“Look, mamma, this is the lace I want; just the right pattern,” said Eva Dunlap in Isabella’s short story, “Mrs. Dunlap’s Commentary.”
“Is it real?”asked Mrs. Dunlap, bending over it with anxious eyes.
“That is what I don’t know,” said the daughter, lowering her voice. “I wonder if Mrs. Stuart is a judge?”
On being appealed to, Mrs. Stuart came forward and bent over the lace with careful gaze. “It is really quite impossible to tell;” she said at last. “The imitations are so very perfect, nowadays; I have to judge by the price of the article. Do you want real?”
“Oh, yes indeed!” chorused mother and daughter, emphatically.
“Well I buy the imitation, nowadays; it is just as good, and no one can tell them apart.”
“I won’t have imitation,” said Miss Eva, with decision.
“I never buy imitation,” said her mother, with firmness. “I dislike shams of any sort. I take real things or none.”
The Stuarts, mother and daughter looked at each other, and directly they were on the street they said, “How awfully extravagant the Dunlaps are! I don’t see how Mr. Dunlap endures the drain.”
And said the mother: “I don’t see how a Christian woman can think it is right to spend so much on things; the idea that she won’t wear anything but real lace—and she can’t tell it from the imitation—that is nothing but pride. I don’t understand how Christians justify themselves in these things.” There was actually an undertone of complaisance that she, at least, was not a Christian.
In Isabella’s world, when people mentioned “real lace” they meant hand-made lace. Skilled lace makers used fine threads to create delicate motifs—such as flowers, leaves, animals, urns, and even people—in their designs.
But machine-made lace was also available (and had been for over one hundred years). As Mrs. Stuart said in the excerpt above, it was difficult to tell machine-made laces from “real” hand-made laces, but a sharp eye could tell the difference.
One hint was the feel of the lace. Hand-made lace had texture; there was a rise and fall to the stitches, while machine lace felt flat when you ran your fingers across it.
The stitches were another tell; machine lace could unravel because large areas were made from one continuous thread.
Unlike Mrs. Dunlap, Mrs. Solomon Smith (in Mrs. Solomon Smith Looking On) was something of an expert when it came to lace. She had a keen eye and knew the value of a dollar. But when she attended her niece’s wedding in the big city, she went shopping in a department store for the first time, where she found herself dealing with a less-than-honest sales clerk when she tried to buy “real lace:”
[He was] showing me cotton laces of half a dozen kinds, and imitation laces, calling this machine-made stuff ‘real Valenciennes,’ and this cotton imitation ‘real Spanish lace,’ until I got out of all sort of patience with him, and says I, at last, ‘I don’t bear you no ill-will, but for your own sake, if I was you, I would get out of this habit of telling lies. Now I knew real lace of almost every kind you can think of long before you was born, and it is real lace and no other that I’m after, and if you’ve got any I’d like to see it.’
In Household Puzzles, another one of Isabella’s novels, Helen Randolph’s love of fine things was well documented. Helen insisted upon buying only the most expensive trims and “real lace” for her gowns, even if it meant her family had to go without basic necessities.
But on the eve of her wedding day Helen read a Bible verse that made her realize how wrong she had been to value earthly possessions:
“Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.”
She closed the book suddenly, and laid it back in its place. If this were all there were of life—a vapor—of what use were lavender silks and real lace, after all?”
In each of these passages from Isabella’s books, she used “real lace” as a way to show readers her characters’ personalities and priorities, and to illustrate Christian life lessons.
What lesson do you think Isabella intended readers to learn when she wrote the exchange between the Dunlaps and the Stuarts? On the surface, she might have wanted to illustrate the Dunlap women’s love for finery, and the Stuart women’s more practical approach to shopping.
Or maybe she wanted to show that Mrs. Dunlap took a strong stand for truth, not realizing that her behavior could be interpreted as extravagant and proud by others.
In the scene with Mrs. Solomon Smith, she may have wanted to show how wrong it is to judge a person based on their appearance. Or maybe she wanted to show that everyone is deserving of respect and kindness.
That’s the beauty of Isabella Alden’s novels; her stories always give readers something to think about. And the lessons her characters learn make us examine our own actions.
Is there an Isabella Alden story that made you pause and reflect on your own behavior?
Has one of her stories made you think of changes you can make in your own life?
By the way, Isabella mentioned “real lace” in these stories, too:
- Doris Farrand’s Vocation
- Ester Ried
- Julia Ried
- Household Puzzles
- Modern Prophets
- Only Ten Cents
- The Hall in the Grove
- The Pocket Measure
- Wise and Otherwise
- Workers Together; An Endless Chain
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.
