“Coed Mayhem”: Roller Derby in Indiana

 

Courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, May 6, 1937. Accessed via ProQuest.

Indiana is a sports state through and through. From our long history with Hoosier Hysteria and March Madness to our deep passion for the football team that arrived in the dead of night to the checkered flags dotting the capital city every May, it’s clear we love our sports. While many Hoosiers are familiar with our love for basketball, football, and racing (among many other popular pastimes), there’s also a long history in the state of Indiana with another much less known and perhaps more controversial sport:

Roller Derby.

Over the long decades of the sport’s existence, Hoosiers had a complicated relationship with Roller Derby. They loved it and found it immensely entertaining, but was it true sport?  Was it more of an entertainment spectacle? Could Roller Derby scores grace the sports page of the Indianapolis Star or the Indianapolis Times the same as the box scores for other sports? Not everyone thought it should, yet thousands of Hoosiers still clamored for tickets whenever the Roller Derby wheeled into town.[i] There was just something deeply amusing about the fast-paced skating and amped up action of the mad whirlers as they skated around and around the banked track. The Roller Derby offered fans something that no other full contact team sport did: women competing on par with men, and for that reason, the Roller Derby was both beloved and spurned.

“Two women’s league roller derby skaters leap over two who have fallend,” World-Telegram photo by Al Aumuller, March 10, 1950, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Leo Seltzer, Courtesy of Jerry Seltzer’s blog, rollerderbyjesus.com

Roller Derby, in its modern form, was born out of the struggles of the Great Depression. There is a long history in the United States of various roller-skating races and marathons, and many of them were even called roller derbies. However, in the 1930s, an entertainment promoter named Leo Seltzer decided to try his hand at putting on a roller derby. He had recently become the main leaseholder on the Chicago Coliseum and after hosting a series of walkathons and danceathons was convinced that these attractions couldn’t hold the long-term interest of paying crowds.

Dance Marathon, Courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collections.

 

Yet deep in the throes of the Depression, he knew he needed cheap entertainment that the average American could relate to and spend some of their hard-earned money enjoying. Seltzer claimed to have read an article that stated that well over 90% of Americans roller skated at some point in their lives, but he also drew inspiration from previously held roller marathons, skating races, popular 6-day bicycle races, walkathons, and danceathons to create what he dubbed the Transcontinental Roller Derby (TRD).[ii]

Photo courtesy of Made in Chicago Museum.

The first Transcontinental Roller Derby was held at the air-conditioned Chicago Coliseum on August 14, 1935, in front of 20,000 enthused fans.  Here’s how it worked: ten co-ed pairs of skaters were competing against each other to, in essence, skate approximately 3,000 miles across the country (the distance could vary).  One of each pair of skaters had to be skating on the track at all times the roller derby was open, which often was 6-12 hours a day. The women generally skated against the women for a particular interval and then men against the men. Their progress was tracked through a giant map of the United States featuring a transcontinental route, for instance, from Indianapolis to Los Angeles: According to Roller Derby: The History of an American Sport, “small lights on the map were lit as skaters advanced along the replicated path, marking their distance and mileage as they progressed city by city.”[iii]

Martin and McKay, Courtesy of the National Roller Skating Museum.

The first skating duo to complete the 3,000 mile journey won the roller derby. Corrisse Martin and Benjamin McKay won the first TRD in Chicago. Roller Derby clearly a success, Seltzer took his spectacle on the road.[iv]

For the next couple of years, the TRD barnstormed the country, hosting Roller Derbies in venues across the nation.  However, the business side of the Roller Derby operated out of Seltzer’s offices in Gary, Indiana.[v] Despite the ties to northern Indiana, the TRD did not skate in Indiana until the spring of 1937 when it rolled into Indianapolis. By then, Indy fans were eager to greet the sport and its skaters.  According to an Indianapolis Star headline a week before the derby began, “Thrilling ‘jams’ await Roller Derby spectators” at the Coliseum at the state fairgrounds.[vi] Only one local Indianapolis resident participated in the first Hoosier Roller Derby: Tom Whitney. He was a veteran of the sport, however.  Jane and Jack Cummings of Lafayette, a husband and wife team, joined the fray, and Gene Vizena, of East Gary, was also among the skating teams in that first competition in Indy.[vii]

Courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, April 13, 1937, Accessed via ProQuest.

The TRD would return to Indianapolis for a second stint in late September to mid-October 1937, again held at the Coliseum.[viii] Five thousand fans showed up to watch the competition on October 6, 1937, where they apparently discovered, “it was possible to yell louder than a combination of sirens and bells.”[ix] The fans loved it, but the newspapers weren’t exactly sure what to make of it. As one Star reporter wrote, “The curtain rolled up on the roller derby last night and if you will bear with the roller derby reporter while he unravels his neck and focuses his eyes he will try to tell you about this dizzy occupation.”[x]

But major changes were a-coming to the Roller Derby late in 1937 that would dramatically alter the competition, propel it into the limelight, and eventually make people question its legitimacy. The rules prior to late December 1937 prevented skaters from any physical contact with each other as they completed the marathon-style endurance race. This had become a frustrating facet of the race for larger skaters who were frequently outmaneuvered by the smaller and quicker skaters that easily lapped them. At a series held in the Miami, Florida area late in the year, a group of skaters let their frustrations out on the track and “began pushing, shoving, and elbowing the speedsters, pinning them in the pack behind them . . . The referees ended the sprinting jams and started penalizing and fining the bigger skaters, eliciting loud boos and hisses from the excited crowd.”[xi] Leo Seltzer always paid close attention to crowd reactions and ordered the refs to allow the skaters to continue with contact, to much fanfare.

“Roller derby at Atlanta Municipal Auditorium,” 1937, Lane Brothers Commerical Photographers, Courtesy of Georgia State University Special Collections, Digital Public Library of America

Later that night, Seltzer and famed essayist and playwright Damon Runyon, who was at the game and witnessed the enthusiastic crowd response, rewrote the rules over dinner to permanently allow contact. From that point forward, the game evolved away from a marathon-style race to a full contact team sport, albeit one with amped up dramatics, lots of hard-hitting, and frequently a fight or two.[xii]

Damon Runyon, 1938. Courtesy of the Irish Times and Getty Images.

Here’s how the new game worked: Five players of the same sex from each team started on the oval track together—two jammers (players that could score points) and three blockers.  Once the referee blew his whistle, the ten skaters began skating counterclockwise around the track and then grouped together to form what was dubbed a “pack.” According to Roller Derby, once skaters formed the pack, “the jammers, who began in the back of the pack, attempted to work their way through the pack to break free from the blockers.”[xiii] The blockers had a more complicated job of playing simultaneous offense and defense—their mission was to prevent the opposing team’s jammers from breaking out of the pack while also helping their jammers break through the pack to then score points. Immediately after the first jammer broke free of the pack, a jam clock began: “this meant that the jammers had two minutes to lap the pack and attempt to score as many points as possible before the jam time ran out.”[xiv] Jammers scored points for every opponent they passed after breaking through the pack that first time.

Courtesy of the Logansport Pharos-Tribune (Logansport, Indiana), October 9, 1936, Accessed via Newspapers.com
Courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, June 12, 1949. Accessed via ProQuest.

This newer version of Roller Derby really gained national prominence and coverage when it rooted itself in the New York City area with a lucrative ABC television network contract that telecast the event live every week for three years. From 1949-1952, the Roller Derby made its way into homes across the nation and became a staple of primetime TV. Various channels broadcast the sport for Hoosier viewers, ranging from the Indianapolis-based channel WFBM (Channel 6) to WGN out of Chicago (Channel 9) or WCPO Cincinnati (Channel 7).[xv] This provided a huge popularity boost to the sport, and fans loved watching the hard-hitting action of the male and female skaters competing together on a team. Indeed, it had higher viewership and ratings than other sporting events that were broadcast, such as boxing, wrestling, and college football, but there was a downside to this as well. The regular primetime programming without any sort of off-season led viewers, in part, to categorize the sport as entertainment television as opposed to a sporting event. This, along with the female skaters ready to battle it out on skates, endeared the sport to many while causing sports editors to thumb their noses at the Roller Derby.[xvi]

Courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, September 29, 1937. Accessed via ProQuest.

The Indianapolis Star coverage provides a great case study on the love-hate relationship with Roller Derby. Even prior to the TV exposure, the Indianapolis sports editors were leery of covering the Roller Derby as true sport, and often stories on the derby were intermixed among other sections of the paper—not in the “Sports, Financials, and Classifieds” section. As early as 1940, the Star sports editor explained why Roller Derby coverage wouldn’t appear on the sports pages: “When it came to the roller derby here we said, ‘Nay, nay’ for the sports pages—purely amusement. There was a squawk from the promoters, but the ‘front office’ backed us up in our contention.”[xvii]

Courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, October 31, 1954. Accessed via ProQuest.

Yet, Roller Derby was covered occasionally in the sports pages throughout the 1940s, but in 1954, the Star doubled down on their stance, despite continuing to provide coverage on the first Roller Derby in the city for years (on the sports page no less): “A mechanized morality play called the Roller Derby has dusted off an old wrestling script and moved dizzily into the Coliseum.”[xviii] The author allowed that “despite a journey that has no terminus, all on board seem to have fun. The crowd—made up of those who like to comment loudly on the performances of the athletes—exercises its vocal chords as strenuously as the athletes exercise their ideas of coed mayhem.”[xix] Still, he added an extra dig on the female skaters: “Girls skate against girls and boys against boys. But it’s quite difficult to determine when the sex of the competition changes off. If anything, the girls are the more nasty.”[xx]

Courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, May 4, 1941. Accessed via ProQuest.

Regardless, Hoosiers came out in droves to attend the Roller Derby whenever it came to Indiana. Roller Derbies were held at the Coliseum at the State Fairgrounds, at Victory Field, at Butler (now Hinkle) Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, and it even came to Fort Wayne in the spring of 1953.[xxi] According to the Angola Herald, “Fort Wayne [was] one of the smallest cities to ever play host to the Roller Derby teams. Most of the time the skaters are booked into large cities like New York, Philadelphia, Denver, Chicago, Milwaukee, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.”[xxii]

Over the decades, until the Seltzer Roller Derby folded in the mid-1970s, Hoosiers continued to grapple with their enjoyment of the game and their confusion over how to characterize it. Whether it was a “scripted morality play”[xxiii] or a “big league counterpart . . . to baseball, football, basketball and other sports,”[xxiv] Hoosiers loved the hard hits, big spills, and over-the-top action of the female and male skaters.

Stay tuned for another blog post focusing on Hoosiers starring in the Roller Derby, namely the Kemp family (3 Indianapolis siblings who took the sport by storm)!

Sources:

Courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, May 29, 1937. Accessed via ProQuest.

[i] “King and Aronson Lead Derby Field,” Indianapolis Star, May 1, 1937; Crowd of 8,376 At Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, May 2, 1937; “They Go ‘Round and ‘Round and Have The Darndest Time—At Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, September 29, 1937; “Derby ‘Menaced’ By Black Shirts,” Indianapolis Star, October 6, 1937; “Interest in Roller Derby Reaches New High; Hoosier Team Captain Returns,” Indianapolis Star, April 2, 1939; “Roller Derby Due At Victory Field,” Indianapolis Times, May 30, 1949; “Roller Derby Comes to Fort Wayne, Angola Herald, May 14, April 29, 1953; “Chiefs Beat Westerners, 35-34,” Indianapolis Star, October 29, 1954.

[ii] Michella M. Marino, Roller Derby: The History of An American Sport, (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2021),18-20; Hal Boyle, “Roller Derby Gives Women Something to Yell About,” Spokane Daily Chronicle, June 5, 1950; Leo Seltzer, quoted in Herb Michelson’s A Very Simple Game: The Story of Roller Derby, (Oakland, California: Occasional Publishing, 1971), 7; Jerry Seltzer, interview by author, June 17, 2011, Sonoma, California, digital audio recording, Michella Marino Oral History Collection, W.E.B. DuBois, University of Massachusetts Amherst.

[iii] Marino, 20; Bob Stranahan, “Thrilling ‘Jams’ Await Roller Derby Spectators,” Indianapolis Star, April 11, 1937.

[iv] Marino, 18-22.

[v] “Incorporations,” Indianapolis Star, September 18, 1935; “Kaplan Says His Arrest was Outrage,” The Times (Hammond, Indiana), November 24, 1937; Marino, 22-23.

[vi] Bob Stranahan, “Thrilling ‘Jams’…”; Bob Stranahan, “Skaters Practice at Coliseum Oval For Start of Roller Derby Tonight,” Indianapolis Star, April 15, 1937.

[vii] “Hoosier Team in Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, April 13, 1937; “Ten Roller Derby Teams Announced,” Indianapolis Star, April 14, 1937.

[viii] “Fall Roller Derby To Start Sept. 28,” Indianapolis Star, September 17, 1937; “Thirty in Derby Starting Tuesday,” Indianapolis Star, September 21, 1937; “They Go ‘Round and ‘Round and Have The Darndest Time—At Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, September 29, 1937;

[ix] “Derby ‘Menaced’ By Black Shirts,” Indianapolis Star, October 6, 1937.

[x] “They Go ‘Round and ‘Round and Have the Darndest Time—At Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, September 29, 1937.

[xi] Marino, 30.

[xii] Marino, 30-32.

[xiii] Marino, 30.

[xiv] Marino, 30.

[xv] “WFBM-TV Ch. 6 Programs for Friday,” Indianapolis Star, June 10, 1949; “Thursday TV, April 26, 1951,” Indianapolis Star, April 21, 1951; “WGN-TV Chicago (Channel 9),” Indianapolis Star, November 11, 1951; “Your Radio and Television Programs for Saturday,” Indianapolis Star, February 2, 1952 “Your Radio and Television Programs for Saturday,” Indianapolis Star, March 1, 1952.

[xvi] Marino, 38, 128-130

[xvii] W. Blaine Patton, “Playing the Field of Sports,” Indianapolis Star, February 8, 1940; Marino, 39.

[xviii] Frank Anderson, “Mayhem on Skates: Roller Derby Squads Follow Wrestling Cue,” Indianapolis Star, Sun. Oct. 31, 1954.

[xix] Anderson.

[xx] Anderson.

[xxi] “Ten Roller Derby Teams Announced,” Indianapolis Star, April 14, 1937; Bob Stranahan, “Skaters Practice at Coliseum Oval For Start of Roller Derby Tonight,” Indianapolis Star, April 15, 1937; “Interest in Roller Derby Reaches New High; Hoosier Team Captain Returns,” Indianapolis Star, April 2, 1939; “Field of 37 Set For Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, June 1, 1949; “Indianapolis Cops Lead in Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, June 2, 1949;  “Roller Derby Comes to Fort Wayne May 14,” Angola Herald, Wed. April 29, 1953.

[xxii] “Roller Derby Comes to Fort Wayne May 14,” Angola Herald, Wed. April 29, 1953.

[xxiii] Anderson.

[xxiv] “Roller Derby Due At Victory Field.”

Fort Wayne’s Charles Allen: Theatrical Ingenue & “Unsung Gay Hero”

Courtesy of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, caption: Pianist Charles Allen, left, and singer Steve Black were part of the entertainment scene in the late ’60s, when bars replaced coffeehouses as the centers of musical activity.

Legendary choreographer and “unsung gay hero” Charles Allen sat with a tape recorder in his Fort Wayne house, a veritable art museum awaiting curation. Sipping gin and orange juice from an empty peanut butter jar, he began to document his life. Notorious for self-mythologizing—once claiming to have killed a man using “voodoo and black magic”—some of the anecdotes he fed the tape no doubt were embellished.[1] These would prove unnecessary, however, as his legacy speaks for itself. Not only did Allen give “birth to generations of dancers and . . . change the way people looked at the world around him,” but he inspired and empowered LGBTQ+ Hoosiers, perhaps unintentionally. Upon Allen’s 1980 death, Jerry Jokay wrote in TROIS, Fort Wayne’s gay newsletter, that “Although he probably wouldn’t have seen it this way, one of his greatest contributions was that he was a gay hero. And he is a gay hero simply because his gayness was a trivial issue in his life even in spite of the oppression it caused him.”[2] Allen, on the other hand, would probably consider his greatest contributions to be advancing performing arts and instilling a love of storytelling and self-expression in Hoosiers.

Gene Stratton Porter, courtesy of the Indiana State Museum, courtesy of KPC News.

Born in 1912, Allen was likely raised by his aunt and uncle in Mongo, Indiana. Depictions of Allen’s childhood are characteristically colorful and include a traipse through Tamarack Swamp with famed author and naturalist Gene Stratton Porter in search of insects and plant specimens.[3] Allen “recalled dyeing his hair pinkish-brown as a child, catching blue racer snakes, putting them around his neck, and startling passersby on highway 20 near his home. A barefoot, innocent, wild-haired child of the swamp.”[4]  The spirited child attended school in Kendallville and spent free time in LaGrange, where he learned to play piano at Wigdon Theater. Fully enamored with artistic expression, he devoured performances delivered by a travelling company. The News-Sentinel reported “there was a troupe of four or five men, who did a two-reel silent movie, and set up an impromptu stage with an indian scene. There was singing, and two of the men did female impersonations. When he left the show, his life had changed. . . . He’d fallen in love.”

