Women's Building at the Columbia Exposition. (C.D. Arnold ca. 1893 From Chicago Public Library Special Collection Division)
By THOMAS C. McCARTHY*
Davis did in New York City after graduating Vassar what she had done in Dunkirk before entering Vassar -- pursue studies on her own while teaching science to high schoolers. Katharine secured a position at the Brooklyn Heights Seminary for Girls. The school, first on Montague Street and later on Pierrepont Street, was founded in 1851. Its long-time principal, Dr. Charles E. West, also originally from western New York, had pioneered a college preparatory curriculum for girls that included math and science subjects previously considered strictly male courses.
By combinations of trolley and horse-drawn bus in those pre-subway days, Davis would travel from the girls academy across the then 10-year-old Brooklyn Bridge to Columbia University’s Barnard College on Madison Ave. near 49th Street. Barnard had been founded as a separate women’s college within the university only three years earlier after Columbia College refused to admit women as co-eds. There she studied the chemistry of food. In the midst of teaching and studying, Davis took on yet another major commitment -- organizing a workingman's model home as part of New York State's display at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
This last great fair of the 19th century, nominally honoring Columbus' voyages of 400 years prior, actually celebrated America's transformation from a society of farms and owner-operated businesses at the start of the 1800s to the industrialized, corporate-controlled urban society evident by the 1890s. For the exposition, Dvorak wrote his New World Symphony and Scott Joplin wrote his ragtime. Inspired by its "White City," L. Frank Baum wrote about an Emerald City in his Wizard of Oz. The exposition ushered in a new age of consumerism with introduction of brand names -- Cream of Wheat, Shredded Wheat, Pabst Beer, Aunt Jemina's syrup and Juicy Fruit gum. -- destined to become as much a part of Americana as the Ferris Wheel, carbonated soda and hamburger, which also were popularized at the fair.
The idea of showing fairgoers a dwelling designed to demonstrate the principles of "domestic science" originated with Vassar Prof. Salmon who promoted Katharine to run it. The New York Board of General Managers for the state's participation in the fair agreed to fund the project, with Davis as director, but stipulated it be "a workingman's model home." She became the general contractor, in effect, and oversaw the design, construction, furnishing, heating, food supplying, selection of the live-in family, their daily menu, their clothing, and the accounting of every penny spent. The experiment was intended to show how a family of five (parents, two children and an infant) could live modestly but comfortably on $500 annual income if correct principles of good nutrition and sanitation were followed. A hard-working laborer might earn close to that amount if steadily employed 60 hours each week throughout the year.
Davis went to Frederick B. Pratt, son of Greenpoint oil baron Charles Pratt who founded in Brooklyn the engineering institute now bearing his name. The senior Pratt had died two years earlier but the son carried on his father's interest in housing reform. Soon faculty members of Pratt Institute, then in its sixth year, were busy drawing up architectural plans for the two-story frame cottage, 20 feet by 28 feet, to go on a fair lot with 25-foot frontage. Davis and her Pratt team deliberately kept the structure simple but sound in order to stay within a $1,000 investment cost of the home that a theoretical owner could then reasonably rent at $10 a month. That would leave the model tenant family $380 of its annual income for other living expenses. Katharine quite literally tracked the cost of everything in the house, down to the nails in the floor, the diapers on the baby and the nutritional unit intake of each family member. She comparison-shopped Brooklyn prices versus Chicago's, going with one or the other depending on relative value.
Davis was handed the project March 4, 1893, with May 1 set as the opening for the six-month fair. Within the few months allowed her to prepare, she had the home up, its family in place, hundreds of fairgoers trooping through daily, and her meticulously-kept records posted for inspection. Turning Salmon's idea into reality had been a prodigious undertaking that Davis carried it off with aplomb. Nevertheless, Katharine was under no illusions that frugality alone -- even when exercised in accord with "sound domestic science" -- answered the pressing social needs of the times. She herself pointed out that her model home budget could make no allowance for old age support, serious sickness, cultural or educational enrichment, religious and community activity, or entertainment. She expressed her own belief in labor organizing to attain fair wages and other social justice. Her little house at the big fair was not meant to solve those larger issues. Its aim was ameliorative -- to show that scientifically correct housekeeping could help limited income stretch far enough to make a modest home warm, comfortable and healthy for the frugal family.
The exposition significantly impacted on Davis' life. Moving her off the classroom teaching track, it started her on a new career path, that of an administrator. Her model home accomplishments became widely known. After all, the fair drew a million or more visitors every week, with thousands stopping by Katharine's cottage.
As a result, she was offered the position of head worker (administrator) of a settlement house in a Philadelphia district of struggling blacks and Russian immigrants. She could have returned to teaching the daughters of middle class families, in Brooklyn Heights or elsewhere. Given the economic climate, that might have seemed the safer, wiser course. For despite the fair proclaiming the achievements of American ingenuity and industry, the country was in the throes of a devastating economic depression, unemployment and homelessness were widespread, labor unrest often erupted into violent strikes. Nevertheless, she chose service to the working poor and jobless.
In making that choice, she had near at hand in Chicago a ready example of settlement work -- Hull House, founded by Jane Addams and Ellen Starr four years earlier. It was an American version of a social reform program developed in London by Octavia Hill and her sisters, with the help of John Ruskin, starting in the mid-1860s. Settlement concerns included housing, sanitation, nutrition, health care, literacy, employment, vocational training, general education, cultural enrichment and moral uplift. With mutual interest in settlement work as the start, Addams and Davis would develop a professional relationship of mutual respect and social reform support prompting one journalist decades later to quip: "If Jane Addams were President [of the United States], Katharine Davis would be her Vice President."
The exposition also introduced Davis to Chicago University that had begun operating only eight months earlier on a campus adjacent to the fair grounds. Its dean of women students was Prof. Salmon's friend and former Michigan University classmate, Alice Freeman Palmer, wife of Harvard professor and philosopher George Herbert Palmer. As surely as Salmon would have visited the fair to see how her model home idea had been implemented, she would have visited Palmer with Davis. Although not involved in the New York State model home display, Palmer was one of the "lady managers" for the Chicago exposition. Students and faculty often strolled off the campus and onto the adjoining fairgrounds, just as fair personnel might seek out the quieter campus for relief from the exposition noise. When Katharine would return to the campus four years later as a graduate student, the dean would be Marion Talbot. Nevertheless, the Chicago U. connection for Davis had been forged at the fair.