Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Earth Day 2015
Philip Mohr, curator

Today is Earth Day! Enjoy this photograph of bicycles at Rand Park in 1963 (now Mystic Waters Family Aquatic Center). Here’s to an active community, a healthy mode of transportation, and a clean environment!

For more information on historic activities in Des Plaines contact the History Center via email at or call 847-391-5399.

Monday, April 6, 2015

POWs Keep in Touch
April 2015 Object of the Month
Philip Mohr, curator

In 2014, the History Center and the Des Plaines Public Library hosted a presentation by James Meierhoff about his archaeological survey of the Camp Pine site. This was a retention facility for German POWs. Space for POW camps was extremely limited in Allied Europe, so shipping them to the interior of the United States made a lot of sense.

Des Plaines Camp was constructed in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. It served as a base for the CCC operating in this area.

The first German POWs arrived in 1944. POWs were barred from working in war industry by the Geneva Convention of 1929. Men held in the Des Plaines camp and most others in the country worked in agriculture. Many friendships were forged in these circumstances. Recall that a large percentage of the Midwest population were recent immigrants from Germany, and many of the second or third generations still spoke German in family and social settings. The foundations were there for good relationships.

At least some of the POWs were sent to camps in France before release to their homes, many of them several years after the end of the war. Heinz Wollhaf wrote from France to Des Plaines farmer Arthur Shroeder in order to kindle a long distance friendship. You can see this note and others in the Camp Pine collection on Des Plaines Memory.

Former POW Rudolf Velte came Des Plaines on a trip in 1996. According to a June 5, 1996, Chicago Tribune article by Tracy Dell’Angela, he visited the camp site and Pesche’s, where he worked. He remembered how well people treated him in the Des Plaines area. The ordinary people of Germany and the United States were very similar, especially when you realize that many people in this area were only one or two generations removed from German ancestors.

After all POWs were removed, Camp Pine was used by local Girl Scouts for activities and retreats.

If you have more information on the CCC camp, the POW camp, or the Scout camp, please contact the History Center. 847-391-5399

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Des Plaines culture was not steeped in Irish heritage during its formative years. The History Center cannot point to any particular St. Patrick's celebration in this area. Below are two postcards sent to Frieda Stellman of what was then Orchard Place, Illinois. Orchard Place was located in what is now the extreme south of Des Plaines and O'Hare. That is why we have Orchard Place Elementary and why O'Hare's airport code is ORD.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Louise Huck, US Marine
March 2015 Object of the Month
Philip Mohr, curator

Those of you who attended the VFW’s “Women in the Military” program in March of 2014 may have seen this uniform on display in the hallway. The Des Plaines History Center is always honored to bring some objects from the past to other organizations’ events.
Most of you are probably familiar with the WACs and WAVEs. Just like the Army and Navy, the Marines also called on the service of women during World War II. They did not have a special name, though. General Thomas Holcomb, retired Commandant of the Marine Corps, said, “They are Marines. They don't have a nickname and they don't need one. They get their basic training in a Marine atmosphere at a Marine post. They inherit the traditions of Marines. They are Marines.” Nevertheless, they were relegated to the Marine Corps Women's Reserve.
During WWII, Marine Corps bureaucracy was largely staffed by women in the reserve. Louise was stationed with the Quartermaster Corps at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina from 1944 to 1946. She and the other women on the base mainly worked to ensure supplies flowed where needed in the European theater.
Women were expected to conform to military and feminine standards. Louise recalled that Helena Rubenstein, Inc., provided cosmetics to the Camp Lejeune base store. Women in the military could thus keep up feminine appearances. Uniforms themselves included a blouse, jacket, skirt, stockings or socks, and shoes. All of these were specially designed to maintain the distinction of men and women in uniform. Regulations allowed women to grow hair only to collar length. Military hierarchy was maintained with the title “sir” for officers of either gender.
Louise Huck in uniform on the railroad platform in Des Plaines

In her own words, written to the History Center when she donated the uniform:

We had to put on a parade for Helena Rubenstein, who furnished the cosmetics for the base store. During the parade, one of the girls in the parade had pinned her hair under her hat since the hair was longer than the accepted length. During the parade, the hair did not remain pinned but fell out from under the hat. All of the women were inspected immediately following the parade due to this “embarrassing” incident. I was one of the girls whose hair was considered too long. As a result, I was punished by being called in for Extra Police Detail (E.P.D.). I had to scrub the black marks from the floors, doors, and other such surfaces. After completing the E.P.D., the Lieutenant called me to her office to inspect my hair. Before going to her office I had already shampooed and set my hair so it now appeared much shorter. The Lieutenant asked me to do an “about face.” She asked if I had cut my hair. I said, “no, sir.” The “sir” was used even with the women officers. She asked how come it was now short. I told her I had washed and set it. She said, “dismissed.” I still was angry due to receiving the detention. I never would buy Helena Rubenstein products after that.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Happy Valent-nein!
Philip Mohr, curator

Imagine if you opened a Valentine from a friend or lover and they had drawn a swastika on it. You would most likely reconsider your relationship with that person. We are so used to understanding the Nazis by their extreme atrocities that we can lose historical perspective. The swastika is a very ancient symbol. It stood for the unity of humanity and good fortune to people until its use by the Nazis. Before World War II, architects around the world included it in buildings, it was a common feature of art, and was included in the symbology of organizations such as the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts.

