Norman Norell: Dean of American Fashion

Norman Norell with models wearing Traina-Norell designs from his spring/summer 1949 collection. Image courtesy of New School Archives and Special Collections Digital Archives.

During his 50 year career, Norman Norell crafted beautiful costumes, worked under war-time limitations, resisted pressure to substitute quality for quantity, and worked to bring the NYC fashion houses on Seventh Avenue on par with those of Paris. During his time in the industry, Norell managed to escape the pomp and circumstance of New York City and is remembered for leading a simple, “moral” life in the often cutthroat world of high-class fashion design.

Norman Norell was born Norman David Levinson on April 20, 1900 in Noblesville, Indiana. His father, Harry, owned and operated a men’s clothing store in the town and this is undoubtedly where he developed an eye for fashion. Harry soon opened a men’s hat store in Indianapolis, and in 1905 moved the family to the city once the business experienced success.  Norman completed high school in Indianapolis then moved to New York to begin his fashion education at Parsons Institute. At 19, he began studying at the Pratt Institute, where he studied drawing and fashion illustration. It was here that he combined the first syllable of his first name with the “l” sound of the beginning of his last name and adopted the name Norell.

Gloria Swanson in “Zaza.” Norman Norell designed the costumes for Swanson in this 1939 silent film. Photo courtesy of “Glorious Gloria Swanson.”

His early years in the fashion industry were spent designing costumes. He designed for a variety of projects, including silent film, burlesque, vaudeville, and nightclub acts. Norell costumed Rudolph Valentino in The Sainted Devil and Gloria Swanson in Zaza, but soon shifted his focus to women’s apparel. In 1928 he began a 12 year stint working for Hattie Carnegie. While a “fierce perfectionist . . . brilliant in her own way,” her process was considered fairly unoriginal – she bought pieces from Parisian couturiers, pulled them apart in New York, and turned them into more affordable clothes for her American clientele. Original or not, working with Carnegie gave Norell invaluable experience by visiting the Paris fashion houses and allowed him to fully understand the construction of women’s clothing. After a falling out with Carnegie over his designs for the Broadway production Lady in the Dark, Norell left and joined forces with Anthony Triana to form Triana-Norell in 1941.

Although he was a salaried employee of Triana, Norell was the designer of the company and as such was making waves in the fashion world. Bonwit Teller said of the new fashion house in the October 1941 edition of VOGUE, “The House of Traina-Norell comes on the season like an electrical storm. Its designer, young Mr. Norell, creates a collection so alive that everyone’s talking.” Just two months after that article ran, the United States’ entry into World War II changed nearly every industry in America, including fashion.

Cover of January 1942 edition of VOGUE. This, their first issue after US entry into WWII, addressed the changes fashion experienced due to the war. Image: Mason, Meghann, “The impact of World War II on women’s fashion in the United States and Britain” master’s thesis, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, 2011.

Up until this point in the 20th century, women’s clothing styles changed at a faster pace than ever before. Silhouettes changed entirely about every 10 years, much more quickly than in previous eras. War time restrictions stopped this fast progress in its tracks. On March 8, 1942 the War Production Board issued limitation order number 85, or L-85, which set rules for the production of women’s clothing. Manufactures were banned from making blouses with hoods, blouses with more than one pocket, coats with epaulets, coats with sleeve circumference larger than 16 ½ inches, and reversible skirts. All of these measures reduced the use of material used for clothing production. Hems, which for the previous years had been widening from the sleek, narrow skirts of the 1920s, were reduced from 81 inches to 78 inches. These restrictions challenged American fashion designers, one which Norman Norell met.

Norman Norell design “Subway” from the 1942 Traina-Norell collection. This piece is an example of Norell’s war time work, with the simple neck and sleek, waist-less design he helped popularize. Image courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Drawing inspiration from his favorite era of fashion, the 1920s, Norell introduced the chemise dress, or shirt dress in 1942. This design featured a simple round neckline, a departure from the “fussy” necklines of the time. The simplicity of this trend worked well within the restrictions imposed by L-85 and chemise dresses, along with a fur-trimmed trench coat, became the staple of the Traina-Norell label.

World War II cut American designers off from their long time inspirational lifeline of the Paris fashion houses. Until this point, American designers took their lead almost exclusively from Paris (recall Hattie Carnegie’s method of deconstructing Parisian pieces previously discussed). In 1942, Coty, Inc. introduced the Coty American Fashion Critic’s Awards to address this issue by promoting original American fashion design during the war. Fashion editor Bernadine Morris later wrote, “What Norman Norell had accomplished in the first collection was to give American fashion – producers and wearers alike – a freedom from dependence on foreign sources of inspiration. The American industry felt it could set its own directions, its own styles.”

Norell never compromised on quality; oftentimes, a single suit jacket would take a week to stitch. This quality came with a price tag, though. One article said, “Women purchasing a Traina-Norell garment were buying, at great cost, an American-made status symbol that would likely remain in their closets for decades.” The prices for a Traina-Norell piece ranged from $500 for a simple jersey dress to upwards of $4,000 for an evening gown.

The Traina-Norell brand continued to set trends throughout it’s nearly twenty year existence. Oftentimes, competitors would copy his designs and sell them for much less. This was so common that the year before he introduced his revolutionary wool culottes suit, he offered the pattern to any manufacturer who wanted it in order to prevent the manufacture of inferior versions of the design. One of his signature evening looks, the “mermaid dress” would not look out-of-place at a gala today. Other signature designs of Norell included the 1961 wide-flaring skirt, impeccably designed coats, the evening jumpsuit, and sweater topped dresses.

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In 1960, Anthony Traina retired and Norell began his solo carter with the Norell fashion house. Although the name of the brand had changed, the reputation for high quality, long-lasting clothing stayed the same. During his career, Norell won the Coty award three times and was inducted into the Coty Hall of Fame. When the Coty Awards were discontinued in 1985, Coty’s parent company said it was because they had achieved their goal of bringing American fashion houses to the same level of those in Paris, and there’s little doubt that Norell played a big role in that.

Former First Lady, Michelle Obama, wearing a Norman Norell dress in 2010.

Norman Norell became known as the dean of American Fashion and was active in the industry up until his death on October 25, 1972, just before a retrospective exhibit of his work was to open at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City was to open. Even today, Norell pieces are highly sought after and sell for high prices in vintage clothing shops. In December 2010, former First Lady Michelle Obama wore a vintage Norell dress at a White House Christmas party, one of the few times a first lady has worn a vintage piece at an official White House event.

View over 200 Traina-Norell and Norell pieces on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website.

A Challenge to Integration: The Froebel School Strikes of 1945

Indianapolis Recorder, September 29, 1945, 1. See Hoosier State Chronicles for complete article.

On September 18, 1945, hundreds of white students at Froebel School walked out of their classes to protest African American students at the institution. According to the Gary Post-Tribune, the striking students “urged that Froebel school be reserved for whites only” or that they be transferred to other schools themselves.

While the conflict between segregation and integration was far from new, the student strike in Gary would call into question the very values the United States fought to uphold during World War II, which had formally ended just two weeks before the “hate strike.” The Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, composed of black ministers, made this point clear when it issued its “appeal to reason” to the citizens of Gary, Indiana:

It is indeed regrettable to note that after the nation has spent approximately 190 billion dollars, the colored citizens of Gary have sent about 4,000 of their sons, brothers, and husbands to battlefields around the world and have supported every war effort that our government has called upon us to support, in a united effort to destroy nazism and to banish from the face of the earth all that Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo stood for; to find in our midst those who are endeavoring to spread disunity, race-hatred, and Hitlerism in our community.

Gary Post-Tribune, September 20, 1945, 3

Indianapolis Recorder, September 29, 1945, sec. 2, p. 2.

Integration was not a recent development at Froebel when much of the white student body went on strike in the fall of 1945. In fact, Froebel was Gary’s only “integrated” school throughout the first half of the 20th century, though the term warrants further explanation. When the K-12 school opened in 1912, Gary school officials recognized that African American students should not be denied the opportunities available to white students at the new school and established two separate rooms at Froebel for black students. By 1914, a report published by the United States Bureau of Education indicated that there were approximately seventy black students attending the school, but that “the other patrons of the school, most of whom are foreigners, strenuously object to mixing colored children with the others; so they are placed in separate classes in charge of two colored teachers. . .” Thus, despite integration, Froebel remained internally segregated.

Image courtesy of Randolph S. Bourne, The Gary Schools (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1916), accessed Archive.org.

A 1944 study conducted by the National Urban League showed that Froebel’s black students were “welcomed as athletes, but not as participants in cultural and social affairs.” They could not use the swimming pools on the same days as white students, were barred from the school band, and were discriminated against in many other extracurricular activities.

Conditions at Froebel improved slightly during the 1940s, due in part to Principal Richard Nuzum. He created a biracial Parent-Teachers’ Association, integrated the student council and boys’ swimming pool, and enabled black students to try out for the orchestra. Unfortunately, his efforts towards further integration angered many of Froebel’s white students and their parents, who would later criticize Nuzum of giving preferential treatment to African American students. These feelings, paired with a rising fear among many of Gary’s white, foreign-born inhabitants about increases in the black population in the city, largely contributed to the 1945 school strike.

Table courtesy of the “Report of Technical Advisers to the Special Investigating Committee Appointed by the Gary Board of Education,” October 21, 1945, 7.

Newspapers across the state covered the strike(s) extensively throughout the fall, and the story quickly made national headlines. By September 20, the strike spread to Gary’s Tolleston School, where approximately 200 additional students skipped classes. On September 21, 1945, the Gary Post-Tribune reported that between the two schools, well over 1,000 students had participated in the walkouts up to this point.

Eager to see an end to the strike, to avoid potential violence, and to get students back to school, Superintendent Charles D. Lutz and the board of education issued a formal statement on Friday, September 21, demanding that students return to classes on Monday. The school board threatened to take legal action against parents of students under age sixteen if they continued to strike, while those over age sixteen risked expulsion.

