Advice to Readers on Bashfulness

For many years Isabella served as an editor and contributor to a Christian magazine in which she had a very popular advice column. She used the column to answer readers’ concerns—from a Christian perspective—on a variety of topics.

This letter came from a teen in Kansas:

I want to ask if there is any way to overcome being painfully bashful. I am really a sufferer with this disease. I get good marks in school when the work is largely in writing, but as sure as I am called upon to talk, I am scared out of my wits.

In Voice Culture class it is the same. I am said to have a fine voice and my teachers say my “scares” are all that keep me back. I am always swallowing at the wrong place. I have been so humiliated by this drawback that there are times when I think I would like to run away where no one who knows me would ever see me again.

My dear mother is planning to have me go to college, and I know I shall fail on account of timidity; that is the only drawback, for I like to study.


Here is Isabella’s Reply:

Yours is by no means an uncommon affliction, dear friend. Indeed, it sometimes seems as though the world of young people was made up of two classes: those who have no timidity about anything and rush in where thoughtful persons hesitate, and those who, as the letters quoted from express it, are “painfully bashful.”

Before the remedy can be applied with any degree of success, the cause of the disease must be determined; and at the risk of having some of the afflicted start back in protesting dismay, I am going to diagnose it as pride, overweening self-esteem, egotism, any of the words by which we define undue self-consciousness.

Illustration of an 1888 classroom of young girls. One girl stands; she is holding a book, her head is bent and she holds up her arm to cover her face. The other students are seated; one tries to comfort the embarrassed student. Two others whisper and smile together; while two more are reading a book in the back. A teacher stands near the window of the room.

I know that to some it will sound like a contradiction to say that a timid person has too much self-esteem, yet I believe that in nine cases of “bashfulness” out of ten, this will be found to be the case. The remedy, therefore, suggests itself. Anything that will help us to forget ourselves entirely will go far toward removing the trouble: and there is really nothing else that is likely to do much good.

Photo dated about 1905 of a classroom of female students in their teens. One female students stands beside a large document hung on the wall and uses a pointer to indicate one section of the document. All other students are seeated at desks and are looking in her direction..
A student recites in history class. (Credit: Keystone-Mast Collection, UCR/California Museum of Photography, University of California at Riverside.

In a school recitation, if we have made such close and careful preparation that the subject has got hold of us and we are filled with admiration (or indignation, or curiosity) over the thoughts expressed by the author we study, it will be those thoughts and not ourselves that we will think about when we recite.

Photo dated about 1910. A teacher stands at the classroom blackboard where words and shapes are drawn, and points to one section of the blackboard. One little girl stands facing the teacher (her back to the camera) to answer the teacher's question. All other students sit at desks with their backs to the camera. Some students have their hands raised to answer the question.

In Voice Culture this is harder, because the inane syllables on which the pupil is compelled to practice afford no chance for thought; but as soon as one is allowed to sing words—if they are worth singing—the performer can train himself to be absorbed in the thought they express, and in the wonder that the human voice has power to render varying feeling and emotion; and in curiosity to see what range of expression he has himself, until he forgets entirely to wonder, or to fear, what other people think of his performance, and becomes an artist, lost in his art. Such a singer will not be troubled with timidity. Ordinary singers can train toward this height, and overcome self by degrees.

Illustration of a group of young people in a drawing-room about 1875. Some are seated, some are standing. One man sits at a piano and looks at a young  woman who stands beside the piano, singing and holding sheet music.

In social life the ideal way to overcome the form of self-consciousness that expresses itself in timidity, is to fix one’s attention on some other person, a stranger perhaps, or one not accustomed to society, who, for these or other reasons, is not having a good time; and resolve that he or she shall have a pleasant evening. The reflex result will astonish those who try it for the first time.

I knew a timid, shrinking girl, given to fancying herself awkward or stupid or conspicuous in some unpleasant way, who was one evening roused to sympathy for a young woman not so well dressed as the others, and evidently painfully aware of it. In struggling to make that one forget her too short dress and gloveless hands and other defects of costume and have a good time in spite of them, she forgot all about herself.

Illustration of two young women in old period dress, standing close together with a small branch of a pink flowering bush.

Here is what she told her mother on reaching home.

“We had a lovely time, mamma; and Miss Haven says I sang better than she ever heard me; that my voice didn’t tremble a bit. And don’t you believe I forgot all about being scared! I asked that Bennett girl to take the alto, and I was so interested in having her do well that I never once thought of how I was singing!”

A young woman stands holding sheet music and singing. Beside her another young woman is seated, playing a piano.

All of which goes to prove that the old, old rule which, being freely translated is: ”Think always of others and never mind about yourself.” It’s a good one to apply to the great, and the trivial acts of our lives. Once, a girl told me that she thought it would be irreverent to try to imagine what the Lord Jesus Christ thought of her when she stood up in class, or whether he was pleased with her work.