In Christie’s Christmas, a generous farm family fed the passengers on the nearby stalled train with:
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:
Johnny-cake was a staple on the menu of almost every meal prepared in an Isabella Alden novel. That’s because johnny-cakes were inexpensive to make and they were filling and satisfying. They were much like pancakes, but were made with corn meal instead of flour. The basic recipe was simple:
To a quart of Indian meal (corn meal) add a teaspoon of salt, a tablespoonful of sugar. Sift, scald with boiling water so as to make a very thick mush. Let it cool a little, then thin with milk so it will drop from a spoon. Have a griddle hot and well greased, and drop a spoonful of the batter for each cake. When brown, turn and brown the other side.
Johnny-cakes were usually served hot with butter or honey.
In Household Puzzles, Maria Randolph could make a delicious creamy johnny-cake that was so good that after eating them, “the comfort of the Randolph family reached a height unknown for weeks.”
In Mara, easy-going Gertrude was so placid about planning her wedding, her mother accused her of being willing to be “married in her old brown serge, and to have johnny-cake and warmed-up potatoes for refreshments.”
And when Mrs. Adams decided to earn a bit of extra money by keeping house for the Ward family in The Hall in the Grove, she had to put together a quick dinner for the family:
It was just the simplest of dinners: a dish of baked potatoes, a platter of beefsteak, a plate of butter, a plate of steaming johnny-cake, and a pot of tea. No pickles, or fruits, or relishes of any sort.
There were probably as many variations of johnny-cake as there were cooks. Some cooks fried them in bacon grease instead of lard, which gave them an attractive gold color and added flavor.
Adding an egg or two, sour cream or buttermilk made johnny-cakes light and fluffy.
Instead of frying, some cooks baked johnny-cake in the oven in a large pan, which they cut after baking into several servings.
In warm months when fruit was plentiful, cooks added applesauce or bits of apple, sliced strawberries, stewed pumpkin or peach preserves to their batter for a special treat.
Click here to read more about Isabella Alden’s books mentioned in this post.
The heroine in an Isabella Alden book was a strong woman. She may not have known how strong she really was; but when trouble struck, it was the heroine of the story who stepped up and took action in order to save the family.
That’s what Claire Benedict did in Interrupted. She bravely took on the responsibility of supporting her mother and sister by taking a job as a music teacher in a far-away city.
In Four Mothers at Chautauqua, Isabel Bradford also decided to teach. She opened a School of Expression where she taught physical exercise techniques and grace of movement to women in New York City.
And in Pauline, Constance Curtiss supported herself (after rashly running away from her husband) by offering a variety of homemaking services, from laundering cuffs and collars to canning fruits and vegetables for busy housewives.
At the time Isabella’s books were written, women, as a rule, weren’t trained to take their place in the business world. They couldn’t vote and in many states they couldn’t own property. It was unusual for a woman to own her own business and even more unusual for her business to succeed.
Starting a business that involved working in other people’s homes—as Constance Curtiss did—or opening an exercise studio—which was Isabel Bradford’s plan—may have been viable for some women; but for a few Alden heroines, working outside the home posed a problem. For starters, opening a shop or renting studio space required investment capital, as this ad in a 1908 edition of The Delineator magazine shows:
In other instances the heroines lacked marketable skills or they had unique family responsibilities that demanded they remain at home.
That was the case with Joy Saunders in Workers Together. Her very protective mother didn’t want to see her lovely daughter toil for wages out in the world; but with hard work and clever management, Joy and her mother ran a flourishing boarding house.
In Household Puzzles and its sequel, The Randolphs, Maria Randolph supported her entire family by running a laundry business out of her kitchen.
Constance Stuart did laundry, too. In the book Pauline, Constance specialized in laundering women’s delicate lace collars and cuffs, and she had a knack for laundering worn curtains and old linens so they looked almost brand new.
And in Her Associate Members, Mrs. Carpenter earned a living by ironing other peoples’ clothes in her sparse little kitchen.
Doing laundry and ironing as a way to earn money was fairly common for women in Isabella Alden’s time. That’s because doing the laundry was such time-consuming work, even for small families, that homemakers across the country struggled to accomplish the task on their own. Modern conveniences, like wringers and ironing machines did little to ease the load.
“Monday is the washing day of all good housekeepers,” declared The Household, A Cyclopaedia of Practical Hints for Modern Homes. This book, published in 1886, promised to make washing day easier by setting out step-by-step instructions for accomplishing every phase of the task: from making starch to eradicating fruit stains and bleaching white goods.
