Friday, 11 August 2023

A funny thing happened on the way to the forum

No, not the 1962 stage musical.  Not even the 1966 film adaptation.  No, this is actually about a forum that I regularly frequent and the not-so-funny thing that has recently happened to it.


The forum in question is The Sheridan Club, a discussion board for gentlemen and ladies like you and me who extol the vintage lifestyle in all its various aspects; who still value the manners and etiquette of bygone times and enjoy confounding the modern world with it on suitable occasions.  It was, as far as my understanding goes, originally affiliated with The Chap magazine when it was first created in circa 2004 and drew much of its early membership from readers of that periodical who embraced something of the Dadaist absurdism that it represented.  However it later separated from that organ, while still retaining a link to its views and principles, and subsequently begat The New Sheridan Club - a London-based in-person social club that I'm pleased to say still flourishes. 

To provide some personal background, I first stumbled across The Sheridan Club back in October 2006 when I was but a fresh-faced youth of 23.  My involvement in The Chap movement began around the same period although how I came to find it is lost to the mists of time.  However since the age of about 9 I had had an interest in the silent comedies of Laurel & Hardy and Harold Lloyd, as well as the era of the Second World War thanks to my grandparents who were of that generation.  Over subsequent years my interests grew to encompass all aspects of the interwar period, until by the time I came to The Chap I had a thorough appreciation of the time (as well as the late Victorian and Edwardian eras).  The subversive, absurdist nature of the original ethos of Chappism also appealed and so I became a convert to the cause.  Somewhere out of that I discovered The Sheridan Club, requested my membership card and the rest, as they say, is history.  My name there – and here – is not my own as Chappist pseudonyms were encouraged, thus my open copy of The Illustrated Sherlock Holmes Collection provided me with the sobriquet I continue to use to this day.  Two years later I finally joined The New Sheridan Club, membership of which I still maintain.


The Sheridan Club has therefore played an important part in my life, helping shape me into the man I am today (for better or worse!). It has helped me through some dark times personally and has been a haven from the madness of the modern world, where one could discuss all aspects of Chappism, good manners, fashion tips and shared interests with friendly and knowledgeable individuals from around the globe. 

However, as the world sleep-walked ever further into the welcoming arms of Messrs Zuckerberg, Dorsey and Musk et al., so The Sheridan Club forum slowly declined from being a place of multiple daily, erudite conversations to a ghostly shell populated only by myself and one or two other stalwarts. Think of it now as the online chatroom equivalent of The Last Man on Earth.  Thankfully the moderator/ site owner continued to pay the bills to keep the old place running, until a couple of weeks ago when things started to go awry and ended with multiple Internal Server Error messages making the site unusable.  The host provider has been informed and although I still have hopes that things will be put right ere long, this has now happened too many times in recent years.  The fact that the owner does not answer their e-mails does not bode well either.

Therefore I've taken it upon myself to create a new Sheridan Club (but not The New Sheridan Club, for obvious reasons - nor even the New New Sheridan Club!) forum as either a temporary back-up or a new permanent site - depending on what happens - and I would be delighted if you would come over and join me for a chat.  Please note that I do not intend for it to replace my ramblings on here (infrequent though they currently are) but rather to supplement it as a place to discuss things that may not quite fit the ethos of this blog or are too insubstantial to make a standalone post.  

I do hope you will forgive this blatant promotion but I have long valued my interactions on the forum and would hate to see it consigned to the dustbin of history, so please feel free to step in to The Sheridan Club 2.0!

Saturday, 24 June 2023

Nostalgic telegram service is proving popular in Leamington and Warwick


Nostalgic telegram service is proving popular in Leamington and Warwick

The last of my backlog of posts from 2021 features another piece of "obsolete" technology that is anything but, especially in Warwickshire it seems - the humble telegram.  And no, I don't mean the instant messaging app (about which I know little other than that it is an instant messaging app).  Long one of my favourite forms of archaic communication (as an aficionado of analogue machinery and typewriters especially, how could it not be?) reports of the telegram's demise - to paraphrase Mark Twain - have been grossly exaggerated, as I hope this post will go on to show.

