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A New Luxury

Isabella was always interested in new inventions that came her way. When typewriters first came on the market, she began using one to write her stores. She even featured a typewriter in one of her novels (you can read more about that here).

And when her fingers tired from typing, she used dictation equipment and hired a stenographer to transcribe her spoken words into typed pages.

Black and white illustration of a man wearing a business suit seated in a chair in front of a small table. On the table is a dictation machine, which has a speaking tube the man is holding up to his mouth. Near the feet of the table is a treadle, which the man operates with one foot.
An early wax cylinder phonograph for dictation, 1897 (from Wikicommons).

Add to her love of innovation the fact that she was also very social-minded and had a keen interest in bettering people’s lives, and you can understand her interest in a new trend in health and hygiene that began in the late 1890s.

During the majority of Isabella’s life, indoor plumbing was a luxury for most Americans. Only the wealthy could afford to install bathrooms in their homes.

Design for an 1888 bathroom. Credit: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

By contrast, poor residents in large cities lived in tenement buildings that often had only a single source of water; that meant residents had to carry water (sometimes up several flights of stairs) to their apartments in order to bathe or even wash their hands.

Color illustration of a woman seated in a wicker chair and wearing the dress and hairstyle of about 1910. Across her lap is a large towel and she is holding a baby over a wash tub on the floor in front of her. The baby kicks water onto a little girl seated on the floor near the wash tub. Another little girl standing behind the tub holds the baby's hand. A small dog scurries away from the water being splashed in his direction.
“Baby’s Bath” by Arthur J. Elsely

But in the 1890s that began to change. By that time most great cities of the world had implemented public baths. London, Paris, Vienna, and Rome had spacious and magnificent buildings devoted to the purpose of bathing. Isabella’s home state of New York took notice, and began devoting attention to the matter of making bathing facilities available to all citizens, especially the poor.

The New York Board of Health worked with New York City officials to develop plans for a public bath house to be opened in Manhattan. The design included waiting rooms for men and boys, and a separate waiting room for women.

An 1897 design illustration for a New York public bath house. The stone building is two stories tall with a colonnade on the first floor and a balcony on the second. Both floors have several floor-to-ceiling windows.

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More importantly, the design featured an entirely new concept: Rain-baths.

Isabella like this new idea so much, she wrote about it in her magazine, The Pansy, and described the concept to her readers:

One who wishes a bath can set the machinery in motion, and stand under a warm rain, rubbing himself as much as he pleases; using plenty of soap, at first, and then showering off without it.

The water thus used flows away through pipes prepared for it, and without having any bath tub to clean, or water to empty, the bather can dress himself and step out into the world fresh and clean, leaving the room in order for the next one. This has all been planned for the benefit of those who have not homes of their own, with bath rooms and all conveniences.

Black and white photograph of rows of shower stalls with doors.
Shower stalls in a Boston Public Bath House 1898.

Having seen for herself the tenements and slums in major American cities such as New York, Isabella was well aware that there were few opportunities, if any, for city residents to bathe on a regular basis.

1908 black and white photo of about thirty women and girls standing in line to enter a New York City bath house.
Women and girls in line at a New York City bath house, 1908.

She also knew—having taught homemaking classes at Chautauqua—the health benefits of maintaining a clean body and a clean home. It was natural, then, for her to embrace this new plan for showers in public baths, especially since the facilities would be offered for free to anyone who wanted to use them.

Old photograph of about thirty young boys waiting in a room. Some are seated on benches along the wall, while others are standing in a line taking direction from a porter who is pointing at them, while five boys leaving the waiting room climb a staircase to the the baths.

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She ended her article in The Pansy by reminding her readers about the blessing the new bath houses would be:

I wonder if any Pansy knows what a luxury a warm bath is, when one is tired and soiled with the wear of the day? I am actually acquainted with some Pansies who weep when they are called upon to come in and have their baths! I venture to say that [the children of New York] are more than willing to wait for their turn in the bath room.

[Credit for the two photos of Boston’s Public Baths: Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Transfer from the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Social Museum Collection.]

Sweet Travels with Pansy

In the late 1880s a woman named Martha Wood attended a women’s missionary convention and later wrote a newspaper article about her experience. The highlight of her trip was a chance encounter with Isabella Alden.

