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Three Days in May: Life and Manners in Salt Lake City, 1895

Three Days in May: Life and Manners in Salt Lake City, 1895


WEDNESDAY, MAY 8,1895, WAS A WARM AND SUNNY DAY. The temperature was in the 70s, despite earlier predictions of showers. It was also the day 99 of 107 delegates to the Utah Constitutional Convention gathered to sign the handwritten document in the recently completed City and County Building. This was a triumphant moment, the culmination of forty-six years of strife and tension and sixty-six days of discussions, committee meetings, debates, and political wrangling.

Indeed the delegates were so weary by Monday, May 6, that they had become impatient with the slow pace of Joseph Smith, the scribe. Though typewriters were available, the official ceremonial copy had to be penned laboriously in long hand ("engrossed") in preparation for the signing. Smith had fallen far enough behind that an assistant had been hired so the climactic ending ceremonies would not be delayed.

There was evidence of frayed nerves when delegate John Chidester of Panguitch demanded enough copyists to finish the job "as he wanted to go home." Cache County delegate Charles Henry Hart replied that "Mr. Smith was doing a very creditable piece of work. The man called in to assist him was doing botch work and so far as he . . . was personally concerned he would hesitate to attach his signature to such scribbling." The convention members called the scribe from his work to have him tell them how soon he could be finished if he worked alone. The pressures on him were showing too. He replied, "If let alone I can complete the copying of the constitution . . . Wednesday morning by 10 o'clock."

"In your own handwriting?" asked Salt Lake delegate George Squires.

"In my own handwriting, yes sir," the clerk replied. Satisfied, the delegation approved the firing of the erstwhile assistant and moved on to other matters.

Salt Lakers—indeed, Utahns everywhere—had followed the proceedings avidly in newspapers, which provided much more than the twenty-second sound bites most Americans are fed on now. But there was much more going on that three days in May than just the Constitutional Convention. The Salt Take Tribune, for example, informed its readers of the distinguished guests staying at the city's major hotels, including the mining magnate Enos A. Wall of Ophir, who was a guest at the Cullen, and other named persons at the Templeton and the Knutsford. Imagine the outcry, in our present age of zealous protection of privacy and personal rights, if the Marriott Hotel even hinted at printing the names of its guests. Clearly Utahns of 1895 lived in a world where all were more open to public scrutiny, and privacy was less sacrosanct. Yet some aspects of life for Salt Lakers in '95 seem at first glance almost eerily like ours.

International tensions were in the news on Monday the 6th— more so than the local tensions then being resolved in the City and County Building. "Clouds in the East" was the Deseret News headline, referring to stormy efforts to ratify a treaty ending the Sino-Japanese war. Though we are at times prone to imagine Salt Lakers of any period prior to our own as hopelessly provincial and uninformed about the broader world, the newspapers of the day highlighted international news on the first page and quoted newspapers from Paris, Toulon, Yokohama, and Washington, D.C.

As in 1995, a sensational California murder case was being tried— this one in San Francisco rather than Los Angeles. Theodore Durrant, a medical student, was charged with murdering two people in the Emmanuel Baptist Church, of which he had been a member. Jockeying between prosecution and defense attorneys had begun with "The lawyers for the defense . . . meeting to stem the tide of public opinion by telling us on what lines they will conduct the case."

Political corruption was evident then as now with the governor of Kansas charged with obtaining money under false pretenses. And local voters were no doubt reassured by the report from Salt Lake County government promising no new taxes. "No Increase in Taxes" the headline blared. "You may put it down," said Selectman Geddes on May 7, "that there will be no increase under this administration of the tax levy."

The pledge was made in spite of the terrible condition of the city's streets. The day that Selectman Geddes made his no-new-taxes pledge, Pauline Mahlstrom demanded that the city pay her $20 damages "for injuries sustained by her horse being driven into a hole at the corner of Fourth South and East Temple Streets." Far more ambitious, C W. Bouton demanded $2,550 "in damages for injuries he sustained slipping on a sheet of ice on Second South." Apparently, then as now, pressing problems in providing public services did not deter ambitious politicians from cutting the tax base to support them.

