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Historical Facts: 19th Century American

Elbridge Gerry (1744-1814) was a delegate to the Continental Congress, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and a lifelong supporter of John Adams.  While Gerry was governor in 1812, he instituted the Republican redistricting of Massachusetts to rearrange the state, so as to have more Republican senators.  This gave rise to the term “gerrymandering.” Posted 11/01/2011

Massachusetts passed a law in 1842 that stated, “Children under the age of 12 could not work more than a 10-hour day.” Posted 11/01/2012

In Five Points, New York’s immigrant area, only 9 out of 600 children attended school in 1870.  Most immigrant children worked 18-hour days in a factory. Posted 9/01/2013

Louisa May Alcott was the first woman to register to vote in Concord after Massachusetts passed its state suffrage law. Posted 11/01/2015

At the end of the 19th century, educators began to promote physical activity as necessary for a young woman’s health.  Schools began to build gymnasiums.  The general philosophy of physical education was different for women than for men.  Men played to win.  Women exercised for their health. Posted 9/15/2016

The Married Woman’s Property Act passed in 1860.  It gave women the right to own property, but they still could not sell it without their husband’s permission. Posted 3/01/2018

In 1880s America, the only requirement to become a full-fledged policeman was 30 days’ instruction in the use of a nightstick. Posted 2/15/2019

A Gandy Dancer is slang for a railroad worker who maintained the tracks in the years before the work was taken over by machines. Posted 9/15/2019


The pony express lasted from April 1860 to October 1861. It was created to provide the fastest mail delivery between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California. It was also used to try and gain the million dollar government mail contract for the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company. It consisted of a total of 183 men and 400 horses to travel day and night, summer, and winter. The riders were paid one hundred dollars per month. Posted 4/15/2020

When Richard Warren Sears started his company, which initially sold watches, he used the mail-order method. Very soon, his catalog grew into a massive “book” of 532 pages that offered a huge variety of products, such as dolls, refrigerators, stoves, and all kinds of groceries. By 1906, the catalog was referred to as “the Consumer’s Bible.” Posted 9/15/2020

During the 19th century, theatre and opera chairs had wire rungs underneath the seat so you could store your top hat during the performance. Posted 12/01/2020

Medical care in New York City’s poorest slums was pretty nonexistent in the late 1890s, until social reformer Lillian Wald—founder of the Henry Street Settlement—established a visiting nurses service. Her nurses went from tenement to tenement offering free or low-cost check-ups and treatment, mostly for immigrant mothers and kids. Rather than climbing all those tenement stairs on their rounds, the nurses simply hopped from rooftop to rooftop. Posted 3/15/2021

In December 1880, inventor Thomas A. Edison hung the first electric Christmas lights outside his lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey. Posted 12/15/2021

March 17, 1737 - The first citywide celebration of St. Patrick's Day is held in Boston. Posted 3/15/2022


In the late 1800s, New York's churches began to decorate their sanctuaries with Easter flowers. Parishioners walked from church to church to inspect the floral displays — and so began the custom of the NYC Easter parade.


Centered around Fifth Avenue and open to anyone, the parade grew in stature to something of a major event. Well-to-do New Yorkers attired in the latest modes strolled through the boulevards, watched by middle class citizens eager for the lowdown on new fashion trends.


By 1880, the Easter parade had became a permanent fixture on New York's calendar of civic and social events. As such, milliners and merchants capitalized on the opportunity to promote their wares.


