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Portsmouth in the 1920s : Listening to Radios

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Radio historians generally agree that broadcasting for the public began in 1920 with a broadcast on station KDKA out of Pittsburg, PA. On November 2, 1920, station KDKA out of Pittsburg, PA, made the nation’s first commercial broadcast. They chose that date because it was election day, and the power of radio was proven when people could hear the results of the Harding-Cox presidential race before they read about it in the newspaper.

However, very few folks heard the broadcast because few radio receivers were privately owned. After word of that original broadcast spread people overwhelmed radio manufacturers. They stood in line for hours to fill out order forms because the manufactures had run out of radio receivers. Between 1923 and 1930 fully 60% of American families purchased radios and gathered around the new devices to listen to nightly entertainment broadcasts.

The more folks purchased radios the more radio stations were needed to satisfy the public. In just two years 600 stations were up and operating nation-wide.

In Providence RI thriving downtown department stores like Outlet, Shepard’s, Gladding’s, Diamond’s, the Boston Store, and Cherry & Webb competed for shoppers. Of those stores, the Outlet and Shepard’s were the boldest of rivals. Radio in Rhode Island was born out of this intense department store rivalry. In June of 1922, Shepard’s launched WEAN, the first radio station in Rhode Island. Just three months later and not to be outdone, the Outlet premiered WJAR. Not long after, Cherry & Webb debuted WPRO. The new technology provided these stores with an exciting promotional vehicle unlike anything the world had ever seen – or heard.

Portsmouth in the 1920s: Community Theater

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Portsmouth may not have had professional theater troupes in the 1920s, but it had its share of community based theater to entertain local audiences. Newspaper accounts show that church, school and social groups often presented plays. One group associated with Oakland Hall and the Oakland Lodge seems to have performed in a very professional way for an amateur group.

Newport Mercury and Newport Journal-Weekly News articles in 1928 tell us about performances of a comedy – “A Couple of Million.” I was able to find a copy of the play online and this four act play is funny. An audience today might find it dated and they would cringe at the racial dialects used and references to women as “skirts.” A modern group might perform this with some dialogue modifications. The plot opens at a lawyer’s office where a young man gets the news that he has inherited a “couple of million” from his uncle, but he has some difficult requirements to meet or the inheritance goes to someone else. The Journal Weekly article states: “From the rising of the curtain to the final drop there were few who were not convulsed with laughter or secured a thrill from the compromising situations in which the players became involved.”

The Oakland Players had all roles necessary for a quality performance. There was a fourteen member cast, a stage manager with three assistants, a prompter, a director of costume and makeup, an electrician and a carpenter. There were several parts for women and these were all performed by MEN.

The players did several performances on Aquidneck Island, but were also invited to perform in East Greenwich.

Portsmouth in the 1920s: Going to the Picture Show

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You might be surprised to know that the early movie theater for Portsmouth was the Town Hall. Newspaper articles from the time show that churches and local groups showed picture shows at the hall. There wasn’t a movie theater in Portsmouth at that time, but most movies were shown where you could set up a screen and darken the room. The Town Hall provided that. I found newspaper articles that show that church groups and community organizations used the Town Hall to show their films. Some were for entertainment or fundraising. Others were more of a “community service” performance.

In the 1920s the films didn’t have sound, but they were far from “silent.” The first full length feature that included sound was “The Jazz Singer” in 1926. The early movie shows were short and the often included lectures, music and audience participation. A January 1920 Newport Mercury article shows that the Red Cross showed a movie called “Winning the Way.” It was shown to an “appreciative audience” and included a speaker from Boston who discussed public health.

Entertaining religious “photo-plays” were shown to raise money for St. Anthony Church. An article in the The Newport Mercury in November of 1922 shows one film called “The Eternal Light” on Friday and Saturday evenings at the Town Hall. “Photo-Play” was a new term for me and it was one description given to early films.

The most interesting film was graphically described in a December of 1922 article of the Fall River Globe. ” ‘Fabiola’ a selfish heartless, cruel women overcome by a Faith which triumphed over treachery, hate and greed” would be shown for the benefit of St. Anthony’s Church. The ticket price seems rather steep for those days: Fifty cents for adults and twenty-five cents for children under 12.

The Newport County Woman’s Suffrage League Ends with a “Jubilee”

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When the state of Tennessee ratified the 19th Amendment to grant suffrage to women, suffrage groups throughout the nation celebrated the victory with jubilees. Philadelphia, New York City, Tacoma in Washington, San Francisco, Minneapolis and Chattanooga were among the locations to hold the jubilees. On Aquidneck Island, the suffragists gathered back where it all began – at Sarah Eddy’s Social Studio in the Bristol Ferry neighborhood.