Do you know, I want no such Savior as that girl must have thought she had? I want one who knows our infirmities, “was tempted in all points” as we are, who is interested in the very hairs of our heads, and in the minutest trivialities of our daily lives. Suppose we thought much more about what he is thinking of us than we do? Would it help?


What do you think of Isabella’s advice to the teen in Kansas?

Isabella and the Great Quake

For Isabella, springtime in California was a season of cheer and beauty. She and Reverend Alden moved to Palo Alto, California in 1901. With their grown son Raymond and his wife Barbara, they built a beautiful duplex home for the entire family not far from Stanford University where Raymond taught English Literature. (Read more about their house here.)

Black and white photo of Isabella's home in Palo Alto, California.
Isabella’s home in Palo Alto, California. She and her husband lived in one side of the duplex; her son Raymond and his family lived in the other.

One of Isabella’s best memories was sitting on the porch of her Palo Alto house and seeing the variety of roses growing in her yard.

Red, cream, salmon, pure white, and every shade of pink. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them! The world [seemed] made of roses!

Painting of young woman dressed in white gown in style of 1910, standing amid a cluster of tall rose bushes of different colors. Over her arm she carries a basket. With her other hand she cups a pink rose.

In fact, Palo Alto’s relaxed atmosphere must have seemed like the perfect place for a retired couple like Isabella and her husband. She wrote:

For the most part our university town works late at night and sleeps late in the morning.

Isabella quickly adapted to doing things on “Palo Alto time.” So it was that in the early morning hours of Wednesday, April 18, 1906, Isabella was still in bed. Her husband was away, staying with his sister Beulah in the Midwest, and gaining some much-needed rest after an illness. Her son Raymond and his wife Barbara, along with their five-month-old son Donald (Isabella’s first grandchild) were sleeping next door in their half of the duplex.

Then, at 5:12 a.m. without warning:

A strange rumbling noise like unto no other noise this old earth can make, broke upon our slumbers and startled us into bewilderment. The noise was accompanied by a strong swaying motion, the frightening sound of the timbers and walls of her house creaking and tinkling like breaking glass, and the “thud, thud, thud” of heavy pieces of furniture falling.

Isabella was experiencing an earthquake!

Photo of San Francisco City Hall. The roof has collapsed and portions of the building have fallen away. Stone columns from the building and other debris lie in the street.
Fallen columns and debris clog the road in front of City Hall, San Francisco, California

She wrote:

We found ourselves in our beds, skidding across the rooms, now this way, now that, in the most erratic and bewildering fashion.

The earthquake lasted only forty-five seconds, but for Isabella it seemed much longer; and when she was able to gather her wits, her first thought was for her family.

When the house finally stopped swaying and she could get out of bed, she met Raymond, Barbara and the baby in the common hall that separated the two dwellings. That’s when she began to understand the force of the earthquake.

Our hall and stair landing was lined with bookcases which were prostrate, the books scattered everywhere!

Every hour, every minute, brought a fresh discovery of ruin and dismay. … Milk pans overturned and broken glass jars swimming about in rivers of fruit juice.

Isabella made some odd damage discoveries, too: On a high shelf several cut-glass pieces—vases and bowl and pitchers—had all crashed down to the floor, rolling about the room in confusion, and yet only two of them broke!

Yet down in my preserve closet nearly every jar was smashed and the luscious juices mingled with the broken glass in a menacing and heart-breaking sight after all our hard work of putting up that fruit!

While the Aldens were assessing the damage in their own home, awful news reached them from nearby Stanford University, where Raymond taught.

The library at Palo Alto University after the quake. The central dome of the building still stands, but the walls and ceilings have collapsed.
The library at Palo Alto University destroyed.

The university library was destroyed. Even worse, a memorial chapel—which Isabella described as “the wonder and admiration of all the world”—had collapsed, killing two people.

Interior photo of the ruins of the Memorial Chapel.
The interior of the Memorial Chapel at Stanford in ruins.

Then they began to hear terrible rumors of the damage in San Francisco, just thirty miles away—news of burning buildings, and no water to douse the flames. Everywhere electricity was out, as was all communications. Buckled roads made even walking dangerous.

Black and white photo of smoke billowing up from the burning city.
Fire and smoke in San Francisco after the earthquake struck on April 18, 1906.

Frightening aftershocks trembled the ground throughout the day. Isabella wrote:

Seven times during that unforgettable day were those ominous sounds and throbs repeated, enough to warn us that the earth was not at rest, and that at any moment the experiences of the morning might be renewed.

By evening Isabella and her neighbors had to make do with what they could salvage from their damaged homes. She, like many others, was afraid of going back into a house that might collapse at any moment.

A man standing beside his make-shit home made of piled crates and sheets.
Refugees’ make-shift home after the earthquake.

She wrote:

Tents made of all sorts of strange material rose in yards and vacant lots; and mattresses, couches, easy chairs, cots, cushions, anything that would afford a chance for a little rest, were carried into any open spaces that could be found.

A group of tents and make-shift homes set up in an open park with a few nearby partially-collapsed buildings. In the background the tall downtown buildings have disappeared; only a single dome stands out against the skyline.
A refugee camp with the ruins of San Francisco in the background.