With the turn of the new century, Easter in New York assumed the mantle of a major retail event, ranking alongside Christmas in this significance. Posted 4/15/2022


The first Westminster dog show was held May 8 of 1877, and 1,201 dogs were shown in Manhattan. Westminster Kennel Club was started by sporting gentlemen who used to meet in the Westminster Hotel bar 'to drink and lie about their shooting accomplishments.' When they decided to form a club, they could not agree on a name and so called it after the Westminster Hotel bar where they met. Other than the Kentucky Derby, the annual Westminster dog show is the longest continuous sporting event in the US. Posted 5/01/2022

The most photographed horsecar line ran from 1833 to 1910 in Englewood, Colorado. The horse would pull the car one-and-a-half miles uphill, and then the horse boarded the car via a wooden ramp and rode back downhill with the passengers. Posted 8/15/2022

Among the first commercially successful mechanical writing devices was the "writing ball," invented by Rasmus Malling-Hansen, a Danish teacher of the deaf, who wanted to provide a mechanical means of communication for the deaf and mute. In 1870, he patented a working model of the machine in Europe and received the first of three U.S. patents in 1872. The application for his "Type Writing-Machine" (US Patent 125,952), detailed how type-carrying plungers made an imprint on a piece of paper wrapped on a cylinder. Controlled by a pendulum or electricity, the machine’s spring-driven mechanism rotated the cylinder line by line and letter by letter. He suggested that the "types"—today called "keys"—should be arranged in two clusters, vowels for the left hand, consonants for the right., Early adopters like German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche had embraced the writing ball long before businesses made typewriters viable on a mass scale. Posted 9/01/2022

Yellowstone National Park was appointed the United States' first national park on March 1st, 1872. It covers more than three and a half thousand square miles of plateaus, mountains, and valleys in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. The park's fossils, lava flows, volcanic remains, forests, and other mountainous features such as its hot springs and geysers (like Old Faithful) have made it a national treasure. Photo credit: E.B. Thompson/National Parks Service, 1872. Posted 3/1/2024

At the end of the 19th century, the population of tramps in America numbered 50,000, which was larger than Wellington’s army at Waterloo. Posted 12/01/2011


19th century corsets reduced a woman’s waist by four inches and exerted anywhere from 25-80 pounds of pressure per square inch on her body. Posted 3/15/2011

Kerosene, replacing whale oil as a luminant, proved “explosive as gunpowder.”  In 1880, 39% of all New York fires were caused by defective kerosene lamps. Posted 12/01/2012

In Chicago in 1893, the crime rate was so high that there was one arrest for every 11 residents, and there were eight times more murders than in Paris. Posted 10/01/2014

In 1903 only 18 cities had public playgrounds. Posted 7/15/2016

During the 19th century, one-third of all mill employees were children. Posted 9/15/2017


The Lone Ranger may have been inspired by a real-life Black U.S. Marshal.  His name was Bass Reeves, and he was born a slave in 1838.  For three decades after slavery was abolished, the six-foot-two, 190 pound former slave was the most feared and respected lawman in the territories.  He worked as a U.S. Marshal, and, though a crack shot and quick draw, he only killed 14 men in the line of duty.  He arrested over 3,000 felons, including his own son! Posted 2/15/2018

Equal pay for equal work was first put forth by Susan B. Anthony at the 1850 teacher’s convention. Posted 9/01/2018

The Statue of Liberty was inspired by the Roman pagan goddess, Libertas. Libertas is the Roman goddess of freedom, and she represents the freedom of action, freedom from restraint, and also signifies independence, personal rights, along with personal and social liberty. Posted 7/15/2019

Jumping over a broom is a custom among African Americans from the days of slavery, when slaves were not allowed to marry, but crossed that line by jumping over a broom in front of witnesses. Posted 6/15/2020

In 1856, twenty-three-year-old widow Kate Warne walked into the office of the Pinkerton Detective Agency in Chicago, announcing that she had seen the company’s ad and wanted to apply for the job. “Sorry,” Alan Pinkerton told her, “but we don’t have any clerical staff openings. We’re looking to hire a new detective.” Pinkerton would later describe Warne as having a “commanding” presence that morning. “I’m here to apply for the detective position,” she replied. Taken aback, Pinkerton explained to Kate that women aren’t suited to be detectives, and then Kate forcefully and eloquently made her case. Women have access to places male detectives can’t go, she noted, and women can befriend the wives and girlfriends of suspects and gain information from them. Finally, she observed, men tend to become braggards around women who encourage boasting, and women have keen eyes for detail. Pinkerton was convinced. He hired her.