There was concern about the direction of public education, even at a time when almost all school classes, and government meetings as well, including every session of the convention, were opened and closed with prayer. A literary group, the Polysophical Society, had met the previous Saturday at Brigham Young Academy in Provo. There, Mormon leader Joseph F. Smith delivered an extemporaneous lecture on "Moral Education" in which he maintained that "the whole aim of our public schools is to educate the mind and develop the body to the exclusion of the proper moral training." He argued strongly that the situation be remedied.

And on Monday Orson F. Whitney and Calvin Reasoner announced publication of a slick new periodical with the titillating title Men and Women. The content did not quite live up to the title, though it is fair to say its tone was definitely avant-garde. The journal promised to:

interpret humanity in all its relations as superior to its institutions, manners, and customs. ... It will be faithful to women, and will endeavor wisely and effectively to give full expression to that world-wide movement in behalf of women which in the providence of God is destined to achieve results of untold importance in the drama of human progress. It will advocate equal suffrage in Utah, and whatever else seems to be a normal outgrowth of civilization, and this in full faith that such movement come as legitimate expression of human development and ... a higher and truer happiness for both sexes.

John and Seymour Neff appeared before County Commissioner Pratt on May 7 to answer a charge of "befouling the waters of Mill Creek by allowing drainage to run therein. They pled guilty and as there was not much to the case, were let off on paying the costs. Daniel Hussey entered the same plea to a similar charge and paid the costs. B. A. M. Froiseth, a real estate man, and Caroline Kahlstrom answered to a complaint charging a like offense. They pled not guilty and their hearing was set for the next Thursday at 10 o'clock A.M."

Also on May 7 news was received that the Kearney Bicycle Company of Nebraska was going to open a factory in Salt Lake City or Pueblo, Colorado. The new factory promised to boost the economy, still ailing from the Panic of 1893. "In case Salt Lake will give them a bonus they agree to put in a factory that will give employment to 250 hands and will pay good wages."

Obviously, there was much then that resonates with us today. But while many concerns of the 1890s were similar to ours, much was different as well. The population boom of the 1880s saw Salt Lake City grow 116 percent in a decade. The hard times of the '90s slowed the pace dramatically—to 19 percent. The depression precipitated by the panic was clearly lingering into 1895. Several arrests for vagrancy were made each day during the last week of the convention, and Salt Lake City was proposing "to feed its tramps two meals of bread and water a day."

There were about 50,000 Salt Lakers when the constitution was drafted, making it a major metropolis for its time. Ogden, by contrast, was not yet 16,000, and Provo was a comfortable rural town of 5,700. Most Utahns still lived in small towns. Fillmore, former territorial capital, had just 971 inhabitants. Brigham City had reached only 2,500, just half the size of Logan, while in Parowan but 988 persons lived.

Salt Lake City was thus quite a wonder to the many rural folk of the region. Ole Jensen had not visited this, the capital of his world, for twenty years when he made the laborious journey from Star Valley, Wyoming, to attend LDS General Conference in 1898. He was astonished by what he saw: "I noticed a great change. The first sight being the beautiful temple, with its spires on top, and on one of them a statue of the angel Moroni, with a book of Mormon in his hand."

The temple loomed tall at the time, above all other city buildings, dwarfing the Deseret Store and Tithing Yard, where the Joseph Smith Building now stands, the old City Hall, the Council House, and even the Salt Lake Theatre. It had been dedicated just two years before. It was probably the exotic, multi-spired temple, more than any other structure, that made Salt Lake City different from all other cities in the West, and Ole Jensen, good Mormon that he was, was appropriately impressed. Though the sacred first caught his eye, he was quick to notice the profane at his feet. The new technologies facilitating city life left him amazed.

