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?
In Isabella Alden’s novel Twenty Minutes Late, young Caroline Bryant mistakenly takes a wrong train and ends up in a strange city far from home. Alone and afraid, she finds temporary shelter in the home of kindly Dr. Forsythe and his daughter Dorothy.
Meanwhile, Caroline’s family anxiously awaits her return. Her brother Ben meets every train at the station, hoping Caroline will be on it; and Caroline’s mother and sister Daisy watch the mail for a letter from Caroline, even as they prepare a celebratory meal to welcome her home:
And now it was nearing the hour when she ought in all reasonableness to be expected, if the day was to bring her. It had been a long, nervous one to get through with. The little family watched for the ten and three o’clock mails, half uncertain whether to hope for or to fear a letter; but when none arrived their hopes grew strong; even the mother allowed her heart to say, “The dear child must surely be coming today.”
Ben had announced, as he dashed in to report no letter in the three o’clock mail, that he should not come home again until he brought Line with him. “I shall go straight to the station from the office,” he announced gleefully; “and as soon as our four feet can bring us you may expect to see us walk in. Have your nose at the window-pane, Daisylinda, for Line will want to see it the first thing.”
When Isabella wrote that the family “watched for the ten and three o’clock mails,” she gave us a hint that the Bryant family lived in a rather large town themselves.
Twenty Minutes Late was published in 1893; at that time the United States Post Office provided “person-to-person delivery” of mail in most major cities.
“Person-to-Person delivery” meant that mail carriers delivered mail into their customers’ hands . . . literally. If a customer didn’t answer the carrier’s knock, ring or whistle, the carrier kept the customer’s mail in his satchel until the next trip.
By 1914 city mail carriers spent up to an hour a day waiting at doors, trying to complete person-to-person deliveries. That changed in 1923, when all city customers were required to provide mail slots or receptacles in order to receive mail.
Mail was delivered Monday through Saturday. The number of daily deliveries varied by city.
In 1905 letter carriers employed at New York City’s main post office made nine daily deliveries to businesses and homes.
By contrast, customers in St. Paul, Minnesota received mail once a day, depending on which area of the city they resided.
With that kind of delivery schedule, it wasn’t unusual for local mail to be delivered from one part of the city to another within hours of being sent.
Replies to letters traveled at the same speed. “By return mail” was an often used phrase—especially in business letters—requesting an immediate response in time for the next scheduled delivery that day. (Miss Webster used the phrase in Chapter 23 of Miss Dee Dunmore Bryant.)
Although the number of daily deliveries in large cities changed over the years, the U.S. Postal Service maintained this hectic delivery pace until the 1950s, when they finally limited the number of deliveries in residential areas to one per day “in the interest of economy.” For the most part, multiple daily deliveries to businesses ended in the 1970s.
As you read Isabella’s stories, you’ll see that some of her characters wrote quick letters that they wanted to have “ready for the early mail.”
Other times her characters listened for the postman’s whistle, which signaled the arrival of “the morning mail,” or “the ten o’clock mail,” or even “the next mail.”
Isabella’s novels and short stories are little testaments to the fact that there was once a time when the U.S. Postal Service delivered letters, bills, newspapers, greeting cards, catalogs, and advertisements with impressive speed and accuracy—without the aid of Zip Codes, automation, and computers.
What do you think? Do you know anyone who works for the U.S. Postal Service? How would you like your mail carrier to personally hand-deliver your mail to you?
You can read more about Isabella’s books mentioned in this post by clicking on the book covers below:
In 1868 printmakers Currier and Ives published a set of illustrations titled, “The Four Seasons of Life.” And since today marks the first day of Spring, sharing the old-time prints seem like a fitting way to mark the change of season.
Known as the “Printmakers to the American People,” Currier and Ives produced prints on a wide range of subjects: comics and reproductions of great paintings, illustrations of disasters and wrecks, scenes of farm and city life, and political lampoons.
When “The Four Seasons of Life” series was published, Isabella Alden was a married twenty-seven-year-old woman and a popular best-selling author of Christian fiction.
It may have happened that Isabella had Currier and Ives’ prints in mind when she wrote Miss Dee Dunmore Bryant, a story that featured little Daisy Bryant who longed for colorful illustrations to adorn the bare walls of her “study.”
