Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Finding a job, and a career, in 1923

Through Charley's Door, Emily Kimbrough

In addition to her travel books, Emily Kimbrough wrote several volumes of memoirs.  I had already read and enjoyed her account of a small-town childhood, How Dear to My Heart.  Discovering that one was about getting a job in advertising at Chicago's iconic Marshall Field's department store in 1923, following her graduation from college, I added it straight to my reading list.  When my copy arrived, I found that it picks up just after she and Cornelia Otis Skinner returned from Europe, and their adventures chronicled in Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.  That moved it to the top of my reading stack.  Seeing Cornelia's name on the first page only made me more anxious to read it.
Late in the winter of 1923, I acknowledged to her, and - what was harder - to myself, that my chum, Cornelia Otis Skinner, was an actress. . . I faced the future with a cold, clear acceptance that Cornelia and I had come to a parting of careers, and that there was one other sizable difference between us.  I had no career at all.
Cornelia disappears from the story after page 2, but any disappointment I felt passed quickly.  Emily noted that "Cornelia was the only one of my friends who had stepped out on her own."  Her other friends were living happily at home "or getting ready to leave by the conventional exit, marriage."
One or two of them had experienced an urge to stand on her own by holding down a job, but this urge had been quickly stamped out by family disapproval. This inclination on the part of daughters was a favorite topic of conversation among parents in 1923. When the subject was broached at any social gathering in our house, I had invariably an impulse to clap my hand over my mother's mouth or in some way distract her from voicing the sentiments I knew were hers and hers alone. . . "Ignorant, benighted, sentimental" comprised a few of the epithets she applied to her friends, and their opinions. . . "Every girl," this was one of her favorite outbursts and frequently repeated, "should have the capacity to earn her own living. To be economically independent is the only way I know for a woman to become mentally independent" . . . In private she expanded her theme with the information that though I would be fed, housed and clothed, whatever I wanted or needed above the bare necessities - and very bare, she invariably stressed - would have to come of my own providing, particularly because of the principle of the thing, and partly because the family could not afford any more.
Through a family friend, Emily managed to get an interview in the advertising department at Marshall Field's. (Fellow fans of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay may be as delighted as I was to read that she wore her "Paris" dress, the one she made of heavy velour, to the interview; and for reasons best known to herself, she took along the Brussels griffon dog that she also acquired in Paris, smuggling both dress and dog past her mother.)  Though she knew nothing about advertising, she was hired to work on the store's in-house magazine, Fashions of the Hour.  The editor was another independent young woman, Achsah Gardner, who became a mentor and friend.  Emily and her mother were long-time customers of the store, part of the "carriage trade" that came daily through "Charley's door," welcomed by the doorman who had presided there since 1890.  But as an employee, she had to learn the store in a whole new way, not just the layout and the merchandise but also the hierarchy of staff.  Meanwhile, she was also learning how to write, edit and produce the magazine, including long nights at the printing works.  She made mistakes, sometimes big ones, but she learned quickly enough to be named the editor a couple of years later.  Her account ends with an even bigger promotion, when she was offered the position of fashion editor at the Ladies' Home Journal, then one of America's premier women's magazines.

There was so much to enjoy in this book.  It was fascinating to see young women like her choosing careers, often against family and social opposition.  (It was a choice for these middle-class young women.)  According to Emily's account, Marshall Field's was one of the first companies to hire them, and it was considered a respectable place for them to work.  This element, and the department store itself, reminded me of Dorothy Canfield Fisher's The Home-Maker.  The craziness of the advertising department also brought to mind Dorothy L. Sayers' Murder Must Advertise, though here the work was done in-house rather than through an outside firm. But the battles between the departments and the advertising staff felt very familiar.

There are more serious elements to the story as well.  Emily's job eventually cost her some friendships.  Working long hours, including Saturdays, she couldn't attend the dances and house-parties that regularly drew her group together.  And when she did join them, she wanted to share her fascination with her work and with the world of the store, but her friends weren't interested.  She in turn came to find them a little frivolous.  Fortunately she made friends at the store, including Achsah (I cannot figure out how that name is pronounced).  In fact, the book is dedicated "To Achsah Gardner Kimbrough With Love."  I thought, how nice, she married one of Emily's cousins and became family as well as friend.  Achsah was there when Emily's beloved mother died suddenly.  I already knew from her other books how devastating that loss was to her daughter.  I was stunned to read just a few pages later that her father then married Achsah.  Without saying a word against it, Emily made it clear that was a major factor in accepting the offer from the Ladies' Home Journal, which meant moving from Chicago to Philadelphia.  She went on to become its editor, and I hope she wrote about that work in a later book.


  1. What a fascinating life! And how surprising about her father marrying her mentor - shocking! Emily sounds like a very interesting woman, capable and ambitious and with a sense of humor. I'd really love to find out more about her.

  2. Oh Anbolyn, if you haven't read Our Hearts Were Young & Gay, you should put it on your reading list stat! You'll appreciate it even more, having just come back from your trip.

  3. Wow--this sounds utterly fascinating. Much as I loved, Our Hearts were Young and Gay, I think reading about Kimbrough's early years at Marshall Fields would actually suit me even more.

    I also need to check out Murder Must Advertise--I'm a Sayers fan but haven't read that one yet!

  4. Jane, you are in for a treat, with Murder Must Advertise. Peter is such fun in that one! You might also enjoy Emily's book about going to Hollywood with Cornelia, to write the script for a film version of Our Hearts Were Young & Gay.

  5. A sequel to Our Hearts... - wonderful - so looking forward to reading this. And that's a shocker re the dedication's history.

  6. vicki, you might also enjoy We Followed Our Hearts to Hollywood, written by Emily, about how the two were hired to write the screenplay for the film of their book. I never knew there was a film made!

  7. Did she say how her mother died? I have always wanted to know if she were sick or anything like that? I live in Muncie and have visited the graves of her parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts quite often.

    1. It doesn't say, just that her mother for some time had had a "diminishing range of activities" and "increasing physical incapacity" - which Emily didn't really see at the time, only with hindsight. I just looked for her grave on "Find a Grave," to see if there was a death certificate listed, as there sometimes is, but not for her.

    2. Thank you for the reply. I guess it's destined to remain a mystery.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!