One of the writing assignments that I use in my American women’s history class is a series of primary document analyses. Each one uses a different digital database or archive to locate a document and analyze it using course materials. I like to imagine this is building twenty-first century research skills and teaching responsible use of the Internet, as well as our more traditional goal of critical thinking skills. As I was constructing the assignment, I explored several digital repositories, including the North American Women’s Letters and Diaries collection from Alexander Street Press. In the process, I stumbled upon an item that very quickly sucked me in. I had no choice but to drop everything else and read it very, very carefully.
In June, 1932, a fourteen-year-old girl named Julia Heller made an accounting of all the young men in her acquaintance – or, at the very least, all of the young men she found interesting. Julia Heller Boy Friends Book* is a manuscript of fifty pages or so that details the demographic information of thirty boys and Julia’s assessment of their suitability as romantic partners. In addition to cataloging their full name, address, physical traits, and interests, Julia also recorded where they met, whether or not they kissed, and what, if anything, the boys gave her as gifts. At the end of the book, she sorted the boys into groups based on hair color (light, brown, or red), which school and summer sports they played (baseball or basketball), those that lived near to her, which boys danced, and whether they owned a bicycle. She also grouped them according to “Boys I liked better than others” and “Boys I liked best of all.”
But Julia was not a simple demographer. Her statistics and other data are accompanied by rich descriptions of her interest in the boys and their interaction. The first entry, for a seventh-grader who went by “Bud,” offers an amusing account of a summer day at the lake. In the evening, Julia, Bud, Bud’s sister, and a boy named Bill, all went canoeing, and some banter ensued about which boy would get to kiss Julia. Bud brushed off the teasing, but “Then he kissed me when they weren’t looken [sic],” Julia writes. “Oh Man! What a kisser. Can he kiss well just get a sample of one once. You’ll sure want another one.” However, on the very next page, Julia indicates that she wishes the other boy, Bill, had kissed her “just once.”
Julia’s Boy Friends Book continued into 1933 and 1934, when she narrowed the list from the original thirty down to four. Then, in 1935, the very lucky Roger Immel, known as “Tom” or “Red,” stole her heart. “Tommie Immel the one & only,” Julia wrote. “I liked him 3 years Freshman, Sophomore, Junior year went with him since Color Day. Dearest boy friend I have had. The cutest disposition and oh, what a smile. Can he drive a Buick and how. And that isn’t all he can even dance. Oh — What a man.” Immel, who Julia noted played the violin and trombone, played baseball, had grayish blue eyes and red hair, also gifted her “notes, letters, program cards, and flowers.” Although she entered a few more boys into the book after him, it’s clear that Immel was the boy for her. “He is absolutely too divine and gorgeous for words,” she later wrote in the book’s final entry, which was entirely devoted to her relationship with Immel. But then the book ends abruptly, without any indication which, if any, of these boys Julia married.
For as much as Julia shared, I found myself wanting to know more. Who was she? Did she and Immel ever get married? Why was she cataloging all of her love affairs? How did it end up in a digital repository?
Julia, like so many people, has very little in the way of a paper trail. From what I can tell from digging around online, Julia and Roger Immel did marry, but I’m not sure when. According to census records, they were still unmarried and living with their respective parents in 1940. At that point, Roger had completed three years of college, while Julia and her two sisters were working full-time as seamstresses. After the couple married, they had one child, a son, before Roger died in a tractor accident on their farm in 1951. Julia remarried a year later. Her second husband, Paul Elter (he never appeared in the book), a plumber, died in 2003, and Julia herself died at the age of eighty-nine in 2007. It appears she lived her entire life in small towns of Southern Pennsylvania. According to her obituary, she was active in her church, and she worked in the local school system. She left behind two granddaughters.
I do not know, of course, why she created her Boy Friends Book in the first place, or how it ended up in an archive. Obviously, it was something she regarded as so important that she kept it her entire life, and someone had the idea to contribute it to the North American Women’s Letters and Diaries database, although it is listed as remaining in her private collection.
What I find most striking about this book is Julia’s obvious sense of sexual self-ownership. She expresses little in the way of trying to make herself more attractive to the boys. Instead, her intention seems to be making informed choices about her romantic adventures. We might read her cataloging of the boys’ access to transportation, ability to purchase gifts, and skills as sportsmen or dancers, as Julia’s way of assessing their worth in the sexual marketplace. This was very much a book about what she expected of the boys, not the other way around. Julia Heller Boy Friends Book also gives us a glimpse into the courtship rituals of youth culture in small-town America in the early 1930s. Although she makes little mention of specific songs or films, dancing, movies, sports and recreation clearly were important aspects of the heterosocial interaction in her community. Julia lets us into her world, and reminds us how far removed from large-scale events, such as a global economic depression, youth can be.
Julia Heller Boy Friends Book was a new source for me. I have never encountered such an item before now, although my students who work as summer camp counselors assure me (warn me?) that such books are commonplace even today. I’m curious to hear what others think about these books – where have you encountered them, and what secrets do they offer?
I am very grateful to the students enrolled in my research seminar on the history of sex and sexuality in America this semester at Grinnell College. I shared this document and the bits of info I had found on Julia’s life with them, and they enthusiastically offered suggestions on what this document offers us as historians.
*As awkward as it sounds and looks, the listed title for the manuscript is Julia Heller Boy Friends Book, June 1932.
I direct students to the following repositories for this assignment:
Women and Social Movements, 1600-2000 [Please note that Women and Social Movements, like North American Women’s Letters and Diaries, require an institutional subscription.]
Women Working, 1800-1930
Chicago Women’s Liberation Union Herstory Project Historical Archive
University of Iowa’s Iowa Digital Library