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.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Happy New Year's!

Here is a New Year's greeting to Des Plaines resident Gloria Mau from PFC Douglas Wildfang, fighting in the Philippines in the winter of 1945. Stay tuned to the History Center and Des Plaines Memory for more commemorations of World War II in 2015!

You can see this letter and many others in Des Plaines Memory by clicking here.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Object of the Month, October 2014 "Sickle"

Object of the Month: Sickle
by Philip Mohr, curator

Sickles are among the oldest agricultural tools. The blade cuts crops, and its curved shape gathers the cuttings for easy collecting. Harvesting crops with hand tools is very slow and laborious in comparison to the powered mechanical equipment developed since the mid-1800s. The History Center has no details specific to this sickle, but it may have been used on a Des Plaines farm for harvesting some crops where mechanized harvesting was not an option. Not even a century ago, many Maine Township residents would have spent this time of year harvesting their crops for sale to Chicago markets or local canning operations.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Object of the Month, July 2014
"Hand Fan: Elite Candy Shop"
by curator Philip Mohr

In the heat of the summer, let’s look at what some Des Plaines residents did to stay cool about one hundred years ago. This is a hand fan made from cardboard and wood. The fan itself was a means to stay cool, but the more interesting history is in the advertisement printed on the cardboard.

On one side is a picture of a baby sitting in a tub of water with the faucet pouring water on its head. The baby is eating a large lump of ice cream. A hand fan sits next to the tub along with a glass of water with lemon. A thermometer indicates a high temperature. With an elated smile, the baby says, “What care I how hot it be.” The reverse side reads, “Elite Candy Shop, Ice Cream and Sodas, Fine Confectionery, Stationery and Magazines, Gift Novelties and Greeting Cards, Ellinwood Avenue, Des Plaines, Illinois.” The advertisement is clear, in weather where someone would want a hand fan, the candy shop stood to serve them refreshment. Perhaps you, as a customer, could be as ecstatic as the little baby.

Researching this object is difficult. The donor found the object in a house he bought. He could not tell us anything about its provenance. So we have to do some digging elsewhere in the History Center collections. Based on the fan itself, the Elite Candy Shop existed on Ellinwood in Des Plaines. We have no information on when the store first opened. Looking them up in old street directories yields limited results. It appears in 1917 along with the Echo Sweet Shop in an advertisement for Orange-JooJ. It then appears in the 1924 street directory as a regular listing. No later book includes the Elite Candy Shop.

The two listings give clues that suggest a struggling business. In 1917, the shop did not headline in its only advertisement in the street directory. A brand they sold appeared more important. Elite and Echo had to share some space in favor of promoting the Orange-JooJ drink. In 1924, shows that Elite did not spend any extra money on making their listing stand out like many other businesses. Perhaps this meant that Elite had little money to put into such things. At any rate, it appears that the Elite Candy Shop closed in the mid- or late-1920s.

Do you have more information on the Elite Candy Shop? Please contact the Des Plaines History Center at 847-391-5399 or

Sunday, April 27, 2014

I am very sorry that this post is so late! However, we are very happy to announce that every Object of the Month that goes on display in the Des Plaines History Center then moves to a display case at the Des Plaines Park District Leisure Center at 2222 Birch Street. If you miss them here, check them out over there!

Object of the Month: April 2014
cream pail, butter paddle, butter mold, butter dish
Philip Mohr, DPHC curator

The object of the month is several pieces from one family that show the steps of making butter. First is a small cream pail. Cream was/is made by allowing raw milk to sit. The fat rises to the top of the milk like oil floating on water. That fattier part of the milk is “skimmed” off and used as cream. The remaining milk contains less fat, hence “skim milk”.

Butter is made in a churn, which does nothing except stir the cream. Molecules of fat in cream collide with each other in the churning process. They eventually stick together to form lumps of butter. The remaining liquid is called buttermilk. Buttermilk would be drained off and used as a flavoring agent—like in pancakes or biscuits—or a drink in itself. This is one example of how thrift was part of every household tasks.

The remaining butter would be placed into a bowl and worked with a butter paddle. Paddles came in different shapes and sizes, but the vast majority of them resemble this one. People mashed the butter against the side of the bowl to work out any remaining buttermilk that could ruin the finished product.

Once nearly all the buttermilk was out of the bowl, they would often scoop the butter into a mold. The mold would squeeze the last ounces of buttermilk out of the butter and give it shape. A mold such as this should remind you of the shape of a box of four sticks of butter you might buy at the supermarket these days. It is just the right size to fit two cups of butter. Many people might have a mold that puts a design of a flower or a leaf on the finished butter. Some even had molds in different shapes such as circles and stars.