The production continued to call to him, long after the caravans departed. He left school, took a train to northern Michigan, where the travelling company had migrated, and became its new pianist. As despair deepened during the Great Depression, the public increasingly took solace in travelling shows. These provided Allen with opportunities to try his theatrical hand and hone his skills as a performer. The News-Sentinel noted, “People were doing almost anything for money. He fell in with a freak show,” dubbed the Palace of Wonders, for which he mesmerized crowds as the Human Pin Cushion. During this period, Allen learned how to perform the “half-man, half-woman” act, styling his feminine half after screen siren Marlene Dietrich. When he returned to Fort Wayne, he would perform this routine at local tavern, Henry’s, and played piano at bars like This Old House, Trolly Bar, and the Caboose.[5] Allen insisted that friends stay at his house once the bars closed down for the night, hating solitude.[6]

The eclectic career he had forged for himself was abruptly derailed by the conformist ethos of the 1940s. At a time of global upheaval, Americans held evermore sacrosanct heteronormativity. The News-Sentinel reported that during this “less enlightened age,” a judge sentenced Allen to six years in a Michigan City Prison after “an affair with a soldier led to a charge of sodomy.”[7] Allen recalled in the Fort Wayne Free Press that the judge declared ironically “we’re going to send you where you’ll be happy; locked up with a lot of men!”[8] This prediction proved correct, as he spent time with paramours in a makeshift room fashioned out of old pianos and curtains. On weekends, he played piano for the men waiting in line to watch a movie. While it played, a band mate would take his place at the piano, so that he could go hold hands with his companion. During his few years in prison, Allen made friends, assembled a band—for which he played the sousaphone—and learned how to dance.[9]

A sketch of Etheridge Knight in prison by Terrance Hayes, accessed theparisreview.org.

The News-Sentinel noted that in prison Allen “kept following his insatible [sic] desire to learn. Where he could find no one else to teach him, he taught himself. The creativity could never let him rest. It would be that way to the end of his life.”[10] This cultivation of self-expression paralleled the journey of African American poet, Etheridge Knight. While serving eight years at the Indiana State Prison in the 1960s, he discovered the restorative power of writing, culminating in his revolutionary Poems from Prison. Knight later stated that “Poetry and a few people in there trying to stay human saved me . . . I knew that I couldn’t just deaden all my feeling the way some people did.”[11]

So, too, did music and dance sustain Allen during his incarceration. Upon release, he returned to Fort Wayne, opening the Charles Allen Dance Studio.[12] According to the Journal-Gazette, he was the city’s only choreographer and, through his trips to New York and Chicago, “single-handedly” invigorated the city’s theater scene. Something of a cultural conduit, Allen traveled to Vera Cruz, Mexico to research indigenous dances. He studied dance at the University of Guatemala and the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico, imbuing midwestern students with unique material and perspectives.[13]

In life and work, Allen gravitated towards those on the fringes, perhaps identifying with their struggles or the stigmatization they endured. He reportedly taught exotic dancers how to improve their performances and played piano at “houses of ill repute.”[14]  In his TROIS article, Springer wrote that Allen played piano and felt a “kinship” with Black Americans because “like him, they were among the outsiders of society.”[15] Though he was exacting and sometimes cruel, the News Sentinel reported that “he would work with beginners no one else had time for, work tirelessly because he felt a love of what he was doing.”[16] Janice Dyson recalled this experience, after her mom “scrimped grocery money to help pay” for lessons for her and her sister, Bernice. She recalled that Allen “was a real taskmaster. . . . Bernice was intimidated by him and quit after about a year. I wasn’t afraid of him, but I learned pretty quickly that when he said practice or else, he meant it.”[17] Perhaps he hoped to provoke the same grit he’d developed through surmounting the many hardships imposed by society.

While he worked with Fort Wayne performers, Allen reportedly knew the jazz greats, like Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong, and one friend noted that “a lot of famous people used to come here and have him fix their acts. Polish the acts. Reblock them or rechoreograph them.'”[18] Legend has it that one winter Allen sold his horse to pay the train fare to see Holiday perform in New York City. Due to a snow storm, he was the only person to show up at the theater. The usher relayed his presence to Holiday, who performed only for him, after which they went out for a drink. She reportedly drove him to the train station and ran alongside the cars, waving as the train departed. Allen was so moved by the experience that he wept while watching the train station scene in “The Lady Sings the Blues.”[19]

Family Theatre Festival (1975-1976), OnStage On Campus Collection, mDON: mastodon Digital Object Network, Helmke Library, Purdue University Fort Wayne.

Purdue University Fort Wayne (PUFW) recognized the ingenue’s talent, hiring Allen to teach courses like Stage Movement.[20] He felt immense pride about being self-taught. A man who embodied resistance towards oppression and convention, his influence intersected fortuitously with the cultural revolution of the late 1960s and 1970s. Friends and colleagues seem to agree that he was not an activist in the traditional sense, but he always answered when called to provide insight about homosexuality or the burgeoning “homophile” movement. He recognized that, as one of few men in the area living openly, if he did not engage in public discourse that no one one would. When asked by WANE-TV to serve as one of five panelists about homosexuality Allen agreed, saying “‘I’m all right here, I don’t have any problems because I’m not scared. But a lot of people are scared; they’re scared they’ll get arrested.”[21] He appealed to dozens of people to serve as panelists, but only two agreed. Those who declined feared that their parents would disown them or that they would lose their job, as had one of Allen’s friends who served in World War II. Others claimed the panel was unnecessary or worried that it would upset the “status quo,” which had provided a modicum of safety. To this reasoning, Allen said, “‘I thought if everything is so fine, why can’t they get on the air and say it’s fine. It’s because it isn’t fine.”[22]

Allen spoke about homosexuality at PUFW campus teach-ins and college classes, and wrote editorials for the student paper, The Fort Wayne Free Press, under the pseudonym “Claude Hawk.”[23] He wanted audiences to understand that sexuality was not a choice, noting that “My own doctor tells me that one gene or chromosome determines sexual preference—not butchness, effeminancy, athleticism, not militancy, but whom you want to go to bed with.”[24] He added that this knowledge, while “comforting,” doesn’t help if you get fired or the “bartender breaks your glass after each drink, etc., etc.” His efforts shifted the perspectives of students like Linda Lamirand and Katharine Stout, who attended a teach-in with the “brave man” who “sat up there and told it like it is.”[25] The authors were enlightened by Allen’s revelations that he knew he was gay at the age of four and that scientific studies suggested that biology dictated sexual preference.

Courtesy of The Fort Wayne Free Press, 3, iss. 16 (July 27, 1972): 9, accessed mDON: mastadon Digital Object Network, Helmke Library, Purdue University Fort Wayne.

In one Free Press editorial, Allen addressed those who had come to terms with their sexuality, but faced the question “where do you go?” to meet someone. Of the dilemma, he wrote:

You can’t find someone at an office party or at a neighborhood bar because someone would ‘find out’. So you experiment. You drink too much or get so horny that, without experience, you get your teeth bashed in saying something dumb to to the wrong person; or the right-wrong person who relieves you of your watch, wallet, and rings. Or sometimes you are picked up by a nicelooking, intelligent, young man with long hair and bare feet, who turns out to be fuzz and you are entrapped, fined, and-or jailed.[26]

He advised readers to find a “gentle, gay” friend, who can help navigate the covert social world, or a relatively tolerant restaurant or bar. A “third salvation,” Allen noted, was to “know an art or theater crowd who don’t give a damn. Not about you, but about it.” The theater provided a world in which he did not have to explain himself or act as a local spokesperson for homosexuality. He wrote that the “freedom, acceptance, and love” afforded by the theater community created “a place to breathe in this pollution of brotherhood. Since one doesn’t have to hide, or lose his job in these fields, these are the more obvious” ones in which to work.[27] In fact, Allen noted that living as a gay man paralleled life in the performing arts, writing:

“You are forced to think and live like a male and play the game so well that you are never uncovered. And this becomes an art, gives you a facility for understanding objectively what’s going on. It’s like a play, and while others are doing it naturally you’re listening for clues, and if well rehearsed, arrive at a happy ending.”[28] 

The Fort Wayne Free Press 4, iss. 3 (January 25, 1973): 6, accessed mDON: mastadon Digital Object Network, Helmke Library, Purdue University Fort Wayne.

While TROIS writer Jerry Jokay considered Allen “Fort Wayne’s unsung gay hero,” he noted that “his fortitude laid in the fact that he didn’t dwell upon his difference . . . Allen was preoccupied with being so much more, as his best friends attest.”[29] Preoccupied, he was. Allen informed Free Press readers about his life, writing in 1971 that “I ran my own school, taught at Purdue, played piano in bars, was connected with Ft. Wayne Civic Theater, Kenosha Little Theater, Theater Alanta, had choreographed a Broadway show, was a Japanese paper folder, an Arabian knot tier.”[30] He had traveled the globe in search of inspiration and imbued new generations of performers with it. The News-Sentinel wrote that “he became unique, in a world of his own creation. His art became his life, his life his art.”[31]

His life, his art. Perhaps it was his cancer diagnosis that inspired him to detail them on tape, stories that writer Dan Luzadder suggested “may have been plucked from the intensity of his nether world.”[32] We don’t know what stories he told, as he ran out of time to complete the recordings,* but perhaps he described the demands of caring for his pet python or recited original sonnets, haikus, and Limericks, “both clean and questionable.”[33] We can be certain that his life and art profoundly influenced those around him. This is evidenced by the obituaries written upon his death in 1980 at the age of 68. Luzadder wrote in the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel:

There was loneliness and insecurity. There were things that drove him. And there was tremendous courage to live through the times of his life, to aspire to art, to survive with nothing more than intelligence and faith in himself, to go hungry, to be alone, to see the world in its intolerance and still love it.[34]

Dell Ford, “Artists’ Artist Charles Allen Dies,” Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, March 20, 1980, 1C, 2C, ISL microfilm.

On March 21, hundreds of people from all walks of life—including actors, dancers, bartenders, city officials, and editors—stood shoulder-to-shoulder at the Performing Arts Center to pay their respects to the man “whose life had taught them the meaning of art.”[35] His memorial served as a final standing ovation, with Civic Director Richard Casey reading from “Hamlet,” poets performing spoken word, and dancers delivering a finale performance of “Mr. Bojangles.”[36]

Allen provides us with a window into the experiences of those who lived openly in Indiana prior to the liberating events of the 1980s and 1990s. Before a sense of community was fostered by the formation of groups like Fort Wayne Gay and Lesbian Organization (GLO), Pride Week celebrations, and the publication of gay newsletters, Allen drew upon a deep reservoir of self-assurance and creative impulse to fashion a fulfilling life.[37] In his 1980 tribute, Steve Springer described Allen as “an individualist. Society had its standards of behavior and Allen had his own.” And although he had suffered because of these standards, Springer insisted that “Long after Anita Bryant and her hordes of intolerants are forgotten, the legend of Charles Allen will live on.”[38]

* The author has been unable to locate these recordings. If you know of their location please contact npoletika @library.in.gov.

Sources:

All issues of The Fort Wayne Free Press were accessed via mDON Mastodon Digital Object Network, Helmke Library, Purdue University Fort Wayne.

[1] Dan Luzadder, “Charles Allen: His Life and His Art Were his Epitaph,” (Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel, March 21, 1980, 7A, Indiana State Library (ISL) microfilm.

[2] Jerry Jokay, “Who Was Charles Allen?,” TROIS (Three Rivers’ One in Six) (March 1983), Northeast Indiana Diversity Library Collection, accessed Indiana Memory.

[3] “Arts Center Site for Allen Service,” (Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel, March 20, 1980, ISL microfilm.

[4] Dan Luzadder, “Charles Allen: His Life and His Art Were his Epitaph,” (Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel, March 21, 1980, 7A, ISL microfilm.

[5] Dell Ford, “Artists’ Artist Charles Allen Dies,” Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, March 20, 1980, 1C, 2C, ISL microfilm.

[6] Dan Luzadder, “Charles Allen: His Life and His Art Were his Epitaph,” (Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel, March 21, 1980, 7A, ISL microfilm.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Claude Hawk, “Boys Will Be Girls!,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 2, iss. 1 (January 1, 1971): 3.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Dan Luzadder, “Charles Allen: His Life and His Art Were his Epitaph,” (Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel, March 21, 1980, 7A, ISL microfilm.

[11] Nicole Poletika, “Etheridge Knight: ‘can there anything good come out of prison,'” May 3, 2017, accessed Indiana History Blog.

[12] Steve Springer, “Chas. Allen,” The Communicator, March 27, 1980, reprinted in TROIS (Three Rivers’ One in Six) (May 1980): 5, 7, Northeast Indiana Diversity Library Collection, accessed Indiana Memory.

[13] Dell Ford, “Artists’ Artist Charles Allen Dies,” Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, March 20, 1980, 1C, 2C, ISL microfilm.

[14] Ibid.; Dan Luzadder, “Charles Allen: His Life and His Art Were his Epitaph,” (Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel, March 21, 1980, 7A, ISL microfilm.

[15] Steve Springer, “Chas. Allen,” The Communicator, March 27, 1980, reprinted in TROIS (Three Rivers’ One in Six) (May 1980): 5, 7, Northeast Indiana Diversity Library Collection, accessed Indiana Memory.

[16] Dan Luzadder, “Charles Allen: His Life and His Art Were his Epitaph,” (Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel, March 21, 1980, 7A, ISL microfilm.

[17] Janice Dyson, “Studio Marks 65 Years of Dancing,” KPC News, December 28, 2017, accessed kpcnews.com.

[18] Dell Ford, “Artists’ Artist Charles Allen Dies,” Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, March 20, 1980, 1C, 2C, ISL microfilm.

[19] Steve Springer, “Chas. Allen,” The Communicator, March 27, 1980, reprinted in TROIS (Three Rivers’ One in Six) (May 1980): 5, 7, Northeast Indiana Diversity Library Collection, accessed Indiana Memory.

[20] “Family Festival Slated,” Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, April 28, 1976, 6C.

[21] “It Isn’t Fine,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 2, no. 17 (September 9-23, 1971).

[22] Ibid.

[23] Claude Hawk, “Wherever You Are!,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 1, iss. 10 (October 7-21, 1970): 4.; Claude Hawk, “Out of the Closet,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 1, iss. 11 (November 2-18, 1970): 3, 6.; “It Isn’t Fine,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 2, no. 17 (September 9-23, 1971).

[24] Claude Hawk, “Wherever You Are!,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 1, iss. 10 (October 7-21, 1970): 4.

[25] Linda Lamirand and Katharine Stout, “Dear Freep,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 2, iss. 7 (April 22-May 6, 1971): 10.

[26] Claude Hawk, “Wherever You Are!,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 1, iss. 10 (October 7-21, 1970): 4.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Claude Hawk, “God Love Us All,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 2, iss. 8 (May 6, 1971): 9.

[29] Jerry Jokay, “Who Was Charles Allen?,” TROIS (Three Rivers’ One in Six) (March 1983), Northeast Indiana Diversity Library Collection, accessed Indiana Memory.

[30] Bob Ihrie and Charles Allen, “Holiday on Ice,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 2, iss. 2 (January 18-February 2, 1971): 3.

[31] Dan Luzadder, “Charles Allen: His Life and His Art Were his Epitaph,” (Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel, March 21, 1980, 7A, ISL microfilm.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Dell Ford, “Artists’ Artist Charles Allen Dies,” Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, March 20, 1980, 1C, 2C, ISL microfilm.

[34] Dan Luzadder, “Charles Allen: His Life and His Art Were his Epitaph,” (Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel, March 21, 1980, 7A, ISL microfilm.

[35] Dell Ford, “Funeral Celebrates Dance, Poetry, Drama, Music,” Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, March 22, 1980, C1, ISL microfilm.; Steve Springer, “Chas. Allen,” The Communicator, March 27, 1980, reprinted in TROIS (Three Rivers’ One in Six) (May 1980): 5, 7, Northeast Indiana Diversity Library Collection, accessed Indiana Memory.

[36] Dell Ford, “Funeral Celebrates Dance, Poetry, Drama, Music,” Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, March 22, 1980, C1, ISL microfilm.

[37] Nicole Poletika, “From ‘Gay Knights’ to Celebration on the Circle: A History of Pride in Indianapolis,” October 5, 2021, accessed Indiana History Blog.

[38] Steve Springer, “Chas. Allen,” The Communicator, March 27, 1980, reprinted in TROIS (Three Rivers’ One in Six) (May 1980): 5, 7, Northeast Indiana Diversity Library Collection, accessed Indiana Memory.

What Pearl Bassett’s Memory Reveals About Discrimination in Marion

Image of Pearl Bassett courtesy of WRTV

*This post was written by IUPUI Public History graduate student Molly Hollcraft. 