Indianapolis Recorder, September 29, 1945, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

The school board was not alone in its hopes of ending the strike. Gary Mayor Joseph E. Finerty, the Gary Council of Churches, and the school PTA all issued appeals hoping to bring an end to the walkouts. Other opponents of the strike included the NAACP and CIO United Steel Workers Union. Many blamed parents of the striking students for the racial tension existent in the school, stating that racial hatred was not inherent, but learned at home. A September 26, 1945 editorial in the Gary Post-Tribune also noted:

Fundamentally this is not a school problem. It has developed out of the changing population in the Froebel area. . . As a result of this influx of Negro families some white property owners feel their homes and churches have depreciated in value.

While students at Tolleston agreed to return to classes by the school board’s stated deadline, those leading the strike at Froebel refused to return until Wednesday, and only on the condition that the school board meet with them beforehand and comply with their demands.

These demands, which the Gary Post-Tribune published on September 21, were three-fold: 1) the removal of all 800 black students from Froebel; 2) the ousting of Principal Richard Nuzum, whom they believed gave preferential treatment to black students; and 3) that school officials stop using Froebel students as “guinea pigs” in race relation experiments (Froebel was the only high school in Gary with a racially mixed attendance at the time).

Horace Manual, Horace Mann High School Yearbook, 1942. Courtesy of Ancestry.com

The Gary school board met with the striking committee on September 25, and when it refused to give in to the students’ demands, the strike continued. Leonard Levenda, spokesman for the striking committee, was quoted in the Gary Post-Tribune on September 26, stating that the walkout was the result of “a long series of episodes provoked by the behavior of Negro students.” Levenda continued by blaming Nuzum for not taking action against African American students after these reported “episodes.” The strike continued until October 1, when students finally returned to classes after the school board agreed to formally investigate the charges against Principal Nuzum.

Walter White to Charles Lutz, letter, September 24, 1945, Papers of the NAACP.

In response to the incidents at Froebel, Mayor Finerty urged the formation of an inter-organization racial unity committee to help improve race relations in the “Steel City.” Finerty, as quoted in the Indianapolis Recorder on October 20, stated “we in Gary must take positive steps in learning to live together in unity in our own city. Now, more than ever, there is need for unity within our city and the nation.”

Another article in the Recorder that day examined the reaction of white leaders in Chicago, who did little to conceal their disgust for the strike and criticism of the strikers:

These racist demonstrations have been an insult to democracy and to the hundreds of thousands of whites and Negroes who deplore this American form of Hitlerism. . .  We further pledge not to walk out on democracy and on this problem which has its roots principally in the attitude and actions of the white man, not the colored.

In early October, the Gary school board appointed a special investigating committee and temporarily relieved Nuzum of his duties as principal. By October 21, the investigation came to a close and a report regarding conditions at Froebel was issued. Nuzum was exonerated and returned as principal and the report called for the school to return to the status it had before the strike. Angered by these results, students staged another walkout on October 29. Levenda and other striking students argued that they were not going on strike, but rather “being forced out by the actions of Mr. Nuzum.”

Chicago Tribune, November 1, 1945, 31, accessed Newspapers.com

Searching for a way to bring a final end to the strike, Anselm Forum, a Gary-based community organization dedicated to social harmony, helped bring Frank Sinatra to the school to perform and talk with the students about racial tension in the city. While many students appeared attentive and understanding of Sinatra’s calls for peace and an end to racial discrimination, the striking committee refused to back down.

Frank Sinatra meets with members of Anselm Youth Forum, Gary ROTC, and Froebel students, 1945. Photo courtesy of Associated Press, via Hoboken Historical Museum Online Collections Database.

It was not until November 12, when State Superintendent of Public Instruction Clement T. Malan agreed to study conditions at Froebel that the striking students returned to classes. Even then, some mothers of the parents’ committee continued to oppose the students’ return.

Racial tension continued even after the strikes ended in November 1945. By the spring of 1946, students at Froebel threatened to go on strike again, but were stopped by the Gary school board and Froebel student council. Newspapers reported that the leaders of the previous strikes, in union with Froebel’s black students, issued an anti-strike statement in March 1946. In this statement, they encouraged the Gary school board to issue a policy to end discrimination in all of Gary’s public schools.

Due in large part to the “hate strikes” at Froebel, the Gary Board of Education adopted a policy on August 27, 1946, to end segregation and discrimination in the city’s public schools. Scheduled to go into full effect by September 1, 1947, the policy read:

Children under the jurisdiction of the Gary public schools shall not be discriminated against in the school districts in which they live, or within the school which they attend, because of race, color or religion.

Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society

In accordance with the policy, Gary’s public schoolchildren would attend the school nearest them and would be given equal opportunity “in the classroom and in all other school activities.” According to historian Ronald Cohen, the decision made Gary “one of the first northern cities to officially integrate its schools.” In 1949, the Indiana General Assembly passed a law to abolish segregation in the state’s public schools. The law required that schools discontinue enrollment on the basis of race, creed, or color of students.

Despite these measures however, discrimination in the Gary public school system did not disappear. Because of segregated residential patterns, few black students transferred to previously all-white institutions. The 1950s saw a resurgence in de facto segregation in the city as the black population there continued to grow and fill already overcrowded black schools.

Froebel School state historical marker. Installed in Gary in 2014 at 15th Avenue and Madison St.

Melba Phillips: Leader in Science and Conscience Part Two

Melba Philips, photograph, n.d., University of Chicago News Office, accessed http://www-news.uchicago.edu/releases/04/041116.phillips.shtml
Melba Phillips, photograph, n.d., University of Chicago News Office, accessed University of Chicago News Office.

See Part One to learn about Phillips’s contributions to physics via the Oppenheimer-Phillips effect and her work to prevent the future use of atomic energy for war.

The Second World War, particularly the use of the atomic bomb, gave way to the Cold War. Living in the shadow of the threat of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union induced anxiety among many Americans. While Senator Joseph McCarthy became the public face of fear of homegrown communists, many other paranoid and xenophobic senators participated in the witch hunts. In 1950, Nevada Senator Pat McCarran sponsored the McCarran Internal Security Act, which allowed for investigation of “subversive activities;” made an “emergency” allowance for detaining people suspected of such activity; and even made picketing a courthouse a felony if it “intended” to obstruct proceedings. The act also provided for a five-member committee with the Orwellian title of the Subversive Activities Control Board (SACB), which was headed by McCarran and tasked with rooting out communists, communist-sympathizers, and other “subversives.” The SACB, or the McCarran Committee as it was more commonly called, went to work immediately.

Demonstrators demand repeal of the Smith and McCarran Acts, circa July 19, 1950, Los Angeles, Charlotta Bass / California Eagle Photograph Collection, 1880-1986, Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research, http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/ref/collection/p15799coll102/id/1320
Demonstrators demand repeal of the Smith and McCarran Acts, circa July 19, 1950, Los Angeles, Charlotta Bass / California Eagle Photograph Collection, 1880-1986, Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research.

In 1952, Melba Phillips was called to testify before the McCarran Committee of New York, the state version of the U.S. congressional committee, on her political activity. She was called because of her involvement with the Teachers Union. According to an October 14, 1952 New York Times article, a witness claiming to be “a former Communist official” testified that “he helped set up secret units of Communist teachers” and that “300 of the 500 dues-paying Communist teachers in this city went into a secret set-up whose top unit consisted of leaders of the Teachers Union.” Several prominent New York teachers refused to confirm or deny communist leanings, while outside of the courthouse students and teachers gathered in protest, chanting “Pat McCarran, hit the sack. We want our professors back!”

According Dr. George Salzman, a University of Massachusetts at Boston professor who was a student of Phillips’s at that time ,

“She let the Committee counsel know that her lineage went back to the Mayflower, and she wasn’t about to take part in the witch hunt.”

Phillips was subsequently fired from her university positions due to a law which required the termination of any New York City employee who invoked the Fifth Amendment. Bonner explained, “McCarran was a specialist at putting people in the position in which they had to invoke the Fifth Amendment. It was a deliberate expression of the McCarthyism of the time.” In a 1977 interview, Phillips briefly discussed the incident (although she was reluctant because she was trying to keep the interviewer focused on her scientific accomplishments). She stated: “I was fired from Brooklyn College for failure to cooperate with the McCarran Committee, and I think that ought to go into the record . . . city colleges were particularly vulnerable, and the administration was particularly McCarthyite.” Phillips stated that she wasn’t particularly political. Her objection to cooperating had been a matter of principle.

New York Times, October 14, 1952, 1, accessed ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
New York Times, October 14, 1952, 1, accessed ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

Phillips did not let her dismissal extinguish her passion for science education. While unemployed, she wrote two textbooks, which became university classroom standards: Classical Electricity and Magnetism (1955) and Principles of Physical Science (1957).

Melab Phillips and Francis T. Bonner, Principles of Physical Science (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc., 1957)
Melba Phillips and Francis T. Bonner, Principles of Physical Science (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc., 1957).

In 1957, Phillips became the associate director of the Academic Year Institute of Washington University in St. Louis, a teacher-training school.  Her appointment came at the behest of Edward Condon who had also been named as a security risk by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the early 1950s. On Condon’s decision to hire her, Phillips stated, “there was much discrimination against people who had had any trouble of a ‘political’ kind, and it took a lot of courage, It took courage to hire any of the people in trouble during that time.”

Edward Condon, photograph, n.d., accessed National Institute of Standards and Technology, https://www.nist.gov/news-events/events/2016/01/government-science-cold-war-america-edward-condon-and-transformation-nbs
Edward Condon, photograph, n.d., accessed National Institute of Standards and Technology.

At the institute she developed programs instructing high school teachers about how to teach elementary science and physics. She remained at Washington until 1962 when she joined the faculty of the University of Chicago. Among her accomplishments there, she worked to make science accessible to non-science majors. She also made laboratory work an important part of the student experience. She explained that “we worked very hard in our laboratory in Chicago . . . unless the students get ‘hands on,’ it seems they don’t fully understand the material.”