By that time Isabella was a best-selling author and her pen name “Pansy” was a household word. You can imagine Martha’s surprise to discover Isabella was not only attending the same convention, but was among the ladies traveling on the very same train!

Black and white photo about 1910 of a group of women in traveling clothes and bonnets standing together on the observation deck of a railroad car.

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Martha’s account does not mention who made the first overture, but at some point Martha and Isabella fell into conversation. When they arrived at their destination they were greeted by a member of the convention’s entertainment committee, who had been sent to escort Isabella to her hotel. Of course, the committee member was only too happy to include Martha in their party. But when it came time for them to take a cab from the train station to the hotel, they encountered a slight problem:

Amid the bustle of the station we were greeted by the Entertainment Committee, and, as we were assigned to places adjacent, were to occupy the same cab, when, lo! The cab had but one seat, and there were three of us! Quickly the happy thought found expression: Who would not think it an honor to ride in the same cab with Pansy? How much more, then, to ride with her on one’s knee, as she is so petite? Thus we rode to our destination.

Isabella was scheduled to address the convention, and Martha described her performance:

She was on the program, of course, and read one of her exquisitely appropriate stories to an interested audience; but the acoustic properties of the church were so bad that, with straining ears, we failed to hear it well, though it was a real pleasure even to see her, and to hear the silvery voice of one whom we had learned to love already, from her writings.

Later, Martha noticed some devoted Pansy fans were among the convention attendees:

She was constantly surrounded by a bevy of bright young girls, and it seemed quite the fitting thing, too, for had she not devoted herself to them and to their uplifting?

One of them gave her a lovely plaque of wild-wood violets marked as her “country cousins,” to which she laughingly referred as we journeyed homeward together. She was quite as entertaining as her stories, we found, full of a nameless gentle grace, betokening a lady.

On the journey home after the convention, Martha and Isabella traveled with a third woman. Martha never identified the woman by name, but described her as a “leading educator in the state.” The woman had also been a speaker at the convention on the topic of “All I Am, and All I Have, for the Lord.” Martha wrote:

Pansy was even then revolving in her mind a new story and she asked my friend if she could use her name as one of the characters.

Now, this friend was just a trifle old-fashioned in her ideas about story writing, and especially about young people spending their time in reading novels, so she hesitated.

Then Pansy told us how she had been oftentimes solicited to enter the arena of popular fiction, for mere fiction’s sake and pecuniary gain, but that she had always refused. Her solemn purpose was to devote herself entirely to the development of higher Christian character and life, and she had never yet yielded, had never been swerved, from her high resolves.

I wish I could paint the beautiful glow of her cheek, and the clear shining of her dark, glowing eyes, as she talked to us from her heart.

Deeply impressed, I turned to our friend and said, “Remember your subject, ‘All I Am, and All I Have, for Christ,’ and she only asks to use your name. He taught in parables most effectively, and she is only following His example by writing stories to develop true, higher Christian life.”

Of course, she then consented and the story was written, but I do not think I am quite at liberty to reveal all here.

Black and white photo of three women in coats and hats, standing on a train platform with their suitcases on the ground beside them.

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Martha’s story—as charming as it is—is full of tantalizing mysteries!

When and where was the missionary convention held? And who was the woman whose name Isabella wanted to use as a character in a story? What was the name of the story Isabella ultimately wrote?

We may never know the answers to these questions, but Martha’s encounter with Isabella sounds delightful!

Did Martha’s recollection give you any new insights into Isabella’s personality? Please share your thoughts in the comments box below.

Free Read: An Eventful Thanksgiving

This month’s free read is a short story Isabella wrote about a very unusual Thanksgiving dinner.

Cover of An Eventful Thanksgiving

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When Mrs. Wykoff learns her vagabond son has died in a tragic accident, her grief knows no bounds. She plans to honor his memory by hosting a Thanksgiving dinner with his closest friends, but her lovingly-made plans may be disrupted by a stunning revelation.

You can read “And Eventful Thanksgiving” for free!

Choose the reading option you like best:

You can read the story on your computer, phone, tablet, Kindle, or other electronic device. Just click here to download your preferred format from BookFunnel.com.

Or you can select BookFunnel’s “My Computer” option to receive an email with a version you can read, print, and share with friends.