Often, stories and memories play an important part in understanding history. They offer a human element that helps connect people to one another. W. Todd Groce wrote in an article for History News that “Memory is deeply emotional,” and when people remember something they do so because they have a connection to it. According to historian David Thelen, memory “can illuminate how individuals, ethnic groups, political parties, and cultures shape and reshape their identities.” In 2009, at the age of 98, Black activist Pearl Cannon Bassett gave an interview to a student at the University of Southern Indiana. In the interview, she recounted events related to civil rights and desegregation that she witnessed while living in Marion, Indiana. Bassett’s memories of the discrimination and Civil Rights Movement in Grant County illuminate how Black citizens in Marion shaped their identity.

Peal Bassett and Civil Rights

Pearl Elizabeth Cannon Bassett was born April 28, 1911, in Marion, Indiana. Aside from the years she spent in Dayton and Cincinnati, Ohio and Chicago, Illinois, Pearl Bassett, also known to many as “Ms. Pearl,” spent her life in Marion. In her oral history interview, Bassett briefly talked about her early education and her family. She recalled how her teacher lowered her grade because it was “too high.” While she was not living in Marion at the time, she recalled the impact the 1930 Marion lynching had on the local Black community. As a 19-year-old, she would have been about the same age as victims Tom Shipp and Abe Smith. In August, the young men had been jailed for the murder of Claude Deeter and rape of Mary Ball. A white mob ripped Shipp and Smith from their cells, brutally beat them, and lynched them near the Marion courthouse. Fearing for her safety, Bassett’s family told her that she should not return home yet. When the National Guard was called into action in Marion not long after the lynching, some of the soldiers were standing in her family’s yard. In remembering the lynching, she said “that was terrible because we had a lot of discrimination.” Shortly after the tragedy, she became a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Through organizations like the NAACP, Bassett became an active member in the Marion community and helped fight discrimination and segregation. Her name appeared frequently in the African American newspaper The Indianapolis Recorder for these efforts. Her work included how helping the Red Cross reach its quota for war relief, serving as chairman for the war service commission, and serving as a board member for the Carver Community Center. In her interview, Bassett talked about how she helped organize the NAACP Auxiliary, Women in NAACP, and the Urban Gild, all of which would play a role in desegregation efforts throughout the city.

Matter Park, ca. 1925, courtesy of Indiana Album.

She also described the discrimination that Black citizens in Marion faced because of segregated of swimming pools, such as Matter Park. Before its 1954 integration, African Americans had to travel to Anderson to swim. When they did get to swim in the Marion pools they would be drained and refilled afterwards. While it is unclear how directly Bassett was involved in these efforts, it is certainly possible as she was a member of the Marion Urban League, one of the two civil rights organizations that worked to desegregate the swimming pool.

We do know that she participated in anti-discrimination efforts through civil disobedience, as she stated: “When we could not go into the restaurant and eat. . . we formed a committee, and we just read the civil rights law, which has always been right. . . . And if they didn’t open up the place, when they were charged $100 a person in their restaurant. So they opened it up the day we walked in there.”

Photo of Pearl Bassett with a plaque that says “Marion’s First Minority Champion.” Photo courtesy of Rawls Mortuary

She also joined an NAACP march in 1969, recalling “We first had the walk from 26th Street to the courthouse for discrimination and equal opportunities for people and jobs. And it was a wonderful thing.” The Ku Klux Klan tried unsuccessfully to confront them at the courthouse, but were told by the city that “they would need a permit and that they [the KKK] would have to take their hoods off.” This was not the only experience that Pearl Bassett had with the Klan. While president of one of the many organizations she was involved in, she received a call from the Klan members. She said, “Many a time they told me they were coming out and burn up my house.”

While in the NAACP, The Indianapolis Recorder reported in the 1960s that Bassett was elected secretary and chaplain for the Marion branch. Bassett was also the President of Women and “wore her tiara as the state queen of the NAACP” during a visit to Kokomo in 1982. She was also the first Black secretary of the Democratic Committee in Grant County. Pearl Bassett also received numerous awards from the NAACP and The Fort Wayne Frost Illustrated reported in 2004 that she received the Region Three Rosa Parks Women of the Year award for her work in civil rights. The Mayor of Marion made a Proclamation for Pearl Bassett Day and gave her a key to the city. In June 2021, Pearl Bassett passed away at the age of 110. Her first-hand accounts help humanize tragic events and shape the identity of Black citizens in Grant County. Her documented memories are invaluable because traditional media often mischaracterized or neglected to record minority history.

State Rep. Kevin Mahan (R-Hartford City) (left, podium) honoring Marion native Pearl Bassett (center), April 8, 2019, at the Indiana Statehouse, courtesy of the Indiana House of Representatives Republican Caucus.

Sources:

*Newspapers accessed through Hoosier State Chronicles and Newspapers.com.

W. Todd Groce, “The Value of History: When History and Memory Collide,” History News (2006): 5-6, accessed JSTOR.

David Thelen, “Memory and American History,” The Journal of American History (1989): 1117 1129, accessed JSTOR.

“Pearl Bassett,” Indiana Commission for Women: Writing her Story, 2019, accessed in.gov.

“Pearl Bassett Oral History Interview,” University of Southern Indiana, November 7, 2009, University Archives and Special Collections, David L. Rice Library, University of Southern Indiana.

Nicole Poletika, “Strange Fruit: The 1930 Marion Lynching and the Woman Who Tried to Prevent It,” Indiana History Blog, May 15, 2018, accessed The Indiana History Blog.

THH Episode 52: Giving Voice: Dr. Emily Suzanne Johnson

Transcript for Giving Voice: Dr. Emily Suzanne Johnson

Jump to Show Notes

[Music]

Beckley: We’re here today with Dr. Emily Suzanne Johnson, who is an Assistant Professor of History at Ball State University. And she joins us here today to speak about her article that is very related to our most recent episode about Anita Bryant, and I am so excited to talk with you today. Dr. Johnson.

Dr. Emily Suzanne Johnson: Thank you so much. I’m really excited to be here.

Beckley: Yeah. And I was telling you before we started recording that, as I was doing the research for the Anita Bryant episode, my boss actually sent me your article. And I was so glad because I was going to get was definitely going to get something wrong in that episode. And it’s always nice to have another historian spoofing and save me from that, and do the work before I have to. So I was wondering – So in your article, you kind of debunk a myth that has been pervasive in our culture for several decades now, I was wondering if you could kind of start off by telling the myth as it’s been told by various groups for decades.

Johnson: For sure. So Anita Bryant, as you know, and as your listeners will know, was a medium famous pop singer in the 1970s. And a really big celebrity in the evangelical world. And she was also famously a spokeswoman for Florida orange juice. So, a lot of people have talked to remember this experience of like, coming into their living rooms, and she would come onto her ads and be like, hello, I’m Anita Bryant. And they’re grandmothers – I’ve heard this from multiple people, their grandmothers would be like, hello, Anita. Um, so she was sort of a political in the way that conservative Christians were in the mid-1970s. She had some very political ideas about feminism and about homosexuality. But she identified herself as being outside of politics until 1976, when her local Miami Dade County passed an anti-discrimination code that included affectional, or sexual preferences, which is the mid-1970s way of saying gay people. Um, and she found out about this actually, from her pastor who was furious about it, and who wanted her to use her celebrity in order to spearhead a movement against the anti-discrimination code. And it was personal for her because the sponsor of the amendment was Ruth Shaq, who was a friend of hers, and the wife of her booking agent, and she had told all her church friends to vote for Ruth. So she felt responsible for the amendment. So she became the face of this successful effort to repeal the amendment. It passed two to one, the repeal vote, which happens six months after the code was originally passed. And this mobilized a national response among gay and lesbian, it was mostly gay and lesbian groups then. And one of the things that they did was boycott Florida Orange Juice, because that was her most famous corporate sponsor. And there’s been in both communities – the conservative Christian community and the LGBTQ community – this idea that the boycott destroyed her career brought her down. And it was this early triumph for a new, more radical gay liberation movement. And so I believed that as well, and I was doing research in the archives of the Florida Orange Juice marketing and advertising committee, and found that not only did they not fire her because of it, but they actually probably extended her contract because they didn’t want to seem like they were taking a side. And so, first of all, there was remarkably little discussion of her political activities, even well into the boycott. But they did do a sort of marketing survey to see how well. . . Oh wait, you only asked about the myth.

Beckley: I want – I want to know anything you’ll give us.

Johnson: Um, so they had been looking into Anita Bryant’s effectiveness, basically, ever since they hired her in 1969. They had been doing yearly marketing surveys, and they had been finding that her appeal was declining it, it soared through the 1970’s – 71, 72 and then had been declining since then, sort of steadily and there was no real change as a result of the boycott, they did this kind of emergency study in response to the boycott. And they found that 11% of people said that they supported her more because of the boycott. 10% of people said they supported her less. And the vast majority of people did not care at all. And they were getting letters, sometimes sacks full of letters every week. And they were equally upset on both sides. There were people saying, “If you fire Anita Bryant I will never buy Florida orange juice again. And people saying I’m boycotting Florida orange juice until you fire Anita Bryant.” And to be perfectly honest, most of the people who were threatening to be upset if she was fired, were closer to their core demographic. They were Florida growers and Florida families. And so they essentially didn’t know what to do, they had this really difficult decision to make. And in the meantime, Singer sewing machines had had a contract with Anita Bryant to, for her to have her own like daytime variety show. And they cancelled it in the midst of the controversy, and that went really badly for them. They got a lot of bad publicity. So Florida orange juice said, we’re going to put out this kind of like, ambivalent support letter that says like, we’re very proud to be associated with Anita Bryant, but please don’t involve us in the politics on either side, we’re not interested. And there were a few things that contributed to the sense that she was fired because of the boycott. One was the there was one particular Florida Orange Juice executive who just popped off a lot and said things to the press, like, I wish we would fire her, which and he was very high up in the company, so people took that as gospel truth. And he got a lot of trouble behind the scenes. And then she was actually let go in 1981. But the key thing there was that she had then gone through a really messy divorce with her husband, which he opposed. And she had been both as a pop star and then as a political figure. She had represented herself as this emblem of American motherhood and Christian housewifery and patriotism. And all of that kind of crumbled in the midst of this divorce. So the things that she had based her non-political celebrity on, and the supporters who had rallied around her during the boycott, all kind of fell away. And at the same time, the marketing research that Florida orange use was doing suggested that this kind of 1950s-esque, although it started in the late 60s, view of the sunny, happy housewife was really not resonating with their consumers anymore. And so by 1981, they figured they were far enough away from the boycott, that they could let a let Bryant go without losing too much. And it was close enough that people remember it as being the boycott that sent her down.

Beckley: Well, and then I have read newspaper interviews that she did, where she went out and kind of blamed the boycott and and her political dealings with – blamed that for her being fired for her losing a lot of revenue. I read one, where she said that she could no longer buy the prime cuts of meat, and now she had to buy the choice cuts of meat. So she was saying, you know, she’s lost so much revenue that she’s had to change every facet of her life. And, you know, I kind of looked at that, at first I was like, okay, so this is her saying that the boycott, and her political dealings did lead directly to loss of revenue and loss of contracts. But when we were talking about it, when we were kind of brainstorming and factchecking were like, oh, well, that is good for her narrative that it was that rather than her divorce, that kind of was the nail in the coffin. So, your work definitely helped there where it kind of contextualize her self-proclaimed victimhood, if you will.

Johnson: Yeah, so she, it wasn’t just the divorce. It was also this kind of broader decline in the American appetite for the kind of patriotic over the top motherhood

Beckley: That Leave it to Beaver type.

Johnson: Exactly. And so it doesn’t. It doesn’t make her feel good to feel either like she is less popular on her own. merits, or that she’s made this huge mistake by divorcing her husband. And her turn towards victimhood is something that’s really emblematic of the new Christian right at this time, which is what we historians call the kind of beginning of the modern religious right in the United States. Leaders had been really skeptical of the African American freedom movement in the 1950s and 1960s. But by the 1970s, they are taking that language and using it to say that conservative Christians are being denied their civil rights, that they’re being denied their right to speak in the public square. And they take this kind of rightsp-based language directly from the black civil rights movement and other civil rights movements at the time to make the argument that their First Amendment rights are being infringed. And that’s exactly what Anita Bryant is doing in this moment.

Beckley: Yeah. And I noticed even before that, her using that language, I forget if it was during her press conference here in Indianapolis when she arrived here, or if it was one in Dade County, where she was saying that I don’t want to abridge anybody else’s rights, but my rights are being infringed by allowing gay individuals to influence our children and things like that. So she definitely was already mirroring that even early in her crusade, I guess she called it. So yeah, it definitely kind of as a theme throughout her journey, it seems like.

Johnson: yeah, and I think the thing to remember is that she was really practiced at narrating her own self. She wrote, I think, a record of 11 autobiographies in nine years, she would have had a blog if a blog was possible, but a blog wasn’t possible. And so she just published that much about herself. She had a lot of practice and a lot of finesse with taking what was happening and making it a narrative that suited her brand. So this wasn’t something she was just kind of coming up with, as the Florida orange juice thing was happening. It was something she already really knew how to do. And she actually ends up even mirroring the language of the gay rights community at this time. There’s this great quote, where she says, you know, they were all talking about coming out of the closet. And then I realized, Anita Bryant has come out of the closet too, as a conservative Christian, which is no longer a cool thing to be, according to her.

Beckley: I noticed a lot of mirroring and a lot of very, I mean, probably by the standards of the time, quietly, very homophobic language as far as fruit pies, even, you know, right after she was hit in the face with the pie saying, Oh, at least it was a fruit pie, kind of laughing it off like that. And, yeah, I was not alive during any of this – I’m from the 90s. I was born in 92. So I really didn’t become aware to the early 2000s. Obviously, still a lot of homophobia. But to read, people just saying awful, blatant homophobic things, just in the newspaper for everybody to read. It was just so shocking. This was my first queer history topic that I’ve covered. So I think that going into it, obviously, I expected homophobic language and and kind of coded messages. But they weren’t coded. They were coming right out and saying it and it was pretty shocking to read. I mean, I’m not queer. I can’t imagine being queer now or ever, but just I just admire the people that did come out and did face and Anita Bryant and did kind of come out and proclaim themselves as queer and here and kind of opposing her it was. It made it even more of a topic that I was excited to cover as I read more and more.

Johnson: Yeah, it’s, it’s the casualness of it. I think I also, I run an Oral History Program in Muncie, Indiana, looking into the queer history of the area. And what I’ve heard from a lot of the older generation is that they grew up thinking that they were literally the only gay person who had ever existed. And when you look at like the casual homophobia that was just in mainstream press, and the assumptions that are being made, you can see how you would come to that conclusion, but like, literally no one else in the history of time had ever had these same feelings that you did. And I think that, for me is one of the most heartbreaking things. Another thing about Anita Bryant is that she so she frequently frequently said, I don’t hate gay people. In fact, I love them even more than the people who claim to support them, because I am trying to save them from eternal burning in hell, whereas like supporting them on Earth is nice. Obviously, you don’t even care about their souls.

Beckley: To kind of pivot a little bit and talk about this at a meta level. When I first read your article, I obviously loved it because it crushed it miss conception I had. But also I love it, because it is such a good example of history being an ever evolving process. It’s not, history isn’t a written thing in a book is a process that we are always perform. And every time we uncover a new source, or we include a new viewpoint that’s never been included, that story is going to change. And often times, I find that when you do change the accepted story, the accepted narrative, you get labeled as a revisionist historian, which I don’t think is an insult that people think it is because that’s, again, what history is, is revising those all the time. Have you gotten any of that kind of feedback for your article? Can you talk a little bit about that, and about the process of history.

Johnson: Yeah, for sure. So before we started recording, I said to you that this is the article that has gotten the most negative comments on it. And it was actually a really interesting experience that’s been kind of emblematic of my career, which is that a lot of the comments on the Washington Post article accused me of being homophobic, there’s one person who says, I know this woman, she’s a huge Christian conservative, and I do not know them. And that is not accurate. But then I also got a voicemail where a woman, a Pentecostal woman, essentially laid hands on me over voicemail in order to cast out the demon of homosexuality, which, like I said, is kind of typical of my career. And I don’t know what this says about human nature. But I have found that whatever people are, they assume I’m the opposite. So whatever they want from the history, they assume I’m against them. And I, I think that part of it is that misunderstanding that you’re flagging, but the idea that by changing history, or by finding new things about history, that we, as historians have some kind of bad motive, when really, that is what we are trained to do. We’re trained to find the new angle, the new, the new thing to say, because there are always new perspectives, and always new things to say. And, as I tried to say, in my article, I think the story is really interesting, because it – I mean, we have this kernel of a fact that Anita Bryant was not fired as a result of the boycott and was, in fact, in fact, kept on longer. And yet, I think some of the lessons that have been taken from that myth are still very true. I mean, the fact that and, and that the myth helped those things to become true. So the fact that the gay community felt like they had taken down and Anita Bryant ended up feeling like this huge success, which galvanized the movement and made us stronger in a way that wouldn’t have happened, or maybe, maybe wouldn’t have happened. And a lot of people have said that it set up the activism of the AIDS era that it created those networks that were already in place. So I don’t think this revision is bad for the queer community. I think it actually tells us something more about our history. And that’s what historians in general are trying to do. Certainly, I’m not arguing that we are just objective narrators with no relationship to what we’re talking about. But most of the time, I think when we uncover new perspectives and new facts, what we’re doing is history. That is what historical research is, and we’re trying to shine new light, to get new understandings not to put down communities that have believed things, because that’s the evidence that they had.

