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Posts Tagged ‘wilmington women’

This One’s Asking For Advice on Old Cook Stoves…

March 13th, 2015 Sears Homes 1 comment

A delightful anecdote from 1921 tells us that, when the Penniman houses were shipped to Norfolk, some of the workers went into one of the houses - as it made the slow 36-mile trek across the water - and made a full breakfast, using the oil cook stove in the kitchen.

That’s the kind of story that really makes history come alive.

The article, which appeared in the Peninsula Enterprise says,

Several workmen crossed the bay on the first barge that brought the houses. They had an oil stove in one of the houses. They got hungry and cooked some bacon and eggs and heated some coffee. They enjoyed a meal cooked in one of the houses while it was being towed to Norfolk (December 24, 1921).

More than being an interesting tidbit, it also illuminates this detail: Every kitchen in every Penniman house, built by a three-party contract between DuPont, Hancock-Pettyjohn and the US Government, came with an oil-fired cook stove.

Including an appliance in each house would have substantially increased the per-unit cost. Which is probably one reason why they did this. The houses were built on a popular-WW1 program known as “The Cost Plus Plan.”

When America entered WW1, we were in such a mad rush to get these munition plants up and running that there wasn’t time to seek bids and wait for bids and open bids and investigate potential contractors, so DuPont was charged with finding a trust-worthy contractor and the government agreed to pay all expenses of construction plus 8-1/2%. The downside of the Cost-Plus Plan is that the more money the house cost, the more money the contractor pocketed. Put another way, it took away incentives for the contractor to be efficient.

But I think there was more to this than just padding the price of a house.

This was a munitions plant where there were lots of opportunities for lots of things to go boom.

And when this contract for 200 houses was signed on December 31, 1917, the realities of the danger of TNT would be very fresh in everyone’s mind.

Three weeks earlier, December 6, 1917, the SS Mont Blanc, a French freighter, had just left Halifax heading for Bordeaux, France, where it would deliver 5,000,000 pounds of war-time explosives. It was about 8:45 am when the Mont Blanc collided with a Norwegian ship, the Imo. Despite the slow speed (about 2 knots), there was a resulting fire on the Mont Blanc. Sailors tried desperately to extinguish the growing fire, but eventually abandoned ship. About 20 minutes later, the drifting vessel returned to the wharf, and moments later, there was an explosion on the Mont Blanc.

According to the book, Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why, the resulting blast shattered windows 60 miles away, and more than 1,000 people lost their sight due to flying glass. A tsunami eliminated a nearby community.

All in all, more than 1,900 people died. During WW2, scientists working on the Manhattan Project studied Halifax because the magnitude of the explosion emulated an atomic bomb in so many ways.

Not that anyone at DuPont would have needed any such reminders. The engineers and architects employed by the company would have been well aware of the grave risks of a single errant spark.

Which also explains why each house had steam radiant heat, supplied by a central heating system. No risk of sparks from an independent residential coal-fired heating system.

Which also explains why each house did not have a coal-fired or wood-burning cook stove: The risk of embers and fire would have been too great.

Which leads me to my question: It appears that - maybe - these late 1910s oil (kerosene) cook stoves didn’t require a chimney or any venting. As my friend Milton said, they appear to be similar to kerosene space heaters (which were hugely popular in the 1980s). There’s a reservoir of kerosene, fed by gravity to a burner with a large wick. The unit produces small amounts of carbon monoxide, but not enough to cause CO poisoning.

If that’s true, why did every house in Penniman have a brick chimney?

Heat was supplied by a central heating plant. And I suspect (although I’m not sure) that the oil-fired cook stoves didn’t require venting.

Was it more evidence of the inefficiencies of the “Cost-Plus Plan”? Every house gets a chimney, whether or not it needs it? Or did the oil cook-stove need venting?

Thanks for any insights.

To read more about Penniman, click here.

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Perfection cook stoves were a big deal in the 1910s and 20s.

Perfection cook stoves were a big deal in the 1910s and 20s.

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These blue cylinders were called Chimneys but they were

These blue cylinders were called "Chimneys" but they were the burner mechanism for the stove.

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H

Lighting these puppies didn't look simple.

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fef

That does look pretty hot.

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This looks like a lot of work. Why not electricity? Two reasons, electric stoves required tremendous amperage and re-wiring a house to receive an electric stove wouldnt have been easy. Electric stoves didnt really catch on until the late 1920s.

