Arthur woman had a significant career in Detroit in 1920s

The village of Arthur was the least industrialized of Wellington County’s towns in the 19th and 20th centuries. Indeed, apart from some anti-Catholic agitation that peaked in the 1890s, it was a quiet and unremarkable town, serving largely as a business centre for the agricultural district surrounding it.

Two daughters of Arthur, Florence and Ethel Anderson, found  careers with the Young Women’s Christian Association. In that capacity they eventually found themselves in Detroit, Florence as Associate General Secretary of the YWCA in the city, and Ethel as secretary of the Detroit East Side Branch. The city was as far removed from Arthur in every sense as was possible.

Detroit was a somewhat sleepy city at the beginning of the twentieth century. The population in 1890 reached 286,000. During the next 20 years the city became increasingly the centre of the new automotive industry, which initially had taken root in a band from Ohio to Illinois. By 1930, with the increasing concentration of car making in a few hands and with larger manufacturing facilities, Detroit’s population reached 1,570,000.

That kind of growth taxed the city and all of the services there, both public and private, and created myriad social problems. Many of the new arrivals were from the south, and included both blacks and white people. The whites brought their racist notions with them. Discrimination and friction became rampant, much more so than in other northern US cities.

There were many other problems as well. Housing of any sort was expensive and difficult to find. Demand for employees in the automotive industry attracted thousands of recent immigrants, many of whom spoke little or no English. And many of those who came to Detroit were unmarried and without families.

With huge numbers of young unmarried women in the city, most employed in the offices and plants of the automotive companies, the YWCA had a huge role to play in offering social and recreational activities. Such activity was welcome by the women, who wished to avoid unseemly company and the unsavory activities that were rampant in what had become a one-industry boom town. Among other activities, Florence helped organize bridge clubs, sewing classes, and basketball teams.

Ethel Anderson arrived in Detroit in 1928. The parish house of St. John’s Episcopal Church was made available to the YWCA, and Ethel was quick to take advantage of the offer. Her first program was to organize a version of miniature golf for the young women, using the grounds of the house.

Soon, Ethel had augmented the golf with swimming lessons, bridge games, French lessons, art lessons, courses in etiquette, and even riding lessons. Within two years the parish house quarters were strained to capacity, and close to 500 young women were participating in one or another of the activities, and some in several of them. Ethel Anderson soon had two assistants to help organize the activities.

In the spring of 1930 the newspapers in Detroit became aware of Ethel’s success with her programs, and the ran feature stories on her. “When we started out,” she told one interviewer, “we had the feeling that there was a place in Detroit for a young woman’s club that would reach working girls who felt the need and inclination towards a real club that would have all the attractiveness of home but without the expense usually entailed in such an enterprise.

“At first, we believed that the social problems of young women who had come to the city to work, such as loneliness and want of acquaintanceship, financial stringencies that come into the life of every person who must work for a living, and certain phases of feminine psychology would bring us to a group of women who might be called, in an intellectual sense, ‘problem people.’”

Ethel expressed pleasure that the plan had worked out so well. She attributed that success to the desire of the women to have better lives. A major factor in that success, though, was certainly her own small-town background. In a sense, she was attempting to duplicate the social climate of her native Arthur in a big, booming, impersonal city. The women who were patrons of her programs responded so well because the majority of them came from similar backgrounds across the United States.

The social interaction that resulted were as important as the activities themselves, said Ethel. She described the way the activities had developed. It began when a group of bridge players paused for a few minutes between hands and started discussing dress making. There was a wide range of knowledge and experience among the group. The talking continued later over a dinner served at the house. A few days later, some of the girls began making dresses while others watched and learned.

Soon a number of the woman began working at learning sewing skills. A few announced that they wanted to go into dress making as a vocation, and abandon their boring and repetitive work in the car plant.

The taking of meals at the YWCA house was not planned at the beginning, but many of the single women asked for the service. They disliked having to purchase food, store it, and then prepare meals for only themselves. Many were skipping meals, or eating poorly. The house already had a kitchen and dining room. The women began taking turns at preparing meals, and that soon turned into something of a friendly competition. The result was that the women, many of whom were shift workers, had at least one good meal each day.

The dining room program evolved over time into a private dining option, where one of the girls could book a small dining room on the second floor and serve a meal to a group of her co-workers and friends. According to Ethel Anderson, that part of the program turned out to be a big recruiting tool for the YWCA. Guests at those functions often wished to become regular participants in other YWCA activities.

At the time the article on Ethel Anderson was published the automotive industry in Detroit was at the beginning of a huge decline that would see production fall by about 75% in three years. Women in the 1920s had invariably been underpaid relative to men, and the situation became worse under the pressure of cutbacks and massive layoffs.

The need for the services of the YWCA no doubt became more acute during the early 1930s, but nothing seems to have been published on that part of the organization’s history in Detroit, or on the later careers of Florence and Dorothy Anderson.

Detroit’s fortunes boomed again during World War II, with housing shortages and social problems similar to those in the 1920s. Prosperity continued until the early 1950s.

But racial problems soon emerged again. White people began their migration to the suburbs and elsewhere, and the car manufacturing dispersed across the continent. Detroit’s population peaked at about 1.9 million about 1951. Since then it has declined to 700,000 and is still dropping as the city continues to try to deal with immense social and economic problems. The Detroit YWCA continues to serve the community.

The differences between Detroit and Arthur, the home town of Ethel and Florence Anderson, could not be greater. But for a time, the two women made life in the big city far more comfortable and sociable than it would have been otherwise, largely by introducing some of the small town virtues they had grown up with in Arthur.


Stephen Thorning