Wednesday, March 6, 2019

By Kris Krell

Spokane’s Elevator Girls: A New Innovation!

When I was a kid in junior high school in the mid 1960s in Sandy, Utah, during summer vacations, my sisters and I (my parents too) read a lot of books and watched a lot of old movies!  My mom, dad, my sisters and I would go the downtown Salt Lake City, Utah, library on a Sunday afternoon and check out lots of books to last for a couple of weeks—at least my mom, dad, sister, Karen, and I did.  My younger sister, Karla, wasn’t much of a reader back then!  Reading time was split with watching old movies during the afternoons.  In the occasional movie, a minor character was an elevator operator.  

Surprisingly, at least to me, was that elevators came to be in 1857!  A New York City department store was the first to install an elevator.  Elisha Graves Otis founded Otis Elevator in 1853. Already in existence were steam and hydraulic elevators.  Otis’ claim to fame, though, was that his elevator could also go up and down like the others, but his elevator would stop and not fall to the ground on the way down! 

Business was slow the first few years—the citizenry wasn’t so sure of the safety of such an invention, so he set up a presentation for the public in New York Crystal Palace, a splendid exhibition hall that had been built for the 1853 World’s Fair.  

In Otis’ presentation, while standing on the raised elevator platform, he cut the only rope suspending that platform. The platform dropped an inch or so, then came to a stop!  His innovative safety brake stopped the platform from crashing to the ground!   His presentation a success, business grew and by 1873, 2,000 elevators were in operation, and the company had expanded to Europe and Russia.  Many commissions for elevators came in--taller buildings were built, businesses and high-rise homes commanded huge prices for the “view”.  Our world—work and personal—lives were changed forever with the creation of the elevator.  

Elevators created the need for operators—using the hand-controlled brake lever required training, skill, and precision to line the elevator car up with the floor the passengers were stepping out onto.  The need for safety was a major concern.  There were once tens of thousands of elevator operators—the majority of them black, according to the John C Abell article noted in the Sources below.  In 1917, an elevator operator union was organized—the first of its kind!

Prior to World War I, elevators in hotels and businesses in Spokane were operated by men or boys.  With the outbreak of WWI, the young men manning the Davenport Hotel elevators were being called to military service;  they weren’t staying on the job long enough to become completely trained in the Davenport’s service ideals.

So, Louis Davenport hired a team of five elevator operators--they were girls!  The newspaper at the time wrote that the elevator girls were the first in the United States to be hired by a hotel.

Louis Davenport said “our experiments have convinced us that young women can not only do this work as well as the boys, but they are better able, as a rule, to assist in creating that home-like atmosphere we are so eager to maintain in all of our departments.” Imagine that!

The female elevators wore uniforms that were reminiscent of British officers’ uniforms—a dark navy blouse with a replica of a Sam Browne belt with shoulder strap.  (According to my review, a Sam Brown belt was a wide leather belt usually worn by British or Canadian military or police uniform. General Sir Sam Browne had lost his left arm in a war so it was difficult for him to draw his sword.  He created the right shoulder strap for his sword. You can still purchase these types of belts online!). Their cap fit snugly to the head and were similar to Belgian army caps.

Davenport also said that “the elevator girls innovation was the beginning of a new wartime plan at the hotel—contemplating recruiting girls in many departments now worked solely by men.” Davenport speculated that 100 more girls would be hired during the war years.

This is my last post for the Spotlight on the Spokane Region Blog.  Thanks for reading!

Sources: Spokesman Review article, 100 years ago in Spokane: With men sent to fight World War I, Davenport Hotel hires first ‘girl elevator operators’ in the U.S., December 20, 2017; article March 23, 1857: Mr Otis Gives You A Lift, John C Abell, March 23, 2010