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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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Art
5 Things You Might Not Know About Ansel Adams

You probably know Ansel Adams—who was born on February 20, 1902—as the man who helped promote the National Park Service through his magnificent photographs. But there was a lot more to the shutterbug than his iconic, black-and-white vistas. Here are five lesser-known facts about the celebrated photographer.

1. AN EARTHQUAKE LED TO HIS DISTINCTIVE NOSE.

Adams was a four-year-old tot when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck his hometown. Although the boy managed to escape injury during the quake itself, an aftershock threw him face-first into a garden wall, breaking his nose. According to a 1979 interview with TIME, Adams said that doctors told his parents that it would be best to fix the nose when the boy matured. He joked, "But of course I never did mature, so I still have the nose." The nose became Adams' most striking physical feature. His buddy Cedric Wright liked to refer to Adams' honker as his "earthquake nose.

2. HE ALMOST BECAME A PIANIST.

Adams was an energetic, inattentive student, and that trait coupled with a possible case of dyslexia earned him the heave-ho from private schools. It was clear, however, that he was a sharp boy—when motivated.

When Adams was just 12 years old, he taught himself to play the piano and read music, and he quickly showed a great aptitude for it. For nearly a dozen years, Adams focused intensely on his piano training. He was still playful—he would end performances by jumping up and sitting on his piano—but he took his musical education seriously. Adams ultimately devoted over a decade to his study, but he eventually came to the realization that his hands simply weren't big enough for him to become a professional concert pianist. He decided to leave the keys for the camera after meeting photographer Paul Strand, much to his family's dismay.

3. HE HELPED CREATE A NATIONAL PARK.

If you've ever enjoyed Kings Canyon National Park in California, tip your cap to Adams. In the 1930s Adams took a series of photographs that eventually became the book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail. When Adams sent a copy to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, the cabinet member showed it to Franklin Roosevelt. The photographs so delighted FDR that he wouldn't give the book back to Ickes. Adams sent Ickes a replacement copy, and FDR kept his with him in the White House.

After a few years, Ickes, Adams, and the Sierra Club successfully convinced Roosevelt to make Kings Canyon a national park in 1940. Roosevelt's designation specifically provided that the park be left totally undeveloped and roadless, so the only way FDR himself would ever experience it was through Adams' lenses.

4. HE WELCOMED COMMERCIAL ASSIGNMENTS.

While many of his contemporary fine art photographers shunned commercial assignments as crass or materialistic, Adams went out of his way to find paying gigs. If a company needed a camera for hire, Adams would generally show up, and as a result, he had some unlikely clients. According to The Ansel Adams Gallery, he snapped shots for everyone from IBM to AT&T to women's colleges to a dried fruit company. All of this commercial print work dismayed Adams's mentor Alfred Stieglitz and even worried Adams when he couldn't find time to work on his own projects. It did, however, keep the lights on.

5. HE AND GEORGIA O'KEEFFE WERE FRIENDS.

Adams and legendary painter O'Keeffe were pals and occasional traveling buddies who found common ground despite their very different artistic approaches. They met through their mutual friend/mentor Stieglitz—who eventually became O'Keeffe's husband—and became friends who traveled throughout the Southwest together during the 1930s. O'Keeffe would paint while Adams took photographs.

These journeys together led to some of the artists' best-known work, like Adams' portrait of O'Keeffe and a wrangler named Orville Cox, and while both artists revered nature and the American Southwest, Adams considered O'Keeffe the master when it came to capturing the area. 

“The Southwest is O’Keeffe’s land,” he wrote. “No one else has extracted from it such a style and color, or has revealed the essential forms so beautifully as she has in her paintings.”

The two remained close throughout their lives. Adams would visit O'Keeffe's ranch, and the two wrote to each other until Adams' death in 1984.

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presidents
George Washington’s Incredible Hair Routine

America's Founding Fathers had some truly defining locks, but we tend to think of those well-coiffed white curls—with their black ribbon hair ties and perfectly-managed frizz—as being wigs. Not so in the case of the main man himself, George Washington.

As Robert Krulwich reported at National Geographic, a 2010 biography on our first president—Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow—reveals that the man “never wore a wig.” In fact, his signature style was simply the result of an elaborately constructed coiffure that far surpasses most morning hair routines, and even some “fancy” hair routines.

The style Washington was sporting was actually a tough look for his day. In the late 18th century, such a hairdo would have been worn by military men.

While the hair itself was all real, the color was not. Washington’s true hue was a reddish brown color, which he powdered in a fashion that’s truly delightful to imagine. George would (likely) don a powdering robe, dip a puff made of silk strips into his powder of choice (there are a few options for what he might have used), bend his head over, and shake the puff out over his scalp in a big cloud.

To achieve the actual ‘do, Washington kept his hair long and would then pull it back into a tight braid or simply tie it at the back. This helped to showcase the forehead, which was very in vogue at the time. On occasion, he—or an attendant—would bunch the slack into a black silk bag at the nape of the neck, perhaps to help protect his clothing from the powder. Then he would fluff the hair on each side of his head to make “wings” and secure the look with pomade or good old natural oils.

To get a better sense of the play-by-play, check out the awesome illustrations by Wendy MacNaughton that accompany Krulwich’s post.

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