Century Ago WWI ‘Gov’t Girl’ Did D.C. Before LBI

Courtesy of: Margaret Thomas Buchholz The author’s mother, Josephine, revels in her new finery, worn to a dance in Washington, D.C. She wrote in her diary: “June 1918: The gowns were of the real evening variety. I have gotten entirely over being shocked by such a display of arms and necks. After I have some new glad rags I am going to have some large pictures taken to astonish the Ionians by the general absentness of the upper part of my gown.”

My mother, Josephine Lehman Thomas, who spent the last half of her life in Harvey Cedars, was a “government girl” in Washington, D.C., during World War I. She lived as a determinedly modern young woman who relished the wartime excitement of the nation’s capital – with its soldiers, movie stars and international celebrities.

She kept a detailed diary from 1917 until the late ’20s, when she was a researcher and ghostwriter for Lowell Thomas. Her entries offer a lively record of city life at the time. The following is excerpted from her story that appeared in Washington History in 1998 and was later expanded into my book, Josephine: From Washington Working Girl to Fisherman’s Wife.

Josephine grew up on a farm in Michigan, graduated high school in 1915 and was hired by the Ionia Sentinel, the county’s largest daily, and quickly worked her way up to reporter. The European war had started, and Jo was proofreading stories about U-boat sinkings, atrocities in Belgium and the terrific loss of life in stalemated trench warfare.

After the U.S. entered the war in April 1917, President Wilson implored women to fight on the home front, and soon national women’s magazines ran the government’s full-page advertisements calling for “stenographers and typewriters” in the nation’s capital.

Nineteen-year-old Jo, adventurous and idealistic, was caught up in the fervent patriotism as she read war dispatches and reams of government propaganda releases. She decided to take the civil service test and recorded in the handwritten diary she’d begun in May: “Am informed I will come through with flying colors ... Have started to look up railroad schedules and places of interest in Washington.” Six weeks later, a telegram from the War Department confirmed her appointment as a clerk in the Office of the Chief of Ordnance.

One hundred years ago, on Feb. 19, 1918, Jo arrived at 10-year-old Union Station and entered the waiting room to search for the war housing information booth. As they did for thousands of unprepared newcomers, the housing coordinators helped her find a room for the night two blocks from the station.

A few days later she sent The Sentinel a detailed report: “At the station, I obtained the address of a rooming house only two blocks from the depot but I didn’t want to attempt getting lost so let a taxicab driver soak me for 40 cents. The house was overflowing, but the lady of the house was kind enough to rout out a lieutenant who stays there and make him carry down a small bed so she could bunk me in the parlor, which I considered extremely kind of her. Thanked the Lord I am gifted with a strong constitution and so managed to get up for a formal breakfast and report to work by nine o’clock.

“I was sworn into the Civil Service and sent over to the ordnance war building for work. A thin, middle-aged man and a big, young man argued over which should get me, both wanting a stenographer with business experience. I watched the fray in silence, mentally rooting for the young man. He won. My job is in the supply division of the ordnance department. The building is a mammoth new one and I have to have a pass to get in and out. This is the hardest department to work in as they are so busy. The girls don’t get many holidays but pay and promotions are good.”

The following day, she used the room registration office at the War Department to find lodging at 1415 Massachusetts Ave., N.W. “I can’t tell you how much I like it. ... We have 23 girls living here and either two, three or four to a room, so don’t worry about my being lonely. The rooms are large, so we don’t mind it. I have two others in my room, Miss Dell Brokaw from Illinois, a tall, stunning blond, and Miss Grace Leonard from New York, also a big girl, with the most beautiful gown you ever saw. They call us the ‘Big Four Minus One,’ ‘Amazons’ and other endearing names. (My mother was 5 feet, 9 inches tall.) All the girls are the finest kind, splendid, and very congenial. We take our breakfasts and dinners here and lunch downtown ...

“And soldiers! There are about 15 camps within a short radius of Washington. It seems the soldiers I have seen would make an army big enough to demolish the Kaiser in a day. Sailors, Marines, aviators, cavalry, infantry and artillerymen, ordnancers, plain desk-holder-downs and many IWTGBCs. The initials stand for a certain order who are going to petition to wear buttons that say ‘I Want To Go But Can’t.’

“My hours are from 9 to 4:30 with double pay for overtime. There is a movement to lengthen the federal employees working day to eight or nine hours and all the department clerks went to protest, but even if they do give us longer hours I can realize that we still are not sacrificing much.”

Jo joined the surge of new government employees that swelled Washington’s wartime population from approximately 350,000 in April 1917 before the war to approximately 526,000 a year later. A hotel room was an unheard-of luxury. A single room in a boarding house or private home rented for nearly as much as an entire house had before the war. Three or four people occupied a room intended for one, and many young women had to share a bed.

By early June, Washington looked like a military base, and military activities permeated almost all aspects of life. Soldiers bunked in tents along the river bank, keeping watch over the Potomac rail bridge. Farther down the river, the polo field was converted to a landing strip. The section of Potomac Park not covered by temporary government buildings sprouted vegetables. Construction of the Lincoln Memorial continued, and plans for “speedily erected, readily taken down” workers’ housing between it and the river were on the drawing board.

Jo recorded in her diary: “Mrs. Dudley had a dance at the house last night. Seventy-five here and excellent time. Sat out a dance with Sergeant Kenyon of the British Royal Flying Corps who is in Washington as an instructor. As soon as his machine arrives he is going to do some stunts over the city. Nearly every day I see daring exhibition aeroplane flights over the city and at night the sky is shot through with many searchlights playing on the dome of the Capitol.”

The War Department’s Committee on Training Camp Activities took enough of an interest in its workers’ leisure-time activities to issue a warning in the Aug. 14, 1918, edition of the Evening Star against “pick-up soldier acquaintances.” The warning was not intended to reflect on the character of the servicemen, who, it stated, were “clean and upstanding.” Rather, the War Department did not want its girls conversing familiarly with men in uniform unless introduced by a mutual friend or vouched for by a community organization.

Battalions of soldiers were being trained, and more and more Americans in khaki or Navy blue flowed through the camps surrounding Washington on their way “over there.”

Flags flew everywhere, fluttering high against the sky, draped over doors, or falling in folds from windows. Patriotic posters were at eye level on street corners and in the multitude of small grassy triangle parks. Beginning in August a flag-draped siren blew every day at noon, and all Washington stopped work to pray for victory.

In September, Spanish influenza reached eastern seaboard cities after ravaging armies in Europe. The disease entered Washington from surrounding camps during the first week of October with such force that federal office shifts were staggered (more than half the streetcar operators were sick). Store hours were limited; saloons, schools, churches and theaters were closed as public gatherings were prohibited and social activities were strictly curtailed.

Government employees were ordered out of buildings for fresh-air breaks in an elemental attempt to foil the infection.

District Commissioner Louis Brownlow recalled the epidemic’s uncontrollable horror: “A girl had called to say that she and three other girls had a room together, that two of the girls were dead, another was dying and she was the only one not stricken; would I please get some help there.” The policeman he sent to the house discovered all four girls dead in their room. Approximately 35,000 Washingtonians caught the flu, and 10 percent of them had died by the time the outbreak subsided in early November.

Margaret Thomas Buchholz of Harvey Cedars is author of Josephine: From Washington Working Girl to Fisherman’s Wife, published by Down The Shore Publishing, and other books about the shore. This column was adapted from a story posted on the WWrite Blog, hosted by the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission.



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