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The Long Way Home

12 Mar

In 1912 Isabella Alden published her novel The Long Way Home. She was 71 years old at the time.

She had begun a trend about ten years before of writing books directed toward adult readers. It began with Mara, her most controversial novel.  Mara (published in 1902) was about a young woman who inadvertently married a man who practiced polygamy.

Unto the End told the story of a young wife’s dilemma when she discovered her husband’s infidelity; it was published the same year.

For several years thereafter Isabella regularly published new novels with her adult readers in mind:

1904 – Doris Farrand’s Vocation

1905 – David Ransom’s Watch

1906 – Ester Ried’s Namesake

1907 – Ruth Erskine’s Son

1908 – The Browns at Mount Hermon

1911 – Lost on the Trail

In each book, Isabella tackled important and emotional topics. She wrote about young women who wanted to be judged on their own merits, instead of on their wealth and social standing (or lack thereof).

She also wrote about women who sought real purpose in their lives by working to make a different in the world in Jesus’ name.

She even wrote about one woman’s struggle to love an unlovable daughter-in-law (in Ruth Erskine’s Son).

Isabella continued that trend with The Long Way Home. The story is about Andy and Ilsa, a young couple in love, and their impetuous decision to marry. They exchange marriage vows on the very day Ilsa graduates from high school!

An original illustration from The Long Way Home, showing Ilsa and Andy at a Chautauqua-style summer encampment.

It isn’t long before their hasty decision—combined with a selfish streak in one and a lack of understanding in the other—begins to lead Andy and Ilsa down a path that may undermine their marriage vows.

Ilsa’s mother counsels her to refuse Andy’s suit, saying, “He’ll never be able to buy you diamonds.”

In her adult books Isabella often wrote about the strain and unhappiness that results when a husband and wife do not share the same religious views, and she explores that premise in this story.

A new acquaintance senses Andy’s heart is open to accepting Christ. She invites him to join her family for dinner and a revival-style lecture given by a premier preacher of the day.

In The Long Way Home, Andy is given many opportunities to choose to follow Jesus Christ, but each time he takes a different path because his eagerness to please Ilsa overrides the callings of his own conscience.

Ilsa also struggles with her conscience, but it takes a dramatic turn of events before she’ll admit that she, too, contributed to the turmoil in her marriage.

Ultimately, the very fact that Andy and Ilsa failed to place God at the center of their union turns out to be one of the great wedges that threatens to drive them apart.

As the title suggests, Isabella finally brings her characters “home” and they have their happily ever, but only after Andy and Ilsa learn to put their trust in God before each other.

The Long Way Home is now available as an e-book for only 99 cents! You can find it at these bookseller sites:


You can learn more about Isabella’s books mentioned in this post by visiting her Books page.

Read Along with Mrs. Fenton and the CLSC

7 Mar

One of Isabella Alden’s most touching characters is Mrs. Fenton, a homemaker and mother who played a pivotal role in The Hall in the Grove.

Mrs. Fenton had no pretentions; she considered herself an average person, and believed her only talents were as a housekeeper, wife, and mother.

Isabella wrote of her:

Her bread was of the lightest and sweetest. Her chambers were kept in that delicate purity which rests weary heads, and sometimes hearts. Her windows were as clear as hands could make them; her snowy curtains were looped in graceful folds, and with just the right tint of ribbon to blend well with surroundings. Her vines and plants climbed and budded and blossomed in luxurious fashion. Her husband’s buttons were always in place, held by firm threads of her placing; his collars and cuffs shone brilliantly, for her own hands clear-starched and ironed them. Indeed, in whatsoever department of home life you looked, you would be likely, after thorough investigation, to pronounce Mrs. Fenton a model.

Mrs. Fenton’s fourteen-year-old son Robert was her pride and joy. She raised him to be . . .

Straight as an arrow, morally, as well as physically—a grand, truthful, earnest-hearted boy.

She also raised him to be a good student, to take his studies seriously, and apply himself to every lesson and exam.

Mrs. Fenton herself had been a bright student, but her own education as a girl had been limited; so as Robert progressed through his studies, she began to feel her own limitations more and more.

