1900s

Photograph of Mary Church Terrell as a young adult.

Impressions of Washington: Mary Church Terrell’s Activism

Educator, author, and activist Mary Church Terrell was the first president of the National Association for Colored Women, the first African-American woman elected to a major city school board, and a founding member of the NAACP. A lifelong advocate for equality, Terrell participated in sit-ins well into her eighties. But out of all of her activism, one 1906 speech stands out as an insightful and damning critique of racial dynamics in the nation's capital.

Anna J. Cooper (Source: Wikipedia)

Dr. Anna J. Cooper: MVP of D.C. Education

In the early 1900s, Dr. Anna J. Cooper, eschewed inherently racist notions that education for African American students should be solely vocational. Pursuing more classical studies, she pushed her students toward some of the best colleges and universities in the country, but her dedication raised the ire of the D.C. Board of Education.

Henry Shrady: The Man Who Gave His Life for U.S. Grant’s Memorial

U.S. Grant Memorial Equestrian Statue

When sculptor Henry Merwin Shrady, along with architect Edward Pearce Casey, won the commission to design the Capitol's Ulysses S. Grant Memorial in 1902, neither man was quite aware of the scope of the project with which they were getting involved. The monument had first been proposed in 1895 by the Society of the Army of the Tennessee, which wanted a grand way to honor the general who led the Union Army to victory during the Civil War. Shrady threw himself into the project that would consume his life -- literally -- over the next 20 years.

No "Monopoly" on Monopoly

Elizabeth Magie comparing a copy of “Monopoly” to “The Landlord’s Game.” (Image source: “Designed to Teach,” Evening Star, January 28, 1936.)

The official history of Monopoly states that the game was invented in 1935 by Charles Darrow, a man down on his luck during the Great Depression, who was catapulted to fame and fortune through his invention of a simple board game. The game was hugely popular, selling two million copies in its first two years in print. However, the game would have already seemed very familiar to intellectuals, leftists, and Quakers across the Northeast. And for good reason: the Monopoly we know today is a near-carbon copy of an earlier game, The Landlord’s Game, designed by a Maryland stenographer named Elizabeth Magie - except that while Monopoly’s goal is to bankrupt your opponents, The Landlord’s Game was intended to show players the evils of monopolies.

The Wright Brothers Prove Their Worth in Arlington and College Park

Wright Military Flyer flying at Ft Myer in 1909. Photo courtesy of the College Park Aviation Museum.

Ohio and North Carolina often get into a dispute about who can “claim” the Wright Brothers. The former was where the two lived and conducted most of their research, but the latter was where they actually took to the air for the first time. The debate rages on, with shots fired in forms from commemorative coins to license plates. But the place where the Wright Brothers really fathered the American aviation age was right here in the DC area, where they taught the first military pilots to fly, proved to the American public that their machine was real, and took to the air at what is now the oldest airport in the world.

The Lady is a Vamp

The rise and fall of "vampire" Despina Davidovitch Storch was big news in 1918. The Washington Times ran an 11 part series about her. (Photo source: Wikipedia)

Washington has always been a town that likes gossip and scandal. So, it’s probably not a surprise that turn-of-the-century Washingtonians were quite interested in vampire stories. You see, back then, “vampire” was a term for a dark, seductive woman who lured men into her poisonous embrace, sucked him dry of wealth and left him debauched and ruined – a femme fatale of the most frightening and glamorous sort.

An independent and sexual woman with power over men? Yikes! If the newspapers saw a chance to embellish an account of a ‘real vampire’, boy did they go for it.

How Teddy Roosevelt Brought Art to Washington

Artist James McNeill Whistler’s most famous painting is probably his portrait, Whistler’s Mother, but to Washingtonians, there is another work that captures the imagination.

Tucked away in a corner of the Freer Gallery, Whistler’s “Peacock Room” beckons people with its distinct lure. Victorian gas lamps, gilded patterns of gold, and Chinese pottery all come together to create quite a spectacle. This is not just a normal art exhibit, however. It's more of a story.

The Tight Laced Ladies of Washington

Women’s fashion is a complicated subject, but one doesn’t usually think of it as deadly. However, the fatal dance between health and beauty was a reality for Washington women in the 19th century.

The “corset problem,” or the “corset question” as it was called in the press, was the phenomenon of tightly lacing corsets to constrict the waistline to about 16 inches and sometimes even as small as 13 inches; basically, the smaller the better. These miniscule waists, also called “wasp waists,” were in style in the first half of the 1800s, reaching their peak in the 1840’s and 1850’s. Starting in the latter half of the century, the style began its descent and area newspapers began to debate the practice.

Houdini Escapes Newest and Strongest D.C. Jail in 1906

This past Saturday, as part of the Urban Photography Series, I went on a tour of the neighborhood of Park View, hosted by The Historical Society of Washington. As we meandered down Georgia Avenue, I snuck off to the right down Park Road NW to indulge my curiosity on something I had read.

I came to the Tenth Precinct Police Station just a little way down the street and pondered again the story of a crafty escape artist who managed to break out of a jail cell in less than 20 minutes. Got any guesses on who the trickster was?

Even Washington D.C. couldn’t hold Harry Houdini, the original handcuff king. On New Years Day in 1906, the infamous Houdini broke out of what was said to be the strongest and toughest jail in the city.

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