11 January 2019

Transitions: Pittsburgh After World War I

Christmas Day editorial cartoon, 1918, Pittsburgh Post

December 1918. It was the first Christmas after the war.

"After" is a generous descriptor. It wasn't over, not really.

Certainly the city had rejoiced six+ weeks earlier when the Armistice declared peace on that fateful eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. Mayor E.V. Babcock accordingly declared a Pittsburgh holiday, in dramatic terms:
....the balance of the day be given up to a general and promiscuous jollification, the blowing of whistles, the ringing of bells, and playing of chimes, and parades, with and without music, that will permit every citizen, young and old, big and little, to participate.
So, yes, there was promiscuous jollification in Pittsburgh, and would be over the next several months.

From Pittsburg's part in the world war; souvenir book, 1918

Homecoming parade, Allegheny County, location unknown, 1918. Carnegie Museum of Art collection.

To be sure, throughout December 1918 President Wilson was being wined and dined across Europe. He traveled about, lobbying for a lasting peace via his proposed League of Nations. Amidst fears that fighting could break out again at an moment, there was hope that a world “safe for democracy” might yet prevail.

Pittsburgh Gazette Times headline 24 December 1918
But the confetti from parades six weeks earlier had long since been swept into the sewers. Harsh reality dominated: newspapers were still printing daily lists of soldiers killed and wounded in battle. They would do so far into 1919, as news trickled out about the fate of Pittsburghers.

List, 12-25-18
On Christmas Eve 1918, the Daily Post noted in passing -- in passing, sandwiched amongst other factoids of the day -- that American casualties "lately totaled 73,526, including 13,064 killed in battle."


On Christmas Day 1918, Pittsburgh boys were still dying Over There of battle wounds or disease.

Like other papers across the nation, Pittsburgh prominently honored its sons who had sacrificed so the world could have a "Christmas Day of Peace."

25 December 1918, Pittsburgh Press

Mostly, though, Pittsburghers just wanted things to get back to normal. They wanted to move on. They wanted their old lives back.

But on this first Christmas after the war, what Pittsburgh was beginning to realize was that nothing would ever be the same.

Conservative estimates indicate that this region would go on to lose nearly 5000 residents to the "Spanish flu" outbreak of fall 1918/spring 1919. For those who survived influenza, the recovery period would be long and difficult.

Republican Senator and presidential candidate Warren G. Harding of Ohio would coin a new word in 1920: "normalcy." Inherent in his philosophy of normalcy was hope for patriotic sustainment in "triumphant nationality." But on a deeper level, what was driving him -- what was motivating most Americans -- was a longing for simpler, pre-war times.

Because this new normal sure took a lot of getting used to.


Families in Transition
Life had radically changed for the Pittsburgh families who'd sent their sons to fight. Most still displayed Blue Star Service Banners in their windows, alongside whatever Christmas decorations might also have graced their homes. Also known as Man-in-Service flags, each blue star represented one family member serving in US Armed Forces, for a total of five stars per banner. If a loved one died, a smaller golden star replaced the blue star from the top down.

1918 Pittsburgh home. From Pittsburgh City Photographer Collection, University of Pittsburgh

Allegheny County sent 60,000 men to fight during the 19 months that US forces were engaged in combat. Departures looked like this in 1917 and 1918:

Photos from Pittsburg's part in the world war; souvenir book, 1918

Man saying goodbye to grandmother before leaving for the army, 1917. Carnegie Museum of Art collection

"Pittsburg soldier's good-by" 1915-20. Library of Congress image.

Allegheny County's casualties in the Great War totaled more than 1500; a third of those war dead were from Pittsburgh itself.

Military funeral in Pitcairn, Pitcairn Historical Society Image Collection
Countless others were wounded in body and spirit. Their families bore the brunt of their pain.

Especially their mothers.

Artists had included maternal figures in wartime propaganda to personify patriotic duty and familial pride in service. That wasn't hyperbole; such pride was real. Pittsburgh mothers began gathering in the spring of 1918, ultimately forming 66 local chapters of the national Mothers of Democracy organization. These ladies formally chartered their chapters, and regularly gathered to cheer one another and share letters from their boys. They supported Pittsburgh's successful Liberty Loan fundraising drives, and maintained high public profiles to visibly serve their communities as sources of inspiration. As one souvenir remembrance of the era noted:
....they marched in all the numerous parades, their heads held high, knowing full well the part they played in freeing the world from bondage. In turn, they inspired the throngs of spectators. Those who thought they had given something were led to consider what those mothers were giving.

Photos from Pittsburg's part in the world war; souvenir book, 1918

But despite the comfort of community, grief ultimately could only be borne alone. The memorial plaques placed in every municipality to honor the war dead, these mother's sons, would be erected after the rawness of grief had subsided.

In December 1918, many area families still didn't know the fate of their boys.

For other families, the 1918 holiday was the first of a lifetime of Christmases they'd spend missing their sons.

In fact, 1919 was the second wartime Christmas that Mr. and Mrs. George Benney experienced without their son, but it was the first without hope of his return. Phillip Phillips Benney was born 28 June 1895. He was educated with other privileged Pittsburgh boys at Shadyside Academy.