Advice to Readers about Selfishness

Isabella wrote a popular advice column for a Christian magazine. In 1897 she mentioned in her column that she had received “at least a dozen letters lately about selfishness.”

Here is Isabella’s Advice:

It is a curious illustration of human nature that in nearly every instance the writers are sufferers because of this trait in others, and are not themselves guilty of the sin. Of all sins to which the human being is heir, that of selfishness seems to me sometimes the most insidious.

Let me tell you about two lovely young friends of mine, sisters, beautiful girls, who have been carefully trained in a choice Christian home. It was summer, and in their hospitable home were gathered several guests. The mother, who had been an invalid during the winter, and like most mothers was tempted to overtax her strength, was being watched over tenderly, not only by her husband, but by grown-up sons and daughters. The morning which I am especially recalling was that one trying to the nerves of housekeepers generally—wash-day.

Illustration of two women. An elderly woman sits in a chair. Before her stands a woman dressed in the apron and mob cap of a maid.

It was a country home, and the cook, Jane, was also the maid of all work. There was a second girl, Norah, who served during the influx of company; but on this particular morning, when she was most needed, her aunt’s brother’s cousin had arrived from Ireland, and she must needs go home to welcome her. I came down to the piazza in time to hear and see a bit of family life, after this fashion:

“I’ve kidnapped her,” said Marian, the eldest daughter, gleefully, as she held with gentle force the little mother in the large rocker where she had placed her. “Now, dear mamma, do be persuaded not to go upstairs again. Don’t you know that it is warmer this morning than it has been for several days? And don’t you remember what the doctor said about exerting yourself on warm days?”

Illustration of elderly woman sitting in a chair. A younger woman sits upon the arm of the chair, with one of her arms wrapped around the elderly woman's shoulders.

“But, my dear,” protested the mother, trying to withdraw her arms from the loving clasp, “I was not doing anything to injure myself; and Norah is away, you know.”

“I cannot help it if she is. Your strength is more important than the work of fifty Norahs. Come and help me, Norm. She ought not to bustle around in the heat, ought she?”

“Certainly not,” said the tall brother. He strolled toward them, and drew a chair beside his mother.

Illustration of a young man and young woman speaking to an elderly woman.

As the morning waned, she made ineffectual appeals to both son and daughter to let her “step out for a few minutes” and see how things were going.

“No, indeed!” said Marian with emphasis. “As if we should let you into that hot kitchen for a minute! We might better go without luncheon than to have it at any such price. Don’t worry, mamma dear; things will come out all right; they always do.”

Yet the mother undoubtedly worried, although the guests were as polite as possible, and protested that it was too warm to think of anybody’s doing anything. People did not need to eat in warm weather. Yet they knew, and the hostess knew, that people do eat in warm weather, and that, moreover, the average man and woman like cool, dainty edibles that do not make themselves.

 After a time the two self-constituted policemen became absorbed, the one in a new embroidery stitch which a guest was teaching her, the other in a volume of Browning. As the other guests were by this time engaged in writing or reading, the hostess slipped away. My thoughts followed her regretfully. If I were only well enough acquainted to beg to be allowed to help, how gladly would I have done so! Later, two or three of us took a stroll about the grounds, and discussed the several members of the family.

“What a lovely girl Marian is!” said one. “So unselfish, and so thoughtful of her mother! It was really charming this morning to see her solicitude. And the eldest son seems very much like her.”

“They are so different from Kate,” chimed in another voice. “One never sees her hovering around her mother, anxious lest she should overtax her strength. I wonder where she is, by the way. I have not seen her since breakfast.”

“Kate is sufficient to herself, I fancy,” said a third. “She seems to have her own pursuits, regardless of family life. But I do not wonder, I am sure, that Marian and her brother are anxious about the mother; she looks miserable this summer. I think they will not have her with them long.”

The mother returned, sooner than I had expected, and her face was serene. Something had happened to lift the burden of care.

“Your children are very solicitous for you,” I said in an aside to her a few minutes afterwards. “It is pleasant to see them.”

“Yes,” she said with a motherly smile, “I am blessed in my children. Marian’s anxiety is sometimes almost burdensome; but the dear girl means it well. This morning, for instance, I felt as if it would have been a real comfort to be able to slip away and attend to a few things. But I need not have worried; I might have known that my dear Kate would manage.”

