Ruth Law: The Aviatrix’s Florida Connection

It’s difficult to talk about the history of aviation in the United States without looking at activities that took place in Florida. As we’ve discussed in the past, Naval Air Station Pensacola played an important role in U.S. military aviation history. But the same hard-packed white sand at Daytona Beach that attracted automobile enthusiasts also caught the attention of early aviators looking for a warm place to fly year-round; well before the Navy set its sights on Pensacola. One notable individual to take advantage of the natural runway at Daytona Beach in the 1910s was aviatrix Ruth Law. Today, we’ll look at coverage of Law’s winter seasons in Daytona as well as the headlines she continued to make in Florida after achieving national recognition for her flying skills.

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Photo of Aviatrix Ruth Law and Mrs. Robert Goelet- Courtesy of Florida Memory

Born May 21, 1887, Law and her brother were both known for being adventurous. While her brother Rodman became a stuntman, Ruth demonstrated an interest in aviation. Ruth Law was rebuffed by Orville Wright when she expressed interest in enrolling in their pilot training school because of Wright’s belief that “women were unfit to fly” (DeMace). However, she was able to convince Phil Page to take her on as a student in 1912, determined to learn not only how to fly, but also how to mechanically maintain her aircraft (Lebow 204-205). Her choice in instructor possibly played some role in her eventual employment in Daytona. People interested in aviation had visited the beaches near Daytona since 1909 with the intention of using the smooth sand and tree-free land as a runway. In 1911 Glenn Curtiss signed a contract with civic leaders agreeing that one of the pilots in his employ would make a series of flights from the beach. The popularity of these flights prompted the owners of the Clarendon Hotel to sign a contract with aviator W. Starling Burgess for the 1912 winter season “to furnish an airplane and pilot to fly hotel guests” from “January to April” (Punnett 16). The pilot furnished by Burgess for the 1912 season was none other than Ruth’s teacher Phil Page, who made daily flights when the weather permitted. Page opted not to return in 1913 and, instead, “the job was won by Charles Oliver, but not for himself.” Oliver served as the agent “for his wife, the famous pioneer woman pilot, Ruth Bancroft Law” who, despite only learning to fly in 1912, had already began to make a name for herself in the aviation field (Punnett 23).

Ruth Law Flights
The Daytona daily news-February 15, 1915

The Daytona daily news enthusiastically covered Law’s flights during the 1913-1916 winter seasons; the paper even had the honor of “selecting the first person” to be her passenger. On January 12, 1913 “at least 5,000” people witnessed Law fly with Col. C.M. Bingham who “appeared to thoroughly enjoy the sensation of being carried through the air far above the heads of the big crowd.” Over the next four winter seasons, Law’s flights were frequently featured in the Clarendon Hotel section of The Daytona daily news, which served as a society section for happenings at the hotel. The paper also featured advertisements which promoted her activities. These ads include the aforementioned passenger flights with her (which cost $15.00-equivalent to about $360 in 2017), local programs featuring exhibition flights, and mention of the brand of oil and gas used by Law. While in Florida, she roused late sleepers with her “buzzing engine”, executed her first loop-the-loop, and threw a grapefruit/baseball from her airplane to the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers (called the Superbas in our papers), becoming a part of one of the most iconic stories in Florida baseball history. The 1916 season would be her last in Daytona having decided to go to France to “enter the army aviation corps of the Entente allies.”

Given the seasonal nature of Law’s work, stories about the aviatrix aren’t unique to The Daytona daily news. If you search for “Ruth Law” in Chronicling America, you’ll discover a variety of papers from all over the United States that report on Law’s exhibitions and visits. Florida papers outside of Daytona tended to run stories about Law’s professional achievements year-round. Both The Pensacola journal and The Lakeland evening telegram ran Associated Press stories about her November 20, 1916 record-breaking flight “from Chicago to Hornell, New York” which “smashed the American cross-country flight record” (McGraw). Her flight, among other things, reopened discussions about the possibility of “aerial Mail Service” in the U.S., which became a reality in 1918.

