Wednesday, December 31, 2014

1915 – Looking Back 100 Years Ago

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, January 2, 2015.

As we launch ourselves forward into a new year, it’s always interesting to look back one hundred years, with a great deal of hindsight, to see what was happening. There was a lot of change happening in 1915 and a great deal of anxiety about changes that were unmistakably coming. Picture 1915 to be like a plane sitting on the tarmac waiting for take-off, only the passengers and pilots has no idea where the destination will be.

Europe had erupted with war the previous year, but the United States was still not involved in 1915 – nor did it want to be. The Exeter News-Letter took no stand on the issue. There were no dueling letters to the editor on isolationism v. involvement. Yet it is clear that the war in Europe could not be ignored. The steamship Lusitania was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland in May with many Americans on board. What to think about this? We’d been warned by the Germans that shipping might be at risk. John Templeton, the News-Letter editor, took issue with the sinking, commenting, “the vessel itself would have been her rightful prey, but its sinking with hundreds of innocent non-combatants, scores of babes included, was simply massacre.” Yet, as appalled as we were, no one was ready to call this an act of war, although there was growing unease in 1915 that we would not be able to avoid it.

There was also a sense of unease about technology. 1915 was the year that electricity became more commonplace in town. Electric street lighting was approved at the town meeting in March, although they did not approve installing electric lighting in the public library. Electricity was safe, everyone was told, safe enough to have in your own home. Yet lineman Gilbert French was seriously burned after touching a wire with 4000 volts and Robert Ballard, an electrician with Exeter & Hampton Electric, was similarly injured. Both men recovered, but to many it seemed like electricity was dangerous and unpredictable. A lightning storm in August “burned all the fuses on the telegraph switchboard of the Boston & Maine ticket office. The fuses were thrown in all directions and the brass cap of one was driven into the switchboard. A ball of fire danced about the office, which was filled with smoke.” Reports such as these in the News-Letter, gave people pause.

If growing discomfort with world events and the frightening world of technology weren’t enough, social issues continued to trouble people. The two major issues of the era, prohibition and women’s suffrage, continued to vex the population. Exeter was a strongly prohibitionist town – there is scant evidence that drinkers were willing to challenge the rising tide of temperance. But women? Come on, did they really need to vote? There seem to have been equal numbers of suffragist and anti-suffragists in town – both male and female. Their meetings and missives lobbed back and forth all year. “Suffrage should not be forced on women!” screamed one headline, while Thomas Leavitt mourned, “I see that all four of the men sent to represent Exeter at the General Court voted against the bill extending to women the right to vote in municipal elections. Did they truly represent the sentiment or wishes or opinions of the town in so doing?”

Health was also changing in 1915 as the idea that germs might really be a thing continued to catch on. Dentist Dr. Charles Gerrish got it, advising “cleaning the teeth may be the most important and expert thing you can do. Thus cometh the gold days of ‘prevention.’” But the esteemed Dr. Otis – a nationally recognized expert on tuberculosis who lived on Front Street – advised clean air, nourishing food, adequate rest and exercise to avoid catching the killer disease, without any comment on hygiene. Regulations passed in 1911 that outlawed common drinking cups and shared public towels seemed to many to be unnecessary restrictions.

The landscape of the town changed in 1915. There were three major building projects taking place from the very beginning of the year. Phillips Exeter Academy was still scrambling to replace its main building, which had burned on July 3rd the previous year. Updates on the construction appear nearly every week up to its dedication and opening on September 15th. Judge Edward Mayer announced in January that he was building a new theater – the Ioka – that would be fully equipped for moving pictures. It opened on November 3rd with a showing of “Birth of a Nation” – a film based on a novel called “The Clansmen.” Although boycotted by the NAACP in most major cities, the film ran for three nights in Exeter with no obvious objections. Promoted with “two horsemen in Ku Klux costume” riding through town, it was viewed as a great success. The Smith Block on Water Street opened in early October with the new Woolworth’s 5 and 10 cent store bringing mass-marketing to town.

All this newness, both the good and bad, led editor Templeton to marvel at the way the world was going. At the end of the year, his one overriding concern continued to be the war. “The outstanding feature of the waning year has been the great war, which has convulsed half the world and has in more ways than one affected all neutral nations. We, of this favored land, have enjoyed increasing prosperity and the blessings of peace. It is devoutly to be hoped that the year about to open will see the closing of the deplorable war, now far protracted beyond all expectations.” It was not to be. The war raged on and in 1917 the United States was drawn in.

