Many of Isabella’s characters played musical instruments, the most common of which was the piano.
Sadie Ried was a talented pianist in Ester Ried, as was Dell Bronson in The King’s Daughter.
Dell’s beloved piano was located “in the little summer parlor,” and she often turned to “her dear piano” for company.
She touched the keys with a sort of tremulous eagerness, and soft, sweet plaintive sounds filled the room.
But a piano was an expensive luxury the majority of Americans could ill afford, despite ads like this one that invited buyers to purchase a piano (or organ) on credit.
For those who could not afford to have a piano in their home, there were plenty of other musical instruments to be had.
Many ladies strummed guitars (Louise Morgan played one in A New Graft on the Family Tree), and some even learned to play banjo.
But one of the most popular musical instruments during Isabella’s lifetime was the autoharp.
Autoharps were extremely affordable—some styles were priced as low at $5.00.
Even better, they were easily portable. They went from home to school, from church to social functions—anywhere musical accompaniment was needed.
Autoharps were relatively easy to learn to play, and thanks to some astute publishing houses, sheet music for the autoharp—from hymns to operas to college songs—was plentiful and affordable.
By 1899 manufacturers began advertising the autoharp as “America’s favorite instrument.”
Autoharps remained popular for decades into the twentieth century. School teachers across the country used autoharps to introduce children to the basic principles of music and singing. And their distinctive sound became a mainstay in early country music recordings.
Have you ever heard an autoharp played before? Have you ever played one yourself? Tell us about it!
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.”
Some of Isabella’s female characters, like Mrs. Bryant, sewed every day because that’s how they earned their living.
Other characters, like wealthy Miss Sutherland, plied their needles to create fancy table linens and delicate trims, like ruffles and laces.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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?
One of the interesting things about reading Isabella’s books is the window they give us into how people lived between 1870 and 1920. From fashion to modes of travel, Isabella’s stories chronicle how different her daily life was from our modern lives today.
One noted difference is how people ate around the turn of the 20th Century. Back then meat, vegetables and potatoes were diet staples; and when one of those ingredients was lacking, people relied on affordable food, like johnny-cakes, to fill their stomachs. Sally Lunn cakes helped celebrate special occasions; but of all the foods that Isabella mentioned in her books, it was the humble doughnut that appeared on the menu most often.
Because they were small and easily transported, children took doughnuts to school for their noon meal. When Wayne Pierson took the job of teacher in a small town in By Way of the Wilderness, he toured the school-house and found it somewhat lacking:
He had taken in each dismal detail—the air of desolation, the hacked desks, the smoky walls, the grimy windows, and the indescribable odor adhering to an old schoolroom: odors made up of generations of lunches—bread-and-butter, and headcheese, pie, and doughnuts.
And in A New Graft on the Family Tree, a kind farmer’s wife fed wandering John Morgan breakfast, then gave him a pocket-full of doughnuts to take along on his journey.
Dusted with sugar, doughnuts were also served as a dessert.
Bread and butter, piles of it; a soup-plate piled high with slices of ham, thin, and done to a crisp, and smelling, oh, so appetizing! Sheets of gingerbread, great squares of cheese, a bowl of doughnuts, another bowl of quince sauce, and a pail full of milk.
And in David Ransom’s Watch, Hannah Sterns served the neighborhood boys’ literary club “doughnuts, or cookies, or seed cakes, or the ever popular tea-cakes. Scarcely a meeting of the club that winter but some dainty was offered in Harlan’s name in the way of refreshment.”
At Ermina’s wedding in Household Puzzles, the family couldn’t afford to serve cake, but they had doughnuts and “delicious coffee to drink with them.”
Today we think of doughnuts as a breakfast food for the most part, but in Isabella’s time, doughnuts—from humble and plain to cake-like confections—were served with almost any meal.
You can read previous posts about other food items mentioned in Isabella’s books:
In 1922 Emily Post wrote, “with a hair-pin and a visiting card, [a woman] is ready to meet most emergencies.”
There’s evidence of that maxim in Isabella Alden’s books. In several of her stories a simple calling card played a prominent role in the life of one of her characters.
In Spun from Fact, Jeanie Barrett had cards printed with only her name and this sentence in plain text:
“Are you saved by grace?”
Each time she gave away one of her cards, she did so with a purpose, and knew exactly how she wanted to engage that person in conversation about the straight-forward question printed on the card.
In Workers Together; An Endless Chain, Dr. Everett’s calling card was printed on both sides. The front of the card gave the address and hours for his medical practice. On the other side he listed the times for Sunday worship services, Sunday School classes and weekly prayer meetings at the church where he was superintendent of the Sunday School.
In A New Graft on the Family Tree, John Morgan received a calling card that changed his life. He was hungry and homeless, hopping one rail car after another to find anyone who would feed him in exchange for doing some work.
John’s situation was desperate; he was weak from hunger when he came across neat-looking house, with a neat kitchen-door; he knocked at it, and asked for a bit of bread. A trim old lady answered it. To his surprise she invited him in and fed him a savoury breakfast. And while John ate, the old woman talked to him:
“Well, there are a good many homeless people in the world. It must be hard; but then, you know, the Master himself gave up his home, and had not where to lay his head. Did it for our sakes, too. Wasn’t that strange! Seems to me I couldn’t give up my home. But he made a home by it for every one of us. I hope you’ve looked after the title to yours, young man.”
No answer from John, The old lady sighed, and said to herself, as she trotted away for a doughnut for him:
“He doesn’t understand, poor fellow! I suppose he never has had any good thoughts put into his mind. Dear me! I wish I could do something for him besides feeding his poor, perishing body!”
The little old lady trotted back, a plate of doughnuts in one hand, and a little card in the other.
