21 September 2019

Strong American women Part I - Jewish women in NY meat riots

As Rachel Serkin (History Today Aug 2017) showed, from 1881 until the USA changed its immigration laws, 2.5 million Jews em­igrated to the USA from Eastern Europe. Over a third of them set­tled in New York's Lower East Side, seeking religious freedom & econ­omic opportunity. Political activism was familiar. Garment workers were striking for better wages and safer working condit­ions. The neighbourhood's progressive socialist newspaper, the Jewish Daily Forward, was the nation’s leading foreign language newspaper.

In America, Jewish families wanted to purchase and consume kosher meat of course. And by 1900 the Lower East Side was home to 132 kosher butcher shops, their produce being delivered by rail from Chicago’s meat houses. In 1902, the three largest of these meat packing houses merged to form the National Beef Trust of America, securing control of packing houses in three cities and setting the prices (of kosher and non-kosher meat) at their own discretion.

The Beef Trust was just one of many Gilded Age monopolies operating without any regulation. In early May 1902, the Beef Trust raised the price of kosher meat by 50%, from 12 to 18 cents a pound. Small meat shops tried to fight the Trust, but they were forced to pass the price hike on to customers.

Crowd at kosher butcher shop during the Kosher Meat Boycott, 
New York; 1902. 
Jewish Virtual Library 

Immigrant women were most affected by the increase because they had the home and family responsibilities, plus managing household expen­ses. In Eastern Europe, consumption of kosher meat on a weekly bas­is had been rare, whilst in the US women wanted to feed their child­­­ren a richer diet. But buying non-kosher meat was not an option. 

Instead of turning to their rabbis, the women turned to politics. That is, they employed protest tactics borr­ow­ed from the radical pol­it­ical movements that had been used locally. In May 1902, the Lower East Side’s Jewish house wives took to the streets in a meat-hurling frenzy. The women launched a door-to-door campaign, urging their neighbours to not eat meat.

Two women called a mass meeting to plan a boy­cott. All over the Lower East Side, women began passing out Yid­dish flyers, urging other women to consider their children’s meat needs. Within days, thousands of East Side women participated in the boycott.

A noisy crowd [mostly women] patrolled the neighbourhood and on May 15th, thousands of them descended upon the neigh­bourhood butcher shops. Newspapers reported that women were smashing butcher shop windows with bricks and wasting meat by throwing it into the street, soak­ing it in kerosene and setting it alight. Anyone caught carrying meat was considered to be a picket-crossing scab! Amid the chaos, the police were called and 70+ women were arrested and gaoled for disorderly conduct. 

New York Evening World, May 16 1902, front page 
“Bluecoats Keep East Side Crowds Moving and Prevent a Renewal of the Meat Riots”.
Tenement Museum

The riots contin­ued for days. Orthodox Jews and Socialist Jews, who disagreed on most things, fought side by side. The New York Times reported in horror that women, armed with sticks and sharpened nails attacked the police. “Old shoes, brushes, combs, brooms and every other imagin­able portable article of household use rained down upon the pave­ment. One police­man had an unpleasant, moist piece of liver slapped in his face.”

The protests dominated the streets, but the community would not have expected the women to make their mark on the synagogue. The synagogue was the sphere where men and women had to remain sep­arate. Two women entered the main sanctuary at Eldridge St Synag­og­ue and ascended the bimah, a holy place in a synagogue. One of the women gave a fiery speech about meat prices and asked the congreg­ation to join their cause. The congregation was instantly in uproar! And women streamed out of the balconies during the Torah reading, to bring attention to the cause.

Women in the community went door-to-door, raising bail money. Then male communal leaders decided to get involved, organising a meeting of their own and informing the women that they should now back off. They pub­lished a flyer saying “brave and honest men are now aiding women!!”

The Times called the 1902 strikers “a class of people… who are engaged in this matter have many elements of a dangerous class. They are very ignorant… They do not understand the duties of the rights of Americans. The rioters were animals with “no inbred or acquired respect for law and order as the basis of the life of the society into which they have come. … The instant they take the law into their own hands, the instant they begin the destruction of property and assail peaceable citizens and the police, they should be handled in a way that they can understand and cannot forget.” The police, on the other hand, were seen as “keeping their heads perfectly. They did all they could to prevent serious injuries to those they strove against, and used their sticks more to frighten than to chastise. The police were remarkable.”

Only local papers like Forverts declared “Bravo, Bravo, Bravo, Jewish women! These women had embraced modern tactics as a means of maintaining an Old World tradition”. To many, there was nothing more American than that.

In June, the Beef Trust lowered their prices! Then the butchers dropped theirs down to a more reasonable 14c a pound. The women had won! Later in the year, President Roosevelt enacted laws against the Beef Trust, leading to the eventual dissolution of monopolies and ushering in a new era of regulation.

women ascended the formal bimah, 
Eldridge St Synag­og­ue, Manhattan

The Kosher Meat Boycott of 1902 was not the last time Jewish women took to the streets in search of justice; there was the 1909 shirtwaist strike and a second meat boycott years later, in May 1935. But it was their political activism in 1902 had revealed the complex roles that women and immigrants played in changing social history.

You may like to read Paula Hyman’s work “Immigrant Women and Consumer Protest: The New York Kosher Meat Boycott of 1902” (in The American Jewish Experience, Jonathan Sarna ed. 1997)

17 September 2019

Samuel Pepys' diary, politics, Navy and sex life

Personal diaries have always been essential, to save historians from being totally dependent on royal chronicles and military reports. But what were the chances of a mid-17th century home-based book surviving fires, wars and bombs, and lasting until today? Slim!

Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) wasn’t a member of the aristocracy or gen­try. His father was a London tailor who married a but­ch­er’s daught­er and had 11 children. He was sent to Huntingdon Grammar School in 1642, just as King Charles I started the British Civil Wars. At 15, Pepys watched the execut­ion of the king in 1649. He att­end­ed Mag­dalene College Cambridge and gained a reputation as a boozer.

After university, Pepys got lucky; he linked up with relatives who were gentry, and patrons. Cousin Edward Mountagu was a high-ranking naval officer who hired Pepys as his pers­on­al sec­ret­ary. Pepys had a couple of years to learn every­thing he would need, in order to rise in society: to dance and to buy fash­ion­able men’s clothing.

The very handsome Samuel Pepys
portrait painted by John Hayls in 1666
National Portrait Gallery

Pepys married 14 year old French Huguenot Elizabeth de St Michel in 1655. It was a stormy relat­ionship with a fiery temper on Eliza­b­eth’s side and constant infid­elity on Samuel’s side. In 1658 Pepys underwent a lithotomy, rem­ov­al of a kidney stone via very scary surgery.

Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell died in 1658. When the Rump Parlia­ment was recalled in early May 1659, Lord Protector Rich­ard Crom­well resigned in late May 1659 and the Puritan Commonwealth ended, British life changed.

Pepys’ first diary entry, Jan 1660, had an intimate introd­uction to life in White­hall with his wife. He was moving up in the world, working as a teller for the Excheq­uer. And this was when he used his writing skill and his passion to describe the world around him. Thanks to all the articles in The Diary of Samuel Pepys. From his detailed writing, it was clear he really liked wine, plays, music and the intimate company of many women.

A power vacuum had opened after the Commonwealth ended, leaving Britain terrified as to who would seize power. The return of monar­chy was seen as the safest option, so cousin Edward Montagu quickly allied himself with those wishing to restore the king.

An invitation reached Charles in May 1660, asking him to return to Britain as the next king. Montagu was asked to sail his fleet from Dover and wait at sea, while parliament voted. Now Montague had a new opportunity for Pepys, one that took him into the heart of Eng­lish politics. Pepys accompanied Montagu as his secretary, spending some days in The Hague and writing diary entries.

On board ship, Pepys list­ened in awe while Charles told tales of his difficult escape from Worcester 8 years before. On 25 May 1660, Charles landed in Dover after his exile ended.

Safely in London again, Pepys colourfully recorded King Charles II's coronation in detail, describing the glorious royal robes, dia­monds gold and silver.

Charles II's cavalcade through London, 
by Dirk Stoop
Museum of London

The King’s coronation was the source of much joy after the Puritans’ tyrannical reign. Pep­ys re­corded the founding of the Bank of England and the app­oint­ment of Henry Purcell as organist of Westminster Abbey. He wrote about the contemp­orary court, his household and major polit­ic­al and soc­ial events. And the newly reopened theatre became his passion, as did the coffee houses. Pep­ys recounted having attended 100+ plays and enjoyed the publication of Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan and John Milton's Paradise Lost.

When Montagu was made Earl of Sandwich by Charles II, he in turn rewarded Pepys with a role at the Navy Board. This came with an attractive salary and a home at the Navy Office. He was an effective member of the Board, and this allowed him to rise to more prominent positions eg Justice of the Peace; adminis­t­rator in the English colony of Tangier.

Pepys lived in central London during the Great Plague that swept the city in 1665, sending his wife to Woolwich to save her. He was distressed at the number of graves dug and how many poor sick peop­le were in the streets, full of sores.

Worse suffering followed; Pepys described the Great Fire of London in 1666. He recorded a scene of chaos as people struggled to save their children, and goods that they flung into the river. Pepys, who now moved in the inner circles of court, personally informed Charles II of the fire’s progress, rep­orting the destruction of 13,000+ homes and c90 parish churches. He said that unless his Majesty commanded houses to be pulled down, nothing could stop the fire.

Great Fire of London
London Bridge (left) and Tower of London (right)
Photo credit: On This Day

In any case the glamour was fading. Years after Charles was crown­ed, Pepys thought Charles didn’t have the right priorities. He rec­orded that while the Dutch burned the English fleet at Medway, the king was hunting and dining with Lady Castlemaine. It seemed hypocritical that Pepys was quick to condemn the debauchery of the court yet continued his own adult­eries. In 1667, he wrote that the King and Court were never in the world so bad as they are now for gaming, swearing, whoring and drinking, and the most abominable vices that ever were in the world”.
Remarkably Pepys had surv­ived the Great Plague that killed 100,000 Londoners, and in 1666 his home narrowly escaped the fire that razed four-fifths of the city. But he stopped writing his diary in May 1669 due to poor eye­sight! Six months later, Elizabeth died from typhoid fever.

Continuing to climb the political ladder, Pepys was elected as an MP first in Norfolk in 1673 and then MP for Harwich in 1679. In these years he introduced many improvements and expansions to the Navy while Secretary to the Admiralty, and was widely respected.

But he acquired a few powerful political enemies as well. Accused of complic­ity in the Popish Plot, of selling naval secrets to France and of piracy, Pepys was imprisoned in the Tower of London for six weeks in 1679. He was eventual­ly discharged. In 1689, he was gaoled for plotting to restore the exiled King James to the throne and a year later, he was re-arrested on susp­ic­ion of being involved in an insurrection to restore James.

Pepys retired from public life and lived quietly into old age. He died in 1703 at 70.

At Magdalene Cambridge, Pepys' own college, the Pepys Library is a rare example of a C17th private library and one of the most significant collections of books and manuscripts in British history. The diary, written between 1660-69, was found in this college in 1825, when the shorthand and censored version was pub­lished. The uncensored version first appeared in the 1980s by Hyman of London, supplemented with commentary from prominent hist­orians.

14 September 2019

Brutalist architecture

Brutal­ism was a style that flourished from the 1950s to the mid-1970s, adapting from the modernist architectural movement. Its monolithic concrete buildings composed of blunt rectangular forms, devoid of colour, decoration or symbolism, with cavernous interiors that complement the exterior’s hulking, inhuman scale. It may have been described as oppressive, yet architects, preservationists and his­tor­ians have embarked on numerous campaigns over the past decade to save extant Brutalist buildings from oblivion.

In the 1920s, my French architect Le Corbusier popularised an arch­itecture that celebrated simple cubic forms of raw concrete as the epitome of modernism. Did he start the modernist fondness for raw concrete? The idea of natural finishes meant that the concrete was intentionally left raw.

After WW2, architects and engineers looked to con­crete as the material that would help with mass hous­ing and urban renewal. Unrefined concrete was an honest expres­sion of their eth­ical goals, while plain forms and exposed structures were just as ethical. With the arrival of metal reinforcing, concrete came into its own with greater expanses and stronger structures. From Soviet housing complexes to Western European community projects, Brutalism became a modern, efficient and cheap solution for mass services. Brutalism had an era of popularity with professionals until the mid 1970s, but probably not with the general public.

So Brutalism was not just a style; it aimed to respond to a mass-production society. Up to now Brutalism has been discussed stylistically, whereas its essence was ethical.

It was functional, economical and progressive. It was essential to consider Brutalism’s ethics and politics. Firstly, Brutalism evokes an era of optimism and belief in the permanence of public instit­ut­ions – government as well as public housing, educational and health facilities. Furthermore who wants more private developments destroying and replacing community-owned facilities?

High Court Building, Canberra
Opened by Her Majesty the Queen, 1980.

Inevitably Brutalism became popular for public institutions, esp government buildings, cultural complexes, schools, universities and hospitals eg Canberra’s High Court Building and National Gallery of Australia, and Sydney’s University of Technology’s Tower.

Fans of concrete noted that it was a very beautiful and sculptural material when it was well looked after. But then all buildings re­qu­ired regular maintenance because all materials deteriorated, including concrete. This became very obvious in the 1960s when Brutalism went global.

Aesthetics provided a cover for this move, especially in inner cities where Brutalist institutions sat on valuable land. But restoration and renovation, rather than demolition and rebuilding, were often more sustainable solutions.

The idea of drama was central to Brutalism. The buildings were designed to celebrate the community wanting to make public space central! So these buildings were built with the idea of public good in mind.

I am examining two examples of Melbourne’s Brutalist architecture. One such example was the very grey Harold Holt Swimming Centre in Malvern. Designed by Daryl Jackson and Kevin Borland in 1967, the complex was one of Melbourne’s first to be built in the Brutalist style and was probab­ly one of the state’s most important instances.

Harold Holt Swimming Centre, Malvern

The swimming complex originally consisted of two indoor pools and an outdoor Olympic-sized pool, diving pool with dive tower, wading pool and changing rooms. The indoor centre was a glass and concrete structure distinguished by its unpainted concrete block and off-form concrete construction in which the patterns created by the timber form-work were clearly seen. The principal components of the building's functional and structural system were emphasised as pos­itive elements, in particular the circulat­ion elements including concrete pedestrian ramps and semi-circular stair. There was a transparency through the entire site and natural light was maximised by glass walls on the indoor pool complex, enab­l­ing a clear sight line from the diving pool on the northern boundary through the pool complex to High St to the south.

The City of Ston­nington has been trying to refurbish the building for some time, however the Heritage Council intervened and planned to give it heritage protection.

Harold Holt Swimming Centre does not represent the city’s first attempt to protect a Brutalist structure. In 1997, there was much controversy surrounding the alterations to the National Gallery of Victoria and in 1999, a section of the Waverly Park Stadium was heritage listed when the venue was closed down.

By 1863 the Free St Kilda Public Library and Mechanics’ Institute was operating in the old Town Hall (now gone). But before WW1 the library was in decline and after transferring to the present Town Hall, closed down.

Sweeping lines of wide overhanging eaves and sloping wall surfaces that appear to float over the ground. St Kilda Library fits happily into its environment, 1973.
Photo Credit enricotaglietti 

In Dec 1971 a tender was accepted to construct Enrico Taglietti’s design and the new St Kilda library was opened by the Victorian Governor in May 1973. Its building referenced St Kilda’s waterfront setting: a sleek grey ocean-going cruiser its 10 metre high smoke-stack towers over saloon windows and portholes piercing its battleship grey flanks. The library was a deceptively large building, it covered c50 metres square from Carlisle to Duke Sts. This Brutalist design, with its stained rough timbers and exposed raw concrete, was a clear nod to Le Corbusier.

In 1994, Ashton Raggatt McDougall’s design for a major addition to the library was under construction, along with their major addition and reconstruction of the Town Hall complex opposite.

Note that Perth Brutal: Dreaming in Concrete will be at the Art Gallery in Perth from Sept 2019–Feb 2020, celebrating the gallery’s 40th anniversary.

10 September 2019

Jean-Paul Sartre & Simone de Beauvoir: the Rouen years

In the past Rouen was a city known for its medieval half-timbered houses. But things changed once the train arrived. The first railway station in Rouen was put into service in 1843 on the left bank of the Seine, connecting Rouen to Paris. In 1900, re-con­st­ruction of the station was declared of public imp­or­t­ance but bank­ruptcy of the Western Railway Co in 1909, and WW1 in 1914, delayed its progress.

Traditional timber architecture in Rouen

The Late Art Nouv­eau era lasted 12 years (1912-24) which explained Rouen Station’s fusion style archit­ecture, halfway between Art Nouveau and Art Deco. The concrete vaults of the ceiling of the room and in the rear part of the station were architectural el­em­ents that were meant to stand out. But the facade of the station was soberly decorated with an Art Nouveau decor. The new station was finally inaugur­ated in July 1928 by President of the Republic, Gaston Doumergue and was called Gare Rouen Rive-Droite.

Eventually the city commissioned many buildings and monuments with Art Deco architecture. Timing was everything. Art Deco was an art­istic movement that began just as WW1 was warming up and was more prominently launched with the Universal Exhibition of Decorative Arts in Paris in 1925. The movement was characterised by the right angles, modern materials, cut edges, ironwork, floral and geometric motifs and porthole windows: this return to geometric shapes insp­ired many interiors and exteriors. This return to geometric shapes under the influence of cubism may have further inspired many inter­iors and exteriors!

Gare Rouen Rive-Droite
opened 1928
Art Nouv­eau and Deco architecture

The Art Deco Metropole Building was built between 1929-31 as de­s­igned by Parisian architect Émile Bois and built by contractor Chouard de Bihorel. It was com­p­leted for the Reibel family who needed a build­ing with four businesses, perfectly located near the railway station on the right bank. This Metropole building played on the oppos­it­ion of straight vertical lines and a summit magnify­ing the curves. With a concrete frame and stone cladding, it was an excellent example of Art Deco architecture in Rouen. On the ground floor Café Le Métropole had a very appealing Art Deco presentation in the 1930s.

And buildings in Rouen continued until WW2: Grande Pharmacie du Cent­er, Saint-Nicaise Church and the post office on rue Jeanne d'Arc.

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80) and Simone de Beauvoir (1908-86) ob­tain­ed their philosophy degrees in 1929 at Par­is University. After his military service in March 1931, Jean-Paul Sartre was sent to teach at Le Havre in the current Lycée François. He proposed marr­iage to Simone de Beauvoir, so that she could leave her post in Marseille and join him in his school. She refus­ed but got her tran­s­fer soon after.. to Rouen.

Art Deco Métropole Building

 Art Deco Café Le Métropole

In Rouen Simone de Beauvoir first rented a room at Hotel La Rochefoucauld, facing the Church of Saint-Romain near the station Rue Verte. Then she lived at the Hotel du Petit Mouton. In her auto-biographical book La Force de l'Age, covering the years 1929-1944 she wrote: “during the four years that I taught in Rouen, for me the centre of the city always remained the station. The school was very close. I settled at the hotel La Roch­efoucauld, from where I heard the reassuring whistle of trains. I bought my newspapers in the lobby of the station; on the square, nearby, there was a red coffee shop. The Metropolis, where I had breakfast. I had the imp­ression that I lived in Paris, in a distant suburb. All the same, I was confined to Rouen for long days and often spent Thursdays with Sartre”.

Simone’s hotels were not far from Café Le Mét­ropole. So she popped in regularly to have breakfast and read news­pap­ers, before teaching philosophy at the Jeanne d'Arc High School. It was a satisfying café life, in the early-mid 1930s.

So the good citizens of Rouen knew about the two lovers together only when they came together to share their favour­ite wat­ering hole, with its beloved art deco interior. Le Métropole Café still shows the inter-war spirit with inter­ior dec­oration that was/is very sober. On the ceiling the chandel­iers are in the centre of cupolas; on the ground is a multicoloured mosaic.

Rouen was also the setting for de Beauvoir’s short story Chantal. Appropriately, it described the life of a teacher in a conservative provincial town.

 Sartre and de Beauvoir at breakfast 

In 1933, when she was teaching in Rouen, de Beauvoir had a 17-year-old student named Olga Kosakiewicz, the daughter of Russian ém­ig­rés dispossessed by the Revolution. Olga was attract­ive and fresh; Beauvoir struck up a friendship, and in 1935, de Beauvoir proposed that Olga should put herself under the protection of her and Sart­re. They would be respon­sible for her education, and a few months later Olga moved into the Hôtel du Petit Mout­on with Beauvoir, and began an affair. Sartre also became in­fat­uated with Olga and spent two years attempting to seduce her. He failed. 

Simone left Rouen and moved to Paris in 1938, now turning to lit­er­ature instead of teaching. [As a postscript, note that Simone died in 1986; in 1990, the executrix published Beauvoir’s unedited and shocking Letters to Sartre. The revelation was not the promiscuity! Beauvoir had always flatly denied having sexual relations with women; yet in her letters to Sartre, she regularly described her nights in bed with women].

In 1975 the Railway Station was declared a historical monument, largely with the Late Art Nouveau style building still intact. Its façade is still dominated by a tall clock tower and its many ornaments still characterise the era in which it was built. Note that in the Café Le Métropole, busts of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir still sit on the bench, in memory of the café’s most fam­ous cust­om­ers.

The Municipal Library of Rouen was opened in 2010 and is approp­riately named after Simone-de-Beauvoir. And there is a street in Rouen named in memory of Sartre and de Beauvoir, as there is in Paris i.e Place Jean Paul Sartre et Simone de Beauvoir in Saint-Germain-des-Prés.