BANGOR – At the turn of the 20th century, profound changes in cities across the United States created a climate where volunteer organizations such as Quipus would take hold and flourish.
The Industrial Revolution brought about hideous working conditions for laborers, and created undesirable neighborhoods for the working poor. Nationwide, women and men of middle-class status sought to improve the lots of those less fortunate.
In 1890, social reformer Jane Addams created Hull House, a settlement house in Chicago, which provided social services and educational opportunities for the city’s poor. In New York, a photographer-journalist named Jacob Riis documented the conditions of tenement houses and poor workers in his book, “How the Other Half Lives.”
Through the efforts of these and other social activists, legislation was passed at local, state, and national levels to improve working conditions, while citizens around the country sought to alleviate other social ills.
Like-minded people devoted themselves to help those in need in their communities. In Bangor, at least four such organizations contributed to varying degrees to the city’s welfare: the Shakespeare Club; the Junior League; the Home Culture Club; and the Quipus club.
These clubs offered civic-minded women opportunities to work in their communities, and provided a forum for intellectual and social discourse. While their histories are entwined, the exhibit at the Bangor Museum and Center for History focuses on the Quipus club and its assistance to Bangor’s community.
To better understand the organization’s efforts, it is helpful to look at the backgrounds of these women. Many had graduated from high school or even gone on to college, and some became teachers until they married. At the turn of the 20th century, many of these women had domestic help to manage the household, enabling them to focus their time on their children and civic work.
Quipus was founded in 1912 by women who were kept out of Shakespeare Club due to membership quotas. A group of the excluded young women started the club to provide themselves an opportunity to discuss issues of the day with one another; learn and perform plays; and create social bonds between members.
Not satisfied with these lofty goals, the Quipus decided to open and operate Bangor’s first dental clinic in 1920.
The term Quipus was derived from the word “quipu,” referring to an Incan Indian device used to keep track of accounts. A quipu is a string of colored cords knotted in various ways used for record keeping. The ladies chose this device to represent ties among themselves, and with their community.
Their first charitable activity took place in 1918, when they supported a French war orphan after World War I. In 1920, they started both the public performances of plays and the dental clinic to help poor children gain access to dental care.
Quipus, the Junior League, and the Shakespeare Club helped to create better conditions for Bangor’s working poor through their charitable efforts. Between 1920 and 1956, Quipus performed plays for the public.
Members contributed countless hours putting the plays together, and were rewarded with large turnouts.
The profits they raised in turn funded the dental clinic’s equipment and operation costs. In 1938 the city of Bangor took over running the clinic.
According to Barbara Brookings, Bangor residents readily attended Quipus performances.
“People were so glad to have a cultural and fun evening, and we [Quipus] were the only ones to do that [in the 1930s and 1940s], so everybody came,” she said.
Quipus attained funds for the clinic with their productions once or even twice a year, raising about $500 annually for the clinic. To place the revenue in better context: In 1930, the average annual salary nationwide was about $1,400, and bread was 9 cents a loaf.
Members were encouraged to write, produce and act in their own plays, as well as perform well-known pieces. Among plays from the 1930s were “Peter and the Dream King,” “Dear Octopus” and “Two Chinese Fantasy Plays.”
Lora Blanding Knott, a Quipus member, wrote “Peter and the Dream King.” Performed on Oct. 18, 1930, the play drew a crowd of 850 children.
Often the members would play both male and female parts, and their children participated. The male actors who performed were mostly family recruits. Quipus members often found their costumes in family collections, donated to the club over time. For missing outfits, Quipus enlisted women in the organization to make and modify needed costumes.
In addition to providing services to the community, Quipus was an important social forum for its members. They frequently had political guests, such as presidential candidates Herbert Hoover and Al Smith in 1928, and held talks about foreign affairs and domestic issues to supplement their play preparations during meetings. The ladies finished out their monthly gatherings with a social tea, and always dressed up, donning their finery and hats.
Since its inception, Quipus ladies have worked countless hours and volunteered their efforts to the Junior League and church activities, as well as their own club to make their community a better place. Their work laid the foundation for the civic services that exist in Bangor today.
Erica Risberg, a doctoral student in history at the University of Maine, recently made a presentation on Quipus for the Bangor Museum and Center for History. Risberg has a master’s degree in history and a bachelor’s degree in American studies, both from Western Connecticut State University.