Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2018/Fall/Section 3/ElsieMatson

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Elsie Matson
BornCirca 1915
North Carolina
DiedUnknown
Cause of deathUnknown
ResidenceChapel Hill, NC
NationalityAmerican
EthnicityCaucasian
EducationCollege

Biography[edit]

Overview[edit]

Elsie Matson was a prostitute who lived in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Although it is unclear what her last name was, in the interview she referred to herself as Mrs. Matson, the last name of her first husband. She was interviewed by Claude V. Dunnagan for the Federal Writers Project on June 13, 1939.[1]

Life[edit]

Elsie Matson was born around 1915 in an unknown "slum" in North Carolina. As a child, Matson lived in poverty, and she would string tobacco sacks for twenty cents a day. Not much is known about Matson's childhood. After she inherited money from a rich uncle, Matson went to college. Education was very important to Matson. She passed all her classes her first year, participating in the glee club and acting as well.[2]

Matson was then introduced to Donald Matson and became pregnant. The two married and moved into the mountains in western North Carolina. Donald then began to work for his uncle selling insurance in Virginia and would come home once every two weeks. Matson gave birth in 1935 to her son William, and soon after, Donald died in a automobile wreck.[3]

Soon after, Matson married a man she met in college, Allan Craston. Craston had money, and his father was invested in the turpentine business. She and William moved to Edgeville where Craston lived. Matson suffered a miscarriage, which caused Craston to begin to drink and become violent. Matson soon found out that Craston was having an affair, and left him to return to the mountains. Craston killed himself soon after.[4]

Once in the mountains, Matson could not find a job. She traveled to Winston-Salem to find work. Matson ran into an old friend, who offered her a job in a brothel in Wilmington. Matson first declined, however, after William became sick, Matson took the job.[5]

Children playing in their backyard in a slum near Washington DC.

[6]

After 6 months, Matson's brothel was closed up after they became illegal, and Matson traveled from town to town, visiting "only the best hotels" as a prostitute. She paid for William to be kept in the mountains and go to an expensive school there. Nothing is known about the rest of Matson's life or her death.[7]

Social Issues[edit]

Prostitution During the 30s and 40s[edit]

In the 40s, many women turned to prostitution when they needed money to support hungry families. This business was profitable, and in Chicago, the business made fifteen to sixteen million dollars a year[8], with "the average girl earn[ing] very much more in such a life than she can hope to earn by any honest work."[9] This fact would seem very attractive to desperate women, who did not want to go into prostitution. This line of work was profitable because the supply of girls fell far below the demand for prostitutes.[10]

There were multiple types of prostitution at this time. The common types were houses, call girls, streetwalkers, and call flats[11]. Police were supposed to deal with each type of prostitute in a different way. Many police were called in to stop the spread of syphilis and gonorrhea[12]. In many states, including North Carolina, one could obtain a license to own a brothel, as long as the residents were disease-free and given regular check-ups. Eventually, prostitution was entirely illegal in the state of North Carolina. When arrested. prostitutes were required to have a medical examination[13].

Many women began to take a stand against prostitution during the Great Depression. One such reformer was Jane Addams, who opened her famous Hull House in Chicago, to give refuge to poor women who wanted to start living "honest lives"[14]. Another group in St. Louis educated women about sexually transmitted diseases, and tackled issues of sexuality, morality, and social disease[15].

Slums in the Early 1900s[edit]

During the Great Depression, the rise of slums caused an increase in diseases. Slums were areas that were "congested and [had] insanitary housing conditions.[16]" Muckraker Jacob Riis exposed these problems in his 1890s book How the Other Half Lives[17]. In this book, he took photos and wrote about the conditions of tenement living in New York City. New York City was a gateway for immigrants to enter into the United States, therefore many ended up settling in the city. This increase of inhabitants created a need for mass cheap housing, which was how the tenant system was born[18].

These tenants suffered conditions such as "impure water supply, insanitary toilets, lack of private toilets, lack of sewer connections, overcrowding, lack of light, lack of adequate ventilation, excessive dampness, dilapidation, [and] lack of screening against flies and mosquitoes.[19]" From these problems stemmed disease and mortality, as disease spread quickly, specifically infant mortality, pulmonary tuberculosis, and pneumonia[20].

In 1935, a bill was passed to "promote the public health, safety, and welfare" by getting rid of dangerous slums and providing low-cost housing options[21]. $800,000,000 was given to the housing division to fix this problem[22].

References[edit]

  1. "When Spring Comes." Interview by Claude V. Dunnagan. Federal Writers' Project, June 13, 1939, 4890-907.
  2. Ibid
  3. Ibid
  4. Ibid
  5. Ibid
  6. Mydans, Carl. Children playing in backyard in slum area near capitol. This area inhabited by both white and Negro, Washington, D.C. September, 1935. Library of Congress, United States.
  7. "When Spring Comes." Interview by Claude V. Dunnagan. Federal Writers' Project, June 13, 1939, 4890-907.
  8. Addams, Jane. A new conscience and an ancient evil. University of Illinois Press, 2002.
  9. Ibid
  10. Ibid
  11. United States. National Advisory Police Committee on Social Protection and United States. Office of Community War Services. Division of social protection. Techniques of Law Enforcement Against Prostitution 1943.
  12. American Bar Association. Committee on courts and wartime social protection. Veneral Disease, Prostitution and War. United States: 1943.
  13. United States. National Advisory Police Committee on Social Protection and United States. Office of Community War Services. Division of social protection. Techniques of Law Enforcement Against Prostitution 1943.
  14. Addams, Jane. A new conscience and an ancient evil. University of Illinois Press, 2002.
  15. Wagman, Jamie Schmidt. "Women Reformers Respond during the Depression: Battling St. Louis's Disease and Immorality." Journal of Urban History 35, no. 5 (2009): 698-717.
  16. United States. Congress. Senate. Committee on Education and Labor. Slum and Low-Rent Public Housing. Hearings before the Committee on Education and Labor, United States Senate, Seventy-Fourth Congress, First Session, on S. 2392, a Bill to Promote the Public Health, Safety. United States: 1935.
  17. Riis, Jacob. How the Other Half Lives. New York City: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1890.
  18. Breting-Garcia, Victoria. Riis, Jacob. Vol. 4 2011.
  19. United States. Congress. Senate. Committee on Education and Labor. Slum and Low-Rent Public Housing. Hearings before the Committee on Education and Labor, United States Senate, Seventy-Fourth Congress, First Session, on S. 2392, a Bill to Promote the Public Health, Safety. United States: 1935.
  20. Ibid
  21. Ibid
  22. Ibid