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50 Things Turning 50 This Year

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We've looked at people, places, events, and things turning 25 and turning 30 in 2013. Here are some that are turning the big 5-0.

1. Beatlemania

Though the Beatles wouldn’t visit America until 1964, they were already making British girls go wild in 1963, with three UK number one singles (which stayed at the top for a combined total of 18 weeks) and a debut album that seemed to stay in the top 10 forever. When they visited the London Palladium to record a TV show in October, screaming fans crowded the streets, causing traffic jams at airports. The next month, they topped the bill at the Royal Variety Performance in London, where the Queen was somewhat more well behaved. 

2. The computer mouse

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Doug Engelbart at the Stanford Research Institute (now SRI International) invented the computer "mouse" in 1963 as an efficient way to control a pointer on a graphics display screen. With a small wooden box, moving around on wheels, and connected to a computer with a cable, “mouse” seemed like a logical name.

3. Weight Watchers

Housewife Jean Nidetch started the first Weight Watchers club after trying every fad diet, losing weight with each one, then regaining it due to her “promiscuous” eating habits. In 1961, despite all the past slimming, she weighed 214 pounds. She sought help from a New York obesity clinic, and invited overweight friends to form a group, meeting weekly to support each other through the dieting. From this club grew a multi-million-dollar empire.

4. Push-button telephones

The Bell System released the first publicly available push-button telephone in 1963. Still, dialing disks remained the standard method of entering numbers on telephones (hence “dialing”) for another 20 years, while push-button phones remained hi-tech and futuristic. 

5. Michael Jordan, Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt...

Michael Jordan turned 50 back in February. Johnny Depp will hit the half-century mark on June 9, which is probably why he’s starting to age. (He looks at least 30!) If it’s any consolation to him, he’s not the only one. Brad Pitt, Quentin Tarantino, Andrew Sullivan, Tori Amos, Edie Falco, Helen Hunt, John Stamos, Charles Barkley, Gary Kasparov, Lisa Kudrow, Joe Scarborough, Coolio, Julian Lennon, Jet Li, Conan O’Brien, James Hetfield, Norm Macdonald, Mike Myers, Steven Soderbergh, politician Rand Paul, and Japan’s Crown Princess Masako all will celebrate (or already celebrated) their fiftieth birthdays in 2013.

6. Marvel’s The Avengers

Nearly 50 years before the movie, Marvel Comics first published The Avengers, a superhero team comprised of some of their most popular solo characters—Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor, Ant-Man, and the Wasp. (The last two haven’t yet made it to the big screen.) Since then, dozens of others have joined, including Captain America, Spider-Man, Wolverine, the Black Widow, and Daredevil.

7. The X-Men

In November—the same month as the first issue of The Avengers and, again, years before the movies—Marvel also published the first issue of The Uncanny X-Men, about a team of young mutant heroes. They battled their arch-foe, Magneto, in the very first issue. 

8. Smiley face

Harvey Ball designed the smiley face in 1963 to cheer up and motivate the bored office workers at State Mutual Life Assurance Company. It was originally just the smile, but when cynical people turned it upside down to make a frown, Bell added two dots for eyes.

9. The Rolling Stones

They actually got together in London at the end of 1962, but in 1963 they recruited drummer Charlie Watts, released their first single (the Chuck Berry song "Come On," which they hated), and changed their name from “the Rollin’ Stones” to the Rolling Stones. In this, they were bucking a musical trend at the time: removing the G from any word ending in “ing.”

10. “Blowin’ in the Wind”

See what I mean? Bob Dylan’s peace anthem—also a hit that year for Peter, Paul and Mary—lost the G. So did Dylan’s song “Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues” and his new album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, which turned him into a star that year.

11. “Surfin’ USA”

“Blowin’ in the Wind” wasn’t the only anthem that year to drop the G. The Beach Boys’ anthem for surfers everywhere (not just the USA) was bought by millions of kids that year, most of whom probably didn’t notice that they’d copied the tune from Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen.”

12. Compact cassettes

Before digital recording, this was the cheapest way for kids in the seventies and eighties to record, and the most compact and portable way to play their favorite albums. The first C60 cassettes (30 minutes each side) were produced by Philips in 1963.

13. ZIP Codes

Announced on April 30, 1963, and put into effect on July 1, ZIP—or Zoning Improvement Plan—codes gave the post office a better, more efficient way to sort mail. According to USPS, "The first digit designated a broad geographical area of the United States, ranging from zero for the Northeast to nine for the far West. This number was followed by two digits that more closely pinpointed population concentrations and those sectional centers accessible to common transportation networks. The final two digits designated small Post Offices or postal zones in larger zoned cities." The use of ZIP codes wasn't mandatory until 1967.