While it is true that here in the U.K. British Telecom ceased offering traditional telegrams in the 1980s, as did Western Union in America, there are still several private companies and individuals in both these countries and dozens of others around the world striving to keep alive the romance and connectedness of a simpler age - albeit mainly now in the role of "greetings telegrams".

source - Wikimedia Commons

Telegrams Online is the oldest of the three such entities known to the author here in the U.K. (not including the chap in this lead article, to whom we shall come later), emerging out of the ashes of British Telecom's operation.  Although BT stopped providing standard telegraphy services in the Eighties, it continued to offer "telemessaging" - the ability to dictate a message to an operator over the 'phone, which was then transcribed and sent as a regular telegram - right up until 2003.  Only then did BT finally pull the plug, with Telegrams Online manfully (and womanfully) stepping up to fill the void.  Their website is delightfully old-school, looking like it hasn't been updated in those twenty years, but still appears fully functional (although I haven't gone through the whole process, so cannot speak authoritatively on that point - nor can I confirm the prices).  In any event, I am delighted to see that they still exist and hope that Telegrams Online will continue to provide telegrams to those who require them for the next 20 years and beyond.   

source - Wikimedia Commons
Going for almost as long as Telegrams Online, Imperial Telegrams has to my knowledge been in business since at least 2006.  Originally running their own website they have more recently moved under the Not On The High Street umbrella but this does not seem to have affected the quality of their offerings, which are very much of the "special occasion" variety and by far the most authentically vintage of those I have encountered.  For Imperial Telegrams go to the extra effort of printing the words on to individual strips of paper before sticking them to the telegram, just as would have been the case in its heyday (such as this 1962 message to scientist Francis Crick, above), as well as using genuine pre-decimal stamps on the hand-written envelope!  Quite the personalised service and very reasonable for what it is, considering the price of some generic greetings cards these days.         

The last of the UK-based "online" telegram providers that I am aware of is The Telegram Office, a relative new-comer to the scene having only been established in 2015.  Operating in a similar vein to Imperial Telegrams, The Telegram Office provides a selection of different templates for one to personalise albeit not to the same extent.  Nevertheless the effect is still a realistic one and the price is even more affordable although perhaps reflective of the more limited options available.

Official telegram services still exist in North America, I understand, provided by the company which took over from Western Union following its bankruptcy in 1991 - iTelegram.  Trading also as Telegrams Canada it offers a similar facility in that country and, indeed, to over 180 other countries around the world.  Very much the more traditional, basic telegram, it is still heartening to see that such an old-fashioned means of communication continues to have an important place in the world.

source - picryl

There is, of course, one other way you can send telegrams for a fraction of the cost of the aforementioned options - you can create one yourself!  It is far easier and less onerous than you might imagine, ironically thanks in part to its modern usurper - the Internet.  This admittedly wonderful invention has allowed like-minded individuals to upload various templates of different telegram designs that can be printed and in some cases edited on one's computer. 

source - Open Clipart/ j4p4n
Chief among these, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, are fans of American science fiction writer H. P. Lovecraft.  In particular it seems they enjoy role-playing and table-top games around the subject of his Cthulhu mythos; because of the period in which the stories were written/set, telegrams play an important part - hence why the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society and the Mount Cthulhu gaming site provide excellent examples of telegram papers from both sides of the Atlantic.  Fully downloadable and in some cases editable they provide the perfect starting point for the creation of your own telegrams!  If Lovecraft is a bit too esoteric for your tastes, templates can also be found throughout t'web on various creative commons sites like Wikimedia and Open Clipart.  To add the finishing touch websites like 1001 Free Fonts offer a smorgasbord of suitable fonts in their Typewriter and Retro sections, in addition to those on the Lovecraft sites.


You need not bother with the latter however if, like me, you own one (or more!) actual working typewriters - in which case what's stopping you from just printing off a template and tapping out a message in the approved manner?!  This is clearly what occurred to Russell Peake of Warwickshire in the height of lockdown when, inspired by original telegrams kept by his own family and with everyone needing just that little extra bit of personal contact, he acquired a typewriter and a bicycle to start Spa Telegram.  As the newspaper reports of the time explain, the venture was set up partly to provide a still-important social interaction for the people of Warwick and Leamington Spa but also to raise money for Guide Dogs for the Blind.  Both laudable aims for which I congratulate Mr Peake and am very happy to see are continuing nearly three years later - for Spa Telegrams is still going strong.  By the look of things typewritten and hand-delivered telegrams are even now flying around the Warwickshire area (and on request by post further afield) - a testament to the enduring appeal of this personal, unpretentious form of communication in an otherwise digital world.    

