Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Number, Please

Really, despite my Washington birthplace, I'm just another Virginian at work.

So why not take a gallery walk at the Virginia Historical Society to escape the heat and hear about the exhibit "Virginians at Work"?

Our guide Chris was on the education staff and was knowledgeable and full of stories he'd heard from previous tours, making him a terrific person to shepherd us through the many objects in the exhibit.

He began by explaining that Virginia had been founded, not for the sake of religious freedom (good god, no; you had to be an Anglican!) but as a business venture.

They may have called the participants "adventurers," but the fact is, they were financial investors, plain and simple.

It wasn't until 1624 that the king started noticing how valuable the company was becoming and promptly made them a royal colony.

I was fascinated to learn that Virginian Cyrus McCormick had no luck selling his newly patented reaper to Virginia planters because they didn't need it.

Why would they with all the slave labor they had?

Fortunately, the mid-west farmers didn't have the same problem.

When Chris showed us a wooden corn sheller contraption, he said a visitor had told him that his uncle had lost part of his arm in just such a device and stuck his own arm down the chute.

I was one of several females who openly winced at that mental picture.

He said another visitor recognized the nearby straw cutter  from his youth and held up his thumb, minus the last joint, to demonstrate why.

"And back in those days, there were no recalls," Chris said. "The companies figured if you bought it, you knew how to use it."

Boy, those were the days.

We heard about the massive debt Virginia took on to build an elaborate canal system, only to see it replaced by railroads for moving goods.

Then there were the hundred or so companies making cars in Virgina, many at a time when the state had one of the worst road systems, mostly rutted dirt.

Fortunately for safety's sake, there were reflector rings, large piece of red glass on a piece of jewelry that a motorist wore on his finger to make his turn signal movements more visible to others.

Bicyclists, take note.

Another delight was an old photograph of two of Richmond Police's bike patrol astride their cruisers in 1942.

I have to admit, I was amazed to learn that the bike patrol had begun in 1900.

You can imagine my thrill when I saw my neighborhood represented in the exhibit.

On display was the magnificent hearse of A.D. Price, the premiere funeral home in African-American Jackson Ward.

With large windows on the sides and back, red velvet curtains inside and gold fringe all the way around the outside, it was the grandest possible way to go to the cemetery.

I mean, if you had to go.

I was just as excited to see an old telephone operator switchboard because both of my grandmothers had been switchboard operators, one in Washington and one in Richmond.

What I hadn't know until Chris told us was that back in the day when telephone service was beginning, the phone company originally hired young men to be operators.

As he pointed out, how customer-service oriented are most teen-aged boys?


Once the companies had grown tired of the young men fighting with and yelling at people on the phone, they wisely began hiring young women for their superior skill at handling customers.

I remember thinking as a child how unlikely it seemed that not one but both of my grandmas had been operators their whole lives.

But Chris explained that women's options in the '20s and '30s were pretty much limited to teaching and nursing until men's jobs began giving way to women, much like those two professions had.

Likewise back then, secretaries were men and called clerks until women started taking over that menial task, too.

So while I might have come to the gallery walk to get out of the heat, I ended up having one of my eternal childhood questions answered.

Thanks, Virginia Historical Society, for giving me a reason to think of New Grandma and Old Grandma today.

P.S.: The neighborhood hearse was pure gravy.

1 comment:

  1. I can remember, sadly, when the help wanted ads in the Washington Post were classified by gender. Who says change isn't good?