14. Tennis for women

The Federation Cup, the premier team competition in women’s tennis (now known as the Fed Cup), and the first tennis tournament to invite women from outside the U.S. and Britain, premiered in 1963. The first Federation Cup had no prize money, and teams had to meet their own expenses. Sponsorship would change that, and now, winning the Federation Cup could be quite a lucrative accomplishment.

15. The Fugitive

Almost three decades before Harrison Ford tried to find the one-armed man, the original TV series starred David Janssen as Dr. Richard Kimble, on the run for a murder he didn’t commit. The final episode in 1967, in which the true murderer confesses, broke ratings records.

16. The Great Train Robbery

On August 8, in one of Britain’s most celebrated crimes, a gang of at least 15 men, armed and wearing masks, hijacked the night mail train from Glasgow to London, taking mailbags worth more than 2.5 million pounds. The most famous member of the gang, Ronald Biggs, was arrested soon afterwards, but escaped from prison in 1965 and fled to Australia. Pursued by police, he settled in Brazil for many years, with an income generated mainly by media interviews. He eventually returned home—and was promptly re-arrested. 

17. Hang-gliding

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Primitive hang-gliders, most of them dangerous, were used by daredevil birdmen before the Wright Brothers. However, it was in 1963 that an Australian, John W. Dickenson, adapted the flexible wing concept of earlier designs to make a new, vastly improved water-ski kite glider. In 2006, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale gave Dickenson the Hang Gliding Diploma (2006) for the invention of the “real” hang-glider.

18. Hover mowers

Lawnmowers had remained basically unchanged since the first rotary-blade mowers in the 1930s ... until Swedish inventor Karl Dahlman, inspired by the hovercraft, invented the Aktiebolaget Flymo, a mower that would hover above the grass, taking the weight out of mowing.

19. Hypertext

The word “hypertext,” the idea behind a common text based system for linking computer information that led to the internet (and the H in HTTP and HTML), was coined by Ted Nelson in 1963.

20. “I have a dream”

The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most famous speech was made in Washington on August 28, to a gathering of 200,000 people. President Kennedy, not a bad orator himself, also said a few words, but it was King who truly inspired the crowd (and millions of others): “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ I have a dream that the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners would sit together at the table of brotherhood.”

21. “Segregation forever”

From the other end of the political spectrum, it should be mentioned that King was up against the likes of the governor of Alabama, George Wallace. When he was sworn in on January 14, he pledged “segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.” Many civil rights demonstrations followed. In September, an African American church was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four girls. 

22. “Ich bin ein Berliner”

President Kennedy famously said these words in June at the Brandenburg Gate to boost the morale of West Berliners, more than a million of whom had turned out to greet him. Despite the urban legend, it really did mean “I am a Berliner” (as he had planned), and not “I am a jelly doughnut.” 

23. The election of Pope Paul VI

Following the surprise death of Pope John XXIII after only four years, Giovanni Battista Montini was elected Pope on June 21. Known for his liberal views and support of social reform, he would be the perfect Pope for the 1960s—though many didn’t believe that his reforms went far enough. He led until his death in 1978.

24. Iron Man

Two years before Robert Downey, Jr. was born, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created this superhero at Marvel Comics. In his origin story, Iron Man first built his armor to save his heart in Vietnam. As the years have worn on (and he hasn’t aged), the location has changed a few times. Most recently, he was serving in the Middle East.

25. Kenya

On December 12, Kenya became the 34th African nation to achieve independence, as the Duke of Edinburgh officially handed the nation to its new rulers.

26. Dead-donor kidney transplants

Kidney transplants had been successfully performed since 1958, but this was the first year that doctors successfully transplanted a kidney from a dead man, with the consent of his relatives. The kidney was cooled for preservation, then joined to the blood vessels of a living patient, bypassing his diseased kidneys.

27. Lava lamps

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The lamp with the psychedelic effect, soon to be part of many hip sixties bedside tables (even John Lennon had one), was invented by eccentric British entrepreneur Edward Craven-Walker. If you feel like going retro, you can still get one today.

28. Cleopatra

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Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s most notorious movie, this was the most expensive film ever made, still recalled as one of the great big-budget duds. Still, it was the number one box-office film of the year, and did indeed make a profit—eventually.

29. The Alphanumeric APS2

Twenty years before Microsoft Word, this was the first phototypesetting machine to generate characters onto a cathode ray tube, leading to the next generation in phototypesetting. If you went back in time, and you didn’t know better, you could swear that you were witnessing early personal computers (and in a way, that’s what they were).

30. Lilies of the Field

A milestone film, this would make Sidney Poitier—playing an unemployed construction worker—the first African American to win an Oscar for best actor.

31. Lamborghini

Ferruccio Lamborghini founded his company in Italy in May 1963, and debuted the first protoype model, the 350 GTV, at the Turin Auto Show in November that same year. (Lamborghini's first production model, the 350 GT, would be manufactured in 1964.)

