“Gramie and Grampi with the cake Annie made for you,” reads the message on the back of this photo. At first I thought this might be an anniversary celebration cake for the older couple, but the caption tells a different story. In a way I’m glad, because the pair doesn’t looked dressed up enough for a big party in their honor.
There are so many great details in this photo—the exuberant wallpaper, the photo studded TV, and what looks like a hand painted picture of a graduating couple in the background. The clothes are also interesting. The woman wears a fifties style double breasted shirt waist dress edged with polka dot trim at the collar, sleeves, pocket and the front facing. A bar pin keeps the neck line opening in place. Her belt is white, coordinating with the white polka dots. I wonder if she sometimes wore a dark belt instead.
Her husband also has on casual clothes, including a plaid shirt and suspenders. Perhaps the shirt is homemade, since the pockets look unusually low. A mistake or a custom touch? His bolo tie might give a hint to the location—it’s a male accessory I associate with the American Southwest.
Did the photographer catch the grandfather at a bad moment, or had someone just said something rude?
This photo comes from a very large archive of work by Charles “Teenie” Harris, housed at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburg. Harris was a staff photographer for the Pittsburgh Courier, a major African American newspaper in the mid twentieth century. His newspaper photos offer a wonderful range of topics—church functions, school plays, family celebrations, and political gatherings. In addition, Harris had his own business and made portraits, wedding photos, and shots for local businesses. His extensive archive offers a detailed look at Black Pittsburgh life in all its complexity.
Most likely the shot above was taken for the newspaper, featuring a gathering of a Black women’s club. We can’t see much of their clothing, but their hats are after all the main event. Several are the small flowered varieties I remember my grandmother wearing in the fifties. A few, however, look more like the pillbox style of the sixties, showing that these women kept up with current styles. And then there is the hat that looks like an upside down flower pot–a category all its own. Had the woman in the center won the prize for the most original creation?
Have you missed libraries during the pandemic? I certainly have. Through the wonders of the internet, I’ve been well supplied with reading materials. But for me nothing compares with the adventure of wandering through the stacks, discovering treasures by accident.
The Digital Public Library of America, one of my favorite sources for images, now has a wonderful online exhibit on the history of libraries in the United States. In one section on bookmobiles, it shows this photo of a woman in Georgia with an invalid husband receiving a pile of books. I can only imagine her joy. I’ll bet she got as many titles as were allowed.
It’s also an interesting study in women’s dress. The older woman wears what is probably her standard at home outfit, a plain colored shirtwaist dress, a cardigan, and sensible shoes. With her white hair drawn behind her head and her wire rimmed glasses, she looks like the stereotypical image of a grandmother in that era. By contrast, her younger visitor is having a little more fun with her clothes. She has on a bold patterned fuller skirt, a wide shouldered jacket, and flat loafers. Her box coat might have been a few years old, but her skirt and shoes already give a whiff of 1950s styles.
What a difference in style between mother and daughter! The mother wears either a shirtwaist dress or a shirt and skirt combination in a conservative polka dot pattern. From this angle her boots look almost flat. Maybe she had problem feet and resorted to men’s shoes, since women’s footwear of the era had higher heels and pointier toes.
The daughter, in contrast, wears a much shorter dress and stylish high boots. Are they laced or buttoned? The dress appears to have a sheer dark overlay over a lighter fabric. The sleeves look sheer. Note the fascinating collar treatment, with sharp triangles of fabric weighted down by beads. They give the outfit a kind of jester look. None of my reference books shows anything similar.
Because of the wind, it’s difficult to tell the exact shape and length of the daughter’s dress. The markings on the back of the postcard indicate the photo was taken between 1905 and 1918. The daughter’s stylish outfit places the picture at the tail end of this time span. Care to guess the exact date?
Has there ever been a film that I liked better than the book? I can’t think of one, and the film Nomadland didn’t change my mind. As friends remind me, books and films shouldn’t really be compared since they are different media. In this particular case, the two also present different stories. The book is a documentary focusing loosely around Linda May, who dreams of building a sustainable house in the Arizona desert. The film introduces a fictional character, Fern (played by the marvelous Frances McDormond), who embraces the nomad lifestyle and rejects two offers to put down roots. As she says in the film, she is houseless, not homeless.
The words matter a lot. Nomadland the film is stunningly beautiful, showing the gorgeous open spaces of the American West. Many of the characters pursue the nomad life in search of that beauty, making this a kind of geezer road trip film. The brief moments of hard work are shown as a small price to pay for the liberating moments in the midst of stunning landscapes.
The book is considerably less romantic. Most of the nomads are on the road because they have to be, not because they want to free themselves from the rat race of late industrial capitalism. The work they do is hard, demeaning, and sometimes outright dangerous. To my eyes, none of that was conveyed by Fern’s work experience in the film.
That’s not to say that Fern’s life is rosy. Her van is cramped and prone to breakdowns. She has to struggle to keep herself and her clothes clean. She needs temporary loans from a generous sister to stay on the road. And yet the films proposes that the beauty and comradery of a nomad life more than compensates for these inconveniences. It wouldn’t work for me. And is this really a solution to the high cost of aging in America?