For over fifty years Currier and Ives produced prints that documented almost every phase of life in America—a country that was rapidly growing from adolescence to maturity.
And for over sixty years Isabella Alden wrote inspiring stories about American men, women and children who chose Jesus as their savior, friend, and guide.
Isabella’s novel Twenty Minutes Late was first published as a serial in The Pansy Magazine in 1892. Isabella originally named the story “Way Stations,” referring to the unexpected train trip one of the characters—Caroline Bryant—takes in the story.
Twenty Minutes Late is the sequel to Miss Dee Dunmore Bryant (which also began life as a serial in The Pansy), and follows the fortunes of the Bryant children as they learn to trust Jesus as their savior and friend.
Isabella often test-drove her novels by publishing them as serials in her magazine; then she made final edits and adjustments to her stories before they were published in book form.
You can find out more about Twenty Minutes Late and read sample chapters from the book by clicking on the cover image.
In upper- and middle-class homes across America at the turn of the last century, the man of the house had one room that was his exclusive domain: The study.
The study was a place where the man of the house took quiet refuge. In his study he took care of business matters, wrote letters, or read his newspaper or favorite book in solitude. In some of Isabella’s books, like Jessie Wells, the local minister locked himself away in his study to work on his sermon or write letters to the members of his church.
In Isabella’s books, the rooms designated as studies had common characteristics: a bookcase filled with books, a desk or large study table, and sufficient light to read by once the sun went down. In her novel As in a MirrorIsabella Alden described John Stuart King’s study this way:
The walls were lined with many rows of well-filled shelves, and a searcher among them would hardly have failed of finding every choice book of the season, as well as the standard volumes of the past. A bookcase devoted to standard magazines was crowded almost to discomfort, and the large study table was strewn with the very latest in newspaper and magazine.
Even little Daisy Bryant understood that the study was a special room in the house. The eight-year-old heroine of Miss Dee Dunmore Bryantlived with her mother and siblings in cramped quarters; but Daisy designated one small section of their main room to be their study:
The floor had a neat strip of rag carpeting over in the part which Daisy called “the study.” There was also a little square table over there, with the Bible on it, and Daisy’s geography, and Ben’s arithmetic, and a tiny basket that held Line’s crochet work. At first, Daisy had objected to the crochet work—that it did not belong to a study—but one evening, in the very middle of Miss Sutherland’s study table, what did she see but a fluffy ruffle with Miss Sutherland’s needle set in its hem, and her thimble lying beside it! Since that time the crochet basket had held peaceable possession.
In the story Miss Sutherland lived in the big house on the hill; and since Daisy’s mother often did sewing for Miss Sutherland, Daisy had seen the Sutherland’s study when she delivered completed work to her. Daisy dreamed of one day living in a home with a real study, just like the Sutherland’s had, with plenty of books, and with framed mottoes on the walls.
There was a common understanding—sort of an unwritten rule—that no one but the man of the house was allowed in the study except by invitation. After Perry Harrison had an argument with his wife in From Different Standpoints, he retreated to his study, where he knew he would not be interrupted, and he could calm down after their angry exchange:
When Perry came back from the station, after seeing the party off, he shut himself up in the study, not seeing his wife until dinner-time. Then all traces of emotion had disappeared, and he was the affable gentleman exerting himself to be entertaining.
Because the study usually was the bastion of the man of the house, it was only natural that others did not find the place calming and comfortable. If a father had to scold a recalcitrant son or daughter, he called the child into his study. If a minister felt the need to counsel a wayward congregant, he did so in private in his study. Under those circumstances, the study became less like a quiet refuge and more like a place where wrong-doers were brought to account and punishments were doled out.
That thought was uppermost in the minds of Eurie, Marion, Ruth, and Flossie in The Chautauqua Girls at Home when they had to summon their courage to visit their minister, Dr. Dennis, in his study.
“Doesn’t it make your heart beat to think of going to him in his study, and having a private talk?”
“Dear me!” said Flossy. “I never shall think of such a thing. I couldn’t do it any more than I could fly.”
Later, when Ruth went to speak with Dr. Dennis about finding work she could do for the church, she found herself alone with him in that dreaded room:
It was a place in which she felt as nearly embarrassed as she ever approached to that feeling. She had a specific purpose in calling, and words arranged wherewith to commence her topic; but they fled from her as if she had been a school girl instead of a finished young lady in society; and she answered the Doctor’s kind enquiries as to the health of her father and herself in an absent and constrained manner.
