The school for wives

In January 1933, thousands came to the State Arsenal to hear Margaret King lecture about cooking, budgeting, and housekeeping.
In January 1933, thousands came to the State Arsenal to hear Margaret King lecture about cooking, budgeting, and housekeeping.

In the days before television talk shows, cooking shows and HGTV -- indeed, in the days before television itself -- the American woman, who was almost always a housewife, had a limited network of resources upon which to call when she sought information so vital to her occupation: the business of cooking, cleaning, and household management. The resource network at that time generally consisted of one's mother or mother-in-law and the home economics teacher in school. Beyond that, it was strictly learn-as-you-go for those wanting whiter whites and lighter biscuits, and it was a sharp learning curve for those women who entered marriage inadequately prepared for their roles as "domestic goddesses."

In 1927, a woman from Appleton, Wis., named Jessie Marie DeBoth, stepped forward to help fill the information vacuum. The "homemaking authority," who wrote a syndicated food column, began hosting free "cooking schools" in the Detroit Masonic Temple, where the stage was transformed into a fully equipped kitchen. These "schools" lasted for three or four days and were part vaudeville, part trade show, part game show and part food expo. DeBoth said that her shows encompassed the entire range of homemaking "except how to wind the clock and put the cat out." Thousands of women attended these shows to learn and to be entertained at the same time and the schools became so popular that DeBoth was able to hire "lecturers" to take the shows on the road.

In January 1933, the Illinois State Journal, in conjunction with DeBoth, sponsored a three-day event at the State Arsenal at Second and Monroe (the Arsenal burned down in 1934, after which it would be replaced with the Armory that we know today). On the opening day, Wednesday, Jan. 18, a torrent of cold rain didn't stop more than 6,500 women from passing through the doors to hear DeBoth representative Miss Margaret King lecture and to view the exhibits of such corporate big boys as General Foods, Procter & Gamble and Hershey's, and at least one local concern that is still in business today -- Luers Family Shoes. Even more women showed up for the following two sessions.

The lectures covered nutrition, food preparation, menu planning, budgeting (I can only assume that anyone lecturing on this topic in 1933 chose their words very, very carefully), interior design and helpful cleaning and laundry tips. Although it appears from news accounts that Miss King didn't copy Jessie DeBoth's flamboyant shtick, she was nonetheless warmly received by her audiences even when she foisted upon them such recipes as nougat mousse, fruit pie with cottage cheese in the crust, and battered, deep-fried bread. (In consideration of the latter, her popular reception is utterly lacking in mystery; generations of Springfieldians have always extended open arms to anyone peddling battered, deep-fried anything.)

The entertainment for the lulls between cooking sessions and prize giveaways was provided by the dancers of the Springfield College of Music, who studied under the tutelage of Miss Laetitia Hoffman. She choreographed a number of dance and song sketches in which her singers and dancers represented various products, including the Morton Salt Girl, the Lux Detergent Dancers, and the Domino Sugars. The "Duralith Sprite" was portrayed by Springfield resident Marguerite (Prokopp) Seggelkey, then a 12-year-old dancer but already a 10-year stage veteran.

"Laetitia was my mother's cousin. I had rickets when I was a baby and my parents felt that dance would help make my limbs strong, so they sent me to her when I was just a toddler. She was the sweetest person and she could dance beautifully. Everybody loved her."

Seggelkey's mother was also involved in the show that year, as an assistant to Miss King during the cooking segments, beating the eggs or whipping the cream while Miss King explained the recipe to the assembled masses.

"My mother couldn't boil water when she got married," says Seggelkey. "But she got to be pretty good around the kitchen. She later went to the Marine Bank and opened their lunchroom on the third floor in 1942 and she stayed for 25 years."

She says that during the Depression years, her mother would take cake orders (always angel food) during the week and would then enlist the whole Prokopp family in cake-making on Saturday mornings.

"Each cake required ten eggs, but just the whites. So if we made ten cakes, that left ten dozen yolks. We'd give them to the lady next door, who made them into mayonnaise and then sold it. We always had mayonnaise," she laughs.

"People did things like that during the Depression."

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