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Thimbles and Love Stitches

1 May

Four farthings and a thimble,
Make a tailor’s pocket jingle.
—Old English Proverb

During Isabella’s lifetime, sewing and needlework were part of a woman’s daily life.

In her novel Workers Together; An Endless Chain Joy Saunders’ workbasket includes a “small gold thimble and her own blue needle-case.”

A 14k rose gold thimble dated 1903.

Some of Isabella’s female characters, like Mrs. Bryant, sewed every day because that’s how they earned their living.

A sterling silver thimble decorated with Lily of the Valley.

Other characters, like wealthy Miss Sutherland, plied their needles to create fancy table linens and delicate trims, like ruffles and laces.

A sterling silver thimble and case from the 1890s.

In Isabella’s stories, thimbles were sometimes utilitarian—little more than tools to accomplish a task.

An example is in Ester Ried’s Namesake (Book 7 of the Ester Ried Series), when the president of the Ladies’ Aid Society called the meeting to order by “tapping with her silver thimble on the table.”

Other times, Isabella used thimbles help us understand how a character was feeling, as in this description of Helen Randolph in Household Puzzles:

Helen was in absolute ill humor. Some heavy trial had evidently crossed her path. She sewed industriously, but with that ominous click of the needle against her thimble, and an angry snipping of her thread by the pert little scissors, that plainly indicated a disturbed state of mind.

An antique thimble holder by Tiffany.

More often than not, though, thimbles appear in Isabella’s stories in very sweet ways. One example is in Miss Dee Dunmore Bryant, when little Daisy Bryant’s mother surprises her with the gift of a sewing box on Christmas morning:

There had been intense excitement over that box; for, in addition to the spools, and the needle-book, gifts from mother, there had gleamed before Daisy’s astonished eyes a real truly silver thimble, of just the right size for her small finger.

A child-size thimble. The case is shaped like an iron; at its base is a tape measure (circa 1890).

Another example appears in the novel, Pauline, when Mr. Curtis shows his love for his fiancé Constance by preparing a sitting-room in his house just for her:

It all looked charming to him that evening, with the departing rays of the sun glinting the needle, Constance’s needle, and touching also his mother’s small gold thimble that lay waiting. He had taken steps toward the assurance that the thimble would fit. On the day after tomorrow, when they stood here beside his mother’s chair, he would tell Constance how he had brought the gold thimble to his mother one day, and she had said, with one of her tender smiles, “I will wear it, my son, whenever I am taking stitches for you; and someday you will give it to your wife, and tell her from me that it has taken love stitches for you all its life and must always be kept for such service.”

Filigree thimble over pink frosted glass.

Sometimes thimbles play a role in building bridges between Isabella’s characters, as in A New Graft on the Family Tree.

When Louise Morgan and her new husband move in with his family, she has difficulty winning over her resentful new mother-in-law, until she realizes they have a common interest: Needlework.

Presently she came, thimble and needle-case in hand, and established herself on one of the yellow wooden chairs to make button-holes in the dingy calico; and, with the delicate stitches in those button-holes, she worked an entrance-way into her mother-in- law’s heart.

18k gold thimble, from about 1860.

Rebecca Harlow Edwards finds herself in the same situation (in Links in Rebecca’s Life). She and her new husband live in the same house with her mother-in-law, and in the early days of marriage, Rebecca struggles to find a way to fit in. So, one afternoon . . .

. . . about the usual hour for calls, she went daintily dressed in a home dress for afternoon, and with a bit of sewing-work in hand, and tapped softly at the door of her mother’s room.

“Are you awake?” she asked, “and are you ready to receive calls, because I have come to call on you?”

“Really,” Mrs. Edwards said, half rising from her rocker, and looking bewildered, “this is an unexpected pleasure! Am I to take you to the parlor, where I usually receive my calls?”

“No,” Rebecca said, laughing, and trying to ignore the quick rush of color to her face. “I am to be a more privileged caller than that. I have brought my work, and intend to make a visit. I used to go to mother’s room and make a call very often.”

The elder Mrs. Edwards was almost embarrassed. It was very unusual for her to have any such feeling, and she did not know how to treat it.