***Have you sent or received a telegram recently?  Do you know of any other providers that I have missed?  Let me know in the comments!***

Saturday, 17 June 2023

How One Photographer Gets All Of Her Inspiration From The '30s



A nice little article now, the last of my 2020 drafts and a pleasing showcase of a fellow vintage aficionado from Brooklyn who lives a full 1930s life with her partner.  

As the accompanying video also explains, Rose Callahan has not only embraced the Thirties lifestyle and fashions but has also incorporated it into her work as a professional photographer and author.  One can clearly see both her enthusiasm for the era and its fashions and the way in which her photography is imbued with the same degree of passion.  That she as found in her husband Kelly Bray someone so in tune with her own interests and way of life is really lovely to see and much of what she says regarding the appeal of the interwar years, including the clothing and general style of the period, once again strikes a chord with this blogger (and I suspect, a good many other vintagistas).  Their books on the subject of dandies sound most intriguing and I have a feeling I must look them up with a view to adding them to my library!  In the meantime I wish Rose and Kelly continued success with their way of life and journalistic endeavours, both of which I think it safe to say are a welcome addition to the international vintage scene.

Wednesday, 14 June 2023

Women Detectives: Meet The Victorian Female Super Sleuths

Women Detectives: Meet The Victorian Female Super Sleuths


As promised/ threatened, delving back into my Drafts archive has unearthed this post, originally written in November 2020.  The subject: a then-recent feature film which would perhaps normally have appeared on this blog at the time of its release in September of that year - Enola Holmes.   Instead it almost passed me by on its way to Netflix (as so many otherwise cinema-bound movies have, my not having a subscription to these things).  Perhaps it is just as well, as having viewed the trailer I cannot help but have some misgivings about this particular foray into Victorian society and the Holmsian and despite its largely glowing reviews I find myself more in agreement with the few mixed responses I have read, for reasons that I will go on to explain.

I daresay I'm not the core target audience - the film being based on the Young Adult books by Nancy Springer and directed by Fleabag's Harry Bradbeer - and anything that encourages the younger generation to discover the joys of Conan Doyle's writing should be welcomed, but I cannot help but feel that the filmmakers are once again engaged in what amounts to an unnecessary degree of cultural revisionism.  

It is one of the more debatable characteristics of this self-styled enlightened, modern society that the prevailing - and one might almost say arrogant - belief is that we are in every way better than the generations that have gone before.  For my own part I have on multiple occasions put down on this blog my own thoughts on the subject of mixing the positive, still-valued elements of my preferred era with the undoubtedly welcome advancements of the modern day while at the same time recognising the more insupportable aspects.  Although the need to keep defending this outlook continues to bother me I do feel it bears repetition.    

Yes, a great deal of what went on centuries (or even decades) ago - in this instance the treatment of women in 19th century Britain - is in hindsight reprehensible but as the saying goes hindsight is a wonderful thing and it is unfair to judge (one might almost say to find those unable to defend themselves guilty by default) past cultures by modern standards.  I wonder how we would we feel if our social mores - attitudes which we would not give a second thought to being anything but normal - were subject to such levels of criticism by a 23rd-century observer, to whom they might be an anathema?

Being as morally superior as possible will make no difference to what has occurred lifetimes ago.  Deplore it, absolutely, learn from it, certainly, but stop applying 21st-century morals to previous eras.  The past cannot be altered, so better to dismount from that moral high horse and focus on changing the present to make the future an even better place.