The volume of laundry to be done was often staggering. In Victorian-age America people wore layers of clothing, beginning with long drawers and undershirts for men; corset covers, chemises, drawers and petticoats for women. Often these items were made of wool, which made them extremely heavy once they were wet.
Over these layers they wore shirts and shirtwaists, trousers and skirts, jackets and coats. Collars and cuffs gave the finishing touch to every outfit, but because collars and cuffs were easily soiled, they were changed a minimum of two or three times a day. Collars and cuffs also required the most care and skill in laundering.
Men’s collars and cuffs were heavily starched until they could stand on their own. This paragraph from The Household instructed homemakers on how to make and apply the starch:
With such heavy starch, the best laundresses knew that men’s collars and cuffs had to be ironed over a rounded form; otherwise, if ironed flat, they were likely to crack when they were fitted around the throat or wrist.
Women’s collars and cuffs were just as challenging to launder and finish. Fluted fabric was a popular detail in ladies’ fashion, and it was difficult to keep the flutes crisp and well-shaped after washing.
Laces were easily scorched if an iron was too hot and they were just as easily discolored if they were pressed with an iron that wasn’t perfectly clean.
With so much preparation required and a good deal of heavy lifting, it usually took two women working all day to get the laundry done in an average household. And if the lady of the house didn’t have a family member or neighbor to help her, she often hired a portion of the work out.
But finding a good laundress was a challenge. Isabella Alden commented on that fact in The Randolphs:
While the world seems to be full of people who are willing to teach our children to strum on the piano, to draw impossible-looking trees and people, to jabber in a dozen different tongues, the lamentable fact remains that in every town and city it is really a difficult matter to get one’s collars and cuffs starched and ironed decently without paying a fabulous price for it.
The need for an extra pair of hands on laundry day opened the door for talented and hard-working women like Constance and Maria to earn a living.
To promote her new business, Constance Curtiss washed and mended the curtains that were “just falling to pieces before our eyes” in her landlady’s house, much to the landlady’s amazement:
“The girl darned them and washed them and rinsed them in starch water and stretched them till they looked as though I had put my hand in my pocket and paid for them out of the store, as I expected to. She does beat all!”
The landlady was so impressed she told her friends and neighbors of Constance’s skill. In very short order, Constance had more work than she could handle and had to write polite notes every evening to decline any new engagements.
In Household Puzzles, Maria Randolph started her laundry business after her brother Tom told her that his co-workers admired his clothes:
Tom needed assistance in the matter of a button and was glad to find Maria at liberty for a minute to sew it on. During the operation he laughed outright at his own thoughts, and then proceeded to explain.
“One of my brother drivers came to me last night for a confidential chat. I wish you could have seen his puzzled and important face. He is that Jerry that you think is so good-natured. What do you think he wanted?”
“I’m sure I don’t know. This button has split in two, Tom.”
“Well, here’s another. I couldn’t imagine what he was coming at. He called me aside and looked so important. He begged my pardon for troubling me—they are all remarkably polite to me—and he said that four or five of them had been having a time with their washerwoman because she didn’t use starch enough. They’re wonderfully particular fellows on Sunday. She ironed in wrinkles, too, he said; and then, after considerable stammering, he managed to get out that a number of them had been talking over the immaculateness of my linen, and had decided to get me to negotiate with my washerwoman, whoever she was, to see if she would do their work. The poor fellow was utterly crestfallen when I told him that my laundress was my sister.”
Industrious Maria saw an opportunity to earn money to pay for the medicine and medical care her father needed.
So she washed and ironed for the street-car drivers exactly as she had planned to do. They had few clothes to spare for the wash, but it must have been a delight to them to see the smoothness and whiteness of those few. Maria took great pains with them for two reasons: one, because she liked to hear Tom tell of their exclamations of delight, and the other, that she had a habit of doing well what she did at all. This new way of earning money was very helpful, and added not a little to the comfort of the invalid who was slipping away from them in such a quiet fashion. Sometimes it took all her resolution and a fond remembrance of how much her father enjoyed the oranges and strawberries to keep her heart in the work.
Doing a family’s laundry alone was a strenuous task and in Maria Randolph’s case, the hard, physical labor of the work took a toll on her health. But the work also had its rewards.
As Maria had a great deal of pride of execution, and an indomitable determination, and a secret plan to make herself and her father independent thereby, she worked with a will.
Before long, Maria’s business expanded enough so she could hire several “hard-working girls who were glad to be taught that which she had worked out by her own wits and the help of her eyes when she visited certain famous laundries.”
