Recent Acquisitions: Crepe Paper Dresses and Prohibition Raids in Richmond

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Cultural institutions in San Francisco continually search for new acquisitions. Alexis Coe brings you the most important, often wondrous, sometimes bizarre, and occasionally downright vexing finds each week.

Are you a fan of Recent Acquisitions? Celebrate the series' one year anniversary with a panel discussion at the Commonwealth Club of California on Jan. 24.

During the Great Depression, unemployment in the United States rose to 25 percent. The city of Richmond was not exempt. While the opening of the Ford assembly plant in the 1930s improved the standard of living, many families still struggled to survive.

"People would often steal the shrimp that was being dried [at Kennedy Grove], and those shrimping camps put food on the table for many Richmond families," explained Melinda McCrary, who has researched the subject at the Richmond Museum of History.

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Toys for children were a great luxury in such lean times, but Anna Negus made sure her daughter Islea could still play dress-up on 13th Street. Cloth could not be spared for such frivolity, but Negus was resourceful, and used rolls of crepe paper to make Islea a dress. Of course, such games are always better with friends, and so Negus made a second, smaller version of the 1920s flapper dress for Islea's playmate, neighbor Agnes Dibble Thorson.

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Islea in a non-crepe paper dress.
Islea's daughter, Dianne Davis of Plymouth, Massachusetts, recently donated the dresses to the Richmond Museum of History. In the letter to McCrary, Davis wrote that "Islea enjoyed these dresses, but as she grew a little older, she would sneak into a nearby cemetery with her young friends, take the ribbons from floral displays, and dance around in this costume."
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Davis' letter contains quite a few anecdotes that, in addition to the crepe dresses, shed light on daily life in Richmond. In another paragraph, Davis recounts a time her mother, perhaps 10-12 years old, was babysitting when there was suddenly a loud, insistent knock on the front door. A group of federal agents were on the other side, and they were after the booze in the basement. Islea's charges were not at all surprised by the raid, but their parents "were not happy when they returned and discovered that she had opened the front door to Prohibition officers."

McCrary hopes to put the dresses on exhibition soon, and will make them available to visitors upon request.

The Richmond Museum of History is at 400 Nevin Avenue, Richmond, California. The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook. Follow Alexis Coe on twitter @alexis_coe.

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