When Robert asked her help with a homework problem, Mrs. Fenton realized she not only didn’t know the answer, she didn’t even know how to steer him toward finding the correct answer himself.

And when he sought her input in preparing for a topic that will come up on an important exam, she didn’t even understand the subject he’s asking about. With similar incidents became more frequent, poor Mrs. Fenton felt “a stab in that mother’s heart.” Her greatest fear is that Robert will one day soon recognize her short-comings and he’ll be ashamed of her.

This CLSC ad appeared in an 1896 edition of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine.

So when Mrs. Fenton visits a friend and hears about the Chautauqua Scientific and Literary Circle for the first time, she begins to wonder if the program may be the answer to her worries.

This eight-page pamphlet for the 1885-1886 school year describes the CLSC program in full. Thousands of adults across the country wrote to the CLSC every year, requesting their annual pamphlet. Click on it to read the entire brochure.

Once Mrs. Fenton understood what the CLSC was and what it could do for her, she became an advocate of the program in her town.

So what, exactly, was the CLSC?

A CLSC receipt for membership dues, 1887.

The CLSC was an education program for adults—young and old—who were unable to obtain a college education. For an annual membership fee of fifty cents (plus the cost of books) adults could enroll in the CLSC’s systematic course of reading in key subjects:

The Arts

The beauty of the program was that members could earn the equivalent of a four-year college course . . . from home!

Imagine receiving one of these beautifully illustrated envelopes in the mail from the CLSC! This one is from 1885 and bears the motto, “Never Be Discouraged.”

CLSC members followed a weekly outline that required them to work a little every day and read prescribed passages from selected books. Then, once a year, they completed an examination (the CLSC called it a “memoranda”) that consisted of questions about the books they’d read. The questions . . .

. . . are to be answered, as far as possible, from memory; where memory fails, the students are expected to refer to their books for help, but to give the answers in their own language.

The exam was typically four pages of questions, but to earn extra credit, members could elect to complete a sixteen-page paper, containing questions that were more comprehensive. An 80% score on the expanded memoranda earned the member a special white seal on their diploma.

The offices of the CLSC on the grounds at Chautauqua Institution in 1896.

Four years and four such annual exams later, CLSC members earned a college degree that carried the same weight and prestige as any other college or university in the country.

A CLSC diploma. This one bears several seals of post-graduate courses of study.

The CLSC program was incredibly popular. Some members followed the program alone. Some members organized into local circles. By 1881 there were over 1,000 local circles in towns and villages across the country.

A CLSC circle in rural Lewisburg, Tennessee, 1911.

These circles—composed of men, women and teens—met in city apartments and rural farm houses. They discussed a variety of topics related to their reading assignments, from the conduct of the Greeks and Romans, to the hereditary line of English kings.

The College Hill Circle in Winfield Kansas, 1913. The oldest and youngest members were aged 76 and 13.

Some local circles arranged lectures or organized public discussions in town halls. Other circles organized by members’ heritage; the CLSC furnished them with text-books in their native language.

A San Diego, California circle in 1915.

In CLSC circles around the world household servants read Shakespeare’s sonnets alongside society matrons; bank presidents discussed the history of Hadrian’s Wall with grocery clerks.

A CLSC circle in Enid, Oklahoma in 1911. The ladies in white in the front row are in the graduating class.

It’s no wonder that Mrs. Fenton was intrigued by the idea of joining the Chautauqua Scientific and Literary Circle. She quickly realized that a CLSC circle in her home town would be the answer to her troubles . . . and her prayers.

You can read all about Mrs. Fenton’s efforts to organize a CLSC chapter and how it changed not only her life, but the lives of her friends and neighbors, in The Hall in the Grove.

Click here to read The Hall in the Grove on your Kindle, tablet, smart phone or PC.

Click here to read it on your Nook.

Did you know you can still join the CLSC? All it takes is payment of a modest membership fee and a commitment to read a book a month from the CLSC’s approved book list.  You can find out more and download their approved book list by clicking here.

And if you’d like to know what it’s like for a modern day woman to read her way through the CLSC program, be sure to read The Hall in the Grove blog.


Let’s Go Sledding!

