Will the Real Russia Please Stand Up?

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.




A Palace Built for God

Theydon Garnon Church_Essex 1907 ed“Girls, don’t you think our church is just dreadful?”

That’s the question Claire Benedict asked the students in her music class at Mrs. Foster’s academy. As the new music teacher in town, Claire was appalled when she saw the condition of the church for the first time.

Bare floors, faded red curtains, smoke-covered walls, cobwebs, and a table covered with dust that did duty as a pulpit—that’s what greeted Claire when she first took a seat in one of the hard, un-cushioned pews.

Interrupted Old Swedes Church ed

Claire knew the town residents were poor and had little to look forward to, but she didn’t believe that justified abandoning the care of their church.

High Beech Church_Essex 1906 ed

She had seen at least the outside of several of the homes in South Plains, and nothing like the disorder and desolation which reigned here was permitted about those homes. How could Christian people think they were honoring God by meeting for his worship in a place that would have made the worst housekeeper among them blush for shame had it been her own home?

Stanford Church_Leicestershire 1906 ed

“A palace built for God!” her heart said in disdain, almost in disgust. “It isn’t a decent stopping-place for a respectable man.”

Her students agreed with her.

Interrupted Baptist Church ed left“Dreadful? It is just perfectly horrid! It fairly gives me the blues to go to church. Girls, mother has almost spoiled her new cashmere sweeping the church floor with it. She says she would be ashamed to have our wood-shed look as badly as that floor does. I don’t see why the trustees allow such slovenliness.”

“It is because we cannot afford to pay a decent sexton,” sighed one of the others.

“We are so awful poor! That is the cry you always hear if there is a thing said. I don’t believe we deserve a church at all.”

Claire had partially turned back to the piano, and she touched the keys softly, recalling a long-forgotten strain about “Girding on the armor,” before she produced her next startling sentence.

“Girls, let us dress up that church until it doesn’t know itself.”

If the first words had astonished them, this suggestion for a moment struck them dumb. They looked at one another, then at the resolute face of the musician. Then one of them gasped out:

“Us girls?”

“You don’t mean it!” from two dismayed voices.

“How could we do anything?” from a gentle timid one.

But the girl who had found courage to speak before, and to volunteer her opinion as to the disgraced church, sounded her reply on a different note:


Interrupted Parish Church in Hampshire 1911 ed

From that tentative beginning, Claire and her students marshaled their wits and their resources to take on the responsibility for maintaining the church. In fact, they became the new sextons.

Parish Church_Derbyshire 1905 edThe Sabbath following the installation of the new sextons marked a change in the appearance of the old church. The floors had been carefully swept and cleansed.

Not a particle of dust was to be seen on that Sabbath morning anywhere about the sanctuary. From force of habit, the men carefully brushed their hats with their coat-sleeves as they took possession of them again, the service over; but the look of surprise on the faces of some over the discovery that there was nothing to brush away, was a source of amusement to a few of the watchful girls.

When they took on the project, Claire and her students wanted nothing more than a respectable and pleasant place to worship God. But their efforts resulted in changes they didn’t anticipate. Soon others joined their work group to make even more church improvements, and their minister found renewed inspiration for his sermons. People who hadn’t attended church in years began to show up on Sunday mornings, and the community took notice.

Before long, the little church in a poor area became a beacon of hope for the entire town.

Interrupted Christ Church Alexandria VA 1907 ed

The photos of church interiors in this post were taken between 1900 to 1911 and show what Claire’s church might have looked like. Click on each image to see a larger version.

Cover of InterruptedYou can find out more about Claire Benedict’s story and the way God used her to change her neighbors’ hearts and souls. Click on the book cover to read more.

Kitty Cobb by James Montgomery Flagg

James Montgomery Flagg was an American artist whose illustrations and paintings appeared in newspapers, magazines, and books in the early 20th century. At the same time Isabella Alden wrote about women making their way in the world, James Montgomery Flagg told similar stories through his art.

Ad in New York Evening World Feb 24 1912

In 1912 James Montgomery Flagg published “The Adventures of Kitty Cobb,” a serial story told in pictures. For 25 weeks the serial ran in the Sunday edition of major newspapers across the U.S. Each individual illustration told a chapter of Kitty Cobb’s story, as she struggled to make a new life for herself in the big city.

Ad in New York Evening World April 17 1912

Kitty’s story began when she left her home town of Pleasant Valley for New York, where she hoped to find a job:

Kitty Cobb 01 ed 2Soon after arriving in New York, Kitty learned how vulnerable a woman alone can be as she looked for a job and a place to live.