Anyway, with that particular rant over I will only say one further thing on the subject of Enola Holmes going by what little I have seen and read.  While I repeat my hope that the appearance of this character on the [small] screen will inspire a new generation [of young women] and motivate them to seek out the works of Conan Doyle I cannot summon the level of enthusiasm I would have hoped a film like this might have instilled in me, mainly for the reasons I have outlined above.  The characters of Sherlock and Mycroft, whom I might be more readily expected to relate with, have inevitably been altered to become more akin to antagonists to the main character.  So much so, in fact, that in the case of Sherlock it has attracted the ire of the Conan Doyle Estate (who one might have assumed would have welcomed anything that would swell their coffers) to the point where they have instituted legal proceedings on the basis that Henry Cavill's characterisation of the Great Detective is too emotional and not in keeping with the character.  While as a traditional Sherlockian I can appreciate their point of view (although not to the point of a lawsuit) I can understand the filmmakers' desire to give the character more depth for a modern audience for whom the idea of an unemotional man simply wouldn't scan.  In any event if they do invest in the original stories off the back of this film they may be surprised to find any number of strong-willed female characters contained therein.  Just off the top of my head I can think of half a dozen such examples, including Helen Stoner in The Adventure of the Speckled Band, Violet Hunter in The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, Violet Smith in The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist, Lady Hilda Trelawney Hope in The Adventure of the Second Stain, and of course Irene Adler in A Scandal in Bohemia.


source - Wikimedia Commons
Maud West, a female detective active in London
from 1905 to 1939, here photographed disguised as
a Salvation Army worker, circa 1920.
Hmmm, it seems I rather "went off on one" as a result of that film - I do apologise!  It obviously touched a nerve at the time!  I still stand by my comments though - they remain as true to me now as they did two years ago.  Anyway, the article that forms the primary subject of this post highlights a fascinating and oft-overlooked aspect of Victorian society - the existence of real-life female detectives (or "inquiry agents", to use the quaint terminology of the time).  Surely the brave, independent and resourceful women mentioned in this piece are deserving of having their own adventures and achievements chronicled for today's audiences, be that in documentary or fictionalised form.  Even the few stories touched upon in the article sound most intriguing and thrilling and could doubtless be adapted or retold for modern viewers with little difficulty (and in a way that would no doubt appeal to modern values).  Admittedly there have been recent adaptions of The Sally Lockhart Mysteries by Philip Pullman, starring Billie Piper, and four series of PBS-Alibi original Miss Scarlet & The Duke (sometimes available on the Drama channel for UK viewers) but even judging from what little one reads here there remains a mine of real-life incidents worth retelling.  I note that since I first started writing this post Enola Holmes 2 was released on Netflix last year so obviously the character has proved a success; as happy as I am that this is the case, I still can't help feeling that there remains a missed opportunity for the long-forgotten achievements of actual Enola Holmeses to be properly celebrated.  

Sunday, 11 June 2023

Of Aristocrats and Good Companions (plus other "types" of news)


I wrote the above typecast back at the beginning of April, which shows just how much life intervened that I am only just now able to get round to posting it here!  Those 78s will have to wait for another day, I think, as instead I intend to focus on the aforementioned Empire Aristocrat - as well as a couple of more recent arrivals.  Sprinkled around them will also be some more typewriter-related news stories that I hope will be of interest.

Let's have a closer look at this first little typer that I bagged at the beginning of the year from a local garden/ antiques centre.  I clocked it almost as soon as we went in (my typer-sense is now well-honed enough to spot even the smallest of machines sitting among the usual vintage/ antique fare!) even though its case was in place and therefore the machine itself not visible.  It may have been the £20 price tag that piqued my interest further and on removing the lid I felt it more than justified the sum.  A quick Google seemed to confirm it so after a brief test (as always seems to be the case in these instances) I passed over the lolly and returned home a happy chap.  As mentioned I've found it a lovely little thing, with just one or two little foibles since discovered (such as a slightly recalcitrant spacebar) that I hope to iron out with practice over the coming year.

To show how behind I am with the posting of interesting articles, this one has been sitting in my drafts since February 2021 (and that's not even the oldest one - there are some going back to 2020 that I need to get round to posting!).  Still, the subject suits this post and I am sure the young fellow mentioned in it is still repairing typewriters in the Tamarac, FL area and continuing to plough his own furrow as an "old soul at heart".  Here we see again a phrase I'm sure we're all more than familiar with and which no doubt has been directed at ourselves more than once, along with the feeling (whether through our own emotions and actions or ascribed to us by others) of somehow being a reincarnation or just "born in the wrong time".  In any event, this has led to (the by now) 20-year-old Patton Horton already being a de facto professional typewriter repairman judging by this news item.  To take on a 100-year-old Oliver 9 as one of your first jobs shows a great deal of promise and kudos must also go to the Our Backyard Museum (which looks well worth a visit!) for having the faith and open-mindedness to let the plucky lad take on the challenge of fixing it.  I hope he makes a success of what is obviously a passionate hobby for him and that he continues to find pleasure and enlightenment in the vintage lifestyle that he has chosen to pursue. 