As part of their laundry duties, Maria probably taught her employees the proper way to fold clothes for customers. These plates from a laundry manual published in 1900 illustrate the correct procedure for folding drawers, shirts, and night clothes:
And though her family and friends were appalled when Maria decided to advertise her business, she was proud to hang a small sign outside her home, “tacked in a conspicuous spot, and the letters on it were unmistakably clear and plain:
Would you like to know more about sad irons and how they were used? Click here to view an article at Collectors Weekly.
Read our previous post about The School of Expression that inspired Isabel Bradford in Four Mothers at Chautauqua.
Click here or return find out more about Isabella’s Books mentioned in this post.
Many of the women in Isabella Alden’s books had to earn a living to support themselves or their families. That was the case with Maria Randolph in Household Puzzles, who took in laundry so she could buy medicine for her father and pay the family’s bills.
And in Miss Dee Dunmore Bryant, Mrs. Bryant supported her children by sewing late into the night, when she wasn’t working long hours at the local canning factory.
Earning a living wage wasn’t an easy thing for women to do in the years between 1880 and 1920. Competition for jobs was fierce, as more and more women entered the job market and took over low-paying, repetitive jobs that men once held—and they earned considerably less than men did for performing the same work.
The majority of jobs open to women were manual factory work and service employment. Both were physically demanding. If a woman was lucky enough to find a position, she could count on working long hours in often poor conditions.
In factories there were few breaks in the long work day. Employers commonly boarded up windows to keep employees from being distracted; and they blocked doors to discourage workers from leaving their posts before the workday was done.
Those were some of the conditions that lead to one of the worst work-place disasters in American history: the 1911 Triangle shirtwaist fire. A New York clothing manufacturer, The Triangle Waist Company, locked its workers inside their assigned work areas so they couldn’t leave. Most of the workers were young women and girls as young as fourteen. When a fire broke out, their only means of evacuation was a dilapidated fire escape that collapsed under the weight of the first few workers who scrambled to safety.
The fire took a horrific toll: 147 people burned to death or died as a result of jumping or falling from the upper floors of the burning building.
Work in private service had its own set of challenges. Women worked long hours as house maids, cooks, and charwomen (women who clean other women’s houses).
The work was physically demanding and they were often treated poorly. Isabella Alden gave an example of such treatment in her book, Pauline. In the story, Constance Curtiss had to fight off the unwanted advances of her employer’s eldest son because he thought a working woman wasn’t due the same level of courtesty as a lady who was his social equal:
She had always taken the position that no self-respecting young woman need fear being treated other than respectfully by men; that girls probably had themselves to thank for carelessness when any man attempted familiarity. Yet the only excuse that she had given Mr. Emerson was the fact that she had chosen to make herself useful, on occasion, in his mother’s kitchen, and accept payment in money. This, it seemed, not only shut her out from Mrs. Emerson’s parlor as a caller, which she had expected, but made the son feel privileged to call her “Ellen” and treat her with a familiarity that could have been justified only by long and intimate acquaintance. She felt that such a state of things was a disgrace to American civilization.
For a woman who was lucky enough—and had the financial means—to afford an education, she could go to school and be trained to work in a more skilled capacity as a teacher or nurse.
Summer residents at Chautauqua Institution could take advantage of courses in stenography, teaching and library science—training that opened up new job opportunities for women. (Click here to read more about courses at Chautauqua Institution.)
But that kind of training cost money. Women who had to support themselves and their families often took whatever work they could get, leaving them at the mercy of their employers’ whims and wage structures.
As Constance Curtiss discovered in Pauline, she had to put up with long hours and some embarrassing mistreatment if she wanted to keep her job.
She meant to be brave and true, and to demonstrate that the religion of Jesus Christ was of sufficient strength to bear any weight; but in order to do this she need not accept the attentions and take pleasure in the scenes that other women of her age would naturally accept and enjoy. God did not ask this of her; she was thankful that she felt sure of it. How, then, was she to ward off such attention?
On her knees that night she gave herself solemnly to the work; and the sense of humiliation that Henry Emerson’s treatment of her had induced, passed. It had come to her that she might in this way have been permitted a glimpse of his true character for a purpose.
Constance’s prayers were answered. With patience and God’s help, she found a solution to the dilemma of her employer’s son, and in the process, she became God’s agent in saving a young soul.
Next week’s post: Lady Entrepreneurs in Isabella’s Books
Want to learn more about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire? This brief video from CBS marked the 100 year anniversary of the tragedy:
And this documentary video provides a more comprehensive look at the fire and its aftermath:
Click on the book covers to read more about Isabella’s books mentioned in this post.