But in one of Isabella’s books, the tables were turned on the man of house. In The Hall in the Grove, Dr. Monteith—the driving force behind the town’s Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle—was in his study when Paul Adams complained to him that the Circle put more emphasis on studying books about ancient Rome than on studying the Bible. Dr. Monteith was shocked.
Seated in the beautiful little study, by the green-covered table, under the shaded light, the Doctor looked full into the earnest troubled face of his visitor. “Now, my friend, do I understand you to mean that the experiences which you have had with the Circle led you to think that we gave the most important place to other books, and shoved the Bible out?”
You would have been sorry for Dr. Monteith, could you have seen his distressed face. He arose and began to walk back and forth in the little study, pondering how he could best undo what his heart told him had been grave mischief.
Dr. Monteith knew that the Bible was “first, best, purest, highest; incomparably above any and all other books.” He had to do some quick soul searching to figure out how he had misled Paul Adams—as well as an entire Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle—so far away from the foundation of all knowledge, the Bible.
Once Dr. Monteith realized his error, the atmosphere in his study changed dramatically. He apologized to Paul Adams and assured him that reading and knowing about the Bible was not the same as reading and knowing the Bible. And before Paul left his study, Dr. Monteith led the young man to make a momentous decision concerning his future and his soul.
So the study was sometimes an important setting in Isabella’s books, as well as in her short stories. In 1888 Isabella published “Papa’s Study”, and you can read it here for free:
It was a very beautiful room, so crowded with books, and papers, and conveniences of all sorts, that you would have supposed its owner could have nothing to wish for, and must be a happy man. Yet on the morning about which I am telling you, he did not look in the least happy; on the contrary, if you had counted the wrinkles between his hair and his eyes, and could have seen the puckers around his lips, which were hidden by a heavy moustache, you would perhaps have called him cross; and you would not have been very far from the truth. Something had happened that morning which made him feel like being cross with everybody.
“To think that I should have forgotten it!” he was saying to his wife, speaking in an injured tone, as though somebody was certainly to blame. “I would not have had it happen for ten, no, not for fifty dollars; and there he was, I suppose, at the depot, looking in all directions for me, and the train waited here fully twenty minutes for the down express. We might have had time enough to settle the whole business. It is too provoking to endure.”
Nevertheless, he knew it would have to be endured, for the train had been gone at least an hour.
“Why didn’t you make a memorandum of it?” his wife asked, taking fine stitches in the ruffle she was making, and speaking in that calm , even tone which is sometimes really irritating to excited people.
“Why, I did, of course; and this morning I looked for my diary to see if there was anything which needed attention before mail time, but I had changed my coat and left it in the the other pocket. A diary is simply a nuisance, anyway; it is always in some other pocket when one wants it the most. I’d like to know how a busy man like myself, who has three ways to go at once, can be expected to remember everything.”
Nobody had told him that he was expected to do any such thing, but he spoke as sharply as though someone had, and walked the floor, and looked wrathful.
Poor man! He had been sadly disappointed. Besides missing a very important bit of business by his forgetfulness, he had missed the sight of a friend whom he very much wanted to see.
Now, his little daughter Almina was in the library annex, hidden from view by heavy curtains, but within distinct hearing; and if you could have seen her I am afraid you would have thought she acted very strangely. Instead of looking thoughtful and sympathetic over her father’s troubles she clasped her two pretty hands together and indulged in a series of happy little giggles. You see, she knew something which her father did not.
In order to have you understand, I shall have to go back a few days. The father’s birthday was coming, and Almina knew it; I am not at all sure that the father did, for he was so busy a man that he forgot even that. And Almina had, with her own hand, written, and, what was much harder, addressed a letter all herself, to a certain “Mr. Frank Smith, Toledo, Iowa.” Truth compels me to state that she spoiled three envelopes before accomplishing it to her satisfaction. In the first one she made the letter F look so much like a T that it read like Mr. Trunk Smith, and she felt sure that would not do; and then, because she had visited once in Toledo, Ohio, and heard about it all her life, and had never heard of Toledo, Iowa, what did she do but write it out nicely on the second envelope—Toledo, Ohio. Of course that wouldn’t do. By this time she was nervous, and blotted the third one badly, but at last it was well done, and the letter was sent.