32. Women in space

Twenty years before Sally Ride became the first female astronaut, 26-year-old Lieutenant Valentina Tereshkova became the first female (human) cosmonaut, when the Soviet Union sent her to circle the Earth 43 times in the Vostok 6 spaceship. Before joining the space program, she worked in a textile factory, and enjoyed skydiving in her spare time.

33. The Eruption of Mount Agung

As in most years, some of the greatest death tolls were caused by nature itself. On March 17, the holy volcano of Mount Agung erupted on the idyllic Indonesian island of Bali, killing 11,000 people. 

34. Modesty Blaise

Writer Peter O’Donnell and artist Jim Holdaway created a British comic strip heroine who proved that a female superspy could be just as cool, capable, sexy and multitalented as James Bond. The strip continued until 2001, still written by O’Donnell. The movies—three have been made so far—haven’t been quite so successful, though Quentin Tarantino has reportedly considered doing one.

35. “Be My Baby”

Decades before he was jailed for murder, Phil Spector was a brilliant, cocky, 23-year-old record producer who already had 11 top-20 songs to his credit. In December, fans heard his greatest production so far: “Be My Baby,” performed by the Ronettes (named after the lead singer Veronica Bennett, who later married him). This was possibly the best example of his famous “wall of sound,” with as many as 30 guitarists and pianists playing as one, every note painstakingly arranged by Spector. It was a nice song, but the innovative production made it a masterwork.

36. Nanoseconds

The new fraction of a second was introduced worldwide, mainly for use in future science fiction movies to describe the speed of unimaginably fast things. For the record, a nanosecond is a billionth of a second. Also in 1963, we were given picoseconds (trillionths of a second) and femtoseconds (1 x 10-15 of a second). How quick is that? Let’s just say that there are more femtoseconds in one second than there are seconds in 31 million years.

37. The killing of Medgar Evers

In one of the milestone tragedies of the era, the Mississippi civil rights leader was shot in the back on the night of June 12. This only served to mobilize the civil rights movement—both black and white protesters—which was supported by President Kennedy. 

38. The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty

The U.S., the USSR and Britain signed a treaty in Moscow on August 5, banning nuclear tests in the atmosphere, outer space, and underwater. Later, 113 other nations also signed—most of whom didn’t even have nuclear plants—and the Cold War ended (well, 27 years later).

39. The Nutty Professor

Jerry Lewis introduced his most famous character—or characters—in this film about a gawky professor who concocts a potion to temporarily turn himself into a debonair playboy (with a passing resemblance to Lewis’s former comedy partner Dean Martin, with whom he’d acrimoniously split). Unlike Eddie Murphy years later, Lewis didn’t play anyone else in the film—though as the director and co-writer, he had plenty to do.

40.

Federico Fellini’s semi-autobiographical masterpiece, which has appeared in many lists of the greatest films ever made, premiered in February. Many film buffs, however, were perplexed by its title. Fellini explained that he had added up his feature films: seven films as sole director, plus three collaborations counting as half each. Simple!

41. The Profumo affair

The polite world of British politics was dealt a blow with the revelation that John Profumo, Secretary of State for War, was having an affair with 21-year-old former showgirl Christine Keeler, who was also in a liaison with Soviet naval attaché Eugene Ivanov. By the end of the year, Profumo had resigned from the government for lying to the House of Commons, Keeler was jailed for perjury and conspiracy to pervert the cause of justice, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan had resigned, and Dr. Stephen Ward, a central figure in the scandal, had taken his own life before he could be sentenced. 

42. The most peaceful violent protest in history

One of the most shocking images of the peace protest movement occurred on June 13, when Buddhist monk Quang Doc set fire to himself, then sat meditating on the streets of Saigon as his body was engulfed in flames. This ritual suicide was a protest against the unfair treatment that the Buddhists felt that they suffered under the South Vietnamese government, led by President Diem.

43. Skateboarding

The first skateboard probably dates back to the 1940s, as something for surfers to use on the streets when the waves weren’t happening. It became a sport in 1963, however, following the surf craze. It was now called “skateboarding,” even though surf music stars Jan and Dean still had a hit song the next year with “Sidewalk Surfin’” (no G, of course). The first world championship was held in 1966, though the “world” didn’t really extend beyond the U.S.A.

44. Science of Being and Art of Living

The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s famous tome, which introduced the practice of Transcendental Meditation, would inspire thousands of people to meditate, even though it was self-published and only available through The Age of Enlightenment Press. He had already started teaching TM in the West (after starting in his native India), and would become guru to many, including the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Mia Farrow, Stevie Wonder, Peggy Lee, and Joe Namath.

45. The Birds

Perhaps Alfred Hitchcock’s final masterpiece (though he would direct another five films), this movie—in which a village is attacked, for no given reason, by murderous flocks of birds—still proves that a horror film doesn’t need eerie music (or, indeed, any music) to scare the pants off audiences. 

