Riding the Cars

Street-cars traversing Thomas Circle in Washington, DC in 1907
New York City looking north on Broadway in 1910.


When Isabella Alden wrote about her characters “riding the cars,” she wasn’t referring to automobiles. The “cars” she wrote about were steam cars and streetcars.

Steam cars were steam-engine locomotives, which ran between cities on rails. By the late 1800s, the period when most of Isabella’s stories take place, railroad stations were springing up in small towns and running across rural areas as fast as workers could lay the rails.


Offices of The Herald newspaper in New York City.

Like locomotives, streetcars also ran on rails, but the passenger compartments were smaller and narrower.  They were typically powered by either cable-pulley systems or electricity, but early streetcars were pulled by horses. Streetcars were common forms of in-town transportation in the early 1900s. Small, mid-size, and major cities across the country had robust street-car systems to transport riders throughout a city’s major business areas and often from one end of town to another.

Streetcars running on First Avenue, downtown Seattle.

In Twenty Minutes Late, Caroline Bryant saw her first streetcar when she arrived in Philadelphia. Her only previous experience with riding a car was a seven-hour train trip she’d taken with her mother years before. In Philadelphia, her companion led the way to the street and lifted his hand in a peculiar manner.

A man who was driving what was to Caroline the strangest-looking wagon she had ever seen, drew up his horses and the wagon came to a stand-still. It had a number of little wheels, smaller than Caroline supposed wagon wheels were ever made.

“We’ll get into this car,” he said, “and that will save us a long walk and leave us a long enough one at the other end. I often wish I lived nearer the depot, but then it wouldn’t be so nice for my children as where I am now.”

Caroline was busy with one word: “car.” But there was no engine, only two horses.

“It must be a street car.”

She had heard Miss Webster speak of them, and also Judge Dunmore, and here she was getting into one!

When Twenty Minutes Late was published in 1893, horse-drawn streetcars were the norm, but by the early 1900s, streetcars became more mechanical and horse-power was replaced by cables or electricity.

04 Butte Montana 1907
Main Street in Butte, Montana about 1907.

Smaller cities and towns had streetcars, as well. This hand-colored photo from a 1907 postcard shows a streetcar running the length of Main Street in Butte, Montana.

In Judge Burnham’s Daughters, the Judge’s young son, Erskine, was very fond of riding the cars. One Sunday the Judge offered to take the family into the city to attend church at St. Paul’s, a fashionable church where the worship music was supposed to be very fine.

10 Worcester Mass Train Station
An example of a train and streetcar station. This one is in Worcester, Massachusetts.

It would have been an easy trip. From their small town the Burnhams would have ridden a steam car into the city. Upon arrival, they wouldn’t have had to leave the station to find a  streetcar to take them to the area of town by St. Paul’s church.

Busy Main Street in Worcester, Massachusetts, 1910.
Streetcar workers in New York City.

But the Judge’s wife Ruth refused to let little Erskine go because she believed it was wrong to ride the cars on the Sabbath.

“My darling, don’t you remember mamma told you how the poor men who have to make the cars go, cannot have any Sunday—any time to go to church, and read the Bible, and learn about God and heaven?”

Streetcar workers in Albany, NY.

“I know, mamma; but the cars go all the same, and the men have to work, and so why can’t we ride on them? They wouldn’t have to work any harder because we went along.”

In Ruth Erskine’s Son, the street-cars stopped at the corner of the Burnham’s residential street, where widowed Ruth Burnham lived with her son and his wife. Now an adult, Erskine Burnham took the 8:00 a.m. car to his office downtown each morning just “as surely as the sun was to rise”; and every evening he returned home by streetcar to his wife and his mother.

“I don’t suppose you two can fully appreciate what it is to me to get home to you after a stuffy, snarly day in town. I sit in the car sometimes with closed eyes after a day of turmoil to picture how it will all look. But the reality always exceeds my imagination.”

A streetcar running down a residential street in Bristol, Rhode Island.

In the evenings, his doting mother, Ruth, was able to watch for Erskine’s return from her bedroom window.

She leaned forward, presently, and watched Erskine’s car stop at the corner, and watched his springing step as he came with glad haste to his home.

In the majority of her books, Isabella Alden’s characters rode on the cars to get to work, to escape the city for a country idyll, or simply to run errands around town. But riding the cars was a little different for women than it was for men. Watch for a future post, Ladies Riding Cars, that will explore one of the unique challenges women faced while traveling on public transportation.