Rebecca, however, had determined to pretend, at least, that she felt very much at home. She helped herself to a low chair and brought out her thimble, and challenged her mother-in-law at once to know whether her work was not pretty. As she did so, it gave her a strange sense of her unfilial life, as she remembered that that same bit of work had been the resort of her half-idle moments for some weeks, and that yet she had never shown it to Mrs. Edwards before.

It proved to be a lucky piece of work. It gave Mrs. Edwards an idea, and suggested a line of thought that was so natural to her that she forgot the embarrassment of the situation at once.

It’s a sure bet that Isabella Alden was herself a sewer. She may have plied her needle to hem an everyday handkerchief, or she may have used her talents to create fancywork items for her home. But it’s a testament to Isabella’s skill as a story-teller that she could make a simple, everyday item like a thimble figure so prominently in some of the most important scenes in her novels.

How about you? Do you enjoy sewing? Do you use a thimble when you sew? Is it plain and utilitarian, or decorative? Old or new?

Nettie Beldon’s Motto

15 Apr

Have you read Isabella’s novel, Only Ten Cents? In the story young Nettie Beldon’s health is so poor, she is unable to leave her room.

One day, her mother returns from a trip to the store with a surprise:

Mrs. Beldon produced and untied an interesting-looking roll, and spread it out in triumph on the little stand which she drew up in front of Nettie. “There, isn’t that pretty? It is exactly like the things I used to work when I was a little girl. I haven’t seen one of them in I don’t know how many years, yet I used to make them ever so often. When I saw it lying there on the counter I thought of you right away, and thinks I to myself: I do wish I could get one of those for Nettie.”

Nettie raised herself a little from among the pillows, and an eager look began to come into her eyes, while a delicate pink flush appeared on her pale cheek. “For the barrel, mother? Something that I can make?” She looked curiously at the cardboard spread out before her—very familiar material to her mother, but new to Nettie.

“What queer little dotted stuff!” she said. “What is that marked on it? Letters? Why, mother, does it read something?”

“Yes, indeed it does,” said the mother triumphantly. “Here, let me hold it so that you can make it out. They are not very plain, you know: just a pattern to be worked. Take pretty blue or pink, or some kind of worsted or silk, and work the letters so that they stand out bright and clear. They are as pretty a thing as one need have. My, how many of them I used to make when I was a little girl!” She slipped a piece of paper under the cardboard, and then held it in the right light, so that Nettie could read quite distinctly: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

She read slowly, picking out the words that wound in and out amid a sort of scroll-work.

“Why, mother, how very pretty! And how very queer! I never saw anything like it before.”

“I have,” said the mother. “Once I worked this very motto for my grandmother, and she had it framed and hung in her room. It hung there for years.”

Nettie’s mother taught her to cross stitch the letters, and soon Nettie completed the “motto.” But Nettie’s handiwork never hung on any wall in her house; instead, it fulfilled a much greater purpose in the story.

Karen, a long-time friend of this blog, found some great examples of what Nettie’s “motto” might have looked like.

What do you think? Have you ever stitched a motto yourself, or know someone who has? Are mottoes like these too old-fashioned to hang in a today’s modern home?

You can see more examples of mottoes by visiting this Pinterest page: 44 best Victorian Motto Sampler Shoppe

Thank you, Karen, for sharing these images!

You can click on the book cover to learn more about Only Ten Cents, by Isabella Alden.

What Lies Beneath

3 Apr

Fashion during Isabella’s lifetime changed dramatically; but for the majority of her years, ladies’ gowns consisted of high-necked collars, long sleeves, and floor-length skirts.

An 1891 fashion plate.

For the most part, women’s clothes were modest and conservative, especially when viewed by today’s standards.

Ladies’ fashions in 1915.

But underneath the “brown alpaca” or “black bombazine” gowns she mentioned in her novels (as well as layers of petticoats, corsets, drawers, and bustles), women found ways to express themselves in—oddly enough—stockings!

Black silk stockings (about 1890 to 1910).

In those days, women’s hosiery was manufactured in different weights of silks, cottons, wools, and merinos. The most common color was black, followed by the color white.

White cotton stockings (1835 to 1875).

