Titanic and WWI-era Flashlights

I was going to write so many blog posts during the pandemic, and then it turned out that living in unprecedented times is stressful. Between dealing with school-at-home and quarantines and the general brain fog of being uncertain and overwhelmed a lot, I didn’t post much in the last year. But I have been doing a lot of research on all kinds of things, and I want to start sharing that again. Hopefully, people find it interested and/or helpful, but at least it means I don’t have to do the research again if I forget what I learned (anyone else feel like their memory is worse after 2020?).

I’ve worked on two writing projects recently where my WWI-era-ish characters have needed flashlights to explore dark and spooky places. Since they’re Americans, it’s flashlights and not torches, as our friends across the pond call them – I love how evocative “torch” is versus “flashlight,” but here we are with American English. At our house, we recently had to turn the power off in one room while fixing a leak in the bathroom above (a whole ‘nother round of unneeded drama), and we learned all over again to appreciate portable light.

Prior to flashlights, of course, people had candles, oil-burning lanterns, and even old-fashioned torches made of wood and cloth or rushlights. But the inventions of batteries and lightbulbs meant that we could harness electricity and hold it in our hands. Pretty cool, really.

As I was researching what kinds of flashlights were available to my civilian characters between 1918 and 1920, I found one web site claiming that the flashlights in the movie Titanic were an anachronism. The specific types of flashlights might have been, but handheld flashlights were certainly available by 1912. You can see below the 1899 patent and an ad for heandheld, tube-shaped flashlights run by batteries (evidently with enough of a market that there were already multiple patents and manufacturers competing – images courtesy of Wikimedia commons, public domain). The design isn’t too different from modern flashlights.

By 1918, the Germans had developed a dynamo flashlight – one that is powered by motion instead of batteries. Modern crank or shake flashlights are an example of this flashlight type. The German dynamo flashlight was worn on the chest of soldiers’ uniforms and powered by pulling a cord that spun coils in a magnetic field, creating enough energy to run a light for five seconds per pull (see Popular Mechanics Magazine vol. 32, 1919, “German Pocket Flashlight Contains Own Dynamo”). I can’t find information on any earlier dynamo flashlights, and the article seems to suggest that this was a new innovation, saying that the technology was discovered when American soldiers captured some Germans. Image below.

The most common type of flashlight used by soldiers in WWI, though, seems to be the “upright” style in the image below, with a rectangular metal case and the bulb on the front. Some, like the one pictured, had a metal “lid” that closed like an eyelid to cover the lightbulb when needed. A similar upright pocket flashlight saved the life of Winston Churchill in the trenches when it blocked a piece of shrapnel that hit him in the chest. (image courtesy of the Imperial War Museums © IWM EPH 3684)

German battery operated electric torch associated with the First World War experiences of Captain E W Leggatt as a prisoner of war in Holzminden Camp, Germany. The torch was obtained from a German sentry. Captain Leggatt was captured on 9 August 1916, and subsequently was one of the ten men who made a successful escape through the tunnel at Holzminden POW camp, Germany, on 23 July 1918. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/30083223

One of the things I find really interesting about the time period surrounding WWI is the constrasts. Big cities had electric lights, telephones, and other fairly modern technologies, while rural areas were still very isolated and more likely to use oil for heating and lighting. Of course, there are still parts of rural Utah, especially those associated with the Navajo reservation, that are still struggling to get water and electricity lines (though they can use solar power as an alternative now, where it’s financially viable). For a glimpse of post-WWI rural life, check out Blood in a Dry Town (formerly Home Again Blues) on Amazon.

Home Again Blues

Book number ten! My goal was to finish Home Again Blues this spring, but COVID-19 threw me for a loop (like everyone else, I’m sure), so I guess the end of June is good enough. I’m alternating between my Utah novels and my Gothic novels, so here is the first of my 1920s southern Utah mysteries.

“What do you do with a secret that might get someone killed?”

Tenny assumes it’s a joke when someone writes to her advice column on a matter of life and death. After serving as a nurse in the Great War, she doesn’t want more trouble. But when a local turns up dead on her neighbor’s southern Utah homestead, she feels responsible. The murderer is probably an outsider: the prospector looking for gold, a Wobbly hiding from the law, or the handsome-but-irritating barnstormer pilot hanging around town. To clear her friend’s name, though, Tenny will have to look closer at the secrets all around her.


The Decline and Fall of the Utah Sugar Beet Empire

Where does your sugar come from?

Americans eat more sugar than any other nation, consuming close to 11 million metric tons of the sweet stuff annually (that’s somewhere around 150 pounds of sugar per person per year – 100 years ago, we ate closer to 18 pounds per person per year). The US alone produces over 8 million metric tons of sugar each year, and the largest sugar producer is…

Minnesota, eh?

Not the place many of us might imagine our sugar coming from, and tropical Florida and Louisiana are top contenders in sugar cane production, but more than half of US sugar actually comes from sugar beets (pictured below).

Sugar Beet Before Topping LOC

Utah is no longer even on the map for sugar production, but for much of the twentieth century, Utah was an important sugar beet producer.

Someone recently asked me, where did the sugar beets go?

