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Meet You at de Lendrecie’s

The phrase “rest room” meant something different a century ago than what it does today. It was a new phrase in the 1890s, which came into general usage a decade later, during what is known as the Progressive Era — a time of political and societal reform across the country, from Congress right down to the local community.

Progressive reformers wanted rest rooms — by which they meant places of rest downtown in the country towns where farmers, along with their families, came to trade. A rest room in, say, 1910, meant a space that had (indoor) toilets, yes, but they were situated along with a lounge, specifically for the rest and comfort of rural women — farm women who, generally accompanied by their children, came to town with their husbands to transact business.

The problem was, the women concluded their business — which included trading butter and eggs at the grocery store as well as general shopping — more quickly than the men, and then the women were left with nowhere to go while waiting for their husbands. They had to hang out in a livery or some such place with no conveniences, but often with manure.

The proposition of rest rooms in country towns is the subject, believe it or not, of a PhD dissertation at Middle Tennessee State, a work that pursues case studies in five communities, including Northfield, Minnesota, and Lyons, Kansas. Clearly, the reform movement for rest rooms was important in the midwest and Great Plains.

From this dissertation we learn what drove the reform, and who accomplished it. Businessmen in the towns became aware of the rising consumerism among farm women during a time of relative farm prosperity, and they did not want to lose that trade to the mail order outfits. Their wives, organized into ladies’ and literary societies in the towns, not only wished to assist their spouses in holding the farm trade but also were sympathetic to the farm women, particularly the mothers, who were left in the lurch. Local authorities wished to appear benevolent, in tune with the Progressive spirit of the times.

Across the country townspeople came together to make this happen, but in different ways. The first mention I have found of rest rooms in North Dakota was in the Devils Lake newspaper in 1897, wherein the editor advised businessmen to get with the program. In North Dakota, however, first the cities made their bid for trade, and it was private, individual businesses that did it. Early leaders in establishing public rest rooms were the New Economy Store in Fargo, 1903, and the Golden Rule Store in Minot, 1906. The only small town known to have a public rest room at this time was Fairmount.

There was a lot of talk in places like Aneta, Lisbon, Hettinger, Cando, Langdon, Bottineau, and Rugby — but not much action. Mid-size trade towns blinked in, however, with publicly organized, rather than private individual, efforts. The Young Men’s Booster Club got it done in Wahpeton, the Civic Club in Williston. In Bismarck ladies clubs joined together to meet the need. Overall, however, in comparison with other states (and I have researched this), North Dakota lagged behind in catering to its farm women. This seems odd. I’m going to try to figure out why it was so.

Meanwhile, in larger cities, department stores bought into rest rooms and advertised them. As a deLendrecie’s ad from Fargo said, speaking for an imagined farm woman, “I will meet you at de Lendrecie’s rest room where they have the daily papers and the latest magazines, also free stationary.” But what the heck was the problem in the country towns? We’ll see.

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