“That is your second daughter, is it not?”

“Yes, the dear child! You do not know her very well; she gives herself little time for our friends, she is so busy assuming the cares of others. I wanted to arrange the lunch today, for Jane does not like to be interrupted; but I found Kate had planned everything, and executed it, for that matter. She had even been to my room, and made the bed, and put everything in exquisite order. I don’t know how she found time to accomplish so much. It is not any of it her regular work, you understand—just extras that she is doing to save me.”

Illustration of a young woman arranging flowers on a dining table.

I moralized, afterwards, over this bit of revelation. Did any of us think that the daughter Marian was selfish? Did she herself for a moment imagine such a thing? And yet . . .  

Oh, it is the little bits of things that catch us. Why, bless your heart! I know a boy who most cheerfully gave up a cherished plan to make a three days’ visit to a friend, because there were reasons why his mother did not wish him to be absent at the time. There were reasons why it was more than an ordinary sacrifice for the young man, and I admired him for making it. But that very fellow came to breakfast, dinner, and supper a few minutes late every time but one during the five days that I was his mother’s guest, although he knew perfectly well that both his mother and his father were annoyed by it. He did not do it intentionally, mind; but his ease-loving nature found it to his convenience to dawdle just at those moments. I think he would have been surprised and pained had one accused him of selfishness. Yet what was the name of the difficulty?

I am glad I used that word “cheerfully” in speaking of him. It hints at another way of giving up. I have a friend who sacrificed her quarter’s salary to relieve her father of a temporary embarrassment; yet she did it so ungraciously, and he heard about it so continually for the next six months, that I doubt whether he would accept such an offering again no matter how great the stress. That girl considers herself a monument of unselfishness.

What do you think of Isabella’s advice?

Poor, Wretched Peter!

Isabella was deeply involved in the Christian Endeavor movement. Each month the Society of Christian Endeavor published meeting guides and lesson plans for local chapters to use in their meetings. When the May 1894 meeting guide focused on Peter’s actions in the book of Luke, Isabella wrote a special “open letter” to the youngest C.E. members to help them understand the context of the lesson. Here’s what she wrote:


Dear Young People:

Some of you are studying this month about Peter. You are dreadfully shocked over him as you read his story in the twenty-second chapter of Luke. I do not wonder. How terrible it must have been to Jesus to have heard Peter say, “I know him not!”

And in another place it tells how Peter even swore that he did not know him! Poor, wretched Peter!

If we had not heard anything more about him, we should have despised him all our lives. And as it is, we are quite sure that we would never have done such a thing as that, if we had been on earth when Jesus was. I heard a boy say so, once.

“No, ma’am!” he said, his cheeks growing red at the thought. “I tell you, I am very sure I never should have denied him. The idea!”

Yet only the next day that boy was playing croquet with some other boys, and two began to swear.

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“Hush!” said one of them, after a minute. “We mustn’t swear before Tommy; he’s a goody-goody boy and has promised never to use any naughty words. Run away, Tommy, before we hurt you.”

What did Tommy say? Remember, he was the boy who knew he would not have denied Jesus. He laughed, and blushed, and said:

“I’m not afraid of your words; say what you like.”

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Why did he say that? Why, because he was ashamed to own before those boys that he belonged to Jesus Christ, and had promised to try to please him. Don’t you think he denied him quite as much as Peter did?

Oh, there are many ways of doing it. I am reminded of a girl I used to know, whose mother did not approve of little girls taking walks on Sunday.

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On the way home from Sunday-school, her classmates said to her:

“Come on, let’s go down to the river for a walk;” and she answered:

“Oh, I can’t today; I have a little headache.”

She said this, not because of her headache, which was not enough to keep her from going anywhere she pleased, but because she did not like to own that she had been taught it was not the right way to spend Sabbath time, and she was trying to do right. Do you think there was a little bit of denial of Jesus in her heart just then?

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What do you think of Isabella’s letter?

New Free Read: The Trained Nurse

Many of Isabella’s stories feature characters on the lookout for opportunities to share the Gospel. In this month’s free read, a sensible teenager does exactly that.