The street cars were running on schedule-time with electricity; sidewalks paved with brick, rock, etc. and water works in every house. ... I next visited the plant where electricity was generated to light up the city. This is also a remarkable feat. . . . My observations showed that almost everything moved by either steam or electricity. I saw no horses used to work, and only some for touring or pleasure trips.

Yes, indeed, there were paved sidewalks, if almost no paved streets, and the streetcars were running. All of them had moved from mule to electric power by 1895, the competing lines of the Salt Lake Railroad Company and the Salt Lake Rapid Transit Company extending south to Sugar House and east to Fort Douglas, giving urban life new dimensions and patterns that were rapidly transforming the city.

The term "rapid transit" carried an eloquence for our grandparents that we, with our Hondas, Toyotas, and Fords, have long since forgotten. Cities had traditionally been limited in scale by the sheer logistical problems of moving people and goods around in them. As cities grew their denizens were, in fact, at a disadvantage compared to country dwellers in that only a few city folk had the pasture and hay needed to keep horses and the wealth needed to buy a carriage. And even if they did, a trip out required a thirty-minute hitching of team to carriage before it began. Urban life was thus more centered in the local neighborhood than now, and ward stores or neighborhood mercantiles still held the local clientele.

The streetcar, introduced with mule-drawn cars in the 1870s, changed all that. It offered relatively inexpensive, safe, and reliable transportation. By 1895 it had become a necessity of urban living. When Allen Hilton confronted his court-appointed guardian on May 7, his complaint was that the guardian had refused "him money for the most ordinary expenses, going so far as to deny him street car fare." The same day four boys were arraigned when caught in the apparently common act of stealing a ride on a streetcar. They pleaded guilty and were allowed to go.

The streetcars created suburbs by making daily travel to the city center easy and practical. Cities could now grow to dimensions previously impracticable and unworkable. People could conveniently venture out of their intimate neighborhoods and temporarily join a more anonymous stream of humanity. To a society long confined by the mutual watchfulness of neighbors, the prospect of "going out" was exhilarating. Frequent shopping trips to the downtown Auerbach's or ZCMI department stores became pleasant occasions. One went not only to shop but to see the crowds and to be seen by them, a downtown excursion often necessitating dressing in Sunday best.

The streetcars made possible a variety of amusements hitherto less accessible. There were three driving parks (horse racing tracks) in Salt Lake City—Utah, Jordan River, and Calder's. Visiting one of them, you might be lucky enough to bet on one of H. W. Brown's horses—Dan Velox, Jassey, or Miss Foxie—so well known they even raced in Denver. Top sprinters at Calder's Park included Mischief, La Belle, and a brown four-year-old, Aubertine.

A Sunday afternoon amidst the crowds of Saltair, Garfield Beach, or Lagoon became a favorite pastime. And these were not just places where kids hung out. Lovely photographs were taken in 1895, for example, of a cakewalk at Lagoon for couples over seventy, all carefully protecting themselves from the sun with hats and parasols of the type Auerbach's had on sale for 70 cents, and obviously having the time of their lives. The photographs show young and old alike dressed in somber-toned woolens, the women constrained by tight corsets and their white blouses showing lace-trimmed leg-o-mutton sleeves. Tribune editors by 1895 were poking fun at the concept of the "New Woman," but the daring fashions had not yet reached deeply enough into Salt Lake City for women to begin bobbing their hair, shedding their corsets and petticoats, or raising their hemlines.

The men wore ill-fitting ready-made wool jackets over unmatched crumpled trousers and ample, dark shoes or boots. Men and women wore hats, and many, in addition, held a parasol. They understood better than we that in this rarefied air the sun can be an enemy.

