Thanks to Downton Abbey, we are all now familiar with the fashion, society norms and events surrounding the early 1920s. It was this time period that saw the birth of many of the volunteer and non-profit organizations that we see in Richmond today, including the Junior League of Richmond and Maymont. As an amateur historian, I am always interested in what was happening in a city, state, or country at the time of great social change. What was it about 1926 that facilitated the creation and growth of the League and so many other volunteer organizations that have done so much good in the city of Richmond?
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Richmond’s population was over 85,000, making it one of the most densely populated cities in the South. By 1920, the population had exploded to over 171,000 people. In the Richmond Times-Dispatch in early 1926, a visiting Harvard professor, Dr. William Z. Ripley noted that he considered Richmond rather than Atlanta as the real metropolis of the South. The city had pulled itself out of the depression caused by Reconstruction and thanks to commerce, particularly the expansion of its tobacco industry, the city was having unparalleled prosperity.
If you look back to the Richmond of 1926, you immediately notice that the streets and buildings are very different. The first cars had just begun sharing the roadway with trolleys and streetcars, which were pioneered in Richmond in 1888.
Also in 1926, entertainment in Richmond was growing by leaps and bounds. WRVA, Richmond’s first entry into radio broadcasting, was just a few months old. Richmond had no major performance venue so construction began on The Mosque (now known as Altria Theater), which was completed in the fall of 1927.
Maymont had just been given to the city by the estate of the Dooleys and opened to the public in March 1926. Byrd Park was a favorite recreation spot, and in early 1926, the cornerstone of the Carillon was laid in Byrd Park to memorialize the Richmond World War I dead.
The country as a whole had come out of the World War I years with a renewed purpose and status as a world power. The war also led to many changes in women and their place in the workforce, home, and society. During the war, women had contributed to the war effort in numerous ways, from serving as nurses, promoting war bonds, and working in factories. This was a major change in the way that women had contributed to the economy before the war.
After the war’s conclusion, women in Richmond and in the entire country used these advancements to push for suffrage, which was achieved with the passage and ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920. Women now had the power to vote, to effect changes in policies, to work, and to have some independence. It was in this post-war time period that we see great social change. The economy was robust and women were the leaders in pushing for reforms in public health, sanitation, city beautification, and education.
The Junior League of Richmond’s archives provides a first-hand account of what it was like to be a young woman in Richmond at this time. Members of the so-called privileged class were families who had been close for generations. These young women wanted to do something worthwhile and had learned about the good the Junior League was doing in other cities. It was from this group of 59 young women that the Junior League of Richmond was formed.
Little did they know what needs the city would encounter over the next couple of decades, with the Great Depression, World War II and the civil rights movement. We can look back in hindsight and see the social change that began the Junior League of Richmond in 1926 and created a force of good in the Richmond community.
For more information on the history of the Junior League, please click HERE.
For more information on women during the early 1920s, please click HERE.
Guest blogger and history enthusiast Jayda Justus is a member of the Board of Directors for the Junior League of Richmond. She joined the League in 2006, as a relative newcomer to Richmond. She has taken on the task of researching the history of both the League and the Mayo-Carter home, which serves as the headquarters for the League.
Jayda is originally from Kings Mountain, North Carolina and lives in Midlothian. Her husband, Brent, is a partner at McGuire Woods and they have two boys, ages 11 and 7. Before moving to Richmond, Jayda worked as Legislative Director for Rep. Sue Myrick on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. She majored in history and political science at Furman University. In her spare time, Jayda loves to take in all of the rich historical sites that Richmond has to offer! She also is on the board of the Robious Elementary Parent Teacher Association and is active in her church, Bon Air Baptist.