Woman breaks american long distance
The Pensacola journal-November 20, 1916

Reading about Law in our papers, it becomes apparent that despite the fact that she broke records, her gender shaped how newspapers covered her accomplishments. Eileen F. Lebow discusses Law’s frustration with the media leading up to her Chicago-New York flight in Before Amelia: Women Pilots in the Early Days of Aviation saying that “if she (Law) was hoping the headlines would play down the ‘little girl’ aspect, she was wrong. Her youth and sex were emphasized” (Lebow 214). Despite wishing news outlets wouldn’t focus on her gender, some stories with this angle were intended to be complimentary. One story in The Pensacola journal discusses how Law is an example of “the modern woman” who, along with her peers, thrived in the public sphere rather than the home. Another article from 1916 mentions that Law was turning “little girls” into suffragists through her accomplishments. The article quotes one school girl as saying “’I noticed your picture on our bulletin board, where men usually show their faces. Now I am glad I am a girl, because girls can do just as wonderful things as men’” while a boy said “’it gives me great pleasure to see that a woman could beat a man at that stunt.’” However, even more than she disliked news coverage focusing on her gender, she resented that her gender kept her from becoming a combat pilot in World War I.

Ruth Law Off to Study War Planes
The Pensacola Journal-January 24, 1917

The escalation of WWI in Europe derailed Law and Ralph Pulitzer’s plans for her to purchase an “aeroplane superior in speed and carrying capacity than existing American types” to bring back to the U.S. (Lebow 217). Despite finding herself unable to purchase a European plane due to war shortages, Law nonetheless enjoyed studying the advances in aviation and expected “to return with new ideas for adoption in this country.” When the United States entered WWI Law wasn’t allowed to “fly in combat”, but she was “authorized to wear a military uniform” to help in fundraising and recruitment efforts (DeMace). Law would “bomb” cities with leaflets promoting the purchase of Liberty Bonds while wearing this uniform. Despite doing her part to help the U.S., in 1918 The Ocala evening star reported her being “peeved because the war department won’t let her go to France.” The paper argued that she should be allowed to fight because “if she was killed, as she probably would be, the principal effect would be to make our soldiers and our people more disposed to fight.”

Ruth Law's Bombs Get Liberty Loan Bonds-Better
The Pensacola journal-June 12, 1917

After WWI, Law resumed her pre-war aviation career, sometimes offering commentary on the record-breaking attempts of others. The risky stunts in her repertoire, seen below in this article from the February 11, 1921 issue of The Pensacola journal, probably factored into her husband’s decision to announce her retirement without her knowledge in 1922. Despite her seeming lack of input in this decision, she nonetheless retired, prompting the Palatka daily news to quip that she “quit flying and settled down-instead of crashing as they usually do.” Ruth Law passed away at age 79 in 1970 but is forever remembered for her contributions to aviation and Florida history.

Law husband
The Pensacola journal-February 11, 1921

Citations and Additional Sources:

DeMace, Kayleigh. “Ruth Law Oliver: An American Aviatrix.” The Flight Blog. November 30, 2016. http://theflightblog.com/ruth-law-american-aviatrix/.

Josh. “Daytona Beach and the Earliest Days of Aviation in Florida.” The Florida Memory Blog. December 3, 2014. https://www.floridamemory.com/blog/2014/12/03/daytona-beach-and-the-earliest-days-of-aviation-in-florida/.

Lazarus, William C. Wings in the Sun: The Annals of Aviation in Florida. Orlando, Florida: Tyn Cobb’s Florida Press, 1951.

Lebow, Eileen F. Before Amelia: Women Pilots in the Early Days of Aviation. Washington D.C.: Potomac Books, Inc., 2002.

McCarthy, Kevin M. Aviation in Florida. Sarasota, Florida: Pineapple Press, Inc., 2003.

McGraw, Eliza. “The Ace Aviatrix Learned to Fly Even Though Orville Wright Refused to Teach Her.” Smithsonian.com Blog. March 22, 2017. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/ace-aviatrix-learned-fly-even-though-orville-wright-refused-teach-her-180962606/.  