Beckley: I often say that if history was unchanging, and if what we wrote in the book, the first time was all that was to be said, then there would be no need for the, what 500,000 different books written about Abraham Lincoln, or, you know, it just seems so obvious that, including new narratives and new  viewpoints is so essential. And as we grow as a culture and find these hidden stories, it’s so important to bring those to light to give those people a voice and to, you know, just correct the narrative. It’s, sometimes it’s as simple as that. So I’m appreciative of the work you’re doing.

Johnson: Thank you. One of the metaphors that we use in the profession is that when history was a new pursuit, in the early 20th century, they thought about it as bricks in a wall, and you would just like, get your Abraham Lincoln brick, and you’d put in the wall, and you’d be done. And you get your civil war brick and put in the wall, and you’re done. And we now sort of since the 1970s, have coming out of the Black civil rights movement out of the women’s movement, the queer movement, this insight that there are a lot of different perspectives on any one event, that there are a lot of different ways of thinking and looking at it. And I think that’s so much more exciting than just having one brick, I think it’s so cool that we get a rainbow on every single thing.

Beckley: Absolutely. And that’s, you know, one of the things we try to do is tell some of those stories that people might not have heard yet and Indiana’s history. So thanks for helping us with that. I wanted to give you a minute here at the end to plug any upcoming work you have or tell people where they can find more of your work or even the the article we’ve been talking about so much. Sure.

Johnson: Sure, so the article we’ve been talking about is published in The Washington Post’s made by history blog. And this research is all based on my book, which was published by Oxford University Press in 2019 called This is our Message: Women’s Leadership and the New Christian Right, and it looks at Anita Bryant, as well as a number of other prominent Christian women, including Tammy Faye Baker for another queer angle on it. And even though it is published by University Press, I tried to write it in a way that was still fun.

Beckley: Well, thank you. And I think that is all for today. I hope all of our listeners at home have enjoyed this as much as I have come back in a few weeks for our next episode. And thank you for joining us today.

Johnson: Thank you so much.

Show Notes for Giving Voice: Dr. Emily Suzanne Johnson

Dr. Emily S. Johnson, The Myth that has Shaped the Christian right and the LGBTQ Rights Movement for Four Decades, June 21, 2019.

Dr. Emily S. Johnson, This is Our Message: Women’s Leadership in the New Christian Right, Oxford University Press, 2019.

From “Gay Knights” to Celebration on the Circle: A History of Pride in Indianapolis

The New Works (August 1990): 15, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

* A note on terminology: We recognize that terminology referring to this marginalized community will continue to evolve. We have chosen to use “LGBTQ+” and “queer” after consulting with Indy Pride board members, historians specializing in the field, and new scholarship. We are cognizant that the community is not monolithic and that some individuals may not identify with these terms. It is also important to note that the mainstream civil rights movement excluded people of color, those living in poverty, and transgender individuals. 

The fabric of America has always been comprised of LGBTQ+ individuals, but due to social stigmas, legal discrimination, and the perpetuation of violence, many of these individuals lived quietly. While the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in New York City proved to be a watershed moment in the national fight for equality, those in the conservative state of Indiana continued to socialize privately, for the most part. In 1976, the first “Gay Pride Week” was held in Indianapolis, hosted by the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) and the Gay Peoples Union. Rather than celebrate publicly, attendees were invited to attend a picnic at Sugar Creek Park, donate blood at MCC, participate in a “Youth Kamp Disco,” and attend workshops entitled “Do I Tell My Parents?,” “Christian and Gay,” “Lifestyles in the ‘70s,” and “Gays and Government.” MCC pastor Rev. James Hill said the purpose of the week was “to make society aware of our presence and as a self-affirming thing for gay people as well—affirming they have the right to be.’”

Program, 4th Annual Gay Pride Week Brunch, June 24, 1984, Jeffrey L. Huntington Collection, L198, accessed Indiana State Library Digital Collections.

According to an article The Works, when Pride plans failed to materialize in 1980, activists gathered at the Ramada Inn and formed a Pride Week Committee, which sponsored the 1981 Pride Week Brunch at Essex Hotel House. The Indianapolis Star noted in 1982 that celebrations continued in an insular manner, writing that individuals celebrated “Indiana style—without marches or noisy rallies.” Instead, they raised funds for various causes, donated food to the needy, and “tried quietly to let others know they are here.” Celebrants in 1984 continued the tradition of picnics, in addition to raising funds for AIDS research. The summer of that year, hundreds of LGBTQ+ Hoosiers met at Monument Circle to socialize, listen to local activists, learn about their rights, and register to vote.

The Works (September 1984): 6, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

While organizers were careful to note that this was not a protest or demonstration, it was the first large public gathering of queer individuals in the state. Their goal was to increase visibility for the community, hoping the show of solidarity would lead to a decrease in police harassment and increased commitment to solving the murders of LGBTQ+ individuals. Mayor Bill Hudnut reluctantly issued a letter that was read at one of the gatherings, declaring a commitment to “an absence of anti-gay bias in all police matters.” According to a June 1985 The Works article, this marked “the first time any Mayor of Indianapolis has made any positive public pronouncement on gays in Indianapolis.” Although relations between police and elected officials and queer Hoosiers would remain relatively fraught, the Works considered the 1984 gatherings a success, writing that the events:

will go down in the gay history of Indiana as the first time gays in this state have exercised their Constitutional right to freedom of public assembly. Gays and lesbians exercised this Constitutional right in no less a place than the Monument Circle area of Indianapolis in full view of many Indianapolis citizens who came to see what gays had to say.

The Works (September 1984): 1, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

After the 1984 gatherings, which some dubbed “Gay Knights on the Circle,” Pride Week celebrations remained relatively private until 1990. That year, the twentieth anniversary of NYC’s first Pride Week, Indiana activists felt ready to celebrate publicly. Organized primarily by Justice, Inc.’s Ruth Peters, the New Works News noted that the June event would “provide an opportunity for gays and lesbians to increase their political and community awareness and visibility. Having the event on the Circle will provide both an educational and enjoyable atmosphere for the Indianapolis community at large to enjoy the speakers and entertainers.”

Some Hoosiers, like Drew Carey, feared making themselves vulnerable by attending the state’s first large outdoor Pride event. Nevertheless, he felt his presence was important, writing in an editorial reprinted in the New Works June 1990 issue:

I can’t tell you how much this intimidates me. I have never made such an open stand. But I’m going to be there, stomach in knots and all, because there is nothing so vitally important. . . . If we make excuses for not going, we manifest the internalized homophobia that will continue to keep us on the fringe, where society need not even recognize that we exist. We say to ourselves, to friends, to family, and to society, ‘I’m ashamed; I’m embarrassed about what I am. Your stereotypes about gays and lesbians are right.’

Those who turned out for the unprecedented event enjoyed entertainment like drag shows, learned about gay rights legislation, listened to AIDS activists, and interacted with those manning booths for the Indiana Youth Group, Damien Center, Act-Up Indy, Marion County Health Department Condom Contest, and Indiana Pro-Choice Action League.

“Circle Celebration Pics,” The New Works, 15, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

Despite the presence of protesters, the event empowered attendees, challenged social stigmas, and welcomed a range of sexual and gender expressions. The New Works News editor reflected in August, “As I looked around me . . .  I had but one thought: this is what a city is supposed to be like-alive, vibrant, filled with productive, enjoyable activity.” Carmen Kruer had a similar sentiment, writing in an editorial for the same issue that for the first time the community could:

socialize publicly with minimal fear of harassment and was also able to feel the strength that its numbers can provide. I was very proud to be a part of the lesbian and gay community as it drew together to support one goal – the attainment of a safe environment for all persons regardless of their sexual orientation, race, creed, or gender. I will always remember this day as I anticipate the next public celebration in Indiana.

“3000 Attend ‘Circle Celebration,'” The New Works, 1, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

With the event’s success, organizations like Justice, Inc. pushed to keep the momentum going through donations and activism. One writer for the New Works News wrote in July that the “Celebration on the Circle” was only the beginning, contending that “The Gay Civil Rights movement is at a critical point in its development. Much has been accomplished, but there is still much of a negative nature which must be overcome both within ourselves and in the public in general. . . . It’s up to us.”

In the ensuing years, Justice, Inc. and Indy Pride helped grow the event and by 2012 an estimated 80,000 people and 300 vendor booths attended the celebration. According to Indy Pride, the Cadillac Barbie Pride Parade “featured a float, an antique truck, a few drag queens, some antique cars, and several walking groups,” becoming a cornerstone of celebrations. Of the annual event’s significance, Indy Pride noted “In the years since Pride first ‘came out of the closet,’ the exposure has created a massive change in the society of the city of Indianapolis and the state of Indiana. The battle is not won until everyone is equal but the Indy Pride Festival and the Indy Pride Parade are Indiana’s symbol of a growing acceptance in our cultures.”

Indy Pride celebrant, Mark A. Lee LGBT Photo Collection, accessed Indiana Historical Society.

As with most efforts to secure civil rights, progress for the queer community in the city known for its “Polite Protest” and “Hoosier Hospitality” occurred in fits and spurts. The 2014 legalization of gay marriage and the 2015 enactment of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act exemplifies this duality. As of 2021, organizations like the Indiana Youth Group and Indy Pride continue to provide resources and press for equal protection under the law.

* Sources used to write this post can be found here.

Learn about the following Indiana LGBTQ+ history topics:

“’Actually, Genuinely Welcomed:’ How North Meadow Circle of Friends Embraced and Wed LGBTQ Individuals”

“Gloria Frankel & The Seahorse: The South Bend LGBT Club’s Fight for Gay Rights”

“How Indy’s Queer Community Challenged Police Harassment in the 1980s”

“The Debate over ‘Decency:’ How Hoosiers Challenged Anita Bryant’s Anti-Gay Rights Crusade”

“’Walk a Mile in Their Pumps:’ Combating Discrimination within Indy’s Queer Community”

“’We Had Sung Them Off the Monument Steps:’ Pride, Protest, and Patriotism in Indianapolis”

Dr. Scholl’s… or “Dr.” Scholl’s?: A Hoosier’s Empire Built on Advertising

50th Anniversary Advertisement, Life Magazine, June 14, 1954, 3, accessed Google Books.
50th Anniversary Advertisement, Life Magazine, June 14, 1954, 3, accessed Google Books.

This post was originally published on the Hoosier State Chronicles blog.

Many companies choose a face for their brand and then build a mythology around it. For example, the Converted Rice Company marketed their new parboiled, vacuum-dried rice as the homey-sounding “Uncle Ben’s Rice.”  The company used the racially charged nomenclature “uncle” and an image of a distinguished-looking African American man to imply that the product would be like a friendly servant for the housewife.  The company  has claimed at various times that “Uncle Ben” was a respected rice grower or a hotel maitre d’, but more likely he never existed — much like Mr. Clean, Sara Lee, or Mr. Goodwrench.

William M. Scholl, passport photo, 1921, accessed AncestryLibrary.
William M. Scholl, passport photo, 1921, accessed AncestryLibrary.

While there are plenty of questions surrounding his origin story, the man called “Dr. Scholl,” was not only the founder of one of the most famous companies in the world and the inventor of many of its products, but he was a master of the world of advertising — changing the business in innovative ways. Scholl may (or may not) have been a quack doctor, but he was a crackerjack businessman.

William Scholl, passport photograph, 1915, accessed AncestryLibrary
William M. Scholl, passport photograph, 1915, accessed AncestryLibrary.com

William Mathais Scholl was born on a farm in Kankakee, LaPorte County, Indiana in 1882.* According to the 1900 census, William spent his youth working as a laborer on his parents’ farm, along with many other siblings.  Sometime around 1900, Scholl moved to Chicago and found a job as a salesman at the popular Ruppert’s Shoe Store on Madison Street. Here, he encountered a variety of foot problems faced by his customers and became interested in podiatry. That same year, secondary sources claim, he enrolled in medical school at Loyola University. This has been hotly debated.

Dr. William M. Scholl, The Human Foot: Anatomy, Deformities and Treatment (Chicago: Foot Specialist Publishing Co., 1915), accessed Google Books
Dr. William M. Scholl, The Human Foot: Anatomy, Deformities and Treatment (Chicago: Foot Specialist Publishing Co., 1915), accessed GoogleBooks

Despite investigations beginning in the 1920s and continuing today, it is still unclear if Scholl graduated with a medical degree around 1904 as he claimed. The Scholl College of Podiatric Medicine in Chicago supports the Scholl Museum which is dedicated to memorializing his achievements and authoritatively refers to him as “Dr. William Mathias Scholl.” However, the records of the American Medical Association tell a different story.  According to Robert McClory’s investigative piece for the Chicago Reader in 1994:

“Visit the recently opened Scholl Museum . . . and you’ll find the doctor and his achievements raised to almost mythic levels . . . But check through the old AMA records and you’ll read about a man whose credentials are ‘entirely irregular,’ whose methods smack ‘strongly of quackery,’ and whose products ‘cannot be recommended’.”

There are also questions about his state medical license, as well as a later degree he claimed from the  Chicago Medical College, an institution described by the American Medical Association as “low grade.” The AMA described Scholl’s “whole record” as “entirely irregular.”

Instep-arch support patent [marketed as Foot-Eazer], Publication date April 25, 1911, accessed Google Patents
Instep-arch support patent [marketed as Foot-Eazer], Publication date April 25, 1911, accessed Google Patents.

Dr. Scholl, or “Dr.” Scholl,  built an empire which has made his name recognizable all over the world.  Degree in hand or not, at the turn of the twentieth century, young Scholl was busy inventing various devices intended to alleviate foot pain.  One such device was the “Foot-Eazer,” which was  a hit with the Ruppert’s Shoe Store customers. Supposedly one customer offered him several thousand dollars to start his business.  He declined the offer, but was inspired to start his own business.

Elevated Railroad Station at East Madison Boulevard and Wells Street [near Scholl's building] November 1, 1913, Chicago Daily News Photograph, Chicago History Museum, accessed Explore Chicago Collections, explore.chicagocollections.org/image/chicagohistory/71/qr4p14f/
Elevated Railroad Station at East Madison Boulevard and Wells Street [near Scholl’s first office] November 1, 1913, Chicago Daily News Photograph, Chicago History Museum, accessed Explore Chicago Collections.
In 1904, Scholl set up shop in a small office in a building at 283-285 E. Madison Street in Chicago – the first location of the Scholl Manufacturing  Company. By the next year, he began innovating new advertising techniques.  Scholl would purportedly travel to various shoe stores, ask for the manager, and take out a human foot skeleton and put it on the counter. He used the foot to show how complicated and delicate all of the tiny bones are that hold so much weight and take so much abuse.  He would demonstrate how supportive and comfortable his products worked.

Western Wheel Works, engraving, 1890, accessed chicagology.com/cycling/westernwheelworks
Western Wheel Works, engraving, 1890, accessed Chicagology.com.

Whether or not his products worked, his strategy of marketing directly to the store manager did. In addition to charging for the construction of the product, he also charged for consultations and fittings.  Business boomed and in 1907 he moved into five rooms in a building on Schiller Street which had been abandoned by Western Wheel Works, a bicycle company.  Almost immediately, he purchased the building and expanded the factory until it took up the entire block.  The building stands and is in use as the Cobbler Square apartment complex —  a nod to it’s former use.

By 1908, Scholl was using advertisements in trade journals to continue marketing his products directly to shoe store owners and managers.  His approach at this point was to set up a booth at various fairs and train these prospective clients on how to talk about the Foot-Eazer “from a scientific prospective.” The ad below addresses these shoe store managers with several lofty promises about the Foot-Eazer:

“It will pay you well to be an expert in correcting foot troubles. . . you can sell a pair to one customer out of every three. Your profit is a dollar a pair – if you have 3000 customers that’s a thousand dollars for you . . .You will understand the science of it the moment you see it . . . as I have been allowed sweeping patents on it no one else can make anything like it.”

Scholl explained to this clients that his product was backed by “science,”  would make them rich, and he was the only one who could provide it.

