June 22, 1900 Saturday, Jun 21 2014 

From the Guest book on June 22, 1900:


“Fond memory brings the light of other days around me.”

The next visitor on the page was Mabel Hyde Kittredge. She was an author of various housekeeping texts, she was probably a guest of Fannie Smith (who also wrote a book on that theme) rather than WWE, though his knowledge of publishing was likely welcome. She was also one of the founders of the hot school lunch program in NYC, so something of an activist as well.


On sewing machines Tuesday, Apr 8 2014 

From a letter by Morris to Julie, March 1860:

“If you get the sewing machine, get one of Wheeler and Wilson’s, and have Susan (Julie’s maid and general helper) learn how to work it. Dear Julie, though it may be pleasant for you to work on the Sewing Machine, please do not do it very much, as it might make you lame, besides other casualties which I have heard sometimes have come to ladies from the use of the machine. Don’t laugh. I think it will be a good thing and an excellent arrangement for Susan. If she can perfect herself in the use of the machine, she will never come to want and will always have the means of obtaining an excellent living. I trust however, she will never see the necessity of going about for sewing or ever leave the house at 31 Chestnut Street (their home) except when we go to a larger and more pleasant house.”

Letters Friday, Apr 26 2013 

A short vignette from a letter by Martha Kilbourne to Helen, dated 1873. Martha, or Mattie, was one of Helen’s close friends, she was 16 when she wrote this letter.
“Lizzie is in Great Barrington and will stay there until school commences. It is so very warm she does not dare to go down to Conn. She is boarding in a splendid old farm house. It has two very large rooms on the first floor, her room is over 20 feet square, is furnished in the modern style and very richly. Her parlor is richly furnished it has pale green with rose buds embroidered on it (note: she means the furniture in the room, not the room!). It has two sofas, one sleepy hollow chair, four easy chairs, a large table, inlaid cabinet, piano, and a beautiful case for music. She has a balcony running by both rooms.”
It is clear from the description, since the parlor is unlikely to have been much larger than Lizzie’s other room, that excessive amounts of furniture are typical in upper middle class houses of this time period. The sheer number of chairs! (the original transcription, I should add, suggests there are another 11 chairs…but I have my doubts about the transcription)* A piano would almost be a required item for Lizzie, or any girl in that class, during the summer in order to keep up with her lessons.
Esperanza’s excess of furniture was clearly not a unique situation…

* the eleven is the only number that is typed as a number and not as a word, and there are several other longer numbers in the letter which are typed as words. This discrepancy rings alarm bells.

Proper Ladies Thursday, Jan 10 2013 

For certain readers from certain areas that may or may not start with ‘C’ this may or may not offend.


Julie was nothing if not independent; making her own way as an author, she was nonetheless highly aware of the correct societal norms, especially as they concerned her daughters. She insisted that they learn the proper skills and manners to succeed in society; her letters are full of remarks and corrections, even when her daughters were adults, and give us a great deal of insight. One of the more disconcerting aspects of examining the upper middle-class, well-educated, women of the late nineteenth century is just how accomplished, independent, and frankly formidable so many of them were…several generations before women’s lib (but I won’t go there). They may not have occupied the upper echelons of business and they may not have been able to vote, but they were neither dim nor silent.*

Some attributes of a proper lady, judging by what Julie encouraged in her daughters: they were comfortable travelling alone throughout the US and with appropriate escorts in Europe, they were well-read, multilingual (Latin, French, and German at least), they could manage the household, ride a horse, drive a horse, make clothing, do fine embroidery, read music, hold up their end of a conversation, garden, could draw passibly and had elegant handwriting, and could shoot.

It is that last thing, of course, that in the current climate will no doubt appall some of my readers. Yet, Helen carried a handgun much of the time and needed it once to fend off a robbery on the road to Hartford, Lucy in the next generation generally had a handgun in her purse, and if I recall correctly Helen Adelaide once backed her husband up with rifle in hand in the tense hours of negotiating a potential agricultural strike.

Aside from being used on a farm as varmint control and for hunting (the former generally only the men, the latter sometimes by women as well), guns were regarded as potentially useful tools that a proper young lady should know how to use if needed. They were tools that ensured their independence and relative safety and were absolutely nothing unusual that merited concern. They were also fun tools, as the sketch from the guest book from the summer of 1877 shows. The woman in question was Helen Yale Smith Ellsworth.

We know that the guns owned were designed to be carried in a purse or pocket. Given that, given the independent nature of the people in question, and given that there was no particular desire to collect guns; the only reasonable inference that I can draw is that the women of that generation felt that having the ability to carry gave them a level of defense that their mothers and grandmothers lacked. It wasn’t paranoia or politics, I very much doubt either Helen or Lucy were given to such; it was simply part of being a capable woman. Despite its enduring popularity in the novels of that day and today, ‘damsel in distress’ was not approved practice.

I’m happy to report that the ability to use tools continues today.

*Obviously, there were some dim bulbs, there always are.
*By well read think Memorizing the English Canon from Shakespeare on.

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