The Jubilee was planned even before Tennessee cast its vote on August 18th. An article in the Newport Mercury on August 14th announced the coming celebration. The gathering was set for August 17th. “It is expected that by that time the necessary number of State legislatures will have ratified the Constitutional amendment to make it effective.”

The article ends by saying “A large number of invitations have been issued.” Among those attending were two Catholic suffragists from the Philadelphia area – Jane and Marianne Campbell. In a letter from Jane to her nephew, she writes: “We are staying over a day here to attend a Jubilee Suffrage Meeting, the practical dissolution of the Newport and Bristol Ferry Suffrage Society. The women in Rhode Island had Presidential Suffrage and the gentle Misses Chace have registered so they can cast a ballot in the Presidential Elections. The Rhode Island Constitution gives the legislature the power of conferring Presidential Suffrage on the women and that legislature has done that” (August 13. 1920) letter of Jane Campbell to John J. Campbell.) The envelope to the letter had a return address of “Willowbrook” in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. This was a guest house owned by Sarah Eddy.

The program of the Jubilee included speeches by Rhode Island Governor, R. Livingstone Beeckman. The clergy were represented by the former pastor of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Portsmouth, Reverend Charles Jarvis Harriman and the pastor of Channing Memorial Church in Newport, Reverend William Safford Jones. Miss Sarah Louise Arnold, the Dean of Simmons College in Boston, also spoke. Other speakers were George Moriarty, a Newport Genealogist and Dr. Alfred Johnson.

Music was part of the program as well. Kate Durfee (Mrs. Charles H. Durfee) of Fall River and Mr. Augustus Hazard Swan of Newport performed solos. Kate performed the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” That would be a fitting note in a celebration to end a Portsmouth suffrage group that included Julia Ward Howe as one of the founding members. Julia’s daughter Maud Howe Elliott presided over the celebration. The Social Studio, the home of many of the first meetings was an appropriate place to celebrate a victory in securing the vote for women.

Suffrage Work Branches Out County-wide: Middletown Suffragists

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True to its name, the NEWPORT COUNTY Woman Suffrage League (NCWSL) began to quickly branch out county wide from its Bristol Ferry roots. Founded with eight members in 1907, by 1909 there were seventeen members.  One of the 1909 officers, Mary Osborn, was from Tiverton.  Cora Mitchel and Veva Storrs went to the Kingston state fair to promote the suffrage cause.  NCWSL was active in giving lectures and socials.  The group hosted the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association and there were sixty people present.  By 1910 membership was up to thirty-three members.

There was a critical shift in 1912 once Maude Howe Elliott became the President.  Cora Mitchel stepped into the Vice President role.  In 1913 there were ninety members and they were from Portsmouth, Middletown, Newport and Tiverton.  Newport, Middletown and Tiverton meetings began. Julia Ward Howe had died in 1910 and her daughter Maude Howe Elliott moved into the Oak Glen home on Union Street.  Meetings were conducted there, but they were also held at the Channing Parlors in Newport and at the summer residence of socialite Mrs. Katherine McCormick.  The League keeps its contact with the Rhode Island Suffrage League in Providence.

The Middletown Suffragists

Mary Clark Sturtevant (1843-1931) and daughters Mary, Helena and Alice Sturtevant Howard

Mrs. Eugene Sturtevant (Mary) was a prime founder of St. Columba’s (the Berkeley Memorial Chapel). Mary was the daughter of Thomas Clark – Episcopal Bishop of RI.  She and her husband donated the land.   Eugene Sturtevant was a real estate developer and he bought up large parcels of land on the eastern shore of Middletown and sold the lots.

Mary was a local historian and she researched, wrote and spoke about the history of the East Side of Middletown.  She had been a Middletown resident since 1871. Mary was an active member of the Art Association and would have worked with Maud Howe Elliott there.   She worked for the preservation of Whitehall, the Middletown home of Bishop Berkeley.  She was an advocate of child welfare causes and was on the board of St. Mary’s Home for Children in Providence.

