Isabella’s Winters in California

Isabella was born and raised in upstate New York, so she was very familiar with east coast winters.

After she and Reverend Alden married, they served congregations in Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, and Washington D.C. where winter storms often brought snow, wind, and dangerous ice.

Fortunately, Isabella’s book sales allowed the Alden family to sometimes spend a portion of their winter months in sunny Florida; still, there were times Reverend Alden’s duties kept them in the cold and snowy north instead.

Old photo of two men and a woman standing beside a snow drift that is higher than their heads.

When the good reverend retired in 1910 the Aldens moved to California, where they built their dream house in Palo Alto (click here to read more about their house).

Never again did they have to deal with harsh winters, extreme cold, or deep drifts of snow that had to be cleared from walkways and roads.

Old postcard that reads "I'll eat oranges for you and you throw snowballs for me." On the left is a drawing of a woman and little girl picking oranges from trees above the caption "Winter in California." On the right is a drawing of a boy and girl building a snow man above the caption "Back East."
A postcard Isabella might have sent from California.

The Aldens found California winters delightful. Januarys were warm and mild; Februarys boasted average temperatures around 60 degrees. For them, snow banks and ice dams were things of the past.

1918 postcard. On the left is a drawing of two men and two women swimming in the ocean with sailboats in the background under a caption that reads "How we spend our winter in California." on the right is a boy in the snow at a water pump where the water has frozen as he tries to fill a bucket. Above is the caption "How we spend our winter in the east."
A 1918 postcard.

In her letters to old friends and relatives in the east, Isabella might have mentioned the perfect weather she enjoyed, free of “fierce storms and slushy spring thaws.”

And when she hadn’t time to write letters, she could send off a quick postcard that made her point for her about California winters.

"A Typical California Highway in Midwinter" shows a road with palm trees and flowers on one side, flowers and orange trees on the other side. In the background are mountains with snow on top.
Sunshine, Fruits, Flowers, and Snow.

Picture postcards made up a large portion of the California printing industry. They featured color photographs that depicted what it was like to spend a winter in that state.

Old photo of people in an open Model T car. The are on a driveway in front of a house covered with vines. Beside the driveway the grass is green.
Beautiful California. Automobiling in Winter, about 1909.

Some postcards featured images of flowers that bloomed in the winter months, like poppies and bougainvillea.  

A group of men and women pick wild poppies from a field. Behind them are green mountains.
Gathering poppies in midwinter in California.

Isabella loved flowers and often marveled over the varieties of roses that bloomed beside her porch in California:

“Red, cream, salmon, pure white, and every shade of pink. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them! The world seems made of roses!”

A little girl picks white roses in a garden. Behind her pink roses form a bower that is is taller than she is.
Gathering Roses in Mid-Winter, California

Other postcards showed people boating on lakes or swimming in the ocean in the middle of winter.

A group of people on the shore of a lake. One woman rides by on a bicycle. On the lake are boats and swimmers.
A winter’s day in Westlake Park about 1909.

Each postcard was like a little advertisement for the state of California, teasing and enticing people to come live the good life among the orange groves and poppy fields of the west coast.

Isabella was an ambassador for the state, as well, because California life certainly seemed to agree with her. One day in November she wrote to her niece, Grace Livingston Hill:

“Today is glorious sunshine, and the grass and trees glow in their freshly painted garments of green after the rain of yesterday.”

It sounds like Isabella was very happy in her California home!

No Simple Case of the Flu

It’s autumn in the United States, and for most Americans, that means shorter days and colder temperatures.

It also means the start of the flu season, when about 20% of the population can expect to suffer feeling feverish, achy and just plain crummy for about a week between now and April of 2018.

Influenza season was troublesome in Isabella’s time, too; especially because Americans didn’t have the advantage of the flu vaccines and anti-viral drugs we have today.

But in 1918, when Isabella was 77 years old and living in Palo Alto, California, Americans suffered through a terrifying epidemic of influenza known as the Spanish Flu.

United States Health Service flyer from 1918

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The first documented wave of Spanish Flu struck the U.S. with a vengeance in the fall of 1918. Americans quickly realized this strain of flu was not the usual variety that brought chills, fever and fatigue that lasted a few days.

This new strain of flu was highly contagious, and it proved particularly fatal to healthy young adults—an alarming complication. Previous strains of flu usually resulted in death for children and the elderly; and health officials were baffled by the fact that the healthiest segment of the population seemed to be the most vulnerable.

A nurse takes a flu patient’s pulse at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., 1918.

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Another terrible consequence was the speed with which the flu struck. Victims died within hours or days of their symptoms appearing. In fatal cases, the victims’ skin turned blue and their lungs filled with fluid; nothing could be done to save them.

The first wave of the epidemic struck the eastern part of the United States hard.

From the Los Angeles Times, September 17, 1918.