28 Feb

It’s the last day of February, and some parts of the U.S. are waking up to a cold winter morning. There’s snow on the ground and a nip in the air; and for many children, those conditions equate to perfect sledding weather.

Children sledding in Washington D.C. in 1915

The children in Isabella Alden’s books are fond of sledding, too, especially the boys.

In Her Mother’s Bible, Ralph Selmser looks forward to having a day of fun that includes sledding:

“Tomorrow’s Saturday, and I’m going to give Ned a ride on my sled, and I’m going to get green things and berries for Mary Jane to trim up the room for father’s birthday; and there isn’t a thing to do all day but I’ll rather do than not.”

A sledding party in Rochester, New York, 1908.

For some of Isabella’s characters, sledding wasn’t just for fun and games. Sidney (in Sidney Martin’s Christmas) uses his sled in a variety of different and practical ways.

A 1910 toboggan party

With his sled, Sidney gives a pleasant ride to a friend. He also hauls heavy items, and transports an injured boy home after he takes a tumble in the snow.

Sledding in Central Park, New York in 1900

Joseph, the young hero of A Dozen of Them, didn’t own a sled of his own, but still found a way to enjoy sledding.

He liked nothing better than to turn pony himself, and give Rettie a ride on her box sled; and so through the day everything was merry and happy.

Sledding on an icy pond in 1869

Later in the story, Joseph is astonished to learn he is the recipient of a sled of his own! His friends joyously break the news to him:

And then all the children talked at once.
“Why, you had a hand-sled!” said one.
“A perfect beauty!” exclaimed another.
“One of the boss kind!” explained a third. “And it has your name on it in red letters.”

Adults also enjoyed sliding through the snow. Toboggans, which are longer than child-sized sleds, could carry more than one passenger.

An 1885 ad for Star Toboggans

In her books Isabella didn’t mention grown-ups enjoying downhill sledding, but these images show it was a popular winter pastime for people of all ages.

The Toboggan Party by artist Henry Sandham, 1882.

In fact, sledding and tobogganing were so much fun in Isabella’s time, children, especially, didn’t always wait for perfect conditions like fresh snow and gently-sloping hills—they made do with what they had.

That’s what these children did in 1921. They took advantage of a sleety morning by sledding down the steps of the War and Navy building in Washington D.C.

You can read all the stories mentioned in this post for free! Just click on a link below to get started:

A Dozen of Them

Her Mother’s Bible

Sidney Martin’s Christmas


More About “The Golden Texts”

24 Jan

Last week Karen—a long-time reader of this blog—asked a question about the “Golden Texts” mentioned in many of Isabella Alden’s stories, including Gertrude’s Diary and The Exact Truth.

Karen asked:

Where can I get one of these booklets that have these Golden Verses in them? Were they distributed in Sunday Schools as part of the materials?

The Golden Texts were a very popular teaching method used by Sunday-schools and missionary societies in the late 1800s.

In those days, almost every major Christian denomination—especially Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian—operated a publishing house as one of its departments.

They produced Golden Text lessons in the form of pamphlets and trading cards, which were styled and written for the most part to appeal to children, aged toddlers to teens.

The tradecard-style lesson below is No. 3 in a series about the Golden Texts found in the Book of Matthew. The card was produced by the publishing arm of the Presbyterian Church, and was intended to be used by Sunday-school teachers as a lesson help.

You can see the subscription rate to purchase cards on the reverse side:

Card No. 5 in the series features another Golden Text from the Book of Matthew:


Here’s an example of a Golden Text lesson card the American Baptists produced for their churches and ministries:


Not all the lessons were printed by churches. The publishing company of Ward & Drummond produced Golden Text lessons in pamphlet form for many years.

This Ward & Drummond pamphlet is bound with a paper boards and feature lovely artwork. The pamphlet measures just 2-3/4” by 4-1/4” so it could be tucked into a boy’s pocket or a girl’s purse.

The back cover displays Ward & Drummond’s contact information:

Some good news: This particular Ward & Drummond pamphlet is for sale on ebay! You can click here to see the listing.

