The American period between 1890 and 1920 is sometimes known as the Progressive Era. It was the time the term “muckraking” applied to journalism, and the press led the way in opposing corruption in government and big business. In 1906, Upton Sinclair wrote “The Jungle”, exposing all sorts of misdeeds in Chicago’s meat packing business. It led in a straight line to the passage of that year’s Pure Food And Drug Act. The work of reformers like Jacob Riis in New York City and Jane Addams in Chicago created both awareness and response in the tenements and factories of booming and often squalid urban environments.
This era also marked a strong beginning for the creation and empowerment of what could be called a middle class. Women in particular found their voice and more than enough work to do. They organized though this time for the right to vote, leading to passage of the 19th Amendment in1920. Women were exceptionally active in forming clubs, and working through religious institutions. They collectively pushed for a prohibition on alcohol, and better treatment of children. They also had fun, and women like movie stars Clara Bow began setting more relaxed fashion and living trends that informed what became the “roaring 20’s”.
A most remarkable woman, Fannie Hamilton Ayars, was married for 58 years to an accomplished local obstetrician/gynecologist, Treston Reed Ayars. Fannie herself founded Christian Hospital, the Christian Old People’s Home and the Mothers and Babies Home in Ferguson.
She was a great example of her time in St Louis – traditional while firmly engaged and active in social reform. Her focus was on the Christian treatment of indigent mothers and babies in the city. This would become a lifelong passion of hers, fortified by her non-sectarian religious views.
In addition to being an organizational genius, Fannie was a woman of some means and in 1900 dedicated The Mothers And Babies Home, at 3047 North Taylor. It was non-denominational and unsupported by an endowment. No worries, because Fannie was easily able to mobilize others to support her cause, and generated many schemes to raise funds for the Home. In 1910, Fannie convinced Mayor Beall of Alton Illinois to chair the judging group for three benefit baby shows at a Mothers And Babies County Fair in University City. Among other diversions, the event featured a three-ring circus. Mayor Beall even brought three babies from Alton to compete with St Louis’ finest.
In 1910, society girls volunteered to sell peanuts at the County Fair in support of the home. The volume of sales each girl generated was predicted to be proportional to her general loveliness, so one must imagine the spirited completion that ensued.
The first “Button Day” was proclaimed by the management of the Mothers And Babies Home in May of 1911. There was a public announcement made from the Planters House hotel downtown. 500 society and club women volunteered to raise funds for the campaign by canvassing every office downtown. By 1911, the Home had already cared for 2113 homeless children and 1047 needy mothers in its decade of existence. Its success led to further successes.
The St Louis Star And Times took notice and in May 1911 had posted a tribute to Fannie. It wrote, “No life is more inspiring in its manifold interests and usefulness than that of Mrs. F. R. Ayars.“ It described in detail her “actual sacrifices made”, wrapping up by saying that she “in every way fosters and upholds the institution which stands for so much in the community.”
The Mothers and Babies Home became a local cause celebre, drawing the sympathies and support of the community. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to play a role in helping the waifs and unfortunate mothers. Fannie was particularly gifted at tapping into the appeal of a pretty girl seeking largesse from businessmen downtown.
Magazine magnate Edward Gardner Lewis, a women’s advocate and the farsighted father of University City sponsored county fairs that provided yearly funds to the Mothers And Babies Home. See the photo below. In the foreground of what was then the Ladies Magazine Building, and now City Hall, society women sell items to raise money. The relationship between Lewis and Ayars was so successful that the Home took up permanent residence in the former Park Hotel on Washington Avenue in University City.
By May of 1914, the Home, in its fifteen year history, had cared for 3553 children. In 1913 alone, it placed 41 children in foster homes. Fannie devised a thorough screening process to ensure that adopted children found appropriate homes. The organization now known as the Christian Women’s Natural Benevolent Association stipulated that potential foster parents must “satisfy the officers that they are responsible socially, morally and physically. They had to provide five references: from a minister, physician, banker, and two citizens of the city.”
Fannie realized several key things about St Louis in the summer: it’s hot, it’s humid, and it’s hard to escape without the means to do so. Her heart went out to the poor in the sweltering brick city, with the stress of climate added to their plate of daily misfortune.
In June of 1914, Fannie Ayars became aware of a program in New York City to provide milk and free ice to needy mothers during the summer. She began demanding a similar program for St Louis. By the end of that month, pure milk and free ice stations were begun downtown.
Edward W. Saunders was a highly respected physician, and probably the first pediatrician west of the Mississippi River. He practiced obstetrics and pediatrics from 1526 Mississippi Ave in Lafayette Square until the great tornado of 1896 ruined his facilities. Eager to give something to charity in return for his own good fortune, Richard Scruggs, of the Scruggs, Vandervoort and Barney stores gave Saunders $100,000, which was used to found “Bethesda General Hospital, and homes for children, for indigent mothers, for cure of the aged, and incurables.” Dr Saunders was also Chairman of Child Hygiene for the City of St Louis. When he made public pronouncements regarding health policy, the community most often followed. At this time in 1914, he advocated for Fannie Ayar’s milk and ice program, but went further, stating that what was needed was “space provided at every park as sleeping places for babies and mothers whose homes are death traps in the torrid spells.” The Post Dispatch rejoiced that St Louis “may then claim that no city does more for its infant population.” The city and womens’ clubs immediately set to work.
