“Their Improvement in Personal Appearance and Intelligence of Countenance is Really Thrilling”: The Report on An Experiment Made in Los Angeles in the Summer of 1917 for the Americanization of Foreign-born Women, Part Two

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As we move to the second and final part of this post on the State Commission of Immigration and Housing of California’s “Report on an Experiment Made in Los Angeles in the Summer of 1917 for the Americanization of Foreign-born Women,” we get into some fascinating detail regarding the work done with specific groups in the Angel City through informal courses by “home teachers,” as defined by a 1915 statute, in sewing, childcare, nutrition, home maintenance and others, with the expressed goal of having these females become better American citizens.

One such locale was “in a Southern Pacific Railroad camp, where the families of Mexican laborers live” and where “there seemed at first little enthusiasm for English and sewing classes.” Consequently, instructors, from the Los Angeles Normal School for teacher education’s graduates and current students, along with clubwomen and others, it was decided not to have a meeting place, but “the teachers made calls each afternoon on many of the women.” In this individualized way, “sewing problems” could be addressed by questions from the women.

Once some trust and interest were established, there was developed a class which went from house to house “and various garments were soon in the process of construction,” while “a few clean new aprons, worn to show the result of the effort of the day before, inspired every one to clean dresses,” and the the move to working with the clothes of children and house cleaning “was but a short step.”

Moreover, as the women began to pick up a little English through words used for requesting supplies and implements for sewing, it was reported that “before five weeks had passed an organized class of fifteen women were eagerly waiting for the English hour, when a definite lesson was given.” To host a meeting, a resident “cleaned up her house and rearranged the furniture to make more room” and “the teacher was tremendously encouraged” when a mother brought a child taught to say “I sweep, I scrub, I mop” while the youngster was “vigorously gesticulating with the broom and the mop as she went.”

Lastly, it was stated that the Southern Pacific planned to construct a structure “where they can hold all sorts of meetings for music or parties, with one room equipped for an English class.” The reason for this was that a company official told the experiment staff “that they could not afford to refuse any equipment that would make these classes possible as it all returned twofold to the company,” presumably in terms of more productivity from the male heads of households working for the railroad and being more enthused about their jobs because of the improvement in their home life.

Then, “there was another group of Mexican women who lived together in a small colony on the outskirts of the city,” though where was left unsaid. It was observed that “these women were also inert about classes, until the teacher offered to show them how to make baby clothes in the American way.” This led the woman storekeeper in the neighborhood to make her house available for meetings “and agreed to provide blackboards and chairs if they may continue their sessions all winter.” For both locales, the Normal School decided to permit the extension of instruction through that period “as cadet teaching.”

While English instruction was a stated goal, nothing was said about the topic for quite some time, but “soon the demand . . . became expressed, and when the work broke up for the summer there were women so anxious to continue instruction that they offered to pay a teacher for regular [continued] lessons.” While one group favored cooking courses and another sewing, it was noted that it was English for Russian Jewish women.

A cadre of Italians were organized by two women, one said to represent Sicilians and the other mainlanders, though it was recorded that program supervisors weren’t sure what to do “until some one mentioned the Red Cross” and “immediately the women were eager to sew on Red Cross garments.” This was because “they said they wanted to do something for the United States and Italy,” because of the First World War, which America had just entered, while Italy was embroiled in the conflict from May 1915, “and this was a fine opportunity. The work was so well done “that no corrections or changes have needed to be made at the Red Cross headquarters.”

Armenian women, whose ancestral homeland was subjected to a genocide conducted by the Turks of the decaying Ottoman Empire, which collapsed after the war’s end in 1918, were “learning to preserve and can all the fruits and vegetables as they came on in their season, and they have a fine exhibit at the end of the summer, as a splendid example of food conservation.” Once the hour course on cooking was completed, the group turned to English, “which is well adapted to the lesson of the evening.” It was added that a popular topic was how to make ice cream, so a party was held for the lesson and “the women brought their own freezer and materials, and when the ice cream was made were so eager to taste it that they could scarcely wait for the arrival of the guests to open the can.”

Social occasions were considered critical to the success of the experiment and a featured one was thrown by staff from the public library “which had its branch near a school in which a group of Mexican women met.” The children’s department librarian was in charge and had “a charming story about a garden, in which she used all the words the women had used in their English class.” This included a joke that included the words “bright red apple,” and “their faces shone with pride and they laughed gaily at the end, so happy that they could appreciate” the jest by learning the words.

Another highlight was a cooking class conducted with “Molokan” Russian women and it was noted that

The Molokans, with their strong feeling for nationality, their clannishness and reserve, acquired as a result of their long years of persecution, are perhaps the most difficult of all foreigners in Los Angeles for Americans to become friends with, and while it was hoped that some connection might be made with them over the summer, there was a great question of how to begin.

