Social Media in the 20th Century

Back in June, The Wren’s Nest launched the first phase of an interactive version of the Harris family tree. The second phase came at the end of July/early August and with it, my discovery of just how awesome Joel Chandler Harris’s daughter-in-law, Julia Collier Harris, was. The third phase of the Harris family tree interactive is now available and included labels for 22 of the family’s members.

This was nearly double the number of labels from the previous two phases. In addition to the generous help of Harris’s descendants (Linda Harris and Annette Shakespeare), I quickly found up to my eyeballs in obituaries and wedding announcements – courtesy of memberships to Ancestry.com and Newspapers.com – trying to find out everything I could about each person. I also discovered something about 20th-century newspapers that I didn’t know was a trend:

“Social Items” and “Personals.”

Now, when I hear the term “personals,” I think about personal ads. The advertisements that were like a cross between Craiglist postings and online dating profiles. Basically, a place You place in the newspaper in which you either try to sell something or try to find a partner.

It also makes me think about the song, “Escape (The Pina Colada Song).”

But that’s not what these Personals and Social Items contained. Instead, I found announcements like these:

“Mr. and Mrs. Frank Rowsey, who have been residing at the Biltmore hotel, have returned to their home, The Brier [sic.] Patch, on Old Plantation road, for residence.”

“Mr. and Mrs. Joel Chandler Harris III will move to Montgomery, Ala., October 1, where they will make their future home.”

“Miss Burdeene Blechele, of Canton, O., and Misses Gretchen and Brownie Miller, of Lexington, KY, are visiting Misses Lillian and Mildred Harris.”

And there were plenty more examples over the course of many decades (you may notice these examples are from 1943, 1928, and 1900), mostly alerting readers to people’s movements/travels.

It seemed oddly familiar to me and for a little while I couldn’t figure out why. And then it hit me:

These are basically like modern day social media status updates. But in print media.

Evidently, people used to share when they were going on a trip, moving to a new city, or newly engaged in the newspaper the way we share the same news now on our Facebook or Twitter accounts.

I suspect that in sharing this “revelation,” my millennial age is showing. In retrospect, it almost feels silly that I didn’t know this existed or even considered how this type of information was shared before online social media or widespread phone use. But I guess I assumed it was done in a more intimate way; through personal letters or phone calls to specific people. Not as public announcements that anyone reading the newspaper could read.

I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Are we haunted?

Denise Roffe has seen a full-bodied apparition — what most people would call a ghost — three times. 

The first time was when her mother died and she saw her form passing through a garden and entering a house in Stone Mountain, Ga. The second time was when she saw a woman dressed in old-fashioned finery in the ladies’ lounge at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. 

“We were doing a paranormal investigation,” Denise recalls, “and I saw her for just a second with my flashlight. I screamed.”

The third time? That would be at the Wren’s Nest last year. More on that later.

Denise is co-founder of the Southeastern Institute of Paranormal Research, a group of ghost-hunters who use small electronic equipment to measure sounds, energy fields, and other manifestations of spirits who have gone before. She and her colleagues led several nights of ghost-hunting sessions at the Wren’s Nest last year, drawing more than 200 people. They can’t hold the sessions in person this year because of the pandemic, but we’re offering them virtually on Zoom for six evenings in September and October starting this Saturday. (For tickets and dates, CLICK HERE.)

Denise inherited her interest in the paranormal from her father, who saw his grandmother’s ghost when he was a child and spoke often of such mysteries with his daughter. She has been ghost-hunting for more than 20 years, the last 12 with the SIPR. She has written a book about ghosts — “Ghosts and Legends of Charleston” — and has led dozens of investigations  in Savannah, Charleston, and Atlanta-area landmarks such as the Fox and the Southside Theatre Guild in Fairburn, where a theater troupe performs in a vintage movie house.

“Theaters are by far the most active places for the paranormal,” Denise says. “The only thing I can figure is it’s all the energy you get when people produce a play and get together to see it.”

The other misconceptions have to do with what people see on the ghost-hunting shows that have become a TV staple. “They see people yelling at ghosts, demanding that they come out, and then something happens and everyone jumps,” she says. “The truth is that we mainly debunk. We capture sounds and electronic phenomena and analyze them. Most of them turn out to be ordinary things. A few of them turn out to be disembodied voices or some other evidence of the paranormal.”

As for that full-bodied apparition at the Wren’s Nest: During an investigation last year, Denise walked past the doorway to Joel Chandler Harris’s bedroom — the room where the author died in 1908 — and glimpsed a man standing in front of the fireplace contemplating the mantel. She saw him well enough to make out his face.

Our director then, Melissa Swindell, took Denise to the family room, where she examined photos of Harris’s children displayed on the wall. She recognized one of the faces. She believes the apparition she saw was of Julian Harris, a distinguished writer and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who helped his father found the Uncle Remus Home Magazine in the last few years of his life. Maybe they were having an editorial conference.

You’ve heard of living history demonstrations at house museums? We had no idea.

Brer Rabbit spills the beans

America must have been going through a dietary iron crisis during the late 1940s. In “Brer Rabbit’s Modern Recipes for Modern Living,” the Brer Rabbit Molasses cookbook we found in our archives earlier this year, the text repeatedly talks about ways to sneak iron into children’s diets with something sweet. 

They recommend putting molasses on cereal at breakfast, in cookies at lunch, on toast at snack time, and over ice cream for dessert. To wash it all down, there’s the Brer Rabbit Milk Shake, demonstrated in this quaint scene in which two rabbits dressed like waiters at the Ritz pour milk and molasses into Miss Wholesome’s glass.

Talk about the sweet life.