A 1952 Remington Quiet-Riter, similar to one owned by Maximilian Wein
source - Flickr/mpclemens


The future maintenance of typewriters (plus early PCs and laptops) in Lansdale, Pennsylvania seems assured if this next article is anything to go by, featuring another teenager who has been bitten by the typewriter bug and looks to have the skills necessary to ensure their survival.  It is splendid to read of Max Wein's enthusiasm for his hobby - which I am sure, as he says, will become a lifetime's interest - his appreciation of its tangible link to times past and how he manages to successfully integrate it into his schooling.  Stories like this continue to show that typewriters, not to mention early computers, still have a purpose and can be used as they were intended.  I salute young Mr Wein and wish him well as he starts his journey into the world of typewriters and related "obsolete" technology.

   

Type-ins are still going strong across the Pond - or at least in Albuquerque, NM, where the brilliantly-named ABQwerty Type Writer Society holds regular events at a local library according to this article.  One of the founder members, Joe Van Cleave (a well-known name in the typosphere, I believe), is the main subject of the piece and once again it is clear that we are dealing with a true typewriter enthusiast.  A splendid collection of typers adorns Mr Van Cleave's home and judging from things he has been a driving force behind the local type-ins and the resurgence of typewriters and typecasting on the Internet in general.  Long may he continue to be so and I look forward to hearing more of his influence, both in New Mexico and further afield, as we are sure to do.

We're I ever to attend a type-in in the UK (and believe me, if I knew of any within striking distance I would be off like a shot) I would now be somewhat spoilt for choice of which machine(s) to take along, as my collection of portable typewriters has doubled in this year alone thanks not only to the Aristocrat but also two more that both came into my possession within days of each other.  That they are both the same model would, I fear, be something only really understood by true collectors(!), although the lay-person should notice some differences as well.

To start at the beginning I have always been what I call an "Imperial Man", inasmuch as I tend to focus my attention (so far!) on typewriters manufactured by Imperial Typewriters Ltd. of Leicester.  I suppose this is because the first typer I encountered was the 1956 Model 66 that Dad brought home from work one day when the company was going to throw it out as being "beyond economical repair".  It has always been a part of my life and started me on the road to being... well, I suppose a collector(!), so Imperials have always been my first passion.  That they are sturdy, well-made British machines (even the portables!) that epitomise the style and mechanical design of their 1930s heyday merely adds to their appeal for me.  Thus is my affection for British-made Imperials of the 1930s-50s.  However, with space even in a 3-bedroom house at a premium and my strength not up to hefting weighty desktop models about, my focus recently switched to the portables and in particular the "Good Companion" models of the '30s & '40s.  Having done some research I established that, over the years from its introduction in 1932 to its final iteration in 1957, the original Model No. 1 went through several changes during its lifetime.  Clearly one could go overboard collecting versions from every single year and easily fill one's home with Good Companions and nothing else, so I decided early on to keep it simple and get an early model with white keys and a later one with black keys.  I bided my time and kept my eyes peeled at local vintage fairs and on eBay.  On the latter I missed out on several examples (as one does) but my hopes remained buoyant and one day two weeks ago my perseverance paid off and a deal was struck on eBay for a black-keyed No. 1 in good condition, complete with some original accessories including cleaning brush, oil can, cleaning fluid bottle (empty), ribbon tin (with a "dead" ribbon!) and leather carry pouch (so dry and cracked I feared for it, however liberal applications of lanolin and leather restoring cream have managed to bring some life back to it).  The machine itself seems to be in working order but in need of a good clean and what service my little knowledge can provide.  New ribbons have also been procured and await fitting.