At his sister’s house in Minnesota, Reverend Alden learned of the earthquake and was anxious for news of his family. It took four days for Isabella to get word to him that everyone was safe, and two more days for him to finally purchase a ticket for a train heading west toward California.

Meanwhile, residents of San Francisco and surrounding communities quickly realized that with no communication lines and few railroad tracks left undamaged, they were virtually cut off from the rest of the world. City leaders and everyday residents stepped forward to begin organizing relief efforts in their neighborhoods.

Men with shovels work to clear debris from the street and trolley tracks.
Men manually clearing the debris near Market Street, San Francisco

They established committees to render first aid, clear debris, and restore clean water supplies. They pooled resources to care or the homeless, the hungry, and the wounded.

Lines of people stand outside a large cathedral.
A bread line at St Mary’s Cathedral, the only San Francisco church not destroyed on April 18, 1906.]

Nearby states sent physicians, nurses, and supplies by train; and when the trains were forced to stop because of damaged tracks, residents went out to meet them with cars, wagons, and any other vehicles that could convey the helpers to where they were needed most.

Black and white photo of houses damaged in the quake. The paved road in front of the homes is buckled.
The damage on Howard Street, with broken windows, houses pushed off their foundations, and buckled roads.

Residents whose homes were spared took in strangers. Others ministered to the people fleeing San Francisco’s devastating fires. They set up stations along roads and handed out sandwiches, pillows, coffee, bundles of clothes, and blankets—anything they could think of to help the people who were suddenly homeless.

In an open field police officers and a group of people stand beside large white sacks of flour. One policeman holds a small bowl in which are white packets; beside him is a man holding out a large bowl to receive the packets. Other people in the photo are also holding out bowls. One woman and one man are holding small packets they have already received.
Policemen help distribute flour to refugees.

Isabella said that “almost hourly” she heard such stories, full of “thoughtful alertness and quiet endeavor.” More than anything else, those stories of goodness and kindness were what she most remembered about the earthquake many years later. She wrote:

When we had a chance to draw a long breath and look about us, out of all the peril and pain of the hour, certain facts stood out in glowing lines. God is good and in the creatures of His hand there is a touch of God-likeness.

Isabella and her family survived the earthquake, as did their lovely home. Years later, when she was writing her memoirs and the time came to recount the events of April 18, 1906 and the weeks and months that followed, she said:

Oh, there is no use trying to forget the earthquake. And yet—I would rather talk about the roses.

Welcome, April!

Isabella was surrounded by writers. Her sister, niece, son, and friends all wrote stories, articles and lessons for publication.

Her husband, the Reverend Gustavus Rossenberg Alden—“Ross” for short—was no exception. In addition to writing his Sunday sermons, he wrote many short stories for The Pansy magazine, authored a memoir of stories about his boyhood while growing up in Maine, and (with his brother-in-law Charles Livingston) wrote a series of weekly Bible study lessons.

Ross was also an accomplished poet. He created lovely rhymes about a wide variety of subjects.

Here’s Ross’s poem “April” to help us welcome a new month:


O Spring is coming now, don’t you see?
The birds will be followed by the humble bee.

The frogs are singing their evening song,
The lambs are skipping with their dams along,

The buds are out on the pussy-willow tree,
On the bough of the birch sings the chickadee.

The cows come lowing along the lane,
With suppers all ready for us again.

Old Speckle scratches for her chickens ten,
New piggies are squealing in their pen,
From the top of the tree the robin calls,
From the top of the dam the water falls,
And everything to the eye or ear,
Tells to old and young that April is here.

Fashion and Isabella

It’s Spring! With the change of season comes certain rituals, like going to our closets to see how we can incorporate the latest styles and fashion trends into our wardrobes.

Isabella Alden lived to be eighty years old, and in her lifetime she saw many Spring fashion trends come and go. One of the earliest photographs of Isabella was taken about 1877 when she was 36 years old.

The Aldens and Macdonalds at Chautauqua in about 1877. Left to right: Gustavus “Ross” Alden (Isabella’s husband), Raymond Macdonald Alden (Isabella’s son), Myra Spafford (Isabella’s mother), Isabella Macdonald Alden, Julia Macdonald (Isabella’s sister), and an unidentified woman.

That’s Isabella sitting in the foreground of the photo, along with her husband, the Reverend Gustavus “Ross” Alden” and their son Raymond. The photo was taken in front of the Alden’s first cottage at Chautauqua Institution.

Isabella’s dress, with its lacy collar, long sleeves, and modest train, was very much in keeping with the style of the day.

Her choice of a plaid fabric for her gown indicates Isabella kept up with current styles, such as the plaid gown in the 1875 fashion plate above, or the plate dated 1877 below:

By 1891 women’s fashions began to change dramatically. Skirts took on slimmer silhouettes, and sleeves went the opposite direction—instead of slim and fitted, they were gathered to form puffs at the shoulders before tapering to fitted cuffs like these:

Once again, Isabella’s attire reflected those fashion trends. In the photo below, taken about 1895 when she was in her fifties, Isabella is wearing a dark, solid-color gown, with a standing lace collar and sleeves that gathered at the shoulders.