Punnett, Dick and Yvonne. Thrills, Chills, and Spills: A Photographic History of Early Aviation on the World’s Most Bizarre Airport-The Beach at Daytona Beach, Florida 1906-1922. New Smyrna Beach, Florida: Luthers, 1900

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The Grapefruit League: Baseball in Florida

George Cutshaw
George Cutshaw of the Brooklyn Dodgers from The Daytona daily news February 25, 1915

April 3, 2017 is Opening Day, marking the beginning of the baseball regular season following over a month of spring training. Baseball fans are already aware that many teams hold their spring training here in Florida because winters are relatively temperate. Due to this Florida connection, our Chronicling America newspapers are a treasure trove for fans of baseball history and its surrounding culture. As baseball moves into the regular season, let’s take a look at some articles that discuss spring training in Florida, including the rumored origin of the name “Grapefruit League.”

According to Kevin M. McCarthy’s Baseball in Florida, baseball teams have been heading to the Southern U.S. for spring training as far back as the 1870s. Spring training, at the beginning, was intended to get players back in shape for the new season after their winter off. In the age of highly trained and well-paid professions, spring training allows teams to try out new players and ease into the season. It also gives fans the chance to see their team play in smaller, more intimate venues. The first team to use Florida as the site for their spring training was the Washington Capitals (also called the Senators) who went to Jacksonville for three weeks in 1888 (McCarthy 141). While baseball players didn’t have the best professional reputation in the early 20th century, it was economically advantageous for Florida cities and towns to court teams for spring training and did so by offering teams new fields and improved facilities. While costing municipalities initially, in addition to bringing the team and support staff to town, the spring training season also brought spectators and their families who were likely to patronize hotels, restaurants, and other local attractions.

Baseball teams have held spring training in Florida since the late 19th century, but the Grapefruit League, the name for the group of teams who train in the Sunshine State, originated in the early 1910s. McCarthy nails down 1914 as the year the league was established, but the event that is rumored to have led to the naming of the league didn’t occur until 1915 when a grapefruit was tossed out of an airplane with rather explosive results (McCarthy 146). While multiple versions of this legend exist, The Daytona daily news, the newspaper of the city where the incident occurred, published their version of the event on March 17, 1915 while Daytona was hosting the Brooklyn Dodgers during their spring training. In their report, famous woman aviator Ruth Law devised a promotional stunt with Wilbert Robinson, manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, during which she would toss a baseball from an airplane for him to catch. Law claims that she forgot the agreed upon baseball and instead “substituted a grapefruit” which she had in her plane. Robinson missed the fruit, which “walloped him on the arm” leaving quite the bruise. Another version of the story also mentions that the fruit exploded “all over his face, showering him with freshly squeezed grapefruit juice” (Gardner). One can only speculate how badly he would have been hurt if he had been hit by a baseball falling from around 500 feet above the ground!

Grapefruit Airplane
The Daytona daily news-March 17, 1915

Coverage of spring training in Chronicling America’s Florida papers varies from title to title and the depth of coverage is largely contingent on if the municipality was hosting a team during a given year. However, there are reports in most papers about spring training throughout the state. In our collection, The Daytona daily news during the years 1915 and 1916 stands out for its coverage of the Brooklyn Dodgers (Officially named the Brooklyn Base Ball Club but also referred to in our papers as the Superbas), who held their spring training near the city during those years. In addition to reporting the grapefruit debacle, the paper, as you would expect, reported upcoming games as well as offering summaries after they occurred. But beyond reporting sports news, The Daytona daily news treated the Brooklyn Dodgers like local celebrities, including stories in the paper about their leisure activities including their success while fishing, going on plane rides with the aforementioned Ruth Law, and a banquet held in their honor by local civic groups.