After all, Idaho – literally within spitting distance of some of the Utah towns that once ran on the sugar beet industry – is still an important producer of sugar. Some parts of Utah, like the “Sugar House” neighborhood in Salt Lake City, still bear record of their association with the sugar industry. And the sugar beet is the official Utah state historic vegetable. Who knew that was a thing?

So, here’s a short-but-sweet 😉 history of sugar in Utah.

First of all, y’all know that sugar has an ugly history, right? European (and later American) sugar cravings drove perhaps the most brutal slavery-based industry from the 1500s to the 1800s, with generations of enslaved West Africans working and dying on sugar plantations, mostly in the Carribean.

By the 1800s, with international wars and slave revolts disrupting the sugar industry, European scientists developed a process for extracting sugar from beets. Abolitionists and human rights advocates were quick to promote beet sugar (while pro-slavery factions shunned it). Beet sugar also had an economic advantage because sugar beets grow in a much wider variety of climates than sugar cane, meaning France, Russia, Germany, and the non-tropical portions of the United States could all develop their own sugar industries instead of relying on imports.

By 1850, Brigham Young had led the Mormon pioneers to the relative isolation of Utah and was interested in being as self-sufficient as possible. Thus, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints backed an experimental sugar beet factory in Sugar House. It failed miserably, producing a nasty syrup not even independent-minded Brigham Young thought edible.

It took a few decades before American factories got the hang of beet sugar, but by the end of the 1800s, with the social and financial backing of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Utah-Idaho Sugar Company had factories throughout Utah, and sugar beets became an important part of Utah’s economy. Sugar beets required back-breaking manual labor, but large Utah families had plenty of children to work in the fields. Their work was supplemented by Native Americans displaced by pioneer settlements and later by Latino refugees fleeing the Mexican Revolution. The worldwide economic disruptions of World War I saw the peak of the sugar industry in Utah when the state was one of the country’s top sugar producers (like the factory in Lewiston, Utah, pictured below – that’s a big pile of beets!).

Sugar beets in Lewiston LOC

From there, it was a slow downhill slide. An agricultural depression followed WWI, with prices falling into a slump after the previous war-time demand, and after that came the Great Depression. At the same time, beet leafhoppers spread a blight in Utah that damaged crops and led some factories to move away from the state.

The Utah sugar beet industry struggled on, eventually finding a blight-resistant strain of beets, and in World War II, Utah was still a major US sugar producer. Many detained Japanese Americans worked in the sugar beet fields of Utah to keep up with wartime production.

Following World War II, the sugar beet industry saw a number of technological changes that made sugar processing faster and more efficient. Ironically, this would lead to the end of large-scale commercial sugar beets in Utah. The main companies that bought Utah sugar beets, U&I (Utah-Idaho Sugar Company) and Amalgamated Sugar Company, had both started in Utah but expanded their production to Idaho and the Pacific Northwest and eventually moved their headquarters out of state. They faced several antitrust actions by the federal government as well as competition with low-cost cane sugar from overseas during the mid-1900s, which strained their resources. Also during this time, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began selling its interests in the sugar companies.

So, when it came time to update factories, the sugar companies invested in those in Idaho and Oregon. One by one, the outdated Utah factories shut down, with the last one in Garland, Utah, shutting down in 1979. It was not cost-effective for Utah farmers to ship their sugar beets out of state, so most switched to other crops, and Utah fell off the sugar-producing map.

For most of Utah, sugar beets had never been an ideal crop. The soil is too alkaline, the growing season too short, and the labor too intensive. The fact that Utah enjoyed nearly a century of sweet success is a testament to the stubborn self-sufficiency of Utah’s farmers.

Utah’s official contemporary state vegetable is the sweet onion. And that’s a thing, too, because when it came time to vote on state vegetable, the onion may be important now, but the sugar beet-proponents refused to back down on giving some kind of recognition to the crop that had been so important to Utah’s economy for most of the 1900s.

Photos courtesy of the Library of Congress OWI-FSA collection (public domain).

Sources: U.S. Sugar Industry Association; American Sugar Alliance; New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services; The Diabetes Council; Donald W. Meyers, “Rebirth of former sugar plant is sweet news for Toppenish,” Yakima Herald (Yakima, Washington); Leonard J. Arrington, Beet Sugar in the West;  Twila Van Leer, “Sugar Becomes a Sweet Success,” Deseret News; “Sugar Beets!” Lewiston-North Cache Valley Historical Board; Leonard J. Arrington, “The Sugar Industry in Utah,” Utah History Encyclopedia.





Utah Women: Pioneer, Poets & Politicians

I LOVED working on this project – Utah history has so many inspiring stories and amazing women – and I’m excited to have a release date and cover! Utah Women: Pioneers, Poets & Politicians coming November 2019 from The History Press.

Trailblazing in Untamed Territory

Representing lawmakers and lawbreakers, artists and adventurers or scholars and activists, the women of Utah defied stereotypes. At the crossroads of the West, they found new challenges and opportunities to forge their own paths. Emma Dean explored the Rocky Mountains with her famous spouse John Wesley Powell. Martha Hughes Cannon defeated her husband to become the first female state senator. Maud Fitch drove an ambulance under German artillery fire to rescue downed pilots in World War I. Author Emily Brooksby Wheeler celebrates the remarkable Utah women who, whether racing into danger or nurturing those who fell behind, changed their world and ours.