Books FB

Let’s Read McCall’s, December 1915!

We’ve already been through a McCall’s before, so if you want to know the magazine’s detailed history you can read about it from the first time around.

So, 1915. Europe is in bloody smoking mustard-scented shreds. The American public is fired up about the sinking of the RMS Lusitania and are starting to argue that the military should be involved in the war that they previously wanted nothing to do with. America would not officially enter the war for two more years, so on the domestic front there were no blood drives as yet and no cause for shortages of food or goods. Things that would have been on American minds during the end of 1915 would have of course been the war, the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, and the ongoing battle over women’s suffrage, among other things. This issue acknowledges some of those things, but mostly aims to keep the mind and hands distracted with keeping the house in shape.

These kids look they’re quickly walking away from someone who has just said something extremely unsettling to them. Elsewhere in the magazine they advertise that you can buy a print of this illustration, which sure, who doesn’t want a pretty picture of a little girl telling her little brother to just keep walking and don’t look back at the man who keeps yelling about your “packages”?

Last time this fella showed up, I thought he was Uncle Ben. My bad – he’s named Rastus, which is a name with a lot of history and none of it good. The letter says “Dear Rastus, please send and before Dec. 25, 10,000 (ten thousand) packages of cream of wheat for my children. Yours truly, Santa Claus” and this raises SO many questions, like – does Santa claim his elves as dependents on his taxes? Are the elves minors and is there a set of proper safety regulations for their working conditions? Did ten thousand random children ask for a box of Cream of Wheat for Christmas? Is Santa paying for this COD or does he have a corporate account? What the hell is Rastus standing in front of? And is Rastus a foot tall or did Santa write this letter on a sheet of poster board? If he wanted to send something big and easy to read, WHY DID HE WRITE IT IN SUPER LIGHT PENCIL?!

Apparently the previous issue was a spirited debate about small town life versus city life and why we should look down on everyone regardless of where they’re from. The “Can Some One Answer?” letter by “The Onlooker” (yeah that’s not weird at all) is worth reading for the narrative about what an average middle-class lady and her gal pals do on a day out in the city in 1915 (go shopping, get lunch, look with pity at the homeless – not much has changed).

Several things are quite aggravating in this magazine. The first is that there is a lot of genuinely terrible fiction. That’s what sold magazines back then, so I can’t hold that against them, but the other aggravating thing is that nearly all the fiction is 5-8 pages long and almost none of it is continuous from page to page. This was one of the best stories in the issue, and it happened to only be one page. Pros: female friendship, rejection of Holiday commercialism. Cons: expression of that friendship via weird letters, which we will find was all the rage at this time.

Our cover story serial, and it’s…awful. If reading about the boring adventures of a rich lady who babysits her shabby flea-bitten six toed neighbor children and feels the stirrings of maternal warmth melting her cold spinster’s heart is your jam, by all means read it here on Googlebooks (because, say it with me, the internet is a miraculous thing). The first 50 pages are about doing laundry, and that’s as far as I got. One of the children is a toddler named Carruthers. CARRUTHERS.

I am bewildered that anyone thought this was a cute photo of a baby. While I’m not entirely sure why phosphate would be a problem, I do know that baking powder with alum can make your baked goods taste metallic. Phosphate was probably thought to be associated with potential birth defects, which is why this ad is like “See? Have your cake AND an ugly but healthy baby too!”

This was probably a very good account of a nurse’s experiences in a war hospital in Belgrade, but some dickhead tore out most of the pages in this section (don’t do that!!) so this is what’s left of the story. God, I hope the part about the nine year old fighting in the trenches alongside his father was embellished.

“Boudoir” back then didn’t really mean “sexy time” like it does now, it means more like cozy things to wear when you’re staying in for the night. Although I’m sure many ladies felt plenty hot to trot in their frilly caps with five pounds of lace and ribbon and fake fruit and OH MY GOD WHAT is that “Mandarin” hat with the fake braid at the back?! Looking at the description on the continuing page, oh dear, it gets so much worse: “The Mandarin cap, with its distinctive queue, is a new design (Fig. D). It would be fascinating with one of the Mandarin coats so much worn…the ‘Chink’ boudoir cap (Fig. E) is a variation of the Mandarin evening cap…”

I love the one in the center. While I’m not sure why she seems to be holding a gigantic straight pin in the manner of a parasol, I assume that she’s ready to beat the tar out of you with it at any time.

“Um, sir, I don’t feel like I can portray the new fashion illustrations adequately.”
“Why, what’s the matter?”
“I…I can’t draw hands to save my life, sir.”
“Well don’t you worry, my dear fellow, just hide them all behind enormous fur muffs!”
“Brilliant sir, thank you sir! I’ll go back to my desk immediately!”