Brooklyn Baseball Fish
The Daytona daily news-March 7, 1916

Beyond just the team, The Daytona daily news, like many local papers at that time, also included brief notices about important out of town visitors. In the time period before and after Daytona hosted the Brooklyn team, the paper also reported the coming and going of the club owner, other team staff including doctors and managers, and even the out of town press who accompanied the team to cover training. Daytona, already a well-established tourist destination by 1915, apparently had sufficient infrastructure for the press who, according to this April 6th article, were happy with the telegraph services available in Daytona. Nevertheless, while the city was under the impression that Daytona would be home to Brooklyn Baseball spring training “for next five years, if not longer” in March 1915, after 1916 the Dodgers only returned to Daytona once for spring training in 1946. After this, mentions of the Superbas fade from the pages of The Daytona daily news. Due to it being a seasonal paper, there are no issues of The Daytona daily news during October 1916, when they played (and lost) the World Series to the Boston Red Sox.

Five years
The Daytona daily news-March 23, 1915

There is undoubtedly more information about spring training in Florida newspapers that haven’t been digitized yet, and our incomplete record demonstrates the need for projects like ours, which ensure public access to primary sources. For example, we haven’t yet digitized issues of Gainesville papers for the years 1919 or 1921 when the Giants and the Phillies, respectively, held their spring training there. Today, fifteen teams, including the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals, still come to Florida for spring training and to play exhibition games against one another, providing entertainment for yet another generation of native Floridians and tourists alike.

Citations and Additional Sources

Gardner, Dakota. “The amazing story of ‘Uncle Robbie’ Robinson’s plane-assisted grapefruit catch.” Cut4 (blog) . March 13, 2014. http://m.mlb.com/cutfour/2014/03/13/69250856/wilbert-robinson-airplane-baseball-grapefruit-catch.

“History.” Florida Grapefruit League. Accessed March 22, 2017. http://www.floridagrapefruitleague.com/home/history/.

McCarthy, Kevin M. Baseball in Florida. Sarasota, FL: Pineapple Press, 1996.

Semchuck, Alex. “Wilbert Robinson.” Society for American Baseball Research. Accessed March 22, 2017. http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/5536caf5.

Daytona Daily News Teaser

You may have noticed a number of posts in the past month discussing content that’s been recently uploaded to Chronicling America. This is because we’re at the point in our digitization cycle where all the pages we’ve so diligently duplicated and coded become usable to the public. We hope you’re as excited as we are about all the great new content available.

Today we want to call attention to the most recent batch to be uploaded, The Daytona daily news. Parts of the run of this particular paper were in our collection previously, but this newest batch contains about 8,000 pages of content. Primarily from January 1911 to February 1922, the pages of this paper cover “the Daytona Speedway attracting fans, rousing stories of moon shining, and coverage of seaside activities in the Sunshine State” (Chronicling America). Below, we highlight some of the headlines and quirky features of The Daytona daily news.

last-issue-of-daily-news
The Daytona daily news March 29, 1913

One of the more unique features of The Daytona daily news is that it was a seasonal newspaper. The paper ran only from the first of December or January thru the end of March during its run. The March 21, 1910 edition of the paper referred to it as “its summer hibernation.” For the interested reader, this means that the paper doesn’t ever cover the months June through September, and coverage for April and May as well as October through December is on a year-by-year basis. The reason for this seems largely associated with the winter car-racing season in Daytona, a topic we’ll cover more extensively in a later blog.

daytonas-wonderful-beach
The Daytona daily news-October 1, 1920
who-will-be-speed-king
The Daytona daily news-March 12, 1910

Like many papers of the time, The Daytona daily news featured a women’s page with fashion advice, beauty tips, advertisements, and stories for women.

society-page
The Daytona daily news-March 6, 1916

The winter racing season brought in a large number of tourists, many who stayed in Daytona hotels and patronized the restaurants, stores, and theaters in the area. Because of this, the paper contains a considerable amount of advertising with that audience in mind. One local church even dubbed itself “the tourist church” on the reoccurring religious services page of the paper in 1921.

tourist-church
The Daytona daily news-March 19, 1921
decorate
The Daytona daily news-March 30, 1917
mecca-for-automobilists
The Daytona daily news-March 8, 1910

We hope you enjoy exploring The Daytona daily news!

Citations and Additional Sources

Dickens, Bethany. “Episode 27 Leather Cap & Goggles.” A History of Central Florida. podcast video, October 1, 2014. http://stars.library.ucf.edu/ahistoryofcentralfloridapodcast/27.