It is possible to explore family history and understand it reasonably well, family, on the other hand, is always a mystery.

Alice, Ruth and Elinor

Alice, Ruth and Elinor

     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 Brown (top right) with her father and sisters, Alice and Ruthe

Elinor Brown (top right) with her father and sisters,
Alice and Ruthe

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.




“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”  1 Corinthians 13:11

I never thought I would begin a blog post with a biblical quote, but it is what leapt to mind when I thought about this story.

I thought the lead for this story would be: William Leaf married two of my grandmother’s sisters.  It is true, he did marry two of my grandmother’s sisters, but as I tried to tell the story it became more about the difference in how we see things as children and how we see things as adults than about Great-Uncle Bill.

William Leaf

William Leaf died before I was born.  His first wife, Fanny, died before I was born, but I have strong memories of his second wife, Ida. Ida died in 1962, so all my memories of her are as a child.

What do I remember?  I remember Ida as a substantial woman with a shelf-like bosom to which she squeezed me when we met.  She was by my 10-year-old memories not an overly attractive woman.  Bear in mind that she was born in 1874, so by my count as a child she was approximately 185 years old.  I remember Ida’s daughters, three stepdaughters from her husband’s first marriage, one daughter and a son to whom she gave birth.  I remember a sense of tension when all four girls were in the room and I asked my Mom about this.  Here is an annoying thing about my mother, she didn’t gossip and she had strong feelings about what was appropriate material to share with your children. Unfortunately, even after I was taking care of her, in her mind I was always a child.

I was told that the oldest three girls were Ida’s stepdaughters and that her husband, Bill, had been married first to Ida’s sister.  As a ten year old I found this weird and a tad creepy. It was explained to me that this was the way they did things then to provide a mother for the children. At some point I must have said something about Aunt Ida being less than beautiful.  With surprising candor my mother replied, “Oh no, Ida was a great beauty.”

Fanny Bublick

That’s how it sat until I became a family historian.

Ida Bublick

Fanny Leaf died in 1903, probably in childbirth or from its complications. Bill was left with three daughters, a 5 year old, a 3 year old and a newborn.   Bill moved in with his wife’s parents and his 16 year old sister-in-law Ida.  The 1910 census, seven years after his first wife’s death, finds Bill and his three daughters, ages 12, 9, and 7 living with his in-laws and their 26-year-old daughter, Ida.  Ida is only 14 years older than Bill’s oldest child.  Bill lists 13 as the years of his present marriage, clearly thinking of his marriage to Fanny.  It would be another two years until Bill and Ida married.

How do I see this as an adult? Ida was sixteen when her sister died, a bit young for marriage and surely everyone needed time to grieve and heal, but ten years elapsed between Fanny’s death and Bill’s marriage to her sister, Ida.  If this was a marriage of convenience surely Ida could have married before the age of 28.  I looked at the old photos and my mother was right, Ida was a beauty when she was young. Did love grow or was this marriage one of convenience? I wonder how Fanny’s daughters felt about the marriage.  Did they resent the marriage? Did they feel that they were treated differently from their much younger siblings?  I can’t answer these questions. I know that as adults all the children socialized together and behaved like a family, just a slightly strained one.  I am gathering more information about this family, but I don’t know that I will ever be able to answer these questions. I do know that childhood memories can cloud and confuse my research.

I will write more about William Leaf in the future; he has a very interesting story.  I just need to shake the cobwebs out of my brain and put away childish things.