Two weeks ago, after reading my explainer on the potential schism within the United Methodist Church, I was asked why Methodists use grape juice rather than wine at Communion. After all, Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding at Cana, and it’s assumed that he was using wine during the Passover (Last Supper) which has become the basis for the eucharistic tradition. So why do Methodists have a problem with wine? The answer is made up of many different threads: history, social justice, entrepreneurship, and the unique Methodist creativity that ties all the threads together.
Vintage Reproduction of an “Arkansas Toothpick” Knife by the Carvel Hall Company, Crisfield, Maryland
The thing about rabbit holes is they don’t stop the minute you find an answer to your initial question. This morning, I explored what I learned when I investigated the question of WPA glassblowers and what company might have been their previous employer. But that question quite naturally (naturally to me, at least) led to another question: what other companies have we lost due to industrialization or to offshoring or to big box, mass merchandised products? It’s not the first time I’ve considered this question. As someone who loves all things vintage, I’m keenly aware of the number of items that are now considered collectibles just because they’re no longer made. As someone who is practical, my home is filled with these items that are “vintage,” not because they’re vintage, but because the old stuff just lasts longer. So to answer my question about other companies, I merely had to look up from my laptop on the kitchen table and glance around. The result for tonight’s post is the story of steak knives and Carvel Hall.
“Down the rabbit hole” sign at the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas
Today brings another edition of my brain and how it works; going down the rabbit hole is actually one of the nicer ways of describing my thought processes. Today’s topic started with this simple paragraph in a book I’m reading about the WPA:
Then Lenson got wind of an old glassworks in Vineland, New Jersey. Vineland and Millville to the south had once formed the nexus of a glassblowing area in south-central New Jersey. The sand there was fine and free of impurities, perfect for glassmaking, but the glass factories, overtaken by modern manufacturing methods, had now closed, leaving dozens of glassblowers jobless. Lenson sought them out and told them he had a plan to put them back to work. (Taylor, Nick. American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work, Bantam Books, 2008, p. 276.)
As a lover of vintage glass, my first thought was that I wanted to at least see a piece of this WPA glass, a possibility I’m still researching. My next thought was that I wondered which glass factories had closed. I found one company that may have been one of those to which the book referred (the endnotes do nothing to solve the mystery), and it’s a fascinating story of hope, beauty, and tragedy.
William Monroe Trotter in 1915 (1872-1934)
He was privileged as one of the “Talented Tenth,” but a true ally to poor African-Americans. He was a newspaper editor and a Black Radical who alienated the full-range of the political spectrum, from Woodrow Wilson to Booker T. Washington to other Black Radicals. He believed the good was the enemy of the perfect but left a legacy that inspired the actions of activists of the Movement. He was William Monroe Trotter, and today we learn about him through his own words.
The design features a portrait of Elizabeth Peratrovich, whose advocacy was considered a deciding factor in the passage of the 1945 Anti-Discrimination Law in the Alaskan Territorial Government. The foreground features a symbol of the Tlingit Raven moiety, of which she was a member.
For most of us (and yes, there are some notable Village exceptions), the story of Alaska and its First People is a story sketched in the broadest outlines and with little detail. Most of us have heard the designation “Seward’s Folly,” the derogatory description of the 1867 “purchase” of Alaska from the Russian Empire. We may have some basic understanding of the gold rush in the Klondike in 1896. Most of us have heard of the Iditarod, and the story of Togo and Balto and the sled dog relay to save the children of Nome, which inspired the current race. But I feel relatively confident that most of us, unless having spent some time in Alaska, know very little about the indigenous peoples and how they fared when Americans came to colonize their land. Not surprisingly, it’s a story of white supremacy and today, it’s also the story of a Native woman who said, “Enough.”
Last week I mentioned that I would be doing a SHEnanigans post today, barring something catastrophic. The catastrophic has not happened, but there’s a change in plans anyway. My doubling down on resumes last week has resulted in two interviews: one today and one tomorrow. This is good news for me, but not good for my concentration on anything other than preparing for the interviews. Instead you get a Twitter-supported look at interesting tidbits of history and the lenses through which we view them.
A pack horse librarian reads out-loud to a man in the Kentucky mountains; 12 January 1938
When the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was established in 1935, it had the responsibility for creating employment through developing infrastructure across the country. The building projects were concentrated in trades that were largely limited to men at the time, but in 1930, 22% of the workforce was female. Although WPA rules decreed that both husband and wife could not be receiving work through the WPA (this was not pure misogyny but an effort to reach a greater number of breadwinners overall), women needed work too. With many women claiming the head of household mantle, the Division of Women’s and Professional Projects scrambled to find work “appropriate” for women.
For most people, the name WPA brings to mind images of men laboring on highway projects and building parks and schools, but during the Depression, women, too, were heads of households and in need of employment. Work programs for women were first established in 1933 through the Women’s Division of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), and later came under the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Some women were placed in clerical jobs or worked as librarians, others went to work canning, gardening, and sewing. Nationally, some 7 percent of WPA workers were women engaged in sewing projects. Sewing rooms could be found in rural areas and large cities alike. (“We Patch Anything”: WPA Sewing Rooms in Fort Worth, Texas)
Original caption: “A girl team working on a center wing section of a B-24E (Liberator) bomber in Ford’s big Willow Run plant. The Liberator is capable of operation at high altitudes and over great ranges on precision bombing missions. It has proved itself an excellent performer in the Pacific, in Northern Africa, Europe and the Aleutians. Ford’s Willow Run Plant, Michigan” (Between July 1942 and February 1943)
In September 1942, President Roosevelt visited the Willow Run plant as part of a cross-country war industry tour. Despite being four months behind where it hoped to be, Ford showcased its bomber and other war materiel that was being produced at other Ford locations. It was a dog-and-pony show put on by the company, but as Roosevelt’s countrywide tour was intended to be a boost to morale, it was a pleasant visit despite Henry Ford’s dislike of Roosevelt (Charles Lindbergh, an American First-er who had resigned his commission with the Air Corps before the U.S. was officially at war, stayed home. He was now employed by Ford as a lead test pilot, to be involved in the shakedown flights of the bombers). If the visit was any indication, 1943 should have been a stellar year for Ford. It wasn’t.
Riveting a center wing section for a B-24E (Liberator) bomber in the horizontal position at Ford’s big Willow Run plant; February 1943.
Last week, we learned that Ford Motor Company, at the urging of Edsel Ford and against the wishes of Henry Ford, decided to get into the airplane-building industry prior to the U.S. entry into WWII. The building of the Willow Run plant was a major undertaking, and getting Henry Ford to donate the land for the plant could have, and maybe even should have, been the high point of the story, with the rest being routine and unremarkable. But expecting the routine and unremarkable when Henry Ford was involved would in itself be remarkable.
A small part of the world’s largest one-story war production plant, the giant bomber factory at Willow Run, Michigan. Fixtures in background hold bomber wings during assembly. Ford plant, Willow Run; July 1942.
I’ve written about things related to the auto industry before, but usually from the union perspective or with a union-centric focus. Despite that, I’m not dismissive of the contributions that the companies have made to our country’s history and development, particularly over the course of WWII. They may not have given up the production of automobiles voluntarily or altruistically, but committing their workers’ expertise to creating the arsenal of democracy undeniably made the difference between victory and defeat for the Allied powers. Today I’m providing a glimpse of one production center: the Willow Run B-24 bomber plant built near Ypsilanti, MI.