This looks like a lot of work. Why not electricity? Two reasons, electric stoves required tremendous amperage and re-wiring a house to receive an electric stove wouldn't have been easy. Electric stoves didn't get a foothold in the household appliance market until the 1930s.

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ffffe

The last line is the best. Wow.

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Bacon. Its whats for breakfast. In a barge house.

Bacon. It's what's for breakfast. In a barge house. Virginia Pilot, December 1921.

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A Penniman house in Norfolk, about 1960.

A Penniman house in Norfolk, about 1960. All of these homes had chimneys, accessible from an interior kitchen wall. The question is - why?

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Read more about Penniman here.

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World War One and the Working Women of Wilmington

July 13th, 2014 Sears Homes 1 comment

Based on our research, more than 50% of the workers in the Penniman Shell Loading Plant were women. The high explosives used in the plant turned the worker’s skin a bright yellow color. This was such a common problem that it became a frequent topic in early 20th Century medical journals. It was called “TNT poisoning.”

The women workers became known as “Canary Girls,” because of their bright yellow skin and ginger-colored hair. At lunch time, the Canary Girls were segregated in the cafeteria, because everything they touched turned yellow.

The body’s reaction to to the TNT usually began with sneezing fits, a bad cough, severe sore throat and profound digestive woes. Some women said the worst of it was the constant metallic taste in their mouth.

Many women simply couldn’t tolerate the suffering produced by the super-fine explosive dust that hung in the air, and left after the first day.  Others left when their health failed, days or weeks later. A few died.

The medical journals of the day stated that only 24% of the workers (male and female) showed no symptons of TNT poisoning (based on blood tests).

More than 3/4ths of the workforce were affected by the daily exposure to the high explosives. Some dramatically.

TNT poisoning depressed the development of red and white blood cells, which explains why the Spanish Flu was so devastating at Penniman. It wasn’t the tight quarters that killed Penniman employees by the dozens: It was the compromised immune system.

But more on that later.

According to newspaper articles, more than 130 women left their homes in Wilmington, NC to go to Penniman in the late summer of 1918.

I wonder if anyone in Wilmington knows more about this piece of their local history?

What inspired all these women from Wilmington to jump on a train and go “stuff one for the Kaiser” at this plant in Virginia? Did any of these women share their story about life at Penniman after the war? Did all the women come back to Wilmington healthy and strong? Did some perish during the Spanish Flu epidemic?

As usual, I have more questions than answers.

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Triton

This appeared in in a 1918 US Army publication titled "The Shell Loader," which gave some wonderful insight into day-to-day life at Penniman. Notice that one of the things a Penniman soldier should know is, "Whether Triton (TNT) or Nature made his girl's hair that way."

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Rude girls

Oatine Face Cream was marketed specifically to Canary Girls. Notice the 155-mm shells scattered about on the ground. Image is from "Nice Girls and Rude Girls: Women Workers in World War I (Social and Cultural History Today)" published in 2000 by I. B. Tauris and written by Deborah Thom. Great book!

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Over

"Mrs. Lamb and Miss Jackson are astonished by their response to their appears for volunteers for war work..." (August 30, 1918, Wilmington Morning Star.)

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Not

Wages: 34 cents per hour. And by the way, if you or your parents were born in Germany (or Austria or Hungary or The Ottoman Empire), you would not be employable at Penniman.

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house house house

This article appeared in the "Wilmington Morning Star" on September 7, 1918.

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house

And someone took pictures! This appeared in "The Wilmington Morning Star," on September 9, 1918. Based on my ciphering, that picture should appear on September 15th, plus or minus three days. Bottom of first paragraph: "The Wilmington women are carried away with...the surroundings." Really?

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Surroundings

"The Wilmington women are carried away with...the surroundings." In Summer 1918, Penniman had more than 15,000 living within its small borders. (Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.)

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The workers at Penniman wore an outfit such as this.

The women workers at Penniman probably wore a "uniform" such as this. It was found that skin contact with TNT caused severe dermatitis, and that the ankles, wrists and waistband were particularly susceptible, so there were elasticized bands at these points. Gloves were also worn in the shell-loading plants. (Ladies' Home Journal, June 1918.)

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To read more about Penniman, click here.

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