You'll notice I put "ribbons".  Well not two days after I had sealed the deal for the first one (and before it had even arrived), the very second one I was after crossed my path in one of those serendipitous events that sometimes makes you wonder about a Higher Power.  On a fleeting weekend outing to Rochester, Mrs P-P and I were returning to the car when we passed a charity shop that we had clocked at the beginning of our visit.  A lovely, typical old chazza that is now sadly becoming all too rare (an Aladdin's Cave-cum-Tardis of items - that now tend to be the preserve of specific vintage emporia - slung all over the place) its siren call made us want to stop in even though our parking ticket was on the point of expiration.  And there, just inside the door and partly hidden behind some wooden packing cases and a fencing mask (so as to discourage [little ]people from playing with it, so the lady behind the till informed me (and a not unreasonable idea as I'm sure many collectors will know), was an early-model No. 1 with white keys!).  Following a quick request to test it out (and the removal of the aforementioned impediments) and an equally quick zoom around the rest of the shop to check it out and have a think, the decision was made, money changed hands, the wife ran off to get the car and my quest was complete.  Two 1930s Imperial Good Companion No. 1s - one with black keys and one with white - were mine!

If anything the second one - a 1933 example according to its serial number - is in even better condition than the first (undated as no serial no. is visible - a common occurrence on some later examples I understand - but I would guess at late '30s, maybe 1939-ish).  It could still use a freshen-up and definitely a new ribbon but, regardless of their conditions, the fact that I can now tick off this particular typewriting wish (and perhaps shift my focus to other portables!) makes me a very happy chappie and I am very much looking forward to putting them to use.  Watch this space!  (Although I won't be using them on my lap any time soon, I can promise you that - they still weigh a flippin' ton!)            
  

"Why can't I feel my legs...?"
My own collection of typers now numbers a total of six - the Imperial 66, the two Good Companions, the Empire Aristocrat, the Litton-Imperial 200n and the Corona Model 3 (not to mention my wife's two desktops - types unknown - that are apparently still somewhere in the loft at my in-laws!) - so I still have some way to go to match Mr Van Cleave.  We both have a looooong way to go, though, to catch up with Mr Everett Henderson of Austin, TX, the subject of this next item and who has over 100 machines and counting in his collection.  As with Joe Van Cleave and his fellow Albuquerquian collectors so has Mr Henderson helped to set up a series of local type-ins with a like-minded friend under the title of Austin Typewriter, Ink group.  That same desire to share the tangible, mechanical experience of using a typewriter is equally as evident in Texas as it is in New Mexico and it pleases me no end to know that there is another enthusiastic restorer and fellow collectors out there connecting with each other, both physically and virtually, to help keep the enjoyment of typewriters alive.

 

The final typewriter-related news in this now-gargantuan post (and then, you'll be pleased to know, I shall probably disappear again for another couple of months) takes the form of this recent video report from the Irish Times detailing the work of typewriter restorer Leo Molloy.  There's really nothing I can add to what he says, so I'll just sign off by leaving the last words - words that we typosphereans know so well - to Mr Molloy. 

Sunday, 9 April 2023

Wishing Easter joy to you all

source - wikitree

 To all my readers, followers and visitors old & new, may you all have a a very

Happy Easter

and I look forward to seeing you around the blogosphere into the Spring and beyond.

Friday, 24 March 2023

Bessie Coleman, pioneering pilot, now has her own Barbie


Well, this is something I never thought I'd be blogging about.  Not that I'm an expert on such things as dolls, you understand (although while we're at it, who else remember Sindy?).  Anyway, this is more a case of the subject within a subject being of interest (hopefully!) to my readers, with the news that Mattel, maker of the Barbie doll, has honoured one of the pioneers of early aviation with the latest addition to their range.

source - Wikimedia Commons

The aviatrix in question is Elizabeth "Bessie" Coleman, who made history in 1921 when she became the first black person to obtain an international pilot's licence.  Her story is one that frankly deserves more recognition and I can only hope that this acknowledgement by Mattel goes some way towards achieving that.  

