Local restrooms played a small role in women’s suffrage

During the late 19th Century and early 20th Century, a “restroom” was not just the place where people would go to do their “business” (for lack of a better phrase).

The above photo was taken in the mid-1910s and shows the ladies’ rest room of Larsen Brothers Inc., a clothing store owned by H.B. Larsen and located on River Street.

The above photo was taken in the mid-1910s and shows the ladies’ rest room of Larsen Brothers Inc., a clothing store owned by H.B. Larsen and located on River Street.

A restroom was essentially more of a lounge area (that might include a place for a water closet/toilet) and in essence would be just what the term implies, a place to rest or recuperate for a short period of time.

In 1920, two women’s restrooms were installed in Manistee. What makes the creation of these restrooms, at this point in history, especially interesting is that it further solidified the progression of the the women’s suffrage movement of which the efforts would soon become law.

Near the turn of the 20th Century, the idea of separate restrooms for males and females was hardly a new topic. Even though actual laws did not go into place until the 1920s, there were several local buildings that did have separate “restrooms” or “drawing rooms” for men and women.

One of these places was the Elks Lodge, which two years after organizing in Manistee had decorated its new headquarters in the upstairs portion of the newly constructed Winkler Block located at 312 River Street (today’s Blue Fish Kitchen & Bar). A description of the lodge published in the Manistee Daily News on Feb. 23, 1895 includes a write-up of the extravagantly decorated ladies’ dressing room:

“Off from the reading room and protected by a pretty screen is the ladies’ dressing room. It may be termed a gem, it is the only room in the suite that has been decorated. The prevailing color of the room is light mauve. The ceiling is done in mottled work, mouldings stand out in relief as borders, below which vines of morning glories drop, making a pleasing effort.

“Here everything has been arranged for the comfort and convenience of the fair sex. The carpet is of ingrain with Grecian design in harmony with the decorations. The suite of furniture is birch with brocatelle upholstery. The woodwork is inlaid with figures of novel design. Striped silk curtains with bouclette effect cover the windows. Over a chiffonier of rare design are suspended two electric lights which throw a glow over the room and the person who may be standing in front of the pier glass that adorns this piece of furniture. The room is also supplied with toilet room, marble washstand and umbrella holder. No expense has been spared in the furnishings.”

By the late-1910s, several states had already granted women the right to vote while over 20 states, including Michigan, had allowed partial rights for women to vote in statewide and local elections.

It was during this time in American history that the role of women in society began to change as more women graduated from universities and began to work outside of the home. Additionally, by 1917 the United States had entered World War I and women were called upon to take up the slack left by men off fighting the war.

In 1918, an amendment to the Constitution was finally proposed by Congress declaring that no one be denied the right to vote based on their sex. After a number of close votes, the amendment was eventually passed by the House of Representatives in May 1919 and then passed by the Senate in June 1919.

However, in order for the amendment to become law, it needed to be ratified by a total of 36 state legislatures.

Several articles published in the Manistee News Advocate throughout the early months of 1920 discuss the advancements of the women’s suffrage movement as do smaller things that happened locally.

While one could profess that the addition of two new restrooms in Manistee was a tiny, tiny part of the overall suffrage movement, the topic did make local headlines and is another way to show that equal rights were starting be more accepted. To this end, the topic of a ladies’ restroom/club room for the Manistee Iron Works was discussed by management in late May of 1920. An article published in the News Advocate on May 21, 1920 provides details:

“A ladies rest and club room is to be one of the innovations for the feminine staff of employees at the Manistee Iron Works. General Manager Ed Turner has authorized them to equip the place to suit their needs, and all are enthusiastically planning the things that will make the rooms comfortable.

“Some attractive pieces of furniture will be added first. Accommodations are also at hand to serve lunches. The rooms were put to use last night as a meeting place for the “ukulele club.” Recently the offices of the plant were rearranged and in the reconstruction process the club rooms were added.”

Some six weeks later, The Pilot Club, which was made up of a group of 12 high society women for the purpose of community betterment, decided to begin raising funds to lease and redecorate a building on Maple Street for the purpose of a restroom that was to be used primarily by women and children but not exclusively. An article published in the News Advocate on June 17, 1920, describes the club’s project:

“The initiative in a public welfare project to meet a long-left need, which has long been agitated but never realized in Manistee, was taken yesterday, when the Pilot Club closed a lease for one year on the building at 82 Maple Street, formerly occupied by the late Justice Erb’s court, and authorized announcement that it will be equipped as a rest room for women and children and a club room for young people.

“The former prosy courtroom is to be quickly converted into an attractive rest and comfort room, a convenience to women visitors and their children, and a meeting place, under proper chaperonage, for the boys and girls of the city. The place will first be thoroughly renovated, remodeled and redecorated, the club members themselves attending to the last mentioned improvement.

“Facilities will be provided for tourists to eat their luncheons at the Pilot Rest Room, by which name the place will be known, and possibly coffee will be served. An experienced matron will be engaged to direct the work, and to extend a hearty welcome to all visitors. It is planned also to utilize the Rest Room as a club three evenings each week, one for boys, one for girls, and one for boys and girls.

“In this rather extensive undertaking in a new field of service, the Pilot Club bespeaks and merits the cordial cooperation of other welfare and civic organizations. Subscriptions of money or donations of dishes, chairs, etc., will be gratefully accepted.”

By the middle of July, the Pilot Rest Room was completed. While initially discussed as being solely used for women and children, it does seem that the Pilot Club changed the purpose to “anyone seeking rest.” Regardless, the important thing was that women were able to be thought of more equally to men.

Roughly one month later, more and more states had approved the amendment giving women the right to vote and on Aug. 18, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to do so. On Aug. 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment was officially certified and women were finally given the right to vote in every election.

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Posted by Mark Fedder

Mark Fedder is the executive director of the Manistee County Historical Musuem. He can be reached at (231) 723-5531 ormanisteemuseum@yahoo.com.

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