October 5, 2006

An old postcard.

The only thing I know for certain about this photograph postcard is that the woman behind the wheel is my grandmother, Geraldine. I believe it was made in some sort of studio where they pose you in a car. Look at that ramshackle backdrop.

Old photograph

I'm pretty sure this was taken in the 1920s. I think they're all college kids. I don't know if they're wearing their own clothes or if the photo studio provided costumes. The woman in the middle seems to be wearing a flapper costume, what with that headband, but wouldn't a young person have dressed like this then? The women who are not my grandmother are wearing awfully similar coats, and the men have nearly identical hats, yet my grandmother is coatless. So it seems that everyone but she put on the photographer's costumes. Why didn't she? Maybe she liked feeling of cool air on her skin and maybe she bypassed the costumes to jump in the car first and claim the driver's seat.

The pennants are scattered about haphazardly, and I realize I'm not quite sure if my grandmother went to Adrian College. I do know that she became a teacher, and that after she married my grandfather -- who is not in this picture -- she hid the fact that she was married, because they would have fired her for being married. Did they think a woman who had sex could not be trusted teaching children? Did they think a woman wronged her husband by going to work? Perhaps they thought it was greedy or unfair for a family to have two paychecks.

This picture mystifies me and makes me feel sad. It's not just the poignancy of the distant past, but that I never knew my grandmother when she was anything like this young and confident person. The Geraldine I knew suffered and complained. I never got the whole story out of my mother, but I think she completely changed when her fifth (and last) child was born with a hopeless birth defect and died within one year. So for me this picture represents the most unreachable part of the past. It makes me sad, but it also makes me happy. How charming and mischievous she looks!


Revenant said...

Nice picture. I can see the family resemblance, especially around the eyes.

And I believe the usual rationale for wanting unmarried teachers is so they wouldn't get pregnant and quit (or, worse yet, scandalize everyone by continuing to teach while pregnant). A more cynical reason is that women without access to a second (usually larger) income via their husbands were easier to work like mules and treat like dirt.

Joe said...

I will never forget the first time I saw photos of my grandparents and the relatives in the 1920's. Keg party on the beach! Aunt Millie was a flapper! and a vamp! Though she was always a firecracker, as I recall. Sent the Catholic Charities solicitor packing, telling him to sell a jewel out of the Pope's hat. What a crew.

Revenant said...

I will never forget the first time I saw photos of my grandparents and the relatives in the 1920's.

Better than me seeing a picture of my dad from 1970. He looked like Austin Powers.

That, I didn't need to know about.

reader_iam said...

Did they think a woman who had sex could not be trusted teaching children? Did they think a woman wronged her husband by going to work? Perhaps they thought it was greedy or unfair for a family to have two paychecks.

1. No.
2. Hmm. Depends.
3. The "unfair" part has a lot of truth to it: Or, at least in so far as the "you're taking away an income someone else actually needs" rationale.
4. Revenant's first reason (the biggie, I think)
5. Revenant's second reason (right up there, too)

I base this not just on logic, or reading, but what my own grandmothers--at least one of whom was likely in your grandmother's cohort, and the other within a decade's spittin' distance--shared with me. And I got to know them very well (I'm very, very, very lucky) before one of them got...vague... and the other entered the full-blown state of suffering and complaining.

I love this picture. I love pictures like this one. I think it's so cool you posted it.

And Revenant is also right about the resemblance, IMO.

reader_iam said...

Love, but also feel the mix of feelings you express.

BeckyJ said...

I have a picture of my grandparents taken on a picnic on the Jersey Shore about 6 months before they got married (1930). My grandfather is wearing plus-fours!! Quite the dapper gentleman!

My grandmother looks happier in that picture than I ever remember seeing her. I knew her as a feisty, energetic woman who outlived her husband by 20 years. She died in 1999 at 95. I miss her.

Coco said...

WHat's really interesting to me is that just a month ago I was at the Chicago Museum of Science & Industry at an exhibit recreating a "1920 Main Street." At the exhibit they had a photographer taking pictures of people in a period car with costumes. Thus, I have a picture with my two daughters in an almost identical car, with a nearly identical backdrop (albeit in better condition), and I am wearing the same type of hat as the men with your grandma and my girls are wearing the same type of flapper outfits. The part that is amazing to me is that the staged picture I took purporting to recreate a 1920s scene is the same staged picture people actually took in the 1920s. How funny.

HM said...

My grandmother was the first woman, as I understand it, to lead a strike in the US. 1919 against the Dayton Power and Light Company.

DP&L stills screws people, and grandma died in '89 at ripe old 94.

Hell of a lady. Also happened to found the company where I work.

Maxine Weiss said...

"Did they think a woman who had sex could not be trusted teaching children? Did they think a woman wronged her husband by going to work? Perhaps they thought it was greedy or unfair for a family to have two paychecks."----Althouse

Or, perhaps they just didn't like someone who lied about being married?

Back then, I would think the sin of lying far outweighs any of the other, above, sins you mention.

Peace, Maxine

theshoe said...

Is that not a ring on her finger?

Zeb Quinn said...

Before WWII, and perhaps even for a while afterwards, a working married woman was gauche, and it reflected poorly on the woman, on her husband, and on the couple. Why? For all the reasons mentioned, plus because it just wasn't normal.

George said...

Cute, very, and innocent seeming.

There would have been no rational basis for banning your grandmother from the classroom

Ann Althouse said...

No, Maxine. It was an explicit policy, which is why she hid her marriage.

Pogo said...

Marc Cohn
The Things We've Handed Down

Will you laugh just like your mother
Will you sigh like your old man
Will some things skip a generation
Like I've heard they often can
Are you a poet or a dancer
A devil or a clown
Or a strange new combination of
The things we've handed down

I wonder who you'll look like
Will your hair fall down and curl
Will you be a mama's boy
Or daddy's little girl
Will you be a sad reminder
Of what's been lost along the way
Maybe you can help me find her
In the things you do and say

And these things that we have given you
They are not so easily found
But you can thank us later
For the things we've handed down

You may not always be so grateful
For the way that you were made
Some feature of your father's
That you'd gladly sell or trade
And one day you may look at us
And say that you were cursed
But over time that line has been
Extremely well rehearsed
By our fathers, and their fathers
In some old and distant town
From places no one here remembers
Come the things we've handed down

Old Dad said...


My scenario: The young man in the passenger seat is pursuing Geraldine, who is interested enough to agree to a date, but not interested enough to go without a friend--the bored and slightly offended young lady in the middle. The other couple are there because the young man is a fraternity brother of Geraldine's prospective beau. They are a couple--bored and a little embarrassed by the spectacle. It's the county fair. The boys are wearing sporty costume caps, and the girls are wearing costume coats, but our heroine is not--for obvious reasons. What fun to be behind the wheel.

A date, circa 1925. Little heat, and no fire.

reader_iam said...




Harry Eagar said...

In rural townships, there weren't many secure gummint jobs to share around (see 'God's Little Acre'), so it was felt that if a woman married, her husband could support her and the schoolma'm pay could go to some family that needed it more -- some of those virginal teachers had dependents, you know.

But it's nice to know that feminists have not given up just making up crap to score points.

AJ Lynch said...

Your grandmother is driving- how'd she wrangle the prime seat? And did you ever wonder if you got your love of road trips from her or this picture?

Johnny Nucleo said...

Nice post. The historical value of old photos like this is immense. The Internet is great for many reasons, but one of the greatest is that so many of these photos will now last forever.

There should be a project - some rich guy should set it up - with the goal of scanning all the pre-WWII photos that are rotting away in people's attics and basements. We have plenty of photos of famous people and famous places. What I want to see archived are photos of normal people doing normal people things a long time ago.

Now for some fuzzy-headed sentimentality. When I see old photos like this I feel connected to something vast. I actually feel nostalgia. How can one feel nostalgia for something - for people and places and times - one never knew? It is mysterious! Or maybe it isn't, but there is no denying there is something mysteriously cool about very old photographs.

downtownlad said...

She does look spunky.

The woman in the back has the facial expression of a 60 year-old though, don't you think?

Whenever I see old photos, I still see the people as old, and not they age they are in the photos. Not so with your grandmother. She has a very modern look.

Theo Boehm said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Crank said...

That's a great picture. She does look like quite the lively young lady there. It's often sad to think of untouched young people and the hardships that lie ahead, but she surely had many good times before then.

My grandmother always looks fundamentally the same in pictures, but we do have pictures of my grandfather as a callow youth in the British Navy in WWI, looking much different than the old man I remember.

Christy said...

Strong family resemblance.

I remember congratulating my grandma on her 60th wedding anniversary sometime around 1980. She suggested I get a move on if I wanted to have 60 anniversaries. As soon as it was out of her mouth she checked herself and told me that girls in her time didn't have options. Marriage or teaching was about it. They couldn't even be nurses (my Mom's occupation a generation later) because nurses worked with men and weren't respectable.

Bruce Hayden said...

I would suggest that more women of that generation worked than in the next one, the one that Ann's and my parents came from. Or, I should qualify that: a lot of women worked during WWII, but were pushed out of the labor force and into childrearing by the returning vets.

In the prior generation, there were a lot of maiden aunts and the male equivalents. In my family, about half of the kids of that generation got married and had families, and the other half either didn't marry, or married late. And those unmarried or late married women tended to work.

But mothers working was rare then, but not unheard of. My mother's mother didn't get married until almost 30, and worked up until then, after having gotten a college degree. My father's mother met his father in teachers college. She taught accounting at a vo-tech type school through the 1920s, stopping for one year to have my father. Then, she moved to the college level in the 1930s and finished out her career there, again teaching accounting. My father was griping last week about taking classes from other profs at the business school there, and how they pushed him harder than they did anyone else - that is the problem with having a parent on the faculty of the college you are going to.

I see pictures of that set of grandparents in the 1920s, and they were quite sylish. I would almost say, avant guard. My father remembers seances at their house while was growing up. After retirement, they owned a girl's camp, and I never saw them out of that sort of western dress (including pants - and boots) (indeed, I have fond memories of learning to ride from her and my father). But all the pictures we have of them from 1920 up through the late 1940s, they were always very professionally dressed.

My other grandmother couldn't have continued to work even if she had wanted to. My grandfather was during much of that time, an artillary officer. And wives of officers, esp. field grade, didn't work back then. Rather, their "job" was to entertain the other officers' wives, and be entertained by them, etc. Indeed, during WWII, she was often the highest ranking wife on the base, which she loved.

Ann Althouse said...

Theo: The photo you remember is of my father's mother. This is my mother's mother.

AllenS said...

Think of how few people back then had access to a telephone. Postcards were the way to communicate. Back in the 1970's the 80 year old lady who lived across the street from me, gave me a postcard that showed my farm house shortly after it had been built in 1908. Also, in the picture is the windmill and partially visible, the old log cabin that the owners lived in previously. The driveway was on the other side of the house than it is now, and the original barn burned down in 1925. I love old stuff.

Bart Hall (Kansas, USA) said...

We are far closer to the past (and to the future) than we realise. The last eyewitness to Lincoln's assassination died in 1956, and the last Civil War widow died in the last year or two.

By that same token, the last eyewitness to the Kennedy assasination may still be alive in 2050, and the last Iraq war widow may still be receiving her pension in 2140.

I still remember a particular Memorial Day parade in the early '50s when I was a young lad. For the last hundred yards or so (from the town green to the cemetery) the parade was led by a moth-eaten old guy in a moth-eaten old coat and hat. My father told me to soak it in because we'd never see it again -- one of the very last Civil War vets.

As I say, we're much closer to both past and future than we commonly realise, though equal times backward and forward always seem closer when looking back.

MadisonMan said...

and the last Iraq war widow may still be receiving her pension in 2140.

You mean the war will be over by then?

I love old pictures, and old letters from people long dead. I have some family letters from the 1840s and they are so fascinating to read.

Ann, you should have that picture restored, especially since you look so related to your grandmother!

Cath said...

When my grandmother was teaching in a two-room school in the San Jose, California area in 1933, she kept the fact of her engagement secret until January so that she wouldn't be replaced over the Christmas break. Apparently an engagement wasn't such a significant problem that it required the disruption of mid-term replacement, but did justify elimination as soon as practicable. She got married after the end of the school year, as marriage would have required her immediate termination whatever the disruption.

Strayhorn said...

Here in the South, to quote Shelby Foote, the past isn't dead - it isn't even the past.

My grandad was raised by his uncle, who was a Confederate veteran. His great-grandfather could remember when the rumors of Flora McDonald and Bonnie Prince Charlie were fresh.

I have a picture of my grandad sitting astride a motorcycle taken shortly before he left for France and WWI. He was badly wounded and returned a quiet and introspective man. I wish I could have known him when he was the kind of fellow who rode a motorcycle with a devilish grin on his face.

Harry Eagar said...

Heck, my granddad was a refugee from Sherman's army, which burned down the house he was living in. He was 5 years old then, but he died before I was born.

He left us his memoirs. I wish my other grandparents had.