Tuesday, February 24, 2015

(P)interesting!

By Connie Cortright

I found myself facing an interesting question this week when doing research for my work in progress. How would the German prisoner-of-war camp in New Ulm, Minnesota return the correct laundry to each of the POWs? Not too many people consider this an important topic today, but with my mind mostly in the past these days, I found this an intriguing question.

Notice the PW stamped onto the legs of their pants.
Once again I was digging deep into tidbits of history. This time it was the 1940s. It started when I read a fictitious story about a WWII POW camp. When prisoners entered the camp, they each received their shirts, pants, etc., with each article of clothing marked with their ID number. The author mentioned that all the pieces were marked with a laundry pen. My curiosity was aroused-- were there really laundry pens in 1945? So I decided to look on the internet to check it out.

With a bit of research, I found out that the laundry marker pen was in reality a laundry marker pin. The pictures of antique safety pins I found online had a number stamped in the head of them. I didn't find much of a description on how the pins were used, however.

They were described simply as WW II Military Laundry Markers used to keep track of each person's laundry. I would imagine that they were found more often at training camps in the States and not in the field of operations. Who would have time to do laundry at all in the middle of a war, much less try to keep track of a person's laundry?

Now it's time for some brainstorming to answer the questions in my head--how were these used in a WW II prison camp? I'm imagining that the laundry marker pins would not be given to each of the POWs (or PWs as they were known then) since that pin would certainly be used to cause damage to a guard on duty, or fellow prisoners. So, then I'm imagining that the Germans who were assigned to the laundry duty would have the pins in the laundry room and attach them to the PW's clothes as they were brought in. As you see in the picture of the complete set below, drawer C1 has several pins in the drawer, so prisoner C1's clothes would all be pinned with his specific number.

Complete set of military laundry pins set C1-C24
So the next question popping into my head--how did they assign the numbers that were on the pins to a certain PW? I'm imagining that each barrack in the camp had a different letter to identify it with twenty-four PWs in the barrack. That way C22 would be the twenty-second bed in barrack C. His drawer would be the twenty-second drawer in the C set of pins.

That means that a German PW doing laundry duty would be handed a pile of dirty clothes from PW C22. The worker would then pin C-22 onto all the clothing, throw it into the washing machine with all the other marked clothes. When they'd be clean and dry, the worker would make a pile of C-22 clothes and return it to whoever C22 was with the pins taken out.

In reality who knows what it was like, but in my third novel, that's the way I'll portray it. Now you can see how this is such an important and life-changing research topic. Not really! In the long manuscript of a novel, this small fact may appear on only one or two pages, but it was important enough to me to take the time to research and find out as much as I could about it.  It happens all the time in the life of a writer.

May your week be filled with more important facts than this one!!

Information taken from World-War-2-Military-Laundry-Marker-Pin

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

"The Rabbit Died"

by Connie Cortright


I had a lovely Valentine's gift from my son this year. His wife gave birth to a very cute little girl, my fourth granddaughter. Since then I’ve been thinking about the differences between pregnancies today and in the 1930s.

At the baby shower a couple weeks ago, we heard the advice that my three-year-old grandson was giving to his aunt about the upcoming birth of her baby: "Keep the baby inside." We're glad that my daughter-in-law didn't take his advice, but the fact that a three-year-old was giving "advice" about an upcoming birth is pretty amazing. Back in the 1930s mothers would have been aghast at the thought that toddlers would have any idea there was "a bun in the oven," as the saying goes.

My father at the age of eight had no concept his mother was expecting until the morning she introduced him to his twin baby brothers! He said that he got up in the middle of the night and was shocked to find his Aunt Lizzie and the local doctor there with the house all lit up. Aunt Lizzie shushed him and sent him back to bed without telling him what was going on. In the morning he met the babies.
Sample of clothes worn during pregnancy

How could this happen? How would children not know their Mom was expecting a baby? Well, the matter was just not discussed.  Most rural women didn’t even have maternity clothes back then. They let out the seams of their house-dresses or left buttons open when necessary and covered everything up with the ever-present, all-absolving apron. Clothing would have hung loose to cover the expanding midriff so young children didn’t notice the difference. Of course, these women didn’t appear in public anywhere close to their due dates.

The topic of pregnancy was never mentioned in polite society. That word was not even used openly in the 50s when I was little. A woman was said to be in “the family way” back then – and that would only be whispered from woman to woman, or spoken in German over the phone when little ears were in the room. It was just not talked about. Babies appeared magically, I guess.  (Cabbage patch, indeed!)

How did “the rabbit died” ever come to mean a woman was expecting? Well, a scientist found that a female rabbit injected with urine from a pregnant woman experienced changes in its ovaries. So in the early days of pregnancy testing, this was done to find out if a baby was on the way. The rabbit had to be killed to find out if the ovaries were affected, so it was bad for the bunny no matter what.  Thus the euphemism “the rabbit died” for a positive pregnancy test was current during the late 20s and early 30s.

Early hospital birth

Childbirth back then was totally different, too. By 1935, 37% of births took place in hospitals, with even higher rates in urban areas. Doctors persuaded young mothers that it was safer, and they would experience fewer complications.    

However, in reality, all hospital deliveries included putting the mothers into a “twilight sleep” of ether or other drugs and, most of the time, the use of forceps. The added drugs and forced deliveries caused many more birth injuries than home births did.

Smoking was another factor that caused problems for pregnancies. In 1935 smoking was an accepted practice with 31-40% of all women smoking. Therefore, many pregnant mothers affected their unborn children causing unhealthy babies, or more problematic, pre-mature births.

After babies were born, mothers didn’t appear in public so soon, either. In a pastor's prayerbook from 1941, there was a prayer for “the churching of women” used forty days after the baby was born when the woman was accepted back into church and society. Much different than today where baptisms take place in a church service when the baby is less than a week old.

Even though pregnancy and birth are much more celebrated and public today, our babies have a greater chance to be born happy and healthy. For that I am thankful, as are all the grandparents in the country.  Now, about that stork...

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Spats-tic

by Connie Cortright

I recently purchased a pair of boots that come up almost to my knee. Now these boots aren't the kind used to walk in deep snow, but, I guess, are "fashion boots". I'm trying to get up to date with my wardrobe. Over the years, boots have become an accessory to a wardrobe rather the original purpose for which they were made, keeping feet dry on snowy days.

 Similarly from the early twentieth century, spats were originally designed to protect shoes, but later became a fashion statement among high society men and women. Initially called spatterdashes or spatter guards, spats were made to stop water and mud from splashing on shoes and socks during the late 1800s. They were made from white or gray canvas or felt material and buttoned around the ankle with a strap going under the shoe.

Early in the twentieth century, the purpose of them changed from useful to fashionable. With the increase in concrete sidewalks, walkways and paved roads, the need to guard your socks from mud splatters diminished. Spats were then used for formal dress in men's clothing. High society men and even women could be seen wearing this accessory with their attire as they strolled the downtown streets or parks.

During the 1920s as formal fashion decreased in popularity, spats started falling out of style. In 1926 King George V appeared at a public event for the first time without wearing his spats. "Interestingly it is said that the moment this was observed and commented on by the spectators it produced an immediate reaction; the ground beneath the bushes was littered with discarded spats." Wikipedia/Spats. I guess they weren't too comfortable for their feet.

As spats lost importance in high society, they gained popularity among another part of the culture. Spats became a part of the gangsters wardrobe later into the 20s and into the 30s. During Prohibition, mobsters rose in stature since they were the ones who dealt with illegal alchoholic beverages. They wanted to be seen as important so dressed in expensive, stylish and flamboyant clothing, part of which included spats. Along with their machine guns, spats and a dark striped suit were the fashion for such men as Al Capone, John Dillinger, and "Baby Face" Nelson.

By the 1940s, spats all but disappeared. Since that time, they are mere symbols that represent wealth and are seen with such characters as Rich Uncle Pennybags from the Monopoly game or Walt Disney's Scrooge McDuck. These satirical characters are associated with lots of money and wannabe wealth.

With the rise again of 1920s fashions in young people, I wonder if spats will also make a comeback. Have you ever seen anyone wearing them?

Information taken from Fashion Encyclopedia/ Spats