Old Maid’s Convention, Wisconsin (early 1900s)

Old Maid’s Conventions were all the rage in America during the early 20th century. These events, usually held as charity fundraisers, invited the public to watch as young women paraded about in spinster attire while a narrator described their marital ineligibility: this one loved picture shows more than men; that one couldn’t cook; another dreamed of adventure instead of domestic bliss.

After disappearing behind a curtain or inside a large carton labeled, “The Makeover Machine”, the girls would reemerge, sporting more fashionable gowns and attitudes, convinced by Dr. Makeover there was no greater achievement in life than landing a good husband.

New York State spinster-actors.

By around 1920, when my novel takes place, these events had begun waning in popularity, thanks in part to the woman’s suffrage movement and greater educational opportunity (for white females, at least).  But the virulent sexism they reflected was still widespread, especially in deep South states like Texas. In writing my novel, it was all too easy to imagine a similar affair happening in the rural town where my protagonist, Leola, lives as a young adult. Though she considers such spectacles ridiculous (and has just broken up with her sweetheart besides), Leola grudgingly participates in one benefiting the Smith County Free Kindergarten Association.  Little can she imagine that the pageant will inspire her to speak a controversial truth, defying the very notions of femininity it promotes.


Many towns, like Salisbury, NC, had their own Old Maids Associations, composed of married woman who put on entertainments like the popular play, “The Old Maid’s Convention.” Elsewhere, members would pose as ‘desperate’ single women, inviting the public—especially bachelors—to ‘take their pick,’ only afterwards revealing the prank.


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Everything in life is somewhere else, and you get there in a car.

–EB White


This photo inspired the driving scene with Leola and Ship. The young woman behind the wheel wears a denim driving suit like the one Leola’s mother made for Ship.

I’ll never forget earning my license at 17, driving my parents’ boxy blue Granada alone for the first time. Though I was heading to a friend’s house a mile away, that sense of limitless freedom, the thrill of being in the driver’s seat—literally—of my own life, are as vivid as yesterday.

Researching my historical novel, ‘Til All These Things Be Done, I was surprised to learn that, a century ago, cars already served as a liberating force in the lives of teens—and many others.

By 1918, nearly two million automobiles trundled America’s byways, thanks in large part to the introduction of Mr. Ford’s cheaper Model T, aka the Tin Lizzie. In rural states like Texas, people once separated by vast distance now had the time and ability to socialize as never before, providing marginalized groups–people of color, women, laborers–a new solidarity in the fight for equality. In fact, many historians cite increased mobility as an important factor in the social reforms of the Progressive Era.

A Texas road, 1920.

For my main character, Leola, that emancipation happens on a more personal scale. When her well-to-do chum, Mary Shipley, invites her on an outing in the Shipley’s new motorcar, Leola is hardly in the mood for a joyride: Her father has recently vanished, leaving her family on the verge of ruin. But best friends can be persuasive and, as they fly down the road, Leola realizes it was true, there was something in the forward movement, the wind whipping her hair…that made it hard to dwell on problems.

Inspired by Ramsey, Emily Post tackled her own cross-country drive in 1915–mostly to raise money for a costly divorce. Her journey was more luxurious than Ramsey’s but the publicity helped sell her first etiquette book in 1922.

During this outing, Ship relates the true story of Alice Ramsey, a housewife from New Jersey who drove cross-country–solo–in 1909, mostly to disprove the popular notion that women couldn’t drive. At the time, there were so few passable roads in America, Ramsey had to use telegraph poles as navigational aids and often slept in her car, once waking to find herself surrounded by native American warriors in full battle regalia. But she accomplished her feat, heralding the arrival of the new, freer woman.

A Barley sedan, c. 1923.

Hearing this tale, Leola feels renewed hope for the future. Little can she imagine that the car will offer a test of her own courage in the days and years ahead.

At one point, Leola agrees to date Gordon LaHaye, a popular classmate whose father is a celebrated dentist and, as she eventually discovers, a bigot of the first degree.

An early automobile voice pipe, or speaking tube.

On the night of their outing, Gordon shows up in his dad’s gleaming Barley sedan which like many cars of the period is open to the elements, making it difficult to converse at higher speeds. Though speaking tubes were usually only available in higher-end models, I’ve taken artistic license to install them on Gordon’s dashboard so that, when he proves himself every bit his father’s hateful son, Leola can loudly voice her dissent.

The car plays a supporting role in other pivotal scenes too, as when Leola and another character must flee a desperate predator, and when her teenaged daughter, Rose, questions the secrecy of their family’s past. Always, it’s Leola who decides the direction of her journey, proving her heart at every turn.

Beginning the long road trip of life. (And I still drive barefoot.)