In 1966, she became president of the American Association of Physics Teachers, of which she had been a member since 1943. This respected organization was founded in 1930 as “a professional membership association of scientists dedicated to enhancing the understanding and appreciation of physics through teaching.” Phillips became not only AAPT’s first female president, but one of its most memorable and effective leaders. Phillips was proud of the work of the organization and wrote the official History of the AAPT. She worked to make physics more important to teachers at the high school level in addition to college. She stated,

“The people in the universities whose future depends on their writing more and more research papers have very little patience with the problems of education at a lower level. This has to do in part with why the Association of Physics Teachers ever got started.”

Phillips remained at the University of Chicago until she retired as Professor Emerita in 1972. Even after her retirement from the University of Chicago, she continued to teach at other schools as a visiting professor. She taught at the State University of New York, Stony Brook from 1972 to 1975, and at the Chinese Academy of Science in Beijing in 1980. Phillips was awarded more honors than can be mentioned without compiling an extensive list. Notably, however, in 1981, the AAPT awarded her the first Melba Phillips Award, created in her honor, “for exceptional contributions to physics education.”

book
Image courtesy of alibris.com.

In 1987, Brooklyn College publicly apologized for firing Phillips, and in 1997 created a scholarship in her name. Melba Phillips died on November 8, 2004 in Petersburg, Indiana at the age of 97. The New York Times referred to Phillips in her obituary as “a pioneer in science education” and noted that “at a time when there were few women working as scientists, Dr. Phillips was leader among her peers.” Her accomplishments helped pave the way for other women in the sciences. In a 1977 interview, Phillips addressed the problems women face in aspiring to science careers an a 1977 interview, stating:

We’re not going to solve them, but, as I’ve been saying all the time; if we make enough effort, we’ll make progress; and I think progress has been made. We sometimes slip back, but we never quite slip all the way back; or we never slip back to the same place. There’s a great deal of truth in saying that progress is not steady no matter how inevitable.

Melba Phillips: Leader in Science and Conscience Part One

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Indiana native Melba Newell Phillips pioneered new physics theories, studied under the famous J. Robert Oppenheimer, worked passionately to improve science education, and advocated for women’s place at the forefront of science research. After the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Japan at the end of World War II, Phillips and other scientists organized to prevent future nuclear wars.  She took a great hit to her career during the Cold War as she stood up for the freedom to dissent in the oppressive atmosphere of McCarthyism. Colleagues and students have noted her “intellectual honesty, self-criticism, and style,” and called her “a role model for principle and perseverance.”

Phillips was born February 1, 1907 in Hazleton, Gibson County. According to Women in Physics, Phillips graduated from high school at 15, earned a B.S. from Oakland City College in Indiana, taught for one year at her former high school, and went on to graduate school. In 1928, she earned a master’s degree in physics from Battle Creek College in Michigan and stayed there to teach for two years. In 1929 she attended summer sessions on quantum mechanics at the University of Michigan under Edward U. Condon.  When she sought Condon’s help on a physics problem, her solution, rather than his, ended up being the correct one. This led to a lifelong friendship and Condon recommended Phillips for further graduate study at the University of California, Berkley. Here she pursued graduate research under Oppenheimer and earned her Ph.D. in 1933. Within a few years she was known throughout the physics world because of her contribution to the field via the Oppenheimer-Phillips effect.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, photograph, in Ray Monk, Inside the Centre: The Life of J. Robert Oppenheimer (2014)
J. Robert Oppenheimer, photograph, in Ray Monk, Inside the Centre: The Life of J. Robert Oppenheimer (2014)

The 1935 Oppenheimer-Phillips Effect explained “what was at the time unexpected behavior of accelerated deuterons (nuclei of deuterium, or ‘heavy hydrogen’ atoms) in reactions with other nuclei,” according to a University of Chicago press release. When Oppenheimer died in 1967, his New York Times obituary noted his and Phillips’s discovery as a “basic contribution to quantum theory.” Manhattan Project scientist and professor emeritus of chemistry at the State University of New York, Stony Brook Francis Bonner explained in the release that normally such an accomplishment, now considered “one of the classics of early nuclear physics, “would have meant a faculty appointment. However, Phillips received no such appointment, perhaps due in part to the Great Depression, but also likely because of her gender.

Oppenheimer-Phillips Effect

Instead, Phillips left Berkley to teach briefly at Bryn Mawr College (PA), the Institute for Advanced Study (NJ), and the Connecticut College for Women. On February 16, 1936, the New York Times reported that she was one of six women to receive research fellowships for the 1936-1937 academic year as announced by the American Association of University Women.  The announcement read: “Melba Phillips, research fellow at Bryn Mawr, received the Margaret E. Maltby fellowship of $1,500 for research on problems of the application of quantum mechanics to nuclear physics.”

New York Times, February 16, 1936, N6, ProQuest Historical New York Times
New York Times, February 16, 1936, N6, ProQuest Historical New York Times

In October of 1937 Phillips served as a delegate to the fall conference of the association at Harvard, where the discussion centered around the prejudices against women scientists that halted not only their careers, but scientific progress more generally. According to a 1937 New York Times article, Dr. Cecelia Gaposchkin, a Harvard astronomer, detailed the “bitter disappointments and discouragements” that faced women professionals in the field of science.  Certainly, Phillips related, as her career moved forward slowly despite her achievements in physics.

Pupin Physics Laboratory, Columbia University, "Short History of Columbia Physics," accessed http://physics.columbia.edu/about-us/short-history-columbia-physics
Pupin Physics Laboratory, Columbia University, “Short History of Columbia Physics,” accessed http://physics.columbia.edu/about-us/short-history-columbia-physics

Finally, in 1938, she received a permanent teaching position at Brooklyn College. In 1944, she also began research at the Columbia University Radiation Laboratory. Phillips was highly regarded as a teacher and Bonner noted she became “a major figure in science education” who “stimulated many students who went on from there to very stellar careers.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. officially entered World War II with the December 7, 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor. No previous war had been so dependent on the role of science and technology. From coding machines to microwave radar to advances in rocket technology, scientists were in demand by the war effort.

In July 1945, the Manhattan Project scientists successfully detonated an atomic bomb in the desert of Los Alamos, New Mexico.  In August 1945, the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, forcing the country to surrender and effectively ending World War II. Over 135,000 people were killed in Hiroshima and 64,000 in Nagasaki.  Many thousands more died from fires, radiation, and illness. While a horrified public debated whether the bomb saved further causalities by ending the war or whether it was fundamentally immoral, scientists also dealt with remorse and responsibility.

atomic-bomb
Leslie Jones, “1st Atomic Bomb Test,” photograph, Boston Public Library

Henry Stimson, Secretary of War in the Truman administration, stated, “this deliberate, premeditated destruction was our least abhorrent choice.” Oppenheimer, however, reflected, “If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and of Hiroshima.” More bluntly, Oppenheimer told Truman, “Mr. President, I feel I have blood on my hands.” Many physicists retreated to academia, but some became politically active, especially in regard to preventing further destruction through scientific invention.

Representing the Association of New York Scientists, Phillips and leading Manhattan Project scientists helped organize the first Federation of American Scientists meeting in Washington, D.C. in 1945. The goal of the Federation was to prevent further nuclear war. That same year Phillips served as an officer in the American Association of Scientific Workers, an organization working to involve scientists in government and politics, to educate the public in the science, and to stand against the misapplication of science by industry and government. On August 16, 1945 the New York Times reported that Phillips and the other officers of the Association signed a letter to President Truman giving “eight recommendations to help prevent the use of atomic bombs in future warfare and to facilitate the application of atomic energy to peacetime uses.”

By the end of the 1940s, Melba Phillips’s accomplishments in physics and science education were well-known throughout the academic physics community. However, by the early 1950s, she was accused of being affiliated with communist subversives and fired from her university positions.  What happened to this Hoosier physics pioneer?

Find out with Part Two, Melba Phillips: Leader in Science and Conscience.

Paul V. McNutt: The Man Who Would Be King

 

Indiana Govenor Paul V. McNutt, circa 1937. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Indiana Govenor Paul V. McNutt, circa 1937. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

To read part one on Wendell Willkie, click here.

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In addition to Wendell Willkie, another ambitious Hoosier almost won the U.S. presidency. Paul V. McNutt, Governor of Indiana from 1933-1937, set his sights on the presidency as early as the 1920s, when he was the state and national commander of the American Legion. His advocacy of human rights, particularly of Jews during his time as Governor and High Commissioner to the Philippines, put his moral arc far beyond some of his peers. In the 1940 presidential election, McNutt was also considered a “Dark Horse” candidate on the Democratic side if Franklin Roosevelt did not run for an unprecedented third term. McNutt’s progressive, internationalist political identity squared well with the New Deal Era and growing American involvement in World War II. Yet, his chance to become President never materialized.

Born on July 19, 1891 in Franklin, Indiana, McNutt was exposed to law and politics at a young age by his father, attorney John C. McNutt. After graduating from Martinsville High School in 1909, he attended Indiana University from 1909-1913, earning a BA in English. Willkie and McNutt both attended IU at the same time and held leadership roles, with McNutt the President of the Student Union and Willkie the President of the Democratic-aligning Jackson Club. Willkie even helped McNutt win his Student Union presidency and biographer I. George Blake notes that they were “very good friends.” After his time at IU, McNutt pursued a career in law, receiving a Bachelor of Laws from Harvard University in 1916.

Captain Paul V. McNutt during his years of service in World War I. Image courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
Captain Paul V. McNutt during his years of service in World War I. Image courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.

McNutt joined the Indiana University law school faculty in 1917, but national service disrupted his teaching. The United States formally entered into World War I in April, 1917, and within a few months, McNutt registered for military service. He spent most of the war at bases in Texas, and while he “exuded pride in his contribution,” historian Dean J. Kotlowski noted that the war’s end dashed his chance to fight in Europe. McNutt returned to the IU Law School faculty in 1919, and by 1925, he was elected Dean.  Under his tenure, the Law School streamlined its administration, expanded enrollment, and oversaw the launch of the Indiana Law Journal. He held this position until he became Governor of Indiana.