Advertisement for Shoe Fair by Scholl Manufacturing Co., The Shoe Retailer, August 22, 1908, accessed Google Books.
Advertisement for Shoe Fair by Scholl Manufacturing Co., The Shoe Retailer, August 22, 1908, accessed Google Books.
William Scholl, Practipedics : the science of giving foot comfort and correcting the cause of foot and shoe troubles (Chicago: 1917) accessed Archive.org
William Scholl, Practipedics : the Science of Giving Foot Comfort and Correcting the Cause of Foot and Shoe Troubles (Chicago: American School of Practipedics, 1917) accessed Archive.org

By 1909 he was recruiting teams of salespeople to approach the store owners for him.  He set up a correspondence course to teach them the anatomy of the foot and the “science” behind his products. The course was called “Practipedics” and was described as “The Science of Giving Foot Comfort and Correcting the Cause of Foot and Shoe Troubles Based on the Experience, Inventions and Methods of Dr. William M. Scholl.” The ads from this period show that he was marketing these classes and sales opportunities to both men and women, an interesting approach for a time when few women worked outside the home. The ad below shows a woman studying the Foot-Eazer and promises that “This Alone Should Pay Your Rent.”

Advertisement for Salespeople, Boot and Shoe Recorder, April 8, 1916, 52, accessed Google Books
Advertisement for Salespeople, Boot and Shoe Recorder, April 8, 1916, 52, accessed GoogleBooks

From here, Scholl’s business expanded even more quickly.  By the time the U.S. entered World War One, Scholl was marketing to three different audiences — managers and owners of shoe stores, retail customers, and potential sales recruits — all through extensive advertising.  Hoosier State Chronicles has a wealth of examples of ads for Scholl’s products, for stores selling them, and even for the Practipedics course. Indiana shoe stores often advertised special days where Scholl’s salespeople, presented as medical experts in foot care, would be at the store for personal fittings. In a 1917 issue of the Indianapolis News, the New York Store advertised their latest shoe styles and noted that they carried “A Complete Line of Dr. Scholl’s Foot Comfort Appliances.” In 1920, the South Bend Shoe Company advertised in the South Bend News-Tribune: “Foot Expert Here . . . A specialist from Chicago loaned to this store by Dr. Wm. M. Scholl the recognized foot authority.” This “expert” was most likely trained via correspondence course or week-long class and almost certainly never met Scholl.

Indianapolis News, May 10, 1917, 8, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, May 10, 1917, 8, Hoosier State Chronicles.
South Bend News-Tribune, October 1, 1920, 2, Hoosier State Chronicles.
South Bend News-Tribune, October 1, 1920, 2, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Sometimes all three of Scholl’s audiences were targeted in one message, such as in the advertisement below from the Indianapolis News.  First, the ad promises foot comfort to the average reader and pedestrian and  explains to them the product while emphasizing the availability of “medically” trained dealers. Second, it advertises Marott’s Shoe Shop on East Washington who’s owners will have to stock up on Scholl’s products and provide the  “foot expert.”  Finally, the ad explains to the shoe dealers and other potential Scholl’s salespeople how to register for the next Scholl’s training course in Indianapolis. Additionally, Marrott’s Shoe Shop was a “Dr. Scholl’s Foot Comfort Store” which was supposed to consistently staff such  “trained” foot experts — not just for special events.  In Marrott’s advertisement which ran below the Scholl’s advertisement, the store claims that “Dr Scholl’s Foot Appliances are handled exclusively in Indianapolis by Marott’s Shoe Shop.”  However, a search of Hoosier State Chronicles shows several other Indianapolis stores schilling for Scholl — including the New York Store from the advertisement above.

Indianapolis News, March 27, 1918, 9, Hoosier State Chronicles
Indianapolis News, March 27, 1918, 9, Hoosier State Chronicles

Another  Indiana “Dr. Scholl’s Foot Comfort Store” was the Lion Store in Hammond.  They were one of many stores around the country to participate in Scholl’s marketing plan for “Foot Comfort Week.” They advertised their participation and “foot expert” in the Hammond Times on June 12, 1917. Even general clothing stores participated in the marketing scheme.  On June 21, 1917, the E. C. Minas Company, which called itself “Hammond’s Greatest Department Store,” advertised “Foot Comfort Week” in the Hammond Times which the ad claimed was happening “throughout the continent.”  They noted that their store carried “the complete line” of Scholl’s appliances and “experts at fitting them to individual needs.”  Later ads for the week-long event had more outrageous marketing schemes such advertisements for “Prettiest Foot” contests. Search Hoosier State Chronicles for more.

Hammond Times, June 12, 1920, 7, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Hammond Times, June 12, 1920, 7, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Dr. William M. Scholl, The Human Foot: Anatomy, Deformities and Treatment (Chicago: Foot Specialist Publishing Co., 1915), accessed Google Books
Dr. William M. Scholl, The Human Foot: Anatomy, Deformities and Treatment (Chicago: Foot Specialist Publishing Co., 1915), accessed Google Books

By the end of the war, Scholl’s company was established across the U.S, Europe, Egypt, and even Australia.  He had also established a Podiatry College and written a text book. However, medical doctors working in the field were quick to criticize Scholl’s entangled business and medical operations and began to publicly question his qualifications. In 1923, the National Association of Chiropodists passed a resolution condemning Scholl’s work and banning him from advertising in their publications. Again, Robert McClory’s investigative article is the best source for more information on the controversy stirred up around Scholl’s standing in the medical community.

Toe-Straightening Device, US1055810, Publication Date March 11, 1913, accessed Google Patents
Toe-Straightening Device, US1055810, Publication Date March 11, 1913, accessed Google Patents

Scholl was not slowed down by the nay-saying in the least. He continued to invent, patent foot products, and open new stores around the world.  According to McClory:

“In his lifetime Scholl would create more than 1,000 patented ointments, sprays, cushions, pads, supports, shields, springs and other mechanical and chemical gizmos for the feet. Eventually the Scholl empire would include more than 400 outlet stores and employ some 6,000 people worldwide.”

According to a short essay by Fred Cavinder in Forgotten Hoosiers (2009), during World War II, the Scholl plant in England made surgical and hospital equipment while the Chicago plant converted to the manufacture of military equipment. Cavinder writes, “As Word War II ended, Dr. Scholl invented the compact display fixture with the familiar blue and yellow colors.”

Advertisement, Life Magazine, Jun 12, 1939, 41, accessed Google Books
Advertisement, Life Magazine, Jun 12, 1939, 41, accessed Google Books

Scholl remained connected to the northwest region of Indiana throughout his life.  He resided primarily in a single rented room at the downtown Chicago Illinois Athletic Club.  However, later in life he purchased a home in Michigan City, Indiana, where he had moved  his side business, Arno Adhesive Tapes. This company made all of the plaster and tape for the Dr. Scholl products. In the 1960s, Arno also expanded greatly and Scholl, now in his seventies, remained just as active in its management.

Greencastle Daily Banner, November 30, 1954, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.
Greencastle Daily Banner, November 30, 1954, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Scholl died in 1968 and is buried in Pine Lake Cemetery in La Porte Indiana.  His family sold the Scholl’s brand to a large pharmaceutical company in 1979 and it remains successful to this day. So whether we remember him as “Dr.” or Dr. Scholl, he created an empire, changed an industry, and invented new ways to market and advertise.  Search Hoosier State Chronicles for the many more advertisements.

Richmond Daily Palladium, April 26, 1922, 6, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Richmond Daily Palladium, April 26, 1922, 6, Hoosier State Chronicles.

* The 1900 census gives his birth year as 1884, but all other records including passport applications, WWI draft card, and death records cite 1882 as the correct year.

For further information, especially on the controversy surrounding Scholl’s medical qualifications see:

Robert McClory, “Best Foot Forward,” Chicago Reader, January 13, 1994,  accessed ChicagoReader.com

THH Episode 50: Giving Voice: Allison Perlman

Jump to Show Notes

Transcript for Giving Voice: Allison Perlman

Beckley: Hi, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is giving voice and I’m here today with Dr. Allison Perlman, associate professor of Film and Media Studies at UC Irvine. Thank you so much for joining us today, Dr. Perlman.

Perlman: Oh, thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to talk with you.

Beckley: Course, and I obviously brought you on because you are interested in film, media studies, the history of television and broadcasting. And we definitely touch on, obviously, the history of the technological side of TV in our episode about Philo Farnsworth, and we also talk about some of his expectations for the television, he kind of had these lofty ideals that he wanted television to be able to meet. And we kind of talked about the idea of television giving us a way to share human moments in a way that we never could before, or at least not in the same way with newspapers and radio and things like that. We touch on that. And we talk about the Vietnam War and the Beatles Ed Sullivan appearance, things like that were really moments in time that kind of brought Americans together. And I was wondering if you could kind of talk about other ways that broadcast and television has have shaped our society?

Perlman: Sure, I think there are certainly events like you’ve described of moments of celebration, or trauma or rupture that allowed people especially in the mid decades of the 20th century, to collectively feel a sense of shared community through simultaneous viewing practices. And this is something quite extraordinary. So one of the events that often is a hallmark of TV history, and especially its national importance, is the television coverage of the assassination of President John Kennedy, which happened in November 1963. And that’s important from the history of televisions perspective, because by the early 1960s, over 90% of American households had television sets. And most communities would have maybe two to three television channels. Larger cities might have somewhere between four to seven, potentially in really large cities like LA or New York. And so when people were sitting down in their living rooms at night, they had few options about what to watch if they wanted to watch television. And most of those stations were affiliated with national networks. And so when something like a presidential assassination happens, all television channels are trying to report as quickly as they can to their viewing public what’s going on. And so everyone simultaneously, is receiving similar news and then experiencing a shared grief. And this is somewhat remarkable, because even though I think there had been a strong sense of nation and national identity before the emergence of radio and TV, one of the things that the medium does, is it connects people who might never meet, who might live in very different regions who might have very different politics, in a shared collective memory of these tremendous traumatic events like an assassination. We also, you know, have celebratory events that television can bring into household simultaneously – inaugurations of new presidents, Royal weddings in the 1980s, in particular, with the marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. And so on the one hand, one of the things that TV can do is in these moments of anomaly, you know, something really wonderful, something really tragic, can bind a shared national and sometimes even global community through a shared viewing practice. But one of things that’s always been interesting to me about television, especially in this period, it also creates a sense of collective identity through shared experiences of entertainment texts, in a way that I think would be almost inconceivable to us today. But a show like I Love Lucy was viewed by over half of the country simultaneously. And so if you grew up in Indiana, if you grew up in Maryland, if you grew up in California, you would have had the experience of watching Lucille Ball’s antics each week and would have been exposed to the comedy that she and her husband Desi Arnez is put together about this couple in New York and the antics of a wife being frustrated was staying at home all the time. And so even just the quotidian aspects of television, they everyday viewing of it helped to bring together a sense of collective identity through the consumption of shared narratives.

Beckley: That’s so interesting, I never really thought of television as a tool of nation building, and that way of like, creating a national identity almost, especially I think that looking at it through a modern lens. I think it’s not controversial to say that television is at least a factor in some of the divisions that are kind of racking our nation right now. It seems like we’ve kind of run the gambit of it bringing us together, and then maybe now with 24 hour news coverage and things like that, that it’s kind of bringing us apart a little bit now, which I think we hit on a little bit in the episode as far as, yes, it’s created unity and also created division. Just think that’s an interesting dichotomy that has been created through one medium.

Perlman: Yeah, well, a TV itself has changed so dramatically from when it first emerged as a mass commercial device, right after World War Two, to what we think of as this thing called television today, which is diverse and capacious and can be watched on a computer or a smartphone or a television set. And so in this earlier period of what we will think of as broadcasting, where television meant sitting in front of a box, plugged into an electrical outlet, in your home with an antenna on your roof to be able to get a broadcast signal, there were far fewer, far fewer options than what we had today. And there was primarily stations that were affiliated with national networks that were trying to bring in the largest possible audience. And so there’s a, I think, a certain nostalgia that we can have for a period of almost consensus values that were being being disseminated through television, because there was this desire not to offend anyone to be able to articulate viewpoints or perspectives that most people would see as intellectually or politically defensible, to try to attract the largest audiences, in particular, to be able to charge the highest advertising rates to sponsors that are allowing the shows to come on the air. And so I think there there was a way that television could act as a unifying device. There are a number of TV historians whose work I admire and in whose work I affirm that also see that moment as building consensus through moods of exclusion as well, right. So television networks, and television stations were overwhelmed well, and television stations in particular, were almost exclusively run by white controlled entities, exclusively run by men. Their imagined audience tended to be a white middle class family. And so how they imagined what are the values? What are the politics, what are the issues that matter to this audience, were based on a collective sense of the nation that was tethered to a very particular understanding of the TV viewer. So if you were a poor person, if you were a socialist, in particular, if you were a worker who was active in your union, if you were a Black citizen seeking certain kinds of civil rights that didn’t line up with sort of a consensus views of what legitimate forms of civil rights activism took, your perspective, your values, your stories, would be somewhat invisible on on television, and so when cable expands in the 70s, and especially in the 1980s. And then when we get the capacity for over the top streaming video in the 21st century, and we have this diversity of options, there is this hope that this will lead to a diversity of stories, diversity of perspectives, and a sort of better understanding of the diversity of the national community through different people being able to create different stories and share different perspectives. But I think what happened that might have been unanticipated in these utopian discourses about how expanding our viewing options is going to make everything better, was the way that it could foster political polarization, informational and opinion silos and that in fracturing, the collective community that broadcast television brought together it wasn’t that we started to know each other better and all of our complexity and diversity, it’s that we started to understand each other less because we were anchoring ourselves in particular ideological or political viewing habits.

Beckley: Yeah, that’s so interesting that like, almost by diversifying the, you know, options for viewers, you kind of, it’s so easy to find yourself in a silo and an information silo now that all of the media I consume, whether it be television, or the websites I go to, the YouTube videos I watched, they all affirm my own beliefs. So it’s very easy to believe that everybody holds those beliefs and therefore any beliefs that aren’t my beliefs are crazy because, of course, everybody that I know thinks this way. And I think that it’s easy to forget that when you’re caught up in your own silo.

Perlman: Yeah. And it’s what’s fascinating to me is it in some ways, we’ve returned to a 19th century model of media, where, you know, through much of the 19th century newspapers were explicitly partisan, you know, so you had no expectation of norms of journalistic objectivity when you read a newspaper, because they were run by political parties, or they were run by businessmen who had strong ties to political parties. And so, so there was this very robust news environment, but it was explicitly partisan and explicitly ideological. But I think most of us grew up in a period where norms of journalistic objectivity, the sense that there was, like news to be reported, or sets of opinion that could be discussed that most people would agree upon, or had a shared sense of their veracity of that that was presumed to be the norm, I think from I would say, for most of my, you know, lived lived history. And what we’re seeing now is a really different paradigm. You know, it’s one that has a historical precedent, but it can feel a little bit disconcerting if you had grown up in an era of broadcast television, broadcast radio, nationally circulating newspapers that in some ways have similar political, but not so much political perspectives as similar commitments to notions of journalistic objectivity and producing news for an ideologically neutral audience.

Beckley: Yeah, and I think that yeah, it seems I’ve noticed the similarities between politically driven media, you know, newspapers, outright, like this is the Post Democrat or the Monthly Republican or you know, what have you. And then now we have, it seems like political parties have their own news stations, or somewhat, at least, to some extent, I suppose. But kind of circling back around to Farnsworth kind of ideal for television, I just want to get your impression of if you think that any of his ideals were met. And so basically, he has a quote, where he’s saying that he believes that television could increase literacy, facilitate the sharing of cultures and even prevent wars through global discourse. And obviously, that last one especially is quite a quite a big ask, but I was wondering if you could, like, just kind of evaluate if you think any of that has been met in any way? Or if we’ve kind of like, totally missed the mark.

Perlman: Yeah, well, certainly I think one of the successes of public television has been its role in providing early childhood education, to children who otherwise might not be able to go to a pre-k program. And really historically, like whenever PBS’s budget has been threatened by members of Congress who no longer see a need for federally supported broadcasting, Sesame Street is always the best way to mobilize people to say, actually, television and public television is really crucial, because of how crucial a show like television, excuse me, like Sesame Street is to enabling all children that have access to TV to get this form of early childhood education that will set them up for success as they enter into their formal schooling. And there had been just so many experiments with educational television prior to Sesame Street, that similarly were trying to use the medium as a way, for example, to supplement curriculum in schools to provide subjects to students that school districts didn’t have sufficient teachers to provide. There’s a long history of thinking about television as a way to democratize access to certain forms of cultural expression, that either by location or by income, you might not have the ability to access, Symphony, opera, theatre, and so on. And the public television sector, historically, there’s always been a segment of that community that’s been very invested in those values of seeing television as primarily an educational medium, that can use its technological capacities to be able to give people access to teachers to forms of cultural expression, that otherwise would be inaccessible to them. So I think it’s it’s always been an element of US television history. It’s never been, like blockbuster rating. Lots of people. Were excited to watch, you know, the opera on PBS and to watch you know, The Love Boat on ABC, but, but it’s always been, I think, for folks who, who desire that kind of programming. There’s always been a community of people who have been very intent to try to provide it to them. There was an early experiment in the 1960s that I’m very interested in, called inter tell, which was a transnational television consortium of five broadcasting companies from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. And their very goal was exactly what Farnsworth was intending. These were people who in the early 1960s, were very concerned about the Cold War and this global cleavage between communist and capitalist nations. They were especially concerned that a Cold War was taking place, and the nuclear age where combatants had the capacity to, you know, basically devastate human life. And they were concerned about just the uneven effects of World War II and nations across the world. And they thought that if you could create television programs, especially public affairs, documentaries, that explained national cultures of different countries across the world, and if you distributed them globally, you would create shared cultural understanding. And this would be to world peace, you know, and so there was a sense that the problems of the world are based in people not knowing about one another, not being able to apprehend or appreciate cultural difference. And so if you could just use television, to make people legible to each other, there’d be no more war, you know, and we could solve global problems. And it didn’t work. But it was a very utopic understanding of how television as a technology could work.