On the very morning of which I write, there had come an answer to her letter, in the shape of a lovely business-like looking package, done up in heavy paper, and packed in burlap and excelsior, and when her eager fingers reached the treasure thus carefully guarded, it was the prettiest walnut affair, with a lock and key, and inside, a row of compartments bearing the names of the months and the dates; and so arranged that memoranda of what ought to be done, even weeks ahead, could be slipped in, and would remain out of sight until the morning of the day when they were needed, when they would drop into view, and beg to be looked at.
“If papa had only had his lovely little Office Tickler,” she said to herself, as she giggled musically, “he wouldn’t have missed seeing Mr. Felt this morning, I mean to tell him that if he had been forty-three last week, instead of tomorrow, it would have been all right. Oh! I do wonder if there is something he ought to remember tomorrow, and might forget. I mean to ask mamma.”
So the moment she could get a private audience with mamma, they two put their heads together over the fat old diary, whose sides were bursting with important papers too heavy for it to carry. They looked carefully down the page for April 11th, papa’s birthday, but it seemed to be an unusually quiet one. However; the next day made up for it; item after item of business crowded itself in to receive attention; foremost was this:
“MEM. Be sure to remember to send Seward’s note to the bank before three o’clock. It is in the left-hand drawer of the lower secretary.”
“Oh! look,” said Almina, “that is very important, isn’t it? Because papa has underlined it; and yet it is hidden in between so many other things to do, he will be quite likely to forget it. Oh, mamma! Couldn’t you get it for me to put in the Office Tickler?”
Mamma promised to try, and she tried, and accomplished it. There was great fun in the pretty library the next morning. Papa admired the beautiful walnut box to even Almina’s satisfaction, and assured her that it was the most ingenious little creature he had seen in many a day, and he was sure it would save him much time and patience. And then he heard all about how she earned the money to buy it, and “wrote the letter her own self,” and “had it come by express to her own address;” and he called her a dear little woman of business, and kissed her as many times as he was years old.
And all the time the important paper which was to be remembered the next morning without fail, was hiding behind its partition, biding its time.
The next morning Almina had forgotten all about it, but at eleven o’clock her father came hurriedly into the music-room where she was practising, and stooped down and kissed her.
“Papa ought to be tickled now in good earnest,” he said with a curious mixture of fun and earnestness in his voice. “What will my little girl think when I tell her that her Office Tickler has saved me at least five hundred dollars? I did forget all about the note, important as it was. This is a very busy, anxious day with me; but just as I was hurrying to go to the bank, I caught sight of my new possession, and saw I had not changed the date; I had not begun to use it yet, but I determined to gratify you by leaving it in order; and the moment I touched the card, out dropped that very forgotten note. I’m in great haste, little daughter, but I felt as though I must stop and tell you what a valuable selection you had made for my birthday present.”
Isabella often wrote stories that featured children trying to earn money to help support themselves or their families.
Long before today’s labor laws and social service programs existed, children worked long hours in factories or in the homes of wealthy people, usually for pitiful wages.
Eleanor H. Porter, the famous creator of the Pollyanna books, wrote about the plight of one such child in her novel Cross Currents.
And famed artist Thomas Benjamin Kennington painted a series of portraits of homeless and destitute children in an effort to raise awareness of the problem.
Isabella’s novels The Man of the House, Miss Dee Dunmore Bryant and Twenty Minutes Late all dealt with the issue of children’s working conditions in cities across America; but Isabella always made certain her books had a happy ending. She imbued her young characters with high ideals and strong work ethics that often brought them to the notice of a wealthy benefactor who changed their lives.
That was the case in Isabella’s short story, “Which Way?” about a twelve-year-old boy trying to make enough money to pay the rent on his family’s home. It first appeared in The Pansy magazine in 1889 and you can read it here:
He was a curly-headed, pleasant-faced boy, of about twelve; his clothes were growing short at the ankles and wrists, and were a good deal patched, yet there was a neat trim look about them that one liked to see.
He stood at the corner where two roads met, balancing in his mind the important question which way to go. Both roads led homeward, by an almost equally direct route; one was a trifle sandy part of the way, the other was up hill.
“Hill or sand?” he said to himself, with a smile. “It makes a lot of difference in a fellow’s lifetime which! What if it did, though? What if it should make a difference all the rest of my life? He told about smaller things than that bringing great things out of them. If I had a penny I might toss it up, only I don’t believe he thinks that’s the way to decide things.
