.)


Contact:  staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

A Skirt Divided

two women on cycle

Rummaging through the always-interesting (and sometimes shockingly relevant) news of the 1890s, I recently ran across a Sunday extra in the Indianapolis Journal.  On April 28, 1895, an eight-page supplement — the “Bicycle Edition” — was devoted entirely to the cycling craze that engulfed the Hoosier State and the rest of the country.

Later this spring, we’ll be uploading the “Bicycle Edition” to Hoosier State Chronicles.  Meanwhile, here’s a sneak peek at the early days of folks on spokes.

Bicycles’ huge role in the women’s rights movement was common news a hundred years ago and, in the 1890s, stirred up a ton of buzz in American newspapers.  While our great-grandmothers would not have needed much reminding about how important mobility on wheels had been to achieving equal rights with men, the turn-of-the-century female cycling phenomenon was later mostly forgotten.  (A great book published by National Geographic in 2011 has helped bring it back into the light:  check out Sue Macy’s Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom.)

Every generation has its great social debates, and Indiana was no stranger to hot discussions about women on wheels.

Hostility toward the newfangled bicycle took on many forms: from horse salesmen and carriage drivers who thought it hurt their business, to ministers who complained about cyclists skipping church on Sunday to go out on country rides and break the Sabbath.  But at the center of the debate was women’s dress and embattled notions about female “purity.”

The ample dresses worn by nineteenth-century women made riding around on spokes outright dangerous — as even a sympathetic male, Lieutenant Defrees of the Indiana National Guard, admitted to the Indianapolis Journal in 1895.  As a safety issue, Defrees supported women’s preference for “bloomers,” or “athletic knickerbockers” as they were also called.

A sort of divided skirt that resembled both baggy pants and a dress, bloomers were first adopted in England in the 1850’s, when women rejected Parisian fashions in favor of styles from the Middle East, especially Turkey, where females actually had many surprising freedoms not enjoyed in Europe and America at the time.  (In the U.S., the practical new clothing item was nicknamed bloomers after Amelia Bloomer, a suffragette from Iowa who fought the prejudice against revealing female attire.)

Lieutenant Defrees, too, opposed the endless ridicule directed at this eminently rational item of clothing.  (In fact, some women called them “rationals.”)  He put it this way:

He Favors Bloomers - Indianapolis Journal April 28 1895


awful effects of velocipeding

(A Victorian cartoonist satirized “The Awful Effects of Velocipeding” in the New Comic Times, a British magazine from the mid-1800s.  Men feared that in addition to going down the slippery slope of cycling, women would adopt another “vice” from Asia: smoking cheroots.)


Dr. Henry J. Garrigues, a specialist on women’s health, was another early male who advocated the benefits of bloomers for female riders.  Dr. Garrigues authored a fascinating defense — “Woman and the Bicycle” — originally published in The Forum, one of the great “social issue” magazines of the day.  An excerpt from Garrigues’ piece appeared in the Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail on January 25, 1896.

Touting the many health benefits of cycling, Garrigues writes: “Bicycle-riding has changed the habits of hundreds of thousands who formerly took little or no exercise in the open air.  It has widened the mental horizon for many by inducing them to undertake long rides far away from their homes.”

About bloomers specifically, Garrigues was pretty frank:

The usual long skirt is objectionable in every respect. It impedes the free movement of the legs, pumps air up against the abdomen, and is in great danger of being caught by projecting parts of their own machines or those of other riders, as well as by other obstructions found on the road. To avoid these inconveniences many women have shortened their skirts, and some have done away with them altogether, wearing so-called ” bloomers,” a wide, bifurcated garment extending from the waist to the knee. This garment, combined with a waist and leggings, forms a neat, practical dress for a woman rider. True, it is at present ridiculed and even condemned by some as immodest. However, before men say anything against the decency of bloomers, they had better reform their own trousers, which are not much more decent than becoming. . .

From a medical standpoint bicycling is valuable both as a prophylactic and as a curative agent. Like other outdoor exercises it takes its votaries away from the vitiated air of closed rooms; but it has several advantages peculiarly its own. It is less expensive and safer than horseback-riding. For the female sex it is also healthier, since horseback-riding, if indulged in too much or at too early an age, is apt to produce a funnel-shaped pelvis, which abnormality may prove a serious obstacle to childbirth.

And for an age that seemed leery of even mentioning women’s bodies in so many ways, it’s interesting that Garrigues went into a long, detailed description of what he believed was another benefit of cycling.  The New York doctor claimed that the womb, “being of muscular construction, is, like all other muscles, strengthened by bicycling.”  He also touted the benefits for men and women suffering from an array of ills, including asthma, neuralgia, headache, insomnia, and “diseases of the intestinal canal — such as dyspepsia, constipation, and haemorrhoids.”


bicycle built for two (2)

(A couple rides an early tandem bike outside the White House, circa 1890.)


bloomers

(Wearing bloomers, she was a daredevil in more ways than one.)


ariel cycling manufacturing co 1895

(An 1895 trade catalog of the Ariel Cycle Manufacturing Company in Goshen, Indiana.  The Hoosier bicycle industry was centered mostly in Indianapolis and the northeastern part of the state.)


New Ulm Review July 8 1896

(New Ulm Review, New Ulm, Minnesota, July 8, 1896.)