Born in Atlanta, Texas in 1892 Bessie Coleman seemed all set to follow in her parents' footsteps as a cotton picker.  However from an early age she proved to be an academic student, fond of reading and a whizz at maths, such that she was given a scholarship by the local Baptist church that eventually enabled her to attend what is now the Langston University in Oklahoma.  The money did not last, though, and she was only able to complete a single term before she was forced to return to Texas.

source - Wikimedia Commons/NASA
At the age of 23 Bessie found herself living in Chicago with her brothers, working as a manicurist in a local barbershop.  It was here that she was first exposed to the wonders of early flight, listening to the stories returning air force pilots would tell whilst getting a trim.  Inspired by these thrilling stories she took a second job in a chili restaurant to help pay for flying lessons, despite neither black people nor women being allowed to join flying schools.  Fortunately she was able to gain support from the editor of a Chicago-based African-American newspaper, Robert S. Abbott of the Chicago Defender, and prominent African-American banker Jesse Binga, who between them helped publicise and pay for her flying lessons.  To get over the hurdle of the U.S. flying school bans it was recommended that Coleman travel to France, where there were no such restrictions.  In an early example of her strong-minded and intellectual nature, she immediately attended a French language school in Chicago and having learnt the language promptly left the United States for Europe.  Arriving in Paris at the end of November 1920 she spent the next 6 months learning to fly before finally achieving what no black woman had done before - obtaining a pilot's licence.  Determined to be the best flyer she could, Bessie continued to take flying lessons under the tutelage of an unnamed ex-WW1 French ace before returning to America in September 1921.

Bessie and a Pathé cameraman during a visit to Berlin in 1925
source - New York Public Library

Despite widespread media attention in America at her achievement, Bessie was quick to realise that if she were to make a living as a civilian pilot in her home country then barnstorming was pretty much the only way to go.  Again showing remarkable prudence Coleman, still having found no-one in the U.S. willing to teach her the advanced flying skills she would need, returned to France to undertake further lessons.  Touring Europe she met famous Dutch aircraft designer Anthony Fokker and visited his factory in Germany where she was given more training by the chief test pilot.  Now fully versed in all aspects of advanced flight, she once again returned to the U.S.A. where, billed as "Queen Bess", she wowed crowds around the country in various Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" biplanes - earning her the well-deserved title of "The World's Greatest Woman Flier".  Resolute in her desire to perform the most difficult stunts and understandably vocal in promoting African-American aviation she toured the country for the next 4 years giving lectures and exhibition flights.  During a visit to Orlando, Florida she befriended a local vicar and his wife, who all but adopted her as a daughter; remaining in Orlando Bessie opened her own beauty parlour with the aim of making enough money to buy her own aeroplane.  

Bessie and one of her Curtiss JN-4's, c.1922
source - Wikimedia Commons

In April 1926 this she finally did, purchasing another Curtiss JN-4 in Dallas, Texas.  Sadly, however, it was this aircraft that would be her downfall.  Bessie was in Jacksonville, Florida, at the time of the purchase so the aeroplane was flown back from Dallas by her 24-year-old mechanic and publicity agent William D. Wills.  He was reportedly forced to land three times along the journey due to the terrible condition the aircraft had been kept in by its previous owner.  Despite its obviously dangerous shortcomings and against all the advice of friends and relatives, Bessie went up (as a passenger) in the Jenny with Wills on the 30th April 1926 to practice for a parachute jump she intended to perform the following day.  At 3,000ft the aircraft suddenly went into an uncontrollable dive and spun into the ground.  Bessie was thrown from the cockpit and sadly died on the ground; Wills was also killed instantly when the Jenny impacted the ground and exploded.  Detailed examination of the wreckage subsequently revealed a wrench for maintaining the engine had been left in the machine, causing the controls to jam.


Bessie Coleman's tragically early death at the age of 34 was, despite her undoubted fame, largely ignored by all but the African-American press.  In spite of this, over ten thousand mourners turned out for her funeral in Chicago and over the many years following she was honoured with several roads, schools and other public buildings being named after her, to say nothing of various museum exhibits, commemorative stamps etc.

Now can be added to that list a Barbie doll designed in her image (I have to admit not seeing much of a likeness, although as I said at the top of this post dolls are not really my metier), with a snappy-looking aviatrix get-up featuring flying suit, boots and initialled cap.  It is splendid to see such a previously-overlooked trailblazer of (black) women's aviation marked in this way and I commend Mattel for choosing to highlight this historically important woman.  If it can also encourage young girls of any colour to take an interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) Learning and aviation in particular, then so much the better.

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