In keeping with the clothing construction of the time, Isabella’s gowns would have been either a single, one-piece garment consisting of a bodice, sleeves and skirt; or her gowns might have been made up of two pieces, consisting of a bodice—sometimes called a waist—and a skirt; both pieces were typically made from matching fabric and styled so they appeared, when worn together, to be a single garment.

But in the late 1890s an entirely new innovation hit women’s fashion: The shirtwaist.

Today we’d call it a blouse, but in the late 1890s, shirtwaists revolutionized the way women dressed. Shirtwaists buttoned down the front or back and were constructed of lightweight fabrics such as silk, cotton, or linen for summer; flannel and wool for winter.

More importantly, shirtwaists instantly gave women many more clothing options. They were suitable to be worn with tailored suits, or with a simple skirt for housework or playing sports. Dressier versions were suitable for afternoon receptions, going to the theater or evening wear.

Styles varied, too; from impeccably tailored shirtwaists, like this one:

To highly decorated styles with lace, embroidery or pleats.

Isabella readily adopted the new fashion. This publicity photo, taken in 1900 when she was about fifty-nine years old, shows her wearing a very feminine shirtwaist with ruffled collar, pleats, and lace:

Shirtwaists were versatile and affordable. The Sears catalog of 1902 offered ladies’ shirtwaists starting at sixty-nine cents, which is equivalent to about $20.50 today.

With those kinds of prices, it was easy for women to enlarge their wardrobes simply by alternating different shirtwaists with their skirts and suits.

By 1905 shirtwaists were firmly entrenched as must-have garments for every woman’s wardrobe. Their production helped launch the ready-to-wear industry that we know today.

Isabella, on the left wearing a shirtwaist and skirt, with her sister, Marcia Livingston.

During her lifetime, Isabella embraced innovation, from gadgets (such as typewriters and telephones) to automobiles and women’s suffrage. And while she knew that, as a minister’s wife, she had to set an example for the manner in which Christian women should dress, she still seemed to keep up with the times when it came to fashion.

Advice to Readers about Boys and Books

For many years Isabella served as an editor and contributor to a Christian magazine in which she had a very popular advice column. She used the column to answer readers’ concerns—from a Christian perspective—on a variety of topics.

This letter came from a teen named Betsy:

Do you think there is any harm in girls of, say, fifteen to seventeen or eighteen, giving parties and inviting their boy friends? Some people seem to think so; what do you think?

I wish you would name a list of books for girl to read. Father doesn’t like me to read “Little Women” and such stories, and I’m sure I don’t know what is good if they are not.


Here is Isabella’s reply:

About the parties, Betsy, they belong to the class that the logicians call an “open question.” There are parties, and “parties.” A girl of fifteen, or sixteen, or seventeen, whose mother heartily approves the plan and joins with her daughter in making ready and in preparing the list of invitations—giving careful consideration to the names of the boys— and whose father and mother are to act as host and hostess, may safely give a party such as all her friends will approve and enjoy. In short, a party thoroughly mothered and fathered is, as a rule, a safe and pleasant place for young people to gather occasionally.

Note the use of that word “occasionally.” Even under the most favorable circumstances, with fathers and mothers as wise as serpents, parties are like rich cake; as an occasional luxury it is delicious and comparatively harmless; but used as a steady diet, interfering with substantial food, the normal appetite soon turns from it with dislike; and for the abnormal one, it works mischief.

Do you know, Betsy, I don’t more than half believe in the party that your question is planning. I more than half believe that either mother or father, or both, have been trying to convince you that you have not time, or, perhaps, strength, for such functions; perhaps, that there have already been too many parties in your circle this season; perhaps, that they cannot afford to indulge you in this matter; perhaps, that some of the boys, and even, possibly, certain of the girls, whom you wish to invite, are not such as they like to welcome as your friends; and you have not been convinced by them; hence your question.

If I am wrong in reading between the lines of your letter, forgive me; I may be wrongly judging you by others. I know such girls; indeed, I am answering their letters at this moment. through yours. I want to say to them that nothing is safer in this world than for girls of sixteen or seventeen, or any age that marks them as girls, to be guided by the judgment, by the fears, by the notions, even, of good mothers and fathers; and that just as surely as they break away from such advice and guidance, whether in the matter of parties or anything else, just as surely the day is coming when they will regret it. I am an old woman, and I am saying what I know is true. I have seen it bitterly regretted when it was too late.

About books. Lists, when they come from strangers, are doubtful helps. Personal tastes and acquirements, as well as the environment of the readers, must be taken into consideration to make them helpful.

