The Finer Side Of St. Louis
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
BEFORE making my transcontinental pilgrimage I used to wonder, sometimes, just where the line dividing East from West in the United States might be. When I lived in Chicago, and went out to. St. Louis, I felt that I was going, not merely in a westerly direction, but that I was actually going out into the "West." I knew, of course, that there was a vast amount of "West" lying beyond St. Louis, but I had no real conception—and no one who has not seen it can have—of what a stupendous, endless, different kind of land it is. St. Louis west ? It is not west at all. To be sure, it is the frontier, the jumping-off place, but it is no more western in its characteristics than the city of Boulogne is English because it faces England, just across the way. From every point of view except that of geography, Chicago is more western than St. Louis. For Chicago has more "wallop" than St. Louis, and "wallop" is essentially a western attribute. "Wallop" St. Louis has not. What she has is civilization and the eastern spirit of laissez-faire. And that of St. Louis which is not of the east is of the south. Her society has a strong southern flavor, many of her leading families having come originally from Kentucky and Virginia. The Southern "colonel" type is to be found there, too—black, broad-brimmed hat, frock coat, goatee, and all—and there is a negro population big enough to give him his customary background.
Much negro labor is employed for the rougher kind of work; colored waiters serve in the hotels, and many families employ colored servants. As is usual in cities where this is true, the accent of the people inclines some-what to be southern. Or, perhaps, it is a blending of the accent of the south with the sharper drawl of the west. Then, too, I encountered there men bearing French names (which are pronounced in the French manner, although the city's name has been anglicized, being pronounced "Saint Louiss") who, if they did not speak with a real French accent, had, at least, slight mannerisms of speech which were unmistakably of French origin. I noted down a number of French family names I heard: Chauvenet, Papin, Valle, Des-loge, De Menil, Lucas, Pettus, Guion, Chopin, Janis, Benoist, Cabanne, and Chouteau—the latter family descended, I was told, from Laclede himself. And again, I heard such names as Busch, Lehmann, Faust, and Niedringhaus; and still again such other names as Kilpatrick, Farrell, and O'Fallon—for St. Louis, though a Southern city, and an Eastern city, and a French city, and a German city, by being also Irish, proves herself American.
It is in all that has to do with family life that St. Louis comes off best. She has miles upon miles of prosperous-looking, middle-class residence streets, and the system of residence "places" in her more fashionable districts is highly characteristic. These "places" are in reality long, narrow parkways, with double drives, parked down the center, and bordered with houses at their outer margins. The oldest of them is, I am told, Benton Place, on the South Side, but the more attractive ones are to the westward, near Forest Park.. Of these the first was Vandeventer Place, which still. contains some of the most pleasant and substantial residences of the city, and it may be added that while some of the newer "places" have more recent and elaborate houses than those on Vandeventer Place, the general average of recent domestic architecture in St. Louis is behind that of many other cities. Portland Place seemed, upon the whole, to have the best group of modern houses. Westmoreland and Kingsbury Places also have agreeable homes. But Washington Terrace is not so fortunate; its houses, though they plainly indicate liberal expenditure of money, are often of that "catch-as-catch-can" kind of architecture which one meets with but too frequently in the middle west. If St. Louis is western in one thing more than another it is the architecture of her houses. Not that they lack solidity but that on the average they are not to be compared, architecturally, with houses of corresponding modernness in such cities as Chicago or Detroit. The more I see of other cities the more, indeed, I appreciate the new domestic architecture of Detroit. And I cannot help feeling that it is curious that St. Louis should be behind Detroit in this particular when she is, as a city, so far superior in her evident understanding and love of art.
Nevertheless, St. Louis has one architect whom she cannot honor too highly—Mr. William B. Ittner, who, as a designer of schools, stands unsurpassed.
If ever I have seen a building perfect for its purpose, that building is the Frank Louis Soldan High School, designed by this man. It is the last word in schools; a building for the city of St. Louis to be proud of, and for the whole country to rejoice in. It has everything a school can have, including that quality rarest of all in schools—sheer beauty. It is worth a whole chapter in itself, from its great auditorium, which is like a very simple opera house, seating two thousand persons, to its tiled lunch rooms with their "cafeteria" service. An architect could build one school like that, it seems to me, and then lie down and die content, feeling that his work was done. But Mr. Ittner apparently is not satisfied so easily as I should be, for he goes gaily on building other schools. If there is n't one to be built in St. Louis at the moment (and the city has an extraordinary number of fine school buildings), he goes off to some other city and puts a school up there. And for every one he builds he ought to have a crown of gold.