The delegates to the Constitutional Convention were no doubt similarly clad when they visited Saltair on Monday afternoon, May 6. The planned outing had caused a bit of stir at the convention that morning. Delegate David Evans of Weber County did not want to go, arguing that the Convention could not spare the time. "There is no doubt about it," chimed in another delegate. He was countered by delegate Squires, however, who said there "was very much doubt." David Stover of Tooele County agreed, insisting that "he wanted a salt water bath." The argument seemed persuasive, for the vote was forty-five in favor and twenty-two against, hopefully not a reflection on delegate Stover's personal hygiene. The delegates and their wives boarded the train in Salt Lake at 2:15 P.M. The ride included a ten-minute halt "at the salt fields during which the pyramids of glistening saline were admiringly looked upon and praised, as they always are by those who see them for the first time." A special dispatch to the Deseret News reported at 3:15 that "the excursionists are now scattered from the first floor of the pavilion to the tower. So far none of them have dared to brave entering the water, and no formal program is being observed. The party is expected to reach Salt Lake on the return trip about 5 P.M." Returning on schedule, they refreshed themselves in preparation for the Constitutional Ball at Christensen's Hall that evening. The dance card offered "a 'Woman Suffrage' schottische, a 'Prohibition' two-step, a 'San Juan'jig quadrille, and 'Where are we At' Virginia Reel. The grand march was 'Hurrah for Statehood.'"

A plethora of other amusements were available as well. On Monday the 6th the Politic Debating Club held a mock trial, a farce where a young man was suing another for stealing his date, a Miss Hettie Watson, while on an outing at Saltair. The jury found in his favor, and the judge concluded that "the plaintiff recover the amount of cold cash claimed [presumably the cost of admission], the defendant to have and retain the affection already in his possession, while to the court should be turned over by . . . Hettie Watson all the love and affection over which she had any control not actually in the possession of the defendant."

On Tuesday the 7th the Philopathian Debating Club announced a contest with the Washington Debating Club for the next Thursday evening at the rooms of the Philopathian Club at 375 West Second South on the question "Resolved, That women should have the right of suffrage," a pressing national question that the Constitutional Convention had already decided for the soon-to-be state of Utah. Monday evening the Chinese pupils of the Congregational mission entertained at the Congregational church with "psalms, songs, recitations and school exercises. The boys taking part did remarkably well, considering the difficulty in mastering the English language."

Newspapers announced each day a long schedule of fraternal and sororal meetings. At least one of six different Masonic groups had a meeting every day of the week. Fraternal brothers could attend one of ten different Odd Fellows gatherings every week night. Six Knights of Pythias chapters met at 7:30 in Castle Hall on Richards Street, one meeting every week night. A group called the Red Men also met regularly. There were, in addition, ladies' auxiliaries for all these groups, and other women's clubs as well, such as the one called the "Rathbone Sisters."

The Most Reverend Archbishop Gross of Oregon and the Right Reverend Bishop Glorieux of Idaho had visited Salt Lake City on Sunday the 5th, celebrating High Mass in St. Mary's Cathedral. Mormon Tabernacle services that day included speeches by church historian Andrew Jenson and George Q. Cannon. Jenson spoke on the importance of keeping personal records. Cannon "emphasized the importance to the Saints of keeping careful records of their private lives as well as their work in the ministry of the gospel." Kate Hodge, a niece of convention delegate David Evans, sang a solo at the Methodist Episcopal Church that night and was planning to sing the waltz song from Gounod's opera Romeo and Juliet at the Marchesi Club concert on Monday. Prominent women's rights advocate Susan B. Anthony and the Reverend Anna Shaw were expected to arrive in Salt Lake City on Sunday the 12th to speak at meetings during the next three days.

And of course there was the theater, with performances of a comic opera, Priscilla, about the courtship of Miles Standish, at the Salt Lake Theatre. "The BiMetallic Blacks Operatic Minstrels" were appearing at the Opera House, and the Wonderland Theatre advertised "two big shows" each evening and offered special performances for children and ladies.

Critics of the time were, to put it mildly, blunt. A Mrs. Knowlton, who played the part of Priscilla "sang in a voice [that] is very light and sweet," wrote the Deseret News critic rather gently, but then he inserted the dagger. Her voice "seemed to need a supporting instrument in the orchestra to hold it on the key." Mr. Jennings's part as governor of Plymouth "was well made up and well acted, but execrably sung. Why the director should have Mr. Jennings sing at all, is past understanding. The music should be cut out bodily."