I do not know your father’s reason for objecting to Little Women, but my personal objection to that and other volumes by the same gifted author is that, while charmingly written, they present views of life that are fascinating and false. Many of the characters described live beautifully, unselfishly, sacrificially, not for the sake of love, but for the sake of duty; and they do it steadily, climbing to the heights of self-abnegation, growing day by day in all the graces of the Christian religion, but they do it without a Savior. Jesus Christ is to them a friend, a guide, a beautiful pattern, but never a Redeemer. Such living is impossible. For this reason I deplore the charms of that class of books.

Betsy, dear, why not get that good father of yours to make a list of books that he would like you to read? I’m nearly certain that he would do it if you asked him, and equally certain that he would be gratified at the request.

When you get your list, let me beg you to begin at the beginning and read the books through carefully, conscientiously; not skimming a page, not skipping a line; even though they be as dry as chips baked in a summer’s sun and you fall asleep over them a dozen times. If he is the father that I think he is, I can predict the result with the certainty of a prophet.

I can even imagine a typical scene; a day when you will stand with one of the time-worn volumes in your hand, a dreamy look on your face, a tenderness in your voice, and an undertone of pathos, as you say:

I can never be grateful enough to my dear father for persuading me when I was a girl of sixteen to read this old book, and the others that were on the list he gave me. Some of them have had an abiding influence over my life. I truly believe that my taste for real literature of the best kind began to be formed while I was struggling through this first volume, for father’s sake. Dear father! He did a great deal more for me than he knew.

Believe me, Betsy, now is the time to plant seeds that may bloom, some day, over father’s grave. It will be blessed for you if you do such gardening now that if, in the faraway future, you stand one day beside the resting places of father and mother, there will be flowers of memory in your heart, instead of that thorny plant: “Oh, I wish I hadn’t!”

What do you think of Isabella’s advice to Betsy?

An Extra Hour of Sunshine

It’s that time of year again, when Americans turn their clocks forward one hour.

A Coming Boon. For an hour of darkness - an hour of sunshine. Title from a newspaper article on Daylight Savings.

The original Daylight Savings law was first enacted in the United States in 1918 when Isabella was 77 years old. In the years before it became law, proponents of the bill had to sell the idea to the American public. For years lawmakers and lobbyists ran ads and articles in newspapers and magazines to tell Americans how good life could be if they just turned their clocks ahead one hour.

Sometimes the ads highlighted how a longer day would benefit the simple things in life:

Often when I get my evening paper it is too dark to read, but—

Newspaper illustration of a man standing under a street lamp at night trying to read a newspaper. In the background a clock on a church tower shows nine o'clock.

—the new Act will give daylight for Tennis in the Park.

Newspaper illustration of a man and woman playing tennis. In the background the sun in still shining brightly in the sky and a clock on a building shows the time is nine o'clock.

Backers of the bill encouraged average Americans to “think of evening walks in the park, or games out of doors, instead of being indoors, with only gas or electric light.”

Even in Summer we have to light the lamp about 9 p.m., but—

A man and woman sit at a table in a darkened room. The woman is sewing under a single lamp on the table. In the background a clock on a mantel shows the time is nine o'clock.

—in future it means motoring by daylight the whole evening.

Newspaper illustration showing a man on a motorcycle passing a woman and her chauffeur driving an automobile. In the background the sun shines brightly in the sky.

The scientific community liked the idea, too, and pointed out the advantages one additional hour of recreation would have on school children, and the effect it would have “in the preservation of eyesight.”

Newspaper excerpt: It is estimated that 210 hours of daylight are now wasted every year! Let us not be so faint-hearted nor unwise as to oppose the change, when the cost is so trifling, and when the reward is likely to be such a grand physical, mental, moral and economic advantage for our nation.

All the ads and arguments worked; Congress enacted the Daylight Saving Time law on March 9, 1918, and Americans have been arguing about it ever since!

Do you like Daylight Savings Time? What do you do with your extra hours of sunshine?

Don’t forget to turn your clocks ahead on Sunday, March 14!

Fun on a Cold Winter Evening

Isabella didn’t have television or electronic devices during her lifetime (even radios weren’t common in homes until the 1930s). So on long cold winter days and evenings, when people had to stay indoors out of necessity, they had to come up with ways to entertain themselves.

Then, as now, board games like chess, checkers, and backgammon were popular; but they limited play to only two people. What was a family to do to pass the time?

Family members often read aloud to each other (click here to read more about Isabella’s skill at reading aloud) or joined together to sing hymns or popular songs.

Newspapers and magazines published word games, and families often joined together to solve riddles like this:

We are a curious family, Just five our numbers are. In every word you read or write one of us must be there; without the aid of one of us, not a single word you'll form; we're found in palace, cot and ship, and even in the storm!

Or this word scramble from a 1907 magazine:

I Dust Ned's Room. Re-arrange the letters in this sentence to make one word.

(Scroll to the bottom of this post to see the answers to these two puzzles.)

But when friends came to call, or neighbors got together, playing parlor games was the most common way for people to pass those cold winter evenings.

Children playing Blind Man’s Bluff.