Like Ward & Drummond, Cincinnati publishers Walden & Stowe specialized in publishing religious materials, like this 1881 “Picture Lesson Paper”:

It was printed on paper and bound by thread stitches on the spine. It features a Golden Text from Luke 1:46-47:

My soul doth magnify the Lord; and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

You can click on the image to see a PDF of the entire four-page leaflet.

Walden & Stowe published many Christian leaflets, including Sunday-school tracts written by Reverend Jesse Lyman Hurlbut, who helped direct the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle.

Examples of Golden Text teaching aids—in both leaflet and postcard styles—often come up for sale on sites like ebay and Etsy, so it pays to check back often with both sites.

Won by a Sister’s Prayers

9 Jan

In Isabella Alden’s books she often includes a character who is a “sort of” Christian. In Mrs. Solomon Smith Looking On, Laura Leonard was just such a Christian.

Laura had been brought up in a good home by good, Christian parents. She went to church every Sunday and attended Sunday-school. Laura was kind and knew right from wrong, but she had never accepted Jesus Christ as her Saviour. To the contrary, Laura rebelled against the mere thought of taking such a step . . . until Mrs. Solomon Smith helped show Laura that being a Christian and loving the Lord was the only way Laura would find real and lasting happiness in her life.

When Isabella wrote about Laura Leonard, she wrote from experience. Like fictional Laura, Isabella had been raised by loving Christian parents. She, too, attended church every Sunday, and joined the family in home worship every evening.

Beginning at a young age Isabella was carefully taught what the Bible says about who will be able to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and that the only way to have eternal life is through Jesus Christ; yet Isabella never took the ultimate step of choosing to accept Christ as her Saviour.

Then the unthinkable happened. When Isabella was twelve years old, she fell seriously ill. For several days neither her parents nor the doctor believed she would live. But, miraculously, the crisis passed, and Isabella began to recover.

Her sister Marcia, who was nine years older than Isabella, had stayed by Isabella’s side throughout her illness. She had watched over Isabella, and slept in a chair by her bed, never leaving Isabella’s side for more than a few minutes.

When Isabella began to feel better, Marcia asked her one day:

“Would you have gone to live in heaven if God had called you when you were so ill?”

Isabella was genuinely surprised by the question, but Marcia said, “The thought of parting from you forever was one of unceasing agony to me; and my constant prayer during all those days and nights of illness was that you might be spared until you could choose Christ.”

These words made a lasting impression upon Isabella. They came to her with all the power and force of a sudden revelation: for though she had been carefully trained, and knew in a theoretical way the plan of salvation, she had never given the matter five minutes serious thought, until her sister appealed to her as she did.

Isabella tried to put the subject aside again, feeling that it darkened the day and made her uncomfortable; but the Holy Spirit had carried it home to her soul, and over and over again Marcia’s words rang in her ears.

Isabella could no longer deny the truth. She wrote, “It is not enough for me to believe in Christ as a Saviour, I must ‘choose’ Christ as my Saviour.”

Soon she began to feel that in a strange and wonderful way her sister’s earnest and loving prayer that she might be spared to “choose” had been answered. And with it came the conviction that she was compelled to make a definite choice.

Not long afterward, she did choose the Lord Jesus Christ as her personal Saviour.

What a blessed decision that was for the millions of readers of her books!

Isabella Alden at her writing desk.

In 1902 Isabella wrote:

“In a few more years it will be half a century since I chose Christ. I have had abundant reason to thank God for sparing my life at that time, and for giving me a faithful sister.”

Isabella and Marcia remained close, loving sisters for the rest of their lives.

And Isabella used her experience of being a “sort of” Christian as a device to show her fictional characters—and her readers—that believing in Christ wasn’t the same as choosing to make Christ the center of our lives.

Isabella originally shared her story of how she became a Christian in a 1901 edition Christian Herald newspaper.

Corsets at Chautauqua

29 Nov

Facing Miller Park at the intersection of Pratt and Morris avenues, The Colonnade was the business center of Chautauqua Institution.

The Colonnade as it appeared in 1909. You can see the vine-covered pergola on the right.


Visitors approaching The Colonnade from the south passed through a lovely, vine-covered pergola.

The pergola with The Colonnade beyond it and to the left.


The Colonnade was a busy place. Nearby was the post office, where residents retrieved and sent mail.