But some women expressed their personalities and preferences by eschewing those common colors for something bright and vibrant.

Embroidered silk stockings (1875 to 1900).

Embroidered stockings were expensive and didn’t last long, considering that stockings were easily ripped, torn, or worn through from wear. These black silk stockings, embroidered with silk and metallic threads, were luxurious and costly:

Black embroidered stockings (1875-1900).

But cost didn’t have to be a factor. These sensible cotton stockings were fun and playful . . .

Blue plaid cotton stockings (1830 to 1860).

. . . while these cotton stockings were bold and striking:

Cotton stockings (1875 to 1895).

Some designs were more complex. These lovely stockings combined geometric stripes with beautifully detailed embroidery.

Blue cotton and silk stockings (1830 to 1835).

When worn, a typical lady’s boot would have covered the lower embroidered portion of the stocking, leaving only the horizontal band and stripes visible (if she lifted her skirt).

By contrast, the embroidery on these beauties was visible from knee to toe.

Silk stockings with floral design (1875 to 1899).

Which stocking design is your favorite? Which pair would you like to wear?

All the stockings shown in this post were found on the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising website, which documents over 200 years of fashion history. You can explore the FIDM Museum website by clicking here.

Mail Call!

27 Mar

In Isabella Alden’s novel Twenty Minutes Late, young Caroline Bryant mistakenly takes a wrong train and ends up in a strange city far from home. Alone and afraid, she finds temporary shelter in the home of kindly Dr. Forsythe and his daughter Dorothy.

“Anything for me, Mr. Postman?”

Meanwhile, Caroline’s family anxiously awaits her return. Her brother Ben meets every train at the station, hoping Caroline will be on it; and Caroline’s mother and sister Daisy watch the mail for a letter from Caroline, even as they prepare a celebratory meal to welcome her home:

And now it was nearing the hour when she ought in all reasonableness to be expected, if the day was to bring her. It had been a long, nervous one to get through with. The little family watched for the ten and three o’clock mails, half uncertain whether to hope for or to fear a letter; but when none arrived their hopes grew strong; even the mother allowed her heart to say, “The dear child must surely be coming today.”

Ben had announced, as he dashed in to report no letter in the three o’clock mail, that he should not come home again until he brought Line with him. “I shall go straight to the station from the office,” he announced gleefully; “and as soon as our four feet can bring us you may expect to see us walk in. Have your nose at the window-pane, Daisylinda, for Line will want to see it the first thing.”

When Isabella wrote that the family “watched for the ten and three o’clock mails,” she gave us a hint that the Bryant family lived in a rather large town themselves.

Twenty Minutes Late was published in 1893; at that time the United States Post Office provided “person-to-person delivery” of mail in most major cities.

city mail carrier delivers a letter to a customer in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, circa 1908.

“Person-to-Person delivery” meant that mail carriers delivered mail into their customers’ hands . . . literally. If a customer didn’t answer the carrier’s knock, ring or whistle, the carrier kept the customer’s mail in his satchel until the next trip.

By 1914 city mail carriers spent up to an hour a day waiting at doors, trying to complete person-to-person deliveries. That changed in 1923, when all city customers were required to provide mail slots or receptacles in order to receive mail.

Mail delivery in Franklin, Massachusetts, March 1910.

Mail was delivered Monday through Saturday. The number of daily deliveries varied by city.

In 1905 letter carriers employed at New York City’s main post office made nine daily deliveries to businesses and homes.

Letter carriers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, 1908.

By contrast, customers in St. Paul, Minnesota received mail once a day, depending on which area of the city they resided.

A rural mail carrier in 1908.

With that kind of delivery schedule, it wasn’t unusual for local mail to be delivered from one part of the city to another within hours of being sent.

Replies to letters traveled at the same speed. “By return mail” was an often used phrase—especially in business letters—requesting an immediate response in time for the next scheduled delivery that day. (Miss Webster used the phrase in Chapter 23 of Miss Dee Dunmore Bryant.)

George L. Baum, who worked 35 years as a mail collector in Washington, D.C.

Although the number of daily deliveries in large cities changed over the years, the U.S. Postal Service maintained this hectic delivery pace until the 1950s, when they finally limited the number of deliveries in residential areas to one per day “in the interest of economy.” For the most part, multiple daily deliveries to businesses ended in the 1970s.