Though opposition to bloomers (and wheeling in general) often dragged religion into the fray, liberal-minded Christians spoke out against more conservative ones, just as they do today.  But whatever animosity was directed toward pants from the pulpit, preachers could hardly match the sheer weirdness of Chicago’s “Jack the Whipper,” whom the Terre Haute paper thought to be a truly distinguished “crank of the first water.”

Jack the Whipper

But less than a year later, in 1895, bloomers were still new enough to Terre Haute to cause many men there to stretch their necks in wonder and possibly even in admiration, as the Saturday Evening Mail noted:

Bloomers have not come into such general use in this city as to be common, and the sight of a pair of them in broad daylight very frequently causes a great deal of what the small boy calls “rubber necking.”  The other day a young lady was coming up Seventh street on a wheel, and she made quite an attractive figure in her bloomers.  A man walking along the street, going in the opposite direction, evidently had never seen bloomers before, and he stretched his neck in the effort to follow her with his eyes.  He was so much interested that he paid no attention to where he was going, and presently he ran into a tree on the sidewalk with such force as to peel all the skin off one side of his face.

On the topic of rubber. . .  In the 1890s, Indianapolis was especially well-poised to become a bicycle-manufacturing mecca: the capitol city was once a major rubber-producing town.  (The local industry tanked in the 1950s.)  At the turn of the century, Indianapolis could boast of at least nine bicycle manufacturers, and the demand for pneumatic tires was a major spur to the creation of the Indianapolis Rubber Company.


rubber tires


In addition to being able to get a quick local replacement for a bad tire, in 1895 riders who worked in downtown offices could also take advantage of a “bicycle livery and boarding stable” located under the Brunswick Hotel on Monument Circle.  A nearby bike hospital  also offered a cure for “the last stages of consumption.”


bike livery stable


bicycle hospital


Harry T. Hearsey, born in London, England, in 1863, grew up in Boston, then moved to Indianapolis at age 22.  An early Hoosier cycling pioneer, he ran his own manufacturing company, which made not only bikes, but carriages, sleighs, portable heaters, and eventually automobiles.

Hearsey also operated a riding school, which catered in large part to women.  Walter Marshall “Major” Taylor, the great African-American cyclist and Indianapolis native, worked as an instructor at Harry Hearsey’s Riding School, located at 116/118 N. Pennsylvania St.  This ad from the German-language Indiana Tribüne touts Hearsey’s Reitschule (“often Tag und Abend.”)


hearsey ad -- Indiana Tribune July 27 1896


Though he was a businessman with an obvious profit to turn, Hearsey may have been one of the many Americans who thought that women at the wheel was something to be praised.  Even many who believed in “womanly purity” found something positive in cycling, as a writer in Lincoln, Nebraska, admitted:  “The modern bicycle is one of the modern safeties of womanly purity,” he or she wrote.  “She no longer needs to jostle through a crowd of men on the street corner or in the street car.  The primest little maid of this city wears bloomers, rides a bicycle, and works in a printing office.”

Bike sales in Indiana boomed in the 1890s.  Thomas Hay, of the firm of Hay & Willits at 113 W. Washington St., told the Indianapolis Journal in 1895 that “At the present time about 20 per cent of the wheels sold are for ladies, while two years ago I doubt if the sales of the ladies’ wheels reached 2 percent of the total.”  Hay attributed part of the surge in sales to improvements in the manufacture of women’s bicycles, which had previously been neglected.  In 1897, women were so important to the industry that the Central Cycle Manufacturing Company put them on the cover of their gorgeous trade catalog, designed and printed in “Arts and Crafts” style.  It is a beautiful illustration of the generational gap between the old woman in skirts and the dashing Belle on Wheels.


ben hur bicycle


ben hur bicycle 5


ben hur bicycle 1

(The Central Cycling Company of Indianapolis built the once-popular “Ben-Hur Bicycle,” named for the novel written by Hoosier literary giant Lew Wallace.)


bicycling in fort wayne (2)

(These wheelmen in Fort Wayne, Indiana, were some of the last aficionados of the highwheeler, old-fashioned even in 1900.)


Gradually, of course, the sight of women in bloomers wasn’t shocking to most Americans at all.  Times changed fast, so fast that the great Hoosier songwriter Cole Porter could easily lampoon an earlier generation in the immortal lyrics of “Anything Goes”:

In olden days, a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking.
But now, God knows,
Anything goes. . .
If driving fast cars you like,
If low bars you like,
If old hymns you like,
If bare limbs you like,
If Mae West you like,
Or me undressed you like,
Why, nobody will oppose.

Yet even before the Roaring Twenties and the day in 1934 when Cole Porter penned those lines, the ladies of the 1890s had already paved the way.  Sportswomen in baseball and basketball literally “followed suit.”  We salute them all.


ariel cycling manufacturing co 1896


bloomers basketball chicago 1097

(Women in Chicago play basketball in 1906.)


star bloomers ca 1900

(The Star Bloomer Girls were an Indianapolis baseball team that toured the country around 1914.  The pitcher and catcher, far right, were male but the whole team wore the same outfit.)


women fencers

(Women of the Indianapolis Socialer Turnverein appear at a fencing match in Fort Wayne in the 1920’s.  Athenaeum Turners Collection, IUPUI.)


Indiana newspapers are full of stories about women, cycling, and sports.  Do a search at Hoosier State Chronicles to unearth more tales like these.  Contact:  staylor336 [at] gmail.com