Sadly, there is no pattern for creating a dead weasel to carry around on your shoulders. You must acquire your own dead weasel and arrange him accordingly.

There wasn’t much distinction made between boys and girls clothes until the child was maybe five, probably in part so that the clothes could be more easily handed down to the next set of kids, so the smock dresses bookending the designs here are deliberately unisex (note “child’s dress”, a handy genderless term). I like that one of those unsuspecting kids in the middle is about to get whacked with a doll on a stick – and the other child is sending her a stern don’t you even think about it look.

I see that the illustrator just gave up on Scout Kid’s claw hand. Maybe his mother ate cake made with bad baking powder.

Some cute suggestions for embroidering and making holiday presents. I love the parrot-shaped potholder on the teapot, super cute. Take a look at 709, which in black and white looks like a row of scorpions but I believe is supposed to be bouquets.

I kind of love the idea of an embroidered cake cover, which I guess works to keep both bugs and grubby little children’s fingers out of it at outdoor picnics.

Crafts for the good old church bazaars. The china doll hoop skirt tea cozy is so kitschy and tacky, I love it. I also kind of love Postum’s “There’s a Reason” slogan, which is just so blatantly Mormon that I’m surprised there isn’t a cartoon of Brigham Young chugging it down.

The Shredded Wheat plant in Oakland was a huge deal when it opened. They basically threw the whole city a party to celebrate, including some very product-of-their-time pageants in which young women pretended to be Ceres, the goddess of wheat. Somehow I don’t think the opening of Google’s massive new campus in Mountain View will feature original operas starring Hephaestus as he forges electronics from the stars and is given the blessing of Hades for wealth. Anyway, the plant was owned by Nabisco until 1991 and is still in use for commercial cereal production.

Cute babies did exist in 1915 after all!

Gail Borden, named after his father, was a man, a man with a stupid beard, but I sense a smart marketing move in putting a traditionally feminine name on the label so that women felt better about buying it. But don’t feed your baby condensed milk!!

From what I can tell, this is just Julia Marlowe’s normal RBF, so while she doesn’t seem to be all that enthusiastic about keeping your delicate little pores clean, please believe that she really does care.


Oooh! Girl is feeling saucy in her head to toe embroidered tent of “Jap silk” (cringe) and little frilly hat! Let him see those ankles! Honey crank up the phonograph and dim the lights, we’re going for baby number 6 tonight!

The sweater on the lady in the Kodak ad makes her look startlingly contemporary. You could probably buy a sweater that looks just like that today.

Take it from the people who just robbed your house and stole your coffee!

I would also probably think that flashlights were the coolest thing ever in 1915. Heck, I still think they’re nifty. I like the model that looks like a battery powered candle, like if you can’t let yourself be TOO modern you can still pretend that you’re carrying around a candle but it won’t burn your house down if you trip.

Steal this idea for Pinterest and pretend you came up with it! But maybe call them something less…dumb.

For once, some actually not-terrible reci–
“one of these consists merely of the popped corn eaten with sugar and milk”
Sorry, I let myself get excited for a moment. That’s what you eat in your dorm when you don’t have a meal plan and your roommate ate your last cup o noodles. And the popcorn is something you brought home from your job at the movie theater, the sugar is from packets stolen from Peet’s, where you also work, and the milk is not really milk but something at the bottom of an old coffee cup that you’ve thinned out enough with water to resemble liquid again.

The children in this illustration look a bit…ragged. Maybe because they’re making cake with PORK in it. Not pork fat, fat PORK. Keeps indefinitely (huhh) because no one will ever want to eat it.

You’ll be shocked to learn that “Poverty Fruit Cake” doesn’t have a lot of fruit in it – but it DOES have a shitload of lard! I know, crazy right? And how do you even get inspired to make this, like “Well kids, Pa got laid off from the mill again so I’m afraid we’ll have to eat Poverty Cake on Sundays.”

I am beyond stumped by the “holly pudding”, which seems to be a thick molded unsweetened meringue with currants suspended in it, served with a currant juice and egg yolk sauce. I think I’m going to have to make this, because I am fascinated.

I’m expecting some hipster San Francisco popup to try and make “lemon-clove jello jigglers” super trendy at anytime.

A funny and somewhat head-scratching story about one family’s obsession with saving up money to buy a car.

“But what about Christmas presents for the orphans?”
“Someone else can give them presents. We’ll give them car rides when we get the car!”
“What about Aunt Polly, who no one else likes and gives presents to?”
“We’ll also give her car rides!”
“What about Mrs. Flarety, who lives for a week on our generous gift of a chicken every Christmas?”
“We’ll give her rides too!”

Ways to make extra money for a car: sell your jams and pickles to your laziest relative who won’t do it herself, learn how to make engraved thank you notes and sell them to bereaved widows of your lodge buddies, find out where the black people are and sell them bible stories, wait for some mysterious person who happens to owe you a couple hundred bucks to show up out of the blue and decide it was time to pay you back.