It turned out the Russian females worked this out by asking how to make an American pie. While this was thought “a strange angle at which to begin an Americanization program,” it was noted that “the pie was the opening wedge [!], and the fathers and mothers and children who came to the school were drawn into an English class before and after the cooking lesson.”

When the summer program concluded, the Russian women wanted “to show their appreciation for the friendships” established and so they “invited their teachers and supervisors to a party on the last night, at which they prepared some of their choicest Russian dishes, along with some of the American cookery which they had learned at school.”

Around a table “with its shining samovar,” which contained boiling water for tea, and with a “huge loaf of Russian bread and tall glasses of hot tea with rich jam to flavor them, the account continued,

the leader of the Molokans pronounced the grace which was common among his people, and every one joined in singing a blessing on the bread. The American guests had a hard task to believe that their homes were just across the city [a large Russian community was located in the Flats area of Boyle Heights on the east bank of the Los Angeles River, though the location was not stated] as they feasted on dishes with queer names and looked at the long beards and quaint dresses of their hosts and hostesses.

It was noted, for all groups, that “great interest and enthusiasm was shown when lessons were presented on the care of the baby and the care of the home,” as nurses taught these topics, with a mother assisting as her baby was bathed “according to the most approved fashion” for others in her class to witness. Elsewhere, a local dairy’s nurse discussed how to modify and care for milk, including the introduction of screens and the teaching of the phrase, “Swat the fly!”

Mentioned in the first part of the post was the unusual use of an abandoned streetcar as a meeting place and it was reported that the course held there “is one of the best bits of pioneering of the summer and productive of the most concrete results.” There were forty families in the railroad camp and “upon them has been heaped all the dislike of a prejudiced American community, and the railroad company has been at great difficulty to keep the camp in such clean and tidy conditions that its presence in the community will be tolerated.”

A few weeks in and after teachers were invited to the homes of women, “the work of furnishing a model house was begun,” with “the furniture . . . made by the older boys in the camp” with instruction from a teacher and materials donated by the company. Women made the curtains and children made pictures “which were cut out and pinned on the wall,” while ten fly traps were constructed. Once the English instruction hour was finished, a sewing lesson was held in the model house, but this had to be done in groups as it was not big enough to handle everyone together.

At the conclusion of the experiment, it was reported, the railroad company asked the immigration commission for programs at all of its camps with a car supplied for a model house and transportation offered to teachers. Notably, the report added,

The superintendent frankly said that this offer was being made by the company, not for love of its Mexican laborers, but because the summer work had proved that it was economically valuable to them. The labor supply had been more steady. The camp had been kept in beautiful condition, and the satisfaction of the workmen was showing itself in the better care of the track.

The best indication of the success of the “cooperative effort in Americanization” was found with classes given at the Labor Temple in the Angel City “among the girls of the Garment Workers’ Union,” as locals that had headquarters in the building paid towards its rent “and the purchase of necessary supplies for cooking and other classes.”

Three nights weekly, some 75 girls came with some working on “a simple cafeteria supper for the rest,” while others worked on commercial arithmetic, beginning and advanced English, and millinery “and the entire assembly comes together after supper for a music lesson.” The concept was such that 300 girls signed a petition to have the courses made part of the city’s school system and it was expected to be approved so that a night school would be conducted at the Temple as a joint effort between the union and the schools.

The growing number of Japanese migrants to the region, following the restrictions of the 1882 exclusion act against the Chinese, led to increasing agitation culminating in such actions as the so-called Gentleman’s Agreement of 1907 at the federal level and the state’s Alien Land Law a half-dozen years later. Yet, the summer experiment found that

The Japanese were among the first to accept an opportunity for learning anything that had to do with life in the United States. Their demands often far outstripped the knowledge of their teachers. They clamored for classes in first aid, embroidery, tatting, crocheting and knitting, and in spite of these many requests, their interest in English was paramount.

This should hardly have been surprising, given the stunning speed with which a previously isolated and insular Japan adopted Western ways, while preserving so much of its culture, as a way to forestall colonization efforts like that which rent China asunder during the 19th century. A 1920 report on the Japanese in rural Los Angeles County, recently highlighted in this blog, was another notable analysis of this group at a time of fervent racism against them.

Further mentioned was a class held in the residence of a Japanese gardener and his wife, where the males sat at the dining room table and the females at a table in the living room. Once the men picked up a few English words, “they demanded the words of ‘America’ and were soon putting the words to a rather perverted form of the tune of our national anthem.” It was insisted that the women join in “and so they all filed out into the next room, where the women were cutting out patterns for a baby’s layette, and we stood for one verse of ‘America,’ and one verse of the Japanese national anthem.”