Yes, even the Dallas Cowboys wear Lucchese boots.

My protagonist, Leola, is in love with Joe Belfigli, a gifted horticulturist five years her senior. Besides being handsome as the day is long, with his sparkling black eyes and sun-burnished skin, Joe is different from Leola’s usual bland choice of suitors, can speak three languages, cook up a storm, and admires Leola for her intelligence as much as her moss-green eyes.  He’s also Catholic and the son of an immigrant, which makes him (and Leola by default) the target of the white nationalistic fervor raging across America during the early 20th century. (And not just in the south.)

Believe it or not, vintage Lucchese boots–like this 1883 pair, sold on Esty–are as prized as the new kind. (Which Leola discovers later in the book.)

But if there’s one thing that Leola admires about her beau in particular, it’s his refusal to apologize for who he is. This trait finds outward expression in Joe’s style of dress, including the fancy embroidered boots no everyday farmer would be caught dead wearing, made by the Lucchese brothers of San Antonio. I like to imagine Joe not only appreciates the fine workmanship of that footwear (never mind his were bought second-hand, heels worn to nubs and color masked by sun-baked grime), but because he identified with the Lucchese backstory, so similar to his own.


Young politico Lyndon Baines Johnson, wearing one pants leg tucked into his Lucchese boots, shows off the deer he hunted to the press.

Those boots eventually became a status symbol for many Americans, including a young senate candidate named Lyndon Baines Johnson. In the photo on this page, he’s wearing one pant leg judiciously tucked into his boots (a popular trend of the day), the better to show off his pair of Luccheses, which granted him a cachet denied by his roughneck origins. Ironic, that this group of people, once so reviled and marginalized, could eventually confer such prestige–and how impossible it is now to imagine American life without them. Do you own a pair of Luccheses?  If you do, take a pic and post it here!

Black WWI veteran refusing to stand down for wearing his uniform in public.

While researching the setting of my novel, I encountered many photos of young Black WWI veterans being threatened by white people—often police officers—for wearing their uniforms in public.  But the one featured here struck an especially deep chord, the valiant young Black man at its center becoming the model for my character, George Gumbs, a childhood friend of Leola’s who opens her eyes to the wages of bigotry.

Scenes like this were common in America at the time (c. 1915-1921). The Equal Justice Initiative recently investigated contemporary reports of racial terrorism during that period, discovering many were triggered by this very situation.  “Just the sight of a black soldier,” the investigators note, “just the suggestion that he might take on that empowered, adult, mature identity—that could get him killed.”

The NAACP’s newspaper, The Crisis, urged Black members to take up the cause for their freedom.

Many historians trace the birth of Black empowerment to African-American participation in the Great War.  By 1917, nearly 700, 000 Black men had signed up to serve in the European theater.  A Black solider was the first person to be awarded the coveted Croix de Guerre for bravery in battle, African-American artillery and signaling units were routinely lauded for their skill, and all-Black regiments held 20 per cent of contested territory. Yet these valiant soldiers returned home to the same brutal oppression inflicted on their people for centuries, and were even denied the pensions and disability payments they’d been promised at enlistment.

No wonder, then, that disenfranchised veterans became the model for what the recently-reinvented NAACP envisaged as the “new Negro,” no longer satisfied to wait for largely ineffectual white supporters to enact change. George Gumbs represents this new brand of Black activist.  Having returned from serving in France, where he became skilled at fixing combustion engines and also got his first real taste of freedom, he’s more impatient than ever for his due. For too long, he says, things been done to us and supposedly for us but never by us. I aim to change that.

A parade in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood featuring the sentiments of “radical” civil rights leaders, including Marcus Garvey, who advocated that Blacks should answer white violence in equal measure.

Though it makes sense when George challenges the kind of everyday degradation he’s been subjected to his whole life, Leola’s witness to his protest leaves her questioning her white supremacist culture as never before. Little can she know that her friend’s political protest will soon take more consequential form, forcing him to flee Texas with his life. Horrified as she is by this development, Leola imagines George returning to their little town someday, marching down Main Street with his fellow supporters, chanting Hew to the Line! Democracy is ours for the taking!  Impossible as it seems, knowing George, she can’t help believing it could come true.

For further reading:  This online archive of the NAACP’s newsletter, The Crisis, provides a fascinating glimpse into this period of Black activism.



Suzanne MoyersSuzanne Moyers, a former teacher, was an education editor and writer for over 20 years. A lifelong history geek, Suzanne spends her free time as a volunteer archeologist, mudlarker, and metal detectorist. ’Til All These Things Be Done is based on a still unraveling mystery from her own family, and the real-life twist of fate that […]