46. Astro Boy

The tiny, robotic superhero Tetsuwan-Atom had already been the hero of Japanese comics (manga) since 1951 when he debuted on Japanese television. The same year, animation cels were added for a U.S. version, Astro Boy, which was sponsored by NBC and syndicated nationwide.

47. Zanzibar

Though this East African country had been a sultanate hundreds of years earlier, it gained independence from Great Britain in December as a constitutional monarchy. A month later, after the violent Zanzibar Revolution, it became the People's Republic of Zanzibar and Pemba. In April 1964, the republic merged with the United Republic of Tanganyika, and they were renamed the United Republic of Tanzania. After one of the shortest histories of any nation, Zanzibar has been a semi-autonomous region ever since.

48. "Pop art" at the Guggenheim

The first large exhibition of this new and super-cool art style at New York’s Guggenheim Museum opened in March, featuring such artists as Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg.

49. The JFK assassination

The biggest news story of the year. When President Kennedy was murdered on November 22, watched by scores of horrified onlookers, the nation—and the world—was in tears. Though Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested, we are still debating who was really responsible. 

50. Doctor Who

Courtesy of WhatCulture

One of the biggest fiftieth anniversary celebrations in 2013 will be for an event that was barely noticed at the time. The first episode of Doctor Who was broadcast in Britain by the BBC on November 23, 1963—and was upstaged by the Kennedy assassination the day before. The most famous Doctor Who monsters, the Daleks, would make their debut the next month.

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History
9 Facts About Frances Perkins, the First Female Cabinet Member
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A social worker who became the first woman to serve on a president’s cabinet, Frances Perkins was an uncompromising woman in a man’s world. She fought for safety regulations in New York factories, helped formulate the New Deal, and attempted to save German Jews fleeing the Nazi regime. A threat to the status quo, she was accused of being a Communist as well as a Russian Jew who fabricated her identity, and she faced both disparaging pamphlet campaigns and potential impeachment. Despite these challenges, Frances Perkins doggedly pursued the course she thought was right, helping transform American institutions in the process.

1. SHE SOUGHT EDUCATION—IN THE CLASSROOM AND IN THE WORLD.

Born in 1880, Frances Perkins grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her father, who ran a stationery store, had not attended college, but he was a voracious reader who studied the law and read classical poetry in his spare time. When Fannie (as she was then known) was eight, he began teaching her Greek. She later attended Worcester Classical High School, a private college-preparatory academy that sent many of its male students to the Ivy League. With her father’s encouragement, Perkins enrolled in the all-women’s college Mt. Holyoke, where her classmates called her “Perk.”

Though she majored in chemistry with minors in physics and biology, Perkins discovered her calling during a course on the history of modern industrial economics. The professor required her students to visit factories, and Perkins was horrified by the dangerous environment faced by the workers, many of whom were women and children. Perkins’s parents—conservative middle-class New Englanders and devout members of the Congregational Church—had always told her that poverty resulted from alcohol and laziness, but visiting a factory caused Perkins to recognize “that there were some people much poorer than other people […] and that the lack of comfort and security in some people was not solely due to the fact that they drank.”

Perkins graduated from Mt. Holyoke in 1902—quite a feat considering that only 2.8 percent of American women attended college as of 1900 (the percentage of men was not much higher). She returned to Worcester to live with her family and became involved in a local girls’ club for teenage factory and store workers. When one of the girls had her hand amputated in an accident with a candy dipper, Perkins fought to secure $100 in compensation from her employer, only succeeding after a local clergyman intervened.

She moved to the north shore of Chicago to work as a science teacher at a women’s college, where she spent three years. But her mind was elsewhere—she had read Jacob Riis’s 1890 exposé on poverty in New York City, How the Other Half Lives, and was horrified and captivated. Perkins soon began volunteering at a settlement house in Chicago, where she encountered trade union advocates for the first time, and began to see them as necessary for workers’ rights rather than the “work of the devil,” as her parents had always said. She discovered that employers sometimes didn’t pay workers “just because [they] didn’t want to,” so she would go to collect wages on the workers’ behalf, wheedling and cajoling and even threatening. “A favorite device of mine was to threaten to tell [the employer’s] landlord that he didn’t pay wages,” she recalled in 1951.

Perkins soon quit teaching and entered social work full-time. In 1907, she moved to Philadelphia, where she worked for an organization that advocated for female workers (especially those who were immigrants), and attended the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Two years later, she moved to New York, where a mentor helped her secure a fellowship with the New York School of Philanthropy. Perkins spent her days conducting a survey on malnutrition among tenement children in Hell’s Kitchen for the School of Philanthropy and her nights attending classes at Columbia, graduating with her master’s in political science in 1910. That same year, she was introduced to Franklin Delano Roosevelt at a tea dance. Perkins later recalled, “There was nothing particularly interesting about the tall, thin young man with the high collar and pince-nez.” But that unimpressive young man would later change her life.