As you read Isabella’s stories, you’ll see that some of her characters wrote quick letters that they wanted to have “ready for the early mail.”

Other times her characters listened for the postman’s whistle, which signaled the arrival of “the morning mail,” or “the ten o’clock mail,” or even “the next mail.”

Isabella’s novels and short stories are little testaments to the fact that there was once a time when the U.S. Postal Service delivered letters, bills, newspapers, greeting cards, catalogs, and advertisements with impressive speed and accuracy—without the aid of Zip Codes, automation, and computers.

A proud letter carrier.

What do you think? Do you know anyone who works for the U.S. Postal Service? How would you like your mail carrier to personally hand-deliver your mail to you?

You can read more about Isabella’s books mentioned in this post by clicking on the book covers below:

   

Pansy’s Most Frequent Character

13 Mar

As a fan of Pansy’s books you may have noticed that Isabella’s characters frequently show up in different stories.

Eagle-eyed readers with good memories often spot them. For example, Brewster is a surname that appears in several of her books:

Her Mother’s Bible
Only Ten Cents
Aunt Hannah and Martha and John
Living a Story
Circulating Decimals

That’s a lot of Brewsters!

“Girl with Dog” by John White Alexander.

But the character that appeared most often in Isabella’s books wasn’t a Brewster at all; in fact, it wasn’t even a person!

The character Isabella wrote about most often was Bose the dog.

Sidney Martin’s Christmas (1879)

Bose first came to life in this short story when he interrupted a group of children singing Christmas carols in their neighborhood:

Just at that very point they stopped every voice, and little Gretchen, the youngest of the group, gave a little squeal that did not belong to the carol. It was plain that something had frightened them. Sidney crossed over to them. Just inside of the gate had appeared old Bose, the great house dog, and he was not a lover of their music, to judge by the low growls with which he greeted it.

“Don’t be afraid,” said Sidney, coming promptly into view. “I know old Bose and he knows me. He is an ill-mannered scamp, but he won’t hurt you so long as I am around. You sing away and I will stand guard.”

“Newfoundland” by Carl Reichert.

Christie’s Christmas (1884)

In this novel, Christie meets Bose when she’s trying to do a good deed, and comes upon an enormous dog that literally knocks her off her feet:

Bow, wow, wow! Here was a fellow who disputed the way with her, and came suddenly towards her, as if the least that he should think of doing was to swallow her at once.

Now it happened that Christie, unusually brave about most things, was dreadfully afraid of a dog.

She gave a pitiful little shriek, and the next thing she knew, she was picking herself out of the meanest looking mud hole she had seen in her trip. The dog had retired to a safe distance, and with his head hung down, and his silly little tail between his legs, was receiving a lecture from a woman with a frowzy head, and sleeves rolled up at the elbow, who appeared in the door of the little house.

“Aren’t you ashamed of yourself!” she said, shaking her head. “A decent dog you are to be cutting up such tricks! Come along, child; what do you want? There’s no kind of need of your being afraid of that there dog. There ain’t a bigger coward in all Kansas than he is.”

Spun from Fact (1886)

In 1886 Bose made a brief appearance in Spun from Fact as a faithful dog mourning the loss of his young master, Frank:

I slipped out in the yard, and began to coax the old dog into a frolic. He got into a tremendous one at last, and bounded about me in such a ridiculous way that I laughed loud and long, and rolled on the grass in my glee. Just then I looked up on the piazza, and there stood my aunt! I bounded to my feet all in a glow of shame.

But she was smiling as pleasantly as I had ever seen her, although at that minute there were tears in her eyes, and she said, ‘Poor Bose will be grateful to you all day. He misses Frank very much. He used to frolic with him, you know. It is pleasant to hear a merry young voice again in the yard.’

A young girl and her Bernardiner.