“Put these doughnuts in your pocket; maybe they’ll come good when you are hungry again. And here is a little card; you can read, I suppose?”
The faintest suspicion of a smile gleamed in John Morgan’s eyes as he nodded assent.
“Well, then, you read it once in a while, just to please me. Those are true words on it; and Jesus is here yet trying to save, just the same as he always was. He wants to save you, young man, and you better let him do it now. If I were you I wouldn’t wait another day.”
John waited until he left the woman’s house and was tramping down the street before he looked at the card she gave him.
It was a simple enough card, printed on it in plain letters these words:
“It is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners.”
“I am the bread of life. He that believeth on me shall never hunger.”
Still lower on the card, in ornamented letters, the words:
“The Master has come, and calleth for thee.”
Then a hand pointing to an italicized line:
“I that speak unto thee am he.”
John thrust the card into his pocket and strode towards the village depot to board another train, unaware that the little card would eventually change his life.
You can still find examples of religious calling cards on ebay, Etsy and other Internet sites. But Isabella’s books demonstrated that religious calling cards by themselves were not enough to change a person’s life. In her stories, a calling card may have opened the door to a conversation about salvation, but it was the act of the person who gave the card—their kindness and concern for someone else—that turned those small pieces of cardstock into the means by which a soul was saved.
You can read more about the vagabond life John Morgan would have lead. Click here to read our previous post, The Fraternity of the Tramp.
Click on a book cover to read more about Isabella’s books mentioned in this post.
Isn’t it a pity in this carping world we cannot oftener put ourselves in other people’s places, mentally, at least, and try to discover how we should probably feel, and talk, and act, were we surrounded by their circumstances and biased by their educations?
“Diligent in business, serving the Lord.” There is no period dividing these. I long ago discovered that I could make a bed and sweep a room for His sake, as surely as I could speak a word for Him.
—A New Graft on the Family Tree
An essential accessory in every well-managed home in the late 19th Century was the tidy. A tidy was a piece of cloth used to protect furniture. Tidies were draped over the backs of chairs or placed on the flat tops of tables, dressers, or chests of drawers.
Today we’d call them doilies or antimacassars. Depending on the household and a family’s means, tidies could be very simple and plain or elaborately decorated creations of silk, velvet, or other costly materials.
Tidies weren’t just decorative; they served a very useful purpose. Without tidies, upholstered furniture would have been ruined at an alarming rate by the grooming products people used.
At the time, men, women and children used hair dressings of various kinds on a daily basis. Unfortunately, hygiene habits were different then and people didn’t wash the dressings from their hair with the same frequency. Housekeepers draped tidies over the backs of chairs and sofas to keep all that hair oil and cream from rubbing off on the furniture.
Like today, there were hair products for every need. For ladies, Ayers Hair Vigor offered delicately perfumed hair dressings.
Rowlands’ Macassar Oil (from which we get the word, antimacassar) advertised its product as a pure oil that prevented grey hair.
There was Mellier’s Hair Dressing, made with quinine, which the manufacturer claimed relieved dandruff, itching or irritated scalp.
There were even hair products that claimed to cure baldness, such as Barry’s Tricopherous preparation, which guaranteed that it would restore hair to bald heads.
And Halls Hair Renewer also promised to “stimulate hair growth,” as well as cleanse and beautify hair.
Perhaps one of the most popular products was Seven Sutherland Sisters’ Hair Grower, which hit the market in 1883. The product was named for the seven daughters of the Sutherland family, who bottled a foul-smelling concoction developed by their mother, which they claimed gave them healthy hair that reached almost to the floor.
The Sutherland sisters used their own images to advertise their hair grower and toured the country promoting their product.
With so much hair dressing in use, efficient housekeepers relied on tidies to protect their furniture from staining and damage. Tidies had to be laundered and changed frequently, and women kept a good stock of them in the house at all times.
Instructions for making tidies filled the pages of women’s magazines and manuals. Whether crocheted, embroidered, or adorned with ribbons and lace, new designs were as varied as they were plentiful.
In many of Isabella Alden’s books, the heroines engaged in sewing tidies for their homes. They also made tidies to give as gifts or sell in order to raise funds for the church or to support missions.
In Household Puzzles, Carrie Hartley crocheted a tidy, “a pretty thing of wreaths and leaves.”
“Isn’t it lovely?” she said, holding it up to view. “I am perfectly wild over fancy work.”
And in A New Graft on the Family Tree, Louise received so many new tidies as wedding gifts, her sister Estelle didn’t think she could ever use them all. By Christmas, however, Louise had made use of a good number of the tidies:
Perhaps no one little thing contributed to the holiday air which the room had taken on more than did the tidies of bright wools and clear white, over which Estelle had wondered when they were being packed.
Louise thought of her and smiled, and wished she could have had a glimpse of them as they adorned the two rounding pillow-like ends of the sofa, hung in graceful folds from the small table that held the blossoming pinks, adorned the back and cushioned seat and arms of the wooden rocking-chair in the fireplace corner, and even lay smooth and white over the back of Father Morgan’s old chair, which Louise had begged for the other chimney-corner, and which Mrs. Morgan, with a mixture of indifference and dimly-veiled pride, had allowed to be taken thither. Little things were these, everyone, yet what a transformation they made!
Some tidies required extraordinary skill and patience to accomplish. Creating them often involved long hours of painstaking effort; but sewing tidies (and other needlework projects that fell into the category of “fancywork”) was a way for ladies to express their creativity and imaginative vision, while beautifying their homes.
Would you like to read more about the seven Sutherland Sisters and their remarkable hair that made them a fortune? Click on the following links to read articles in Yankee Magazine and Collectors’ Weekly: