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  • Writer's pictureRochelle Gridley

Women and business and popularity contests

In the summer of 1937 the Pantagraph ran a "contest" to find the "most charming business girl." At that time, it was common to call any woman who was not married a "girl" rather than a woman. Each woman's name after high school was carefully preceded with a Miss or Mrs. so that every one would know her status. Of course if she was a married woman, usually she was known only by her husband's first name, something we consider laughably old fashioned now, if not demeaning. Nevertheless, I find the business women interesting. They were mostly single women, making their own living during the Depression.

I chose seven women at random from this collection of negatives and found one interesting fact -- four of the women lived with their widowed mothers and one woman had been raised in the Salem Orphanage because her mother died a year after her birth. This speaks to a continuing high mortality rate among McLean County citizens in the 20s and 30s. Also interesting is the fact that the four women kept their children with them, while the one father in this group left his children in an orphanage and created a new family. Alternatively, the prominence of half orphans among working girls could be related to the necessity of working because they did not have fathers to provide for them.

Julia Irish was working as a secretary in the personnel department of State Farm. She was from Atlanta and had grown up there, with her mother, who was widowed. When she was eleven, Julia startled the farm community by winning the Illinois Utility Corn Show. The organizers were prepared to crown the "Illinois Corn King," and had to quickly change the winning title. As part of a career fair, Julia was chosen to represent the occupation of secretaries at Illinois Wesleyan. When Julia died in 2000 it was noted in her obituary that she was a member of the "notorious Powderpuffs." I would be interested to know what this means! When Julia was a young woman, there is no mention of powderpuff sports for women, only powderpuff flyers and airplane mechanics.

Agnes Schaer was the daughter of Frederick Schaer and Susan Stuckey, both former residents of McLean County. She was born in Iowa and her mother died there within a year of her birth. Frederick Schaer returned to Illinois with his children, where they were placed in the Salem Orphanage in Livingston County. All six children were living at the orphanage in 1920, and Agnes was the only sibling who remained there in 1930. (Frederick Schaer returned to Iowa where he married 18 year old Alma Thurman in 1921 and created another family of four children with her.) In 1937 Agnes was living in Gridley, where her married sister Mabel Gerig also lived. Agnes was living in Gridley on her own however, perhaps years in an orphanage had made her long for her own space. She was operating the Modern Miss beauty shop in Gridley. Agnes married in 1942 to James Brady and had two children. At twenty years old she established her own business in the worst depression this country ever knew -- what sort of bravery did that require??

Dorothy Bradford Clark was the daughter of John and Alta Bradford of Colfax, Illinois. John ran a restaurant in Colfax and in 1930 Dorothy was working as a clerk in a dry goods store there. She married Stanley Clark of Colfax in 1934. In 1937 she was operating her own shop -- the Modernette Beauty Shop in Colfax. Her obituary indicated that she and Stanley also operated a clothing store in Colfax for 38 years -- Clark's Clothing. Stanley and Dorothy had just one daughter, and Dorothy died in 1996.

Imogene Lola Harmeson was another daughter of a widowed woman. Her father had died in 1923, leaving his wife with four daughters. In 1930 Dora Harmeson was working as a servant to provide for her daughters while living in Colfax. At age 18 Imogene was a "business woman" working as a waitress at McHatton's restaurant in Colfax. She married in 1940 to James Scott, who would eventually be a state representative. He died in 1967 of a heart attack, leaving his sixth term incomplete. Imogene was a homemaker in Bloomington and died in 1999.

Mary Nolte had been a bookkeeper for the Cropsey grain elevator since 1930 in 1937. She was the daughter of Lena Nolte, a widow with four children. An engagement party was held for her at the home of a local musician, Robert Bernard Tipple, and his wife who was an accomplished singer in December 1937. (Mary was a soprano.) This was the only announcement of the marriage of Mary to Claude A. Keely, a geophysicist in Louisiana. She later lived in New Mexico, but nothing is known of her later life.

Harriet Roseman was the assistant cashier at the Towanda State Bank in 1937 and had been the assistant cashier in 1930. Being the cashier at a bank is a very advanced position, but the fact that Harriet was the assistant cashier at age 19 suggests assistant cashier was not exactly a job on career track for bank president. She had attended Towanda High School and Brown's Business College in Bloomington. Her father was bookkeeper for a grain co-op in Towanda. Harriet married in 1938 to Raymond Schlemmer and had one son. She died at the age of 56 in 1967.

Gladys Eversole was a secretary at the T.M. Patton Co. in Lexington in 1937. She was 33 years old in 1937 and in 1930 she was living with her widowed mother and her two brothers and sister. Gladys never married and ceased to appear in the Pantagraph after 1949. While living in Lexington she was a very active member of the bridge club. She died in Lansing Michigan in 1998.

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