Brer Rabbit is a brand of molasses that started in New Orleans in 1907, while Joel Chandler Harris was alive and writing Brer Rabbit stories. More than a century later, the label is still around and is now marketed by B&G Foods, a conglomerate based in New Jersey. The recipe booklet came out around 1950. We suspect that its preoccupation with dietary iron is a hangover from World War II, when meat was rationed and families really did have to worry about making up for missing nutrients.

We’ve run two recipes from the booklet this year: Brer Rabbit Molasses Ginger Cookies (in April) and Brer Rabbit Barbecue Sauce (in July). Before we leave this culinary artifact behind, we thought we’d offer another recipe from its pages, for Brer Rabbit Boston Baked Beans — because even though Labor Day has passed, the picnic season lingers for weeks in the South.

Many thanks to our recipe tester, Pam Auchmutey. She passes along a tasting note: Despite the molasses, these beans are less sweet than your typical pot-luck baked beans, which often include maple syrup. Molasses is sweet but complex. It makes the beans rather interesting.

Brer Rabbit Boston Baked Beans

Ingredients:

2 cups dry navy beans (1 16-ounce package)

4 slices of bacon (uncooked)

½ cup molasses (more for extra sweetness)

1 teaspoon dry mustard

1 ½ teaspoons salt

¼ teaspoon pepper (or more to taste)

1 small onion, chopped (optional)

1 ½ cups water from simmered beans

Directions:

   Wash bean and soak overnight in cold water to cover.

   Bring to boil in same water (to preserve minerals and vitamins), adding extra water if needed. Simmer for 50 minutes or until beans are tender.

   Drain beans, reserving cooking water.

   Place beans in a large crockpot. Season with mustard, salt and pepper.

   Add molasses and stir. Tuck bacon among beans.

   Cook on high until mixture bubbles (about 1 hour). Turn to low and cook 3 to 4 hours, stirring occasionally. If needed, add water from simmered beans to moisten.

   When fully cooked, beans will take on a brown hue. Turn crockpot to warm to serve.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Let’s hear it for our Scribes

For the past decade, Labor Day weekend has been one of our favorite times of year at the Wren’s Nest. We always had a booth at the Decatur Book Festival and threw a publication party to celebrate the book of stories written by our Scribes, the middle school students in our writing program at KIPP Strive Academy. (That’s 2019’s party in the photos.)

We can’t do either this year. Because of the pandemic, the 2020 book festival went virtual and virtually all its in-person events were canceled — including our booth and our book party for the students and their families.

As many of you know, we’ve been publishing the stories and parts of stories created by our Scribes on the Wren’s Nest website in our “Summer of Scribes.” The last of five installments will be posted this Friday.

We had to do it this way — no print volume, online only — because the pandemic short-circuited our time with the students. The Atlanta public schools went online in March, so the work of our budding writers and the communications professionals we pair with them as mentors had to go online as well. We had mixed success at best.

The last installment of Scribes stories this week is a sort of kibbles-and-bits anthology. It consists of six story fragments, none longer than 500 words. Why so many incomplete stories? Because middle school students, like writers everywhere (including me!), have a tendency to push their deadlines. When classes at KIPP Strive Academy went online in March, we had completed only seven of our 12 weeks together. As a three-time mentor, I know that most of the writing happens in those final weeks.

So please join us in congratulating these young people — our Scribes class of 2020 — for becoming published authors, however strange the path has been. Their names:

Ajahla Jefferson, Akiva Bryant, Alexandria Tyrus, Amaya Conner, Amirah Jabbie, Ashe Davis, Brooke Fuller, Delaney Gordon, Faith Lawrence, Grayson Trawick, Hilton McGill, Kaydance Brown, Layla Dixon, Malia Dewberry (on the left in the photo), Mustafa Kilinc, Nikai Brown, Nola Hemphill (on the right in the photo), Ry’En Dillard, Ryan Henderson, Taylor Haney, Travis Lawrence, Tulah Jefferson, Ty-Rionna Hightower.

Thank you to our 15 mentors. And special thanks to our coordinating teacher at KIPP, Celeste Clark.

We didn’t get to get have our party this year — the customary sheet cake and punch — and listen to students read from their work. We did what we could. Here’s hoping things have returned to normal by next Labor Day.

Friends in high places

You never know what you’ll find leafing through scrapbooks at the Wren’s Nest.

Last week, when I was doing some cleanup work in our archives, I opened the oldest scrapbook we have and just happened to turn to a letter dated Aug. 4, 1908, barely a month after Joel Chandler Harris died. In the weeks after his passing, admirers near and far hatched the idea of turning his home into a shrine — such was his standing in American literature at the time. This letter, from Cleveland, Ohio, had to do with that campaign.

“Answering yours of the 22nd. with reference to the effort to raise a fund of $50,000 for the Uncle Remus Memorial Association, in memory of Mr. Joel Chandler Harris, you may count upon me for One Thousand Dollars,” the man writes. 

That modest-sounding pledge would be worth about $28,000 today. 

The gentleman goes on to decline an offer to serve as vice president of the association because of his many obligations. And then you see his signature and realize that, yes, he had quite a few obligations:

John D. Rockefeller

I did not know that the legendary oil tycoon and philanthropist — the richest man in America for most of the late 1800s and early 1900s — was a Wren’s Nest benefactor. I knew that Andrew Carnegie, the steel magnate, was a supporter who gave $5,000 toward buying the house from the Harris family. (Carnegie visited Harris at the Wren’s Nest and signed a copy of his memoir that we still have.) I also knew that Theodore Roosevelt, a Harris friend who visited him in Atlanta and hosted him at the White House, had helped raise money for the Wren’s Nest. Other supporters in the early years included presidents William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson.

But Rockefeller? That was a new one. If he had just given us some Standard Oil stock …

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