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Large cities, small towns, and rural areas suffered equally. One physician at an Army station in Massachusetts wrote:

“These men start with what appears to be an attack of la grippe or influenza, and when brought to the hospital they very rapidly develop the most viscous type of pneumonia that has ever been seen. Two hours after admission they have the mahogany spots over the cheek bones, and a few hours later you can begin to see the cyanosis extending from their ears and spreading all over the face, until it is hard to distinguish the coloured men from the white. It is only a matter of a few hours then until death comes, and it is simply a struggle for air until they suffocate.

“It is horrible. One can stand it to see one, two or twenty men die, but to see these poor devils dropping like flies sort of gets on your nerves. We have been averaging about 100 deaths per day, and still keeping it up. There is no doubt in my mind that there is a new mixed infection here, but what I don’t know.”

In very short order, hospitals were overrun with patients. Health officials had to commandeer meeting halls, golf courses, large private homes, and any other places that could be converted into temporary hospitals to house victims of the epidemic.

Make-shift hospital tents set up to hold influenza patients in 1919. From the Centers for Disease Control.

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In some towns officials shut down all public places, including schools and churches, and ordered citizens to wear masks at all times.

An ad printed in the October 18, 1918 edition of Illustrated Current News.

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The numbers of fatalities increased steadily. In some places entire families were wiped out. Physicians, nurses, and healthcare workers couldn’t keep up with the numbers of patients that needed their care, and they soon became patients themselves. By October 1918 New York City’s health department estimated that over 20% of the city’s nurses were sick.

Mortuaries were also overwhelmed; bodies piled up. Morticians and cemetery workers were struck down with the flu like everyone else, and some communities had to resort to disposing of bodies in mass graves. In other places, grieving family members had to dig graves for their own loved ones.

A family posing while wearing masks during the influenza epidemic.

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Entire cities came to a virtual halt; so many people were ill there was no one to deliver mail, collect garbage, or harvest crops. Businesses closed and government agencies shut down because there was no one well enough to report to work.

A New York City street sweeper on an almost-deserted street in 1918.

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Health officials and town leaders fought against the disease in the only ways they knew how. They told citizens to stop shaking hands. They ticketed anyone who coughed or sneezed or spat in public.

Health Department poster on the back of a trolley car.

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They closed theaters and barred libraries from circulating books.

They passed ordinances prohibiting people from gathering, hoping to stop the virus from spreading.

Headline in the October 7, 1918 edition of the Indianapolis News.

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Some cities required residents to wear masks any time they stepped outside the doors of their homes.

Meanwhile, residents in mid-west and west coast states of the country—such as in California, where Isabella was living at the time—could do little more than hope the deadly epidemic would remain confined to the east coast.

Students at Brigham Young University wear hygienic masks during a lecture in 1918.

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Their hopes were bolstered by uninformed health officials who, in an effort to keep the public calm, spread incorrect information about the deadly virus.

Misinformation printed in the Los Angeles Herald, September 27, 1918.

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But in truth, mid-west and west coast states could do little to halt the epidemic’s march toward their cities and towns.

Red Cross workers in St. Louis report for duty with their ambulances, October 1918.

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It didn’t take long before the first confirmed cases of Spanish Flu were reported in Northern California.

From the Los Angeles Herald, October 12, 1918.

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In the Santa Clara Valley, where Isabella lived with her husband and family, the first documented cases of Spanish Flu hit in November, 1918.

County officials and town leaders imposed quarantines and prohibited residents from congregating, hoping to stop the spread of the virus.

Like other places in the country, Isabella’s neighborhood hospitals were soon over-crowded with patients. Health officials cancelled all school classes and converted the newly-built San Jose Normal School into hospital wards.

Aerial view of San Jose Normal School, 1909.

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By the time the epidemic ran its course in the spring of 1919, fifteen residents of Isabella’s community had died, and over 300 had been infected.

Volunteers at San Jose Normal School prepare meals for patients and healthcare workers.

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The impact of the flu on the country was staggering. One out of every four Americans had been infected by the time the Spanish Flu epidemic ran its course in  1919. Over 550,000 Americans had died, and more than 50 million people worldwide were killed.

Isabella’s family was spared. While she and her family may have taken ill, no members of the Alden or MacDonald families died from the Spanish Flu. Still, it must have been a frightening and anxious time for Isabella, as it was for all Americans.

Here’s a brief video that explains the impact the Spanish Flu had on residents of South Carolina, especially its small communities, like Isabella’s:

And this video (from PBS’s American Experience series) includes interviews with Americans who survived the epidemic and give first-hand accounts of its impact on their families and neighborhoods:

 

 

Let’s Decorate!

When Isabella’s husband Gustavus “Ross” Alden retired from the Presbyterian ministry in 1901, they moved to California.

Isabella and Ross settled in Palo Alto, about three miles from Stanford University where their son Raymond was a professor of English.