Paul McNutt, as National Commander of the American Legion, receiving a commendation in Poland, 1929. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Paul McNutt, as National Commander of the American Legion, receiving a commendation in Poland, 1929. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

McNutt’s political ambitions came to a zenith during his tenure as State and National Commander of the American Legion, using its infrastructure to win the governorship. He was elected State Commander in 1926 and, during his tenure, membership dramatically increased from 18,336 to 25,505. He was then elected National Commander on October 11, 1928, where he expanded national membership, organized events, and offered advice on foreign policy and veteran’s affairs. McNutt’s outspoken views even ignited a public feud with President Herbert Hoover. In 1929, the Hoover Administration agreed to scrap two British Naval Ships and McNutt communicated his disagreement with a telegram published in the New York Times. McNutt believed it made America more open to attack if “naval parity with Britain” was lost. McNutt’s internationalist view of foreign policy, which would serve him well during the 1940s, clashed with the isolationist current of the 1920s.

His impressive resume and connections with the Legion ensured his election as Governor in 1932, the same year Franklin Delano Roosevelt first won the presidency. In his inaugural address on January 9, 1933, McNutt advocated for broad political reform, especially relief for those affected by the Great Depression. He called for investments in public education, infrastructure, care for the elderly and infirm, and a reorganization of government functions. The next day, McNutt gave another address to the General Assembly detailing his proposals, which included consolidation of government agencies, a personal income tax, tighter regulation of public utilities, the end of alcohol prohibition, and balancing the state budget.

Franklin_D_Roosevelt_in_Car
Paul V. McNutt and Franklin Roosevelt, circa 1932. Both men would be elected in November of that year to higher office; McNutt to the Indiana Governorship and Roosevelt to the Presidency. Image Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
Governor Paul V. McNutt and President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the 1936 Indiana State Fair. Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.
Governor Paul V. McNutt and President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the 1936 Indiana State Fair. Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

During his four years as Governor, Paul McNutt achieved many of his policy proposals. According to historian Linda C. Gugin, his signature achievement during his first year of office was the Executive Reorganization Act, passed by the General Assembly on February 3, 1933. It reorganized more than 100 separate divisions of government into eight departments, directly overseen by the Governor. He also advocated fiscal discipline. While bank runs ravaged the country’s financial health, McNutt argued against a bank holiday for the state, despite states like Michigan had already passed one. This move ensured more stability to the banking system in the state. He also kept his promise on Prohibition. According to the New York Times, the General Assembly repealed the state’s prohibition law on February 25, 1933 and Governor McNutt “recommended pardons for those convicted of liquor law violations other than public intoxication and driving while intoxicated.”

Governor Paul V. McNutt, circa 1935. Image courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
Governor Paul V. McNutt, circa 1935. Image courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.

Perhaps most notably, Governor McNutt proved to be an early champion of human rights for European Jews during the rule of Adolf Hitler. He gave the keynote speech at a Chicago anti-Hitler meeting on March 27, 1933, showing his opposition to the German leader’s treatment of Jewish people in Germany.  In his address, as recorded by the New York Times, he stressed the need for combatting Germany’s injustice:

“… Are we to join with the traitors of brotherhood, or to enlist in the war of justice? What nation would deny its pioneers and a people who have made such contributions to culture? No government can long endure that fails to guarantee to its people the right to live as human beings. The present government of Germany thus writes its own destruction.”

Furthermore, he advocated for Americans ravaged by the Great Depression. In late 1934, McNutt gave a policy speech defending his state’s old age pension program and a national plan for old age pensions, which paralleled President Roosevelt’s Social Security proposal:

In any future program will be included three great objectives: the security of the home, the security of livelihood and the security of social insurance. Such a program would be a great step toward the goal of human happiness. The first duty of government is to protect the humanity which it serves.

Once the Social Security Act was passed in 1935, McNutt’s administration aligned Indiana’s policies with the national program through the “Unemployment Compensation Act, the Public Welfare Act, and the Child and Maternal Health Act.” Like Roosevelt, McNutt’s progressive policies highlighted his belief in “economic security for Americans at home as well as national security for America abroad.”

McNutt, as High Commissioner to the Philippines, visiting President Roosevelt in February 1938. Even then, his name was beginning to be mentioned as a candidate for President in 1940. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
McNutt, as High Commissioner to the Philippines, visiting President Roosevelt in February 1938. Even then, his name was beginning to be mentioned as a candidate for President in 1940. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

After his time as Governor, McNutt served as High Commissioner to the Philippine Islands from 1937-1939, and then again from 1945-47, becoming their first Ambassador the United States after they gained independence in 1946. Much like during his governorship, McNutt’s commitment to the protection of European Jews extended to his role as High Commissioner. McNutt denounced the horrific policy of Kristallnacht (a night in the fall of 1938 where Nazi soldiers attacked Jewish homes and destroyed their belongings) and ensured the escape of “1,200 German and Austrian Jews” to the Philippine Islands in 1938-39. These policies stood as an outlier for American policy during the 1930s; entering the United States was often difficult for Europeans fleeing fascism. Nevertheless, as acts of political conscience, these policies remain one of McNutt’s most enduring legacies.

A woman named Mrs. O'Gridley, hanging up a photograph of handsome Paul, circa 1939-1940. This image became synonymous with McNutt's presidential campaign literature. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
A woman named Mrs. O’Gridley, hanging up a photograph of Paul McNutt, circa 1939-1940. This image became synonymous with McNutt’s presidential campaign literature. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

During his time as Commissioner, McNutt began being touted as a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1940. Franklin Roosevelt, nearing the end of his second term as President, displayed ambivalence about a third term. This forced many within the Democratic Party to seek out a candidate, and McNutt received serious consideration. During his 1938 visit to the U.S., the Indiana Democratic Editorial Association, a meeting of 300 Democratic leaders in Washington, D.C., endorsed him for President.

Two major publications profiled McNutt’s presidential ambitions. Jack Alexander’s piece in Life magazine highlighted the Indiana Democratic Party’s use of “McNutt for President Clubs,” local organizations that campaigned for the former Governor, as integral to his electoral success. Alva Johnston’s piece in the Saturday Evening Post highlighted his prominence next to Roosevelt and saw his chances of election as fairly strong. If Roosevelt did not seek a third term, McNutt believed he had the political resources to win the Democratic nomination.

McNutt speaking before delegates of the 1940 Presidential Election. After Roosevelt decided to run for a third term, McNutt withdrew his consideration for the nomination. Image courtesy of Mrs. Roy Garrett Watson/I. George Blake.
McNutt speaking before delegates at the 1940 Democratic Convention. After Roosevelt decided to run for a third term, McNutt withdrew his consideration for the nomination. Image courtesy of Mrs. Roy Garrett Watson/I. George Blake.

However, when Roosevelt decided to run for a third term, McNutt dropped out of the race for the Democratic Nomination in the hopes that he would be considered for the Vice Presidency. When Henry Wallace, Secretary of Agriculture, became Roosevelt’s choice for the Vice Presidency, McNutt conceded again to the wishes of the President. With a nomination for the presidency or vice presidency out of his grasp, McNutt ended his ambitions for the White House and he never held another elected office. Later that year, his friend and political rival Wendell Willkie secured the Republican nomination, but would lose to Roosevelt in November.

McNutt serving as the Director of the War Manpower Commission, 1942. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
McNutt serving as the Chairman of the War Manpower Commission, 1942. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

After his unsuccessful presidential campaign, McNutt continued public service, serving as the Federal Security Agency Administrator (1939-41), the Director of the Office of Defense Health and Welfare Services (1942), and War Manpower Commission Chairman (1943-1945). In 1947, McNutt moved to New York City and began a law practice. He served his final governmental post, as a member of the China Advisory Committee for the Economic Cooperation Administration, in 1949. After years of failing health, McNutt died on March 24, 1955 in Manhattan.

Even though Paul V. McNutt never resided at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, his political life influenced the future of American politics. His commitment to human rights, political and social equality, and an internationalist view of foreign policy became the standard for the Democratic Party even to this day. To many during his time, he was seen as the heir apparent to Franklin Roosevelt. Alas, it never happened; circumstances and personal mistakes dashed his chances. McNutt’s story parallels that of Icarus, whose ambition brought his waxen wings too close to the sun, melting them, and he fell into the sea. Nevertheless, Paul V. McNutt remains one of Indiana’s most successful Governors and statesmen.

To learn more about Governor Paul V. McNutt, visit the Bureau’s marker page : http://www.in.gov/history/markers/165.htm.

Wendell Willkie: The Dark Horse

Wendell Willkie, circa 1941. Image courtesy of History.com.
Wendell Willkie, circa 1940. Image courtesy of History.com.

This blog post is an expanded version of Nicole Poletika’s original marker review essay, which can be viewed here.

The presidency of the United States is seen by many as the ultimate prize in American politics. It has been held by lawyers, philanthropists, and even actors. The State of Indiana has been at the center of presidential history, claiming Hoosier Presidents Benjamin Harrison and his grandfather, William Henry Harrison. However, one year sticks out more for what didn’t happen than what did: 1940.

That year, Hoosier natives Wendell Willkie and Paul V. McNutt, came very close to winning the presidency but ultimately lost, in their own ways, to Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR). This is the first of two blogs dedicated to the Indiana men who ran for the highest office in America.

Wendell Willkie's childhood home in Elwood, Indiana. Image courtesy of Indiana Memory.
Wendell Willkie’s childhood home in Elwood, Indiana. Image courtesy of Indiana Memory.
The IU Debate Team, 1916. Willkie is front row, center. Image courtesy of Indiana University, Bloomington.
The IU Debate Team, 1916. Willkie is front row, center. Image courtesy of Indiana University, Bloomington.

Wendell Willkie, the 1940 Republican Candidate for President, was born in 1892 in Elwood, Indiana. Willkie attended Indiana University, where he became friends with another budding young student, Paul V. McNutt. When McNutt was the President of the Student Union, Willkie was the President of the Jackson Club, a Democratic leaning political group. Their paths continued to cross throughout the rest of their lives. Willkie received his law degree from Indiana University in 1916. In 1929, after practicing law in Akron, Ohio for the Firestone Tire Co, he provided legal counsel for The Commonwealth & Southern Corporation, a large public utilities company, of which he later became president.