Mr. John Rush Powell, the principal of the high school, was so good as to take my companion and me over the building. We envied Mr. Powell the privilege of being housed in such a palace, and Mr. Powell, in his turn, tried to talk temperately about the wonders of his school, and was so polite as to let us do the raving.
Do you remember, when you went to school, the long closet, or dressing room, where you used to hang your coat and hat? The boys and girls of the Soldan School have steel lockers in a sunlit locker room. Do you remember the old wooden floors? These boys and girls have wooden floors to walk on, but the wood is quarter-sawed oak, and it is laid in asphalt over concrete, which makes the finest kind of floor. Do you remember the ugly old school building? The front of this one looks like Hampden Court Palace, brought up to date. Do you remember the big class-room that served almost every purpose? This school has separate rooms for everything-a greenhouse for the botanists, great studios, with skylights, for those who study art, a music hall, and private offices, beside the classrooms, for instructors. Oh, you ought to see this school yourself, and learn how schools have changed ! You ought to see the domestic science kitchen with its twenty-four gas ranges and the model dining room, where the girls give dinner parties for their parents; the sewing room and fitting rooms, and the laundries, with sanitary equipment and electric irons—for every girl who takes the domestic-science course must know how to do fine laundry work, even to the washing of flannels.
You should see the manual-training shops, and the business college, and the textile work, and the kilns for pottery, and the very creditable drawings and paintings of the art students (who clearly have a competent teacher—again an unusual thing in schools), and the simple beauty of the corridors, so free from decoration, and the library—like that of a club—and the lavatories, as perfect as those in fine hotels, and the pictures on the classroom walls—good prints of good things, like Whistler's portrait of his mother, instead of the old hideosities of Washington and Longfellow and Oliver Wendell Holmes, which used to hang on classroom walls in our school days. Oh, it is good to merely breathe the air of such a school—and why should n't it be, since the air is washed, and screened, and warmed, and fanned out to the rooms and corridors? Just think of that one thing, and then try to remember how schools used to smell—that rather zoological odor of dirty little boys and dirty little slates. That was one thing which struck me very forcibly about this school : it did n't smell like one. Yet, until I went there, I should have wagered that if I were taken blindfold to a school, led inside, and allowed a single whiff of it, I should immediately detect the place for what it was. Ah, memories of other days! Ah, sacred smells of childhood ! Can it be that the school smell has gone forever from the earth—that it has vanished with our youth—that the rising generation may not know it? There is but little sadness in the thought.
Having thus dilated upon the old time smell of schools, I find myself drifting, perhaps through an association of ideas, to another subject—that of furs; raw furs.
The firm of Funsten Brothers & Co. have made St. Louis the largest primary fur market in the world. They operate a fur exchange which, though a private business, is conducted somewhat after the manner of a produce exchange. That is to say, the sales are not open to all buyers, but to about thirty men who are, in effect, "members," it being required that a member be a fur dealer with a place of business in St. Louis. These men are jobbers, and they sell in turn to the manufacturers.
Funsten Brothers & Co. work direct with trappers, and are in correspondence, I am informed, with between 700,000 and 800,000 persons, engaged in trapping and shipping furs, in all parts of the world. Their business has been considerably increased of late years by the installation of a trappers' information bureau and supply department for the accommodation of those who send them furs, and also by the marketing of artificial animal baits. In this way, and further by making it a rule to send checks in payment for furs received from trappers, on the same day shipments arrive, this company has built up for itself an enormous good will at the original sources of supply.
The furs come from every State in the Union, from every Province in Canada, and from Alaska, being shipped in, during the trapping season, at the rate of about two thousand lots a day, these lots containing any-where from five to five hundred pelts each.
The lots are sorted, arranged in batches according to quality, and auctioned off at sales, which are held three days a week. Even Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Florida, and Texas supply furs, but the furs from the north are in general the most valuable. This is not true, how-ever, of muskrat, the best of which comes from the central and eastern States.
The sales are conducted in the large hall of the ex-change, where the lots of furs are displayed in great piles. The skins are handled in the raw state, having been merely removed from the carcass and dried before shipment, with the result that the floor of the exchange is made slippery by animal fats, and that the olfactory organs encounter smells not to be matched in any zoo—or school—the blended fragrance of raccoon, mink, opossum, muskrat, ermine, ringtail, house cat, wolf, red fox, gray fox, cross fox, swift fox, silver fox, badger, otter, beaver, lynx, marten, bear, wolverine, fisher—a great orchestra of odors, in which the "air" is carried most competently, most unqualifiedly, by that master virtuoso of mephitic redolence, the skunk.