Beckley: Absolutely. And I must say that Sesame Street, I have a seven-month-old at home, big hit in our house still so still going strong, which actually kind of leave then to my last kind of question, with like, streaming, I know that you’re a historian, so this might be out of your wheelhouse. But with streaming and the Internet, and all these other ways to access what used to be only accessible through broadcast, including Sesame Street now being owned by HBO, things like that. Do you see an ongoing need for broadcast television? Do you think that that is something that is kind of going by the wayside? Or do you think that there is that niche niche or people that still need access to that, and will continue driving enough demand to keep it around?

Perlman: Yeah, it’s a really good question. I mean, local broadcast stations are often the conduits, or the historically had been the conduits for national network programming. And although certainly almost all of the national networks have their own streaming apps now, right, so So obviously, you can access NBC programming through peacock or CBS programming through Paramount plus, often the argument on behalf of local broadcasting has been focused on local news reporting. And I think that there’s been such a seduction of being able to access programming from across the globe. And anytime you want. And sites like Netflix, or Hulu have these vast, incredible libraries, where there’s so much content you can view at all times. That’s an incredibly seductive model of what we ought to be using our televisions for. But for many people, local news from local TV stations is still a pretty important way for them to learn about their communities. And in a moment where newspapers are folding left and right, and we do see a few newspaper chains owning many of the local newspapers that still exist. There’s a, I think, a legitimate anxiety over who is going to support the journalists that are reporting on local school board issues that are following local municipal decisions about you know, how to regulate public utilities, or how to deal with concerns over housing or how to support unhoused people or you know, or whatever issue is, is very live and urgent for local communities. And that’s a topic that Netflix is not going to fund, you know, or that Hulu is not going to support or that HBO is really not very interested in. And so there is, I think, a civic need for local broadcasting. Whether there’s an economic model to make sure that those stations survive is a bigger question that we probably collectively have to think about, along with trying to figure out the best way to support local journalists who might want to write for local newspapers and, you know, have beats that they’re experts in and they know the local officials and they know the local community leaders to be able to inform people citizens about what’s happening in their own communities. And so while there’s so I’m I myself am so enraptured by Just the tremendous range of content is accessible to me all the time. The local aspect of broadcasting, which has always been central to its public service obligations is the one facet of the local station that I think we need to be really focused on in terms of the future of broadcasting.

Beckley: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much for joining us today. Allison. I really appreciate your time. And I am sure listeners will as well. Thank you.

Perlman: Great. Thanks so much, Lindsay. It was great.

Show Notes for Giving Voice: Dr. Allison Perlman

Blog Posts
Learn more about Dr. Perlman’s work here.

THH Episode 49: Philo T. Farnsworth: Father of Television

Jump to Show Notes

Transcript for Philo T. Farnsworth: Father of Television

Mans’s voice: High speed facsimile transmission and reception of both words and pictures…

[Click]

…planned research to anticipate the demands of a growing nation…

[Click]

Here in this modern workshop of science can be found some of the true pioneers of our time…

Beckley: Sitting on a desk in an office in Fort Wayne, Indiana was a small plaque that read, “Men and trees die – Ideas live on for the ages.” The slightly built man with dark hair and a thin mustache in the chair behind the desk, knew this better than most. At the age of 14, he had an idea that would, in time, change the world in innumerable ways. His idea would bring people together and cause divisions. It would influence national and international politics, introduce people around the world to new cultures and viewpoints, change how businesses make money…and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

That man? Philo T. Farnsworth. And his idea?

Man’s voice: Television. An unparalleled blending of science and art.

Beckley: I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Talking Hoosier History.

Inventors often hold lofty ideals for their inventions. Eli Whitney invented the Cotton Gin in 1793 with the hope of relieving the poverty in southern states. Instead, the Cotton Gin increased the need for enslaved labor and is considered one contributing factor of the American Civil War. Othmar Zeidler invented DDT in 1873 to rid the world of insect-borne diseases like malaria. But widespread use of the chemical has caused cancer, infertility, and has devastated ecosystems. Tim Berners-Lee had visions of a free information utopia when he invented the World Wide Web in 1989. Yet, many point to the internet as one of the driving forces of misinformation in modern society.

Similarly, Philo T. Farnsworth believed that the television could prevent wars through global discourse, increase literacy and facilitate the sharing of cultures. And it has.

Fred Rogers: You make each day a special day. You know how? By just being yourself. That’s right…there’s only one person in this…

Beckley: That was, of course, Fred Rogers, of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. Educational programming like Mr. Rogers Neighborhood and Sesame Street, as well as documentaries have gone a long way to democratize knowledge. Shows like Modern Family have increased acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community in recent decades. Television also drives socialization, with friends gathering to watch the “big game” or joining forums to discuss their favorite shows. But, as is usually the case, there is another side of the coin.

[clips from the Jerry Springer Show]

Experts have linked watching reality TV with an increase in aggression in real life. And television in general has been shown to cause everything from a rise in childhood obesity to a decline in quality family time.

Of course, when Philo Farnsworth dreamed up electronic television as a teenager, he could hardly have predicted these disparate outcomes.

[Music]

Beckley: Farnsworth was born and spent his early life in Utah. When he and his family moved to a potato farm in Rigby, Idaho in 1918, eleven-year-old Philo was delighted to find that their new home was powered with a Delco system, the first time the budding scientist had ever lived with electricity. In the attic of the farmhouse, he found a stash of scientific magazines and ravenously consumed anything he could find about electricity. One idea contained within the pages of those magazines was “Pictures That Could Fly Through the Air,” a concept that captured young Farnsworth’s imagination and started him on a journey that would last decades and culminate in modern television.

Man’s voice: Here is the ultimate in television…let me do it again, right now, keep rolling…

Beckley: Farnsworth dove into the existing work on the technology, learning all there was to know about experiments in the field, which stretched back to the 1870s. Early experiments in television relied on a mechanical method of producing and disseminating images. This used a spinning disc called a Nipkow disc. After reading everything he could about this technology, Farnsworth deduced that it could never produce a high-quality image. And he was right – even the very highly engineered mechanical televisions that were made in the 1930s were only capable of 60 lines per frame. To put that into perspective – modern televisions have over 1000 lines per frame.

Farnsworth became obsessed with finding a solution to this problem. He began meeting with a high school chemistry teacher named Justin Tolman after school to ask questions and discuss possible answers. In this relentless pursuit of knowledge, he hit on three topics – electrons, magnetic deflection, and cathode ray rubes – that, when put together, he thought would present an answer to what he was looking for. Finally, everything he had been thinking about crystalized into a profound idea in a most unlikely place – on a horse drawn plow in the middle of a potato field.

[Music]

Beckley: As Farnsworth surveyed the work he was doing – turning over the earth row by row – it dawned on him. Farnsworth biographer Paul Schatzkin noted:

Clark from Schatzkin: “He suddenly imagined trapping light in an empty jar and transmitting it one line at a time on a magnetically deflected beam of electrons.”

Beckley: And so the initial conception for modern electronic television came into the world in the middle of an Idaho potato field from the mind of a 14 year old boy.

Man’s voice: Silent. Invisible. Instantly. Human speech, movement, and appearance invade the airways together, to be received in magic boxes for distant reproductions.

Beckley: Philo shared his idea with the only person he thought might be able to understand and confirm his theory – Justin Tolman.

While Tolman couldn’t grasp every facet of the intricate electronic scheme, he knew enough to encourage the young inventor in his work. At the end of their discussion, Philo jotted a simple sketch of his brainchild on a small piece of notebook paper and handed it to Tolman, who tucked it away for safekeeping. Little did he know just how important that scrap of paper would become.

[Music]

Beckley: Farnsworth nurtured his idea through his teen years and as he attended Brigham Young University.  While working for a fundraising organization, the Community Chest Campaign in 1926, he secured financial backing for his idea. With the support of fundraisers George Everson and Leslie Gorell, he moved to California and eventually established a lab on Green Street in San Francisco. It was here that he, his new wife Pem, and his brother-in-law Cliff set about building the first prototype of an electronic television.

Man’s voice: Television. The newest miracle of modern electric engineering.

Beckley: It wasn’t an easy road to travel. While Philo had a clear vision of what needed to be done to make electronic television a reality, actually accomplishing it was a different story altogether. Each step of the way, Farnsworth and the Green Street crew were inventing new techniques and tools, any one of which would have been an impressive accomplishment on its own. When Cliff was told it was impossible to create a glass tube built to the specifications required by Philo, Cliff developed his own technique of glass blowing that allowed him to create exactly what was needed. While working on techniques to amplify their image, Philo developed what he called the Image Analyzer, and laid the groundwork for the electron microscope, one of the most important tools in laboratories to this day.

Finally, on September 7, 1927, countless experiments and twelve-hour workdays paid off. Farnsworth and his staff stood with bated breath in front of a receiver in one room. In another, Cliff inserted a slide with a thick black line painted on it in front of a device Farnsworth called an “Image Dissector.”

Man’s voice: Mr. Philo T. Farnsworth is working on the Image Dissector tube.

Beckley: The image on the receiver flickered and bounced for a moment before a line became visible on the screen. As Cliff rotated the slide, the line on the screen rotated. The first electronic television picture had been transmitted. In his journal, Farnsworth noted this breakthrough with the reserved tone of a scientist;

Clark as Farnsworth: “The received line picture was evident this time.”

Beckley: Financial backer George Everson had no such reserve. He wired fellow backer Leslie Gorrell;

Clark as Gorrell: “The damned thing works!”

Beckley: But transforming this historic achievement into a commercial product involved years of technical, legal, and financial problems.

While Farnsworth had proved that his idea worked and applied for a patent for his design, he struggled to refine it – those first transmissions were plagued with shadowy double images, black smudges, and amplification problems. Farnsworth accepted these complications as simply part of the process, but it was more difficult to convince his financial backers of that, and many withdrew their support. Looking for alternate funding, Farnsworth invited Russian scientist Dr. Vladimir Zworykin to the Green Street lab to see a demonstration of the Image Dissector. Zworkyin had been working on electronic television just as long as Farnsworth. In fact, he submitted a patent application for an electronic television in 1923, although he was unable to prove that it worked, and the patent was not granted.

As far as Farnsworth knew, Zworykin worked for Westinghouse, a Pittsburgh-based electronic manufacturing company. The hope was that Zworykin would be impressed by what he saw and convince Westinghouse to provide some much-needed funding.

However, Zworykin was not visiting with the interests of Westinghouse at heart –he had travelled to San Francisco on a circuitous route to his new employer – the Radio Corporation of America, something he had neglected to tell Farnsworth.

The Radio Corporation of America, better known as RCA, had established a virtual monopoly on radio technology throughout the early 20th century.

Man’s voice: Nowhere did the challenge provoke more unending experiment and research then at RCA.

Beckley: They bought up what patents they could and sued the holders of others out of business and then acquired the patents in settlements. Looking forward, the behemoth of a company was hoping to establish a similar strangle hold on television, and they recognized Farnsworth’s patent as a potentially important step in that direction.

Zworykin was tasked with finding out if the work being done on Green Street was indeed something RCA would need to try to acquire. And apparently he decided it was. Directly after leaving the lab, he dictated a 700-word telegram to his colleagues – instructions for building an Image Dissector of their very own. Weeks later, when he showed up at RCA to report for duty, he brought with him a replica of the piece of equipment Farnsworth had been working on for four years.

Man’s Voice: The turning point came in 1923 when Dr. Zworykin invented the iconiscope.

Beckley: After the pretense of offering to buy out Farnsworth’s lab for the paltry sum of $100,000, RCA began claiming that Zworykin’s 1923 patent filing was for a device similar enough to the Image Dissector to claim priority of invention. When Farnsworth realized that they were maneuvering into position to launch a lawsuit, he went on the offensive and launched his own claim with the U.S. Patent Office. What followed was described by Philo’s wife as a “David and Goliath confrontation.”

The respective lawyers representing Farnsworth and RCA interviewed key players and collected reams of testimony. RCA focused on the claim that Farnsworth had dreamed up electronic television when he was barely even a teenager. It seemed absurd, not to mention impossible to prove. That was, until they tracked down a now retired Justin Tolman.

When Tolman was asked if he remembered a student by the name of Philo Farnsworth he replied,

Clark as Tolman: “I surely do . . . he was the brightest student I ever had.”

He went on to recount in detail the day a fourteen-year-old Philo had described his idea for electronic television. At the end of the interview, in a scene reminiscent of a dramatic TV procedural, Tolman pulled from his pocket Philo’s sketch of an image dissector, drawn one year before Zworykin’s patent claim. The U.S. Patent Office ruled in favor of Philo T. Farnsworth as the inventor of electronic television.

However, that ruling didn’t mean that RCA was thwarted – they still had appeals to make. The appeal process would drag out for years, causing massive amounts of mental stress for Farnsworth, who struggled with bouts of depression and alcoholism as a result. The stress was also financial – each appeal would need to be defended on Farnsworth’s part by costly patent attorneys. Luckily, Farnsworth had secured financial backing by one of RCAs biggest rivals – Philco.

Man’s voice: Just an example of what’s in store for you right now at your Philco dealer. Another example of quality first by Philco!

Beckley: His partnership with the electronic engineering giant necessitated a move to Philadelphia where Farnsworth and his team continued to refine their technology until finally it was ready for public demonstration.

On August 24, 1934, the doors of the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia opened, and Farnsworth watched as the public poured in for their first glimpse of the long dreamed of television. As visitors entered the building, they were immediately confronted with what must have been a truly astonishing sight – themselves, caught on camera and broadcast to a screen. In the auditorium, they were treated to a wide variety of programming, which was being filmed and transmitted from the roof of the Institute. Vaudeville acts, political speeches, popular athletes, and other local celebrities were featured in those early television transmissions. Thousands of Philadelphians attended the demonstrations and an exhibition that was supposed to last 10 days stretched into three weeks.

The phenomenal success of that exhibition proved what the Farnsworth team had suspected for years – the public was ready for television.

Man’s voice: Technicians at Farnsworth’s Philadelphia laboratory have helped make television, the dazzling dream of the decade, a practical reality for today . . . you are about to witness the most excitingly different concept in the history of television.

Beckley: Farnsworth himself was sure that a fortune lay in television broadcasting rather than manufacturing. To this end, he established W3XPF, an experimental TV station which blanketed Philadelphia with some of the earliest electronic television signals. As television sets were still not commercially available, very few residents had receivers. Those who did, mostly engineers who were working for Farnsworth, became very popular with their neighbors.

While Farnsworth’s work with W3XPF was promising, the Federal Communications Commission, or FCC, was slow to allocate air space and create other institutional standards that would need to be in place before commercial broadcasting was feasible. In the meantime, Farnsworth reluctantly turned to manufacturing. Investors looked for a suitable plant to purchase and eventually landed on a building in Fort Wayne, Indiana once occupied by the Capehart Phonograph Company. According to Schatzkin, the location was chosen because,

Clark from Schatzkin: “the company’s plant was an ideal facility, and the name ‘Capehart’ was expected to lend a certain cachet to the eventual Farnsworth product line.”

Beckley: The Farnsworth Television and Radio Corporation, or FTRC, opened shop on Pontiac Street in Fort Wayne in 1939 and launched into production of television, radio, and phonograph equipment.

Man’s voice: …that’s where Hoosier ingenuity took over…

Beckley: FTRC wasn’t the only company producing commercial televisions – companies such as RCA and International Telephone & Telegraph, or ITT, had established licensing agreements with Farnsworth and were also working to bring the new technology into American homes. However, just as the commercialization of the television was starting to take off, yet another obstacle presented itself – World War II.

Man’s Voice: New weapons of war add to the increasing thrills captured by intrepid cameramen.

Beckley: During the war, FTRC, along with most of American industry, turned to wartime production. While a blow to commercial TV, this was a boon for FTRC. During the war years, the company expanded greatly. Farnsworth himself spent much of his time at his home in Maine, working in a home laboratory and allowing others to run the day-to-day operations of the plants – that’s plants plural, as FTRC operated seven factories – four in Fort Wayne and one each in Marion, Huntington, and Bluffton – by the end of the war in 1945.