If you were living in Des Plaines in the 1930s, though, finding a swastika or “Hail Hitler” in a card or letter may have seemed normal because of its old connotations or because of Nazi sentiment in this area. For more information on Nazism in Des Plaines, refer back to my post on February 2nd. You can see this card with its envelope and other World War II era documents on Des Plaines Memory.

Monday, February 2, 2015

"Hail Hitler!!???"
February 2015 Object of the Month
Philip Mohr, curator

Consider the people who lived in Des Plaines a hundred years ago. Many of them were immigrants from Germany or close descendants of those immigrants. There were numerous family and cultural ties to the German people. For many, this translated into the idea of the “German race.” So, yes, many people in the United States supported the Nazi party and its ideology. Nearly all of these people cut their ties with Nazi ideology and the Nazi Party near the beginning of US involvement in the war.

Above are the header and closing salutation from a letter from Astrid Dagenbach to Gloria Mau. It appears that some of Gloria’s friends supported the Nazis. Astrid wrote “Hail Hitler” on her letters to Gloria in 1938 through 1940. You can view this whole letter here.

Perhaps Gloria was not up to speed on European fascism. She asked Astrid what "Hail Hitler" meant. Astrid used dismissive language in her April 28, 1939, reply: "You asked me what 'Hail Hitler' meant. Nothing, nothing at all. Did you hear [Hitler's] speech today? I heard the end and thought it was superior. Couldn't have been better. What do you think of him? I do not agree with everything he does or says, but some things are ok." You can see that full letter here.

In Astrid’s letter dated October 13, 1940, she wrote “Hail Hitler!!???” You can view the whole letter here. Astrid added the question marks as a rhetorical question, trying to coax Gloria one last time into replying with a "Hail Hitler" of her own. This came as the German empire was expanding into western Europe and support for Nazism waned in the United States.

Why do we need to expose something like this? Can't we just forget those nasty little bits of history?

As a community, we must confront the truth of our past. Around the turn of the twentieth century, Des Plaines developed as an exclusively white community. There were neighborhood covenants that enforced that. Mostly, though, it was the informal everyday racism that permeated all aspects of life in the United States. To some degree, this translated easily into fascist racism. Nazism and other extreme viewpoints did not come out of nowhere. They were extremely powerful ideas and very attractive to people who already held certain racial ideas.

Yes, people in and around Des Plaines sympathized with the Nazis. Astrid certainly did. Gloria was probably largely apathetic toward Nazism until the attacks on Pearl Harbor. She lived in an insulated United States just like so many of her contemporaries. We should be like neither of these young women. Do not be disengaged like Gloria. Be aware and engaged, being careful to not fall for the ideologies that simply extend your pre-held beliefs

For further reading on Nazism in the United States, start with the "Further Reading" list on the Wikipedia article about the German American Bund.

If you are interested in how regular people wound up committing atrocities under Nazi leadership, I cannot recommend this book enough: Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Benjamin Electric Newsletters
January 2015 Object of the Month
Philip Mohr, curator

We are kicking off our new exhibit and blog series about World War II this month. Become a member to receive mailings/emails regarding our programs. You can also like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. The exhibit opens in February.
The Benjamin Electric Manufacturing Company operated in Des Plaines for about half of the twentieth century, 1913-1964. The History Center is fortunate to have many issues of the company’s employee newsletter covering the World War II era. I would like to highlight three topics for historical discussion: employees in the military, women’s roles in the factory, and the factory’s role in the war effort.

Many Benjamin Electric employees joined the military. Benjamin called its list of servicemen the “Honor Roll.” Interestingly, the newsletter used language that made it clear that working for Benjamin was a career and serving in the military was a temporary necessity. Fighting in World War II was not an intentional career move for the vast majority of recruits and conscripts. It was a duty. Benjamin tried to maintain the employer-employee relationship with the language in their articles. After their service, men could return to work at Benjamin, and several did.

Women workers in dresses, c. 1910
Woman worker in trousers, c. 1947

We are probably all familiar with the roles women played in wartime industry. “Rosie the Riveter” is an important phenomenon in American history. What some people may not understand is that Rosie’s story is one chapter in the long story of women’s professional work. Women had always worked in factories, from the early days before Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776) to today. At different times, different expectations were placed on them, and we view the stages with different weight depending on the history we wish to emphasize. Perhaps too often, we ignore the existence of women in factories before the World Wars. Women had always worked in the Benjamin factory; they just had flowed more easily into manufacturing jobs as men left for military service. This was not quite the revolution that condensed narratives tell us. However, one might note that women’s attire changed from dresses to pants in the years between the 1910s and the 1950s.

Benjamin Electric produced various light fixtures and horns. They were both generally used in industrial and commercial settings: the lights for illumination, the horns to signal the beginning and ending of shifts and breaks. Benjamin’s products were used, however, in the factories that produced the weapons of war. The newsletter printed this article on a tank factory that used Benjamin lights. This way the employees understood their relationship to the war effort.

A note on links to Wikipedia
Many of you might have followed the links embedded in the text above. Most of them lead to Wikipedia articles. Wikipedia's accuracy is constantly decried because anyone can write an article, but I think it is the most important tool on the internet. The vast majority of the information on Wikipedia is basic, but correct. Always read critically, whether reading Wikipedia, the The New York Times, or this museum blog. Ask questions such as "does this make sense?" or "does it seem like the writer knows what they're talking about?" Use Wikipedia as a jumping-off point for exploration. The references and further reading at the bottom of each article is where you can really start to dig into a subject.