It is possible to explore family history and understand it reasonably well, family, on the other hand, is always a mystery.
The problem with trying to understand your own family is that you were a child when you first encountered these mysterious people. Your views on each of them are colored by the nuclear family you grew up in and even that nuclear family had its secrets, lots of them.
This is why family historians are always asking themselves, “Why didn’t I know this?’ or “Why didn’t I spend more time with this person?” or one of a thousand other questions usually accompanied by slapping the forehead and saying, “Duh!”
I did some forehead smacking recently when I discovered a 1977 article from The Jewish Exponent of Philadelphia about my cousin Elinor Brown. Elinor is my first cousin, once removed, or put in language I actually understand; she was my grandmother’s sister’s kid.
I knew Elinor when I was growing up. We weren’t as close to my grandmother’s family, but we saw them from time to time. They came to our weddings and Bar Mitzvahs; we went to theirs. There was no estrangement that I know of, there just didn’t seem to be a lot of communication, but what do I know, I was a dumb kid.
Elinor was born in 1898, so she was about 50 years older than I am. As a child I suppose she was just another old person to me, but I knew Elinor when I was an adult in my twenties and thirties. Why then did I know so little about her?
The article from The Jewish Exponent of Philadelphia is about Elinor’s career in the advertising business. I knew she was in business of some kind and I knew she was successful, but I never thought about what it must have been like for a woman of her generation to be in business.
Elinor began writing for the Yiddish newspaper, Der Tag, which was owned by her father. After high school Elinor went to secretarial school in Syracuse. Secretarial work, after all, was what women did until they got married. Elinor came home for the summer and took a job in the secretarial pool at an ad agency. She never returned to school and somehow made it from the secretarial pool to space and media buying. She was the only woman in that area.
She made the next big jump when she heard that the Contadina Company was looking for an ad agency. She flew to Chicago and convinced Contadina’s parent company to hire the E.L.Brown Agency. This was the birth of the agency. When she arranged a banquet for Contadina dealers she ran into a bit of a problem.
This from the Jewish Exponent, “I finished making the arrangements with the hotel management, went up to my suite to change, and decided to go down for a drink. But they turned me away at the bar–unaccompanied women were not allowed in.
I was furious! Here I had just finished spending God knows how much money in that hotel, and I couldn’t go to the bar. I grabbed the assistant manager and told him my story. He finally escorted me into the bar and sat with me while I had my drink. But–imagine!”
It was a problem that would persist so she dealt with it. “I hired a man whose only function in the agency was to pick up the check. He traveled with me wherever I went, all over the country, and that’s all he did. Pick up the check.”
What can I say, it’s brilliant, appalling, and yet awfully funny.
There are a lot more stories I could tell about this interesting woman and her long and successful life. She married twice, had children and grandchildren and worked into her 80’s.
I am delighted to know more about this early feminist. I’m just sorry I didn’t get to hear her stories from her.