There were less wholesome amusements. On Sunday evening police descended on a Third South lodging house "operated upon a plan European, and from one of its apartments dragged an erring twain, who were registered at headquarters as John Thompson and Ada Smith." Thompson was arrested for frequenting, Smith for staffing, and the proprietor for running a house of ill repute.

On Tuesday night alone, thirty-eight defendants were brought into the police court. Joseph Ward pleaded guilty to charges of keeping a gambling house and was fined $25. The police also arrested J. Doe Seeley for disturbing the peace. Seeley was said to have thrown a rock at a neighbor's house, but he maintained it was his wife who threw at a dog. And Jennie Smith and Clara Cox were arrested, apparently regulars in this particular night court, "and left the usual amount for their appearance."

A number of others were run in for drunkenness. Also arrested were youths Ben Davis, John Thompson, Charles Dennis, and Frank Porter "for bicycle riding on the sidewalk in the restricted district." J. C Nixon was arraigned on a charge of disturbing the peace and riding a bicycle without a license. Four others were fined $2.00 each for violating the bicycle ordinance, all of which seems a distant anticipation of present laws directed at skateboarders.

Our Star Valley friend, Ole Jensen, was ready for the cyclists, who were pioneering avidly their own non-polluting form of personal transportation. "I also saw many people, both men and women, riding the bicycles with great speed," he said, "but this did not surprise me as I was posted previously about the invention."

Cycle shops were flowering like board and blade shops in Salt Lake City today, the cyclists obviously seen by the staid citizenry as a threat to public safety. The Salt Lake Cycle Company was offering $500 in prizes to winners in a fifteen-mile Handicap Road Race to be held on Decoration Day, May 30, with the first prize being a much-coveted "Cleveland Swell Special Bicycle." The Tribune reported that "the bicycle clubs of the city are working hard for a wheel path in Liberty Park, with a fair prospect of success." A special committee visited the park and decided it would be easy to make an eight-foot bicycle path like one already in use at the Hot Springs: "It is said in support of the plan, that it would make a very attractive resort for the wheeling fraternity, would clear the drive-ways of bicycles and add to the public pleasure very materially." Apparently, as often happens when a novelty appears, the old-time citizenry distrusted the new device. Just as skateand snow-boards seem to non-boarders a threat, even when injuries and or damage do not exceed those of other conveyances, so the bicycle seemed dangerous and frightening to those who moved about on horses or trolleys.

All this and much more was going on in Salt Lake City during those final days when the Constitution was being approved and signed. The delegates, many from quiet villages, no doubt were delighted to get back to things at home, leaving the capital city aboard one of the twenty or so railway trains that ran each day.

Salt Lake City was in 1895 a bustling place, possessed of a boldness and openness that in many ways surpassed our city of today. Electric trains and personal transportation were changing in fundamental ways the way people thought about themselves and their relationship to rest of the world. Quiet neighborhoods no longer could contain them; and in the broader city they came out to see, they found a casual conviviality and easy-going pleasures they had never known.

Still, as Paul Simon and Art Garfunkle so eloquently put it, "A man he hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest." What Ole Jensen saw of the city was there too:

I attended all meetings of the Conference and gladly received all of the instructions; everything moved orderly, people dressed neat but plain. I never saw anyone intoxicated, nor heard any profanity while in the city, although it may of existed.

Nonetheless, he could dimly see the new century crashing in:

I noticed there was a similitude of dress with our country people, only golden cased spectacles were worn by old and young, I supposed for pride. The city seemed full of merchandising of every kind. On every corner were solicitors selling candy, bananas, and etc. A good meal could be had for 15^; and a bad for 25¢.

Much seems the same, but in fact all has changed, in the century since Utah's Constitution was completed in Salt Lake's City and County Building, on May 8, 1895.

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