How can one best tell the story of an individual from the 1930s when all we have is a short interview? How can one do their story justice when little else of their life remains? The story I am talking about is that of Elsie, whose last name was never given. We know of Elsie’s life because of the Life Histories Collection (LHC), which was collection of biographical interviews of everyday people from the Great Depression period. The LHC was one of the activities of the Federal Writer’s Project (FWP). The FWP, in turn, was a New Deal program which was a government program initiated by President Roosevelt to help the US recover from the Great Depression. Some life histories suffered from validity because of the fact that interviewers often did not have any professional interviewing experience and who simply had "typing skills" (Gorman 2). Overall, however, the LHC is a tremendously valuable collection.
A pin marketing President Roosevelt's New Deal initiative
To enrich her story beyond the information available in her interview, I researched the two main themes of her life (which at time of interview were prostitution and unemployment) in order to provide meaningful academic insights to contextualize Elsie’s life.
Elsie’s extraordinary story is marked by tragedy. It starts: "That's funny, you wanting to know about my life. Most men don't ask many questions, except, maybe, “"How much?"” (Dunnagan 1). As this quote indicates, she was a prostitute at the time of her interview. But before I share that part of her life, it is necessary I provide some background of her life and to share how she struggled with unemployment before becoming a prostitute.
Deaths, husbands and unemployment
Elsie, who lived in North Carolina, did not share much about her early life and jumped straight to her college days. During sophomore year, she met her first husband Donald, whose last name was also never given. They left college at the end of that year and moved to a cabin in the mountains where they had their son, William. For a few years, they lived a happy, picturesque lifestyle. One morning, Donald had to drive to Virginia for his work. Not long after Donald's departure, tragedy struck and Elsie received a phone call: Donald had a car crash and died instantly.
After Donald died, Elsie moved back in with her mother who helped support Elsie and William. Soon after she moved in with her mother, Elsie started dating Allan Craston, whom she knew from her childhood days 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. What’s worse, he was physically and emotionally 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.
Elsie was on her own again, and she spent days desperately looking for work, but she simply could not find any. The Great Depression was similarly unkind to women looking for jobs as it was for men: by 1933, 4 million women were unemployed (NWHM 3). Unfortunately, Elsie’s situation was not uncommon for job-seeking women in this period. An inability to find work and provide for yourself and your child would have been psychologically taxing. Indeed, Elaine Abelson, who investigated female unemployment and homelessness during the Great Depression were liable to "disintegrate mentally and emotionally” (Abelson 5). Abelson’s findings are corroborated with Elsie’s own words. In her interview, she said that, after a long day of unsuccessful job hunting, she felt "so bad I almost wanted to kill myself" (Dunnagan 11). Elsie was desperate for money to provide for herself, and more importantly, for her young child.
Woman with children in the aftermath of the Great Depression, 1936.
Transition to prostitution
Elsie, increasingly frantic to find employment, contacted her old friend Nina, who always seemed to be financially secure. Nina offered to host Elsie which allowed Elsie to continue her job search. One day, Elsie found condoms in Nina's drawer but knew that Nina was not married. Nina explained she owned a brothel and suggested that Elsie might want to work for her. Although becoming a prostitute would have never even occurred to Elsie, she felt her situation was more tormenting each day and accepted Nina’s offer. This decision certainly went against social norms. Karin Zipf, who examined prostitution in the South during this time period said: "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). Elsie, and other prostitutes were seen as threat to precious values of chastity and purity by offering their bodies for money. Elsie was brave to suffer societal scorn in order to provide for herself and her son.
A prostitute "roping" a man in. 1938
After 6 months of working in Nina’s brothel, the police came and shut it down. Regardless, Elsie knew of other brothels where she could work and continued to do so. Elsie gradually noticed discrepancies in police responses in different parts of the state. She learned that brothel houses in the eastern part of the state tended to have licenses to operate and even had a public health officer come and check the girls 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 police officers and explained how the police officers gave a share of this bribe to city officials that kept the houses open, despite claims of eliminating brothels by these same officials.
Elsie continued to share insights on prostitution and said that “it [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 prosecuted, both Elsie and a contemporary news institution, from nearly a century ago, agreed that the practice of prostitution appeared part of human society. Such an opinion continues to be controversial today.
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.
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
Roosevelt, Franklin D, New Deal pin, 1932, photo, Encyclopædia Britannica Online. https://www.britannica.com/event/New-Deal?oasmId=72254, Accessed 22 April 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
Arthur Rothstein, Prostitute "roping" a man on the street, Peoria Illinois, May 1938, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Photogrammar http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=fsa2000007775/PP, Accessed April 25 2017