Miss Winnie Holden is just beginning her career in nursing, but she is committed to healing her patients’ souls as well as their bodies. But when the doctor orders Winnie keep her elderly patient from becoming excited in any way, she wonders how she will ever be able to learn whether the dear man she’s been caring for is a Christian.

You can read “The Trained Nurse” for Free!

Choose the reading option you like best:

You can read the story on your computer, phone, tablet, Kindle, or other electronic device. Just click here to download your preferred format from BookFunnel.com.

Or you can select BookFunnel’s “My Computer” option to receive an email with a version you can read, print, and share with friends.

A Little Word Lost

In The Pansy magazine Isabella used stories, illustrations, and poems to teach young people what it meant to follow Jesus. The following poem was published in an 1893 issue of the magazine, and although it was written for children, it has meaning for adults, too!

I lost a very little word
    Only the other day;
A very naughty little word
    I had not meant to say.
If only it were really lost,
    I should not mind a bit;
I think I should deserve a prize
    For really losing it.
For if no one could ever find
    Again that little word,
So that no more from any lips
    Could it be ever heard,
I'm sure we all of us would say
    That it was something fine
With such completeness to have lost
    That naughty word of mine.
But then it wasn't really lost
    When from my lips it flew;
My little brother picked it up,
    And now he says it, too.
Mamma said that the worst would be
    I could not get it back;
But the worst of it now seems to me,
    I'm always on its track.
If it were only really lost!
    Oh, then I should be glad!
I let it fall so carelessly
    The day that I got mad.
Lose other things, you never seem
    To come upon their track;
But lose a naughty little word,
    It's always coming back.

While no author name was given when the poem was published, Isabella’s husband Ross and son Raymond were both talented poets, as was Isabella.

When she wrote stories about children losing their tempers, she wrote from experience. Isabella shared stories from her own life about how often her anger got her into trouble when she was young.

You can read about some of those instances in these previous posts:

Joy Go with You

BFFs at Oneida Seminary

Locust Shade … and a New Free Read

Pansy Reads a Mystery Story

In 1895 Isabella and her family were living in May’s Landing, New Jersey, where her husband, Reverend Gustavus Alden, had charge of the Presbyterian Church.

While her husband was busy with his responsibilities, Isabella paid an early September visit to her hometown of Gloversville, New York.

Her son Raymond (age 22 at the time) and adopted daughter Frances (age 3) accompanied her.

The residents of Gloversville welcomed Isabella back with open arms, and—as they often did—they invited her to speak at one of their assemblies. The evening of Tuesday, September 17 was decided upon, and the local newspaper promoted the event:

Newspaper Clipping: "A Popular Author in Town."
Mrs. G. R. Alden, better known to most readers by her nom de plume "Pansy," is, with her son and daughter, visiting her cousin, Mrs. E. A. Spencer, at 38 First avenue. Mrs. Alden is the author of a large number of books, chiefly for the Sunday school, which have commanded a large sale and are very popular with both old and young. It is quite natural for the people of Gloversville to take a just pride in her success, as this was her former home and it was while she was a resident here that her first stories were written. At the request of the officers of the Presbyterian Home Mission society of this city, Mrs. Alden has written a new story suitable for a public reading and will read the same for the benefit of that society in the Presbyterian church next Tuesday evening the seventeenth. It is hoped Mrs. Alden will receive a heart reception from her old friends.

The evening began with musical selections, then Isabella took the stage to “an outburst of applause.” She read one her stories, which the newspaper reported was titled “Miss Hunter.”

You may already be familiar with “Miss Hunter.” The character of Miss Priscilla Hunter was one of Isabella’s favorites, and she appeared in four of Isabella’s stories:

Miss Priscilla Hunter

People Who Haven’t Time and Can’t Afford It

The Man of the House

One Commonplace Day

But each of these stories and novels were published well before 1895, and the newspaper reported that Isabella read a brand new story, written specifically for the occasion, that featured a character named Miss Hunter. The newspaper account of the evening noted that the story was “interesting and kept the close attention of the audience,” but gave no additional details about the story.