Lt Col William Thaw II
and Escadrille lion cub mascot, Whiskey
While the US remained officially neutral until joining its allies to fight the Great War in April 1917, there were Americans who volunteered early on to fight in France as soldiers in the French Foreign Legion or as ambulance drivers. Phillip Benney was one of the latter. At age 22, he joined the American ambulance corps of the French army in January 1917. Six months later in July 1918 he began training in the aviation section. Phillip probably had wanted to join the elite Lafayette Escadrille, a squadron of 38 American flyers co-founded by Pittsburgh flying ace and larger-than-life hero William Thaw II. It had been named in honor of Marquis de Lafayette, French hero of the American Revolutionary War.

But while Thaw entered service as a licensed pilot, it took several months for Phillip to complete his aviation training. By the time he was done, the Lafayette Escadrille had been dissolved into other squads. Phillip and other new American volunteer pilots were absorbed into the Service Aeronautique. Connecting themselves by a similar name, these new ace pilots were designated as members of the Lafayette Flying Corps. (The distinction was -- and still is -- lost on most Americans. The two groups are often conflated. In contemporary news reports about Phillip Benney's service he is described as a member of the Escadrille, but history records him as a member of the Flying Corps).

The 5'9" blue-eyed Benney would have known two other Pittsburghers in the Corps in addition to Lt. Col. Thaw: Sgts. Wainwright Abbott and Archibald Johnston. These men were older than Phillip, but all were scions of prominent Pittsburgh families. All distinguished themselves in service. All but Phillip made it home.

According to local newspaper reports, George and Eugenia Benney received a letter from their son the morning of 31 January 1918. Written a few weeks earlier, he detailed his excitement over completing training and being given his new airplane, a French biplane fighter known as a "Spad." He was scheduled to make his first real flight on or around 11 January 1918.

While on patrol over Montfaucon on 25 January, Phillip was attacked by five or six German planes. He was severely injured in hip and thigh but still managed to land his plane behind allied lines. Though he received an immediate transfusion from a French Army surgeon, Phillip died of his injuries the next day, 26 January 1918.

Corporal Phillip Phillips Benney, 1895-1918

It was a Pittsburgh Press reporter who informed Phillip's mother Eugenia of his death.

Perhaps she took some comfort in her deepest mourning from the outpouring of public support. The Pittsburgh Press published a glowing tribute to Phillip on 5 February 1918 in which "the charm of his acquaintance" and "the spirit of chivalry that gleamed in his eyes" were lauded. The 23 year old's final battle began as "Quickly he sped far up into the distant sky and roamed across the blue firmament like a heavenly knight, keeping vigilant watch over the sacred hosts beneath him."  Death came to him as:
....the spirit of chivalry gleamed in his eyes with a surpassing fire...he gave shot for shot against his ruthless antagonists....in the midst of a hurricane of bullets he rode his machine intrepidly, with a matchless splendor of control, which showed that his courage was indomitable, and that his brain was exercising every resource known to the strategy of the air....
A memorial service took place at Shadyside's Church of the Ascension on 24 February 1918, at which "patriotic airs" were played and the pastor preached on "Immortality." In May 1918, Phillip's family had to endure the painful indignity of awaiting the return of his personal effects, which had been mistakenly sent to the Chicago family of a deceased young officer whose surname was also Benney.

Phillip was eventually awarded a posthumous Croix de Guerre with palm. Initially buried in Glorieux French National Cemetery near Verdun, he was later re-interred with honors at the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial, Marnes la Coqu.

Aviators of this era were the new celebrity darlings, so the death of young Phillip Phillips Benney in an air battle both enthralled and horrified Pittsburghers. Along with his manner of dying, his family's status as a member of the city's social elite assured that his death did not pass unnoticed -- or unromanticized.

The public lamentation over the passing of a working class Pittsburgher a year earlier, Thomas Enright, was notable because he was the first Pittsburgher (indeed, the first American soldier since this country officially entered the conflict) to die in battle. While Enright's passing excited patriotic passions, it took familial pressure spurred by inquiries from his sister Mary Irwin to bring his remains home for burial four years later.

Most Pittsburgh boys who perished in WWI died ignoble deaths in the trenches and hospitals, either of war-related injuries or flu-related illness. Unlike Benney and Enright, their deaths went comparatively unnoticed. Families mourned, to be sure. Families never stopped mourning. Names were published in papers, often with scant details, then later were engraved on community memorials and plaques. But scores of Pittsburgh families without influence or means were left wondering about their sons and husbands who had been buried in foreign soil in graves most would never visit.

For them, as for the Benneys and the Enrights, the pain of loss would never end. It would subside, at best, to a dull ache. An ache that was to become their new normal

Women in Transition
Pittsburgh's women had additional transitions to weather as 1919 dawned. Once the United States entered the war, women did what they had always done: take on jobs that had previously been the domain of men. We famously remember women doing this in WWII as iconic “Rosie the Riveters.” But women have always picked up the slack once menfolk head off to war, and WWI was no exception.

Women replaced men who left civilian factory, manufacturing, and service jobs. Women became Red Cross workers. Women even went to France to work as ambulance drivers and nurses.

Red Cross Motor Corps, Pittsburgh, November 1918. Library of Congress image.

When men left to fight, Pittsburgh women of necessity eased into taking their jobs. On 11 January 1918, the first women employed by branches of the Pittsburgh Post Office were sworn in. Pittsburgh's post office declared itself to be "....one of the first to be invaded by fair femininity as part of the working force, and the outcome is eagerly watched by other mail heads...."

The post office made a movie of the ladies at work to distribute to other cities so as to illustrate the Superintendent of Mails' assertion that "....no loss in efficiency has resulted from this war-time innovation."

Male postal workers were rumored to be jealous of their new female colleagues, whom they feared would be given cushy day shifts. The Superintendent assured the public that "....there will be no discrimination against the men...."

Pittsburgh Gazette Times headline
12 January 1918
Adding lady postal workers in Pittsburgh was justified in local papers because:
There are not enough men to handle that work, which was once distinctively a man's job. The reserve is gone...There are some tasks that women, admittedly, cannot do as acceptably as men. It had been always presumed that sorting mail was one of these.
Women would "....work the same hours as the men clerks, some during each of the three eight-hour shifts" and earn $75 per month, with paid overtime. Forty ladies reported at 1 PM that first day for an eight hour shift sorting local mail. "Foreign or out-of-town matter" and "heavier tasks" remained the responsibility of seasoned male employees. But there were plans to eventually add lady mail carriers.

The local Superintendent informed the Post that on their first day "....the greatest difficulty seemed to be that the young women did not know where the city ended and the suburbs started. Maps and charts were furnished immediately."

We can safely assume that new male postal hires typically faced the same learning curve, but addressed it without public commentary as to their need for maps and charts.

Pittsburgh Gazette Times, 12 January 1918

Throughout 1918, women found themselves eligible for all sorts of new positions on both manufacturing and professional tracks.

Pittsburgh Post, 7 January 1918

Still, some paths to employment remained closed to area women. Throughout 1918 newspapers detailed the emergence of the lady street car driver, a "conductorette" who could be seen riding the rails in Berlin and London and New York and Cleveland.

But not in Pittsburgh.

It wasn't for lack of trying.

From 2 December 1917 through 3 January 1918, newspaper adverts placed by local transit authority Pittsburgh Railways Company sought both male and female street car conductors.

Pittsburgh newspaper ads, December 1917

The plan was for the ladies to run rush hour "tripper" and "trailer" cars. Pittsburgh Railways denied that this was an "opening wedge" for ladies to take on more routes within the system, instead citing the wartime need to fill in service gaps because the public "is suffering through the lack of men to conduct adequate car service." 

Pittsburgh women were eager to sign on, judging by the initial inquiries to Pittsburgh Railways reported in early December: "....every mail received in its office has been weighted down with applications. A hundred a day were received for awhile."

By early January, 400 applications had been received.

An editorial entitled "The Conductorette Experiment" from a January 1918 edition of the Post endorsed the possibility of women working the routes -- so long as the hypothetical streetcar ladies presented themselves as domesticated better angels of virtue and reminders of good manners:
Hail the street car conductorette, or conductorine, or conductress.... There are attractive possibilities in her coming. Street car etiquette, for one thing, may undergo material changes....a marked civility...to promote courtesy in the matter of yielding seats to female passengers, for it will be additionally uncomfortable for the male occupant to bear the reproachful glance of the conductorette....
But for all that, the ladies didn't stand a chance at nailing the jobs. A spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry in early December 1918 announced that the  state woudn't allow it to happen:
"....will most strenuously object to women being employed as conductors on regular and trailer cars in this city. We have state laws regulating the employment of women, and these will be violated if women are put to work at men's jobs on the trolleys. So far as my inspectors have been able to learn, the Pittsburgh Railways Company has made no provision for the employment of women. Certain sanitary laws absolutely must be complied with before women can work on the cars."
Conductorette sketch by Clarence Batchelor, 1918
From nationally circulated newspaper feature
"The Win-the-War Girl Art's New Inspiration"

Across the nation during the war years the "desirability and usefulness" of female streetcar operators was hotly debated. The Gazette Times reprinted an article in July 1918 citing a federal Department of Labor investigation describing streetcar conduction as "....one of the last occupations into which a woman should be lured or forced..."

The Feds reasoned that a woman "....is not physically equipped to stand the strain required...." what with all that "...nervous tension resulting from riding all day on a car that is constantly starting and stopping. This, coupled with the necessity of standing up for long periods, is something which women cannot undergo without serious danger to their health."

Of course, women had such jobs in many cities. The same article noted that even labor union reps grudgingly admitted that the lady conductor was not only admirably loyal, she was "....punctual, painstaking, and evinces much interest and liking for her work."

Creating a hospitable working environment for these women was not a priority. According to the Feds: "....in many cases the companies failed to provide adequate rest rooms and lunch rooms." The ladies "....were, in some instances, compelled to share" the same facilities used by males.

Wartime or not, socially proscribed gender spheres of influence could only yield so far. State laws, inflexibility about workplace accommodations, and even protests from male streetcar workers that employing women was just a threat to keep their wages down all combined to doom conductorettes in Pittsburgh.

Never mind that there were some highly qualified applicants. A January 1918 Post article noted that three local ladies, already laborers for local railroads, preferred to transition to conductorettes because "....the job pays better and is easier than 'carrying burdensome tools and
Pittsburgh Post headline 4 January 1918
lugging heavy buckets full of ice.'
" A fourth applicant identified as Mabel Hickey of Braddock had previously worked as a streetcar operator in London at the start of the war. She described the job in glowing terms: "....a delightful occupation, not a bit undignified, interesting and quite lucrative."  Other applicants included five "graduates of Eastern finishing schools" and three socialites "whose names grace the pages of the Blue Book." Applicants who were wives and siblings of soldiers fighting overseas were said to be destined for priority status once Pittsburgh Railways processed its applicants.

While it's unclear how far along the company got in pursuing conductorette hiring, at the very least it did have a uniform ready for the ladies.

Pittsburgh Post excerpt, 8 December 1917

Because, let's admit, it always comes down to having the perfect outfit, right?

Pittsburgh Railways Company displayed the above uniform in its offices in early December 1917 when it began accepting applications. It's no surprise that it generated enormous appeal locally, just as debates about how to dress the new female worker dominated the national conversation. A syndicated column by American journalist and humorist Helen Rowland, reprinted in the Press in April 1918, cheekily endorsed the latent seductiveness of ladies in smart uniforms:
Verily, verily, my daughter, what is so fascinating as a woman in a uniform? Behold, sirens, are no more....But the Red Cross girl and conductorette and the elevator girl and the farmerette and the aviatrix and the chauffeurette--they are all with us!....Go to! ...How then shall any man resist a pink-and-white thing in a conductorette cap and a girly-girly skirt and military leggings? And if she smileth sweetly when she taketh his fare and saith "please" when she requesteth him to "step lively" how shall he stay his heart from fluttering and his lips from smiling back at her? For a "polite conductor" is a heavenly thing! ...And men have come to see that a woman can be useful and beautiful, and that a busy woman is a fascinating woman! And from now on a little laborette-in-uniform shall get them! Selah.
London bus conductorettes, 1917. Hulton Archives.
Of course, there were critics, too. Pittsburghers read a Post report in July 1918 warning that the female London transit worker was forced to wear "mannish looking costumes" with "her leather or oilskin hat, heavy coat and trousers thrust into leather puttees. The subway conductress wears a cap, heavy shoes and a coat reaching to her shoetops."

They could contrast that with an AP article from February 1918, in which the president of New York City's car lines defended the idea of bloomer-wearing conductorettes:

Dress-uniformed NYC conductorettes, 1917.
New York Transit Museum Collection
Compared with the distorted figure of the days of tight lacing, the unsightly bustle, the unwieldy hoopskirt and pantalette, as well as the present--what shall I say--near waistless party or theater gown, the cross-saddle riding habit, the average summer resort bathing suit, the peek-a-boo shirt waist, the short street skirt, with it far-short of-reaching high top shoes, I repeat, as compared with these, consider the neat, business like uniforms of our conductorettes with its knee length semi-military coat, closely buttoned collar, easy fitting bloomers and puttee covered legs, a splendid example of a modest, practical utility dress. If, in favor of common sense and patriotism women have courage to sweep aside hide-bound conventions that they may the better do their bit, why should we attempt to handicap them with false motions of modesty about dress?"

Even though Pittsburgh women didn't get to become conductorettes, they did lots of other physically-demanding work and therefore needed practical clothing for their new roles. Skirts that could catch on machinery? Corsets so restrictive that a lady couldn’t manage her work? Nope. Whether donning utilitarian uniforms or scaling back the frills on their daily garb, women shed fussiness for practicality during the war years. Sensible dress became their new normal.

McCall's clothing patterns for women, 1917

It would be a mistake to assume that when the first shots were fired in Sarajevo in 1914, women rose up as one, flung their corsets in the air, and started slinking around in bras and panties, pants, and rolled-up shirtsleeves. Cultural changes are generally far less immediate -- especially true in Pittsburgh, always more conservative and slower to adopt new trends. But even here, women's dress in the early 1900s evolved. A proliferation of fashion magazines and newspaper columns kept women informed about current fashions, so even with Pittsburgh being a kind of conservative fashion backwater, early 20th century Yinzer ladies still kept abreast (!) of current fashions.

WWI influenced Pittsburgh fashion. Women were not encouraged to be mannish, but to embrace sartorial adaptations to enhance their femininity while navigating a more complex world.

Consider the corset. While there had been an undercurrent of protest against corsetry from medical professionals and supporters of dress reform throughout the 19th century, corsets didn't much change until they went through a condensed period of evolution during the early 1900s.

This illustration from an August 1907 edition of Pittsburgh's weekly society journal shows us how such ladies aspired to dress in the earliest part of the century.
The Index, Pittsburgh's Illustrated Weekly. August 1907

Pittsburgh Press July 1903
That distinctive pre-war silhouette was achieved by wearing an S-Bend or straight-front corset. Such foundation garments debuted in Paris circa 1901, and were considered improvements on previous corsetry because they didn't exert as much pressure on the abdomen. This longer, straight-front corset supported rather than squeezed the abdomen, and didn't force the waist into a constricted hourglass. But, once laced, this style pushed the abdomen back, and squished the breasts together into a decidedly non-sexy lump called a “monobosom.” The posture exemplified by these photos is typical: breasts and shoulders forced forward, back arched.

In fact, it was often arched to the point of causing lower back pain and hyperextended knees.

Some improvement!

The straight-front corset promoted the "proud" posture of the era’s Gibson Girl ideal. Decorum usually prohibited the inclusion of corset illustrations in advertisements of this era, but Pittsburgh newspapers were filled with ad copy about them from 1902-1909. They were usually made of batiste or coutille, fabrics with high, sturdy cotton content.

Here are a few ads with illustrations from local papers in the early 1900s.

Weisser, Low & Co ad, Pittsburgh Press, May 1902
Kaufmann's ad, Pittsburgh Gazette, February 1903

Kaufmann's ad, Pittsburgh Post, January 1903

But the straight-front corset was ultimately doomed by its intrinsic discomfort. In 1906 the Pittsburgh Gazette Times reprinted a British article featuring a cartoon mocking this contorted, "unnatural, exaggerated and almost grotesque carriage."

Although it could still be found in stores, the straight-front corset mercifully faded from fashion by 1910. Leading up to WWI, the ideal fashion silhouette transitioned to a straighter, more natural figure without emphasis on hourglass-like waist constriction.

With that transition, corsets actually began moving down the body, sheath-like, positioned under the breasts, enclosing the waist, even extending down over the thighs.

And as they shifted downward, they evolved into what we would recognize today as girdles.

Most ladies still needed breast support, though, so a new device evolved to be worn above the girdle/corset: the brassiere. Bras first appeared in Paris as early as 1907, and in Britain by 1912. They are mentioned by name in Pittsburgh newspapers as early as 1906, but weren't anything more than corset covers at that point.

Brassieres in Pittsburgh, 1908: "not indispensable, but very helpful"
Kaufmann's ad, April 1908, Pittsburgh Press

By 1908, brassieres were described locally as separate garments, constructed with boning for breast support.

By Christmas 1918, brassieres were being sold all over Pittsburgh.

Kaufmann & Baer Co ad, Pittsburgh Gazette Times, November 1918

Women's underwear was evolving at the same time that things were changing for women socially. During the early 1900s, intense discussions and very public campaigns for women’s suffrage and access to birth control occurred. To be sure, not everyone was on the same page regarding such issues, but they collectively symbolized how long-held notions about what was proper for women were changing. And on the recreational front, women were engaging in physically demanding sports like cycling and tennis, so what they wore needed less fuss and more flexibility.

By the time war started in Europe in 1914, women's fashions had lost their rigid, tailored lines. The pace of change in lady's undergarments accelerated.

Inversely correlating with the pace of social changes, from 1917 on the sales of boned corsets decreased. It was, after all, considered patriotic to conserve material, and the metal previously used in corsets was requisitioned for priority war use. The US War Industries Board proudly claimed that “American women’s sacrifice of their stays during the war released 28000 tons of steel –enough to build two battleships.”

Women shed other layers of undergarments during the war years, too. Even what they wore on their bottoms by the end of WWI reflected fashion's need to embrace more freedom and physical mobility. Layers of petticoats were shucked off, since women needed less volume as their practically-minded, fabric-conserving skirts became shorter and narrower.

Their bottom "drawer" or underwear styles changed, too. For generations it had been considered indecent and unhealthy for a woman to have fabric between her legs, so the crotch of her underwear was not sewn shut. But as women took on duties in traditionally male professions and donned trousers, bloomers, or overalls (aka “womanalls”) for work, the culture shock of seeing women in pants gradually lessened. So her underwear evolved, too.

Woman doing munitions work, Westinghouse Electric in East Pittsburgh, circa 1918. Library of Congress photo.

The considered appropriateness of wearing open versus closed underwear reversed in a relatively short time: within two decades, open crotch underwear would carry the wanton connotations it does today.

In Pittsburgh, closed drawers went through various evolutions, with button tabs or envelopes initially shutting things off down below. These garments were sometimes referred to as step-ins or knickbockers as a way of retaining femininity (and perhaps to placate men who worried about women appropriating their actual trousers).

Underwear norms changed gradually, and so many women would continue to wear what they had always worn. Stores carried both corsets and brassieres in equal stock, and at various levels of affordability.

Pittsburgh Press ad for all kinds of underwear for sale at Frank & Seder, January 1917
Since many women made their own underwear, magazines and local newspapers sold patterns for all sorts of undergarments.

Pittsburgh Gazette Times, 1915
These intimate transitions happened at every level of society, leading to new fashion expectations for women of all social classes.

A City in Transition
There were grander social transitions happening as well. Pittsburgh was shaped by its interactions with a given era's technological advances, and those changes often proceeded at dizzying pace. The old and the new overlapped. For example, Pittsburgh's would-be WWI conductorettes in their practical undergarments would have navigated dense traffic on streets shared equally by horse-drawn delivery trucks, streetcars, and motorized vehicles.

Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, 1917.
Pittsburgh City Photographer Collection, University of Pittsburgh

Communications technology was changing during this era as well, though not advancing at quite the pace needed to facilitate superior battlefront exchanges. The era's telephones and telegraphs weren't reliable in the field, so WWI leaders turned to a much older form of communication: the carrier pigeon.

Pigeons, then as now, were ubiquitous. But one pigeon named Martha was so notable that her death in 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo made international news.

Martha, shortly before her death in 1914
from Published figures and plates
of the extinct passenger pigeon
Robert W. Shufeldt, 1921
Martha was an endling, the last living member of the species Ectopistes migratorius, commonly known as a passenger or wild pigeon. The birds had been as endemic in Western Pennsylvania as anywhere else in North America, although they hadn't been seen flying wild in these parts for a generation. The closest anyone around here got to seeing them in recent memory was 1895, when an Oakland passenger pigeon-raiser and sportsman named Thomas R. Laughrey gave up the hobby. He turned his 20-40 member flock loose in what became Schenley Park, and later recalled that all traces of his passenger pigeons vanished within a few months.

Martha's passing elicited spilled ink in Pittsburgh papers for years to come. Locals debated the reality and cause/s of passenger pigeon extinction. One popular theory, as people struggled to make sense of how an entire ubiquitous species could vanish, held that the birds had been blown out to sea in a ferocious storm. That seems absurd to us now, but in those war-torn years few Pittsburghers were capable of comprehending the magnitude and finality of species loss, or its anthropogenic origins.

They certainly weren't going to respond to pricks of individual or collective conscience -- whether for hunted birds, or for enemy "Huns" killed during war. This was a practical time, and means justified ends. Those passenger pigeons had made good eating, and good sport in hunting.

Their citified cousins could serve other, equally practical purposes in wartime.

To put this in context, understand that bird-fancying and fancy birds were a big feathery deal in Pittsburgh back in the day. The fifth annual Poultry Exhibition at East Liberty's Motor Square Garden filled the place with over 5000 birds in January 1916. Particular attention was paid to the pigeons because "....the raising of pigeons is carried on in this country on a larger scale than almost anywhere in the United States."

In July 1916 some 90,000 homing pigeons were offered by the Racing Pigeon Union in anticipation of the US entering WWI. Of those, 10,000 came from the Greater Pittsburgh area. That number startled even the most jaded local, judging by this one-off comment on the editorial page a few days later:

Pittsburgh Gazette Times, 4 July 1916

The Allied forces had been using homing pigeons on the battle lines with great success. The 300 members of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Racing Pigeon Union offered not only the use of their long-distance-flying, award-winning birds, but also their personal services as trainers and builders of lofts.

Thus it was that in October 1918, local breeders added Pittsburgh stock to the consignment of 3000 pigeons joining the US Signal Corps as battlefield messengers. Those birds were looked over by Pittsburghers, Lieutenants John L. (Jack) Carney of Dormont and John Buscall, who were in charge of the division.

By February 1918 the pigeons, officers (Carney, Buscall, and one additional) and 118 enlisted men were dispatched to France. Three thousand birds wasn't enough, despite breeding programs, so in April 1918 the following notice was sent to Pittsburgh breeders:

It is requested that all pigeon fanciers who have banded birds with United States army bands, which birds will be available for shipment on April 15 to communicate with Dr. O.J. Bennett, 680 Preble avenue, Northside, Pittsburgh, in order that he may inform the signal department of the United States army as to how many Government band birds are available for Government use in France.

Dr. Bennett, a prominent local physician who consulted at Western Penitentiary, was the president of the local chapter of the Racing Pigeon Union. He maintained one of the nation's premiere lofts at his Northside property. His birds had set multiple distance and speed flying records, and bore noble names like Tribune, Miss Warhorse, North Side Star, and Old Bob. Dr. Bennett was the official distributor of the "USS 18" band that Pittsburgh pigeons wore after being, uhm, drafted. The government paid "civilian fanciers" $2 each for their birds, which joined the Pigeon Section or Pigeon Company of the US Army Signal Corps.

WWI Signal Corps pigeon, from Annual Report of the Secretary of War, United States War Dept, 1919
Feather identification stamp on carrier pigeon in US Army Signal Corps. Library of Congress collection, 1918.

Officially speaking, the duties of the Pigeon Section were to:
....provide personnel, pigeons, and equipment for the training of all arms of the service, conduct this training at different camps and aeroplane stations, to coordinate pigeon activities with the other branches of the War Department, to procure personnel and equipment for the forces overseas and to answer all inquiries for information concerning pigeons and their training.
As a matter of daily routine, what the Pigeon Section did was save the lives of American servicemen.

Pittsburgher Captain Jack Carney with Cher Ami
There were lots of brave birdies, but Cher Ami was among the most famous. This registered Black Check cock carrier pigeon was a member of Pigeon Company No. 1, which Pittsburgher Jack Carney commanded. During the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the 77th Infantry Division was besieged for five days by the German army in the heart of the Argonne Forest. At one desperate point, they came under deadly friendly fire from other American forces. Cher Ami had previously delivered twelve messages to and from the Verdun battlefields, but the stakes were highest for the little bird on 4 October 1918. Two previous carrier pigeons sent out by the 77th's Major Charles Whittlesey had been instantly killed by the Germans.

Carrying the last hopes of the men in a message attached to his leg, Cher Ami was loosed to the sky.

He was immediately fired upon by the Germans. Cher Ami fell to the ground with a shrapnel wound in his breast.

