Tag Archives: 1920s

Wedding Wednesday: A Question of Nationality

I’m not sure if it was meant as a joke, or if newlyweds Gerald and Fern (Thoma) Adam of Sioux City, Woodbury County, Iowa were genuinely confused. When asked to state their nationalities at the time of their marriage, their answers should have been simple; they were the American-born children of American-born parents, after all, so there was really no question that they were American themselves. Jerry, however, stated that he was of French nationality, while Fern declared that she was German-English.1


Gerald Joseph Adam, Sioux City, Iowa, ca. 1929; digital image 2012, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2014.


Fern Lavonne Thoma, Sioux City, Iowa, ca. 1929; digital image 2012, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2014.

From a genealogical perspective, I love it. How often does one have the chance to learn what their forebears knew of their own ancestry? However, if I didn’t already know so much about this couple and their heritage, I might have been thrown off. Jerry’s ancestry was indeed French – and French Canadian, and Polish. Fern’s ancestors, many of whom were likely early arrivals on American soil, can thus far be traced to Germany and the British Isles.

I don’t know when exactly the couple met while on their way downtown to the movie theater, but Jerry and Fern married in their hometown on 8 June 1929 – eighty-five years ago this week.2 Fern was twenty-one, and although Jerry would not celebrate his twenty-first birthday for eleven more days,3 he claimed to be the same age as Fern.4 Their wedding attendants were close friends Merle Montgomery and Dorothy Thompson,5 and, following their ceremony, led by Reverend R. M. LeCair of St. Jean Baptiste Church, the couple took a “motor trip” to the Black Hills of South Dakota.6


“Iowa, Marriage Records, 1923-1937,” digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 10 June 2014), Gerald Adam and Fern Thoma, 8 June 1929, Sioux City; citing “Iowa Marriage Records, 1923–37,” microfilm, State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines.

If your ancestors married in Iowa between 1923 and 1937, be sure to visit Ancestry.com’s digital image collection, “Iowa, Marriage Records, 1923-1937,” new this year. This database has plenty of detail to offer, as marriage records included such information as age, place of residence, occupation, place of birth, father’s name, mother’s maiden name, number of marriages, and the names of the officiant and witnesses. It’s also an opportunity to see the signatures of the couple – likely the last time the bride would sign her maiden name. Have you found any surprises in this record set?

Continue reading

‘Round the Maypole

Helen Nelson was a student at the rural Southern State Normal School in Springfield, Bon Homme County, South Dakota, or perhaps a recent graduate, when she pasted this series of photographs in her scrapbook.1 A group of young girls dance ’round a Maypole twined with ribbons, certainly in celebration of the first of May. They were likely students at a local one-room schoolhouse, perhaps from a teaching assignment near Helen’s home in Yankton County, South Dakota, or from the “practice school” near Springfield.2

Raising a Maypole for a May Day celebration seems just the type of thing that an enthusiastic young teacher would have arranged to brighten a typical school day. Andrea Nelson, Helen’s elder sister, wrote in her diary of spontaneous recess games such as “Pump Pump Pull Away,” as well as moving class outdoors in good weather.3 This Maypole must have been a planned affair; the ten or so girls, ranging in age from perhaps six to twelve, seem to be dressed in their best summer dresses, with most in white or pastels. Several wear bows in their hair as well as sashes at their waists. In the final photograph, they bow to each other as their dance concludes.

Although this celebration took place near 1920, Maypoles were certainly nothing new. The American Girls Handy Book, originally published in 1887, mentions the ancient origins of the day and gives the following instructions for a Maypole dance:

“An even number of persons are required for this dance; half the number take the end of a ribbon in the right hand and half in the left; they then stand facing alternately right and left. When the dance commences, each dancer facing the right passes under the ribbon held by the one opposite facing the left; she then allows the next person going to the left to pass under her ribbon, and so, tripping in and out, under and over, the ribbons are woven around the pole.”4

The dance goes on, including variations to weave the ribbons together, and all the while, according to the Handybook, “An appropriate song, with words set to a dancing air, should be sung by those taking part in the May-pole dance.”5

Continue reading

An Iowa Teacher’s Report to Parents, 1925

The first of June 1925 was an important day for Frances Marie Noehl of Deerfield, Chickasaw County, Iowa. She completed the eighth grade in District No. 11 with flying colors, even rallying over the course of the year to bring up her lagging grade in conduct.1 However, although she was a successful student, with high average marks equivalent to straight A’s, she would not go on to graduate from high school.2


Frances Noehl, Teacher’s Report to Parents, 1925, Deerfield, Iowa; digital image 2003, privately held by V. P. [personal information withheld], 2014.

Frances was the eighth of nine children born to Matthias and Elizabeth (Hoffman) Noehl, German immigrants who farmed in northeastern Iowa.3 Once her schooling was completed, Frances was needed at home, although her father did prize education. In his memoirs, he wrote of his schooldays in Germany, “I entered into the arena, and took it up not only with the alphabet, but with all my classmates. As at that time there was no special talent in our school of eighty-four pupils, I succeeded in taking the first place among all the boys.”4 His education concluded at the age of fourteen, but he was pleased to be allowed to keep his books, writing tablet, slate, and pencil.5 Perhaps he had once dreamed that his children would be fortunate enough to further their educations, but, at least in the case of his youngest daughter, that dream was unfulfilled.