Helen Randolph loved the finer things in life. She measured almost every important life event—from her mother’s funeral, to the eligibility of the suitors who courted her—by the cost of the clothes she wore at the time. Throughout the book Household Puzzles, Helen’s material-girl-grade spending habits played a major part in her family’s descent into poverty.
For example, at her mother’s funeral, Helen’s eye for fashion detail required that she and her sisters dress in a way that was “very neat and plain and appropriate.” Isabella Alden believed that to be very neat and plain and appropriate at funerals means to pay somebody a good deal of money. She wrote that Helen and her three sisters “were shrouded in long crape veils, and about the details of their dress everything was appropriate also, from the perfect-fitting Alexandre kids to the wide black bordered cambric handkerchiefs.”
The only problem was the family couldn’t afford the veils or the gloves. Helen’s insistence that they buy the items on credit anyway—knowing they could never repay the debt—reveals a lot about her character. And the fact that Helen got her way also shows the weakness of her family in standing up to her, because, in the end, Helen and her sisters wore the Alexandre Kid Gloves.
Alexandre Kid Gloves were no ordinary gloves. They were manufactured in the Grenoble region of France, an area that was home to the world’s finest glove-makers. Yet above all its competition, Alexandre Kid Gloves enjoyed a reputation for exceptional quality and fit.
Alexandre kids were celebrated as the finest French-made gloves available, and they were hard to come by. In the late eighteenth century, only one American importing firm had exclusive rights to sell Alexandre gloves in America, which added to the merchandise’s cache.
By nineteenth century standards, Alexandre gloves were quite expensive. While the average pair of American-made ladies’ kid gloves cost about $1.00 (as illustrated by this retailer’s price list), Alexandre gloves cost three or four times that amount.
At the time Household Puzzles was published in 1875, the average urban family income was about $700 a year (or $58 a month); of that amount, two-thirds was spent on food and heating, leaving just $19 a month for housing, clothing, medical care, entertainment, and saving for old age.
The Randolph family’s income was far below that of the average family. Yet Helen schemed and planned in order to buy the gloves. She even reasoned that if three pairs of American-made gloves cost $6.75, it was still a better deal to buy one pair of Alexandre gloves for $3.75. It just made sense to her.
She may have learned about the cost of Alexandre gloves from her suitor, Horace Munroe, who was a merchant of “highly cultivated taste” who stocked gloves and ribbons and merinos and muslins in endless variety.
Horace himself wore Alexandre kids, “of a pale stone color” on the day he proposed marriage to Helen. Colored gloves were quite fashionable (except for evening wear). Fashion magazines like The Delineator, Metropolitan, The Muncy, and Holland’s kept ladies and gentlemen abreast of the newest colors and styles of gloves to be worn in the coming months.
Gloves weren’t just an accessory for men and women; they were essential articles of clothing. Ladies never left their homes during the day without their gloves. They wore them constantly while in public and didn’t remove them until they returned to the privacy of their own homes. Even while drinking tea or eating a meal, ladies kept their gloves on; they simply unfastened some buttons at their wrists in order to slip the fingers of their gloves off.
Gloves were also essential for evening and at the end of the nineteenth century, white kids were absolutely required for evening occasions for both men and women.
It’s not surprising, then, that white kid-skin gloves were often bought by the dozens, rather than by the individual pair, in order to ensure a supply of clean and pristine gloves for all occasions. With those quantities in mind, only wealthy individuals could afford to wear exceptional glove brands on a daily basis.
Many style-conscious women tried to pass their American-made kid gloves off as French-made Alexandres. And some unscrupulous retailers marketed lesser-quality kid gloves using the name “Alexandre.”
In fact, the exclusive importer for Alexandre gloves (A. T. Stewart) was constantly battling look-alike and knock-off merchandisers; and on several occasions, took out ads warning the public about imposters:
All Alexandre merchandise was marked with the company’s distinctive logo. On gloves, the mark was stamped on the inside of the glove near the wrist:
Gentlemen and ladies who owned Alexandre gloves took care to ensure the label was visible when they unfastened their gloves at the wrist. And if the weather allowed, some women were known to carry one of their Alexandre gloves (in a way that the brand logo was visible, of course) while hiding their gloveless hand in a muff.
In the end, Helen got her pair of Alexandre Kid Gloves and she accepted Horace’s marriage proposal; but whether she found happiness with either remained to be seen.
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:
You can click on any of the images in this post to view a larger version.
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.
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.
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.
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.