Newspaper clipping: "Pansy's" Reading
The Presbyterian church was filled last evening by an audience who had gathered to listen to the reading of an original missionary story by Mrs. G. R. Alden, who writes under the nom de plume of "Pansy." The exercises opened with an organ voluntary by Mrs. Whitney, after which Miss Clara Gardner rendered a solo. Mrs. Alden's appearance followed shortly and she was greeted with an outburst of applause. The story, which was entitled "Miss Hunter," was very interesting and kept the close attention of the audience throughout. The reading was given for the benefit of the Young Ladies' Missionary Society of the Presbyterian church, and the proceeds netted were very satisfactory.

On Thursday morning, September 19, Isabella left Gloversville and headed back to her home in New Jersey.

Newspaper clipping: Mrs. G. R. Alden, "Pansy," who has been visiting Mr. and Mrs. Edgar A. Spencer, returned to her home at May's Landing, N. J., this morning. She was accompanied by her son and daughter.

She also left us with questions: What was the story she read aloud to the audience at the Presbyterian church? Is there another Pansy story about “Miss Hunter” that has yet to be found?

Until the mystery can be solved, you can read more about the fictional character of Miss Priscilla Hunter—and the stories we she appeared in—by clicking here.

You can also click here to read about Isabella’s charming hometown of Gloversville, New York, and the business her father had there.

Read Along with the C.L.S.C.

Much like the on-line college degree courses we have now, The Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (C.L.S.C.) was a method of self-education people could obtain in the privacy of their own homes. Isabella was a graduate of the C.L.S.C. program and actively promoted in articles and stories.

Every three months C.L.S.C. students received “The Chautauquan,” a 400-plus page “magazine of system in reading” with articles and lessons that covered various topics such as:

The Rehabilitation of the Democratic Party

Food, the Farmer, and the City

Polar Exploration and Moral Standards

Women in the Progress of Civilization

A Reading Journey through Egypt.

History and classic literature were also major components of the curriculum. Bishop John H. Vincent, Chancellor of the C.L.S.C. believed:

The study of classical literature, art, and philosophy supplies a training of the mind based upon models which have stood the test of time [and are] considered universal.”

Aside from obtaining the books for reading, the only other tools required to complete the course were a pencil, some paper, and a good dictionary. 

But while the tools were basic, the coursework was not always easy. In 1909 students were required to read Homer’s Iliad. If you’ve ever tried to read this epic poem about the Trojan War, you know what a challenge it can be!

Illustration of two Trojan soldiers fighting. Both wear casques and capes,, and carry shields. Behind them is a portrait of Helen of Troy.

Not to worry; the C.L.S.C. published the following tips to help students successfully complete the required reading:

  • Think of this volume as a story book and read it for the sake of the stories.
  • Keep in mind the tales woven about Achilles and Odysseus are typical of the passionate rivalry of war and the steadfast love of country and family we identify with today.
  • Don’t make reading these stories hard. Relax yourself to the swing of them. Let them carry you along as if you were hearing them recited by a story teller.
  • These are tales of valiant deeds and daring adventure from beginning to end— “action stories”; and there is no easier reading in the world.
Illustration of Achilles and Paris in battle. Paris has a long spear and shield. Achilles holds a long knife while an arrow protrudes from his right heel. Behind them is the outline of a stone fortress over the top of which is the head of the Trojan horse.

Bishop Vincent knew the value of reading Homer’s Iliad, because he recognized the influence Greek history—and Homer’s epic poem, in particular—had on the formation of the United States and the development of our constitution.

Those influences are still visible today. A mural in the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. depicts one of the stories in the Iliad after Achilles’ mother disguised him as a school girl and sent him to a distant court so he would not be enlisted in the Trojan War. Wily Ulysses set out to find Achilles; dressed as a peddler, he displayed his wares. The girls chose feminine trinkets, but Achilles was attracted to a man’s shield and casque, thereby revealing his identity.

Mural depicting Achilles disguised as a girl admiring a man's shield and casque. Behind him, Ulysses, watches as other girls sit and examine the trinkets displayed on the floor.

Greek history and mythology influence many murals, statues, and architectural design throughout the U.S. capital.

Have you read Homer’s Iliad? Did you find it difficult reading?

If you haven’t read Homer’s Iliad, you can get a taste for what this reading assignment was like. Click here to read an 1891 version of the epic poem, which would have been similar to the version Isabella and other C.L.S.C. students read.