2. SHE WITNESSED THE TRIANGLE SHIRTWAIST FACTORY FIRE—AND IT SPURRED HER TO DEMAND CHANGE.

Labor Secretary Frances Perkins onboard an ocean liner in 1938
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After completing her master’s degree, Perkins became executive secretary of the New York City Consumers’ League, which conducted investigations into working conditions at factories and other facilities, like the bakeries located in the cellars of tenement buildings. She worked under Florence Kelly, a famous female reformer, who taught her the ropes of lobbying politicians and businesses for social reform. Perkins fought for legislation limiting women to a 54-hour work week, and a related bill passed in 1912 after two years of forceful advocacy from Perkins and other reformers. But one event in particular shaped the person—and the public figure—Perkins would become: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

On March 25, 1911, Perkins was attending a Saturday afternoon tea in Greenwich Village, when she and her friends heard a commotion outside. Fire trucks were clanging through the streets, and the women followed the racket to Washington Square, where the 10-story Asch Building was ablaze. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company occupied the building’s top three stories, and the company’s management regularly locked the factory’s doors to keep workers inside during their shifts, supposedly to deter theft. The elevators soon malfunctioned and the building had only one fire escape, which led to a walled-in courtyard. New York’s firefighters lacked ladders tall enough to reach the factory’s upper floors. Hundreds of workers—almost all women—were trapped. While many died from smoke inhalation or burned to death, others threw themselves from the factory’s windows. “Never shall I forget,” Perkins later said. “I watched those girls clinging to life on the window ledges until, their clothing in flames, they leaped to their death.” One hundred forty-six people died as a result of the blaze, nearly all young women between the ages of 16 and 23.

The horror of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire galvanized public support for industrial oversight and reform. The fire also prompted the creation of the New York State Factory Investigating Commission, and Perkins worked as one of the Commission’s chief investigators from 1912 to 1915. She was tenacious and passionate. To ensure that the commission’s leaders understood the perilous (and sometimes illegal) working conditions at New York factories, she forced them into the field. One morning, she roused them at dawn for a surprise visit to a cannery that was employing very young children. On another occasion, she urged the Commission’s chairman, State Senator Robert Wagner, to crawl through a small hole onto an ice-covered ladder to test one factory’s “fire escape.” Perkins made an impression on Wagner, and on the Commission’s vice chair, Al Smith, then a New York Assemblyman.

The Factory Investigating Commission instigated real change. By the end of 1914, 36 of the Commission’s recommendations had been codified into law. “The extent to which this legislation in New York marked a change in American political attitudes and policies toward social responsibility can scarcely be overrated,” Perkins later wrote. “It was, I am convinced, a turning point.” It marked a turning point in her career as well. When Al Smith became New York’s governor, he appointed her to the state Industrial Commission—the first woman to serve.

3. SHE CHANGED HER NAME—AND THEN REFUSED TO CHANGE IT AGAIN WHEN SHE GOT MARRIED.

Born Fannie Coralie Perkins, she changed her name to Frances around 1904 while living in Chicago. Biographers have suggested that, in doing so, she was signaling her independence from her parents—she converted from Congregationalist to Episcopalian around the same time—or desiring a name that was more gender-neutral.

In another signal of independence, Perkins kept her maiden name when, in 1913 at age 33, she married Paul Caldwell Wilson, a Progressive Republican and the budget secretary to the mayor of New York City. “I wasn’t very anxious to get married, to tell the truth,” she recalled during the 1950s, but acquaintances were constantly badgering her about when she’d get hitched and trying to set her up. “I thought, ‘I just better marry. I know Paul Wilson well. I like him. I’ve known him for a considerable time. I enjoy his society and company and I might as well marry and get it off my mind.’” But Perkins made it clear to Wilson that she wasn’t going to be a traditional wife: She would continue working, and she would continue to go by Miss Frances Perkins. “I felt, and I still feel, that at that time it was a great advantage in social work, in professional life to be Miss,” she said. “Mrs. is understood to be awfully occupied in the house and children.”

Perkins had also acquired a reputation by this point amongst reformers and politicians, and she didn’t want to lose that name recognition—or her sense of identity. “I was very puffed up, I suppose, about the fact that I could sign a letter and my name meant something to the Labor Commissioner of California. If I were Mrs. Paul C. Wilson, I was just somebody’s wife.”

Perkins’s husband—whom she called “quite a feminist”—thought it was “a good idea” for her to keep her maiden name, but institutions felt otherwise. The couple had to hire a lawyer to fight their life insurance company, who refused to make out their policies under her maiden name, and when Governor Al Smith appointed her to the state Industrial Commission, the New York attorney general insisted that all official papers refer to her as Frances Perkins Wilson. After consulting with Perkins, Smith finally ruled that she could use just her maiden name.