Light the Lucifer


In Household Puzzles, practical Maria Randolph took on the responsibility of cooking the family’s meals.


Her kitchen in 1874 might very well have looked like the kitchen in the photograph below of the Ulysses S. Grant home in Galena, IL.

U S Grant Kitchen 1865

The iron cook stove in the picture was typical for 1865 (nine years before Household Puzzles was published) but its fittings, including the warming oven and iron kettles, were built to last and would have remained in operation for decades.

Lucifer Matches 2

Stoves of the period were fueled by wood or coal. To light the fuel, cooks like Maria used friction matches, commonly called lucifers. Originally, Lucifer matches were developed by a man named Samuel Jones in 1830. Like many other match manufacturers, Mr. Jones made his Lucifers with sulphur tips which were then dipped in phosphorus; but Mr. Jones’s real claim to fame was his packaging. He was the first to sell his matches in small, rectangular cardboard boxes along with sandpaper on which to strike the match. The box even included instructions (in case there was any doubt) on how to light a match.

Lucifer Matches

The packaging proved so popular, “lucifer” soon became a generic name for matches.

In addition to instructions, the lucifer box also included a warning:

“If possible, avoid inhaling gas that escapes from the combustion of the black composition. Persons whose lungs are delicate should by no means use the lucifers.”

In fact, the phosphorus tips not only gave off fumes, they were deadly if swallowed. Ingesting match heads was a common method of committing suicide and small children were often accidentally poisoned by swallowing match heads.

 Household Puzzles describes how Maria fumbled for the match-safe on the kitchen table and muttered “as the vile fumes of the lucifer curled into her nose.”

Maria was a smart housekeeper to hold her matches in a match safe. Because lucifers were highly combustible, they were kept in match safes made of metal. These examples of match-safes hung on the wall and kept lucifers dry, safe, and out of reach of children’s fingers.

Match Safe 2    Match Safe 1860

The Molasses Cure

In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, there were very few trusted commercial medicines to alleviate cold symptoms. People often relied on folk remedies and home-made treatments to cure a variety of illnesses and injuries.

A scene in Jessie Wells illustrates the point. Jessie and her best friend, Mate are sitting outside on the porch one evening when Jessie’s father comes home from work.

Dr. Wells came up the walk at this moment, and the two girls arose to give him passage.

“You are two very sensible young ladies, staying out in all this dew, with your thin dresses,” he said, as he passed them. “Tomorrow you’ll be taking molasses and ginger by the quart.”

“No, indeed, Doctor,” laughed Mate,” I never take any horrid doses like that.”

Horrid doses indeed! The molasses and ginger cure for a sore throat was fairly common, and it sounds like Dr. Wells believed in its curative powers. In actual fact, the ginger tended to suppress coughing and the molasses soothed the throat.

Molasses Cure v3

Another home remedy for colds was a mixture of molasses and a few drops of kerosene in a glass of water. As questionable this home cure may sound, it was one of the few cold remedies that didn’t contain alcohol.

Medicine 2

Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (the 1861 authority on running the home) suggested an “infallible” cure for a cold, which included rum in its ingredients:

Put a large teacupful of linseed, with 1/4 lb. of sun raisins and 2 oz. of stick liquorice, into 2 quarts of soft water, and let it simmer over a slow fire till reduced to one quart. Add to it 1/4 lb of pounded sugar-candy, a tablespoonful of old rum, and a tablespoonful of the best white-wine vinegar or lemon-juice.

.Commercial medicines also included alcohol. Bitgood’s Original Compound Vegetable Syrup boasted it could cure the common cold, as well as a host of other ailments. The manufacturer was one of the few who revealed that their product contained alcohol, although the ad doesn’t state how much alcohol was actually in the mixture.

The majority of commercial medicines did not disclose the alcohol content in their products.

This lovely trade card advertises a ginger cure that sounds just like the kind mothers everywhere mixed up with molasses in their kitchens. The product description on the back of the card touts the benefits of the medicine, but doesn’t list the actual ingredients.

Molasses cure 4b front

Too bad; because, in actual fact, Parker’s Ginger Tonic was 41.6% alcohol—more potent than 80 proof whiskey! Compare that to the average alcoholic content of today’s beer (5% alcohol) and wine (approximately 12% alcohol).

It was the rule, rather than the exception, that consumers had no idea that they were dosing family members with alcoholic products; and since many alcohol-laden medicines of the time were specifically marketed to children, mothers often unwittingly gave their little ones rum and whiskey.