As company president, he fought against FDR’s federally funded New Deal program to establish the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which intended to provide employment to the many jobless during the Great Depression. Willkie opposed the TVA because it would directly compete with The Commonwealth & Southern Corporation and because he opposed both governmental and private monopolies. While Willkie lost, he gained notoriety as “the most articulate, vigorous spokesman for the business community.”

Willkie, as president of Commonwealth and Southerm, receives a check from TVA aministrator David E. Lilienthal for the purchase of the Tennessee Electric Power Company. Image courtesy of Indiana State Library.
Willkie, as president of Commonwealth and Southerm, receives a check from TVA administrator David E. Lilienthal for the purchase of the Tennessee Electric Power Company. Image courtesy of Indiana State Library.

After gaining the attention of Republican politicians with his outspoken belief in free enterprise, Willkie was nominated as the Republican presidential candidate to run against FDR in 1940 in what was described by the Indianapolis News as “one of the most dramatic events in American political history.” Despite never holding political office, much like modern Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, Willkie was nominated after the sixth ballot was taken at the Republican National Convention. He defeated well-known political figures such as Governor Thomas E. Dewey and Senator Robert A. Taft. It was here that he earned the campaign moniker of “Dark Horse,” since his candidacy was such a political upset. Republicans sought a fresh candidate to represent the party as World War II intensified abroad and Americans became more determined than ever to avoid war at home.

Around this same time, his IU colleague and friend Paul McNutt, dropped out of consideration for the Democratic nomination, giving in to Roosevelt’s desire for an unprecedented third term. Had McNutt been nominated, both major party candidates for President would have been from the State of Indiana.

The official notification ceremony of the Republican presidential nomination for Wendell Willkie, Elwood, Indiana, August 17, 1940. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The official notification ceremony of the Republican presidential nomination for Wendell Willkie, Elwood, Indiana, August 17, 1940. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Wendell Willkie at the notification ceremony for his presidential nomination, Elwood, Indiana, 1940. Image courtesy of Indiana Memory.
Wendell Willkie at the notification ceremony for his presidential nomination, Elwood, Indiana, 1940. Image courtesy of Indiana Memory.
"Wings for Willkie" campaign button, circa 1940s. Image courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
“Wings for Willkie” campaign button, circa 1940s. Image courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.

Despite a well-fought campaign, Willkie lost the election to Roosevelt in a landslide, earning only 82 electoral votes to Roosevelt’s 449. He also lost the popular vote by nearly five million. Many commentators thought that his progressive position on civil rights and support of liberal internationalism alienated him from his party. Voters also struggled to identify his position on major causes because he covered a wide range of issues briefly.

Lard sculptures of Franklin Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie in the Agriculture and Horticulture Building at the 1940 Indiana State Fair. Image courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
Lard sculptures of Franklin Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie in the Agriculture and Horticulture Building at the 1940 Indiana State Fair. Image courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.

Even though he lost the presidential election in 1940, Willkie and FDR became friends and political allies, as they held similar views on foreign policy and civil rights. In particular, Willkie, both during and after the campaign, went against many in his party with his support of FDR’s policy to dispatch war aid to Britain in 1940, as opposed to fighting abroad or remaining isolated from the war. Historian Justin H. Libby describes Willkie’s support of war aid as the “forerunner of the bipartisan policy.”

Willkie’s support for aid eventually gained favor among the general public, allowing FDR to pass the Lend-Lease Bill in 1941, which postponed U.S. involvement in the war. He also served the President by traveling the globe as a U.S. emissary to observe the war abroad and meet with foreign leaders, reporting on his experiences. As an internationalist, Willkie worked for “world peace,” presenting a bipartisan resolution to the Republican National Committee in 1942 that was eventually passed.

African American veteran Isaac Woodard at the Wendell Willkie memorial building in New York, circa 1946. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
African American veteran Isaac Woodard at the Wendell Willkie memorial building in New York, circa 1946. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

On the home front, Willkie avidly defended the rights of African Americans and publicly advocated for the improved housing, education and health of black citizens. He was widely concerned with the treatment of African Americans in the Armed Forces, arguing in various articles that they should be afforded the same freedom at home that they fought for abroad.

In his 1944 article “Citizens of Negro Blood” for Collier’s Magazine, Willkie stated that World War II “has made us conscious of the contradictions between our treatment of our Negro minority and the ideals for which we are fighting. The equitable treatment of racial minorities in America is basic to our chance for a just and lasting peace.” He appealed to political figures to strengthen anti-lynching measures and to eliminate state poll taxes that often prevented African Americans from voting. Willkie ultimately brought attention to the struggles of all minority citizens, arguing in the New York Times that they were “rich assets of democracy.”

One World by Wendell Willkie. Image courtesy of Doerbooks.com.
One World by Wendell Willkie. Image courtesy of Doerrbooks.com.

In 1943, Willkie wrote about his experiences traveling the globe in his best-selling book One World. He described his trip, in which he traveled with Army and Navy officials to over half a dozen countries. His observations, made during a period before the United States frequently worked and communicated with other countries, has been described as “extraordinarily perceptive and statesmanlike.” It spent four months on the New York Times bestseller list and was an influential text on the future United Nations.

Willkie sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1944, but dropped out of the race in April after a poor showing in the Wisconsin primaries. Constant comparisons to FDR, his liberal stance on civic and international issues, and general independence from other Republican members resulted in the loss of party support.

Wendell Willkie memorial at the Indiana State Capitol. Image courtesy of Wiki Commons.
Wendell Willkie memorial at the Indiana State Capitol. Image courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Willkie died October 8, 1944 and was buried in East Hill Cemetery in Rushville, Indiana. President Roosevelt issued a statement honoring Willkie as “one of the great men of our time.” In addition to the memorial erected at his gravesite, memorials to Willkie were dedicated in Elwood and in the State House Rotunda in Indianapolis. The Willkie Memorial Building, created to serve as a center for the Freedom House and other causes he supported, was dedicated in New York on the first anniversary of his death. Willkie, with the support of Eleanor Roosevelt, helped established Freedom House in 1941 as an organization that could “strengthen human rights and civil liberties in the United States.” As of 2016, the Freedom House still advocates for human rights.

Wendell Willkie’s ambitions for the White House never materialized, but his influence on American politics can still be felt, especially in his stances on international relations, civil rights, business, and foreign policy. His friendship and support of Franklin Roosevelt, even after losing to him, benefited the country during wartime. Willkie was a results man; he believed deeply in the power of institutions and people to get the job done right, whether in politics or in business. His bipartisanship and amiable demeanor earned him respect from leaders all across the country. In the end, the “Dark Horse” became a statesman on par with almost any President.

Check back for Part 2 to learn about another prominent Hoosier who had his eyes set on the White House: Governor Paul V. McNutt.

The Shared Humanism of Clemens and Kurt Vonnegut

Clemens (Left) was the Vonnegut family patriarch and lifelong freethinker. Kurt, Jr. (Right) was the great-grandson who carried his humanist heritage into his writing. Images courtesy of IUPUI University Library, Special Archives and Collections/citelighter.com.
Clemens (Left) was the Vonnegut family patriarch and lifelong freethinker. Kurt, Jr. (Right) was the great-grandson who carried his humanist heritage into his writing. Images courtesy of IUPUI University Library, Special Archives and Collections/citelighter.com.

The German-American community in Indianapolis, largely a product of mid-nineteenth century immigration, had a strong heritage of freethought (open evaluation of religion based on the use of reason). In particular, Clemens Vonnegut, the patriach of the Vonnegut family and lifelong freethinker, openly displayed his religious dissent through writings and community activism. This, in turn, influenced his family and the literary style of his great-grandson, novelist Kurt Vonnegut, especially the younger man’s ideas concerning God, religion, science, and ethics. The junior Vonnegut’s own midwestern brand of freethought, in the form of what literature scholar Todd F. Davis called a “postmodern humanism,” displayed a deep sense of skepticism about the irrationalism of his time, while simultaneously championing an ethical responsibility to ourselves and each other devoid of supernatural influences. Yet, true to his form as a freethinker, Kurt forged his own humanist identity. [*]

The Vonnegut Hardware Store, circa 1878. Founded by Clemens Vonnegut, the store would be an Indianapolis stable for well over a century. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
The Vonnegut Hardware Company on Washington Street, circa 1878. Founded by Clemens Vonnegut, the store would be an Indianapolis stable for well over a century. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.

Clemens Vonnegut was born November 20, 1824, in Münster, Westphalia. In his early years, he studied in German public schools and apprenticed as a mercantile clerk. As recorded in the Indianapolis Press, a young Vonnegut came to the United States in the early 1830s, on assignment from his employer, J. L. de Ball and Company, which sold specialty fabrics. His year in New York convinced the young Vonnegut that America would be his permanent home. He then traveled to Indianapolis with his friend Charles Volmer to start a new life.

The Socialer Turnverein, a social club co-founded by Vonnegut, was the home of the Freethinker Society of Indianapolis. Image Courtesy of IUPUI University Library, Special Collections and Archives.
The Socialer Turnverein, a social club co-founded by Vonnegut, was the home of the Freethinker Society of Indianapolis. Image Courtesy of IUPUI University Library, Special Archives and Collections.

He founded the Vonnegut Hardware Store in 1852, and was considered by the Indianapolis Star as “one of the city’s most respected citizens….” Like fellow Hoosier freethinker Hermann Lieber, he was a co-founder of the Socialer Turnverein and a forceful voice for public education. Clemens founded the German-English Independent School and served on its board for over 30 years. He also served as the first president of the Freethinker Society from 1870-1875, gave lectures to the society on occasion, and even translated the celebrated agnostic orator Robert Ingersoll’s Open Letter to the Clergy of Indianapolis into German for publication. His actions and beliefs heavily impacted the inception and growth of the Freethinker Society of Indianapolis.

The German-English Indepdendent School, also co-founded by Vonnegut. He would work on multiple school boards for over thirty years.
The German-English Independent School, also co-founded by Vonnegut. He would work on multiple school boards for over thirty years. Image courtesy of IUPUI University Library, Special Archives and Collections.