“He” meant a stranger whose satchel the boy had carried that afternoon, and who, as they walked along, had spoken a half-dozen cheery words to him about the importance of little things; helping the boy to think more gravely, perhaps, than he ever had before. Then the stranger had gone his way on the three o’clock train, and Jamie never expected to see him again; but he could not help thinking a little about the words. To tell the truth, but for these words to think about he would have been very downhearted.
It was toward the close of a long summer day, in which he had been tramping from one end of the town to the other in search of work, and had failed. It was the old story, father dead, mother hard-worked and poor, with two children younger than Jamie to care for. There was great need that he should find work to do. The dreadful rent, which seemed to eat up every penny, was nearly due again, and little Eddie had been sick for a week, hindering his mother from going out to her regular day’s work, so that times were harder than ever before.
On Monday morning Jamie had started out with a brave heart, sure that for a strong and willing boy of twelve, there must be plenty of work to do; but now it was Thursday evening, and though he had tramped faithfully from morning till night, no steady work could be found, only a few odd jobs; which, though his mother told him would help a great I deal, seemed very small compared with what he had meant to do. It seemed hard to have to go home and say that he had failed again. This was why he loitered by the way, and tried to fill his mind with other things.
“I’ll go this way,” he said at last, dashing down the less familiar street. “Who knows what may happen?”
What “happened” was that the hostler at the great stone house on the corner, who had been kind to Jamie, called to him as he passed to ask if he would take a note to his cousin Mary Ann who lived at Mr. Stewart’s on the next corner.
Of course Jamie was glad to accommodate him and made all speed to the great house of whose gardens he had often wished he could get a closer view. A game of tennis was in progress here. Jamie stood a moment watching the graceful movements of the players; wondering, meantime, which way to turn to find Mary Ann. Presently the lady who seemed to be the chief one of the group noticed him, and he made known his errand.
“Mary Ann? Oh, yes, she is in the laundry, I think; or no, she is probably upstairs by this time. Wait a moment, my boy, and I will see if I can find her,” and she took her turn in the game.
“Are you in haste?” she asked presently, turning to him with the pleasantest smile Jamie thought he had ever seen in his life.
“Oh, no, ma’am,” he said, returning the smile, “I’m never in a hurry.” His face sobered instantly as the fact that he had no work to make him feel in haste, came back to him unpleasantly. It appeared that the game was very near its close; a few more turns, and with much laughter and many pleasant words the players said good-night, leaving the young lady and Jamie alone. He was glad that her side had beaten.
She turned toward him, smiling. “So you are never in a hurry; that must be a rather pleasant state of things.”
“I don’t know, ma’am,” said Jamie again. “I guess I’d like to have a chance to be in a hurry.”
“Would!” with lifted eyebrows and an amused, questioning look. “That is strange! I’m in a hurry a great deal of the time, and I don’t enjoy it always. There is Mary Ann at this moment.” She signaled the red-faced Irish girl to approach, and Jamie delivered his note, then turned to go, having made a respectful bow to the lady. But apparently she was not through with him.
“Why do you go away so soon, if you are never in a hurry?” she said pleasantly.
“Why, I’ve done my errand,” said Jamie, “and I supposed the next thing was to go.”
“Why shouldn’t the ‘next thing’ be to come and look at my roses? Bright red and yellow ones. You like them, don’t you? In the meantime you can tell me how you manage it so as not to be in a hurry.”
Jamie followed her with great satisfaction, but finding she waited for his answer, said:
“Why, you see, ma’am, the way of it is, I’ve got nothing to hurry about, and I wish I had. I’ve been hunting for work for three days as steadily as I could, and haven’t found any yet, and am not likely to. That was what I meant.”
“Oh! I understand in part, but I should think your lessons would give you almost enough to do without a great deal of work.”
“I’m not in school, ma’am,” said Jamie, speaking low. “There are reasons why I can’t go very well; mother needs me to help earn the living, so I’m looking for a chance.”
“I begin to understand quite well. What sort of work do you want?”
“Any sort under the sun that I could do; and I could learn to do anything that other boys do if I had a chance,” he said eagerly.
“Such as weeding in a garden, for instance, and picking strawberries and peas? How long do you think it would take you to learn such work?”