The Colonnade itself was a favorite place for friends to gather. It housed a grocery, a dry-goods store, a hair salon, a barber shop, a drug store, and various other merchants.

One retailer that managed to secure a prime location in The Colonnade was an establishment called Spirella Parlour, which was a genteel store name for the Spirella Corset Company.

A Chautauqua post card modified by the Spirella Corset Company to show the location of their shop at The Colonnade, Chautauqua, New York.


The Spirella Corset Company had factories established in Pennsylvania and Canada when they set up shop in The Colonnade at Chautauqua. Wedged between a ladies’ dress shop on one side and the main hall, their’s was an ideal location. The store was staffed by “skillful corsetières” (more on them in a moment).

A trade card for Ball’s “health preserving” corsets, from about 1880.


In Isabella’s time, every woman—and many girls—wore corsets. They were an essential element of a lady’s undergarments.

Trade card for the Bortree Adjustable Duplex Corset by Bortree Manufacturing Company, about 1890.


But corsets did not last very long. Their stays had a tendency to break; and since corsets were worn over only a thin muslin chemise or slip, perspiration and natural skin oils often stained the corset fabric or rusted the stays.

Magazine ad for Warner’s corsets, about 1917.


Corset garter hooks often broke, and their long lacing ribbons often snapped off. For women, access to a store such as Spirella’s on Chautauqua’s premises was practically essential, since the nearest town where a lingerie store might be found was miles away.

Trade card for Dr. Strong’s Tampico Corset.


Once a lady had donned her chemise or slip (sometimes called a shift), she put on her corset. Then she added other layers of undergarments:

Corset cover
As many as 5 layers of petticoats

Over all of that she donned her dress or skirt with shirtwaist.

Doctor and Madame Strong brand corsets touted the medical benefits of wearing their corsets.


This 1908 newspaper ad in the Omaha Daily Bee shows some of the many different undergarments women wore under their clothes.

A woman’s corset was essential; she wore a corset wherever she went, no matter what she was doing.


Of course, The Spirella Company was not the only corset manufacturer in the United States. There were many such companies, each vying for their share of the corset market.

F. C. Corset Company trade card from about 1890.


What set Spirella apart from their competition was that they specialized in custom-made corsets.

In fact, the Spirella Parlour at Chautauqua is the only known retail location for Spirella Corsets in America. Instead of opening stores, The Spirella Company hired a legion of women called corsetières who were sent to customers’ homes. The corsetières took the customer’s measurements and consulted on the correct model of Spirella corset based on the lady’s figure type.

Spirella Corset Company diagram showing the many body measurements their corsetieres took in order to achieve a perfect fit.


According to Spirella’s 1913 customer brochure:

“The secret of being well dressed lies in your figure, and your figure is made or ruined by your corset.”

You can see The Spirella Corset Company’s 1913 brochure distributed by their corsetières to customers. The booklet is filled with nice illustrations of the different models of corsets they offered, and offers guidance on how to select the proper corset based on body type. Just click here.

You can also watch this fun video that shows the many layers of undergarments women wore in the late 1800s and early 1900s:

Did you know . . .

. . .  as essential as a corset was to every woman’s wardrobe, Isabella never mentioned corsets in any of her many books and stories. She did mention shifts and petticoats, but never made mention of corsets.


Will the Real Russia Please Stand Up?

26 Sep

Karen, a long-time reader of this blog, asked a question about Isabella’s novel, Interrupted.

Twice in the book, Isabella used the term “real Russia.”

The first instance occurs when our heroine, Claire Benedict, and her Sunday school class take it upon themselves to renovate the church, and they turn their attention to fixing up the cast-iron stove that heats the sanctuary.

As the ladies try to decide what improvements to make next, one of the girls says:

“Look here! Don’t you think our very next thing, or, at least, one of the next, ought to be a furnace? I don’t like those stove pipes, if they are Russia. A furnace would heat more evenly, and with less dust.”

That’s the first mention of “Russia” in the book, referring to the pipes that vent the stove.

An 1899 newspaper ad for Siegel Cooper Department Store (New York) featuring Russia iron heating stoves.


