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Library of Congress
Library of Congress

The Story That Launched Nellie Bly’s Famed Journalism Career

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

In 1885, the Pittsburg Dispatch published a letter from an “Anxious Father,” wondering what to do with his five unmarried daughters, alongside a response from columnist Erasmus Wilson entitled “What Girls are Good For.” The reply likely did nothing to soothe Anxious Father. In it, Wilson, who was known as the "Quiet Observer," or Q.O., went on a screed against the working woman—whom he declared “a monstrosity”—and insisted that the only proper place for the fairer sex was in the home. Wilson admonished the American parents who had let such standards slip and went so far as to suggest (ostensibly in jest) we might want to take a page out of China’s book and consider female-specific infanticide to deal with all our girls.

The paper received some blowback from women in the community. Among the Letters to the Editor that Wilson’s chauvinistic diatribe elicited was one from an anonymous “Lonely Orphan Girl.” Managing editor George Madden was so impressed with the ferocity and writing ability the letter exhibited that he published an ad in the paper inviting Lonely to come by the paper’s office for proper recognition. The next day, 20-year-old Elizabeth Cochran showed up.

Her father had been a wealthy man—her original hometown of Cochran's Mills, Penn. was named after him—with 15 children between two marriages. But after he died, when Elizabeth was just 6, her mother Mary Jane struggled to keep the family afloat. She married and divorced an abusive man and moved her family to Pittsburgh where Elizabeth helped run the family’s boarding home.

But her childhood dreams of writing professionally persisted, and when she arrived at the Dispatch’s offices, Madden offered her an opportunity to do just that. He asked her to turn her letter into a rebuttal piece about “the women’s sphere”—and when she did so with aplomb, the Dispatch hired her full time and gave her the pen name under which she would become famous: Nellie Bly.

The Girl Puzzle

“What shall we do with the girls?” the article, entitled "The Girl Puzzle" opened. "Those without talent, without beauty, without money."

She went on to address the Anxious Father and his five daughters specifically and practically. In evidence of much of her future work, "Bly" focused at first not on the rhetorical ideology of womanhood, or even feminism as we might understand it today, but rather the acute struggles of lower class single mothers.

Can they that have full and plenty of this world’s good realize what it is to be a poor working woman, abiding in one or two bare rooms, without fire enough to keep warm, while her threadbare clothes refuse to protect her from the wind and cold, and denying herself necessary food that her little ones may not go hungry; fearing the landlord’s frown and threat to cast her out and sell what little she has, begging for employment of any kind that she may earn enough to pay for the bare rooms she calls home, no one to speak kindly to or encourage her, nothing to make life worth living? If sin in the form of a man comes forward with a wily smile and says “fear no more, your debts shall be paid,” she cannot let her children freeze or starve, and so falls.

Having been born into wealth but having witnessed her mother struggle most of her life, Bly understood the impact that a person's class could have on the opportunities available to them.

Perhaps she had not the advantage of a good education, consequently cannot teach; or, providing she is capable, the girl that needs it not half as much, but has the influential friends, gets the preference.

Bly concluded this first portion of her essay—that which is addressed not at men but at "butterflies of fashions, ladies of leisure," who do not understand how their lower class sisters suffer—with a bleak reappropriation of Wilson's flippant remark about China.

Mr. Quiet Observations says: “In China they kill girl babies. Who knows but that this country may have to resort to this sometime.” Would it not be well, as in some cases it would save a life of misery and sin and many a lost soul?

The solution to this miserable cycle, Bly posits, is to treat girls as boys. She sees in her ambitious male counterparts the opportunity for greater social mobility that can traced back not to innate ability but to the opportunities open to them.

How many wealthy and great men could be pointed out who started in the depths but where are the many women? Let a youth start as errand boy and he will work his way up until he is one of the firm. Girls are just as smart, a great deal quicker to learn; why, then, can they not do the same?

Bly, who would go on to become a pioneer in the field of immersive investigative reporting, concludes her very first piece of published writing with an entreaty:

Here would be a good field for believers in women’s rights. Let them forego their lecturing and writing and go to work; more work and less talk. Take some girls that have the ability, procure for them situations, start them on their way, and by so doing accomplish more than by years of talking.

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History
The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

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Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
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History
A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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