1900s

Washington’s Best Thing Since Before Sliced Bread

Dorsch's Ford truck, 1923. (Photo Source: Library of Congress)  “Dorsch’s Ford Truck.” 1923. Photo, print, drawing. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Accessed October 30, 2017. https://www.loc.gov/item/npc2007007765/.

The industrial revolution was reshaping the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries, as the country shifted from a pure agrarian structure, to a more industrial one. While many major American cities of the early 20th  century were home to bustling factories and mills pumping smoke into the air, Washington’s largest processing industry filled the air with a different smell—fresh baking bread. In the same neighborhood as the former Griffith Stadium in Shaw, family-owned bakeries lined the streets. Among the most prominent of these bakeries were Dorsch’s White Cross Bakery, Holzbeierlein Bakery, and Corby Baking Company, which were responsible for producing almost all of the bread, cake, and pastry products sold in the Washington area, consequently making them all household names in D.C.

Two Steinways and Three Roosevelts

Gold Steinway in the East Room of the White House (Photo Source: Library of Congress)

In 1903 and 1938, Steinway & Sons gifted their 100,000th and 300,000th custom, art-case grand pianos to the White House. The pianos, crafted with the White House East Room in-mind,  were unlike any other Steinway pianos ever produced--they had extravagantly painted cases, gold leaf designs, and intricately carved wood. The pianos quickly became beacons for art and culture in the East Room and Entrance Hall of the White House where the second one still resides today. Theodore, Edith, and Franklin Roosevelt utilized and dedicated these two Steinway pianos to help establish the White House as a hub for music in Washington moving forward into the 20th Century.

The Potomac's Houseboats of Ill Fame

The Potomac River waters near Alexandria, shown here during the Civil War, were filled with arks that offered a variety of illicit entertainments during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (Image Source: Library of Congress)

If you thought pirates were the only ones able to get into trouble on the water, you’d be wrong. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Potomac River was full of boats – or arks as they were called – that provided all sorts of illicit temptations for parties that were so inclined. While efforts were made to enforce the laws of Virginia, Maryland and the District, the arks’ ability to float downriver to avoid authorities made them a persistent problem.

"More Tons, Less Huns": The Virginia Shipbuilding Corporation in Alexandria, VA: 1917-1922

Back of peoples' heads in the foreground with a large boat in the background.

World War I fueled a rapid buildup in industrial production, and, in particular, merchant shipbuilding. America needed cargo vessels—fast—and, as luck would have it, Alexandria was prepared. Between 1910 and 1912, the Army Corps of Engineers had infilled a 46-acre bay and wildlife preserve – Battery Cove – near Jones Point Lighthouse. The land’s proximity to the Potomac River and its enormous size made it an ideal site for shipbuilding. Alexandrians rejoiced when the Virginia Shipbuilding Corporation came to their city but the enthusiasm would not last.

A cartoon comments on the closing of St. Asaph (Source: Washington Times, January 13, 1905)

A Fight to End Horse Racing and Gambling in Alexandria

The St. Asaph racetrack in Alexandria was a hotbed of gambling at the turn of the century, and local prosecutor Crandal Mackey made it his personal mission to shut the track down. But that was easier said than done as as the track's owners concocted elaborate schemes to outwit authorities and circumvent Virginia's anti-gambling statutes.

Broadhead-Bell-Morton Mansion. (Source: National Register of Historic Places)

D.C.'s Ill-Fated Wedding of the Decade, 1903

For Washington socialites, the most anticipated event of the winter season arrived on January 19, 1903. The rooms of the Russian embassy were full to bursting with the best of the Capital. The entire diplomatic corps, the Cabinet, and the Supreme Court were in attendance. While downstairs guests were being shown to their places, the crying bride was being dressed in her finery upstairs. The Parisian gown was made of white satin and gold brocade, and just dripping with pearls. A mantel of lace fell from her shoulders, over a full court train, and a “misty veil of tulle” was fastened to her head with a coronet of orange blossoms. A wedding gift from the groom, a magnificent diamond collar with ruby clasps, encircled Irene des Planques neck. It might as well have been a noose.

High society ladies at 1904 Bazaar to benefit the Russian Red Cross.

D.C.'s 1904 Russian Bazaar

“Don’t you know there’s a war on?” That’s the usual refrain when your country is at war. But for Countess Marguerite Cassini, daughter of the Russian ambassador to Washington, the 1904-1905 war between Russia and Japan was a reason to have a two-day party. And if you say it’s for charity, why not?

Portrait of Marguerite Cassini by Frances Benjamin Johnston. (Source: Library of Congress)

Countess Marguerite Cassini: D.C.'s Diplomatic Social Butterfly

When Countess Marguerite Cassini first arrived in DC in 1898 during the McKinley administration, she accompanied the first Russian Ambassador to America, Count Arthur Cassini, as his 16-year-old “niece.” An air of mystery shrouded her origins, but as the oldest female relative of the ambassador, the “Countess” was the embassy’s official hostess. At state functions, she would be seated in the proper place for the Russian hostess -- at the top right below the British, French, and German hostesses. The wives of the diplomatic corps bristled to be placed beneath an unmarried teenager, who was thought to be “neither a [countess] nor, according to rumor, a Cassini.” To be fair, the Capital gossip wasn’t entirely wrong; young Marguerite wasn’t a countess, and the count was not her uncle. He was her father. But questions over her roots soon gave way to amazement over the Countess's command of the D.C. social scene, which she effectively ruled along with Alice Roosevelt.

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.

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