Baltimore Women Played Role By Joining Work Force Clubs and volunteer groups added to war effort

December 03, 1991|By James Bock

A baby boy was found Thanksgiving morning 1941 on the steps of the House of the Good Shepherd, a home for delinquent girls at Mount and Hollins streets. A note pinned to his clothes said: "He's had nothing but milk for three days, and I can't stand to hear him cry.

The four month old died the next day of bronchial pneumonia and on Dec. 3, a Baltimore grand jury indicted his mother, 21-year-old Ernestine Turner, on a charge of abandonment. The grand jury would not return a manslaughter indictment. Bail was set at $1,000.

Mrs. Turner, separated since February from her auto mechanic husband, told a magistrate that she couldn't raise the child on the $14 a week she earned as an embroiderer in a Baltimore Street shop. After paying $7 a week for a room on North Calhoun Street and $6 a week to a woman to care for the baby and an 18-month-old daughter, there was almost nothing left.

"I don't feel it's desertion," the note said. "It is just to see him happy and being taken care of."

*

THE WARTIME EMPLOYMENT boom that changed women's roles in the workplace was just beginning in December 1941. Most Maryland women were homemakers unless -- and sometimes even though -- economic necessity dictated otherwise. Less than one-third of the state's women worked outside the home. Those who did earned $15 a week on average, about half the typical man's salary.

There was plenty to do at home. In the city, only half the families had refrigerators; most of the others had iceboxes. Coal, at $9 a ton, was the fuel of choice, and many households still heated with stoves. Only about half of Maryland's farm families had electricity, and less than one-third had running water.

For middle-class women tempted to enter the prewar work force, the social pressures could be intense. Newspaper columnist Dorothy Dix advised a young married woman in December 1941 that she would make a "fatal mistake" by returning to work at $15 a week.

"Once let a man realize that his wife is not dependent on him, that he isn't necessary to her, that she can go out into the world and fight her own battles and shift for herself, and he is mighty apt to let her do it," the columnist wrote in The Sun. "You will kill his pride and ambition and his tenderness for you. And, anyway, making your husband a comfortable home is job enough for you."

...

READING THE ADS (culled from The Sun and other Maryland newspapers):

A corset company representative will advise you on figure problems at the Hecht Bros. Corset Salon. Famous corsets for every figure type, $2.79-$5.95.

Alpallama Coats, $29.75; Alligator Gabardine Topcoats, $20; Stetson Stratoliner Hat, $7.50, Musey & Evans, Hagerstown.

Hear Eyewitness Account -- Nazi Invasion of Denmark -- Hans Bendix, Danish Journalist.

For Sale: Canaries, 1941 hatch; nice assortment of colors; guaranteed singers; $5 each.

*

BALTIMORE WAS DRAPED in a dense fog Dec. 3, and the talk was of stray cats and war. The cat was Kitty, stranded for a week on a rocky ledge above the Jones Falls near Charles Street. A resident of a nearby hotel took a banana basket, nailed a hamburger to the bottom, rubbed catnip over the meat and lowered it to the ledge. The tempted Kitty got into the basket, but when the rescuer started to pull it up, she bailed out.

Not far away, at the 5th Regiment Armory, the first of 1,425 Maryland draftees -- who felt little compelling reason as yet to enlist -- took physical exams, as young men had been doing since the peacetime draft began in 1940.

An Army expert called Baltimore's congested streets one of the nation's "worst bottlenecks in the flow of military traffic." He suggested that city officials make main arteries one way. "If Hitler and his Germans can solve military transport problems and keep armies rolling, so, gentlemen, can you and I," he told the Maryland Police Association.

*

MARYLAND WOMEN who stayed at home often devoted considerable energy to volunteer work. In 1941, women's groups aided the war effort, knitting garments for the Bundles for Britain drive and organizing benefits for the British War Relief Society.

Women's clubs were a fixture in both white and black society. The Pikesville-Randallstown women's club did Red Cross sewing that week. The Phoenix Club women's group on Eutaw Place scheduled a speaker on "The Defense Program and American Women."

In West Baltimore, women's clubs adopted names that might have elicited a blush had they been in Roland Park -- the Women of Courage Savings Club, Gossip Hour Social Club, Eureka Pleasure Club, Irresistible Ladies Social Club.

First lady Eleanor Roosevelt set the tone for middle-class women in her daily newspaper column, "My Day," the diary of a woman with both a social conscience

and a political agenda. On Dec. 3, Mrs. Roosevelt urged Americans to pursue physical fitness to "build within themselves the kind of resistance needed for the long sustained anxiety of a period of emergency."

How long the anxiety would last no one yet understood.

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