The rules for most games were simple, and the games could accommodate any number of players, so they were ideal for entertaining children and adults. Here are a few parlor games that were in vogue during Isabella’s lifetime:

Blind Man’s Bluff:

Versions of Blind Man’s Bluff have been around since ancient Greece. The rules were simple; players were confined to a single room or space; one player was blindfolded and roamed the room/space freely, trying to catch one of the players. Once a player was caught, the “blind man” had to correctly identify him or her in order to win the round.

Savvy parents and alert chaperones usually limited this game to children, because teenagers and adults too often used it as a thin excuse to lay hands on each other.

Isabella hinted at Blind Man’s Bluff in her novel, As in a Mirror, when teenaged Elfrida Elliott snuck out of her parents’ house to join a group of friends for a night of games:

Very foolish games they seemed to be for the most part, having the merest shred of the intellectual to commend them, and that so skillfully managed that the merest child in intellect might have joined in them heartily. But the distinctly objectionable features seemed to be connected with the system of forfeits attached to each game. These, almost without exception, involved much kissing. Of course the participants in this entertainment were young ladies and gentlemen. There seemed to be a certain amount of discrimination exercised by the distributor of the forfeits, yet occasionally such guests as “Nannie” and “Rex” and others of their class would be drawn into the vortex, and seem to yield, as if to the inevitable, with what grace they could. [There was] a laughing scramble between the said Nannie and an awkward country boy, who could not have been over fifteen. He came off victorious, for she rubbed her cheek violently with her handkerchief, and looked annoyed, even while she tried to laugh.

Pass the Parcel:

A favourite game for all ages was Pass the Parcel. Here’s how it’s played: a small object is wrapped in multiple layers of paper or cloth, and passed around the circle to music. Each time the music stops, the person caught holding the parcel gets to remove one layer of wrapping. The win goes to the first person who can correctly identify the object before it is unwrapped; or to the person who ultimately removes the final wrap to reveal the object.

Wink Murder:

Another favorite was Wink Murder. To play, everyone sits in a circle and closes their eyes, while one person walks around the circle of players, choosing a murderer by tapping him or her once on the head. They then choose the detective by tapping a player twice on the head.

The players then open their eyes and engage in conversation, while the detective moves to the center of the circle and is allowed three tries to guess who the murderer is. Meanwhile, the murderer “kills” the other players by making eye contact and winking at them, trying not to be caught by the detective in the process.

To add to the fun, the victims “die” dramatically before they leave the circle. If the detective doesn’t identify the murderer in three attempts, he or she remains detective for the next round. If the detective guesses correctly, the murderer becomes the detective for the next round.

Have you played any of these parlor games before? What are your favorite games to play with your family, friends, or church group?

The answer to the word riddle is: Vowels

The answer to the word scramble is: Misunderstood

When Pansy Was a Girl: The Scarlet Fever Scare

In 1889, when Isabella was 47 years old, she shared a memory from her childhood that holds many parallels to our situation today.

When I Was a Girl

I suppose it would hardly be possible to find a girl who looked less as I did than the one whose picture I present to you. Nor for that matter, one whose surroundings were more unlike the things which surrounded me.

It is true we had a garden where old-fashioned flowers bloomed the summer through, and it is also true that there was a wide old seat which for some reason was called the “settle,” out in the sunshine very near the bowers, and there I used often to sit. But no such ugly back had our wide, low “settle,” nor did there ever hang an ugly black kettle just over our heads.

Yet for all that, there is something about the forlorn little girl sitting curled up on the settle that reminds me of myself. Perhaps it is the position—one foot under her, the other resting on nothing, the hands clasped drearily in her lap, the whole attitude one of deep dejection—which recalls a summer morning of long ago so vividly.

At any rate, I sat one morning on our settle and felt, and doubtless looked, as disconsolate as this little girl does. I was not by nature a dreary little girl, and my childhood was a very happy one. Perhaps for this reason I remember all the more clearly the gloomy days.

I will tell you about them. In the first place, mother was away from home. I think I have hinted that this was always a trying experience to me; but during these long, bright May days it seemed to me that my mother was always away, and in truth I saw very little of her from morning till night. It is a short story to tell, though it was a long story to live.

Into our pretty village sickness had come in a serious form—scarlet fever, which used to be less understood, I think, and dreaded even more than it is now. At least it had come among us in its most dangerous form, and many little children as well as older ones had been stricken. People were very much afraid of the homes where it had broken out. The day-schools had closed, and children who were well were kept closely at home, lest they should come in contact with the disease.

For myself, I remember I was not allowed to go outside the gate without some member of the family. Still I was happy enough. The yard was large, and my playhouse well stocked with broken dishes, and life did not seem weariful to me until one evening when father came home with a face graver than usual, and told about the family living near the saw-mill. Very poor they were, and with a house full of children. And the dreaded fever had appeared among them; two of the children were lying very low, one was dead, and tonight he had heard that two more were stricken. Yet even this was not the worst. The poor, half-sick mother had given out utterly and gone to bed.

No help could be had from any source; the people who were at leisure were afraid to go near the house, and there was so much sickness that really good help was very scarce.