Grandma’s Miracles; Stories Told at Six o’Clock in the Evening (1887)

In this book, Grandma Burton tells the story of Bose, a great, menacing beast who crossed her path when she was a child. She described how:

. . . a great white dog, that looked as ugly as his mistress, glared on me and growled. I was trembling so that I could hardly stand,

Just as I turned the corner by Mr. Willard’s place I heard a low growl, and there stood Bose eyeing me in a way to make my heart beat fast. I was dreadfully afraid of Bose, and with good reason: he had the name of being a very fierce dog; they kept him chained all day. I saw the chain around his neck then, but still I was afraid.

A 1913 calendar trade card, featuring two girls and a Newfoundland.

That terrifying dog with the chain around  his neck would later play a very important role in young Grandma Burton’s life.

Bose also made appearances in several short stories in The Pansy magazine.

Curiously, Isabella didn’t describe Bose in detail. In fact, Grandma’s Miracles is the only book that tells us his color (white).

A trade card from about 1900. Any guesses what this dog’s breed is supposed to be?

But we know Bose was a large dog, perhaps a shepherd, a collie, or even a mastiff, any of which are breeds known to be especially protective of children.

A Mastiff.

We also know that Bose often appeared menacing at first, only to show that underneath his barks and growls, he was a loyal friend with a heart of gold.

And that was true of many of Isabella’s human characters, too.

Have you ever known a great big dog that frightened little girls, as Bose did? Please tell us about it!


You can read more about the Isabella Alden books mentioned in this post by clicking on the book covers below:

    Image of the cover for Sidney Martin's Christmas

   

 

You Can Be a Nurse. Yes, You!

20 Feb

“Nurse” was a word that figured often in Isabella Alden’s novels, but not all her nurses were created equal.

In some of her stories, “nurse” was another term for a nanny—a woman who took care of young children.

Nurse and baby, about 1910.

That was the case for Miss Rebecca Meredith in Wanted, who hired herself out as a “nurse-girl” after she applied for the job listed in this newspaper ad:

Wanted—A young woman who has had experience with children, to take the entire care of a child three years of age. Call between the hours of four and six, at No. 1200 Carroll Avenue.”

In other novels, like The Older Brother, nurses were everyday people who knew what to do whenever illness struck, like Aunt Sarah:

Aunt Sarah proved herself a veritable angel of mercy. She was able to lay aside her brusqueness and her sarcasms, and become the skillful practical nurse, taking her turn and indeed more than her turn with the others, and compelling the anxious mother to take such rest as she needed.

Aunt Sarah and Rebecca Meredith developed their nursing skills through practical experience, and a history of caring for neighbors and family members who were ill.

But when Helen Betson’s father fell ill in Echoing and Re-echoing, the doctor insisted on securing the services of a “professional nurse,” which threw Helen into days of anxious waiting:

If she could have done a share of the nursing—but they had been forced to employ a professional nurse who shared the task with her mother, so that it was only now and then a little service that Helen was permitted to do; and she grew weary of the long waiting that seemed so purposeless.

In Isabella’s lifetime, it was common for physicians to train their own nurses, but they often found it difficult to find candidates who already possessed basic knowledge of human anatomy, nursing science, and mixing medicines.

A young nurse in the 1890s.

The best candidates were trained in a hospital setting, but hospital training programs had drawbracks:

Most programs had age limits that disqualified women who were middle-aged and older.

The coursework took years, and tuition was expensive at a time when there was no such thing as tuition assistance or student financial aid.

Portrait of a graduating class circa 1890.

The programs tended to attract only local students because the best teaching hospitals were in large American cities where the high cost of living proved a barrier to outsiders.

Fees charged by graduates of hospital programs meant their services were unaffordable for the majority of Americans, especially those in rural areas of the country, so nursing school graduates tended to live and practice in larger cities.

Four nurses at Samaritan Hospital, Sioux City, Iowa, about 1910.

The result: America had a great shortage of competent, trained registered nurses. Dr. Everett mentioned the problem in Isabella’s novel, Workers Together:

Professional nurses are good when you can get them. It is unfortunate that they are especially scarce just now. I have been on the look-out for one all the morning without success.

Graduates of Roots Memorial Hospital nursing program, Arkansas, about 1908.