Kitty Cobb 02 ed 2

Like Constance Curtiss in Isabella’s book Pauline, Kitty had to fend off the unwanted attentions ill-intentioned men:

Kitty Cobb 21 ed 2

Since laws at the time favored employers, a woman like Claire Benedict in Interrupted could be denied a job based simply on her looks or the employer’s prejudice. James Montgomery Flagg illustrated the same situation in Kitty Cobb:

Kitty Cobb 10 ed 2

“The Adventures of Kitty Cobb” proved so popular with readers, advertisers rushed to tie their products to Kitty’s story.

Ad 1 in Washington Herald Aug 11 1912     Ad 2 in Washington Herald Aug 11 1912

And two years later, Flagg repeated his Kitty Cobb success by publishing another serial story in pictures about pretty Dorothy Perkins.

You can view all 25 installments of “The Adventures of Kitty Cobb” on Isabella Alden’s Pinterest page.

Click here to read more about Isabella Alden’s books mentioned in this post.

I’m No Infidel

Cover_InterruptedIn the book Interrupted, Claire Benedict asked Louis Ansted if he was a Christian. When he said he was not (in a round-about way), Claire asked if he believed Christ “once lived in person on this earth, and died on a cross, and went back to heaven, and is to come again at some future time?”

Louis replied:

“Oh, yes; I have no particular reason for doubting prophecy or history on those points. I’m rather inclined to think the whole story is true.”

“Do you think his character worthy of admiration?”

“Oh, yes, of course; it is a remarkable character. Even infidels concede that, you know; and I am no infidel. Bob Ingersoll and his follies have no charm for me. I have had that disease, Miss Benedict. Like the measles and whooping-cough, it belongs to a certain period of life, you know, and I am past that. I had it in a very mild form, however, and it left no trace. The fellow’s logic has nothing to stand on.”

She ignored the entire sentence, save the first two words. She had not the slightest desire to talk about Bob Ingersoll, or to let this gay young man explain some of Bob’s weak mistakes, and laugh with her over his want of historic knowledge. She went straight to the center of the subject.

“Then, Mr. Ansted, won’t you join His army, and come over and help us?”

Undated photo of Robert G. Ingersoll
Undated photo of Robert G. Ingersoll

Bob Ingersoll wasn’t just a character in Isabella’s book. He was a living, breathing person and a very well-known figure of the time. Born in 1833 in New York, he had a reputation for being extremely intelligent. He educated himself and was admitted to the bar at the age of 21; his gift of oratory earned him a reputation as a brilliant lawyer.

But it was his talent for speech-making that gained him fame. He lectured across the country on free speech, women’s rights and, most notably, Christian doctrine. At a time when there were laws in some States that made it a crime to deny Christianity, Bob Ingersoll openly argued for a separation of church and state. He expounded on what he considered to be inaccuracies and fallacies of the Bible, and published several books that outlined his agnostic position. He had political aspirations, but his stance on religion made both the Republican and Democratic parties leery of nominating him for any elected office; however, at the age of 33 he was appointed Attorney General of Illinois.

Cover Some Mistakes of MosesWhen Interrupted was published in 1885, Ingersoll’s book The Mistakes of Moses was very popular. In the book, he collected passages from the Pentateuch that contradicted scientific thinking of the time, and even contradicted each other. He used those passages to build a case against the Pentateuch, which Ingersoll called “a record of a barbarous people, in which are found a great number of the ceremonies of savagery, many absurd and unjust laws, and thousands of ideas inconsistent with known and demonstrated facts.”

So when Louis Ansted mentioned Bob Ingersoll, Claire knew exactly who he was talking about. He was known as The Great Agnostic and one newspaper characterized his growing school of followers as “light minded [people] whom brilliant oratory can persuade to most anything while the voice lasts and who are as easily dissuaded by the next fluent speaker.”

When Robert Ingersoll died in 1899, an obituary in The Courier (Lincoln, Nebraska) described him as:

neither better nor worse than the ordinary man. In his youth he became convinced that the Bible was a lie and he hated … the God whose existence he denied.

He was not a saint, neither was he an incorrigible sinner, but just an ordinary man who had lost his bearings in the relations of God to man and overestimated the significance of his own opinion of God and man.

Robert Ingersoll’s writings have found new life on the Internet; several sites make electronic versions of his lectures and books available for free. You can follow this link to The Huffington Post to read more about Robert Ingersoll’s life.

This YouTube link provides an audio recording of Ingersoll’s book, Why I am an Agnostic: