Grace Fryer: Workers’ Advocate by Linda Harris Sittig

 

I sat in the dentist chair while the technician placed a heavy leaden blanket from my chin to my waist. Then, she walked into another room, and the X-ray machine took pictures of my teeth.

Grace Fryer never had that luxury.

At eighteen, Grace took a job at the United States Radium Corporation in Orange, New Jersey. America had just entered WWI (1917), and Grace wanted to help her family financially since her two military brothers were going overseas.

There were other factories near her home, but the USRC paid three times the going wage. And, Grace was the perfect candidate – she was young and had small hands.

The USRC made watches with the new element of radium to illuminate the dial faces. Discovered less than twenty years before by Marie Curie, the exact danger of radium was not completely understood.

Grace worked side by side with other girls. They obediently followed the painting technique. First, they moistened the tip of the paint bristles in their mouth. Then, they dipped the brush into the glowing green paint. Finally, they hunched over their workspaces and carefully painted the dials.

They repeated this procedure of lip, dip, and paint, over and over. By day’s end, they each painted 250 dials. In the process, they swallowed a bit of the radium paint each time they placed the paintbrush in their mouth.

At first, the girls were excited because, in addition to the high pay, their teeth took on a glow that gave them a dazzling smile. None of them realized they were slowly succumbing to radiation poisoning – all for $3.75 in daily wages.

Questions were initially raised by the girls, as to the safety of the procedure. The managers assured them that it was not dangerous and they shouldn’t worry.

However, the male chemists in the factory all wore masks and lead aprons and handled the radium with tongs.

Hmm.

Four years later, one of Grace’s friends, Molly Maggia became so sick she had to quit her job at USRC. At first, it seemed she needed only to have a tooth pulled. But soon after, an agonizing ulcer appeared on her gums, seeping blood and pus.

Next, Molly’s limbs began to ache so severely she was unable to walk. Baffled, the local doctor had never seen anything like it. Within months, Molly lost all her teeth, and the ulcers had spread to her lower jaw and roof of her mouth. Eventually, her lower jaw was removed.

Grace must have watched in horror as her friend deteriorated. Molly died several months later when the infection spread to her throat and ate its way through her jugular vein. She was twenty-four years old.

After Molly’s death, other factory girls developed the strange infection; including Grace Fryer.

Residents questioned about the number of female workers falling sick. For two years the USRC denied any connection between the girls’ deaths and the workplace.

As deaths increased, an independent firm was hired to investigate. When the horrifying results were made clear, the USRC refused to accept the findings and had the report hushed. After two more years, doctors were consulted. The announcement came that the workers had ingested radium which had honeycombed itself throughout their bones.

Grace had her spine collapse; another girl had her jaw eaten away. Several girls had spontaneous fractures of their legs.

Once the doctors pinpointed the radium as the poisoning agent, then they had to acknowledge to the girls that nothing could be done to save them. One by one, the girls died horrible deaths.

Grace, however, survived, and she began a campaign to have the USRC acknowledge that the girls were due medical compensation. Discovering that there were other radium factories in the U.S., Grace decided that she, and the other surviving girls at USRC, needed to bring awareness about their radium poisoning to the American public.

In New Jersey, however, there was a statute of limitations. Victims of occupational poisoning only had two years to bring a law suit. Unfortunately, the radium poisoning was not evident until five years after being ingested, so the USRC skated clear of all accusations.

Grace, determined, fought on. With the help of her father, she found a lawyer. Although the girls eventually settled out of court, they made America aware of the travesty.

As newspaper headlines raged across America about radium poisoning, factory girls at other radium firms realized the danger of their jobs and began to seek legal counsel. The radium firms denied any culpability, even when their female dial painters showed acute signs of radium poisoning. The firms insisted the girls were dying of syphilis since this announcement would smear their reputations and hopefully dissuade other workers from filing any suits.

By 1928, radium girls from three prominent factories in Orange, NJ, Ottawa, IL, and Waterbury, CT were suing the radium firms. Many of these girls had huge cancerous bone tumors that had grown all over their bodies and were too ill to testify in court. However, in each lawsuit, the judges found the companies culpable.

Thanks to Grace Fryer and her fellow Radium Girls, the right of individual workers to sue their employers for labor abuse was established. Today, we have OSHA, Occupational Safety and Health Administration to ensure the protection of labor rights.

Grace died five years after the lawsuits. She was only 34 years old. The cause was complications from radium poisoning. If we exhumed her skeleton today, the bones would still have radium embedded in them, because radium has a half-life of 1,600 years.

Thanks to Kate Moore, whose new book, Radium Girls, debuted on Amazon this spring.

Catch me on Twitter @lhsittig, my website LindaSittig.com, and Amazon for my two novels, Cut From Strong Cloth and Last Curtain Call.

Linda

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Laurel Hart Burch: Consummate Artist by Linda Harris Sittig

Life handed Laurel Hart a debilitating disease at birth, and she fought back by making jewelry. Not just any jewelry, but artwork so distinctive that it is still to this day instantly recognizable by the vibrancy of the colors, the whimsy of the designs, and the message of harmony that it evokes.

Born in 1945 with osteopetrosis, otherwise known as brittle bone disease, Laurel spent her early years shunned from normal childhood activities because her bones easily broke just from being bumped.

She grew up in the San Fernando Valley of California. Her parents divorced early, leaving Laurel’s mother to provide for her young children alone. She supported her two daughters on a seamstress’s salary, augmented by designing ensembles for the singer Peggy Lee.

By fourteen Laurel was a rebellious young teen who left home with a paper bag stuffed with clothes and headed for the mecca of the streets of San Francisco. Determined not to let her disease rob her of life, Laurel took on odd jobs like babysitting and cooking for families.

She married Robert Burch, a jazz musician, at nineteen. When the marriage fell apart a few years later, leaving her with her own two young children to support, Laurel began designing jewelry and selling it on the street to supplement her welfare checks.

At first, she made jewelry in her kitchen from any metal scrap that others had discarded. Using the back of an old cast iron frying pan and a hammer, she banged the metal into unusual shapes and added old coins, beads, and/or bits of bone to create necklaces, pendants, and earrings.

She was her own best advertisement, as she donned her jewelry prior to walking through the streets. It wasn’t long before people stopped her and asked where they could buy that jewelry. Little by little she developed a passionate following of steady customers.

Her artwork reflected the hippie ethic of peace. Quirky cats and dogs smiled together in iridescent colors while exotic flowers and trees filled the background. The message of harmony was woven through each canvas she painted.

By the mid 1960s, Laurel’s distinctive jewelry was no longer hawked only in flea markets and the streets of San Francisco, she now sold pieces to local stores. When those pieces quickly sold, Laurel designed more.

In the late ‘60s, a local businessman took samples of her work to China, and Laurel began to receive international recognition and commissions. Despite her bone condition, Laurel traveled to China in the early ‘70s and discovered cloisonné, a form of enameled artwork. She returned to the states and sketched designs for cloisonné earrings, which eventually became her most recognized art form. She was the first Western woman ever invited to China as an artist and a business person.

In 1979, she formed her own company, Laurel Birch Inc. and continued the flow of her art onto paper, porcelain and fabrics. As she entered this new business phase, she produced coffee mugs, tote bags, t-shirts, teapots and other household items emblazoned with her signature bold colors. The idea for each product still stemmed from one of her original paintings.

Never having the opportunity to attend art school, Laurel was a self-taught artist, and a dedicated one. Through the years her bones became more brittle. She would often be rushed to the hospital with a broken arm and during recuperation, continue creating artwork from her hospital bed, even though her arm was in a cast. She even taught herself how to paint left handed after multiple breaks to her right arm.

As the years progressed, Laurel became confined to a wheelchair, but she refused to stop creating art, even when the simple act of yawning broke her jawbone.

She always wore her own art, each an explosion of color conveying hope, life, and a sense of whimsy with dangling earrings of mythical cats, elongated necklaces of wood and beads, and flowing silk garments of riotous colors that complemented her art.

In September, 2007, Laurel died at the age of sixty-two from complications of her brittle bone disease.

But her art lives on. If you find vibrant feathered birds, fantastical felines, and luminescent wild horses cavorting against a canvas, coffee mug, teapot, tote bag, or earring, recognize that they are the spirit of one talented, strong woman; her testimony that we should all strive to live life to the fullest.

Thank you to Ronna Sittig and Brenda Tanner for gifting me two treasured Laurel Burch items, back in the day.

If you enjoyed reading this month’s post, please sign up on the right sidebar to become a follower of the blog. Remember to forward the blog to friends who also believe that strong women’s stories need to be told.

You can catch me on Twitter @LHsittig, my website: lindasittig.com, and Amazon where my two novels, Cut From Strong Cloth and Last Curtain Call are available in print or on kindle.

~ linda ~

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Amelia Bloomer and Nellie Bly: Early Female Journalists by Linda Harris Sittig

 

Read this! No This! That’s Fake News! This is real news!  Hashtag, tweet, retweet, post on social media!  I suspect that both Amelia Bloomer and Nellie Bly are shaking their heads in the journalism-afterlife of how modern news is disseminated.

Amelia came first. Born as Amelia Jenks in 1818 in Homer, New York, Amelia did not set out to become a journalist. That very idea would have been laughed at in the early 1800s. Men wrote the news, men edited the news, men sold the news.

Amelia tried both teaching and being a governess before she met her future husband, Dexter Bloomer. After the wedding when the couple settled down in Seneca Falls, New York, her husband recognized that his young bride had a flair for writing. He encouraged her to write a few pieces for his New York newspaper, the Seneca Falls County Courier.

In 1848 Amelia attended the Seneca Falls Convention, which was the first women’s rights convention to be held in the United States. Convinced that women needed their own newspaper, where the news was not controlled by men, she began editing The Lily, the first American newspaper targeting a female audience. Published bi-weekly, the paper ran for four years starting first as a temperance journal, but quickly progressing to include a broad mix of articles.

The newspaper encountered financial difficulties and in 1850 Amelia took over the full demands of editing and publishing The Lily, and its financial debts, too.

Recipes were included on a sporadic basis, as well as articles on practical fashion. In 1851 activist Elizabeth Smith adopted a new ensemble which included long loose trousers worn under a short dress. The outfit was immediately worn by famous actress Fanny Kimble, then suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Amelia Bloomer. This was at a time in history when fashionable women were still expected to have an hourglass figure, accomplished by wearing incredibly restrictive corset. Think Scarlet O’Hara in Gone with The Wind. When the New York Tribune ran articles describing the new fashion that Amelia Bloomer was advocating as a freedom of reform for women, the newspaper referred to the garb as Bloomer Costumes. The name Bloomer stuck, even though Amelia eventually gave up wearing the ensemble.

What she did not give up was her passion for The Lily. She was the first American woman to own, operate, and edit a news service for women. At its height, The Lily had a circulation of over 4,000 readers.

Nellie Bly is the pen name of Elizabeth Cochran Seaman, born thirty years after Amelia.

At the age of 16, Elizabeth read a repulsive article in the Pittsburgh Dispatch entitled “What Girls Are Good For”. She dashed off an outraged rebuttal to the editor and signed it with a pseudonym. The editor, George Madden, was impressed with both the writing skills and the courage it took to write back. He advertised, asking the author to identify herself, and when she did, Madden promptly hired her. It was the start of Elizabeth’s journalism career and a pivotal point in her life when the editor asked her to write under the pen name of Nellie Bly.

In the beginning, Madden asked her to cover topics of women’s interest; food, fashions, taking care of the sick, etc. Nellie eventually asked to write about the controversial topics of the day like the treatment of the poor. Madden declined, so Nellie quit the paper and traveled in Mexico for two years, writing about the indigenous poor.

At age twenty-three she returned stateside and made her debut into investigative journalism when she posed as an insane person, and spent time in the infamous Blackwell Island Women’s Lunatic Asylum. Then she wrote an article on the atrocities she had witnessed. Joseph Pulitzer published her article in his newspaper, The New York World. The year was 1887.

Nellie continued her journalism career until her marriage, and later returned to it after she became a widow. In subsequent years she covered the Women’s Suffragette March of 1913 and the war events of WWI. She chose to write about issues that directly impacted women. Always on the lookout for topics that highlighted social injustice, especially those faced by women, Nellie Bly used her journalism career to bring about a public awareness of inequalities and injustices in American society.

Bravo to these two strong women who recognized early on, the power of the pen, and the responsibility of accurate reporting.

Thanks to Alma Brunner for suggesting this month’s blog.

Please forward the blog to a friend who might enjoy stories of strong women. Remember to sign up as a follower on the right hand side, if you have not already done so.

Catch me on Twitter: @LHSittig or my web page: lindasittig.com or on Amazon with my two novels of historical fiction, highlighting strong female protagonists.

~ Linda ~

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Gladys Vandenberg: the Final Salute by Linda Harris Sittig

In 1948 Gladys Vandenberg was walking down a quiet lane in Arlington Cemetery with her husband, Air Force Chief of Staff Hoyt Vandenberg, at her side. During their walk, they chanced upon a funeral and saw to their dismay that the only mourners attending the ceremony were a chaplain and a small honor guard.

Gladys must have experienced a tug on her heart-strings because she commented to her husband that no Airman should ever be buried without someone there to honor his memory. In that moment of empathy, an idea was born. Gladys decided to enlist a few of her friends, and together they formed a small volunteer group whose goal was to have one member present at any Air Force funeral in Arlington.

As the number of Air Force funerals grew, Gladys reached out to the Air Force Officers’ Wives Club and petitioned for additional volunteers. Several more women joined the effort. The group now called themselves the Arlington Ladies and for the next several decades they were the only military-related  group of women who made sure no Air Force Serviceman was ever buried alone.

In 1972, The U.S. Army inaugurated their Army Arlington Ladies group, followed by the Navy Arlington Ladies in 1985. In 2006, the U.S. Coast Guard formed their Arlington Ladies. Although the U.S. Marines does not have an Arlington Ladies group, a representative from the Marines always attends a Marine funeral at Arlington.

Military funerals can be very precise and formal, with the clip-clop of six horses pulling a funeral caisson with its flag-draped casket to the grave site. It is here that the Arlington Ladies add a touch of humanity and humility as the mournful notes of Taps drift across the sacred burial grounds.

The Ladies still stand today, proudly in the rain or snow, or humid heat of a Washington summer. They are there to honor the deceased. Regardless, if the serviceman’s family is in attendance, or if he or she is being buried alone, an Arlington Lady stands her vigil at the grave site.

Known for its more famous graves, President John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert Kennedy, and the tomb of the unknown soldier, Arlington is the final resting place for 400,000 souls. An average of 28 funeral services occurs each weekday.

My father was a WWII veteran who survived D-Day, June 6, 1944. Three years ago, on the 70th anniversary of that momentous battle, I had the opportunity to visit Normandy, France and walk the beaches of D-Day. I knew I was treading on hallowed ground and I saluted up into the sky to acknowledge where my father had been one of the first U.S. Airmen to drop bombs over Utah Beach, early on the morning of June 6th.

Later, I journeyed to the Normandy American Cemetery. Each visitor was given a rose to place upon a grave. I fanned out through the grounds, reading gravestone after gravestone and noting the young ages of the men who had died. I came to one stone that read, “This soldier is known only to God.” I placed my rose on his tombstone and whispered, “You are not forgotten.”

I made that gesture for one serviceman, but thanks to Gladys Vandenberg, thousands of servicemen and servicewomen have an Arlington Lady at their funeral to let them know they are not forgotten.

I salute you, Gladys Vandenberg, for your caring heart and unselfish actions to ensure the military deceased at Arlington are not left alone during the final salute.

 

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Caroline Ferriday: Humanitarian by Linda Harris Sittig

There were over 40,000 Nazi concentration camps and incarceration sites during the Holocaust, but only one main camp after 1939 was designated solely for female prisoners. That camp was Ravensbrȕck.

Built in 1938, near the village of Ravensbrȕck, Germany, approximately 50 miles north of Berlin, the camp swelled to 10,000 women in 1942, and by 1945 the figure was 50,000.

Although the women came from many countries, the majority hailed from Poland. They represented a variety of religions, but all were deemed as threats to the Third Reich.

There are no official records on how many women died in Ravensbrȕck, but the estimate is over 10,000. However, this camp was also the site of heinous medical experiments performed by Nazi doctors on otherwise, young healthy women.

Eighty Polish prisoners from Ravensbrȕck, all of them high school age Catholics, were chosen for experiments in which doctors would cut open their leg and then inject bacteria into the wound and wait to see if an infection occurred. Then the wound was injected with sulfa drugs to determine if the sulfa could conquer the infection.

In other experiments, healthy bones from the leg were removed to see if bone grafting elsewhere could take place. In the worst cases, amputations were carried out. Each girl had six different operations performed on her, all without painkillers. Many of the girls died as a result of the experiments, and those who survived were crippled for life. They were easy to identify in the camp because they hopped on crude crutches as a means of mobility. As such, their fellow prisoners gave them the tender nickname of The Rabbits.

When WWII ended, and the Russians liberated Ravensbrȕck in April 1945, Poland became a communist country, and the surviving crippled women returned home with their debilitating medical problems. Living in a communist country, however, did not entitle them to any post-war medical compensations.

One would think that there would have been a world outcry to help these Polish patriots. But Ravensbrȕck was one of the last camps freed and liberated by the Russians, not Americans. Combine that with the horror of the massive Jewish annihilation that had occurred, and the plight of the surviving 64 Polish-Catholic women did not make any headlines.

Enter now, Caroline Ferriday.

Caroline Ferriday was a former actress and New York socialite who had been sympathetic to all things French, including the French Resistance in WWII. It was through stories of the French Resistance that Caroline first heard the story of the Ravensbrȕck Rabbits.

In 1958, 13 years after the end of World War II, Ferriday decided she had to make the American public aware of their story. She first contacted war crimes prosecutor, Benjamin Ferentz. Next, she enlisted the help of Norman Cousins, the publisher of the Saturday Review who ran stories in his paper about the plight of the surviving Polish women.

Finally, Caroline was able to travel to Poland with an American doctor who examined each of the women and determined that 35 of them were healthy enough to travel to America and be re-operated on to correct the devastation of the Ravensbrȕck experiments.

Back in America, Caroline became a one-woman whirlwind to obtain the necessary funds for the women to travel and their expenses. She raised the equivalent in today’s financial market of $43,000. Many doctors volunteered to conduct the surgeries without payment.

In December 1958, the 35 Ravensbrȕck Rabbits arrived in New York City, passing the Statue of Liberty, and went to different hospitals in different states. They welcomed their ensuing surgeries; for many, it was the first time since Ravensbrȕck that their legs were not in constant throbbing pain.

Months later, before the women returned home to Poland, Caroline Ferriday hosted a farewell party for them at her home in Connecticut.

Whoever said that just one person can’t make a difference, never heard of Caroline Ferriday.

Caroline died in 1990 at the age of 87.

While I love writing about strong women, this particular blog was difficult because of the horrific details I encountered in the research. Anytime I am confronted with stories such as this one; I am stunned by the level of cruelty in humanity. But, I am also heartened by how one person truly can change the world.

Thank you to Teresa McCarty for pointing me in the direction of this story and to Martha Hall Kelly who wrote the novel, Lilac Girls, bringing depth to the story of the Ravensbrȕck Rabbits.

By most estimates, approximately 6 million Jews, and 5 million non-Jews were killed by the Nazi Regime during the Holocaust, 1933 – 1945. It is estimated that tens of thousands of people participated in the war crimes.

Thank you for supporting Strong Women in History. Please feel free to leave a comment and if you are not yet a follower, join up on the right side of the blog. The blog has readers from over 64 countries!

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Dorothy Harrison Eustis: Giving the Gift of Sight by Linda Harris Sittig

It took the generosity of one woman and the loyalty of one breed of dog to change life for thousands of visually impaired people.

Born into a wealthy Philadelphia family in 1886, Dorothy Harrison learned the importance of philanthropy from her parents. At twenty Dorothy married Walter Abbott Wood, Jr. and moved with him to Hoosick Falls, New York. There, they set up an experimental cattle farm. On a later trip to Europe, Dorothy discovered a German Shepherd who exhibited tremendous intelligence. She named the dog Hans and brought him back to New York. While Dorothy helped her husband on the cattle farm, Hans never left her side. She thought about the possibility of breeding other dogs like Hans, combining canine intelligence with loyalty.

Walter died in 1915 from complications of typhoid fever. Dorothy was twenty-nine and the mother of two young children, so she moved back to Philadelphia. She remained a widow for eight years and then married George Eustis, a professional polo player, who shared her love for dogs.

The couple decided to train dogs in earnest. They acquired a home in Switzerland belonging to a family member. The move gave them easy access to travel to Germany and observe a unique school which trained dogs to accompany German war veterans blinded by mustard gas.

Captivated by what she witnessed at the training school, Dorothy convinced George to help her set up a dog breeding operation in Switzerland, and she named it Fortunate Fields Kennel.

She became passionate about training her dogs to accompany visually impaired owners. In 1927 she wrote an article entitled “The Seeing Eye” about her kennel and sent it to the Saturday Evening Post in America.

Her mailbox soon become flooded with requests from all across America. One letter stood out. It was from Morris Frank, a young blind man from Nashville, Tennessee. He asked to be brought to Switzerland and go through the training with one of the dogs. He promised that he would bring the dog back to America and use his resources to set up a similar program in the U.S.

At Fortunate Fields, Dorothy paired Morris with a female German Shepherd named Kiss. Morris promptly renamed the dog, Buddy, and they soon became inseparable. Morris trained with Buddy for four months, under the supervision of a specialized animal trainer and Dorothy.

Morris returned to the states and began to seek out other blind individuals who could benefit from a guide dog. But Americans were skeptical. Morris contacted a few journalists and took Buddy to New York City. In full view of the newspapermen, Morris tried to cross busy Broadway. Buddy stopped him until the traffic noise had subsided, indicating that it was safe to venture into the street.

With that one act, Buddy made history, and Morris Frank began soliciting candidates for a guide dog. Two years later Dorothy moved back to the U.S., and she and Morris set up The Seeing Eye Foundation. Dorothy remained its president until 1940, generously supporting it financially and leaving a monetary legacy for its future.

The cost to obtain a guide dog and go through the three weeks of training in New Jersey has remained the same since the 1930s. The $150.00 fee also includes the equipment and airfare from anywhere in the U.S. or Canada. Military veterans pay $1.00. The Seeing Eye Foundation absorbs the remainder of the costs. No qualified person has ever been turned away because of a lack of funds.

Dorothy Harrison Eustis died in 1946 at the age of sixty, and Morris Frank died in 1980 at the age of seventy-two. He continued to use guide dogs his entire adult life, and named each one, Buddy, in honor of the first dog who brought him unprecedented freedom.

To date, 16,000 guide dogs have been matched with grateful owners.

Strong women often collaborate with strong men, and sometimes, strong dogs.

If you feel so inclined to make a donation to The Seeing Eye Foundation, check their website: www.seeingeye.org.

I hope you enjoyed reading about another Strong Woman. This month, the blog begins its seventh year with followers in over 65 countries!  Happy Birthday, Strong Women!

Please sign up on the right sidebar to become a follower and join the journey of discovering strong women who deserved to have their story told.

Linda ~

Cut From Strong Cloth, the novel about Ellen Canavan who tries to break the glass ceiling of the Philadelphia textile empire in 1861: www.amzn.com/1940553024.

Last Curtain Call, the novel about Annie Canavan who fights the ruthless coal company preying on the most vulnerable women of her village: www.amzn.com/1940553067.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Rosie the Riveter and the Working Women of World War II by Linda Harris Sittig

 

Her lips are red, her hair tucked up in a red and white polka-dot bandana, and she clenches her fist in power.

