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That Rest Room

I’ve been talking lately about rest rooms — no-no, not about the odd preoccupation we seem to have nowadays as to who might be using what facility, but rather about the reform movement, in the early 1900s, which aimed to provide comfortable lounges for farm women who came to town with their husbands, transacted their business, and then were left in the lurch by husbands not yet ready to go home, and had to sit waiting in a livery or some such place.

Really, this was a popular cause across the country, as businessmen seeking farm trade, and their spouses organized into women’s clubs, stirred themselves to make farm women comfortable in town. Indoor toilets, yes, but also clean sitting areas, cribs for babies and cots for mothers needing a lie-down, reading materials, a table for eating lunch and visiting. Rest rooms.

Except in North Dakota, where larger towns got the reform done, but country towns, who were most dependent on farm trade, mostly lagged. Oh, their newspaper editors talked a great game, but citizens generally failed to get rest rooms organized. And, since in other states this was a great progressive accomplishment, I wonder why this was so.

Here’s a clue from the Pioneer Express of Pembina in 1910. The editor is responding to criticism in the Walhalla Mountaineer about the state of the county courthouse in Cavalier, the Mountaineer pointing to the fine $60,000 courthouse recently completed in Cooperstown, Griggs County. The response from the Pioneer Express is that the courthouse in Cavalier is fine, the one in Cooperstown is indulgent. Look at the specs, says the editor: they include “a ‘women’s rest room’ whatever that may be. . . . We can see such a room might be of value as a town convenience for country visitors, but hardly can see why the tax payers of the county in general should supply such a room.” What we see here is a lack of any sense of the public good, a founding principle of our country’s Framers and the fundamental creed of Progressivism in 1910. Was this sort of crass carping typical of North Dakota towns?

I think not, but we can take a look at the well documented rest room situation in Minot for a case study. There, in 1907, a woman signing herself “Lady Farmer” wrote the editor of the Independent and gave the businessmen of the Magic City an earful. She pleaded for Minot to provide a rest room, where “tired women and children could rest and relax a few moments before starting on their homeward journey.” The editor backed her up with his personal observation on “a bitter cold day” of a young mother and baby shivering outside in the doorway of a business house on North Main, “a woman of very respectable appearance, yet a stranger here,” who “did not know where to go.” And yet, businessmen and authorities dithered for years about the logistics of providing a rest room, such that every news story about the matter came to be headlined, sarcastically, “That Rest Room.”

What, more fundamentally, is behind the failure of townspeople to provide rest rooms for country women? The sources are silent. I have my suspicions. The towns were dominated by English-speaking Anglo-Americans who operated the businesses and ran the towns. The countryside of North Dakota — more than any other state of the union at this point in history — was peopled by foreigners, European immigrants with their own languages and strange ways. The social distance between them and the townsfolk was just too great. This is my suspicion, one that correlates with other similar episodes at the time. This makes me uncomfortable, but history is not always a feel-good story. History is for learning.

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