They purchased two adjoining residential lots and began construction on a new home. They worked with renown Bay Area architect A. W. Smith, who helped them design the home of their dreams.

Ross and Isabella Alden with their son Raymond in 1916

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When it was complete, the house measured over 5,000 square feet. It was a duplex, built in the shape of a U around a central entrance court. Flanking the courtyard were two almost identical homes. Isabella and Ross moved into one side of the duplex; Raymond and his wife Barbara and their children moved into the other.

The house at 425 and 427 Embarcadero Road in Palo Alto. In the middle of the photo you can see steps leading to the central courtyard. (From PastHeritage.org)

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At the bottom of the U-shaped structure was a large living room which served as the connection between the two sides of the house.

An aerial view of 425-427 Embarcadero Road, showing the U-shape of the house, as it appears today. (From Google Maps)

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The side of the house occupied by Isabella and Ross had four bedrooms and two baths. Isabella’s sister Julia had a two-room suite to call her own. In later years, Isabella’s sister Mary also came to live in the house on Embarcadero after her husband passed away.

The house was designed in the Craftsman style, with a few Swiss Chalet touches under the eaves and on the balconies.

The house on Embarcadero Road showing the shingle detail and touches of Swiss Chalet trim work on the balcony and eaves.

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An ivy-covered wall surrounded the property, creating a private, tranquil garden-like setting for the family.

A view of the Embarcadero Road house from the street.

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After many years of moving from one minister’s manse to another, Isabella must have relished the idea of decorating her very own, brand new home. She would have been able to furnish her kitchen with the newest appliances available on the market.

And she would have been able to incorporate the latest design techniques in every room. One of the most popular decorating trends during the early 1900s was …

Linoleum

Linoleum was not a new product. In fact, it had been around for forty years; but in residential construction it was used almost exclusively in kitchens and bathrooms. Its attraction was that it was waterproof. It was also monochromatic, and its plain, utilitarian appearance (usually in a shade of deep brown) didn’t recommend it for use in any other room in the house.

Sample patterns from Armstrong’s 1922 designs for linoleum flooring.

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Then, in 1906 linoleum manufacturers had a breakthrough; they invented a machine that allowed them to cut straight lines into linoleum, which made it possible to inlay other colors into linoleum sheets in simple designs.

A 1916 print ad for Congoleum. (From The Ladies Home Journal magazine)

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Soon after, manufacturers developed methods to produce complex patterns in linoleum, and Americans took notice.

A Craftsman style living room, similar to the style that would have been in Isabella’s house; depicted in a 1921 Armstrong Linoleum print ad.

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Linoleum cost only a fraction of the price of hardwood floors; and with its durability, beautiful patterns, and low prices, Linoleum soon became America’s favorite flooring.

A portion of a 1922 print ad for Congoleum, Inc., manufacturers of linoleum flooring.

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By 1919 linoleum manufacturers were enjoying brisk sales, and Americans were installing linoleum at record rates.

A dining room featuring Armstrong linoleum (from a 1922 ad in The Ladies’ Home Journal).

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Linoleum came in every color of the rainbow, and in patterns ranging from florals to geometrics and everything in between.

A 1922 print ad for Blabon linoleum.

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It even mimicked throw rugs, wall-to-wall carpeting and hardwood floors.

With so many patterns and colors to choose from, Americans could lay linoleum in their parlors and dining rooms, bedrooms and entry halls.

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Professional decorators loved it, too. Here’s a bit of decorating advice on how to use linoleum in a sun room; it first appeared as part of an article in a 1922 issue of The Ladies’ Home Journal magazine:

And here’s the illustration that accompanied it.

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Housewives also appreciated linoleum because it was virtually maintenance free. It was easy to clean and required none of the regular waxing and polishing regimens needed for hardwood floors.

A 1921 ad for Blabon “Art Rugs” made of linoleum. The company often highlighted their product’s easy maintenance.

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And unlike traditional wool rugs, linoleum rugs didn’t have to be taken outside and beaten in order to keep them clean.

Part of a 1922 Armstrong linoleum ad.

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Isabella loved the house on Embarcadero. She had a dedicated room for writing, where she had her desk and typewriter. In that room she continued to produce stories and books until the late 1920s. She died in the house on August 5, 1930.

A 1922 print ad featuring Armstrong’s wood-look linoleum

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The house remained in the Alden family after her death; Isabella’s daughter-in-law Barbara lived there until the 1950s. The property was sold in 1966.

This Congoleum ad ran with the caption, “Sorry I called you extravagant, Sally. This new rug is a beauty for $16.20.”

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What kind of decorating style do you think Isabella used in her new house? Do you think she would have furnished her dream home with linoleum, the new wonder flooring product?

Or do you think she was more conservative when it came to decorating, and would have utilized traditional hardwood floors and wool carpets and rugs?


Here are some more ads for linoleum flooring products from the early 1920s (you can click on any of the images in this post to see a larger version):

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