The Pittsburgh pigeon faltered but miraculously rose to fly gain. He arrived at his destination one half hour and 25 miles later, having flown through harsh wind, rain, and unrelenting gunfire.

At headquarters the full extent of his injuries became apparent: Cher Ami had been blinded in one eye, and one of his legs was nearly torn off. But still attached to that tiny shattered leg was the steel capsule containing this desperate message from Major Whittlesey to the commanding officer of the 308th Infantry:

Cher Ami's message, 4 October 1918.
"We are along the road parallel 276.4.
Our artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us.
For heavens sake stop it.
National Archives, Identifier 595541

Cher Ami's avian grit, combined with dedicated training by the Pigeon Section, saved the lives of the Lost Battalion that day.

But this was to be Cher Ami's last mission. He was committed to the tender care of Jack Carney, who claimed he personally received this admonition from General "Black Jack" Pershing: "There ain't anything in the United States can do too much for this bird. I want him to go back to Washington the best cared for bird that ever was."

The Transition to Smiles
The new year of 1919 dawned cold and rainy in Pittsburgh and was greeted with cautious joy. A Gazette writer set the mood:
Peace--that was the magic word in the minds and hearts of those who celebrated the transition. There could not but be a feeling of relief that 1918, which had seen world's blood shed in greater quantities than any of its predecessors, had passed. And of the hope that permanent peace had come to bless the world as the gift of 1919 was its companion thought.
So much had changed, with so much more to come. Families faced the future without loved ones. The sheer numbers of war dead were unprecedented; the nature of their deaths horrific, the communal grief overwhelming. The pervasive psychological casualties of the Great War were scarcely recognized, let alone understood or addressed.

And women, who had of necessity assumed wartime manufacturing and professional levels, now faced job losses as men returned to claim their rightful stars in the employment firmament. Pittsburgh's lady postal workers knew their days were numbered. Conductorettes across the country were soon out of their jobs.

Yet, there were inspirations. Freed from generations of constraints both social and sartorial, Pittsburgh women looked to new possibilities for freedom and expression. While it might seem to us cold comfort given the brutal reality of death in industrialized warfare, Pittsburghers contemplated the heroic sacrifices of their loved ones with bravery and stoicism, as necessary expressions of duty, honor, and patriotism.

Ad from Pittsburgh Press, January 1919
The pigeons helped bring cheer. Cher Ami and other birds under Jack Carney's care returned to the States a few months later, hailed as heroes and written about in newspapers across the nation. The Pigeon Section's Pittsburgh connections were prominently mentioned.

But compromised by extensive injuries, Cher Ami died in June 1919, having been awarded the French Croix de Guerre with palm for his services. As had been planned:   

Cher Ami, various headlines and posthumous awards, 1919-1925
....when the last breath goes out of his brave little body, the mangled little form will be mounted and preserved, to be kept by the government forever, in memory of one of the really distinguished veterans of the great war and as a reminder of the valiant service rendered to the causes of victory by Cher Ami and his fellow homing pigeons.

The recipient of multiple posthumous awards, Cher Ami was indeed preserved in the collection of the Smithsonian Institute, just like his cousin Martha the last passenger pigeon.

Pigeon-keeping would remain popular in Pittsburgh for some decades more. Carney displayed his other heroic pigeons to an adoring Pittsburgh in 1919.

The boys Over There were not forgotten while they awaited their chances to return home. The day before peace was officially declared, the Pittsburgh Post begin oiling the wheels of a brilliant self-promotional, morale-boosting machine. As was being done in a few other cities nationally, the Pittsburgh newspaper sponsored the creation and distribution of Smiles Across the Sea motion pictures. The films had been planned before the armistice as a way of sending home-front holiday joy to soldiers stationed abroad. They were meant to feature neighborhood scenes, parades, and a domestic sea of countless smiling Pittsburgh faces.

Beginning on 10 November 1918, The Post announced and promoted its master plan of filming locations and dates, with the intent of completing the first installment and turning it over to the Division of Films, Department of Public Information in time to be screened on Christmas Eve 1918. Two additional film installments were planned for early 1919. The newspaper published the filming schedule almost daily through November and December 1918, and admonished readers that the info was subject to change. That meant they absolutely needed to check the paper daily for modifications -- a brilliant way to sell papers!

10 November 1918, Pittsburgh Post "Smiles Across the Sea" filming schedule excerpt

The films today are lost, as no local Pittsburgh archives have records of them.

Fortunately for us, The Post published montages of still images from its neighborhood photo calls. This one contains photos taken in East Liberty by Post photographer William L. Thiesen.

Still photos taken 30 November 1918 in East Liberty, published in Pittsburgh Post on 1 December 1918. Caption reads as follows:
"The top picture shows a general view of the crowd that assembled in East Liberty to "smile" for The Post moving picture man. Just below this, from left to right, are shown part of the Mothers of Democracy section, another section of the parade, and Ralph H. Thomson, Jr., and his mother. The baby's father, Lieutenant Ralph H. Thomson, has never seen his son yet. The bottom strip shows the Women's Defense League. From left to right the women in the picture are: Front row, Mrs. G. Byrne, Mrs. J.R. Keller, Mrs. W.J. Dillon, Mrs. J.H. Stoughton; back row, Mrs. Margaret Newland, Mrs. Elsie Dei, Mrs. S.A. Reinhard, Mrs. C.H. Sallada, and Mrs. H.J. Mengas. Inserted above this picture is one of little Margaret Bell Cyphers, who has three brothers in France. To the right is another section of the parade."