Much of this expansion was achieved with the help of loans that came due a year after the end of the war, just as the company was struggling to shift back to peacetime operations. Farnsworth and his shareholders did everything they could to remain an independent company – even going so far as to offer RCA use of Farnsworth’s patents “in perpetuity” for two and a half million dollars, an offer which RCA declined. In the end, to avoid bankruptcy, FTRC was sold to ITT for the rather meager sum of $1.7 million.

Despite losing independence, the company continued to produce televisions and Farnsworth continued to conduct research and experiments, although by this time he had shifted his focus from television to his next obsession, one that was equally forward thinking in the 1950s as television was in the 1920s – Fusion.

Man’s voice: Today atomic scientists produce radioactivity in large amounts . . .

Beckley: Philo’s interest in fusion, which is an experimental form of power that harnesses the energy of nuclear reactions, began to develop while he was working in his home laboratory in Maine during the early 1940s, and he continued to work on it in a basement laboratory in Fort Wayne.

After the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of WWII, interest in fusion went into overdrive. Farnsworth, like many others, including Hoosier physicist and former THH podcast topic Melba Phillips, wanted to see the peaceful application of the science used to power our cities. He dreamed of harnessing fusion to power the nation cheaply and, more importantly, cleanly.

In 1947, a mutual friend set up a phone call between Farnsworth and Albert Einstein. Einstein had worked on Fusion during the war only to vow never again to revisit it after his work contributed to the development of nuclear weapons. Pem, Farnsworth’s wife, later said that he found Einstein to be a

Clark: fellow traveler in the rarefied regions of the physical universe where his mind now dwelt.

Beckley: Einstein asked Farnsworth to send him the math behind his theories once he had worked it out. This conversation bolstered Farnsworth’s inventive energy– after a lifetime of being surrounded by people who just didn’t understand how his mind worked and suffering from loneliness and depression because of it, here was an equal. Much like he did with television back in Rigby, Idaho, he set about learning all he could about the budding field of fusion.

By 1953, the father of television felt on the brink of a new discovery. One summer day, the whole Farnsworth family was piled into a Cadillac on their way to Utah for a banquet. Schatzkin describes the scene as told by Farnsworth’s son and namesake Philo Farnsworth III:

Clark: “Pem was driving, with four-year-old Kent asleep with his head in her lap. Phil was slumped in the front seat, his head down, his fedora pulled down over his eyes. All of a sudden, ‘Dad practically jumped out of his seat in one fluid movement and punched his fist forward, saying ‘I’ve got it.’”

Beckley: The feat had been repeated – just like in that potato field in Idaho all those years ago, in an instant, everything he had been studying suddenly came into focus. And Philo T. Farnsworth was off on yet another years-long quest for scientific invention. One that would eventually produce the Farnsworth-Hirsch fusor. This was the first device of its kind in the world, and it continues to be the most widely used type of fusor in experimentation today.

In 1957, Farnsworth made his one and only television appearance on a gameshow called “I’ve Got a Secret.” At the end of his appearance, he talks about where he sees television going in the future;

Man’s Voice: This is the famous Dr. Philo T. Farnsworth, the inventor of the television.

[Applause]

Man’s Voice: Let’s go from the past – the not too distant past – to the future. What are you working on now?

Farnsworth: Well, in television, we’re attempting to make better utilization of the bandwidth because we think we can eventually get in excess of 2000 lines instead of 525 and do it on an even narrower cannel, possibly, than we’re doing it today, which would make for a much sharper picture. Then we hope…we believe in the picture frame type of television where the visual display will be just a screen. Then we hope for a memory so that the picture will be just as it was pasted on there, and many different improvements will result in a camera when you use such devices because part of the scene that you can remember, and you practically have a memory card of it, and it will simplify production of it.

Beckley: In that one-minute clip, he outlines HDTV, Flatscreen televisions, and digital video cameras decades before any of those technologies would be developed – the very definition of a visionary.

Man’s voice: Converting the dreams of yesterday into the reality of tomorrow . . . here is a look into the future of communication . . .

Beckley: It would be an understatement to say that the world has embraced Farnworth’s creation. Globally, 79 percent79 percent of households have at least one television set. That’s astounding. People from around the world are able to share experiences in a way that newspapers, radio, and even motion pictures could never rival and those shared experiences have shaped our society in huge ways. The Vietnam War was the first war to be covered on television and coverage of the conflict – the images of the dead and injured contrasted with the lack of progress being made – sparked an antiwar movement in the United States which eventually shifted public opinion.

The Beatles’ 1964 appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show created a craze in America which would change the music scene forever. It inspired countless young people to start bands and went a long way to unify a generation we now call the Baby Boomers.

Nearly every American of a certain age can clearly remember where they were on September 11, 2001 when we watched the Twin Towers fall. And we continued to watch as that day changed our society – we watched as the United States went to war, as Congress passed the Patriot Act, and as Islamophobia spread like wildfire.

Television has brought us together in good times and in bad. This was the promise Farnsworth saw for the television. True – he would likely have been disappointed seeing his invention used for misinformation and reality television. But he would have reveled in seeing the world sharing in our triumphs and tragedies – in fact, he and Pem watched the 1969 moon landing, after which Philo declared,

Clark at Farnsworth:  That has made it all worthwhile.

Talking Hoosier History is a product of the Indiana Historical Bureau, a division of the Indiana State Library. If you would like to see my sources for this episode, visit blog.history.in.gov and click “Talking Hoosier History” at the top to see a full transcript and show notes. Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this has been Talking Hoosier History. Talking Hoosier History is a product of the Indiana Historical Bureau, a division of the Indiana State Library. If you would like to see my sources for this episode, visit blog.history.in.gov and click “Talking Hoosier History” at the top to see a full transcript and show notes. This episode of Talking Hoosier History was adapted from IHB historian Nicole Poletika’s two-part blog post about Farnsworth on the Indiana History Blog. If you want to learn even more about Farnsworth’s life and work, I highly recommend Schatzkin’s biography, “The Boy Who Invented Television: A Story of Inspiration, Persistence, and Quiet Passion.” Production and sound engineering by Jill Weiss Simins. Thanks to Justin Clark for lending his voice to the show. We’ll be back in two weeks with an episode of Giving Voice. In the meantime, find us on Facebook and Twitter at the Indiana Historical Bureau and remember to subscribe, rate, and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.

Thanks for listening!

Show Notes for Philo T. Farnsworth: Father of Television

Blog Posts

Poletika, Nicole, “’The Damned Thing Works!:’ Philo T. Farnsworth & the Invention of Television,” Indiana History Blog.

Poletika, Nicole, “Philo T. Farnworth: Conversing with Einstein & Achieving Fusion in Fort Wayne,” Indiana History Blog.

Books

Schatzkin, Paul, The Boy Who Invented the Television, Tanglewood Books, 2008.

Indiana State Historical Markers

Philo T. Farnsworth Indiana State historical Marker Review

Articles

Butts, Tom, “The State of Television, Worldwide,” TVTechnology.com.

Viewer Beware: Watching Reality TV Can Impact Real-Life Behavior,” All Things Considered, National Public Radio.

Indianapolis’s Foreign House: “A Mixture of Protection and Coercion”

Indianapolis News, March 3, 1917, 28, accessed Newspapers.com.

As John H. Holliday strolled through Indianapolis’s Hungarian Quarter, he observed windows caked with grime, street corners lined with rubbish, and the toothy grin of fences whose boards had been pried off and used for fuel. While reporting on the nearby “Kingan District,” Holliday watched plumes of smoke cling to the meat packing plant, for which the area was named. The philanthropist and businessman noted that in the district “boards take the place of window-panes, doors are without knobs and locks, large holes are in the floors, and the filthy walls are minus much of the plastering.”[1] Houses swollen with residents threatened outbreaks of typhoid fever and tuberculosis.

Those unfortunate enough to live in these conditions were primarily men from Romania, Serbia, Macedonia, and Hungary who hoped to provide a better life for family still living in the “Old World.”[2] Alarmed by what he witnessed, Holliday published his report “The Life of Our Foreign Population” around 1908. He hoped to raise awareness about the neighborhoods’ dilapidation, which, in his opinion, had been wrought by landlords’ rent gouging, the city’s failure to provide sanitation and plumbing, and immigrants’ inherent slovenliness (a common prejudice at the time). Holliday feared that disease and overcrowding in immigrant neighborhoods could spill into other Indianapolis communities.[3] Perhaps a bigger threat to contain was the immigrants’ susceptibility to political radicalism, given the squalor in which they had been reduced to living. Holliday wrote, “If permitted to live in the present manner, they will be bad citizens.”[4] 

Dan and Mary Simon’s Romanian parents settled in Indiana Harbor, ca 1915, Jane Ammeson Collection, Indiana Album.

Motivated by a desire to both aid and control immigrants, a coalition of local businessmen-including Holliday-philanthropists, and city officials formed the Immigrant Aid Association in 1911.[5] Later that year, the association established the Foreign House on 617 West Pearl Street, which provided newcomers with social services like child care and communal baths, but also worked to assimilate and “Americanize” them. The Foreign House reflected the dual purposes of immigrant settlements in this period: what historian Ruth Hutchinson Crocker called “a mixture of protection and coercion.”


The first week of April 1908 was one of discord for northern Indiana. Hundreds of immigrant laborers stormed the Lake County Superior Court, “crying for bread” after the closing of Calumet Region mills. In Hammond, armed immigrants drilled together, causing police to fear the emergence of a riot. In neighboring Indiana Harbor, masses of desperate immigrants, many living in destitution, thronged the streets in search of employment. Blood spilled in Syracuse, when Hungarian laborers stabbed Sandusky Portland Cement Co. employee Bert Cripe. Apparently this was retribution for local employers’ refusal to hire Romanians, Hungarians, and “other laborers of the same class.” The stabbing set off a sequence of street fights between immigrants and locals, and resulted in the bombing of a hotel where laborers stayed. The Indianapolis News reported that the explosion “wrecked a portion of the building, shattered many windows, and not only terrified the occupants, but also the citizens of the town and country.”[6]

These alarming events made an impression on a nameless employee at Indianapolis’s Foreign House, who referenced the Indianapolis News article in the margin of a ledger three years after the foment.[7] The employee seemed acutely aware of the potential for unrest if the basic needs of Indianapolis’s estimated 20,000 immigrants went unmet.[8]

South Bend Tribune, January 5, 1911, 3, accessed Newspapers.com.

According to Crocker, by 1910, 80% of Indianapolis’s newcomers had originated from Romania, Serbia, and Macedonia. Many of those who had recently settled in the Hoosier capital had migrated from Detroit, Kentucky, and Chicago, in search of jobs.[9] Many Americans viewed such immigrants with derision, believing, as Holliday did, that they “‘differ greatly in enterprise and intelligence from the average American citizen. They possess little pride in their personal appearance and live in dirt and squalor.'”[10] The 1911 Dillingham Commission Reports, funded by Congress to justify restrictive immigration policies, was designed to validate these beliefs. Using various studies and eugenics reports, the commission “scientifically” concluded that Eastern and Southern Europeans were incapable of assimilating and thereby diluted American society.[11] 

Reflecting the Report’s conclusions, a 1911 South Bend Tribune piece noted urgently, “A big portion of the immigrants are undesirable—very undesirable. . . . Mark this. If we don’t begin to really exclude undesirable immigration, the Anglo-Saxon in this Government will be submerged.” Its author continued that these “undesirables” would “soon become voters. Men who need votes see to that.”[12] The founders of Indianapolis’s Foreign House hoped to bring together various nationalities, as their isolation made them a “political and cultural menace.”[13]

Indianapolis Star, December 15, 1929, 75.

In fact, the House’s very foundations belied the American ideals of business philanthropy and civic volunteerism. Kingan & Co. essentially donated the settlement’s structure, the local community funded citizenship classes, and work was furnished partly through “personal subscriptions and the assistance of teachers who have volunteered their services.”[14] The settlement house would be modeled after YMCAs, offering baths, “reading and smoking rooms,” a health clinic, and night classes in which patrons could learn English.[15] Additionally, civics courses and an information bureau, where “all the dialects of the foreign population will be spoken,” helped immigrants understand American laws and navigate the citizenship process.

These classes were crucial, as ignorance about American customs resulted in many newcomers placing their money and trust in corner saloons, whose owners often mismanaged or pocketed the funds.  Immigrant Aid Association officers hoped that “opportunities for grafting and theft among the gullible class of foreigners will be reduced when the settlement house is in working order.”[16] An understanding of the English language and the legal system could also help challenge the stereotype that immigrants were criminals because most offenses were committed due to their “ignorance of the law.”[17]  Furthermore, the Star noted in 1914 that, according to those in charge, classes about American government “have given the students an increased earning capacity and have been of great benefit in fitting them for work in this country.”[18]

Questions about their intellectual aptitude persisted, as noted by the Indianapolis Star‘s 1915 observation of immigrants in night school: “It is an interesting sight to watch the swarthy men bending over their books and making awkward attempts to follow the pronunciation of their teachers.” Despite such evaluations, it is clear than many immigrants were grateful for the quality of education afforded in America. As relayed by an interpreter and printed pejoratively in the Indianapolis Star, a young Macedonian man who had recently arrived to Indianapolis “says he thankful most for the education he is gettin’ in America. He wants to bring father and mother here to free country.”[19]

Indianapolis News, February 21, 1916, 16, accessed Newspapers.com.

While the Foreign House introduced men to American cultural and political norms through these courses, immigrant women were indoctrinated through home visits by Foreign House staff.[20]  Ellen Hanes, resident secretary of the organization, made 2,714 trips to women’s homes in 1913, “teaching the care of children and teaching domestic economy as practiced by American housewives.”[21] Historian Ruth Hutchinson Crocker contended that such services:

were the medium for teaching ‘correct’ ideas about a variety of subjects, from the meaning of citizenship to the best way to cook potatoes; thus they always involved the abandonment by immigrant women of traditional ways of doing things.[22]

Indianapolis News, March 3, 1915, 3, accessed Newspapers.com.

In addition to providing instruction about American customs, the House offered a space for fellowship and recreation. Likely feeling isolated in their new country, immigrants could socialize there and enjoy musical programs, as well as literary clubs with fellow newcomers. They could don costumes from their homeland, often “rich and heavy with gold and embroidery,” and perform folk dances and native music. Conversely, much of the entertainment centered around American patriotism, like a program for George Washington’s birthday, in which men dressed like the first president and women the first lady. The Indianapolis Star noted, “Probably at no place in Indianapolis are holidays celebrated more earnestly.”[23] Crocker contended that this blended programming “showed the settlement in the dual role of Americanizer and preserver of immigrant culture.”[24]

Recreational opportunities also lowered the possibility that immigrants would become a societal “liability.” One man who dropped by the house said, “‘We used play poker and go saloon and dance when we come Indianapolis. . . but now we read home books in our library, read English, do athletes, play music and do like Americans.'”[25]


Sidney Joseph Greene, Newman Library, CUNY, accessed Wikipedia.

America’s entry into World War I in 1917 intensified suspicion of immigrants and spurred questions about their loyalty. This hostility impacted foreign institutions like Indianapolis’s German-language paper, the Täglicher Telegraph und Tribüne, which, despite trying to present balanced war coverage, ceased publication by 1918. In the years following World War I, the Foreign House was “practically abandoned,” perhaps another victim of xenophobia surfacing from the war’s wake. The emerging nationalist impulse likely accounted for the organization’s name change.[26] The Foreign House became the American Settlement House in 1923, when the organization merged with the Cosmopolitan Mission and moved to 511 Maryland Street (where the Indiana Convention Center now sits).[27]

Post-war labor strikes, anarchists’ bombing of American leaders, and fears that Eastern European immigrants would replicate the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution increased suspicion of and reduced support for immigrants. It also helped inspire the 1924 Immigration Act, which set an annual immigrant quota of 150,000 and drastically curtailed admittance of people from “undesirable” countries.[28]  A sense of isolation must have intensified for Indianapolis’s immigrants, now deprived of the settlement house’s resources and contending with renewed nativism. That is until Mary Rigg, a young, idealistic social worker was put in command of the American Settlement House in 1923. While conducting research for her thesis about the settlement, Rigg developed an affinity and deep empathy for its visitors. She began to envision a robust image of their future. With the assistance of the House, immigrant neighborhoods blossomed with colorful flowerbeds, giggling children shimmied up gleaming jungle gyms, and neighbors shared the bounties of a communal garden.

Mary Rigg, courtesy of the Mary Rigg Neighborhood Center, accessed Encyclopedia of Indianapolis.

The goal would not simply be to help newcomers find employment, obtain citizenship papers, or avoid disease, but to experience, as Rigg stated, “true neighborliness,” where they “could play the game of daily living together in peace and harmony.” Rigg would be chief architect of this idyllic vision, in which immigrants could taste the fruits of capitalism, while embracing their native customs, language, and dress. After all, she believed that living “in a country in which we have the privilege of climbing higher” applied to its immigrants and that it was the settlement’s responsibility to help them ascend its steps. [29] 

* Read Part II to learn how “Mother” Mary helped engineer a vibrant urban community and hear from those who thrived in it.