When presentation was important (which was more often than not a hundred years ago) butter would be served in a fancy dish. This glass butter dish shows a style that was popular for decades. It is made of pressed glass, and was therefore manufactured along with thousands of others just like it in a mold kind of like how the butter itself would be pressed into a design.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Des Plaines History Center welcomes the 2014 baseball season!

Manuscript of the Month, April 2014
"1995 Official Yearbook of the Des Plaines Chiefs"
by guest blogger Benjamin Ill

While combing through the archives located within the Des Plaines History Center, I came across a box titled “Local Baseball Teams.” Being a red-blooded American, I pounced on the box and enthusiastically rifled through its contents, and what I found was the 1995 Official Yearbook of the Des Plaines Chiefs. The Des Plaines Chiefs were an amateur baseball team, formerly the Kenosha Chiefs, that moved to Des Plaines in 1995. The yearbook itself contains a few pages of advertisements for local businesses, a copy of the teams 1995 schedule, player biographies, official scorecards, and an interesting article entitled “Business Before Baseball.” Historians or local history enthusiasts can utilize this document in a number of different ways.

The “Business Before Baseball” article found within the yearbook provides a number of insights regarding amateur baseball and the process in which a team can form. The new stadium, “Oakton Plaines,” was the result of Oakton Community College (OCC) and Kenosha Chiefs Owner Scott Barter realizing a mutually beneficial relationship through amateur baseball. For Scott Barter, it was an agreement that provided his baseball team with a much needed home. For OCC, it was a way to make much needed improvements to its baseball facilities. Realizing the mutual need and the opportunities a new stadium would create for both parties, the $575,000 dollar stadium project was agreed upon. The new facility was to include lighting, seating for 1500, concession and restroom facilities, locker rooms, and parking for 300 cars.

The article also provides information regarding investment and revenue. For instance, the $575,000 dollar stadium was broken down into different tiers. 4 investors contributed the bulk of the funding to the tune of $425,000 while 30 investors made up the remaining $150,000 with a minimum investment of $5,000. The group would then expect a return on their investment, projecting $159,775 in revenue generated in the first year by billboard advertisements, concession sales, and field rentals for local organizations and tournaments.

The team itself created an opportunity for local high school and college baseball players to continue playing throughout the summer. With 37 games scheduled between May and August, the Des Plaines Chiefs were expected to not only provide local players with a competitive opportunity, but also provide affordable entertainment for the local community throughout the summer. Upon examination of the players biographies found within the yearbook, 11 players listed on the roster attended OCC, 9 players attended other colleges, and 9 players were from local area high schools.

This Yearbook is very interesting for a number of reasons. First, who knew there was an amateur baseball team in Des Plaines?! I was born and raised in northwest Chicagoland and have never heard of the team. Second, the business side of amateur baseball is highlighted within the yearbook, providing insight into the cooperation necessary between an organization and locale in creating a successful stadium project. Third, it provides interesting insight into the players and coaches that made up the team. By leafing through this document an interesting, pure American story can be told regarding Des Plaines and its involvement in Americas Favorite Pastime!        

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Photo of the Month, March 2014
"Admiral Music Maids"
by guest blogger Patrick Vonesh

Greetings, and I hope you are all celebrating Women's History Month. Keeping with the same theme, the museum has uncovered an interesting pair of photos. Pitcher Teddy Hamilton and Outfielder Pauline Crawley are pictured in their Music Maid uniforms. In case people in the community were unaware, the Music Maids were a team in the National Girls Baseball League (NGBL) which ran from 1944-1954. This story is especially important to Des Plaines history, as the team was based out of the town. According to the images, the team played at "Admiral Stadium which was near Pesche's property on River Road" (between Golf and Rand). The NGBL is known as "Chicago's Forgotten League" and has peaked historical interest in recent years. 

 Teddy Hamilton, pitcher

Pauline Crawley, outfield

A website was founded for the preservation of the league's history, and a documentary appears to be in the works. Along with images and video, there are player bios that have been filled in by family members. This is where you come in: Calling all family members of Music Maids! We seek more information about the baseball league from people in the community. Pictures, uniforms, oral histories: these can all help to save the story of "Chicago's Forgotten League."
If you have more information on the Music Maids, Admiral Stadium, or other baseball topics in Des Plaines, please contact History Center staff. We also encourage you to share information with people trying to make a documentary on the NGBL at Any information would benefit our shared history of Des Plaines.

I wish everyone a great Women's History Month! Now, star asking around town about the Music Maids.