I was told that about sixty-five per cent. of all North American furs pass through this exchange; also I received the rather surprising information that the greatest number of skins furnished by this continent comes from within a radius of five hundred miles of St. Louis.
It was in this Fur Exchange that the first auction of government seal skins ever held by the United States on its own territory, occurred last year. Before that time it had been the custom of the government to send Alaskan sealskins to Europe, where they were cured and dyed. Such of these skins as were returned to the United States, after having undergone curing and dyeing, came back under a duty of 20 per cent., or more recently, by an increase in the tariff—30 per cent. And all but a very few of the skins did come back. It was by action of Secretary of Commerce Redfield that the seal sale was transferred from London to St. Louis, and a member of the firm of Funsten Brothers & Co. informed me that the ultimate result will be that seal coats now costing, say, $1,200, may be bought for about $400 three years hence, when the seals will no longer be protected according to the present law.
Some interesting information with regard to sealing was published in the St. Louis "Republic" at the time of the sale. Quoting Mr. Philip B. Fouke, president of the Funsten Co., the "Republic" says :
"Under the present policy of the Government the United States will get the dyeing, curing, and manufacturing establishments from London, Amsterdam, Nizhni Novgorod, and other great centers. The price of seal-skins will be reduced two-thirds to the wearer. Seals have been protected for the past two years, and will be protected for three years more, but during the period of protection it is necessary for the Government hunters to kill some of the `bachelor seals'—males, without mates, who fight with other male seals for the possession of the females, destroying the young, and causing much trouble. Also a certain amount of seal meat must go to the natives for food.
"Each female produces but one pup a year, and each male demands from twenty to one hundred females. Fights between males for the possession of the females are fearful combats.
"In addition to protecting the seals on the Pribilof Islands, the United States has entered into an agreement with Japan, Russia, and England, that there shall be no sealing in the open seas for fifteen years. This open sea, or pelagic sealing did great harm. Only the females leave the land, where they can be protected, and go down to the open sea. Consequently the poachers got many females, destroying the young seals as well as the mothers, cutting off the source of supply, and leaving a preponderance of `bachelors,' or useless males."
What a chance for the writer of sex stories! Why dally with the human race when seals are living such a lurid life? Here is a brand-new field: The heroine a soft-eyed female with a hide like velvet; the hero a dashing, splashing male. Sweet communions on the rocks at sunset, and long swims side by side. But one night on the cliffs, beneath the moon comes the blond beast of a bachelor, a seal absolutely unscrupulous and of the lowest animal impulses. Then the climax—the Jack London stuff : the fight on the edge of the cliff; the cry, the body hurtling to the rocks below. And, of course, a happy ending—love on a cake of ice.
Old John Jacob Astor, founder of the Astor fortune, was a partner in the American Fur Company of St. Louis of which Pierre Chouteau was president. A letter written to Chouteau by Astor just before his retirement from the fur business gives as the reason for his withdrawal the following:
I very much fear beaver will not sell very well very soon unless very fine. It appears that they make hats of silk in place of beaver.
Beaver was at that time the most valuable skin, and had been used until then for the making of tall hats; but the French were beginning to make silk hats, and Astor believed that in that fact was presaged the downfall of the beaver trade.
Club life in St. Louis is very highly developed. There are of course the usual clubs which one expects to find in every large city : The St. Louis Club, a solid old organization; the University Club, and a fine new Country Club, large and well designed. Also there is a Racquet Club, an agreeable and very live institution now holding the national championship in double racquets, which is vested in the team of Davis and Wear. The Davis of this pair is Dwight F. Davis, an exceedingly active and able young man who, aside from many other interests, is a member of the City Plan Commission, commissioner in charge of the very excellent parks of St. Louis, and giver of the famous Davis Cup, emblematic of the world's team tennis championship.
But the characteristic club note of St. Louis is struck by the very small, exclusive clubs. One is the Florissant Valley Country Club, with a pleasant, simple club-house and a very charming membership. But the most famous little club of the city, and one of the most famous in the United States, is the Log Cabin Club. I do not believe that in the entire country there is another like it. The club is on the outskirts of the city, and has its own golf course. Its house is an utterly unostentatious frame building with a dining room containing a single table at which all the members sit at meals together, like one large family. The membership limit is twenty-five, and the list has never been completely filled. There were twenty-one members, I was told, at the time we were there, and besides being, perhaps, the most prominent men in the city, these gentlemen are all intimates, so that the club has an air of delightful informality which is hardly equaled in any other club I know. The family spirit is further enhanced by the fact that no checks are signed, the expense of operation being divided equally among the members. Here originated the "Log Cabin game" of poker, which is now known nationally in the most exalted poker circles. I should like to explain this game to you, telling you all the hands, and how to bet on them, but after an evening of practical instruction, I came away quite baffled. Missouri is, you know, a poker State. Ordinary poker, as played in the east, is a game too simple, too childlike, for the highly specialized Missouri poker mind. I played poker twice in Missouri—that is, I tried to play—but I might as well have tried to juggle with the lightnings of the gods. No man has the least conception of that game until he goes out to Missouri. There it is not merely a casual pastime; it is a rite, a sacrament, a magnificent expression of a people. The Log Cabin game is a thing of "kilters," skip-straights, around-the-corner straights, and other complications. Three of a kind is very nearly worthless. Throw it away after the draw if you like, pay a dollar and get a brand-new hand.