A New Yorker named Cyrus Jones decided to do something about it. Because he lived very close to Chautauqua Institution, he was familiar with the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle. The CLSC conducted first-class four-year college degree courses via correspondence. He was certain nurses could be trained using the same methods. He said:

There must be many thousands of bright, earnest women, young and old, who would be nurses if they could learn the profession without going to a hospital. Other branches of knowledge are taught by mail and learned at home. . . . Why not nursing?

An advertisement in Christian Nation magazine, 1915.

Mr. Jones launched the Chautauqua School of Nursing in 1900, and it was immediately successful. Over 200 students enrolled the first year.

Unlike other schools, Chautauqua School of Nursing did not have age limits, welcoming many women who were denied admission to other schools because of their age.

The administrative offices for the Chautauqua School of Nursing in Jamestown, New York.

Since the enrollment fee was only $75.00, women who intended to work as professional nurses knew they would soon earn back that cost because they would earn between $10.00 and $35.00 a week as a registered nurse after graduation.

A young woman’s nursing school graduation photo, undated.

But the highest enrollment came from students who lived in rural and isolated areas where conventional hospital training schools didn’t exist.

A 1913 newspaper ad.

Like the hospital-based schools, the Chautauqua School of Nursing bestowed upon its graduates its own pins, caps, and certificates.

A 1913 diploma (from Flickr).

In every respect, its graduates appeared to have the same training and cachet as graduates of hospital programs. The public couldn’t tell the difference.

From the Columbus Weekly Advocate (Columbus, Kansas), November 27, 1913.

They also employed a very unique marketing tactic: They advertised their students.

The school used their real students as models in their print ads in magazines and newspapers.

Print ad for Chautauqua School of Nursing, 1915.

And if a prospective student was unsure whether or not she should enroll in the course, she had only to write the school.

Three Chautauqua nursing graduates, 1910.

In return, the school would provide the prospective student with the name and address of the graduates closest to her, with an invitation to contact any one of them to get more information about the school, the teaching curriculum, and what graduates’ lives were like as professional nurses.

Chautauqua school advertisement, 1909.

By 1910 the school had bestowed diplomas upon 12,000 nursing students; the class of 1911 alone exceeded 3,000 enrollees.

In all respects, the school was a success. Because of the Chautauqua School of Nursing, hundreds of communities had a trained, reliable nurse for the first time . . .

. . . and thousands of women entered into a respected profession that helped their communities, and produced a steady income for themselves.

Click on a book cover to learn more about Isabella Alden’s novels mentioned in this post.

    

New Free Read: On Which Side Were They?

6 Feb

Not all of Isabella Alden’s stories had happy endings. This month’s free read is a short story Isabella wrote in 1893 when she was living in Washington, D.C. and very active in the Christian Endeavor Society. She deliberately left the ending of the story unresolved. Perhaps she was waiting to see how the real-life model for her story played out—or perhaps she wanted her readers to concentrate on the meat of her story, rather than on a happy ending. Either way, “On Which Side Were They?” is a thought-provoking story that’s as relevant today as it was the day it was first published.

You can read “On Which Side Were They?” on your phone, ipad, Kindle, or other electronic device.

Or you can read it as a PDF document on your computer screen. You can also print the story to share with friends.

To begin reading, just click on the book cover to choose your preferred format from BookFunnel.com.    

Helen Lester

3 Jan

Isabella Alden’s first novel, Helen Lester, was published in 1865 when she was 24 years old.

The original book included a few illustrations. This one depicts the moment in the story when Helen’s older brother leads her to the Christ.

Helen Lester was a great success and launched Isabella’s writing career, but it almost wasn’t published!

You can read more about how Helen Lester came to be—-and read the book for free! Just click here.

Happy Thanksgiving and a New Free Read!

21 Nov

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving and in honor of the day, we’re sharing one of Isabella’s short stories from 1891.

About the Story:

Little Nannie Walters simply wishes to dress her favorite doll in lace and linen; but she quickly learns there are consequences for little girls who take things that belong to others—a lesson that could ruin her Thanksgiving day plans.

Read it for free!

You can read “Nannie’s Thanksgiving” on your phone, ipad, Kindle, or other electronic device. Just click here to download your preferred format from BookFunnel.com.

Or you can click here to read it as a PDF document on your computer screen. You can also print the story to share with friends.

