Monthly Archives: March 2019

Growing up black and female in early 20th century Kendall County

The United States at the turn of the 20th century was not a particularly friendly place for many of those living here.

1894 Grove School

Whether in town or in the country, blacks and whites went to school together in 19th Century Kendall County. This is the student body of the Grove School, located on Grove Road south of Oswego, getting ready for a Mother Goose presentation in 1894. The Lucas kids are in the front row.

Down South, Jim Crow laws were fully in force against the region’s black population, severely restricting a vast number of civil activities we take for granted today. Everything from voting to drinking from a water fountain was governed by laws, both written and unwritten, that were not only enforced by the Southern legal system, but also by extralegal violence administered by forces including the Ku Klux Klan and unorganized mobs of white thugs.

Meanwhile, immigration was proceeding at a fairly rapid clip, and Catholic southern and eastern European and Irish immigrants faced considerable discrimination of their own from the mostly Protestant residents of the U.S., to the point that by the 1920s, the reinvigorated Ku Klux Klan was rapidly growing in national membership.

Starting in the 1870s and extending through the 1880s, Kendall County had become home to a surprisingly large population of black Americans, starting out with black farmers who settled in the rural NaAuSay-Kendall-Oswego township area of the county, followed by other black families who moved into the county’s towns and villages. By the 1900s, the number of black farming families had already begun to decline as they either moved elsewhere to farm or gave up farming and moved to town where they made more money working in factories and retail businesses or starting their own businesses.

1903 Smith, Ferdinand color

Ferdinand Smith, OHS, Class of 1903

Ferdinand Smith became the first black high school graduate in Kendall County history, graduating with the Oswego High School Class of 1903. His sisters, Mary and Frances, graduated in 1904 and 1907, respectively, becoming the first black females to graduate from high school in Kendall County.

At the time, black residents of small towns like Oswego undoubtedly faced the kind of casual discrimination so common during that era, but it’s clear from the way the Smith family was treated in local news accounts that they were also socially accepted in a way their cousins elsewhere in the country at the time were not. The mere fact that they attended and graduated from Oswego High School alongside their white peers testifies to that fact.

Their father, Robert Ridley Smith, was a Civil War veteran, while their mother was the daughter of Nathan Hughes, another black veteran of the Civil War.

The Smiths’ son, Ferdinand, apparently harbored a keen intellect and was socially adaptable to the point that he became a valued member of, first, the Oswego community, and then of the Aurora community.

His sisters, as black women, faced a number of hurdles that Ferdinand did not. But all three Smith siblings were given a solid familial grounding growing up in a small northern Illinois town, and then an even more solid educational grounding when their parents sent them to high school.

High school was definitely not the norm during that era. In fact, it was much more equivalent to a college education today. Although more than a dozen one-room schools of that era educated children who could have attended Oswego High School, not to mention all the children living in town who were also eligible, high school classes were relatively small. Ferdinand’s class had a remarkable 15 members—one of the largest high school classes in the school’s history up to that time. Mary’s 1904 class was more typical, with seven members, while Frances’s class in 1907 also numbered seven.

1906 Smith, Frances 1906

Frances Smith, OHS, Class of 1906

In the South of that era, strictly segregated education was the rule—and the law. But in Oswego, and other northern and western small towns across the country of that era, integration was the rule. Blacks and whites attended classes side by side, and like their white counterparts, black students were expected to write a graduation address and present it, just like their white classmates. The two presentations given by the Smith girls offer an insight into how they viewed their lives then and what they looked forward to as they left school for other endeavors.

The Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent wrote of Mary Smith’s presentation: “Miss Mary A. Smith, the young colored lady of the class of ’04, had a strong paper on the ‘Labor Unions.’ She is a sister of Ferdinand Smith, the young man who graduated in the Oswego class of 1903 and who has the distinction of being the first colored graduate in the county. Miss Smith has a musical voice and talked in forceful logic on the methods of the unions and combines. It was one of the longest themes on the program and the speaker acquitted herself with honor.”

The topic of her paper offered a glimpse into the importance blacks gave to the power to organize for better wages and working conditions. During organized labor’s early history, most unions discriminated against blacks. Not until the 1930s did it finally occur to union members that prohibiting black membership provided a ready pool of strike breakers.

OHS Baseball team 1907

1906 Oswego High School Baseball Team. The photo was taken at the old Red Brick School. In their first game of the season, they beat West Aurora, 28-2.

In 1906, Mary Smith’s sister Frances spoke on a subject that illustrated the growing educational attainments of black Americans. According to the Kendall County Record’s account of the graduation ceremonies: “Chicago has been called the Negroes’ paradise; in Chicago the negro has become a successful politician, holding more well-paying political positions than in any other calling.’ With this opening shot, Miss Frances Smith, the successful colored member of the class began her oration on ‘Afro-American Progress.’ Miss Smith is the third one of her family to graduate from the Oswego high school. She is a bright student and her people and town friends are proud of her accomplishments. In the course of her oration, ‘Booker T. Washington,’ she said, ‘Could adjourn school tomorrow and go into the forest with his 2,000 students and in a short space of time erect a magic city with every line of life represented.’ It was all a masterly effort and Miss Smith won spontaneous applause from all.”

The Smith girls went on to found families of their own, as did their brother, and today Smith descendants not only have attended some of the nation’s premier educational institutions but teach there as well, have served as federal judges, and have made their ways in the world in a variety of professions. It’s an old-fashioned American success story we ought to all celebrate during this year’s Women’s History Month.

 

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Filed under Aurora, Civil War, Education, family, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Oswego, People in History, Women's History

Getting down to brass tacks on early carpeting

Watching television when I was a youngster was always a treat, especially when “The Cisco Kid” or one of the other westerns was on Sunday afternoons.