But those are some simple little points to be picked up in an evening's play, and a knowledge of the simple little points of such a game is worse than worthless—it is ex-pensive. To really learn the Log Cabin game, you must give up your business, your dancing, and your home life, move out to St. Louis, cultivate Log Cabin members (who are the high priests of poker) and play with them until your family fortune has been painlessly extracted. And however great the fortune, it is a small price to pay for such adept instruction. When it is gone you will still fall short of ordinary Missouri poker, and will be as a mere babe in the hands of a Log Cabin member, but you will be absolutely sure of winning, anywhere outside the State.
It seems logical that the city, which is beyond doubt the poker center of the universe, should also have attained to eminence in drinks. It was in St. Louis that two great drinks came into being. In the old days of straight whisky, the term for three fingers of red liquor in a whisky glass was a "ball." But there came from Austria a man named Enno Sanders, who established a bottling works in St. Louis, and manufactured seltzer. St. Louis liked the seltzer and presently it be-came the practice to add a little of the bubbling water to the "ball." This necessitated a taller glass, so men began to call for a "high ball."
The weary traveler may be glad to know that the highball has not been discontinued in St. Louis.
Another drink which originated in St. Louis is the gin rickey. Colonel Rickey was born in Hannibal, Mo., of which town I shall write presently. Later he moved to St. Louis and invented the famous rickey, which immortalized his name—preserving it, as it were, in alcohol. The drink was first served in a bar opposite the old Southern Hotel—a hotel which, by the way, I regretted to see standing empty and deserted at the time of my last visit, for, in its prime, it was a hotel among hotels.
I have tried to lead gradually, effectively to a climax. From clubs, which are pleasant, I progressed to poker, which is pleasanter; from poker I stepped ahead to high-balls and gin rickeys. And now I am prepared to reach my highest altitude. I intend to tell the very nicest thing about St. Louis. And the nicest thing about St. Louis is the nicest thing that there can be about a place.
It discounts primitive street cars, an ill-set railway station, and an unfinished bridge. It sinks the parks, the botanical gardens, the art museum into comparative oblivion. Small wonder that St. Louis seems to ignore her minor weaknesses when she excels in this one thing —as she must know she does.
The nicest thing about St. Louis is St. Louis girls.
In the first place, fashionable young women in St. Louis are quite as gratifying to the eye as women any-where. In the second place, they have unusual poise. This latter quality is very striking, and it springs, I fancy, from the town's conservatism and solidity. The young girls and young men of the St. Louis social group have grown up together, as have their parents and grandparents before them. They give one the feeling that they are somehow rooted to the place, as no New Yorker is rooted to New York. The social fabric of St.. Louis changes little. The old families live in the houses they have always lived in, instead of moving from apartment to apartment every year or two. One does not feel the nervous tug of social and financial straining, of that eternal overreaching which one senses always in New York.
One day at luncheon I found myself between two very lovely creatures—neither of them over twenty-two or twenty-three ; both of them endowed with the aplomb of older, more experienced, women—who endeared themselves to me by talking critically about the works of Meredith—and Joseph Conrad—and Leonard Merrick. Fancy that ! Fancy their being pretty girls yet having worth-while things to say-and about those three men !
And when the conversation drifted away from books to the topic which my companion and I call "life stuff," and when I found them adept also in that field, my appreciation of St. Louis became boundless.
It just occurs to me that, in publishing the fact that St. Louis girls have brains I may have unintentionally done them an unkindness.
Once I asked a young English bachelor to my house for a week-end.
-"I want you to come this week," I said, "because the prettiest girl I know will be there."
"Delighted," he replied.
"She 's a most unusual girl," I went on, "for, besides being a dream of loveliness, she 's clever'.'
"Oh," he said, "if she 's clever, let me come some other time. I don't like 'em clever. I like 'em pretty and stupid."