Later, Isabella used the same Russia reference in describing the stove after the ladies cleaned it up:

And really, the stove pipe, though it wandered about according to some wild freak that was considered necessary in order to “draw,” did not look so objectionable now that it was real Russia; and nothing could glow more brilliantly than the stove, which smoked no more.

No wonder Karen was curious! “Real Russia”—whatever that is—played a big role in the ladies’ efforts to beautify the sanctuary.

Men gathered around a cast iron heating stove in 1886.


So, what was “real Russia”?

Isabella was referring to Russia iron. It was produced in Russia and was highly prized throughout the world for its ability to resist rusting and protect engines, boilers and stoves.

Another key feature that made Russia iron the wonder of its time was that it did not flake or lose any of its protective properties when it was bent, as American iron did.

For many years Russia iron could only be obtained from Russia. The manufacturing process was highly secretive, which kept demand high and prices even higher.

In the mid-1800s American engineers finally cracked the code for manufacturing Russia iron; and by the latter part of the century, American foundries were gearing up to produce their own version of the much-sought-after sheet iron.

Ad from Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania-Their Industries and Commerce, published in 1885 by the Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce; found at Penn state Universities library.


There was, after all, real money to be made from such a product. Sheet iron was used in the manufacture of many things, such as parlor stoves and cooking ranges.

An 1867 ad for Peerless kitchen stoves.


In addition to stoves, consumers used iron pots and pans on their iron cooking ranges.

Portion of a Macy’s Department Store ad in the New York Journal, November 21, 1897


Commercially, sheet iron was used to clad boilers and the engines on locomotives.

Even though American business was producing a creditable version of Russia iron by the 1880s, most consumers and industries were not fooled. They often referred to American iron products as “imitation Russia iron.”

A 1906 postcard showing a portion of the sprawling Carnegie Steel Works in New Castle, Pennsylvania.


But as more and more American-made products began to be advertised as made of Russia iron, consumers had a difficult time distinguishing between “real Russia” and the imitation. In many cases, the only way to tell the difference between the genuine product and the American version was to find the tell-tale Cyrillic characters embossed on the original full sheets of iron. Click here to see a sample of those Russian characters.

It took many years for American industry to overcome the stigma of producing “imitation” Russia iron; but in 1885, when Interrupted was written, Russia iron was still the gold standard by which all other iron was measured.

So when Isabella wrote that the stove pipes in the church were made of “real Russia,” she was actually commenting on the high quality of the improvements Claire Benedict and her friends made to the church sanctuary.

Would you like to learn all the ways Claire and her friends beautified the church sanctuary in Interrupted? Click here to read the post.

You can also read about other unique terms Isabella used in her different novels. Just click on “Pansy’s Dictionary” under the Categories header on the right side of this page.




iPhones and Isabella

20 Sep

Last week Apple unveiled its new iPhone with the latest innovations in communication technology. Its release came 130 years after Isabella Alden first mentioned the telephone in the plot of one of her novels.

As convenient and indispensable as phones have become in our modern age, the same could be said of telephones in Isabella’s time. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, telephones changed the way Americans lived.

Isabella was 35 years old when Alexander Graham Bell patented his version of the telephone in 1876; but that first model had very limited capabilities.

Inventor Alexander Graham Bell


Although the early Bell telephones certainly transmitted sound, they only worked between two locations that were hard-wired to each other.

An illustration of Bell demonstrating his invention in 1877


Then, in 1878, a man named George Coy invented the telephone exchange and immediately turned the telephone into a much more practical invention.

Instead of telephone lines being strung between two locations as Bell had envisioned, Coy’s exchanges linked any number of telephones to a single point: a switchboard.

An 1890 illustration of women working a switchboard at a telephone exchange.


At the exchange, legions of trained switchboard operators used a series of cords and sliding keys to connect and reroute incoming calls to other telephones linked to the exchange.

An early telephone exchange, about 1898


Thanks to those exchanges, telephone line construction exploded with growth over the next few years. By 1880, there were 47,900 telephones across America. By 1881, telephone service between Boston and Providence was established. By 1892, a telephone line had been constructed between New York and Chicago; and two years later New York and Boston were connected.

Switchboard operators at the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company near Washington, D.C.


