Yours Respectfully, Miss Elvira Johnson
Posted January 18, 2024
Topics: Industry & LaborPresidents & PoliticsArchives & Library

By Wendy Korwin, Archives Services Manager

Within large archival collections, certain names and voices stand out. From 2021-2023, archivists at the Ohio History Connection worked to catalog President Warren G. Harding’s papers and photographs. During this project, we identified thousands of correspondents (another blog post explores some of Harding's early letters). There were close, distant and hopeful family members; business partners; political rivals and allies; and lots of regular folks. One woman’s name has stayed in my brain, though, many months after the project’s formal conclusion: Elvira Johnson.

Elvira Johnson wrote her first letter to Warren G. Harding in August 1906 as a fresh graduate of the Inland Printer Technical School:

Graduates of the Inland Printer Technical School, 1906

In the school’s Machine Composition Branch, the machine in question was Ottmar Mergenthaler's Linotype. It's like... if a typewriter had a baby with a pipe organ. Linotypes transformed the newspaper business by replacing the process of setting text by hand, one metal letter at a time, with a clanging contraption that could cast and set an entire “line o’ type” with a few keystrokes. They debuted in the printing office of the New York Tribune in 1886. Warren G. Harding, who had become a co-owner and editor of the Marion Daily Star just a few years before, ordered his first two Mergenthaler Linotypes in 1897.[1]

In 1906, Elvira Johnson left her hometown of Geneseo, Illinois and traveled to Chicago to become “the first Illinois girl” to train on Linotypes at the Inland Printer school.[2] A Mergenthaler company bulletin published that same year boasted that a Linotype operator could set up a newspaper five times faster than someone working by hand, at a rate of 5,000 ems per hour.[3] In her letter to Harding, Johnson explained:

“My speed at present is 3500 per hour, but I have been working on directories and such work almost entirely since finishing the Inland Printer School and for that reason do not know my speed on newspaper work, but I have gotten up 4000 per hour on one nights’ run on newspaper.... If my speed meets with your approval, I would be pleased to accept your offer, and try to do my best.”

It’s the way she ended her letter, though, that makes it stand out from the ones Harding regularly received from other applicants: “You may not understand what wanting a steady job is, but to me it is everything and at present more-so than I ever thought it could be.”[4]

Elvira Johnson never shied away from telling Harding what she wanted or explaining her position. Two weeks after her first letter, she replied to a question about her gender: “As to working with men entirely, I have done nothing else since I went into the printing business, and find that they are all right to work with. I have never had any trouble with any of them.”

Once again, she ended her letter to Harding by stressing the ways that her position differed from his own: “You may understand how a steady position appeals to me when you know that there is only my mother and myself in the family and I must see that we are kept alive.”[5]

Harding did offer Elvira Johnson a job in the Star’s composing room, as its only female Linotype operator. A few years later, health concerns appear to have taken Johnson away from Marion temporarily. She noted in one letter to Harding that she was happy to hear that he had improved the ventilation in the Star’s offices. Once again, the correspondence leading up to her return indicates that she was comfortable advocating for her needs. A 1912 telegram to Harding flatly rejected his initial offer:


MSS 345, Box 50, Folder 8

Although Johnson was eager to return to Marion, she would not do so under conditions she considered unjust. The following year, Harding seemed more amenable to negotiating – or maybe just more desperate for good help. Johnson opened a five-page letter to him from a post in Pontiac, Michigan: “Your letter reached me today and in reply I will say that I appreciate your proposition but I’m sure you would not care to have me give up a $23 job for one of $18 with slight bonus.” In her counter offer, Johnson reasoned that her trustworthiness, efficiency and ability to care for his expensive machinery meant that Harding was still getting a good deal: “I’m writing this as man to man and hope you understand what I’m trying to convey."[6]  Harding apparently accepted the terms of her return. Three months later, Elvira Johnson and George Tuttle, another Linotype operator at the Star, “were quietly married” in Marion.[7]


Image courtesy of Marion County Historical Society

Marion Star Composing Room Employees, circa 1913

Back row: W. F. Bull, Lew Miller, George Tuttle, Elvira Tuttle, Fred Buckingham

Front row: Frank Dennis, Royal Boger, Wylie Messenger

Elvira and George Tuttle remained devoted to Marion and to the Star, but perhaps most of all to Harding. In 1923, the year that saw both the sale of the paper and its editor’s death, the couple purchased their own newspaper and relocated to Winnebago, Minnesota. There, Elvira organized the Business and Professional Women’s Club, and with George, she ran the Winnebago City Enterprise for 23 years. George retired in 1946, and soon after, the Tuttles sold their paper and moved to Mason City, Iowa. George died in 1956, but Elvira seems to have remained active in the community, writing for the local Globe-Gazette until shortly before her own death in 1968. They are both buried in Marion.

And that is nearly all I know about Elvira Johnson. Other snippets from census records and digitized newspapers have offered a few more details about her life. One day I might have the pleasure of reading through the Winnebago City Enterprise, or I might drive past the house in Marion where she and George boarded (318 S. State St.; it’s white). But those aren’t aching desires. We have the letters, and that’s where the gold is. I’d like to advocate for myself – I’d like all of us to advocate for ourselves – in the same way that Elvira Johnson did to the future President Harding: kindly, candidly, and with the confidence that you won't accept a job at $18 when you deserve $23.


[1] Sherry Smart Hall, Warren G. Harding and the Marion Daily Star: How Newspapering Shaped a President (Charleston: The History Press, 2014), 77.

[2] “Mrs. G. E. Tuttle, Ex-Star Printer, Dies at 90 in Iowa,” Marion Star, 27 April 1968.

[3] Linotype Bulletin 3, no. 1 (Oct-Nov-Dec 1906): 2. Here’s some more nerd stuff about ems:

[4] Elvira Johnson to Warren G. Harding, 3 August 1906, Warren G. Harding Papers, MSS 345, Box 45, Folder 4.

[5] Elvira Johnson to Warren G. Harding, 14 August 1906, Warren G. Harding Papers, MSS 345, Box 45, Folder 4.

[6] Elvira Johnson to Warren G. Harding, 25 March 1913, Warren G. Harding Papers, MSS 345, Box 22, Folder 6.

[7] “Quietly Married at the Porch Residence,” Marion Star, 9 June 1913.

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