After the end of the Freethinker Society in 1890, Clemens Vonnegut continued his activism more than any former member, mostly through writing. A Proposed Guide for Instruction of Morals, published in 1900, enunciated Vonnegut’s philosophy of freethought, both in theory and in practice. This treatise also displayed a rhetorical flourish that Kurt would later cite as an influence in his autobiographical work, Palm Sunday.  Echoing Ingersoll and Heinzen before him, Vonnegut declared that, “No religious creed has any real proofs. It rests simply on assertions.”

However, that does not mean that humanity cannot be moral. In fact, Vonnegut argued the opposite:

True virtue is its own reward, which is not enhanced but rather misled by belief. Belief deprives us of the joys of this world by teaching us that we must detest them, and instead of them we must hope for a heaven. Belief forms the germ for persecution of those who differ from us in their religious convictions.

A Proposed Guide for Instruction of Morals, 1900. Published in both German and English, this pamplet by Clemens Vonnegut argued for a moral and just society without the need of superstition or religious beliefs. Courtesy of IUPUI University Library, Special Collections and Archives.
A Proposed Guide for Instruction of Morals, 1900. Published in both German and English, this pamplet by Clemens Vonnegut argued for a moral and just society without the need of superstition or religious beliefs. Courtesy of IUPUI University Library, Special Collections and Archives.

Vonnegut saw morality as the wellspring of the “intrinsic quality of human character which ought to be nourished and cultivated early, continually, and carefully.” In subsequent pages, Vonnegut explained how such “cultivation” is achieved. Public education, family instruction, physical fitness, and social activities presented the means by which individuals perfected a moral life without the supernatural. Like Ingersoll, Vonnegut’s morality was clear, traditional, based in the family, and demonstrated a moral life without the need of God. While Clemens Vonnegut presented his philosophy clearly, the events surrounding his death were anything but.

Clemens Vonnegut’s death in 1906 created somewhat of a mystery for his family, and later his great-grandson. It was said that he died in the snow . . . or so the story goes. Kurt Vonnegut recalls this story in his autobiographical work, Palm Sunday. In the winter of 1906, Clemens Vonnegut supposedly went for a routine stroll. Having lost his way, he wandered the streets of Indianapolis for hours before he was found dead by the side of the road by a search party. This story bewildered Kurt, whose own freethought can be traced to his great-grandfather and his own extended family. However, as with many family stories, this one stretches the truth a little.

Clemens did not die by the side of the road, but was rather found unconscious. The Indianapolis News reported that C. W. Jones, a local construction worker, found the 82-year-old Vonnegut nearly five miles from the city on Crawfordsville Pike. He sustained injuries to his head and right shoulder, but doctors feared that exposure to the elements might be his biggest challenge. After fighting for his life for five days, Clemens Vonnegut succumbed to pneumonia on January 13, 1906. His obituary cited his charity and love for knowledge, his activities within the Socialer Turnverein and the Freethinker Society, and his 27-year service for a local school board. True to his iconoclastic nature, Vonnegut wrote his own eulogy back in the 1870s and asked for its recitation when he died. As recorded in the Indianapolis Star, he railed against the creeds of Christianity:

I do not believe in the atonement to the blood of Christ or in the sin of incredulity. I do not believe in a punishment in a future life. I believe neither in a personal God nor a personal devil, but I honor the ideal which man has created as the tenor of all virtues and perfections, and has named God.

Until the very end, Clemens believed in the power of humanity to throw off the shackles of religion and embrace the values of inquiry and human-based ethics.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. in New York City, 1979. Photo by Marty Reichenthal. Courtesy of slopemedia.org.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. in New York City, 1979. Photo by Marty Reichenthal. Courtesy of slopemedia.org.

Nearly a century later, famed author Kurt Vonnegut (born in 1922 in Indianapolis) wrote in Palm Sunday that his great-grandfather’s freethought was his own “ancestral religion” and that he was “pigheadedly proud” of the heretical nature of his family. Kurt Vonnegut, a future honorary president of the American Humanist Association, carried the torch of freethought for his grandfather, and in some respects, introduced his ideas to a new generation.

In many of his works, Kurt would openly criticize religion, spirituality, and faith, so much so that it even contributed to the end of his first marriage. Nevertheless, echoing his grandfather in a 1980 speech at the First Parish Unitarian Church, Vonnegut declared, “Doesn’t God give dignity to everybody? No—not in my opinion. Giving dignity, the sort of dignity that is of earthly use, anyway, is something that only people do. Or fail to do.”

Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) would become Vonnegut's most well known novel. Its open understanding of the barbarity of war, coupled with many humanist themes, continues to enthrall readers. Courtesy of In These Times.
Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) would become Vonnegut’s most well known novel. Its open understanding of the barbarity of war, coupled with many humanist themes, continues to enthrall readers. Courtesy of In These Times.

His most popular novel, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), displays Kurt’s intense abhorrence of war (influenced by his own WWII POW experience) and a belief in a common humanity. Specifically, “so it goes” is a phrase that Vonnegut peppered throughout the novel, often after horrible events or even banal ones. This phrase conveys that no matter how bad things get, no matter how high one can get, the world (and indeed the universe) goes on. As an example, this passage from the novel, describing the protagonist Billy Pilgrim’s memory of a sculpture of Jesus, is fairly apt:

A military surgeon would have admired the clinical fidelity of the artist’s rendition of all Christ’s wounds—the spear wound, the thorn wounds, the holes that were made by the iron spikes. Billy’s Christ died horribly. He was pitiful.

So it goes.

“So it goes” becomes the novel’s panacea; a way for the narrator to deal with the grim realities of war without the comfort of religious beliefs. In some respects, it can be seen as a mantra for humanism.

Kurt's son Mark reading his late father's remarks of Clowes Memorial Hall in April, 2007. This event capped Indianapolis's "Year of Vonnegut" ceremonies. The author had died just weeks before he was to deliver this address. Courtesy of USA Today.
Kurt’s son Mark reading his late father’s remarks at Clowes Memorial Hall in April, 2007. This event capped Indianapolis’s “Year of Vonnegut” ceremonies. The author had died just weeks before he was to deliver this address. Courtesy of USA Today.

Kurt Vonnegut’s humanism continued until the end of his life, as displayed by an address he meant to give on April 27, 2007 for Indianapolis’s “Year of Vonnegut” celebrations (he died on April 11; his son Mark gave the address in his stead). In this address, from the posthumous work Armageddon in Retrospect (2008), Kurt espoused his continued commitment to humanism. He wrote:

Am I religious? I practice a disorganized religion. I belong to an unholy disorder. We call ourselves “Our Lady of Perpetual Consternation.” We are as celibate as fifty percent of the heterosexual Roman Catholic clergy.

Actually—and when I hold up my right hand like this, it means I’m not kidding, that I give my Word of Honor that what I’m about to say is true. So actually, I am honorary President of the American Humanist Society, having succeeded the late, great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in that utterly functionless capacity. We Humanists behave as well as we can, without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an Afterlife. We serve as best we can the only abstraction with which we have any real familiarity, which is our community.

This emphasis on “community” squares nicely with Clemens’s own commitments to community, both with the Freethinker Society and with his advocacy of public education. Both Vonneguts believed that the values of sociality and comradery are essential to the flourishing of a community, and you can achieve that system without a supernatural element.

Clemens Vonnegut’s humanism carried through many generations of his family and left an indelible mark on Kurt Vonnegut. The two men’s rejection of religion and the supernatural reinforced their love for humanity, their desire for community, and their commitment to the truth, no matter how horrifying it may be. Kurt’s own success as a writer and social critic would have delighted Clemens, who participated in many of the same literary pursuits and civic activities decades before Kurt was born. As such, their two lives, separated by time, nevertheless became entwined by their ideals. Their humanist legacy reinforces the diversity of intellectual and moral philosophies that embody the American Midwest throughout the 19th, 20th, and early-21st centuries.

Both Vonneguts were proud to be from Indianapolis and the city proudly remembers them.

[*] Kurt Vonnegut’s humanism may also be described as “Modern Humanism,” or “Naturalistic Humanism, Scientific Humanism, Ethical Humanism, and Democratic Humanism, [is] defined by one of its leading proponents, Corliss Lamont, as “a naturalistic philosophy that rejects all supernaturalism and relies primarily upon reason and science, democracy and human compassion.” Modern Humanism has a dual origin, both secular and religious, and these constitute its sub-categories” (Fred Edwords, “What is Humanism,” American Humanist Association, last updated 2008, accessed March 19, 2016, americanhumanist.org).

“Wake Up! Sign Up! Look Up!:” Indiana and the Ground Observer Corps

The United States faces an abundance of national security concerns in 2016, ranging from North Korean nuclear testing to Islamic State nuclear ambitions. Russia was notably absent from the 2016 Nuclear Summit, which was “aimed at locking down fissile material worldwide that could be used for doomsday weapons,” while maintaining the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world. These concerns prompt a question that originated in the early Cold War period: how can a nation prevent nuclear attack?

During WWII, the U.S. detonated the first nuclear bomb over Hiroshima, Japan on August 1945, catastrophically damaging the city. The postwar 1949 explosion of a Soviet atomic bomb ignited fears of the American public about what Anne Wilson Marks dubbed in an article for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a “new Pearl Harbor.”

pearl harbor ad
The Ground Observer Corps, Advertising Material, A public service campaign prepared for the Department of the Air Force and the Federal Civil Defense Administration by The Advertising Council, Inc., Box 5, Folder “GOC- General 1953 (2),” 15A6, James M. Lambie Jr. Records, Eisenhower Presidential Library.

When most think of early Cold War civil defense they recall bomb shelters and “duck and cover” drills. However, President Dwight D. Eisenhower implored Americans in a 1953 advertisement to “Wake Up! Sign Up! Look Up!” to Soviet airplanes potentially escorting an atomic bomb over the U.S. He encouraged them to do so through a collaborative program with the U.S. Air Force called the Ground Observer Corps, established in 1949.

