1900s

High society ladies at 1904 Bazaar to benefit the Russian Red Cross.

D.C.'s 1904 Russian Bazaar

“Don’t you know there’s a war on?” That’s the usual refrain when your country is at war. But for Countess Marguerite Cassini, daughter of the Russian ambassador to Washington, the 1904-1905 war between Russia and Japan was a reason to have a two-day party. And if you say it’s for charity, why not?

Portrait of Marguerite Cassini by Frances Benjamin Johnston. (Source: Library of Congress)

Countess Marguerite Cassini: D.C.'s Diplomatic Social Butterfly

When Countess Marguerite Cassini first arrived in DC in 1898 during the McKinley administration, she accompanied the first Russian Ambassador to America, Count Arthur Cassini, as his 16-year-old “niece.” An air of mystery shrouded her origins, but as the oldest female relative of the ambassador, the “Countess” was the embassy’s official hostess. At state functions, she would be seated in the proper place for the Russian hostess — at the top right below the British, French, and German hostesses. The wives of the diplomatic corps bristled to be placed beneath an unmarried teenager, who was thought to be “neither a [countess] nor, according to rumor, a Cassini.” To be fair, the Capital gossip wasn’t entirely wrong; young Marguerite wasn’t a countess, and the count was not her uncle. He was her father. But questions over her roots soon gave way to amazement over the Countess's command of the D.C. social scene, which she effectively ruled along with Alice Roosevelt.

Photograph of Mary Church Terrell as a young adult.

Impressions of Washington: Mary Church Terrell’s Activism

Educator, author, and activist Mary Church Terrell was the first president of the National Association for Colored Women, the first African-American woman elected to a major city school board, and a founding member of the NAACP. A lifelong advocate for equality, Terrell participated in sit-ins well into her eighties. But out of all of her activism, one 1906 speech stands out as an insightful and damning critique of racial dynamics in the nation's capital.

Anna J. Cooper (Source: Wikipedia)

Dr. Anna J. Cooper: MVP of D.C. Education

In the early 1900s, Dr. Anna J. Cooper, eschewed inherently racist notions that education for African American students should be solely vocational. Pursuing more classical studies, she pushed her students toward some of the best colleges and universities in the country, but her dedication raised the ire of the D.C. Board of Education.

Henry Shrady: The Man Who Gave His Life for U.S. Grant’s Memorial

U.S. Grant Memorial Equestrian Statue

When sculptor Henry Merwin Shrady, along with architect Edward Pearce Casey, won the commission to design the Capitol's Ulysses S. Grant Memorial in 1902, neither man was quite aware of the scope of the project with which they were getting involved. The monument had first been proposed in 1895 by the Society of the Army of the Tennessee, which wanted a grand way to honor the general who led the Union Army to victory during the Civil War. Shrady threw himself into the project that would consume his life — literally — over the next 20 years.

No "Monopoly" on Monopoly

Elizabeth Magie comparing a copy of “Monopoly” to “The Landlord’s Game.” (Image source: “Designed to Teach,” Evening Star, January 28, 1936.)

The official history of Monopoly states that the game was invented in 1935 by Charles Darrow, a man down on his luck during the Great Depression, who was catapulted to fame and fortune through his invention of a simple board game. The game was hugely popular, selling two million copies in its first two years in print. However, the game would have already seemed very familiar to intellectuals, leftists, and Quakers across the Northeast. And for good reason: the Monopoly we know today is a near-carbon copy of an earlier game, The Landlord’s Game, designed by a Maryland stenographer named Elizabeth Magie — except that while Monopoly’s goal is to bankrupt your opponents, The Landlord’s Game was intended to show players the evils of monopolies.

The Wright Brothers Prove Their Worth in Arlington and College Park

Wright Military Flyer flying at Ft Myer in 1909. Photo courtesy of the College Park Aviation Museum.

Ohio and North Carolina often get into a dispute about who can “claim” the Wright Brothers. The former was where the two lived and conducted most of their research, but the latter was where they actually took to the air for the first time. The debate rages on, with shots fired in forms from commemorative coins to license plates. But the place where the Wright Brothers really fathered the American aviation age was right here in the DC area, where they taught the first military pilots to fly, proved to the American public that their machine was real, and took to the air at what is now the oldest airport in the world.

An Organ Grinder similar to one you might have seen on the streets of Washington in the late 19th century. (Photo source: Library of Congress)

Organ Grinders and Their Monkeys Once Entertained on DC Sidewalks

If you're a Peter Sellers fan, you're probably familiar with this scene in the 1975 film Return of the Pink Panther, in which Inspector Clouseau fails to notice a bank robbery because he is questioning a street accordion player and his chimpanzee companion about whether or not they have the required permit. ("I am a musician and the monkey is a businessman," the accordionist explains. "He doesn't tell me what to play, and I don't tell him what to do with his money.")

You may not realize that there's a grain of truth in the comedy.  In the late 1800s and early 1900s, there actually were street musicians who performed with dancing simians in the streets of the nation's capital, and they actually sometimes got into similar beefs with District police.

The Lady is a Vamp

The rise and fall of "vampire" Despina Davidovitch Storch was big news in 1918. The Washington Times ran an 11 part series about her. (Photo source: Wikipedia)

Washington has always been a town that likes gossip and scandal. So, it’s probably not a surprise that turn-of-the-century Washingtonians were quite interested in vampire stories. You see, back then, “vampire” was a term for a dark, seductive woman who lured men into her poisonous embrace, sucked him dry of wealth and left him debauched and ruined – a femme fatale of the most frightening and glamorous sort.

An independent and sexual woman with power over men? Yikes! If the newspapers saw a chance to embellish an account of a ‘real vampire’, boy did they go for it.

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