Shortly after Warne was hired, she proved her value as a detective by befriending the wife of a suspect in a major embezzlement case. Warne not only gained the information necessary to arrest and convict the thief, but she discovered where the embezzled funds were hidden and was able to recover nearly all of them. On another case she extracted a confession from a suspect while posing as a fortune teller. Pinkerton was so impressed that he created a Women’s Detective Bureau within his agency and made Kate Warne its leader.


In her most famous case, Kate Warne may have changed the history of the world. In February, 1861, the president of the Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad hired Pinkerton to investigate rumors of threats against the railroad. Looking into it, Pinkerton soon found evidence of something much more dangerous—a plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln before his inauguration. Pinkerton assigned Kate Warne to the case. Taking the persona of “Mrs. Cherry,” a Southern woman visiting Baltimore, she managed to infiltrate the secessionist movement there and learn the specific details of the scheme—a plan to kill the president-elect as he passed through Baltimore on the way to Washington.


Pinkerton relayed the threat to Lincoln and urged him to travel to Washington from a different direction. But Lincoln was unwilling to cancel the speaking engagements he had agreed to along the way, so Pinkerton resorted to Plan B. For the trip through Baltimore Lincoln was secretly transferred to a different train and disguised as an invalid. Posing as his caregiver was Kate Warne. When she afterwards described her sleepless night with the President, Pinkerton was inspired to adopt the motto that became famously associated with his agency: “We never sleep.” The details Kate Warne had uncovered had enabled the “Baltimore Plot” to be thwarted.


During the Civil War, Warne and the female detectives under her supervision conducted numerous risky espionage missions, with Warne’s charm and her skill at impersonating a Confederate sympathizer giving her access to valuable intelligence. After the war she continued to handle dangerous undercover assignments on high-profile cases, while at the same time overseeing the agency’s growing staff of female detectives.

Kate Warne, America’s first female detective, died of pneumonia at age 34, on January 28, 1868, one hundred fifty-three years ago today. “She never let me down,” Pinkerton said of one of his most trusted and valuable agents. She was buried in the Pinkerton family plot in Chicago. Posted 3/01/2022

Ida Holdgreve is credited with being the first female American aerospace worker. She was born in Delphos, Ohio in 1881. In her 20s she moved to Dayton to look for work. She saw an ad in the paper that advertised for "Plain Sewing Wanted". She was an excellent seamstress, so she answered the ad. It was, in fact, an ad for "Plane Sewing Wanted" by Orville and Wilbur Wright. Ida became the head seamstress at the Wright Brothers Airplane Factory, sewing the cover for the fuselage, wings, and rudders. Despite her work with airplanes Ida did not take her first airplane ride until 1969 at age 88.  Posted 3/01/2023

In 1845, the world-famous store Tiffanys produced the first mail order catalog in the United States. Posted 12/1/2023

The Butterick name is mostly associated with sewing. What is not commonly known is that in the late 19th Century, the two biggest names in fashion were Charles Frederick Worth and Ebenezer Butterick. Worth created haute couture for the upper classes; Butterick created sewing patterns based on haute couture for the masses. At the height of the Butterick’s fashion empire in the 1890s, they were the second largest printer in the United States after the U.S. Government, with stores in every major city in the world. Posted 12/30/2023

On May 20, 1873, Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis received a patent for using copper rivets on the heavy duty cotton cloth trousers they produced. These “Blue Jeans” are virtually indestructible and were marketed to miners, farmers, mechanics, and cattle raisers. They were called originally "Copper Riveted Overalls." The name Blue Jeans was not used before the 1960s. Posted 5/15/2024

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