In the GOC, civilian volunteers were encouraged to build watchtowers in backyards and community centers, and to survey skies from existing commercial structures. Utilizing a telephone, binoculars, observation manual, and log of duties, civilians searched the skies for airplanes flying lower than 6,000 feet, which could evade radar detection. At the sight of a suspicious, possibly nuclear-bomb-toting plane, civilians were to telephone their local filter center, staffed with Air Force personnel, who could then direct the plane to be intercepted or shot down.

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Image courtesy of Conneaut Valley Area Historical Society.

This collaborative civil defense program involved approximately 350,000 observers, made up of families, prisoners and guards, the youth and elderly, the blind and handicapped, and naval and USAF personnel. In 1952, the Ground Observer Corps operated 24-hours each day and became known as Operation Skywatch.

Scientists estimated that Soviet aircraft would emerge over the North Pole, raising questions about Indiana’s vulnerability. Governor Henry F. Schricker warned in The Indiana Civil Defense Sentinel that “Hoosiers should be alert to protect vital Indiana war industries if hostilities should break out.” Indiana officials worried that Lake County, part of Chicago’s urban industrial area, could be a site of an enemy attack. Concerned Indiana citizen Thomas H. Roberts wrote to Gov. Schricker that his family lived in “the highly industrialized Calumet area. I am sure you are aware that this area is a likely target for enemy attack.”

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Map, “One Call, the Ground Observer Corps,” U.S. Government Printing Office, 1954.

According to articles and letters sent to Schricker in 1950 from other governors, GOC planning advanced more quickly and decidedly in Indiana than other participating states. Unsure as to how to proceed after a Washington planning conference, Illinois Governor and future presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson appealed to Schricker for advice. Schricker detailed Indiana’s planning process for Stevenson, stating that he would first contact every mayor, town board president and all “peace officers on every level throughout the state.” Days after the meeting, the Department of Civil Defense for Indiana compiled a list of observer posts for each county.

On March 16, 1950, a mock air attack over Indiana illustrated the shortcomings of radar, as B-26 bombers flown by members of the Air National Guard of Indiana, Missouri and Illinois proceeded “completely undetected” by radar at Fort Harrison, the state’s only warning facility. Following the alarming mock air attack, municipal and county officials named Civil Defense Directors in 51 Indiana counties, who established observer posts in the northern two-thirds of Indiana. By late 1950, as the Korean conflict grew, the Air Force had partially constructed a filter center in South Bend, Indiana.

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Recruitment sticker, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Historian Jenny Barker-Devine wrote in 2006 that rural residents were likely not targets of atomic explosions, but that federal civil defense agencies sought their help because “rural families also served as custodians of democracy and could prevent any type of socialism or communism from taking hold in local, state, and national governments.”

Diligent rural citizens, such as Larry O’Connor of Cairo, Indiana, organized movements to establish local GOC towers. O’Connor, a World War II Navy veteran and owner of Cairo’s only store (attached to his house), designated it the small community’s initial observation site.

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Cairo Ground Observer Corps tower, image courtesy of Queen City Discovery.

In an interview with the author, Cairo resident James Haan shared that the post was necessary because Cairo was located along a line of beacon lights that could guide the enemy to industrial centers in Chicago. In 1952, building began on the Cairo observation tower and the local Rural Electric Membership Cooperative (REMC) donated and set the tower poles. Local merchants from Lafayette and the town of Battle Ground donated materials, and residents in surrounding areas furnished labor.  Between 90 and 120 volunteers from surrounding areas volunteered at the Cairo tower. Haan states that volunteers worked in two-hour shifts and that he and other farmers worked all day in the fields, while female family members manned the towers, and the men volunteered throughout the night.

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Commemorative limestone monument at Cairo watchtower, image courtesy of Tippecanoe County INGen Web Project.

The Lafayette Journal and Courier claimed that Cairo’s tower was one of the first freestanding towers constructed over the ground.  According to O’Connor, it was “the first G.O. Post officially commissioned by the U.S.A.F. in the U.S.A.” Commanding Officer of the South Bend GOC detachment, Lieutenant Colonel Forest R. Shafer, mentioned in a letter “I can verify that the tower constructed at Cairo, Indiana was the first of its kind within my jurisdiction but cannot confirm that it was the first in the United States. However, I am certain it was among the very first, at least.”

More research should be done to verify these claims, but it is clear that the recognition of USAF personnel and public officials gave residents a sense of pride in their contributions. Haan recalled “We had some representatives down here and felt pretty good about it.”  He felt that the GOC tower made “a pretty important place out of it [Cairo]. There was a lot of business up there, a lot of people coming and going and working on the tower. And there was for days and days and days a lot of people up there.”

Under O’Connor’s direction, local residents held a dedication for the tower in 1976, commissioned a moment featuring limestone volunteers, and got the tower listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The site was later commemorated with a historical marker.

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Site of Cairo skywatch tower and historical marker, image courtesy of Queen City Discovery.

The GOC is now long forgotten, as demonstrated by the Cairo tower, once so revered by the community for decades, but now in decay. As with many civil defense programs of the 1950s, the GOC has been deemed a quirky, superfluous program, constructed by an overly-paranoid people. However, the GOC established a model of national defense that solicited the participation of the general public. It served as an opportunity for families, neighbors, and community members to spend quality time together through the shared objective of improving national security.

On January 31, 1959, the Secretary of the Air Force announced the termination of the program due to the improvement of detection radar and inability of civilians to detect increasingly technical Soviet missile system. The Indiana Civil Defender almost wistfully noted that the U.S. “is geared to the substitution of machines for manpower . . . and we accept this theory of progress.” The bulletin lamented the conclusion of the program, but congratulated its participants for successfully deterring attack, going so far as to claim the GOC may have been “the one final deterrent to an attack on the country by a calculating enemy.”

As national attention returns to security concerns, the question remains: how does a country stop the detonation of a nuclear bomb? An NPR correspondent recently contacted the author about the potential for a piece about these Cold War watchtowers.

Despite precarious national security issues, IHB is pleased to report that the Cairo marker has recently been repainted. We are grateful to the Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity at Purdue University and Bruce Cole and his sons for their work to preserve the legacy of those vigilant Indiana citizens.

Repainting upside down

fixed marker

Learn more about the GOC and Cairo tower with the author’s master’s thesis.

Want more towers? Check out our blog posts about Hoosier surveyor Jasper Sherman Bilby, whose Bilby Tower was foundational to modern GPS.

World War II Comes to Indiana: The Indiana Army Ammunition Plant, Part II

Learn about Charlestown’s rapid transformation resulting from the WWII smokeless powder plant in Part I.
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Employment of women and African Americans at the Charlestown smokeless powder ordnance facility, groups that often faced exclusion or discrimination in the workplace, contributed to the plant’s nationally-recognized production accomplishments.

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Power Plant Building 401-1 at the Charlestown ordnance facility, Image courtesy of Abandoned, http://abandonedonline.net/locations/industry/indiana-ammunitions-depot/

WWII defense needs quickly brought women into the labor force, particularly later in the war as men left factories to enter into combat. The New York Times reported on October 19, 1941 that “entry of women into the defense factories of the nation is something that is just beginning on a considerable scale . . . now they are utilized for a wide variety of tasks by at least nineteen large plants.” The article asserted that women surpassed male workers in “finger dexterity” and “powers of observation” and possessed “superior traits in number memory,” completing tasks like painting planes, covering oil lines and packing powder bags. The article also reported that thousands of women had begun to produce smokeless powder at plants in Indiana, Alabama and Virginia and that “care is taken to select only women who are emotionally stable for these hazardous tasks.”

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Image courtesy of 1945 Indiana Ordnance Works newsletter, Powder Horn vol. 3, no. 1, 11, Charlestown-Clark County Public Library, Indiana Memory Digital Collections.

As with the nation, Indiana began employing women en masse at munitions factories and by 1944 the Indianapolis Star reported that while industrial work was once considered “unsuitable for women . . . this view has been abandoned since employers have found that women can and have been willing to adjust themselves to practically any type of labor if given the opportunity.”

Women were hired in large numbers at Charlestown’s ordnance facility and, while originally serving as mail runners and lab technicians, they eventually replaced men as powder cutting machine attendants. The bag-loading plant known as HOP employed 3,200 workers by December 1941, most of whom were women, who sewed bags and packed them with powder. By 1942, so many women worked at the Charlestown plants that the town had to rapidly expand child care facilities, enlarging the community center nursery at Pleasant Ridge Project.

In addition to child care, transportation proved an obstacle to women hoping to enter Charlestown’s workforce. The Charlestown Courier reported that women were prohibited from riding the “four special trains bringing employes to the Powder Plant. They have to find some other way to get to their jobs here.” Additionally, the New York Times reported that women working industrial jobs made “only about 60 percent of that of men doing comparable work.”

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Image courtesy of 1945 Indiana Ordnance Works newsletter, Powder Horn vol. 3, no. 6, 2, Charlestown-Clark County Public Library, Indiana Memory Digital Collections.

“Trailer wives” in Charlestown felt they too contributed to defense efforts by relocating their families to ordnance towns where their husbands found employment. The Indianapolis Star described these women as a “gallant band who ‘follow construction’ in order to keep the family life being lived as a unit and not subject themselves and their husbands to the hardships of separation.”

Much like women in WWII, defense needs partially opened the labor force to African Americans. A questionnaire from the Indiana State Defense Council reported that from July 1, 1941 to July 1, 1942 those firms reporting African American employment experienced a net increase of 82% in the number of blacks employed. Initially African Americans worked at Charlestown’s smokeless powder plant primarily in janitorial and unskilled fields. However, by the end of 1942, due to a labor shortage, they found employment in various roles, such as chemists, plant laborers, and plant operators.

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John Williams, Nitrocellulose Department employee, after safety incident, Image courtesy of 1945 Indiana Ordnance Works newsletter, Powder Horn vol. 3, no. 12, 5, Charlestown-Clark County Public Library, Indiana Memory Digital Collections.