There was actually no one to do for that miserable, half-starving family but the poor father, who had left the work which alone had kept them from starvation to do what he could.

How well I remember the look on my mother’s face when father ceased speaking, as she said, after, a moment of silence, “There are three of ours who have never had the fever, you know.”

“I know it, but—” and then he stopped.

I wondered why he did not finish his sentence, and what he could have been going to say. But mother seemed to understand. She asked no questions; they said not a word for several minutes. I was busy about my play and had forgotten to give them attention, when my mother spoke again in a grave tone which some way, I did not understand why, arrested my thoughts.

“I will go and help them out, if you say so.”

Then indeed I was startled. Mother had been very careful; she had cautioned my older sisters, she had given strict orders to the younger ones; she had even said anxiously to father, “Remember the children, and don’t go where you would be likely to bring the fever to them.”

Now she was calmly proposing to go herself. Of course father would not “say so.”

I looked for him to say, “No, indeed.” But instead he smiled—a smile I think my mother must have been pleased with—and said, “It is like you. And there seems to be no one else; they may die—in fact will die, for want of care, if someone does not go.”

“I will go,” mother said again, in the same quiet tone. “I will take every precaution, and the children need not see me until I have bathed and changed my clothing.”

That was the beginning of it, but by no means the end. She was true to her words, and the weary days which followed stretch themselves out even in my memory, and seem long. No mother at the table, no mother to run to a dozen times a day, no mother to kiss at night; for as the disease waxed fiercer, mother came less and less frequently, sometimes not at all, even for her night’s rest, which she had planned to take at home. When she came, we were often not allowed to see her—we younger ones—nor even to go to that part of the house where she was. Do you wonder that I sat often with one foot tucked under me on the old settle and swung the other listlessly, and wished that the summer would go faster?

Nor was this all; I began to be afraid. The fever continued to spread—to grow more virulent—and day after day the bell tolled and tolled for still another whose body was being carried to the village cemetery; for in those days the church bell used to toll in long, slow sobs as the procession, always on foot, wound its slow way around the curve near our home, with sometimes four and sometimes six men leading the way, bearing a coffin. I can close my eyes and see it all again.

Mother came home at last, her self-appointed duty done. Two of the children she had nursed recovered, one had died. Mother was too worn to go to others—there was some comfort in that. We had her at home once more; but she was grave, and I could see that she held us, her treasures, very closely those days, and watched us almost sternly, lest we should step unawares into danger.

And at times, when the bell would toll, she would look around for us, and put her hand suddenly to her heart, as though the breath came heavily. Day and night through the dreaded ten days in which she kept herself reminded that perhaps she had brought the poison to us, she told me afterwards that we were not out of her thoughts for a moment, sleeping or waking, it seemed to her.

A season to be remembered. I did not understand or at least appreciate my father and mother’s courage and sacrifice and faith as I have since. I knew they were criticized, my father and mother. I knew the neighbors said they were “tempting Providence,” and I wondered what that could mean.

I knew one woman said that when it came my mother’s turn to hang over her own children she would be sorry she had so coolly brought death to her door; that for her part she thought it was hard enough to take it when it came, without going out to bring it.

I pondered over all these things and was afraid. I did not know that I, as a middle-aged woman, would one day recall the disconsolate little girl swinging one foot in the sunshine and wishing for mother, and feel great throbs of joy that I had such a mother to wish for!

But there was one part of the story which impressed me then, and impresses me now.

The disease spent itself at last. The long, slow summer moved away, and life began to be more like itself; and we had this to think about and wonder over, almost with awe, even then:

All about us the fever had been. On either side of us the houses were close; the windows of one room where the sick were lying almost looked into the windows of our sleeping-rooms.

On our right, on our left, across the road from us, away up and down the streets on both sides of us, the fever came. In every home there was a victim; in many two or three. From many of them that slow procession moved, while the bell tolled. And on all the long street ours was the only house where no sickness came!

Did the dear Lord send a protecting angel to guard the home of the mother and father who put their trust in Him, and went forward in the hard road where they believed duty pointed?

Isabella also lived through the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918. You can read more about it by clicking here.

What To Do with Christmas Cards?

In a February 1883 issue of The Pansy magazine, Isabella turned an average question—What shall we do with Christmas cards we receive?—into a lesson for children in being thoughtful of others.

What Shall We Do with Our Christmas Cards?

All those bright pretty affairs that came flying in from the postman’s fingers at Christmas time to make us so happy—why can’t we make them give happiness to someone else the whole year? Someone sick and suffering, with little to brighten and amuse? Why, they would be very messengers of sweet charity to such.

Here is work for you, dear little Pansies who belong to the “P. S. Society.” Make a scrap book of all those cards which you think it right to give away, saying your whisper motto, For Jesus’ Sake, as you tuck in the dainty bit of color, and the pretty verses, then send it all on loving wing to the Children’s Ward of the hospital of your city.