The first choice was Forest Park, but it was ruled out as the (still uncovered at the time) River DesPeres had “an ill odor in the early morning hours”. The old City Commons had long since become Lafayette Park and the presence of a local police force kept it relatively safe. It was easy to reach from downtown, and on high ground, so a bit cooler than the surrounding city. It also had the support of Dr. Saunders. In July of 1914, 24 tents were placed in the park, and a program was begun.
This camp was initiated by The St Louis Council of Mothers’ Clubs of the Mothers Congress. The facility provided mosquito netting, milk, cots and blankets. Mayor Kiel and other local luminaries spoke at the dedication.
Nineteen mothers and babies stayed the first night. A nurse and physician were on duty ,and each infant was examined for communicable disease and general health upon arrival. The camp had a stove and icebox, and police protection all night. St Louis had done it right.
United Railways, which had taken over operation of the old Peoples Railway line to Lafayette Park, ran special cars both after 7:30 pm, and again in the morning, It transported mothers and babies without charge, and without them having to transfer lines.
On July 18th, the Mothers Camp withstood its first inclement weather. “Wind howled, rain poured, and tent flaps had to be let down on all sides.” Two police patrolmen worked through the night to hold the tents down in the storm.
By the end of August, the camp in Lafayette Square had played host to 885 mothers and small children from the “tenement districts”.
In 1915, the Mothers and Babies Button Day raised $3800 for the home on North Taylor. A camp was started on the grounds of the home. Meanwhile, an all night camp was again set up in Lafayette Park, by the Congress of Mothers and Parent Teachers Association of St Louis, hoping to duplicate the success of the preceding year. Appropriately, it was under the direction of one Mrs. Charles Comfort. There were fundraisers for this effort as well. In April, the Top Notch Minstrels gave two performances at the Odeon theater for the benefit of the free sleeping camp.
It was a scorcher of a late summer. The Polar Wave Ice and Fuel Company stepped up to provide free ice for homes of poor mothers with babies. H.C. Burmeister, sales manager, said Polar Wave supplied, through churches, charities and visiting nurses, fifteen pounds of ice to each of 250 families daily during July.
In Lafayette Park a large tent was erected on its Park Avenue side near Mississippi Avenue. It held 80 cots for babies less than three years of age and their mothers. Another site was planned that summer for Jackson Park, at 11th and Market Street.
By the next summer, seven city parks had facilities available: Forest Park, Lyon Park, Lafayette Park, Soulard Park, Carr Square, Jackson Park and Hyde Park. Now any city resident sick from the heat was welcome to cool off in these facilities, but had to provide their own blankets and netting. Police protection was present everywhere but Forest Park. Just in July, the sites saw 1164 mothers and babies. During the late summer of 1917, Lafayette Park alone hosted 1077.
That same year, a new group, The Women’s Auxiliary Of The Provident Association ran a summer health camp for sick mothers and babies. It promised good food and fresh air for two weeks at a house near Boyd, Missouri, provided rent-free, and could accommodate 30 mothers and their children. Transportation, cots, mattresses, and dishes were provided, and a trained nurse was on duty there. Back home, Little Melba Barth performed in a fundraiser at the Victoria Theater on Delmar. The National Congress Of Mothers again arranged for use of Lafayette Park and Jackson Park. Mothers were invited to “spend periods during hot weather to relieve the strain of sultry weather in congested areas.”
Having girls and young ladies sell things in offices and on the streets was an early example of a concept that went viral. So effective that others quickly followed the same approach, direct fundraising soon grew to become an unregulated nuisance. There is some inescapable appeal to this – the Girl Scouts today sell 200 million boxes of cookies per year with a door to door smile. On June 5th 1917, a grumpy city council ruled against the selling of buttons on Button Day in St Louis, after six years of allowing it. Fannie Ayars complained to the Star and Times that her organization cleared between $2000-$5000 on Button Day, which provided its principal means of support. Moreover, they were stuck with an inventory of 45,000 unsold buttons.
By early 1918, the Mothers and Babies Home was comfortably lodged in University City at 6600 Washington Avenue. It had cared for more than 7000 homeless mothers and babies over the preceding 19 years. In April of that year, Fannie Ayars opened 100 thrift gardens on the property, which were given to orphan children at the home. Each 25 by 10 foot plot was assigned to a child in the home who was old enough to tend it. Another group, the St Louis Provident Association began a children’s camp in Kimmswick, Missouri. The Mothers and Babies Camp in Lafayette Park also reopened in August and ran through September.