Who was the real Rosie the Riveter of poster fame? Through the years there have been several women who believed they were the inspiration for the icon. One woman, Naomi Parker Fraley, photographed in 1942 working in a U.S. Naval machine shop, seems to have been the most likely candidate.

However, the important question is not who, but why the poster image has endured.

To answer that, we need to go back in history.

Continue reading

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Katherine Coleman Johnson: NASA Mathematician

I first wrote about Katherine Johnson in June 2015. Since then a movie, Hidden Figures, has debuted, telling the story of her work behind the scenes as an African-American female mathematician for NASA.

After viewing the film, I felt compelled to repost my June 2015 blog story.

The next time you look up at the night sky, smitten by the pale opalescence of the moon, I don’t want you to think of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, or Michael Collins, the astronauts of the historic Apollo 11 space flight that landed mankind on the moon. I want you to think of Katherine Coleman Johnson, the woman who calculated the trajectories necessary for the success of that historic flight.

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Margaret Getchell: First American Retail Executive by Linda Harris Sittig

Most of us have visited a department store, at least once. You may be the type of shopper who darts from one section to the next, hopping on the up/down escalator or squeezing into a crowded elevator in pursuit of the perfect purchase.

But, have you ever thought of the family behind a mega store? How did they build their business? Who worked behind the scenes to turn shoppers into loyal customers?

Margaret Getchell was not a likely candidate to become a driving force in the retail industry, let alone become the north star to a future world-class department store.

Born in 1843 on the remote island of Nantucket, off the coast of Massachusetts, Margaret forged her destiny by leaving home at the age of eighteen to accept a teaching position in Richmond, Virginia. When the Civil War broke out, her school closed. Soon after, she suffered an accident which left her permanently blind in her right eye.

Not knowing how she might support herself, Margaret decided to head back north. She arrived in New York City on a blustery day in 1862 and walked into a little-known dry goods store on 6th Avenue at 14th Street. When the owner appeared, she told him she was seeking employment and shared the story of her background. Then they talked about their common Yankee heritage.

The owner decided to take a chance. Since his store was cash and carry, the accuracy of money handling was paramount. He emphasized the importance of his employees being honest and trustworthy.

Margaret could have simply accepted the job offer. Instead, she told him how the accident had left her permanently blind in one eye and a glass-eye replica now replaced the disfigured one. Then she assured him her handicap would not affect her job performance. He offered her a cashier’s position.

Within a short period of time, it became apparent that Margaret had a natural flair for both numbers and discerning which stock brought in more customers. Sales soon doubled. When the Civil War ended, Margaret convinced the owner to upgrade his inventory from trimmings and lace, to include military-inspired fashions. They became instant sellers. Under her suggestions, the store also began to offer hat merchandise, apparel, and toiletry items. She became promoted, as the first female store superintendent.

One of Margaret’s most valuable assets was her keen understanding of how to both attract and keep customers. She convinced the owner to install a soda fountain to allow customers to quench their thirst, and then continue with their shopping. During the winter holiday season, she set up doll houses in the store’s front windows. Each doll house was lavishly decorated and people stopped outside to look at the display. Soon, crowds of window-shoppers found themselves entering the store to buy.

In March of 1866 Margaret met Abiel La Forge, a good-looking Civil War veteran and ambitious employee of a competing firm. When Abiel switched his employment to the store where Margaret worked, he also proposed marriage. Within a few years Abiel became a junior partner. Together, they made a successful retail team, although Margaret had to forfeit her salary, since she was now the wife of a junior partner.

Hmm. That tidbit makes absolutely no sense, but back in the day, this custom prevailed.

In 1878 Abiel suffered a series of fatal hemorrhaging attacks and Margaret found herself a widow at the age of 35.  She continued to work at the store, supervising all departments and providing marketing advice.

Two short years later she died of a pre-existing heart condition.

Today though, that fabulous store lives on. She did not live to see the move from 14th Street to 34th at Herald Square, or the magical Thanksgiving Day Parade.