Think of the eyes that will rest on it when the pain makes the tears come; think of the little ones who must lie on their beds, weary day after weary day, when you are running, and skating, and sleigh-riding!

And best of all, think how the children will love the book, just because some other child made it for them.

How many members of the “P. S.” will do this? Who will be first, I wonder?

If you want to make a very pretty book, cut leaves of white, and pink, and light blue cambric or sateen; tie them together at back with ribbon or braid, putting strings of same on front.

An 1869 home-made cloth scrapbook (from

Paste all dark pictures on the white cloth; all delicately tinted ones on the colored cloth. The effect will be very lovely—I know the “Children’s Ward” will think so.

A cloth scrapbook from the 1860s (from

You can learn more about the “P.S. Society” and the “whisper motto, “For Jesus’ Sake” by clicking here.

Do you send and receive Christmas cards each year?

What creative things have you done with them once the holiday is over?

Pansy’s Typical Day

In 1892 Isabella’s husband was made assistant pastor of a brand new church in Washington, D.C. The Eastern Presbyterian Church was only blocks from the nation’s Capitol, and the Capitol dome could be seen from the top of the church’s 130-foot bell tower.

Eastern Presbyterian Church, about 1920 (from the Library of Congress).

The Aldens moved into a house about four blocks away on Maryland Avenue.

A view of U. S. Capitol from Maryland Avenue, which was unpaved until about 1930 (from the Library of Congress).

It’s likely the Aldens lived in a single-family house, instead of one of the row houses that were erected on Maryland Avenue and on many other streets in the District in the early 1900s. The photo below—taken from the top of the Capitol Dome looking northeast—shows a view of the Alden’s neighborhood.

View from Capitol Dome looking northeast toward Maryland Avenue (from the Library of Congress).

In an 1893 interview, Isabella spoke about how much she “dearly loved” her D.C. home. It was “cheery” and “bright” and Isabella took great care “in all that pertains to its comfort and happiness.”

The Aldens—Isabella, her husband Ross, and their son Raymond—had a daily routine in their Maryland Avenue home. Early in the morning, the family gathered in the back parlour of the house before breakfast “to sing a few verses of praise, to read a chapter in the Bible, and to ask God’s help and blessing on the work to be done.”

After breakfast, Isabella went right to work in her study—a place that was off limits to visitors or interruptions (except in a case of emergency). For the remainder of the morning, Isabella was at her typewriter, typing stories, writing Sunday-school lessons, working on a chapter of her next novel, or answering the volumes of fan mail she received daily—some days quickly turning from one task to another.

An advertising card for a Smith Premier model typewriter from 1900.

Isabella once said that she didn’t have to “think” when she typed. Much of her thinking, plotting and composing was done in her head as she went about her household chores. Then, when she sat down to write, her thoughts were “drilled like a well-ordered army, ready to march at the word.”

A comfortable study, about 1910.

An interviewer once described Isabella’s workplace as “a pretty study, lined with books.” In the room were two typewriters—one for Isabella, and one for her husband; they often worked side by side.

Typewriters weren’t the only modern gadgets in her home. Isabella employed all kinds of appliances and machinery, and was always on the look-out for a new labor-saving device. One reason: from a young age Isabella suffered from constant headaches (you can read more about her condition and the treatments she sought for it here), and she was seldom able to use her typewriter more than a few hours a day.

But she found that she could instead use a stenograph machine (similar to the ones court reporters use today) because her eyes didn’t tire as they did when she used a typewriter.

She taught herself to use a stenograph, and was soon able to extend her working hours a little longer each day. When she was done with work in the early evening, she handed the machine’s cryptic shorthand to a secretary, who transcribed it on the typewriter.

Bartholomew Stenograph machine, 1882 (from

Dictation machines were another type of equipment that was just coming into use during the time Isabella lived in Washington D.C.

An early wax cylinder phonograph for dictation, 1897 (from Wikicommons).

The early machines were expensive, but effective; and, as she did with her stenograph machine, Isabella could employ a secretary to transcribe the recorded text for her.

A typist transcribing a stenography printout, 1904.

Isabella sometimes wove descriptions of new and innovative appliances into her stories. She wrote about early typewriters in her novel Miss Dee Dunmore Bryant (read a previous blog post about it here).

And in the sequel, Twenty Minutes Late, she described Caroline Bryant’s astonishment upon seeing an early dish washing machine.

An 1896 magazine ad for The Faultless Quaker Dish Washer.

After the work day was done, Isabella and her family gathered again in the back parlour of the house. If they did not have a special engagement to attend, the family spent the evening reading together. More often than not, Isabella read aloud to Ross and Raymond, and anyone else who happened to be a guest in the house.

Different newspaper accounts of her public readings describe Isabella as a charming reader, with a “sweet voice” and “perfect intonations” that must have been delightful to hear.

What do you suppose Isabella read aloud to her family in the evenings?

Are you surprised to learn Isabella used the latest technology to work efficiently and streamline her housekeeping tasks?

Which of our 21st Century devices or appliances do you think Isabella would be most likely to use?