Perkins did occasionally use the name Mrs. Paul C. Wilson when it was more practical in her personal life—like when registering for hotels and securing a passport. Her mother also introduced her as "Mrs. Wilson."

4. AL SMITH AND FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT HELPED HER MOVE UP IN THE WORLD.

Perkins spent two years on the state Industrial Commission, earning an annual salary of $8000—quite the step up from the $40 per month she earned at her first social work job in Philadelphia (which her father had still considered far too much for a woman). After Smith was defeated for reelection, Perkins resigned from the Commission and worked for an organization supporting education for immigrant populations. When Smith took back the governorship in 1923, he appointed Perkins to the new Industrial Board, where she gained attention for her vocal support for workers’ compensation. She became the board’s chair in 1926. After years of resistance to her reform agenda, New York industry was beginning to come around to (some) workplace regulations, like temperature controls in factories and safety devices on machinery. Companies recognized that, by protecting the health of employees, these regulations actually made their operations more efficient, and more profitable. Frances Perkins and the New York Industrial Board were setting precedents that were soon followed by states like California, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Illinois.

During 1928, Al Smith secured the Democratic nomination for the presidency, and Perkins traveled around the country campaigning for him. She also developed a relationship with New York gubernatorial candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Smith supporter who introduced him at the 1924 Democratic National Convention. Smith lost the presidency to Herbert Hoover, but Roosevelt found himself in the governor’s mansion. The new governor appointed Perkins New York’s industrial commissioner—the top administrator for the state’s Department of Labor and the beneficiary of a $12,000 annual salary. She was confirmed in January 1929. Four years later, Roosevelt would be president—and he would name Perkins his Secretary of Labor.

5. SHE BECAME THE FIRST FEMALE MEMBER OF A PRESIDENT’S CABINET.

Perkins was uncertain about whether she wanted to follow Roosevelt to Washington. During his years as governor of New York, the two had developed a close working relationship, and Perkins was overflowing with ideas about how to use government to protect workers and help the public. But Perkins hated media attention—she once said that having her picture in the paper “nearly kills me”—and was particularly worried that her personal life would become newspaper fodder. (Her husband struggled with what today might be diagnosed as bipolar disorder, and had been admitted to a sanitarium in White Plains, New York, in 1932; Perkins feared his condition would become public and also loathed being far away from him.) Perkins even wrote Roosevelt a letter in early February 1933 urging him to appoint a union official instead of her.

A few weeks later, at a meeting at his home, Roosevelt officially asked Perkins to become his secretary of labor. She responded by listing the policies she would pursue if appointed—including an end to child labor, a minimum wage, a 40-hour work week, unemployment insurance, old-age insurance, and universal health insurance—and told him that if he didn’t support these goals, she would not serve on his cabinet. According to Perkins, Roosevelt was surprised, asking her, “Well, do you think it can be done?” She responded that she didn’t know, but would do everything possible to make it happen. Roosevelt gave his consent to her agenda, and on March 4, 1933, Perkins was sworn in as the first female cabinet secretary.

6. SHE CULTIVATED A MATERNAL IMAGE.

Since entering the political arena, Perkins had kept a red folder of observations titled “Notes on the Male Mind.” She paid careful attention to male colleagues’ preferences and expectations so that, whenever possible, she could manipulate gender stereotypes to her advantage. In 1913, at the beginning of her career in New York politics, she encountered a Democratic state senator who burst out crying when he saw her, confessing that he felt guilty for helping impeach the governor, who was also a Democrat. Though Perkins was not involved in the impeachment, seeing her triggered the senator’s guilt at betraying a colleague. “Every man’s got a mother, you know,” he said to Perkins.

This senator made a profound impression, inspiring Perkins to cultivate a maternal—even matronly—image. By dressing and behaving in a way that reminded powerful men of their mothers, she could shame them into supporting her causes, and by retaining a stereotypical womanly manner, she threatened them less than if she’d imitated their bullish ways. On the day FDR’s cabinet first met, Perkins later recalled, “I wanted to give the impression of being a quiet, orderly woman who didn’t buzz-buzz all the time. […] I knew that a lady interposing an idea into men’s conversation is very unwelcome. I just proceeded on the theory that this was a gentleman’s conversation on the porch of a golf club perhaps. You didn’t butt in with bright ideas.”

With her subtle ways and matronly outfits—complete with tricorne hat—Perkins was able to convince her male colleagues to champion many of her “bright ideas.” However, even this tactic did not always work. Charles E. Wyzanski, Jr., a solicitor general at the Labor Department and ally of Perkins, once noted that congressmen did not like to receive lectures from a woman who seemed like “a combination of their mothers, teachers, and blue-stocking constituents.”