Little wonder, then, that Isabella Alden often wrote about the dangers of alcohol consumption. At the time her books were written, people usually didn’t know they were consuming alcohol and often didn’t recognize their growing dependence until it was potentially too late.

Glyde’s Sack

In Making Fate, Uncle Anthony whisked Glyde Douglass off to New York for a whirlwind visit. As the youngest of three sisters, Glydes clothes were hand-me-downs and she had to borrow one of her sister’s sacks to wear on the trip.

Although it was clear in the book that a sack was some kind of garment, “sack” is not a fashion term most 21st Century readers recognize. For a good description of a lady’s sack, there’s no better authority than Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine, which was a popular women’s publication in the late 1800s.

According to Godey’s, a sack (or sacque) was a lady’s overcoat that was in fashion for several decades. Of varying lengths, it was usually hip length or reached to about a woman’s knees. It was sometimes styled to match a specific dress or it was made up in a neutral color so it could be worn over a variety of dresses.

The December 1853 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine featured this stylish sack:

Sack 3 Godeys December 1853 edited

Fall or winter sacque. This style of wrap is very pretty for misses.
It can be made of silk, or of any kind of cloth. It is trimmed with
a ruching of velvet, silk, or cloth, either of the same shade as the
material or darker. The latter has the more stylish appearance.

The June, 1863 issue of Godey’s included this drawing and description under the banner, “The Latest Style”:

Sack 2 Godeys June 1863 edited

Another pretty robe dress, with sack to match, very
suitable for traveling. This style of dress is to be had in
percales of neutral tints, and in wool goods, such
as taffetas and alpacas.

The May 1863 issue featured this description for a new sack design:

Sack Godeys May 1863 Detail edited

A very stylish morning costume for a watering-place. It is
made of white alpaca with one box-plaited flounce bound
with black on the edge of the skirt. Above the flounce is a 
lace-like embroidery, and three rows of black velvet. A
short sack is cut to the figure, but not fitting closely,
is worn over a white muslin waist. 

During their stay in New York, Uncle Anthony took Glyde on a wonderful shopping spree, purchasing many things for her, including a new sack in the latest style:

It was one of the newest styles, fine and heavy, and beautifully trimmed, yet simple enough for a girl of the most refined tastes. The quick eye of the saleswoman had caught the right size, and the garment fitted as though made to order.

“It suits me exactly,” Uncle Anthony announced, in his most complacent tone. “Your Aunt Estelle used to wear one very much like it. Go over to the mirror, little girl, and see what you think. If it pleases you as much as it does me, we will call it a bargain.”

No girl could have looked at herself in a full length mirror and caught such a reflection as Glyde did, without being pleased. Her face spoke for her.

“You like it?” said Uncle Anthony. “Glad of it. You may as well keep it on and have the other sent home. It is warmer than that; and this is a pretty cold morning.”

“But, Uncle Anthony,” she said, moving toward him and speaking low. Her appalled eyes had caught sight of the figure marked on the sleeve-card, and she did not know how to make her protest strong enough. “I truly do not need it; my sack which I have at home is warm; warmer than Estelle’s, and I do not mind its being a little old-fashioned; and indeed I cannot think that you know how very expensive this one is.”

“Yes, I do; I know exactly what it costs. You don’t suppose I am foolish enough to buy an article without finding that out the first thing, do you? I call it very reasonable for a garment gotten up in that style; it is well lined, you see, and will outlast three or four like that one you had on. The question is does it suit you as well as anything you see around here?”

“Oh, it could not be lovelier, but—”

“Then we won’t waste time over conjunctions, disjunctive ones at that. Just let the young lady wear it home, will you? And send the other to my hotel with the handkerchief, you know, and other things?”

The sympathetic saleswoman laughed; she had not had such an enjoyable customer in many a day. Her heart was in the entire enterprise. She led the way for Uncle Anthony with such promptness and success that several more bewildering purchases were made by him before he announced himself ready for luncheon.

“I’m as chirk as can be.”


Isabella’s books contain some words and terms that are no longer in use. One word she regularly used in her books is chirk. For example:

“I’m as chirk as can be,” says Garrett Randall in Doris Farrand’s Vocation.

In Lost on the Trail, Dr. Evarts visits a sick student to “chirk Templeton up a little.”

And in Overruled, Mrs. Bramlett has a long talk with Marjorie and declares, “I feel quite chirked up; it does beat all how you manage to comfort a body!”

In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, chirk was an informal word for cheer and was mostly commonly followed by the word, up.