The effort to “beautify” Bangor a century ago by getting rubbish off the streets also featured a moral dimension.
Members of the Bangor Federation of Women’s Club mentioned it in letters to the editor.
“Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” Mrs. Charles Henry Wood, chairman of the Federation’s civic committee, reminded readers in a letter to the Bangor Daily Commercial on April 12, 1913.
Rubbish, dust, flies and foul odors were only the outward manifestation of evil. There was another kind of filth — “moral filth” — noted another letter to the Bangor Daily News on May 31 written by an anonymous “club woman.”
In fact, there was more danger from “the filth of language that is permitted to offend the ear in public places than there can be from all the rubbish in town,” she wrote. Policemen were doing nothing about it even though much of this language would “not be allowed in a first class barroom.”
The foul language came mostly from drunken, young men riding the trolleys or hanging out on street corners.
“A rap from a policeman’s stick might be an effective lesson,” stated this exasperated club woman.
Loiterers on downtown streets harassed women, and the police did nothing about it. Women were “often regaled with audible comment upon their personal appearance, sometimes with vulgarity and generally with profanity.”
The corner of Main and Cedar streets “is dreaded by women on this account,” the letter writer noted, as well as the area at the fence around the lot at Exchange and State streets where the Morse-Oliver building used to stand before the fire of 1911.
Two events around this time show that the moral upsurge affecting the Queen City went far beyond vulgar language. Speaking at masses at St. John’s Catholic Church, Father P.J. Garrity announced that “indecent dances” would not be allowed in St. John’s school hall on State Street, where a dance was scheduled for Tuesday evening, the Commercial said on May 19.
Father Garrity was probably talking about the Turkey Trot, a controversial dance done to ragtime music.
“Priests and ministers all over the land have taken a stand on the prevalence of those disgusting dances,” said a wire story in the Bangor Daily News a few weeks after Father Garrity took his stand.
Garrity forbade any member of the parish to indulge in this vulgar form of amusement, and anyone who did would be ordered to leave. “The tendency of the times is to drag down the moral standard, and nowhere is this better seen than in some of the dances that are permitted nowadays,” said the priest. “They are ruinous to all sense of morality and decency. Any Catholic girl or young man who takes part in them is not in a fit state for the reception of the sacraments.”
Another attempt by the people of Bangor to combat moral filth involved a famous painting. “September Morn” by Paul Chabas, a French artist, had won a gold medal at the Paris Salon in 1912. It showed a young lady standing naked in a pristine lake. Mist floats over the water and mountains that formed the dreamy background.
When prints of the painting showed up for sale in several American cities, censors immediately targeted the dealers. Well publicized controversies broke out in Chicago and New York.
By the first week in June, large copies of the painting were on display in the front windows of two Bangor art supply stores, J. F. Gerrity & Co. at 50 Central St. and W. H. Gorham & Co. at 48 State St.
An idealistic writer for the Bangor Daily News liked what he saw, writing on May 30, “… any normal-minded person will agree … it is a lovely picture; crystal clear lake at sunrise, a background of mist and mountain, and, in the foreground, a vision of youthful innocence, of satin-like skin and tumbled golden hair, like some stray wood nymph or water-sprite. Surely there is nothing immodest, let alone immoral, in this sweet and dainty little maiden — nothing suggestive, much less seductive, in a scene so gracefully idyllic.”
He predicted that “Miss Morn will find the show windows of Bangor more hospitable than those of Gotham.”
Within a short time, however, somebody filed a complaint with the Bangor Police. The stores removed the prints from their windows, the Bangor Daily Commercial reported on June 2, at the request of the Rev. Alva Roy Scott, pastor of the Unitarian Church, Deacon George W. E. Barrows of the Columbia Street Baptist Church and Chief of Police Lindley Gilman.
Storekeepers Gerrity and Gorham defended the painting, and Gerrity told the newspaper he would continue to sell prints inside the store. Gorham’s decision on this matter is not reported.
In this manner, moral filth was rooted out of Bangor in the same way that rubbish was eliminated. Anyone who wants to see “September Morn” today and read a fuller account of its history can easily find it on the Internet, or visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art where it reportedly resides.
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper every other Monday. An illustrated collection, “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire,” is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.