Former plant employees stated in interviews that they witnessed little or no segregation, but that separate restrooms may have existed at one time. However, housing and schooling for African Americans in Charlestown was segregated and often in poor condition. Due to protests by some white residents regarding mixed housing units, a section of 130 units were separated for black workers with a 300 foot wide area. A 1942 Louisville Courier-Journal article about the deplorable state of Clark County African-American schools, particularly in Charlestown Township, stated that grade school students:

were broken out in a rash of goose pimples yesterday morning as they shivered at their antiquated desks. . . . A not unbitter wind whistled thru broken window panes and thru cracks in the walls of the sixty-five year old frame building as twenty-three students . . . huddled together and with stiffened fingers signed up for a year of ‘education.’

The boom afforded limited employment opportunities for African Americans outside the plant, despite earlier employer prejudice, which often barred them from working at local Charlestown businesses.

In the spring of 1945, after deliberation by the Army, War Production Board, and union officials, approximately 1,000 German prisoners of war were transferred to Charlestown to supplement construction of the rocket powder plant (IOW2), the third WWII ordnance plant at the facility. The Charlestown Courier described the POWs:

“Far from supermen, the German POWs employed on the Rocket Plant are predominantly youthful, many never having required a razor to date. They seem to be in good spirits and are healthy and husky. A surprisingly large number speak English and don’t hesitate to say they would rather remain in this country.”

The Indianapolis Star reported on August 19, 1945 that the POWs had left the plant and returned to Fort Knox and other camps where they were “obtained.” Newspapers located by IHB staff did not report on the POWs’ contributions, but Steve Gaither and Kimberly Kane state in their report on the facility that it was “doubtful that the POWs contributed directly to construction.”

The massive Charlestown ordnance facility produced more than one billion pounds of smokeless powder in World War II, nearly as much as the “total volume of military explosives made for the United States in World War I” (Indianapolis Star Magazine, 1948). Output levels were so high that the military nationally recognized the facility’s production and safety records, conferring upon the plant the Army-Navy “E” Award, awarded to only 5% of the estimated war plants in the country during WWII.

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Image courtesy of 1945 Indiana Ordnance Works newsletter, Powder Horn vol. 3, no. 9, 3, Charlestown-Clark County Public Library, Indiana Memory Digital Collections.
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Indiana Ordnance Works Excellence of Performance Program August 10, 1942, Charlestown-Clark County Public Library, Indiana Memory Digital Collections.

National munitions production wound down with termination of the two-front war, which concluded first on May 7, 1945 with German surrender and Japan’s informal agreement to surrender on August 14, 1945. The plants at Charlestown gradually reduced payroll in August before eventually shutting down. The Richmond Palladium noted that after reductions “scarcely a wheel turned, or a hammer fell. Now there are just a few thousand ‘running out’ the powder which was in process, and putting the whole installation in weather-tight conditions.”

The Indianapolis Star reported on August 19 of that year that Charlestown is “dying with the same gusto with which it was born.” The Richmond Palladium described Charlestown folding up “like an Arabian tent village,” as trailer caravans departed and workers returned to various states across the nation. Although the abrupt exodus shocked local residents, worried about maintaining their postwar economy, a trickle of new residents soon arrived, including veterans and their families. Boom town activity returned to Charlestown during the Korean and Vietnam wars when the ordnance facility again began producing powder, reuniting workers from the WWII era.

Charlestown’s 1940s ordnance plants illustrated how WWII energized local economies and afforded women and African Americans job opportunities. Accommodating the massive facility transformed Charlestown from a town to a city and led to its first sewage system,the resurfacing and improvement of miles of roads, and two major housing projects.

wowzie

View stunning 21st-century photos of the Charleston facility, such as this Air Test House, via Abandoned: http://abandonedonline.net/locations/industry/indiana-ammunitions-depot/

World War II Comes to Indiana: The Indiana Army Ammunition Plant, Part I

ye olde plante
Indiana Ordnance Works, 1940s, Image courtesy of Hagley Digital Archives.

The Indiana Historical Bureau recently completed research and marker text for the massive WWII smokeless powder plant in Charlestown, Indiana known as the Indiana Army Ammunition Plant. The plant received multiple military awards for production, transformed the local community and bolstered its economy, and provided job opportunities for women and African Americans. This historical marker helps fill a void in the State Historical Marker Collection by commemorating Indiana’s WWII home front and the contributions of Hoosier men and women to the war effort.

At the outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939, the Allied Powers desperately needed war supplies to combat Germany’s war resources, as the country had been producing material since the early 1930s. In response, the U.S. established an extensive ordnance system, hoping in part to stave off their own involvement in war. The Evacuation of Dunkirk in May 1940 and Fall of France in June greatly hastened U.S. efforts to construct ordnance plants and resulted in the establishment of the smokeless powder plant in Charlestown. Smokeless powder was crucial to combat because traditional smoke obscured combatants’ vision and revealed their location. Smokeless powder, made from colloided nitrocellulose, acted as the primary explosive propellant for various war ammunition.

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Cords of smokeless powder before being cut into appropriate sizes, 1940s, Image courtesy of Hagley Digital Archives.

Steve Gaither and Kimberly L. Kane contend in their comprehensive 1995 study, The World War II Ordnance Department’s Government-Owned (GOCO) Industrial Facilities: Indiana Army Ammunition Plant Historic Investigation, that the smokeless powder plant in Charlestown, referred to as the Indiana Ordnance Works 1 (IOW1), was one of the first ordnance plants in the nation established to meet WWII war material needs. The southern Indiana town of 939 residents was chosen as the plant site because of its inexpensive land, ready labor force, close proximity to railroads, massive water supply provided by the Ohio River and removal from the country’s borders to avoid bombing or invasion.

Former Charlestown resident Mary T. Hughes described Charlestown to the Indianapolis Times in November 1940 as a “quiet, easy going upland town-one of those southern Indiana towns where rambling homes line the shaded streets and the still peace of the afternoon is like Sunday.” Walter A. Shead similarly profiled the town in a December 1940 Madison [IN] Courier article, stating that Charlestown “has watched the years slip past through the century without even the quickening of a pulse-beat . . . most of whom are retired farmers, has lived the simple life undisturbed by modern conveniences or the quickened tempo of present-day life.” Unsurprisingly, the influx of thousands of workers and rapid industrialization shocked the small town.

Shortly after Congress passed funding for munitions production on July 1, 1940, the federal government awarded E.I. deNemours DuPont Co. a war contract to establish IOW1. The arrangement, known as a Government-Owned Contractor-Operated (GOCO) collaboration, was undertaken frequently in WWII. In GOCO collaborations, the federal government owned the ordnance plant and a business experienced in mass production was responsible for plant design, construction and operations. Soon after DuPont was awarded the contract, agents arrived in Charlestown to purchase properties including businesses, churches, farms and private residences to build the plant, affording local residents unheard of economic opportunities.

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Purchased house, Indiana Ordnance Works Real Estate Acquisition 1941, Charlestown, Indiana, Image courtesy of Indiana Memory Digital Collections.

When construction began that summer thousands of  workers from around the nation flooded the small community, hosting 30,000 transient workers at the peak of construction. An article in the September 13, 1940 Louisville Courier-Journal vividly described the transformation, stating:

“. . . farm houses were being wrecked. In that wreckage could be seen bruised and tangled masses of cultivated flowers, some in bloom, and imported shrubbery. The fields which this spring were planted in corn, soybeans and other crops were being subjected to the same treatment as if they had contained ragweed. Ears of golden yellow corn were being trampled underfoot by the  workmen or ground under the wheels of motor cars.”

In addition to the smokeless powder plant, the federal government worked with the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in early 1941 to establish a bag-loading plant known as the Hoosier Ordnance Plant (HOP). HOP workers weighed, assembled and packed smokeless powder into silk bags. HOP, along with an uncompleted double-base rocket powder plant, Indiana Ordnance Works 2 (IOW2), drew thousands of construction and production workers to the area.

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Mixer House Building 208, 2014, Image courtesy of Abandoned Online.

Housing these workers became the town’s most immediate problem, as Charlestown had approximately 235 existing homes and one hotel so crowded that “you can’t get a room for love or money” (Gary-Post Tribune, December 1940). Indianapolis newspapers reported that new arrivals were so desperate for housing that they lived in trailers, cars, chicken coops, barns, lean-tos and even the town jail. A Charlestown Courier article colorfully reported in February 1941 “It may have been a hen house, wash house, wood house, garage or what have you for lo, these many years, but the minute it has been insulated, windows and chimney installed and Powder Plant workers have moved in and hung lace curtains, it becomes a guest house.”

Another immediate problem facing Charlestown was the town’s lack of rudimentary sanitation systems. According to a 1942 public health survey, prior to the plants’ establishment the town had no systematic trash or human waste disposal program. Additionally, Charlestown lacked a public water supply, depending primarily on private wells and cisterns. The absence of sanitary accommodations caused residents and officials to worry about epidemics. The 1942 survey reported “The dangers to health flowing from a congestion of workers drawn from north and south and east and west, eating and sleeping under the most elementary conditions, crowded into inadequate quarters and served by water, milk, and sanitary facilities designed for a small community can hardly be exaggerated.” The establishment of trailer camps, accommodating hundreds of workers and their families in close proximity, worsened these fears. Conditions proved so precarious that even the town jail was condemned and closed by the State Board of Institutions for sanitation reasons.

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Charlestown, 2014, Image courtesy of Abandoned Online.

The overcrowding of local businesses, infrastructure and sanitation facilities generated tension between local residents and transient workers regarding who should shoulder the burden. A Madison [IN] Courier article explained that “Native folks in Charlestown are a little dazed, for they hardly know just what to make of this hub-bub which has come to shake the even tenor of their ways, a manner of life which has endured for more than a century.” Locals often labeled newcomers “du Ponters” and their children as “powder children” in an effort to differentiate themselves. Conversely, Margaret Christie reported in the Indianapolis Star that many migrant workers resented the implication that locals considered them “’trailer trash.” Debates between local residents and transient workers played out publicly in letters to editors of local newspapers. For the most part, however, locals adjusted to the influx of transients and Charlestown permanently benefited from their patronage.

Check out Part II to learn about how the ordnance facility led to permanent improvement of the town, the use of German POWs, and how the plants ushered women and African Americans into the WWII labor force.