7. SHE HELPED FORMULATE THE NEW DEAL AND PASSED SOCIAL SECURITY.

President Roosevelt signing the Social Security Act
President Roosevelt signing the Social Security Act, with Perkins and other members of the government standing nearby.
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Perkins supported and helped shepherd New Deal programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, and the National Industrial Recovery Act. Labor historian C. E. Daniel stated, “It is hard to think of any [New Deal] accomplishments related to labor that don’t reflect the contributions of Frances Perkins.”

But perhaps Perkins’s biggest accomplishment was the passage of the Social Security Act. In 1934, Roosevelt named Perkins the chair of the Committee on Economic Security, which he had created by executive order. In that role, she helped craft a social security plan that included not just the old-age pensions we now associate with the name Social Security, but also workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, maternal and child health-services, and direct aid to the poor and the disabled. The Social Security Act passed Congress by a wide margin and was signed into law by FDR on August 14, 1935. “The real roots of the Social Security Act were in the great depression of 1929,” Perkins remarked in 1962. “Nothing else would have bumped the American people into a social security system except something so shocking, so terrifying, as that depression.”

Perkins also helped draft the Fair Labor Standards Act, which outlawed most child labor and established a federal minimum wage, a system of overtime pay, an eight-hour work day, and, for most workers, a 40-hour work week. The FLSA became law in 1938.

8. SHE WAS ATTACKED AS A COMMUNIST AND A SECRET JEW.

Like President Barack Obama, Perkins faced her own “birther” controversy: She was accused of secretly being a Russian Jew. Anti-Semitic pamphleteer Robert Edward Edmondson—who believed the New Deal was directed by Jews who wished to turn America into a Communist country—identified Perkins as one of the six main “sinister forces” in the Roosevelt administration in a 1935 pamphlet, which speculated that she “may be of Russian-Jewess origin.”

The rumor that Perkins was secretly a Russian Jew spread like wildfire. A genealogist appeared at her sister’s New England home, asking questions about their ancestry. Reporters began demanding proof of her personal history and family lineage. Then, in 1936, the American Vigilante (sometimes spelled Vigilant) Intelligence Federation—an anti-union, anti-Jewish group that amassed records on people who might be “reds”—published a pamphlet trumpeting “the truth about the Secretary of Labor”: that she was secretly a Jew named Matilda Watski. The Pennsylvania Daughters of the American Revolution launched an investigation into her heritage. In response, Perkins published a detailed account of her family background and even got the doctor who delivered her to make a statement that she was who she said she was, but the rumors continued to spread. Perkins received a flood of inquisitive and angry letters. She found the situation stressful, saying later, “You could deny it […] but you couldn’t make a public denunciation of the charge because that would appear that there was something very wrong about being a Jew.” Instead, Perkins made a public statement in 1936 saying, “If I were a Jew, […] I would be proud to acknowledge it.”

In the 1930s, many people feared a conspiracy between communists and Jews to undermine the United States, so rumors that Perkins was Jewish compounded reports that she was a red sympathizer, or a Communist herself. The controversy over her identity and loyalties eventually reached Congress. Republican Congressman Clare Hoffman attacked Perkins as “the wife of someone, though God alone knows what her true name may be, and no man yet has published the place of her birth.” In 1938, the new House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) targeted several members of Roosevelt’s administration, including Perkins, accusing them of communism.

The attack on Perkins came to a head in January 1939, when a Republican congressman from New Jersey and member of HUAC, J. Parnell Thomas, introduced impeachment proceedings against Perkins to the House of Representatives. Her alleged offense was failing to enforce deportation laws against an Australian immigrant named Harry Bridges who had led a longshoremen’s strike in San Francisco in 1934 and was rumored to be a communist. (At the time, the Immigration and Naturalization Service was part of the Department of Labor, so deportation decisions fell under Perkins’s purview.) She found no concrete evidence that Bridges was a member of the Communist Party and so did not deport him, but her opponents used the incident as an excuse to drag her name through the mud.

In private Roosevelt told Perkins not to worry, and in public he made light of the impeachment proceedings. In reality, he could not stop them, though Congress was dominated by Democrats. Perkins later wrote, with some understatement, “I didn’t like the idea of being impeached and was considerably disturbed by the episode.” She suffered through hearings and newspaper coverage, but the Judiciary Committee eventually vindicated her, ruling unanimously not to recommend impeachment.

9. SHE TRIED TO SAVE JEWISH REFUGEES FLEEING THE NAZIS.

After coming to power in January 1933, Adolf Hitler quickly began stripping German Jews of their civil rights. Denied passports by the German government and visas by the U.S. State Department, Jews who wished to escape the Nazi regime had almost no chance of reaching the United States. Perkins considered the situation a humanitarian crisis, and began urging Roosevelt to liberalize immigration policies to accept vast numbers of Jewish refugees.

