It wasn’t the first newspaper column geared toward children, but “Aunt Jean’s Daily Talk” published in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle beginning in the early twentieth century was one of the most influential during its long run. “Aunt Jean’s Daily Talk” was a special section set aside “for [our] young readers”, news for Aunt Jean’s “nieces and nephews”.
The column featured stories geared toward children and fun things like contests, puzzles and various clubs (entertainment, humane, games and more). Children joined the clubs and regularly wrote to Aunt Jean submitting their stories, poems and drawings (many quite good), garnering credits for prizes. They learned about history, how to be kind to animals, being kind to one another, how to be a good citizen and more.
Typically a child’s letter would be signed “your nephew” or “your niece” and covered a range of topics:
Dear Aunt Jean – I want to ask you if any of the baseball teams need a player aged thirteen. I am a good player and will furnish my own suit. I could call and see the captain of a team on Saturday afternoon at 3 o’clock. I am a very fine catcher and pitcher and would like to belong to one of the teams and help win a good name for it. Your nephew, LEWIS A. WALDRON
Dear Aunt Jean – Inclosed [sic] please find a stamp which I omitted to put in my letter yesterday when I returned the list of credit winners with my name. The skates I received for 100 credits are just fine. At first they kept running backward and I had a good many falls; but now I can skate very well and have quite a good time with them after school. I am waiting for my button which I sent for and hope it will arrive soon. Lovingly your nephew, CARL C. FREYER1
Aunt Jean always referred to the children as her “nieces and nephews” and signed her letters “Affectionately, Aunt Jean”, which no doubt engendered a bond of trust between her and the young readers who wrote letters like this one from a young girl in 1907:
Dear Aunt Jean – I must write and tell you how much I enjoy your little talks each evening. I think they are just lovely. I am going to save them and paste them in a book because when there is a question I want to ask you I can read them over and save the 2 cents that I would need for the stamp, and if you had a fund I would put that money in it. Your niece, MINNIE DUNTEE2
Children were encouraged to send in their own stories and I imagine more than a few later became writers like Florence Jean Soman who published her first novel in 1953 after writing short stories for women’s magazines for several years. She traced her first literary attempts back to childhood when she contributed short stories and poems to Aunt Jean.
Many of the stories submitted were like this one:
My Cat and the Fly Paper
One day my cat was going to go to sleep on the sewing machine when she laid right in the fly paper. She ran around the house like a crazy cat. I quickly got some hot water and soap. I then started to wash her. But I could not get it all off. In a few days she had licked it off. So since that time she has kept her eyes open to see that she does not get into any more fly paper. LILLIE GLASSEY3
The daily special section might occupy half of an entire page, usually toward the back of the newspaper, but over the years the column was downsized to “Aunt Jean’s Column”, except for Sundays when a section called the Junior Eagle occupied an entire page all its own. Nevertheless, one constant was “Aunt Jean”, although through the years a number of different women took on the role of aunt to thousands of young nieces and nephews.
Elizabeth Ballou, Lilias Rogers, Marie Craig and Thyra Espenscheid were a few of those women whose names I could locate, all making an impact on young lives during their stints as Aunt Jean for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Here are a couple of tidbits about Marie Craig, who later married James Inciardi, and Thyra Espenscheid.
Marie Craig Inciardi later became a nurse after serving on the editorial staff at the Eagle. In November of 1941, just one month before the United States would be drawn into World War II, she was involved in an incident which made front-page headlines:
Baby Wields Loaded Gun – Mother Thinks It’s a Toy
Marie happened upon the scene at the Flatbush Savings Bank where her neighbor Mrs. Ethel Meyers was accompanied by her two and-a-half year old son Robert. It seems little Robert had been playing for an hour with what his mother thought was a harmless water pistol. He had been waving the pistol around, trying to pull the trigger, and joyfully shouting “Bing!”.
Marie was sure the gun was the real thing and called over a letter carrier to ask his opinion. He thought the same thing and they called the police. As the policeman approached Robert’s stroller, the tot continued to yell “Bing!”. The newspaper surmised the cop “trembled slightly and gulped and turned pale as he gingerly reached out and took the gun”.4 Police suspected someone may have been anxious to get rid of the gun and dropped it into the stroller. Yikes!
Thyra Espenscheid won awards for her skills as a bread baker, but always considered herself a writer at heart. Although she had been cooking “since she was knee-high to the oven door” (15 Oct 1943, p. 19), cooking was just too much work. At the age of ten “shy little Thyra Turner Musgrave found her first encouragement to write when she entered a State competition on ‘Save Niagra Falls from Commercial Use.’”
Thyra had never visited the falls, but her description and arguments for preservation of the natural wonder won her the prize for her district. In addition to her stint as “Aunt Jean”, she also published articles, poems and books under the pen name Thyra Turner.
While I wasn’t able to determine just exactly when the “Daily Talks” began, a search at Newspapers.com yielded results beginning in 1907 and continuing in one form or another into the 1940’s. “Aunt Jean” also gave radio talks such as the one broadcast on April 4, 1922, addressing herself to the “little ones” who had been permitted by their parents to stay up until after nine o’clock to hear her. Although the radio program, sponsored by the Brooklyn Eagle, was geared toward an adult audience with a talk that day concerning coal strike issues, Aunt Jean’s announcement about a little contest was intended to ensure children were tuned in for the next broadcast.
When I came across these columns awhile back I mused about those “good old days”, days when childhood took on more of an innocence than today. Oh, how things have changed! Back then children felt a lot safer and trusting of adults in general. Today’s children are far less safe, sadly even in their own homes and schools. Television shows like The Muppets, once geared for children, now has an “adult version” as noted in one article entitled: “Hey, everybody: Stop freaking out about the Muppets having sex” – and lamentably the list goes on.
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle influenced thousands in a good way with their “Aunt Jean” section for children. Years later grown adults would recall that influence. In 1953, Eleanor Levison wrote to the Eagle’s editors how as a child she daily read Aunt Jean’s column. She, along with hundreds of other children, sent in their poetry, stories, book reports and drawings – so proud when they were printed. She and her sister were constantly competing to see who could get the most drawings and stories printed. Kids looked forward each summer to the Aunt Jean and Eagle-sponsored trip to Coney Island.
Arthur Rosencrans grew up in Brooklyn in the early 1900’s, later becoming a prominent businessman in the community. In 1953 he wrote:
My association with the Eagle dates back to the early days of the century when I spent many pleasant and fruitful childhood hours as a protégé of the Aunt Jean of that period. As a constant reader through the years I have always been impressed by the fine work of the Eagle in its endeavors to make Brooklyn a better place in which to live. This great newspaper has served to make our children better citizens and loyal Brooklynites.5
Ah, the “good old days” … we sure could use Aunt Jean today couldn’t we?
Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!
© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2015.