Another benefit of those exchanges: jobs. As telephone service expanded, more and more trained switchboard operators were needed to connect calls; and the majority of the operators hired were women.

A 1911 photograph of a switchboard telephone operator.


When Isabella published her novel Eighty-Seven, she included a character who worked as a switchboard operator. Her name was Fanny Porter, and she worked in the Dunbar Street Telephone Office. Another character in the story described Fanny as …

… a bright, pretty girl, young, and quite alone here. She lives in a dreary boarding-house, and used to have some of the most desolate evenings which could be imagined.

Switchboard operators in 1914


Fortunately, not all switchboard operators lived and worked under such conditions. While the majority of switchboard jobs required working for a Bell Telephone Company, there were other positions available. For example, some large businesses that required multiple telephone extensions were equipped with their own exchanges and hired operators to run them.

Switchboard operators in an office, about 1910.

In fact, businesses were the foremost users of the telephone in the late 1890s. That’s because, in general, phones were too expensive for individual homeowners to install and maintain; but Mr. Mackenzie, the wealthy businessman in Isabella’s novel Wanted, could afford to have a telephone in his home.

In fact, the telephone plays a small but pivotal role in the story. When Rebecca Meredith, the novel’s heroine, first meets Mr. Mackenzie, she thinks he’s hateful and selfish, until she mentions one evening that his young daughter is a little hoarse. To her surprise, Mr. Mackenzie immediately telephones the doctor and …

… administered with his own hand the medicine ordered. Even after the doctor had made light of fears and gone his way, the father sat with his finger on Lilian’s small wrist and counted the beats skillfully and anxiously.

After witnessing his tenderness for his daughter, Rebecca begins to change her opinion about Mr. Mackenzie.

In her 1892 book, John Remington, Martyr, Aleck Palmer was also a young man of great fortune; he, too, had a telephone in his home and business, which caused Mrs. Remington some concern. You see, she was intent on playing matchmaker between Aleck Palmer and her friend Elsie Chilton and invited the unsuspecting couple to dinner without letting either know the other had been invited. As Mrs. Remington explained to her husband:

Elsie is getting to be such a simpleton that I am afraid she would run home if I should let her know he was coming; and as for him, he is developing such idiotic qualities in connection with her, that I feel by no means certain he would not get up a telephone message or something of the sort to call him immediately to the office, if he should know before the dinner bell rang that Elsie was in the house.

But by the time the 20th Century dawned, the demographics and cost of telephone usage changed dramatically. Telephone companies had connected most major cities and strung sufficient telephone lines across the country to bring costs down, and phone company executives began to set their sights on a new goal: providing service to residential customers.

At first, advertising to consumers stressed the obvious: keep in touch with friends and family.

Blowing kisses over the phone, 1908.


Then, in 1910 the Bell Telephone Companies developed several strong marketing campaigns that offered different reasons why every home should have a telephone. One campaign was directed specifically at the lady of the house.

The ads had strong visual cues, like this one illustrating how a phone in the home meant a family could summon a doctor quickly:

The series of ads was printed in magazines and on postcards, showing how a Bell telephone …

… keeps travelers in touch with home …

… guards the home by night as well as by day …

… summons help during household emergencies …

… relieves anxieties over a loved one …

… and quickly helps arrange replacements when servants fail you.

The ad campaigns were extremely successful. People began to think of telephones as an essential tool for the home, instead of a mere convenience. Soon, telephone companies across the country were installing residential telephones at an astonishing pace.

This Bell Companies business card for the Philadelphia area cites the number of installations locally and nationally. The blank space was filled in by an installation or service subcontractor with his own contact information.


And after each new installation was complete, telephone residential customers notified friends and family of their new phone number by sending out cards like these:


Soon telephones became not only an essential device for the home, but a convenient tool for the lady of the house. In Ester Ried’s Namesake, published in 1906, Ester Randall worked as a cook in the home of the Victor family. And being a stylish family, the Victors, of course, had a telephone, which Mrs. Victor used regularly, as in this scene where she explained to Ester her plans for dinner:

We’ll make the dinner light and easy to manage; just a steak and some baked potatoes and canned corn. Did you say there was no corn? Oh, I remember, you told me yesterday, didn’t you? Well, just phone for it. Call up Streator’s, they are always prompt; tell them they must be. And we’ll just have sliced tomatoes with lettuce for salad; all easy things to manage, you see. As for dessert, make it cake and fruit—strawberries, or peaches, it doesn’t matter which. Why, dear me, that dinner will almost get itself, won’t it?