While the State Department controlled visas, Perkins’s Department of Labor had jurisdiction over immigration and naturalization. One major difficulty lay in existing immigration policy, which held that the United States should bar any would-be immigrant “likely to become a public charge.” The Nazi regime systematically stripped German Jews of their possessions, meaning they would arrive in the United States destitute and so were inadmissible under current policy. Perkins found a way around this problem: Existing immigration law allowed the Secretary of Labor to accept a bond—a sum of money—in order to guarantee that a specific immigrant would not become a public charge. Perkins and Labor Department Solicitor Charles Wyzanski, Jr., argued that such bonds, guaranteed by the friends and relatives of refugees, could be used to admit large numbers of German Jews. In December 1933, Attorney General Homer Cummings affirmed Perkins’s legal right to accept bonds from American citizens to sponsor the admission of German refugees.

However, the State Department was strongly opposed to admitting Jewish refugees, as was public opinion, and Perkins’s own deputies worried about accepting vast numbers of displaced Jews. Ultimately, Perkins’s bond proposal never came to fruition, but over the next few years she instituted a plan to receive Jewish refugee children, resettling about 400 with American foster families, thanks to the financial backing of an American relief organization called the German Jewish Children’s Aid, Inc.

She also worked to extend the visas of German Jews already in the U.S. on temporary visas. As early as 1933, Perkins had suggested granting visitors’ visas to refugees as a means of getting them into the country quickly, before considering permanent asylum, but Roosevelt and the State Department had rejected that proposal. After Kristallnacht (the violent anti-Jewish riots of November 1938 in Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland), President Roosevelt agreed to another proposal from Perkins. On November 18, 1938, he announced that he was extending the visitors’ visas of 12,000 to 15,000 German Jews already in the country, as “it would be a cruel and inhuman thing to compel them to leave here.” While the State Department continued to limit the granting of visas to people still in Europe, Perkins’s Labor Department also continued to grant extensions to refugees who managed to enter the U.S. on visitors’ visas. Historian Bat-Ami Zucker estimates that from 1933 to 1940, between 20,000 and 30,000 Jewish refugees entered the country on visitors’ visas and then sought permanent residence.

Perkins had wished to accept many more. “From 1933 to early 1938, Frances had stood almost alone in highlighting the plight of German refugees and in urging U.S. government action,” Perkins biographer Kirstin Downey writes. Though she was unsuccessful in promoting a number of schemes for changing or getting around existing immigration laws, she continued to advocate for Jewish refugees through her position as secretary of labor. Her term lasted until 1945, when she resigned soon after Roosevelt’s death.

Additional Sources:

Frances Perkins and the German-Jewish Refugees, 1933-1940,” American Jewish History, Vol. 89, No. 1; “The Ghost in the Machine: Frances Perkins’ Refusal to Accept Marginalization,” Master’s Thesis, University of Missouri, Kansas City, 2014 [PDF]; “The Libel Trial of Robert Edward Edmondson: 1936–1938,” American Jewish History, Vol. 71, No. 1; “The Pre-New Deal Career of Frances Perkins, 1880–1932,” Master’s Thesis, Florida Atlantic University, 1975; “Yankee Reformer in a Man’s World: Frances Perkins as Secretary of Labor,” Dissertation, Michigan State University, 1978.

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Lost Gustav Holst Music Found in a New Zealand Symphony Archive
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English composer Gustav Holst became famous for his epic seven-piece suite "The Planets," but not all of his works were larger-than-life. Take "Folk Songs from Somerset," a collection of folk tunes composed by Holst in 1906 and largely forgotten in the decades since. Now, more than a century later, the music is finally attracting attention. As Atlas Obscura reports, manuscripts of the songs were rediscovered among a lost collection of sheet music handwritten by the musician.

The Holst originals were uncovered from the archives of a New Zealand symphony during a routine cleaning a few years ago. While throwing away old photocopies and other junk, the music director and the librarian of the Bay of Plenty (BOP) Symphonia came across two pieces of music by Holst. The scores were penned in the composer’s handwriting and labeled with his former address. Realizing the potential importance of their discovery, they stored the documents in a safe place, but it wasn't until recently that they were able to verify that the manuscripts were authentic.

For more than a century, the Holst works were thought to be lost for good. "These manuscripts are a remarkable find, particularly the ‘Folk Songs from Somerset’ which don’t exist elsewhere in this form," Colin Matthews of London's Holst Foundation said in a statement from the symphony.

How, exactly, the documents ended up in New Zealand remains a mystery. The BOP Symphonia suspects that the sheets were brought there by Stanley Farnsworth, a flutist who performed with an early version of the symphony in the 1960s. “We have clues that suggest the scores were used by Farnsworth,” orchestra member Bronya Dean said, “but we have no idea how Farnsworth came to have them, or what his connection was with Holst.”

The symphony plans to mark the discovery with a live show, including what will likely be the first performance of "Folk Songs from Somerset" in 100 years. Beyond that, BOP is considering finding a place for the artifacts in Holst’s home in England.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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