However, she died with the knowledge that she had repaid the owner’s original kindness by helping his small dry goods enterprise transform into a world-class department store.

The owner who became her life-long friend was R.H. Macy.

Through the years other owners continued to enlarge Macy’s and enhance its merchandising aura. But, one strong woman, Margaret Getchell, helped to launch its initial success.

Happy New Year to this new blog site! If you notice a drop in the number of blog followers on the new sidebar, it is because WordPress does not include the additional 485 blog followers I have from Facebook and Twitter.

Please feel free to leave a suggestion for other strong women I could research. For 2017, become a regular follower by signing up on the right side-bar, and then pass the blog onto friends who also believe in the stories of strong women.

~ Linda ~

My “Threads of Courage” series: Cut From Strong Cloth and Last Curtain Call are available in print and Kindle, on Amazon.

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Annie Charbonneau by Linda Harris Sittig

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If you knew that a vigilante group would be convening on your small village tomorrow morning with the intent to wreak unspeakable violence against the men of your neighborhood, what would you do?

Would you warn your own family, but stay indoors? Or would you galvanize the neighboring women to form a resistance group that would allow your men to get to their jobs before the mob struck?

During the Western Maryland Coal Strike of 1894, approximately twenty women from the town of Eckhart Mines did indeed form a group and face a vigilante mob coming after the non-striking miners. Journalists from the Baltimore Sun wrote about the strike and the women, but their identities were never named in print.

In the five years of writing this blog, I have come to vicariously know many strong females. Because the story of the Eckhart women touched me personally, I  chose to profile their story through a fictional character I named Annie Charbonneau, basing her on one of the residents of the village. As I researched the historical background to the Western Maryland coal strikes, the novel of Last Curtain Call was born.

Coal was once king in America. There are two basic types: anthracite and bituminous. Anthracite coal is shiny black, hard, and relatively clean burning. It is only found in six counties in eastern Pennsylvania. Bituminous coal is found throughout Appalachia and areas west of the Allegheny Mountains. It is a softer dull color and more prone to soot, but makes for excellent fuel. Bituminous coal powered the Titanic.

In 1894 many coal companies throughout America lowered miners’ pay from fifty cents a ton dug, to forty cents. You might not think a dime is a big difference, but in 1894 when a strong miner could dig four tons a day, by hand, a reduction of ten cents a ton equaled a loss of $8.00 a month. Stiff, when you consider that his company-owned house cost him $4.00 a month to rent, and he had to pay $1.00 a month to the coal company doctor, and an additional daily fee to have his tools sharpened. Yes, a deficit of $8.00 was significant.

The United Mine Workers was a fledgling union in 1894 and decided to go for a nation-wide strike. In the Georges Creek area of Western Maryland, approximately twenty mines agreed to go on strike and three mining villages voted against the strike. As the strike progressed, the violence against the non-striking miners escalated. When news of a vigilante horde forming reached Eckhart Mines, twenty women banded together to face the mob.

My character, Annie Charbonneau, wanted to stop working in her father’s bakery, graduate from high school, and then go on to college. But she found herself thrust instead into a personal battle against the ruthless coal company, and their practice of preying on the most vulnerable women of her village. Unaware that her actions would bring the evil to her own front door, Annie became caught in a web where a vengeance-seeking enemy wanted to silence her.

Readers who followed the Canavan family from Book 1, Cut From Strong Cloth, in the “Threads of Courage” series, will be pleased to learn that Magdalena Canavan’s children, Jonathan and Josie, continue the story. They find themselves in Western Maryland on the cusp of the big strike and soon become entwined in Annie Charbonneau’s life.

Last Curtain Call is based upon both the historical details of the time and the actual families who lived through the strike, although I changed the name of the village to Porters Glen. I can only hope that the real Annie Charbonneau, whoever she might have been, is smiling at her late, but, well-deserved recognition.

Last Curtain Call can now be ordered from Amazon, just in time for Christmas delivery. Highlight and Click here: www.amzn.com/1940553067.

Please share Annie’s story with a friend, because all women deserve to have their story told. Happy holidays!

~Linda~

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