 

Artificial Flowers

4 Oct

During the late 1800s and early 1900s no true lady ever left home without being properly attired. Isabella Alden would have abided by that rule.

When paying calls or shopping, Isabella, like all women at the time, wore gloves as well as long sleeves and high collars to cover her arms and neck.

Even more importantly, ladies always wore bonnets.

The fashion in 1895: A black straw hat trimmed with artificial roses, lily of the valley, and violets. Courtesy of HistoricNewEngland.org.

Bonnets were de rigeur for any lady in the out of doors; and while styles of bonnets changed from year to year, one constant was decoration; with few exceptions, ladies’ hats were decorated with ribbons, netting, swashes of fabric and—most commonly—with artificial flowers.

Hat styles in 1914, depicted in The Ladies Home Journal.

Woman of the era loved artificial flowers. From small dainty buds to cabbage-sized blooms, women wore them not just on their bonnets, but in their hair and on their gowns, as well.

Artificial flowers were in heavy demand; companies that supplied them were constantly adjusting their prices to gain an upper hand over their competition.

Business card for a dealer in artificial flowers.

In Isabella’s lifetime, the American manufacturing industry was in its infancy; there were no machines that could make artificial flowers. So the flowers were constructed by human fingers, petal by individual petal.

It was tedious, painstaking work that was typically performed by women and children for paltry wages.

Artist Samuel Melton Fisher memorialized flower makers in his 1896 painting

Flower Makers by Samuel Melton Fisher, 1896.

But Mr. Fisher’s painting shows an idealized setting, with women and girls in crisp white aprons happily gluing the petals of flowers together or attaching blooms to stems.

The truth was that the majority of artificial flowers were made as piecework in women’s homes.

A mother and her children making artificial flowers in their home (1910).

In 1908 the city of New York conducted a study of people living in city tenements. As part of the study, they published this photograph depicting Frank, a fourteen-year-old, and his family, who lived in a tenement building:

The city used this caption for the photo:

Frank, 14, John, 11, and Lizzie, 4, work with their parents at home making artificial flowers. The father helps because his health is too poor to do other work. The boys work from Saturday afternoon and evening until 10 or 11 p.m. Lizzie separates petals. They make regularly from ten to twelve gross a week for which they are paid 6 cents a gross.

At 6 cents a gross, Frank’s family earned between 60 and 72 cents a week. To put that amount into perspective, a loaf of bread at the time cost 5 cents; a quarter of milk cost 6 cents, and a dozen eggs cost 22 cents. Given the amount Frank and his family earned, they were able to afford just enough food to survive.

Young women making artificial flowers.

The demand for artificial flowers remained high for decades. Some unscrupulous suppliers rounded up street children and locked them in rooms, forcing them to make flowers for 12 to 14 hours a day. The children were give little food and allowed minimal rest before they were made to begin work again.

Eleanor H. Porter, the popular author of the Pollyanna series of classic children’s novels, wrote about the plight of such children in her book, Cross Currents.

Although many of the children in Isabella’s novels had jobs or worked to help support their families, none of them assembled flowers; still, it was such a wide-spread cottage industry, Isabella was probably very aware of the practice.

There’s no available photograph of Isabella to tell us whether she liked artificial flowers on her bonnets; but in her memoirs, Isabella mentioned that when she was a young bride, she wore a hat that a woman at church felt was “too gay” for a minister’s wife to wear. The woman went so far as to send Isabella an incredibly ugly hat for her to wear instead.

Isabella even wrote about the incident in her novel Aunt Hannah and Martha and John. In the story (just as it happened in Isabella’s real life) an anonymous person sends newly-wed Martha Remington a very unattractive hat. Martha’s struggles in deciding whether to wear the horrid creation to church reflected the very same struggles Isabella endured in the very same situation!

You can read more about the books mentioned in this post by clicking on the book covers.

 

Writer Jenny Berlin

Faith, romance, and a place to belong

The Hall in the Grove

Author of Classic Christian Fiction

Isabella Alden

Author of Classic Christian Fiction

Britt Reads Fiction

Reviews and giveaways for Christian fiction and sweet, clean fiction. Bringing readers information on great stories and connecting authors with their readers.

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