During the course of her eighth grade year, Frances was instructed by Miss Beatrice Joebgen, a local teacher who was still a teenager herself.6 Frances was graded in Reading, Writing, Spelling, Arithmetic, Grammar, U.S. History, Music, Civics, Drawing, and Conduct, with all of her marks falling between 90 and 100 and her averages between 93 and 98. Her father’s signature was recorded on her report card at the end of each term.7


Frances Noehl, Teacher’s Report to Parents, 1925, Deerfield, Iowa; digital image 2003, privately held by V. P. [personal information withheld], 2014.

Attendance rules for the time indicate that Frances would not have been required to complete additional schooling, as she had fulfilled the educational qualifications of an eighth grade pupil. Other reasons for exemption from public schooling included being mentally or physically unfit, living more than two miles from the school house by the nearest traveled road, or attending a private or parochial school, receiving instruction from a competent teacher, court order, religious instruction, or regular employment for one over the age of fourteen.8

Although Frances may have liked very much to have had the opportunity to graduate from high school, duty to her family, it seems, kept her at home.

Continue reading

Friendship Clubs and Funny Quotes: Finding Family in Yearbooks

Several years before they would meet and marry, teenagers Fern and Jerry were unsuspecting students at Central High School in Sioux City, Woodbury County, Iowa.1 They were not in the same grade, and this was a large school; Fern moved to Sioux City only in time for her senior year, and as Jerry graduated two years later, it’s possible that they never crossed paths during their brief overlap as students at the imposing sandstone building dubbed “The Castle on the Hill.”2


The Maroon and White, Vol. XXI (Sioux City, Iowa: Central High School, 1925), 67; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 24 March 2014).

Fern Lavonne Thoma graduated from Central High School in 1925. In her yearbook photo, she wore a long necklace and, true to the times, styled her hair in a fashionable, chin-length bob. The only club that Fern had joined was the “Friendship Club,” which, apparently, was mandatory for all female students.3 From what I remember her telling me, she enjoyed her time at this school, especially a banquet for the upperclassmen during which the school gymnasium was decorated like a boat. She thought this event was “just wonderful!”4


The Maroon and White, Vol. XXIII (Sioux City, Iowa: Central High School, 1927), 34; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 24 March 2014).

Gerald “Jerry” Joseph Adam graduated from Central High School in 1927. According to the yearbook, he was in the general course of study and had been involved in Civics, no surprise given his penchant for writing to politicians later in his life, as well as the Spanish Club. His handsome photo was paired with the quote, “Who shows you your place when you go to the Princess?”5 As a teenager, Jerry earned money as an usher at the Princess Theatre in downtown Sioux City, surely a popular place among his movie-going peers.6

In fact, Fern and Jerry reportedly met while on their way to the movies. Fern and her friend Florence were walking downtown when two young men, who were known to Florence, drove up in their rental car and offered the girls a ride. Fern approached the front to sit next to the driver, when Jerry suggested that she sit in the back with him. Fern later claimed that Florence had set her up, while Jerry liked to say that when he first laid eyes on Fern, he proclaimed, “That’s the girl I’m going to marry!”7

If you would like to find yearbook photos of your ancestors (or even yourself), check out the yearbook collections on Ancestry.com. In my experience, yearbooks don’t always appear as strong “shaky leaf” matches, so I have found it helpful to search specifically within the category “Schools, Directories & Church Histories” in order to bring all relevant results to the top.

Also consider searching the yearbooks individually as your ancestor’s full name may not have been given for every appearance, particularly if he or she was an underclassman or appeared in additional club or athletic photographs. As a bonus, see if you can find his or her autograph scrawled in the back of the book. You never know what you might learn about the glory days of your ancestor’s youth!

Continue reading

The Twenties by Day


Leota (Fenton) Thoma, Alpha (Fenton) Gibson, and Belle (Fenton) Hoffman, ca. 1920s; digital image 2013, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2014.

As seen in this photograph, the trends of the Roaring Twenties were not just for flappers – although daytime fashions were significantly less flashy than what one tends to associate with the era. Here, sisters Leota, Alpha, and Belle, from left to right, pose together sporting bobs and simple patterned dresses. Although the sisters were likely in their late forties or early fifties when this photograph was taken, they clearly made an effort to keep up with the times.

Alpha Doretta, Minnie Belle, and Anna Leota Fenton were born in Saline County, Kansas, the daughters of George W. and Sarah Ellen (Hall) Fenton.1 After their father’s death, their mother remarried, and eventually, the family relocated to northwestern Iowa.2 At the time that this photograph was taken, Alpha, the wife of Clare Gibson, lived in Colorado,3 whereas Belle, the wife of Joseph Hoffman, and Leota, the wife of George Thoma, lived in different counties in Iowa.4 It was likely a rare occasion that the sisters were able to be together.