Image: (ad for Exeter & Hampton Electric) In 1915, people still had to be coaxed into installing home electricity. This advertisement ran in the Exeter News-Letter in July during the worst of the summer heat.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Exeter History Minute - Christmas in Exeter

Have you often wished for a more traditional holiday season -- to celebrate Christmas the way our ancestors did? In this Exeter History Minute -- click here to watch -- Barbara explores the history of Christmas in Exeter, and it's a little different than you might expect. This history minute is generously sponsored by Exeter Hospital.

To learn more about Exeter history -- or to support the Exeter Historical Society -- visit our website, #ExeterHistoryMinute

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Town Christmas Tree

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, December 19, 2014.

According to David Robson of the University of Illinois horticulture extension program, “By 1900, one in five American families had a Christmas tree, and 20 years later, the custom was nearly universal.” How do we account for the rise in popularity? Most likely, it was due to electricity. Christmas trees had gained a following after the 1848 publication of an engraving of Queen Victoria and her family gathered around a decorated tree. New Hampshire’s only president, Franklin Pierce, is credited with setting up the first Christmas tree in the White House in 1853.

Still, few people had a tree at home. Christmas trees were lit with candles – an obvious fire risk – and most families didn’t want to take that chance. It was more common for clubs and churches to ‘hold a Christmas tree’ as an event, rather than a decorative item. It would be lit for a short time only and accompanied by presents, which were often used as decorations on the tree itself. In 1912, the city of New York erected the first community Christmas tree – illuminated with electric lights.

Exeter took the plunge in 1916, with the assistance of Exeter and Hampton Electric Company and the Exeter Women’s Club. The Exeter News-Letter announced that the community tree would be lit on Christmas Eve, “if the weather is unsuitable Sunday evening, these exercises will be postponed until the first fair night. The church bells will be rung at 7 o’clock as a signal that the celebration will take place. The community chorus will be led by Mr. W.H. Nute, and the school chorus by Mr. Brooks.” In conjunction with this, a gift-tree for children was planned for December 26th, “this is the first community gift-tree ever held in Exeter. What can lighten the hearts of the children more than the giving of gifts to them at this holiday season?”

The review of the event reported, “the church bells rang at 7:15 o’clock Sunday evening as a signal that the exercises were to be held at 8 o’clock. A bugle call opened the evening’s programme.” The wait was not appreciated by Helen Tufts, who wryly wrote in her diary, “went down to the community tree and stood around over half an hour for it to begin. It was not a grand success,” although she noted, “singing in the pavilion led by Mr. Nute, was fine.”

The thrilling part of the event had to be the brilliantly lit tree. “The lighting of the tree, which was illuminated with 500 red and green electric lights, with a white star in the top outlined with electric lights, was generously given by Mr. George D. Baxter.” Baxter served as the manager of Exeter and Hampton Electric for 30 years. Promoting the use of home electricity was still important in 1916, when many families still weren’t wired up. “Mr. Baxter,” the News-Letter continued, “has spent much time and labor in enabling the committee to make the first community tree a success. A large number of townspeople as well as many from neighboring towns attended the evening’s programme.” The tree was lit from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Eve – a relatively short time period by today’s standards, but tremendously long for those accustomed to candle-lit trees.

After Christmas, the gift-tree was held for local children. “The Community gift-tree was held in the Town Hall Tuesday afternoon. A Christmas programme for the children preceded the distribution of gifts by Santa Claus, very cleverly impersonated by Mr. Stewart E. Rowe, much to the enjoyment of the children. Gifts and candy bags were given to nearly 800 children. In connection with this tree 35 baskets of fruit were distributed by the Boy Scouts in Mr. W.S. Peters’ automobile, kindly loaned by him for this occasion. These baskets were given to people confined to their homes.”

The following year, 1917, the world was at war. Most of the news involved Red Cross work to help support the Allied Forces. Still, the Community Christmas tree was lit and gifts were distributed to the town’s children. But the following year most of the festivities had been curtailed due to influenza. The Exeter News-Letter noted, “The community Christmas tree will stand on the Square this season, as in the past two years, but because of the special danger this year of sickness from exposure to possible severe weather, the singing will not take place.” It wasn’t exposure to the weather that townsfolk had to fear, it was exposure to one another. Canceling the singing was not a bad idea.

Since these early days, Exeter has decorated the downtown every year. For the past 16 years, the Festival of Trees has been held by the Exeter Area Chamber of Commerce to support the Chamber Children’s Fund. This year they were able to raise over $25,000.00 to provide warm clothing to area children. Unitil, our utilities company and the direct descendant of Exeter and Hampton Electric Company, still assists the town free of charge to hang the lights. Although some of the details have changed, the purpose of our downtown tree has remained the same – spread good cheer, help those in need and light up our dark December nights.

Photo: Christmas trees in the home increased in popularity after electricity became a common home utility. This tree in a local Exeter home, was photographed in the 1920s.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Exeter Mill Girls

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, December 5, 2014.