There’s a short, short story wrapped around the side of this snapshot—“Grandmother Smith with May’s two Pekes Ting and Ling.” Although the Pekinese aren’t hers, Grandmother Smith really looks like a dog lover, don’t you think? Maybe she’s the one who inspired May to take on this exotic breed.
There’s no date on the photo, but I associate that square neckline with the end of World War One—the so called “Armistice Blouse” produced by Folkwear Patterns. And indeed I found a similar looking bodice in the 1918 Sears catalog.
These days the year 1918 brings on different connotations because it marked the start of the first global pandemic. One of the first things that came to mind when I saw the photo was that perhaps these were pandemic pets getting a little extra love from Grandma in a time of crisis. There’s no way that the present doesn’t color our view of the past.
Many professional women wear pearls with their outfits. Deb Haaland, second term Congresswoman from New Mexico, wears Navajo pearls. These graduated silver beads are the signature piece in her large collection of Native American jewelry.
When she was sworn in for her second term as Congresswoman from New Mexico, Haaland picked a traditional outfit from the Laguna Pueblo near Albuquerque, of which she is a member. But such attire is not practical for everyday activities, so she has found a different route to emphasize her heritage—through jewelry.
I have never seen a photo of Haaland without a necklace. Many are combinations of silver and turquoise, but they also include other stones and intricate bead work. Earrings are always added, as well as pins and bracelets. It’s a refreshing change from the more subdued jewelry that other women delegates wear. We are likely to see more of her collection when she becomes the first Native American Interior Secretary.
Of course you don’t have to be a Native American to wear this stunning jewelry. My great aunt, a South Dakota native with Irish roots, wore pieces from her large collection every day. And all of us can find a signature piece to remind others of who we are. It’s an inspiration to dig out my earrings and bracelets that have been languishing during Covid.
International Women’s Day began in the early 20th century as an observance of women’s place in the international socialist labor movement. Although rarely celebrated in the US with any force today, it sometimes gets a mention from politicians and companies trying to show their support the issue of equal pay for equal work.
Where do older women fit into a holiday designed for female wage workers? The lucky ones among us don’t work for wages anymore. Perhaps it’s no surprise that most commemorative images leave out the older age demographic altogether.
The older faces in this poster makes it quite unusual. Published by the People’s Press in San Francisco in 1978, the poster by artist Jane Norling shows a white-haired woman in cat eye glasses, a gray haired Asian looking woman, and a Native American with a few gray streaks in her hair. That puts three out of the eleven represented women in the older category.
The older white woman in the back row doesn’t quite fit in with her ferocious looking neighbors, but she still looks glad to be included in the international family of women. Me too.
I know better than to comment on women’s style choices, since we are now in the era of “anything goes.” If I’m honest, however, I think this woman is dressing a little young for her age. Everything about her outfit and hairstyle is coded young, including her ankle bracelet. However, judging by her face I think she might be well into her fifties.
The photo isn’t dated, but bolero jackets were a popular style in the forties and fifties. Her high heeled open toe sandals look to come from the late 1940s, and I found plenty of sewing patterns from that era in that style. I’m wondering if she didn’t make the outfit herself, inserting the cut out pattern on her bolero to match her dress. The fabric in the fashion drawing is even similar to the gingham of the dress. Everyone wore gingham in the forties, but older women were more likely to choose smaller patterns.
I would love to hear your comments on this photo. Do you think the woman is as old as I think she is? And are there any clothing styles that you think older women should avoid?
This stunning piece is a good introduction into the work of Columbus, Ohio artist Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson (1940-2015). Using the materials of daily life—paper, pencils, fabric, trim, and buttons, she creates stunning compositions. The mixed media creation above serves as the cover of her book, The Teachings, about the role of spirituals in African American life. How could I not love someone who makes such creative use of buttons?
Robinson’s personal style is as austere as her work is vibrant. In all the pictures I found she wore unadorned black clothes. Often her only jewelry were her many ear rings. Her head was bald. Maybe she believed she had too much else to do to be distracted by getting dressed.
To call Robinson a multi-media artist is an understatement. She worked in painting, drawing, sculpture, quilting, and found object collage, sometimes all in one piece. A work she made documenting a Columbus neighborhood, “Along Water Street,” is 60 feet long.
Robinson’s Columbus home was her studio, with every room devoted to a different project. When she died, she donated everything to the Columbus Museum of Art. The museum now has an exhibit devoted to her home studio and her journals called Raggin’ On. Oh, how I wish I could go.
This month I’ve been devoting my blog to older African American women in celebration of Black History Month. At the outset I thought I would have a hard time finding sources, but I was really wrong. Just a little searching has opened up a wealth of resources and I learned a lot along the way. I hope you have also enjoyed the journey.
To contribute to this collective history project, send pictures and stories about the older women in your life to email@example.com. The more information you can include (date, place, etc.), the better.