Sources:

*All newspapers were accessed via Newspapers.com.

[1] Sarah Wagner, “From Settlement House to Slum Clearance: Social Reform in an Immigrant Neighborhood,” 1-4 in 1911-2001: Mary Rigg Neighborhood Center, 90 Years of Service, given to the author by Mary Rigg Neighborhood Center staff.

[2] Ruth Hutchinson Crocker, Social Work and Social Order: The Settlement Movement in Two Industrial Cities, 1889-1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 47.

[3] Wagner, 2-6.

[4] Crocker, 49.

[5] “Foreign Quarters in City to be Improved,” Indianapolis News, July 29, 1911, 16.

[6] “Foreigners Clamoring for Something to Eat,” Indianapolis News, April 8, 1908, 8.; “Riot at Syracuse Ends without Loss of Life,” Indianapolis News, April 8, 1908, 8.

[7] Mary Rigg Neighborhood Center Records, 1911-1979, L130, Indiana State Library.

[8] Foreign population estimate is from “Library Orders Foreign Works,” Indianapolis Star, April 19, 1914, 51.

[9] Crocker, 14, 47.

[10] Wagner, 5-6.

[11] “Dillingham Commission Reports (1911),” accessed Immigrationhistory.org.

[12] “The Latin Will Overcome the Anglo-Saxon in this Country in a Few Year,” South Bend Tribune, January 5, 1911, 3.

[13] Crocker, 48.

[14] Wagner, 6.; Indianapolis Star, February 21, 1915, 3.; “Library Orders Foreign Works,” Indianapolis Star, April 19, 1914, 51.; Quotation from “Members of Civic League Criticise [sic] School Board in Not Giving Assistance,” Indianapolis Star, January 7, 1913, 9.

[15] “Foreign Quarters in City to be Improved,” Indianapolis News, July 29, 1911, 16.

[16] “Advise Foreigners to Avoid Saloons,” Indianapolis Star, October 7, 1911, 7.; “Foreign Quarters in City to be Improved,” Indianapolis News, July 29, 1911, 16.; “Members of Civic League Criticise [sic] School Board in Not Giving Assistance,” Indianapolis Star, January 7, 1913, 9.

[17] “Advise Foreigners to Avoid Saloons,” Indianapolis Star, October 7, 1911, 7.

[18] “Scope of Night Schools for Foreigners Broadened,” Indianapolis Star, August 13, 1914, 16.

[19] “Thankful to be Free,” Indianapolis Star, December 1, 1911, 8.; Indianapolis Star, February 21, 1915, 3.

[20] “Advise Foreigners to Avoid Saloons,” Indianapolis Star, October 7, 1911, 7.

[21] Indianapolis Star, September 13, 1914, 38.

[22] Crocker, 59.

[23] Indianapolis Star, February 21, 1915, 3.; “School Popular with Foreigners,” Indianapolis Star, September 13, 1914, 38.

[24] Crocker, 58.

[25] Indianapolis Star, September 13, 1914, 38.; “School Popular with Foreigners,” Indianapolis Star, September 13, 1914, 38.

[26] Crocker, 60.; German Newspapers’ Demise historical marker, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Bureau.; “Xenophobia: Closing the Door,” The Pluralism Project, Harvard University, accessed pluralism.org.

[27] Crocker, 60-61.; Wagner, 7-8.

[28] “Sacco & Vanzetti: The Red Scare of 1919-1920,” accessed Mass.gov.; “The Immigration Act of 1924,” Historical Highlights, History, Art & Archives: United States House of Representatives, accessed history.house.gov.; David E. Hamilton, “The Red Scare and Civil Liberties,” accessed Bill of Rights Institute.

[29] Crocker, 60-65.; Master’s thesis, Mary Rigg, A.B., “A Survey of the Foreigners in the American Settlement District of Indianapolis,” (Indiana University, 1925), Mary Rigg Neighborhood Center Records.;  Bertha Scott, “Mary Rigg Busier Since ‘Retirement,'” Indianapolis News, November 3, 1961, 22.; Laura A. Smith, “Garden and Home First Wish of New Americans,” Indianapolis Star, July 6, 1924, 36.;  Letter, Mary Rigg, Executive Director, Southwest Social Centre to Mr. Joseph Bright, President, City Council, May 15, 1953,  Mary Rigg Neighborhood Center Records.

Helen Corey: Arab American Politician, Leader, Food Ambassador

Helen Corey welcomed John F. Kennedy to Terre Haute just fifteen days before he was elected U.S. president. Credit: Char Wade.

Helen Corey was perhaps the most noteworthy Arab American leader in central Indiana during the 1960s and 1970s. More than four decades before Mitch Daniels became Indiana governor, she was the first Arab American to hold a statewide elected office. It is a travesty that she has not received the attention that her accomplishments demand.

Born 1923 in Canton, Ohio, her Syrian parents, Maheeba (“Mabel”) and Mkhyal (“Mike”) Corey, were originally from the Damascus area. Her parents belonged to the generation of immigrants who arrived in the United States during what Mark Twain referred to as the Gilded Age. The country was booming economically, and employers were in desperate need of labor. Helen Corey’s family, like others, sought these opportunities. Like many Armenians and Turks, Corey’s Syrian parents were citizens of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled Southeastern Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean before World War I. Thousands of Ottoman citizens settled in Indiana, especially in Michigan City, South Bend, Indianapolis, and Terre Haute. The Indianapolis News noted in 1907 that these ethnic groups “have all made contributions to America’s making, though as a rule they have not been so welcome as other races.”

As a second-generation immigrant, Helen was raised to embrace both Arab and American cultures, as well as the family’s Antiochian Orthodox Christian roots. “When my sister, brother, and I were children,” she wrote, “our parents sent us to the Orthodox church hall following grade school classes where we learned to read and write the [Arabic] language from Arabic scholars Yusuf (Joseph) Sabb and Hunna (John) Shaheen. Our first lesson taught us that this was one of the richest languages in the world.” When the family was around Arabic-speaking friends, they used Arabic names and titles. Brother Albert was Abdullah. Her father was “Boo Abdullah [the father of Albert]” and her mother was addressed by the title, “Im Abdullah [the mother of Albert].”

She recalled in her 1962 The Art of Syrian Cookery:

When we lived in Canton, Ohio, as children, my sister, brother, and I used to get a great deal of pleasure watching my father and his friends take turns smoking the narghileh (Turkish water pipe) as they relaxed during the evenings, exchanging stories of their journey to this country. The narghileh had the sound of bubbling water and an incense aroma filled the house from the Persian tobacco that was used. Our narghileh was made of beautiful cut glass with an oriental brass stem, and the smoking pipe that was attached had an almost cobra look with its many variegated colors. . . The guests were served Turkish coffee and the hostess was ready to play the part of fortuneteller. The cups were inverted and left to stand so that the coffee sediment formed a pattern on the inside of the cup. Then the cups were turned up again and the hostess interpreted the future of each guest from the pattern in his cup.

Around 1947, the Corey family moved to Terre Haute, the home of a sizeable Arab American community. It was called “Little Syria.” Its proximity to the Wabash River facilitated the peddling of wares in Illinois and Kentucky. Historian Robert Hunter wrote that it was a “partial reconstruction of the one that existed in Ayn al-Shaara,” a village located not far from the city of Damascus. According to William Nasser, Indiana’s “father of cardiology” and the founder of the St. Vincent Hospital heart surgery program, Arab American youth faced discrimination in Terre Haute, where he was forced to ride in the back of the bus. Syrians were also barred from joining the country club. For these reasons, as Helen Corey noted in an interview with Robert Hunter, “in the 1920s and 1930s, Syrians did not have a prominent role in civic affairs and leadership of Terre Haute.” She and other second-generation immigrants opened the doors of opportunity for other Arab Americans. Corey’s political career began in 1948 when she worked as the secretary to the city’s longest serving mayor, Ralph Tucker. She would hold that position until 1961.

This job provided her a platform and the connections needed to become active in the Indiana Democratic Party. In 1956, Corey directed the speaker’s bureau of the Indiana Democratic State Central Committee, and in 1959, she was voted Indiana’s Outstanding Young Democratic Woman. On October 25, 1960, she was part of Vigo County’s welcoming committee for then Senator John F. Kennedy, the Democratic Party’s candidate for U.S. President. As a Young Democratic National Committeewoman, she was chosen to greet the “Kennedy Caravan” as it motored its way through Indiana and Illinois. She was also elected Indiana’s Young Democrat National Committeewoman and represented the state at the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.

Helen Corey was going places. In 1961, she became director of the Bureau of Women and Children in the Indiana Division of Labor. She offered written guidance to Indiana employers on child labor laws and women’s issues in the workplace. She consulted with members of the Indiana General Assembly.

Among the dishes featured on the cover of Helen Corey’s 1962 classic are meat pies, stuffed grape leaves, raw kibbi, stuffed zucchini, assorted pastries, and fried kibbi. In the upper right corner there is a water pipe.

It almost unbelievable that, as she was working hard for the state and the Democratic Party, she also found the time to pen one of the most influential cookbooks on Syrian food ever written in English.

Published by New York’s Doubleday Press in its series on global cuisines, The Art of Syrian Cookery (1962) stayed in print for decades. By the middle of 1965, it had sold 17,000 copies. Its influence could be felt across North America, and it was perhaps the most successful book in its category until the publication of Claudia Roden’s The Book of Middle Eastern Food in 1972. Even then, its many fans kept it as an essential reference in their kitchen. Food writers from Los Angeles to Miami mentioned it in their columns. Syrians and other Arabs checked it out from their local public libraries. One Arab American in Morgan City, Louisiana, said that “it was as near as mama’s cooking as anything I have ever read.” In 1982, a well-known Lebanese cook in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, explained that though her grandmother taught to her cook, she also relied on The Art of Syrian Cookery.

The book was dedicated to Corey’s mother, Maheeba, who not only shared the technical aspects of how to make such food, but taught Helen and her sister, Kate, about the cultural, religious, and social meanings and functions of everything from araq (anise-flavored brandy) to zalabee (doughnuts). This was food meant to be shared with others on important occasions in the old country and in the new. Corey explained, for example, what dishes are traditionally offered at wedding receptions and during Arab Orthodox Christian celebrations of Easter and the Feast of the Epiphany.

If it had been published today, this nostalgic food memoir might have launched the career of the charismatic and hard-working Helen Corey as a celebrity chef. But it appeared one year before Julia Child made her debut on public television, and most upscale restaurants hired only male chefs at the time.

Cooking had to remain a side gig.

Indiana Gov. Roger D. Branigin swears in Helen Corey as the first Arab American statewide office holder, 1965. Credit: Sandy Kassis.

Fortunately, Helen Corey’s political career blossomed at the very same moment that the book was published. In 1963, she was appointed executive secretary of the state’s Commission on the Status of Women. The next year, she won the Democratic Party’s nomination to run for office and then Indiana voters elected Corey the 23rd Recorder of the Indiana Supreme and Appellate Courts. She received 1,110,390 votes, enough to unseat incumbent Recorder Virginia Caylor, who got 920,168 votes.

As Recorder, Helen Corey’s job was to edit, publish, and distribute all of the judicial rulings of the Supreme and Appellate Courts and distribute them to law libraries, universities, and law offices. She worked with just two staff members in the Capitol’s Room 416, where Benjamin Harrison once had his office. The significance of Corey’s election as the first Arab American office holder in Indiana was not lost on the U.S. Department of State, which featured her in its Life in America series distributed abroad.

Helen Corey constantly encouraged women to become politically active. In 1965, for example, she was a featured speaker at the Marion County Democratic women’s weekend retreat to French Lick. She addressed the Indiana Federation of Democratic Women in 1967.

In 1966, Helen Corey, Frank Kafoure, and Father Joseph Shaheen, presented Indiana Gov. Branigin with a commemorative license plate celebrating the state’s sesquicentennial and the 40th anniversary of the founding of St. George Orthodox Church. Credit: St. George Church.

That year, she was making $12,500 in her post. The job also came with an official parking spot at the Capitol, but when Corey was assigned spot no. 21 instead of spot no. 22, Republican Clerk Kendal Mathews went berserk. He complained to the governor and the motor vehicles commissioner about it, and he parked in Corey’s spot, even though the parking attendant told him not to. The Indianapolis Star dubbed the incident “Coreyography.” Corey said the whole thing was ridiculous.

This was not the only time her gender became an issue. She was often asked why she wasn’t married, and she gave the answer that one had to give at the time: she believed that women should be married, but that they could have a career, too. Her good looks were also frequently addressed in public; the Indianapolis News referred to her as a “model” and a “pixie politician.”

Helen Corey campaigned hard in 1968, but it was a Republican year in Indiana statewide elections. Credit: Indiana Historical Society.

When Helen Corey stood for reelection in 1968, she campaigned hard, giving four speeches a day and traveling over 3,000 miles throughout the state to ask for Hoosiers’ votes. But with the exception of Democratic U.S. Senator Birch Bayh, Republicans dominated statewide offices that year. Helen Corey’s opponent, Marilou Wertzler, got 1,067,357 votes. Corey received 925,616.

After leaving office, Corey remained active with Democratic women’s causes, but by the middle 1970s she turned her attention, at least in part, to political organizing on behalf of Arab American causes. Arab issues were front and center in U.S. public life at the time. For example, in 1973, the Organization of Oil Exporting Countries (OPEC) stopped selling oil to nations that supported Israel in its dispute with Egypt. This embargo caused fuel shortages in the United States. Despite the fact that OPEC included non-Arab countries such as Iran and Venezuela–not to mention the fact that most Arab countries are not large oil producers–Arabs in general were blamed for making Americans wait in lines at gas stations. Prejudice and discrimination against Arab Americans increased. The social acceptance that Arab-descended Americans had achieved was at risk.

Second- and third-generation Arab Americans established the National Association of Arab Americans (NAAA) to lobby national legislators on the foreign issues that affected their lives and livelihoods. One of its programs was “A Day on the Hill,” during which Arab Americans from each state would travel to Washington to meet with their members of Congress. Helen Corey was an obvious choice to coordinate the effort in Indiana. Working with George Halaby, Zeldia Hanna, Vicki Mesalam, and Faye Williams, she kicked off the Central Indiana NAAA chapter’s effort to gain members with a huge hafli (party) at the Stouffer Hotel in 1975. It featured Arab dancing, music, and food.

Over time, the membership of the NAAA decreased as the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee became the largest Arab American national organization. But Helen Corey and other Arab Hoosiers still fought anti-Arab prejudice. In 1990 future Vice President Mike Pence, then a candidate for the U.S. Congress, ran a campaign ad in which a white actor donned Arab head gear, a black robe, dark sunglasses, and used a fake Arab accent to intimate that Democrats were unwitting collaborators of the country’s Arab enemies. Helen Corey spoke out. “It’s degrading a culture,” she said, explaining that the use of racial stereotyping would drive many voters away. (Pence defended the ad.)

Helen Corey’s later cookbooks included meatless menus and an emphasis on the health benefits and Biblical origins of a Mediterranean diet.

In the final decades of the 1900s, Helen Corey did not focus as much on explicit political organizing as she did on culinary diplomacy. A leading authority on Syrian and Lebanese food and cooking, Helen Corey used food not only to bridge ethnic differences among Americans but also to educate Americans about her Antiochian Orthodox Christian faith. In 1990, she self-published her second cookbook, Food from Biblical Lands, and made a 70-minute documentary to promote it. In 2004, she published Healthy Syrian and Lebanese Cooking. These books repeated some of the original recipes from the 1962 classic, but also incorporated new dishes from Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Palestine. There were also new stories of Helen Corey’s travels in Syria and new pictures of her family members, including one of her mother’s 100th birthday party.

Helen Corey (second from left) at historical marker dedication in Terre Haute, courtesy of the Tribune-Star.

Corey loved to share that heritage with her nieces. Robert Hunter wrote that Corey preserved and passed on “a big collection of folk stories, songs, and poems, most of which she got from her mother.” Corey told Hunter that “much has been lost,” but she insisted that “a lot has remained…  a ‘Syrianness,’ a sense of who you are and wanting to hold onto it even though you do not have much actual knowledge.”

During her long career, Helen Corey gained recognition and respect for her people, for her culture, and for herself. She is an unsung figure of Arab American and Indiana history whose life is just waiting for greater illumination.

Jay Brodzeller was the chief researcher of this post. Three of Helen Corey’s nieces, Cathy Azar, Sandy Kassis, and Char Wade, provided invaluable assistance. Thanks, as well, to Joan Bey, Matt Holdzkom, Mina Khoury, Rev. Joseph Olas, Father Paul Fuller, Julie Slaymaker, and Father Anthony Yazge.

Additional Sources:

“Armenians and Syrians,” Indianapolis News, March 8, 1907, 2, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Little Syria on the Wabash” historical marker file, 84.2018.1, accessed Indiana Historical Bureau.

Interview with Helen Corey, conducted by Dr. Robert Hunter, Indiana State University, June 25, 2009, Indiana Historical Bureau marker file.