“Here am I, a health new England Girl, quite well-behaved, bestowing just half of all my hours including Sundays, upon a company, for less than two cents an hour, and out of the other half of my time, I am obliged to wash, mend, read, reflect, go to church?? I repeat, what are we coming to?” So wrote a young woman who identified herself as ‘Octavia’ in an 1843 periodical called The Factory Girl, published in Exeter. There’s a stack of similar papers in the archives of the Exeter Historical Society, all testaments to the Exeter Manufacturing Company’s short-lived practice of hiring New England farm girls to work in the textile mill on the river.

The Exeter Manufacturing Company began production in the 1830s. The Industrial Revolution was beginning to take hold of river towns and like the enormous mills in Lowell, Massachusetts; the original plan was to hire local girls to tend the machines. They could be paid cheaply and would live in boardinghouses owned and operated by the company. It seemed like a perfect system – the mill had a bright, energetic and totally controllable workforce and the girls could earn some money for a dowry. Rules for the girls were strict. Each worker was required to sign a ‘regulation paper,’ which laid out the rules and included restrictions for their off-hour lives. They were required to attend church, in some towns they were required to attend a specific church, usually the one the company owners attended, no matter what denomination the girls may have been.

The work proved to be quite different from what the girls were used to on the farm. At home, working day may have been long, but at least the tasks varied. The factory required them to stand all day – often 15 or more hours – in an oppressively hot and dim room, the noise so loud it made conversation impossible. The weekly or bi-weekly newspapers that the girls assisted in producing helped keep their young minds from turning to mush with the daily grind.

The earliest factory girl paper we have in our collections is called The Factory Girl and Ladies’ Garland, published in December of 1841. On the front page, just under the masthead, is an engraving of the Exeter Manufacturing Company. The scene in the picture is idyllic. The mill sits on the river, a cozy smoke stack seems inviting and a leisurely fisherman is seen standing in his dory in the waters of the Squamscott River. A table of statistics next to the image reveals that, “the number of females employed is 212, the number of males 40.” Wages ranged from $1.25 per week in the card-room to $3.50 in the dressing room, with the men making the high end of that range. Unlike the Lowell mills, however, there was no boarding house system run by the company. “The girls are not compelled to board in the houses belonging to the company, but are allowed the privilege of boarding wherever they please – within five minutes walk of the mill.” If the rates were similar to Lowell, each girl would have spent just under half of her weekly wages on room and board.

The paper continues to brag, “there are but very few ever employed in the Mill under 16 years of age; and there is not any who are unable to read or write.” The literacy statistic is meant to compare the American system of wage labor to that of Great Britain, where it was already obvious by 1841 that factory work was done by the lowest class of people. In America, education was the element that raised people up from the gutter. The girls were encouraged to join lending libraries, attend free or low-cost educational salons, where the topics ranged from religion, current events, mesmerism or phrenology. How they managed to stay awake for these programs after working a 16 hour day is a mystery known only to teenagers.

Factory girl papers came and went quickly in Exeter. With names like The Factory Girls’ Garland, The Factory Girl, The Factory Girl’s Album and The Messenger, Wreath and Garland, competition was fierce. Published during the 1840s, most addressed issues that would carefully coach the workers into being virtuous women and eventually wives. “No young woman is fit to be married till she has learned to keep house,” The Factory Girl chided in 1845 – with no perceived irony considering the girls it addressed were unable to keep house while walking the factory floor. “Industry will make a purse, and frugality will give you strings to it,’ advised The Factory Girl and Ladies’ Garland, “the purse will cost you nothing. Draw the strings as frugality directs, and you will always have money at the bottom.”

The system of hiring factory girls began to fade in Exeter by the 1850s. By that time, it was cheaper to hire whole immigrant families from Ireland and Canada. These new workers remained on the payroll far longer than the farm girls, and their children could be hired for pennies on the dollar.

Was the factory girl system sound? Octavia, quoted above, seemed to feel her life was ebbing away under the factory system, and there were some highly publicized cases of abuse – both physical and sexual. But there were also many women who benefited from the financial freedom it incurred. Harriet Robinson, who began working in the Lowell mill at the age of 11, wrote in 1898: “I do not know why it should not be just as commendable for a woman who has risen to have been once a factory-girl, as it is for an ex-governor or a major-general to have been a ‘bobbin-boy.’ A woman, ought to be as proud of being self-made as a man; not proud in a boasting way, but proud enough to assert the fact in her life and in her works.”

Image: The Exeter Manufacturing Company as depicted on the front page of Factory Girl and Ladies’ Garland, a periodical published in Exeter in December of 1841. Small newspapers such as this encouraged mill girls to read and endorsed ‘womanly’ virtues such as modesty, frugality and industry.