Awareness of the importance of public health came around slowly in the U.S., and generally as the response to infectious catastrophes. St Louis was certainly no stranger to septic crises, and dealt with periodic summer waves of cholera resulting from poor sanitation. The city had no sewers in the 1840’s, and the build up of sewage led city engineer Henry Kayser to divert wastewater into limestone caves beneath St Louis. It leaked into ground water and wells, and by 1849, a full blown cholera epidemic resulted, costing the city one life out of every eleven.
Similar waves of smallpox, yellow fever and cholera killed people and spread fear and even panic through urban America during the 19th century. Congress eventually (1902) voted funds for a Public Health And Marine Hospital Service (the main means of international transmission was via the sea), which later (1912) became todays Public Health Service. The Pure Food And Drug Act was passed in 1906 and eventually its work was folded into the New Deal era Federal Security Agency.
A terrible reminder of what happens to people in close quarters with poor sanitation followed in the closing days of World War I. Soldiers and refugees returning home quickly and globally spread what was called the Spanish Flu. It ended up killing from 20 to 50 million people, and afflicted an estimated 33% of the worlds population. 675,000 Americans died from effects of the flu, more than five times the fatalities America had suffered during the war.
This generated a profound sensitivity to outbreaks, and informs what happened next with Fannie Ayars and her Mothers and Babies Home in University City. From August to November of 1918, a wave of diphtheria swept through the home, and killed 27 of the 127 children resident there. The home was placed under quarantine, but there were reports of the facility ignoring its isolation. A review by St Louis Childrens Hospital determined that many of the children at the home were undernourished. Fannie Ayars claimed that keeping a suitable medical staff was impossible due to the war having so depleted nurses and doctors. She admitted that the children had little meat and no eggs (claiming that at $0.92 per dozen, they were out of the question), but that they had abundant homegrown vegetables.
Local sentiment quickly turned against the home, which was quarantined in October, and cited with violations of University City health regulations. To comply with the city’s stipulations for reopening was complicated, as it demanded that all exterior and interior walls be repainted, all furniture and bedding be replaced and new arrangements made for isolation cases. Mrs Ayars estimated that the cost would be upwards of $50,000. Deserting a sinking ship, The Central Council For Social Agencies withdrew the homes certification, which doomed charitable contributions. Without Button Day revenues, there wasn’t funding to comply, nor to move. A citizens committee recommended closure of the facility. Fannie bitterly complained that escalating land values were leading city leaders to force the home out, in order to free up the land for development. She also claimed that upscale neighbors objected to orphans playing and attending schools with children from the home.
In late November of 1919, the Mothers and Babies Home transferred its children to a new institution across the river in Albion, Illinois. It had the capacity to accommodate 100 children. 6600 Washington Avenue was kept by Ayars, and turned into a home for care of the aged. By September, Fannie had also begun a small home for mothers and babies in Ferguson Missouri.
An obituary in September of 1934 noted that Mrs T.R. (Fannie) Ayars, the founder of the Mothers and Babies Home and Christian Hospital at 2821 Lawton Avenue and Christian Old Peoples Home at 6600 Washington had died of complications from an appendectomy. She had no children of her own, but had adopted four daughters, and was survived by her
physician husband. Treston Reed Ayars lived and worked until 1961, seeing her legacy through with the development of Christian Hospital of St Louis. It grew to become a 134 bed hospital with a yearly budget of $600,000 by 1953. It was still overseen by Ayar’s Christian Women’s Benevolent Association, led by Fannie until her death. The hospital was eventually merged into the BJC Health system, but still operates today.
All in all, a pretty good legacy to go out on, and it certainly took in a sweep of history. Fannie is worthy of admiration in a number of ways, but maybe most so because she never made a penny doing what she did. Like Lafayette Square’s Dr. Saunders, she poured all she had into her work. Like Saunders, she never did much in terms of recreation, not because she wasn’t into fun, but simply because there was so much to be done.
The outdoor summer tent camps continued, and I could trace them to summer of 1921. Eventually, the care of the indigent and heat-stricken was institutionalized by the government, and folded into much larger (by necessity) programs during the Great Depression. It’s interesting to consider the lives a city park leads, and the potentials it provides under a cool leafy cover. Next time you stroll through Lafayette Park, try imagining a row of tents, with their inhabitants getting a cooking demonstration, like this article from 1917 highlights:
Thanks To Research Sources, including:
US National Library Of Medicine; https://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/phs_history/intro.html for short history of the US Public Health Service
https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-I/1918-flu-pandemic for history of the post war global flu
Tim O’Neil July 18 2010 Post Dispatch article; https://www.stltoday.com/news/local/metro/a-look-back-cholera-epidemic-hit-a-peak-here-in/article_f50b669f-a4c8-595b-bc6a-d3d9833ffc14.html for some local epidemiology
Various St Louis Post Dispatch and St Louis Star Times Articles
A nice history of Children’s Hospital on its 50th anniversary appeared in the June 8 1953 issue of Everyday Magazine by the St Louis Post Dispatch
Drawing of Forest Park tent camp in 1920 by Marguerite Martyn
A couple of works, now in the public domain, that actually affected the course of the Progressive Era are:
How The Other Half Lives; Jacob Riis; 1890
The Jungle; Upton Sinclair; 1904