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Edith and Grace McDowell were the daughters of Ohio farmers Daniel McDowell and Helen Wilson McDowell. The middle of seven children, the two women grew up among hardy frontier stock in the late 1800s. From the dust storms and Indian raids of the Kansas prairie to the devastation of typhoid, tuberculosis, multiple marriages and the deaths of their children, Edie and Grace never succumbed to adversity. Their lives saw the transition from horse-and-buggy to railroad and steamship, to automobile. They witnessed the birth of the radio and recording industries, and they did so as independent women in an era before their gender could vote.
Although putting themselves through business school in Toledo was initially a way to help strained family finances, the ladies eventually made their own way as public stenographers, blazing a trail as independent businesswomen in the early 1900s. From Toledo, Ohio to the new state of Oklahoma, to Detroit, New York and Boston, to San Francisco (where they discovered their attraction to Hawaiian music at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition), to San Diego (where they set up shop in the lobby of the US Grant Hotel and did steno work for Charlie Chaplin, DW Griffith, Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Normand), the McDowells were always on the move. When the Great War came, they served their country in Washington DC, first as assistants to Congressmen and then as war correspondents for the Daily Oklahoman (and later in syndication). They lunched with senators and the First Lady Edith Bolling Wilson, and photographed President Warren Harding on the White House porch.
After the war, they traveled to the Hawaii Territory with a Congressional delegation, and ended up learning the music that would become the dominant popular genre on the mainland. Upon their return to the States, they began to perform, teach, tour, record, and finally broadcast their music on the infant medium of radio (although it is not known where the discrepancy in the spelling of their surname originated, their professional materials are always spelled MacDowell). From New York to Dallas, from the New Jersey studio of Thomas Edison himself to the Hollywood of the silent film era, the MacDowell Sisters, aka the “Sweethearts of the Air” eventually became the #2 most popular radio act in the country. In the days when radio broadcasts piggybacked on station relays, the Sweethearts received up to a thousand fan letters a week, from as far afield as Alaska and South America. They toured with author Ilya Tolstoy, and helped the New Thought movement gain traction in the public consciousness. Settling in Hollywood in the 1920s, they became friends with western film star William S. Hart and were even rear-ended by Mary Pickford in her new Ford.
As the sisters aged and Hawaiian music gave way to jazz and swing, the Sweethearts gradually stopped performing and broadcasting, retiring from celebrity life in 1930, when they wrote their memoir. All Aboard! would not see publication in their lifetimes. Edith died in 1936; Grace twenty years later.
Although many of the early pioneers of radio and recording entertainment have been all but lost to history, the family of the MacDowell Sisters continue to keep their legacy alive. Their story is singular among people of their era – a firsthand account of the people, places and events that mattered in the days before mass media and the internet.