As for the ads on this page, we’ll get back to the Gold Dust ad in a bit. Check out the Shetland pony ad, which reads in infuriatingly small and blurry print: “If you have ever dreamed of having a nice little pony, write for my plan that has made it easy for boys and girls to get ponies. All my ponies are well trained and gentle. If you haven’t a pony and want this one send me your name today. Don’t send any money. Just your name. On a post card, say: I want you to send me a pony and buggy free, address UNCLE JERRY, The Pony Man, D 98 E. 4th Street, St. Paul, Minn.” Now, I’m not sure if the pony in the ad has three legs because that’s all that fit around the print, or if UNCLE JERRY THE PONY MAN just has a sweet deal on three-legged Shetland ponies, but I really know to know what’s up with this whole operation and CAN I HAVE A PONY?

This is cute. Pr-pur-per-perfection! The company was known for its posters, many of which featured a very smug black and white cat hogging the heater.

The “latest fad” is this nifty card game called Going To Market, in which you played with a deck of cards all printed in 1915 advertisements and tried to collect cards from other players of the same number to win. Since they advertised a lot of different products, a ton of companies gave the card game away.

“Your dear face is always before me. Always making…that expression. What the devil have I done now, I wonder.”

Do we like this ring? I kind of like it, but given that it cost the equivalent of $30 today for a gold, silver, and garnet ring, I’m pretty sure that whatever it’s actually made of would make your finger fall off. I love that you have to send in a length of string measuring around your finger so that they can size it correctly.

“Yep, this surely is a box of suspenders” says the man in the Shirley President ad.

People also were really into putting presents ON the tree, not under the tree.

I like that this starts out as “Don’t be a dick to retail employees” and winds up with “don’t be a dick to the employees at McCall’s when YOU decided at the last minute to buy your friends subscriptions to our magazine”. Think about the nice young women in the mail department who have nightmares about being smothered to death by falling bags of letters while assholes like YOU gripe at them!

Which ring is your favorite? I like the sunburst one.

The friendship bracelets are a cute idea but also a massive drama storm waiting to happen.

What, YOUR family doesn’t make the youngest boy dress up like a bird and threaten the oldest girl, dressed as a laundry maid, to give him presents or be dismembered with scissors?* Psh, guess there really IS a war on Christmas!

I was holding my breath in between “hide-the-switch” and “I beat”, until he got to “a drum”, thinking that a child would be beaten with a switch until someone found their present. I mean, I’m sure that happened too.

*You just KNOW that east coast old money millionaire families still do weirdass shit like this.

Coming to a Sephora near you, it’s FLESH FOOD!

I appreciate that this company doesn’t underestimate how dumb their market is – there’s no actual data to back anything up, just THIS PICTURE OF A WOMAN IS BIGGER SO THAT MEANS WE SOLD MORE COMBS THAN THE OTHER GUYS DID and people are just going to have to be okay with that.

Laugh at the funniest of minstrel shows!

Also, the top hit of 1915 was “I Didn’t Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier”, an anti-war song.


Contemporary spoofs of this song include “I Didn’t Raise My Girl To Be A Voter”, and “I Didn’t Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier (But I’ll Send My Girl To Be A Nurse)”.

Don’t forget to write a weird and cryptic poem on each of your presents. Maybe attach it to the orange that you hollowed out and filled with popcorn, warning the recipient that they may end up accidentally eating the paraffin used to seal the orange shut.

Gold Dust was famous for their mascots “Goldie” and “Dusty”, and were such a cultural phenomenon that there was even a horrifying radio minstrel show based on them, featuring these very white men in blackface.

So Steampunk.

Damn, I want some waffles now. With a hot cup of KORNLET to wash it down!

My co-worker, reading this with me, shared an excellent point that cleaning your kid gloves with gasoline (!!) could be potentially disastrous when lighting up a cigarette.

Also, donuts don’t absorb oil if you add a quarter teaspoon of ground ginger, because what the hell are these people smoking.

Maybe Bobbie and Bettie would stop putting dead rats in the minister’s mailbox if you didn’t make them eat Jello made of nightmares three times a week, MOM.

Your word of the week is “gimcracks”, which means a useless bauble or tchotchke. I don’t know if anyone would really compare a tube of toothpaste to something pretty and useless in the first place, but Colgate’s here and ready to defend themselves just in case. The bottles and boxes were quite pretty in a typical art nouveau style, but…don’t give your friends toothpaste for Christmas, people. Just don’t.

That’s it for this week! Thank you for reading! Next week we’re getting tacky and absolutely sloshed with a glamorous west coast Christmas issue of California, December 1986!


(Please don’t let my blocking out of personal information distract you from THOSE SLEEVES!)