As the report concluded, it was averred that “no nationality was overlooked, and special pride has been taken in a class of German women” who stayed in their schoolhouse late in the day before “they must hurry to their janitor work in the large office buildings,” presumably those in the finance and commercial districts of downtown. Moreover, it was not always needed to work with nationalities individually as, “in some cases Japanese, Mexicans, Austrians, Armenians and Italians were grouped about the table quite as happily as if they had all been born under one flag.”

Unsurprisingly, it was realized when the experiment ended that only the beginning of the effort was achieved and “desires had been created which could not be left unfilled.” Moreover, it was stipulated that providing some permanent organization to carry on the work was necessary “before the end of the chapter could be written.” Discussions were held as to how to continue, whether through public schools with “cadet teachers” from the Normal School, or through the Young Women’s Christian Association’s International Institute in Boyle Heights “until they are strong enough to be taken over by a public agency.”

Other experiments were called for with supervision by women who were trained in English instruction and organizational skills, along with teachers having special training “and a social point of view” and with social agency cooperation. The program lauded the “united effort of all or social forces,” but added that “it has proven that the young enthusiastic teacher, ready to adapt herself to any circumstance, resourceful, energetic and infinitely sympathetic, is the most effective agent for teaching English to foreigners.”

A home teacher report by Amanda M. Chase stated that, over a year, she’d worked with 350 families in two school district, with some 40 home visits weekly, a good many regarding school attendance, including children who were tardy or absent and those newly settled in a community “but are dilatory about making connection with the school.” There were also cases of neglect and malnutrition and “these again shade into intimately personal visitations taking up anything from the family budget to open windows and bedtime ablutions.” Demonstrations and directions on cleanliness and the provision of soap were also noted.

Chase went on to record that,

The most striking evolution, however, is seen in such women as attend the group lessons with any regularity. Their improvement in personal appearance and intelligence of countenance is really thrilling. One class of Mexican women, a timid, sloppy, baby-submerged lot to begin with, now take an honorable place on general school programs with songs and recitation in English.

In all, 150 Italian, Japanese, Jewish, Italian, Mexican and Spanish women partook of the lessons in cooking, English, patriotism, sanitation and personal cleanliness, sewing, singing, and thrift. Chase took families to school clinics and social service agencies, sought to improve school attendance, “engineered ‘parties’ galore,” and substituted for a garden teacher in a campus campaign. She concluded that “it seems to me that every possible human problem and tragedy gets dropped into the home teacher’s lap. And she does what she can.”

Josephine Ringnalda contributed an “Outline of the Policy of a Home Teacher” to a city schools report for 1917 and reprinted in this document with a dozen items of consideration, including to “visit the homes in a friendly way to gain the confidence and friendship of the men as well as of the women in the district;” “have excursions, picnics, parties, stereopticon views, with simple talks explaining them, and by these means make the school the community center of the district;” “encourage home gardens, and the preserving of fruits and vegetables;” and “collect cast-off clothing and discarded furniture, and sell at a reasonable figure to the people of the district, either for cash or for labor.”

Finally, there is the printing of a “Home Instruction and Naturalization” letter from the federal naturalization commissioner, Richard K. Campbell, who wrote that the state’s home teacher program “speaks well for the progressiveness of the people of California that they have recognized the wisdom and need of organized helpfulness of the home” as “a ‘fine democratic level of communal possession.'” He did note that his bureau had an “Outline Course in Citizenship” and hat the methods were not dissimilar, other than in some details, and that California’s plan was “a most valuable and effective adjunct of the bureau’s general plan.”

Otherwise, Campbell recommended more emphasis on a civics course, especially because “in your state, women have been endowed [since 1911] with the right of franchise [voting], and it is therefore peculiarly desirable that they shall have some knowledge of the form and structure of government—federal, state, county and municipal.” A foreign-born woman, so educated, and who became a citizen, then, would “be able to cast her ballot with understanding and intelligence, all of which will make for a better and purer administration of the affairs of government.”

Any critique of the plan, Campbell continued, would come from the work done by home teachers with the women in their classes, but, he added, “I am heartily in favor of the laboratory method of instruction, rather than the academic method” so that “your course of instruction . . . appeals to me most strongly.” With teachers possessing intelligence and sympathy, he concluded, “I am sure that that method . . . will be productive of the best results.”

As an early state effort to deal with the question of “Americanizing” women born in other countries and living in an increasingly diversified and dramatically expanding Los Angeles, the experiment and the report about it are not only interesting in content, but important in context. We’ll continue to examine other documents from the Homestead’s holdings dealing with similar issues in future posts, so please look out for those.

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