Mary Sturtevant was active in the suffrage cause.  In The History of Woman Suffrage it states that “In Middletown the [Newport County Woman Suffrage] league’s work was ably carried on by Mrs. Eugene Sturtevant and her daughters.” In November 1914, Mary Sturtevant was named Vice President of the Newport County Woman’s Suffrage League. Her daughter Mary was named treasurer. In February 1915, Mary Clark Sturtevant was the Newport representative on the Rhode Island State Committee of Woman Suffrage. She also was a member of the Congressional Union, the offset of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA), in Rhode Island in 1915.  In a newspaper article “Woman Suffragists Invade State House” Cora Mitchel, Maud Howe Elliott and Mrs. Sturtevant “buttonholed” (detained them in conversation against their will)  state senators and representatives. They had pictures taken with the statesmen.    She was a speaker before NCWSL at Oak Glen 1913.  When the suffragists entertained the troops as war service, Mary would play the organ.  She wrote a booklet countering the arguments of the Anti-Suffrage speakers.

Lila Pierce Peckham 1864-1948  (Mrs. Elisha Peckham) hosted meetings at her Middletown home, “Seven Pines”.  A Newport Mercury account of a meeting there in 1914 tells of a “Preparation Day” meeting for a national woman Suffrage demonstration.  Lila’s daughter, Elizabeth A. Peckham presented readings for “The Woman’s Journal.”  Interestingly, the meeting was presided by a man – R. Wallace Peckham.

Lila Peckham (1864-1948) was a newspaper reporter and was noted for club work, especially the Oliphant Reading Club.  She was a member of the Middletown School Committee.

The Youngest Suffragist: Olivia Watson (1900-1985)

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Olivia Watson Hoffman and her poetry book – The Four Seasons.

Olivia Lyman Watson was only seventeen or eighteen when she served as a corresponding secretary for the Newport County Woman’s Suffrage League in 1918 and 1919. Maud Howe Elliott, Julia Ward Howe’s daughter, had taken over the presidency of the group and Olivia might have joined through her influence. Later newspaper articles mention that Olivia was related to Julia Ward Howe. Olivia was very proud of her deep Rhode Island family roots.  She was a descendent of one of the first Newport founders, Thomas Hazard.  Ancestors William Green Arnold and John Cook served as colonels in the Continental Army.

Early newspaper articles identify her as “Olive” but she seemed to use “Olivia” as she was older.  She thought of herself as a literary woman.  In a newspaper interview she said that her forebears were founders of the Redwood Library in Newport, one of the oldest libraries in the United States.  She was a member of the League of American Pen Women and contributed articles and poetry to a number of publications.  Olivia was a published poet and she said she wrote poetry from childhood.  In an interview she said – “I can’t remember when poetry did not sing itself to me.”

She married a Navy officer, Joseph H. Hoffman, in Newport in 1929 and she moved all over the country as a Navy wife.  She always kept her Newport connections and visited Aquidneck Island frequently.  Later in life she became a song writer and  wrote the words to a “Breaker’s Ball” song and it was performed at the Breakers by the Meyer Davis Orchestra.  She even wrote a campaign song in 1968 for Richard Nixon called “Win with Dick” which was used at campaign rallies.

Georgie Nichols Wentz (1858-1945) – Society Suffragist

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What is your image of the suffragists?  Georgie Wentz may not fit the stereotypes.  Her campaign against immodesty in women’s evening dress got  coverage in the New York Times and other publications.  She opposed cocktails, cigarettes and the “drug habit.”  Apart from suffrage, her passion was electing Republicans.  Even before she was able to vote she worked on the campaigns of Benjamin Harrison and William McKinley.  She actually went door to door in the tenements of New York to campaign for her candidates.

When Maude Howe Elliott took over as President of the Newport County Woman Suffrage League the center of league activities moved to Newport. Georgie Nichols Wentz (Mrs. James Griswold) is a good example of the Newport summer colonists that joined the league and helped the effort. While in Newport, Georgie Wentz worked hard for her causes.  As early as 1914 Newport County Woman Suffrage League meetings were being held at the Wentz home – “Beaumaris.” Newspaper articles show her as a speaker at  suffrage meetings and demonstrations.   In 1915 she helped with Mrs. Belmont’s event at Marble House.  Mrs. Wentz (along with several other socialite suffragists) are listed as Vice-Presidents of the Newport County Woman Suffrage League in 1917.

Like many of the suffragists, Georgie Wentz helped in the war effort during World War I.  She opened her estate in Newport to entertain sailers from the Naval Training School.  She was an active member of the Red Cross.

Once women secured the vote, Mrs. Wentz focused on organizing the Newport County Woman’s Republican Club.  She established her headquarters on Thames Street and by the mid 1920’s she had 400 members.

Sources:  Biographical Cyclopaedia of American Women, Alvord Publishing, 1924.

Newspaper clippings from Newport Mercury and New York papers.

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