When Spring Comes Elsie's story by Jack Turner

Elsie, whose last name was never given, could not have been older than 30 by the time of her interview for the Federal Writer's History Project, which was a program initiated by the US government from 1935-1942 to record individual stories. Elsie married twice; her first husband died in a car crash and her second husband committed suicide after they lost all their wealth after a bad investment. The social issues that surrounded her life were unemployment after her second husband died and prostitution, in to which she entered as the only way to provide for her four-year-old son. Although relatively young, she saw more than her fair share of suffering.

Elsie's life

"That's funny", Elsie's said as her Federal Writers' History project interview began, "you wanting to know about my life. Most men don't ask many questions, except, maybe, "How much?"" (Dunnagan 1). Elsie's interview revealed little about her early life, including the omission of her family name. Instead, she jumped into her current situation and showed her interviewer what she lived for and why she did the work she was in: a picture of her four-year old son, William

Elsie kept WIlliam in an expensive kindergarten. She wanted to prevent him from seeing the same things that she did as a child. Elsie saw young boys begging stalls for an apple and pushing over garbage cans. Despite her poor upbringing, Elsie had a wealthy uncle who showed her preferential treatment. When he died, he left enough money for Elsie to go to college for 2 years where she acted and participated in glee club. During sophomore year she meets her first husband Donald, whose last name is also never given.

At the end of sophomore year, they moved to a cabin in the mountains where they have William. Soon after they moved there, Donald's work needed him in Virginia for a few weeks. During Donald's absence, Elsie befriended Nina, who played an important role in her life later. Not long after Donald's departure Elsie receives a phone call, notifying her that Donald had died instantly in a car crash.

Woman with children in the aftermath of the Great Depression, 1936.

After Donald died, Elsie moved back in with her mother. In her hometown, which is not mentioned by name, she started dating Allan Craston, and married him soon after. They had a baby together, but it tragically died the first night. Eventually, Elsie discovered Allan was cheating on her, and he was abusive when drunk. Elsie decided she could not live with Allan anymore, and moved back to the mountains where she had previously lived with Donald. Shortly after that, the Craston family lost everything in a bad investment in the turpentine business. Allan committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.

Police Department in Winston-Salem, where Nina was from. 1938.

difficulty finding employment

Elsie was now her own provider, and spent days looking for work, but she could not find any. Elsie felt lost and confused and felt "so bad I almost wanted to kill myself" (Dunnagan 11).

Although this sentiment was tragic, it was not uncommon. Many of the women looking for work during the Great Depression era were liable to "disintegrate mentally and emotionally" (Abelson 5) because there were so few jobs out there due to the faltering economy. For example, Elsie stayed in the same hotel where 2 females tried to commit suicide, which shows the aptness of the above quote. By 1933, 4 million women were unemployed (NWHM Exhibit 3).

A picture of what you can buy at Lincoln Market in Winston-Salem. 1935.

transition to prostitution

After a particularly bad day of job-hunting, Elsie returned to Nina's house where she was staying. Here, Elsie found condoms on Nina's drawer, but knew that Nina was not married. Nina explained she owned a brothel. Elsie's situation was desperate and she began working for Nina.

However, prostitution was a contentious social issue, and after 6 months working in Nina's brothel, the police came and shut the brothel down. In the South, prostitution was arguably more problematic: "women who exhibited sexual self-determination not only challenged the gender hierarchy but also threatened the South's foundational association between chastity and whiteness" (Zipf 33). Being a prostitute in the South was likely viewed negatively by the community in which it was taking place, perhaps even more so than in other parts of America.

As Elsie continued her new profession, she noted that brothel houses in the eastern part of the state tended to have licences and had a public health officer come and check for diseases. In contrast, houses in the western part of the state were characterized by corruption among police departments and city officials. Elsie had to bribe some police officers and explained how the police officers gave a share of this bribe to city officials that kept the houses open, despite officials talking about eliminating brothels.

Elsie ended her interview by saying that prostitution has "been going on for thousands of years and I guess it'll go on forever" (Dunnagan 18). Interestingly, the editors of the Asheville Citizen stated in 1911 that prostitution was "in most American Cities accepted as a necessary condition" (Bluestone 50). Although prostitution was in some parts of the state illegal and prostitutes were prosecuted, both Elsie and a contemporary news institution agreed that the practice of prostitution appeared part of human society.

the Federal Writers' Project

Elsie's interview was one specific 'life history' from the Federal Writers' project, which employed historians, poets, researchers and librarians. The program had three main goals: to provide jobs for the unemployed, to help workers improve their skills, and to create long-lasting and useful publications (Hill 1). Although Elsie's life history does not have any apparent issues with its production, the FWP was liable to suffer from some key issues. These included the fact that often interviewers did not have any professional experience and were sometimes people who simply had "typing skills" (Gorman 2). This variation meant the quality of the FWP could differ greatly, as interviewer's skills varied. Overall, the FWP is a tremendous treasure of valuable historical information, even with the variations in the quality of its production

works cited

Abelson, Elaine S. ""Women Who have no Men to Work for them": Gender and Homelessness in the Great Depression, 1930-1934." Feminist Studies 29.1 (2003): 104,127,203. ProQuest. Web. 31 Jan. 2017.

Bluestone, Daniel. "Charlottesville's Landscape of Prostitution, 1880-1950." Buildings & Landscapes 22.2 (2015): 36-61. Web. 31 Jan 2017.

Dunnagan (interviewer): When Spring Comes, Folder 372 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Gorman, Juliet. "History of The Federal Writers' Project (2)." History of The Federal Writers' Project (2). N.p., 1 May 2001. Web. 8 Feb. 2017

Hill, Michael. "Federal Writers' Project." Federal Writers' Project | NCpedia. N.p., 1 Jan. 2006. Web. 9 Feb. 2017.

"NWHM Exhibit: A History of Women in Industry." NWHM Exhibit: A History of Women in Industry. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Jan. 2017.

Unknown artist, Migrant agricultural worker’s family, Circa 1936. Gettyimages, http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/migrant-agricultural-workers-family-seven-hungry-children-news-photo/90018810#migrant-agricultural-workers-family-seven-hungry-children-mother-aged-picture-id90018810, Accessed 2 February 2017

John Vachon, Police department, Washington, North Carolina. 1938. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Photogrammar, http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=fsa1997003152/PP, Accessed 7 February 2017

Walker Evans, Winstom Salem, North Carolina, 1935. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Photogrammar, http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=fsa1997019643/PP, Accessed 2 February 2017

Zipf, Karin L. "In Defense Of The Nation: Syphilis, North Carolina's "Girl Problem," And World War I." North Carolina Historical Review 89.3 (2012): 276-300. Web. 31 Jan. 2017.

images cited (in order of appearance)

Wolcott Marion, Farmhouse and barns near Asheville, North Carolina, 1939. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Photogrammar http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=fsa2000032812/PP, Accessed 4 February 2017

Unknown artist, Migrant agricultural worker’s family, Circa 1936. Gettyimages, http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/migrant-agricultural-workers-family-seven-hungry-children-news-photo/90018810#migrant-agricultural-workers-family-seven-hungry-children-mother-aged-picture-id90018810, Accessed 2 February 2017

John Vachon, Police department, Washington, North Carolina. 1938. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Photogrammar, http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=fsa1997003152/PP, Accessed 7 February 2017

Walker Evans, Winstom Salem, North Carolina, 1935. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Photogrammar, http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=fsa1997019643/PP, Accessed 2 February 2017

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