It’s amazing to think that Isabella Alden saw the development of one of the greatest inventions of the Twentieth Century. In her time the telephone was innovative and exciting. It opened new avenues of jobs for women and changed the way people interacted with each other; and Isabella reflected those changes in her novels and stories that we still read and appreciate today.

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









New Free Read: Mrs. Dunlap’s Commentary

12 Sep

Mrs. Dunlap’s Commentary

Mrs. Dunlap is a model wife, mother, and homemaker. She’s the perfect hostess when guests enter her home, and out of the goodness of her heart she has taken a poor neighbor girl under her wing. Why, Mrs. Dunlap even teaches a Sunday-school class and remembers to keep the Sabbath holy!

Given such stellar qualities, Mrs. Dunlap must surely be a model Christian; but one unusually trying Monday begins to reveal the truth of Mrs. Dunlap’s character.

Click on the book cover to begin reading.

Singing ‘Molly Bawn’

6 Sep

When Isabella wrote The King’s Daughter in 1873, she wrote a novel that was contemporary for her time. In the book, she referenced household items and songs that were popular in 1873.

For example, in chapter eight, Miss Dell Bronson tries to convince Sam Miller to attend a temperance meeting with her.

At first Sam—a man who described himself as having gone to wreck and ruin—is aghast at the idea, but Dell won’t take no for an answer.

Instead, she uses all her powers of persuasion to entice Sam to the temperance meeting:

“Go and try one. I don’t believe you have ever been. We are going to have singing. I know you are fond of music. I heard you singing ‘Molly Bawn’ this morning. I like your voice. I want you to come and help us sing.”

Of course, songs sung at a temperance meeting would not include Molly Bawn; but by mentioning the song in her book, Isabella referenced a popular song her readers would instantly recognize.

Oddly enough, there are many versions of the Molly Bawn song. An Irish version tells the story of Molly Bawn being shot by her lover when he mistakes her for a swan as she hides in the forest.

But the American version—which is probably the version Isabella had in mind—is about a young man hoping to rendezvous with the girl he loves: Molly Bawn.

This sheet music, published in 1881, gives the lyrics to Molly Bawn:

The sheet music for Molly Bawn. Click on the image to see the music and lyrics.


Molly Bawn was an incredibly popular song that captured and held America’s imagination. The melody was easy; the lyrics were romantic; and if you happened to have the singing voice of an Irish tenor—which may have been true of Sam Miller—the song was practically written for you.

In 1878 a writer named Margaret Wolfe Hamilton (who published under the pseudonym Mrs. Hungerford) wrote a novel loosely based on the song.

The 1904 paperback version of the novel Molly Bawn.


The book version of Molly Bawn was an instant success in America. In fact, one of the novel’s characters utters for the first time in print, a phrase we still repeat today:

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Hamilton’s novel was so popular, it remained in print for decades.

Artist Charles Dana Gibson—famed for his illustrations of The Gibson Girl—was so inspired by the story, he created his own depictions of Molly Bawn:

“Molly Bawn” by Charles Dana Gibson, 1911.


In 1916 a movie of the Molly Bawn story hit theaters. It starred silent film actress Alma Taylor in the lead role.

Film actress Alma Taylor in a scene from the 1924 silent film Shadow of Egypt. She played Molly Bawn in a 1916 film adaptation of the novel by Margaret Wolfe Hamilton (aka Mrs. Hungerford).


Clever Isabella! When she dropped the name of the song ‘Molly Bawn’ in chapter eight of The King’s Daughter, she knew she was giving her readers a reference they—and subsequent generations—would readily understand.

Would you like to hear a 1911 recording of the American song Molly Bawn? Click here to go to the Library of Congress website to hear the song.

And you can click here to learn more about Isabella’s novel, The King’s Daughter.

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. Bringing readers information on great stories and connecting authors with their readers.

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