“I was born on a farm, ma’am; mother only moved here this spring. It’s just the kind of work I’ve been looking for, but I can’t find any.”
“That is simply because you didn’t come to the right place. My mother has been looking for you all day. I dare say at this moment she is wishing you would come and pick some strawberries for tea, and I’m sure I do, for if you don’t I’m much afraid I shall have to do it myself. I think we would do well to go at once and talk to her about it.”
Jamie, as he followed her up the steps of the broad piazza, his heart beating fast with hope, told himself that he had never seen a sweeter lady in all his life.
Afterwards, while they were picking the strawberries—for she went with him to “show him how,” she said with a merry smile—he told her how he came to take the road home which led past her door; and then, in answer to her questions, how he was led into that train of thought by the earnest words which the strange young man said to him that morning.
“So you carried my brother Harvey’s satchel, did you?” she said, with a bright look on her face. “Very well; one of the ‘little things’ he told about has happened to you. Now you are sure of plenty of work about this house as long as you want it, provided you are a faithful, honest boy, as I seem to know you will be. I think I must have been looking for you; but I’ll tell you what I think, my boy; I don’t believe it is a happen at all. I believe your Father sent you.”
You can click on the cover images to find out more about the books mentioned in this post.
In Miss Dee Dunmore Bryant, little Daisy Bryant loved beauty. Even at the tender age of eight she recognized that the home she lived in with her mother, brother and sister was far from beautiful.
The walls of the little cottage were not lathed and plastered; were not even painted; their weather-stained unsightliness had been among Daisy’s trials.
Little Daisy dreamed of covering those unattractive walls with pictures.
Mrs. Bryant laughed. “You dear little dreamer,” she said, “where do you suppose the pictures are to come from, and how much paste and time do you suppose it would take?”
“Oh, but I don’t mean all at once. Be a long, long time, you know; and take just a tiny teaspoonful of flour at a time; we could afford that, couldn’t we? When we found a real pretty picture anywhere, paste it up in a nice place, and in a g-r-e-a-t many months the walls would be covered.”
It was impossible not to laugh at the bright face and dancing eyes, and there was something so funny about it to Line and Ben, that they laughed loud and long.
Mrs. Bryant was the first to recover voice. “It is a pretty thought,” she said, “and I will certainly try to furnish the spoonful of flour for my share; but we have almost no chances for pictures, darling, and I’m afraid you will be old and gray before the walls are covered.”
“Well,” said Daisy cheerily, “then I will put on my spectacles and sit down and enjoy them.”
The first picture to be pasted to the wall was one Daisy’s brother found in a magazine a friend had given him. Magazines in 1890—the year Miss Dee Dunmore Bryant was published—often printed pictures and photographs that were suitable for framing.
In fact, many magazines encouraged readers to clip out pictures and frame them even though the images were in black and white.
Sometimes the images were simply of the latest fashions.
Sometimes the images were of famous people or events.
And other illustrations gave readers a window onto faraway places and the works of popular artists.
By 1910 some magazines began printing two-color pictures. And by 1920 many magazines featured pictures and advertisements in full color. Copies of the Old Masters or religious paintings were very collectable.
While other pictures illustrated places and lifestyles most people could only dream about.
Since magazine issues ranged in price from five to fifteen cents, they were an affordable source for pictures. Unfortunately for Daisy, even five cents was an unattainable sum. So she sacrificed her dream of having a beautiful wall of pictures; but by the end of the book, Daisy and the Bryants would find themselves surrounded by beauty and blessings of a very different kind.
You can read more about Daisy and her dreams in Miss Dee Dunmore Bryant. Click on the book cover to find out more.
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.
In Miss Dee Dunmore Bryant, Ben Bryant’s life was changed when he met Miss Webster and she, in turn, introduced him to her neighbor, Mr. Reynolds. It was due to Mr. Reynolds that Ben got his first glimpse at what he called a “writing machine.”
What Ben actually saw was a typewriter, probably a machine like the Remington 1886 model here (click on the images to see a larger version). Like most machines of the time, the keys struck upward against the paper. The machine also had four rows of keys: two rows of upper case letters and two rows of lower case letters.
Mr. Reynolds happily showed him how it worked.
