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.
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.
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.
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.
In addition to stoves, consumers used iron pots and pans on their iron cooking ranges.
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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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?
“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.
“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:
“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:
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.
The 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.
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.
You 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.
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.
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.
Kitty’s story began when she left her home town of Pleasant Valley for New York, where she hoped to find a job:
Soon 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.
Like Constance Curtiss in Isabella’s book Pauline, Kitty had to fend off the unwanted attentions ill-intentioned men:
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:
“The Adventures of Kitty Cobb” proved so popular with readers, advertisers rushed to tie their products to Kitty’s story.
And two years later, Flagg repeated his Kitty Cobb success by publishing another serial story in pictures about pretty Dorothy Perkins.
In 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?”
“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?”
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.
When 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:
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.
Claire Benedict, the main character in Interrupted, is a woman who is dedicated to making a difference in people’s lives. She regularly prays for friends and acquaintances; and when she meets someone new, she immediately begins looking for opportunities to help that person.
That’s certainly the case with Harry Matthews. As soon as Claire meets him, she realizes Harry may have a problem with alcohol.
Later in the book, Harry finds himself indebted to Claire and tells her that if he can ever do anything for her, she has only to ask and it will be done.
There was a flush on Claire’s cheeks as she replied, holding forward a little book at the same time.
She could think of scarcely anything else, so easily done, that would give her greater pleasure than to have him write his name on her pledge book; she had an ambition to fill every blank. There was room for five hundred signers, and she and her sister at home were trying to see which could get their pledge-book filled first. Would he give her his name?
And so, to his amazement and dismay, was Harry Matthews brought face to face with a total abstinence pledge. What an apparently simple request to make! How almost impossible it seemed to him to comply with it!
He made no attempt to take the little book, but stood in embarrassment before it.
“Isn’t there anything else?” he said, at last, trying to laugh. “I hadn’t an idea that you would ask anything of this sort. I can’t sign it, Miss Benedict; I can’t really, though I would like to please you.”
“What is in the way, Mr. Matthews? Have you promised your mother not to sign it?”
The flush on his cheek mounted to his forehead, but still he tried to laugh and speak gaily.
“Hardly! My mother’s petitions do not lie in that direction. But I really am principled against signing pledges. I don’t believe in a fellow making a coward of himself and hanging his manhood on a piece of paper.”
This was foolish. Would it do to let the young fellow know that she knew it was?
“Then you do not believe in bonds, or mortgages, or receipts, or promises to pay, of any sort—not even bank-notes!”
He laughed again.
“That is business,” he said.
“Well,” briskly, “this is business. I will be very business-like. What do you want me to do, give you a receipt? Come, I want your name to help fill my book, and I am making as earnest a business as I know how, of securing names.”
“Miss Benedict, I am not in the least afraid of becoming a drunkard.”
“Mr. Matthews, that has nothing whatever to do with the business in hand. What I want is your name on my total abstinence pledge. If you do not intend to be a drinker, you can certainly have no objection to gratifying me in this way.”
“Ah, but I have! The promise trammels me unnecessarily and foolishly. I am often thrown among people with whom it is pleasant to take a sip of wine, and it does no harm to anybody.”
“How can you be sure of that? There are drunkards in the world, Mr. Matthews; is it your belief that they started out with the deliberate intention of becoming such, or even with the fear that they might? Or were they led along step by step?”
“Oh, I know all that; but I assure you I am very careful with whom I drink liquor. There are people who seem unable to take a very little habitually; they must either let it alone, or drink to excess. Such people ought to let it alone, and to sign a pledge to do so. I never drink with any such; and I never drink, anyway, save with men much older than I, who ought to set me the example instead of looking to me, and who are either masters of themselves, or too far gone to be influenced by anything that I might do.”
Was there ever such idiotic reasoning!
When Isabella Alden wrote Interrupted in 1885, there was a strong temperance movement sweeping across America. Driving that wave was the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), which worked tirelessly toward the elimination of alcohol “with a mother’s love.”
The WCTU and other Christian temperance organizations used temperance pledges as a device to secure individuals’ promises to abstain from the consumption of alcohol.
The WCTU and organizations like them distributed pledge books and pledge cards liberally. Click on each of the pledge cards to see a larger image.
Family pledge documents were also distributed so entire families could take the pledge together, with family members often serving as witnesses to each others’ signatures.
Once signed, the pledges were often kept in family Bibles at a time in America when the family Bible was the most important possession in the home.
The temperance pledge was an effective tool for the WCTU because it tied abstinence to virtue, morality, and, most importantly, a pledge before God.
When Claire Benedict sprains her ankle while walking in the snow in Interrupted, she is immediately rescued by handsome, wealthy Louis Ansted. He scoops her up in his arms and carries her to the nearby Ansted mansion, where the family takes her in and befriends her while her injury heals. Claire takes advantage of her sojourn in the Ansted home to encourage the family to attend the village church and get involved in the community.
While most of the Ansted family politely tolerates Claire’s penchant for charitable works, Louis is intrigued; and when her ankle has healed, he personally assists her into the sleigh to be taken home … and asks permission to call on her in a few days’ time.
Later in the book, after Claire and the Ansteds finish a day of work at the village church, they prepare to leave amid a snow storm. Louis asks Claire if he can drive her home in his sleigh … an invitation she declines because she has already arranged for another young man to walk her home:
“Bud,” she said, “are you going to see me home through this snow-storm? Or must you make haste up the hill?”
It gave her a feeling of pain to see the sudden blaze of light on his dark, swarthy face. What a neglected, friendless life he must have led, that a kind word or two could have such power over him!
“Me!” he said. “Do you mean it? I’d like to carry your books and things, and I could take the broom and sweep along before you. Might I go? Oh, I haven’t got to hurry. My work is all done.”
She laughed lightly. What a picture it would be for Dora, could she see her plunging through the freshly-fallen snow, Bud at her side, or a step ahead, with a broom!
“I don’t need the broom,” she said. “It has not snowed enough for that; and I am prepared, if it has. See my boots? I like the snow. You may carry my books, please, and we will have a nice walk and talk. The girls are all ready now, I think. You put out the lamps, and I will wait for you at the door.”
Out in the beautiful, snowy world, just as Bud’s key clicked in the lock, Louis Ansted came up to Claire.
“Miss Benedict, let me take you home in the sleigh. I am sorry to have kept you waiting a moment; but my blundering driver had something wrong about the harness, and the horses were fractious. They are composed enough now, and Alice is in the sleigh. Let me assist you out to it, please.”
If it had been moonlight, he might have seen the mischievous sparkle in Claire’s eyes. It was so amusing to be engaged to Bud, while his master held out his hands for her books, as a matter of course, and poor Bud stood aside, desolate and miserable. Evidently he expected nothing else but to be left.
Claire’s voice rang out clear, purposely to reach Bud’s ear:
“Oh, no, thank you, Mr. Ansted! I am fond of walking. I don’t mind the snow in the least, and I have promised myself the pleasure of a walk through it with Bud. Thank you!” as he still urged. “My ankle is quite well again, and I have had no exercise today; I really want the walk. We thank you very much for your help this evening, Mr. Ansted. Good-night! Are you ready, Bud?”
And they trudged away, leaving the discomfited gentleman standing beside his pawing horses.
The next day, Claire stands at the window of her room at the Academy and “watched the sleighs fly past,” wondering if she had missed an opportunity to witness to Louis the night before.
Throughout the story, Claire looks for opportunities to make a difference in her community and in the lives of the people she meets.
For Claire, even a simple sleigh ride is a chance to encourage a soul for Christ or engage a new worker in the Master’s service.