But often just as entertaining were the commercials. CET, a Chicago retailer, sold televisions featuring a very deep-voiced fellow singing to the beat of a tom-tom about CET and television, always ending with the phone number, “MOhawk four, four one hundred.”

Rug cleaning companies also advertised a lot back in those days before ScotchGuard and other stain resistant carpeting systems. Magikist was a prominent television advertiser, as was Boushelle. Boushelle also had a catchy jingle (not as catchy as CET’s Mohawk Indian tom-tom, but close) sung by another very deep-voiced fellow that ended with him singing the company’s phone number, “HUdson three two-seven-hundred.”

I checked on-line the other day, and Magikist went out of business in 2001, although some of its signature signs with huge Magikist lips, soldiered on (I remember a big one on the Kennedy Expressway) for a few more years before being dismantled.

Boushelle, however, is still very much a going concern—with the same phone number no less, although you have to dial a 773 area code first. (All you kids out there can listen to a 1970s era Boushelle commercial on YouTube.)

Back in the day, companies like Boushelle would come right to your home, roll up the area rug, and take it off to a large factory-type building, where it would be cleaned. Gradually, though, wall-to-wall carpeting came into favor as prices dropped far enough so that just about everyone could afford it. And with the disappearance of area rugs went some of the earliest area rug cleaning companies.

Rugs and carpeting—and keeping them clean—have been major preoccupations here in the Fox Valley almost from the time the pioneers arrived. Especially at this time of year, spring cleaning was a major thing, as was fall house cleaning after the summer season had ended.

Log Cabin

Some of the earliest log cabins built by the pioneers had packed earthen floors, later replaced by puncheon floors.

The earliest pioneer cabins, at least some of them anyway, didn’t even have floors, much less carpeting. Often, a pioneer family’s first cabin was built with a dirt floor inside. The soil was compacted into a hard surface that the wife swept daily. Sometimes pioneer women who missed their carpets and rugs back East drew designs on the packed earthen the floor and used crushed chalk to create colorful designs.

Not until the family got settled were logs split in half and planed smooth to create puncheons that were laid on the packed earth, flat sides up, to create wooden floors.

As soon as the first pioneer millwrights arrived, their sawmills began turning out sawn lumber for floors. And remarkably soon after that, Chicago became a giant lumber clearinghouse for pine, fur, and other timber cut up in Wisconsin and Michigan and shipped down the lake to the fast-growing city. Wooden floors—and frame houses—quickly became cheap enough for everyone.

Rug technology for the masses stayed pretty simple throughout the 19th century. Rag rugs were very popular with newly settled areas because they were relatively simple to make and were inexpensive because their main ingredient was recycled cloth. During the winter, women would sit (sometimes in groups to provide a social respite from the daily grind) and tear rags into 1″ wide strips, sew them together end-to-end, and roll the strips into large balls. When enough of the right colors were stockpiled, they were taken to the local rug weaver.

Rug looms were simple, but rugged affairs. They only needed to be two-harness looms, the most simple kind, which used mechanical means to separate the strings that formed the warp so that the shuttle carrying the end of a rag strip could be fed through. After each pass of the shuttle, the beater was pulled back smartly packing the cloth strip tightly against the previous strip. The tighter the weaver made the rug, the longer it lasted. But this created a dilemma for the rug maker. A rug not packed as tightly was easier and quicker to make; but customers might not return if the resulting rug didn’t hold up well.

rug loom in use

A rug weaver using a loom very similar to the one my great-great-grandfather built for my great-great-grandmother and which is still a family keepsake.

My great-great-grandmother made rugs on a homemade loom in her home here on North Adams Street to supplement her family’s income. The loom, which we have today in our son’s basement, is of 3” thick oak timbers and is of a very old design—old even in the 1870s when this one was likely built by my great- great-grandfather. We saw one exactly like it in the Pennsylvania Farm Museum. That loom was said to have been more than 200 years old. Looms of roughly the same design date back many hundreds of years.

Rag rugs were generally woven in varying lengths and were usually about 30 inches in width. The great advantage of rag rugs was their flexibility—they could be woven in virtually any length and in any color. In those days, they weren’t only used for hall runners or throw rugs, either. To create room-sized rugs, several 30-inch wide rag rugs of the correct length were sewn together to create a single carpet wide enough for a full room.

rag rugs

Traditional rag rugs are still pretty useful things; we’ve got several in our house. The trick is finding ones that have been woven tightly enough that they will last.

Padding for those early carpets was, on the farm at least, often a layer of straw under the rug. Fresh straw was laid down in the fall under the rug to help insulate against the cold and offer a bit of cushion. Then in the spring, the rug was taken apart into its component strips and hauled outside to be cleaned. Cleaning was generally accomplished by beating the straw dust and other dirt out of the rug using a wooden-handled rug beater.

Gradually other kinds of carpeting became available. Oriental rugs were always available for the rich, but the Industrial Revolution made other kinds of carpeting available, too. Dark red “ingrain” carpeting was the first non-rag rug carpeting to become popular. We found threads from such a kind of carpeting wound around tiny carpet tacks driven into the original floor of the Little White School Museum when we were restoring the building. The carpeting was apparently used on the building’s two aisles when it was the Oswego Methodist Episcopal Church from 1850 to 1912.

Nowadays, we’ve got synthetic yarn carpeting in all kinds of shades and colors with many styles to choose from. And on television, the ads of industrial carpet cleaning companyes have been replaced by those of carpet sellers and the makers of home carpet cleaning machines. But, while Empire Today’s commercials do tend to stick in one’s mind, no one has commercials quite as memorable as Boushelle; at least I can’t remember a modern phone number as easily as Boushelle’s HUdson 3-2700.

 

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Filed under Business, family, Farming, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, Technology, Uncategorized, Women's History