“She’s a beauty,” Mr. Reynolds said, seating himself before her, “a regular beauty. I’ve never worked one who behaved quite so well; some of them get rather confused in their minds after being knocked about on the railroad for a few weeks, especially if they are not carefully packed; but this one is as clear-headed as she was the day we left home. Did you ever see one work, young man? Then we’ll start her off.”
Mr. Reynolds spoke of the little creature as though she were alive, and really it almost seemed to Ben that she was. He bent over her with parted lips and quick breathing, amazed beyond measure, when after the lapse of a few seconds the performer lifted the roller, and revealed in neat print the words:
“John quickly extemporized five tow bags.”
Mr. Reynolds had to lift the roller to show Ben what he had typed. Early typewriters required “blind typing” because the roller and mechanics of the machine blocked the typist from seeing the page as it was typed. By necessity, accurate typing was a treasured skill.
Ben’s intelligent and perceptive questions prompted Mr. Reynolds to let Ben try the typewriter himself.
“I don’t understand,” he said. “Where is the ink?”
“Not a bit of ink about it,” Mr. Reynolds declared, enjoying the puzzled face.
“Then it isn’t a self-inker? But it prints with ink! Is that a ribbon running through there? Why, it rolls itself up on those wheels, and the ribbon is inked, or colored, or something; I begin to understand. But where are the type?”
Mr. Reynolds silently lifted the roller, then the ribbon, and pointed to the type with his finger, at the same time going through a pantomime which told Miss Webster that he considered the boy’s intelligence and curiosity worthy of response.
Before long, Mr. Reynolds invited Ben to sit down and type out his mother’s name. Ben did just that, and took to the machine so quickly, Mr. Reynolds offered to teach him how to use the typewriter in exchange for helping him with his work. Ben jumped at the chance.
Ben learned to use the typewriter by fashioning a template of the keyboard, which he used to practice typing at home. He told his friend, Rufus all about the experience:
“I wrote mother’s name. I’m going to learn to write on it; that is, if I can spare the time; he offered me the chance. He wants some work done, and he says if I will give him two evenings, part of the time, I can write on the machine the other part and learn how. Isn’t that a good chance?”
“Humph!” said Rufus. “A dirt cheap way of getting a fellow to work for you, I should say. Of what earthly use does he suppose it will be for you to learn to write on that machine? In two months at the latest he will take it away, and you’ll never see another, and what good will your knowledge do you?”
“How do you know I’ll never see another? Perhaps I’ll have one of my own, some day.”
“Oh, well! Perhaps I’ll have a balloon and take a ride in it to the moon some day, but I don’t believe I will.”
“I don’t either,” said Ben, with a good-natured laugh, “because you wouldn’t know how to manage one; if you ever had a chance to learn, you would say ‘What’s the use?’ and let it slip.”
“I know the difference between chances and shams, I hope,” Rufus said sharply. “I call this a sham—to get a fellow to work for nothing. He offered it to me, and I let him know what I thought about it—at least I hope he understood.”
“I think he did,” Ben said significantly. “Good-night, old fellow! I’m at home, and, as the man in the paper said, ‘I wish you were.’ Just because you hate to walk alone so badly, you know, and have been walking out of your way to keep me company.” And Ben went in at the kitchen door, confirmed in his resolve to learn to run the writing machine, if possible.
When Miss Dee Dunmore Bryant was published in 1890, typewriters were in use in many offices, but at $95 to $100, their cost prohibited most individuals and many small businesses from owning a one.
A few years later, the cost had dropped to more affordable levels, fueling Ben’s ambition to someday own his own typewriter, and use it to make his living.
In Miss Dee Dunmore Bryant, little Daisy Bryant knows she won’t receive any Christmas gifts because her family is too poor. As much as Daisy would love to have a new doll of her own, she knows she won’t get one. But certainly, there are more fortunate little girls in the world who will get a new doll for Christmas and, perhaps, if one of those little girls names her new doll after Daisy, it just might take the sting out of a Christmas with no presents.
So Daisy writes a letter to the newspaper, and humbly asks that little girls who receive new dolls on Christmas morning consider naming their new doll Daisy Isabelle Bryant. When the newspaper prints Daisy’s letter, wonderful things begin to happen and soon Daisy has more beautiful new dolls than she knows what to do with.
Here is a collection of Victorian-era Christmas cards featuring little girls and their dolls. Perhaps one of these little girls could have been Daisy Bryant.