These were taken in Oakland, photographer unidentified, but probably Thiesen.

Still photos taken 18 December 1918 in Oakland, published in Pittsburgh Post on 19 December 1918. Caption reads as follows:
"Among those who posed for the "Smiles Across the Sea" production of The Post in Oakland yesterday were, top, Miss Marion Lane, Miss hazel Shannon, Miss Edith O'Hara, Miss Pauline Trenz, Miss Helen Holleran, Madame E. DeJean, a French teacher, who had three brothers in the French army during the war; Miss Sadie Anthony, Mrs. D.M DeBee, and Miss Myrtle Kirkland. Second row, a large group of smiling children from the Holmes school; third row, left, proud mothers of soldiers serving overseas grouped so that their sons will have no difficulty picking them out when the film is shown Over There; right, Mrs. Edward W. Watkins, wife of Lieutenant Watkins, proudly displaying her "Victory Baby" Edward, Jr., born the day the armistice was signed; bottom row, left, are the mothers in the parade with their escort; right, school children from St. Paul's parochial school in the procession past the cameramen."

From Hazelwood, again by Post photographer William L. Thiesen.

Still photos taken 8 January 1919 in Hazelwood, published in Pittsburgh Post on 10 January 1919. Caption reads as follows:
"The top picture shows a section of the immense crowd which turned out on Wednesday for the Post's motion picture in Hazelwood. in the middle, left to right, are: G.A. Todd, 74 years old, who has four nephews following the flag he was fighting for in the Civil war. He enlisted when 16 years old in Company I, Thirty-second Iowa Volunteer infantry; Mrs. Peter J. Conley and her baby Mary Catherine, six months old, whose father is with Company E. Three Hundred and Twentieth Infantry in France, and Mrs. Howard Gibson, with baby Howard Gibson, Jr., eight months old, whose father is a sergeant with Company E, First Engineers, and only recently released from Base Hospital No. 116 in France, where he had received treatment for wounds. On the extreme right is Mrs. Catherine Brown, 80 years old, who has three grandsons in the service. In the bottom row, to the left, is a very small part of the Hazelwood children as they passed the motion picture cameras; to the right are the Mothers of Democracy."

The final group photos by William L. Thiesen were taken in Millvale and Aspinwall:

Still photos taken 18 January 1919 in Millvale & Aspinwall, published in Pittsburgh Post on 19 January 1919. Caption as follows:
Upper picture shows section of the crowd which gathered at Aspinwall yesterday for The Posts's pictures, "Smiles Across the Sea." Underneath that are the mothers from Aspinwall whose babies have been born since their relatives went to war. They are: Mrs. Thomas Tyson, with baby Elda; Mrs. W.R. Taylor, with baby Virginia; Mrs. H.R. Quigley, and baby Janet; Mrs. J. Cavanaugh, with baby Rose Mary; Mrs. William Rech, with baby Mary; Mrs. L. J. Hunkele, with baby Virginia; Mrs. I. Henne, with baby Charles. Mrs. F.D. Wright, and baby Jean; Mrs. J.J. McChesney, and baby Mary; Mrs. Edward Hechathorn, and baby James; Mrs. M. Caspar, and baby Peter; Miss Eleanor Hassenfritz, and nephew William Hassenfritz. In the center is a picture of Mrs. John Riddlebaugh with four service stars. On the third to the left is a section of the Millvale parade passing the moving picture cameras, and to the right mothers with babies who have relatives in France: Mrs. John Barklam, with baby Thelma; Mrs. John Coleman, with baby Arthur and Mrs. John Bergl, with baby Charles. The picture in the center is of Mrs. M. Kanohofer. The large picture at the bottom shows the crowd at Millvale posing for the camera men; the small picture to the left shows Mrs. J. Dougherty, and the one to the right Mrs. C. Jacoby.

While this was clearly a massive promotional effort to get people to read The Post, it also massively succeeded in boosting morale -- both at home and abroad. The newspaper reported that 25,000 feet of film were shot, and that all three installments were received and viewed with joy by thousands of soldiers. Many wrote grateful notes that were published by The Post in early 1919.

In April 1920 the films were shown locally at a veteran reunion event at East Liberty's Motor Square Garden.

Think of it: from every corner of Pittsburgh, people came. They dragged their elders and their babies into blustery December and January weather, just a few months after the most devastating influenza epidemic in modern history, to parade past motion picture cameras and smile for photographers.

For some, these were the only photographs they'd ever have taken.

For many, there were yet worries that the soldiers they were smiling for might not make it home. Surely some recognized the propaganda and promotional aspects of the events, but those were offset by hopes that their grinning faces might bring cheer to the boys who had sacrificed so much Over There.

And we can but hope that for all of these good folks, the psychological principle of seeming "as if" equated with becoming. That by smiling for others, a bit of joy entered their own hearts.

They'd all earned it.

For so much had changed, and so many more transitions were yet to come.

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