Leota, Alpha, and Belle wear popular styles of what would have been considered day dresses or house dresses in this decade, as seen on Vintage Dancer: 1920s Day / House Dresses and Aprons. Likely made of cotton, their dresses feature lively prints and straight, comfortable cuts. Both Belle, right, and Alpha, center, wear dresses made of fabric printed with spirals or swirls. Both have sleeves cuffed above the elbow, and have belted, dropped waists. Leota wears a standard long apron with patch pockets over her dress, but it can be seen that her floral-patterned dress hits, appropriately, just below the knee. Her dress has contrasting fabric sewn at the hem and the cuffs, and she clutches a striped cloche hat in her hand.

This look was quite a change from the romantic, Gibson Girl-esque styles of just a quarter century before, as seen in an earlier photograph of Leota. However, it looks like these ladies might have had quite a bit of fun with their makeovers during this decade, before more conservative styles returned with the Great Depression.

Continue reading

Wedding Wednesday: Swell Times in Chicago


Leonard and Helen (Nelson) Wiese, Chicago, Cook, Illinois, 1924; digital image 2010, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2014.

On the evening of 5 January 1924, Leonard John Christian Wiese and Helen Margaret Nelson were married in Chicago, Cook County, Illinois.1 Leonard had been raised in Chicago, the son of German immigrants,2 whereas Helen had been raised in rural Yankton County, South Dakota, the daughter of Danish immigrants.3 The couple met when Leonard sought work in South Dakota, and he and Helen bonded over a shared love of music.4 Leonard and his bride-to-be then moved to Chicago, where they were wed in the home of Leonard’s widowed mother.5 Since Helen’s family was not able to be with them, she wrote a detailed letter home describing their wedding day:

My dear folks,

Now I think that this letter will have to be passed around so I won’t have to repeat all the details of the past few days. We are married! Yes. Now then I will endeavor to tell you the points which I think will be of interest to you.

My dress was very plain but everyone liked it. Dark brown brocaded silk with short sleeves and sort of a drape on the skirt. I have a new coat and hat and new satin shoes.

Well, there were eighteen grown people here. We were married at 9:30. Stanley Smith played the wedding march and Irene and I came from upstairs and met the other two in the room. After the ceremony, a shower of rice descended upon us and the best man and several of the others took advantage of the privilege of kissing the bride. So it was on the order of some of the weddings you read about!!!

Then we had dinner. Turkey, chicken, mashed potatoes, peas, corn relish, cranberries, dressing, Jello, coffee, etc. A huge wedding cake adorned the center of the table. This cake was made to order. You people are going to have some of it. I baked two angel food cakes and a sponge cake. That’s all I did in helping preparations.

I spent some time at the hairdresser’s! Oh, I looked real swell!!!

After supper we had music and some of the men played cards. Then after awhile we started the Victrola and we all danced.

Continue reading

Vintage Swimwear

This is a fun photograph that I thought I would share before the summer completely slips away. This snapshot was labeled on the back, and, years ago, I was also able to hear its story from my late great-grandmother, Fern Lavonne (Thoma) Adam of Sioux City, Woodbury County, Iowa. Well, more than its story, I remember her laughing about her bathing suit! The photograph was taken in 1924, at the river near Scribner, Dodge County, Nebraska.

Fern Lavonne (Thoma) Adam photograph, 1924; digital image 2010, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2013.

Fern Lavonne (Thoma) Adam photograph, 1924, Scribner, Nebraska; digital image 2010, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2013.

Fern lived in Scribner, where her father opened a grocery store, for a few years in the early 1920s. She remembered attending dances there, as well as learning to drive. Her father gave her a lesson immediately when she remarked that she would like to learn, and the next day, when she asked for another lesson, he told her to go ahead on her own!1 Apparently, Fern also enjoyed taking advantage of the opportunity to swim in the Elkhorn River during her short time in Scribner. She is pictured here at center; at left is Lucille Romberg, and at right is Helen Kellner. These young ladies must have been good friends in the summer of 1924, when Fern would have been sixteen years old.

In order to learn more about vintage bathing suits, I turned to Threaded, the Smithsonian’s blog about fashion history. From there I learned that a company by the name of Jantzen devised a “swimming suit” made of wool in 1915, and that by 1921, the name had stuck.2 My great-grandmother and her friends appear to be wearing typical knitted wool swimsuits of the era, comprised of long, sleeveless, v-necked tunics, fitted shorts, and, in my great-grandmother’s case, knee high stockings, rolled at the top. The girls wear their hair inside knit swimming caps, the one on the left being slightly more elaborate with a small brim. They all squint in the sun and lean together for the photograph, happy and relaxed on a summer’s day.

Have you come across any photographs featuring early styles of swimwear?

1 Fern Lavonne (Thoma) Adam, conversations with the author, 2001.
2 “The Swimsuit Series, Part 1: A History of Women’s Suits,” Threaded, 22 June 2012 (http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/threaded/2012/06/the-swimsuit-series-part-1-a-history-of-womens-suits/ : accessed 6 September 2013).