When Pansy Was a Girl: The Scarlet Fever Scare

In 1889, when Isabella was 47 years old, she shared a memory from her childhood that holds many parallels to our situation today.


When I Was a Girl

I suppose it would hardly be possible to find a girl who looked less as I did than the one whose picture I present to you. Nor for that matter, one whose surroundings were more unlike the things which surrounded me.

It is true we had a garden where old-fashioned flowers bloomed the summer through, and it is also true that there was a wide old seat which for some reason was called the “settle,” out in the sunshine very near the bowers, and there I used often to sit. But no such ugly back had our wide, low “settle,” nor did there ever hang an ugly black kettle just over our heads.

Yet for all that, there is something about the forlorn little girl sitting curled up on the settle that reminds me of myself. Perhaps it is the position—one foot under her, the other resting on nothing, the hands clasped drearily in her lap, the whole attitude one of deep dejection—which recalls a summer morning of long ago so vividly.

At any rate, I sat one morning on our settle and felt, and doubtless looked, as disconsolate as this little girl does. I was not by nature a dreary little girl, and my childhood was a very happy one. Perhaps for this reason I remember all the more clearly the gloomy days.

I will tell you about them. In the first place, mother was away from home. I think I have hinted that this was always a trying experience to me; but during these long, bright May days it seemed to me that my mother was always away, and in truth I saw very little of her from morning till night. It is a short story to tell, though it was a long story to live.

Into our pretty village sickness had come in a serious form—scarlet fever, which used to be less understood, I think, and dreaded even more than it is now. At least it had come among us in its most dangerous form, and many little children as well as older ones had been stricken. People were very much afraid of the homes where it had broken out. The day-schools had closed, and children who were well were kept closely at home, lest they should come in contact with the disease.

For myself, I remember I was not allowed to go outside the gate without some member of the family. Still I was happy enough. The yard was large, and my playhouse well stocked with broken dishes, and life did not seem weariful to me until one evening when father came home with a face graver than usual, and told about the family living near the saw-mill. Very poor they were, and with a house full of children. And the dreaded fever had appeared among them; two of the children were lying very low, one was dead, and tonight he had heard that two more were stricken. Yet even this was not the worst. The poor, half-sick mother had given out utterly and gone to bed.

No help could be had from any source; the people who were at leisure were afraid to go near the house, and there was so much sickness that really good help was very scarce.

There was actually no one to do for that miserable, half-starving family but the poor father, who had left the work which alone had kept them from starvation to do what he could.

How well I remember the look on my mother’s face when father ceased speaking, as she said, after, a moment of silence, “There are three of ours who have never had the fever, you know.”

“I know it, but—” and then he stopped.

I wondered why he did not finish his sentence, and what he could have been going to say. But mother seemed to understand. She asked no questions; they said not a word for several minutes. I was busy about my play and had forgotten to give them attention, when my mother spoke again in a grave tone which some way, I did not understand why, arrested my thoughts.

“I will go and help them out, if you say so.”

Then indeed I was startled. Mother had been very careful; she had cautioned my older sisters, she had given strict orders to the younger ones; she had even said anxiously to father, “Remember the children, and don’t go where you would be likely to bring the fever to them.”

Now she was calmly proposing to go herself. Of course father would not “say so.”

I looked for him to say, “No, indeed.” But instead he smiled—a smile I think my mother must have been pleased with—and said, “It is like you. And there seems to be no one else; they may die—in fact will die, for want of care, if someone does not go.”

“I will go,” mother said again, in the same quiet tone. “I will take every precaution, and the children need not see me until I have bathed and changed my clothing.”

That was the beginning of it, but by no means the end. She was true to her words, and the weary days which followed stretch themselves out even in my memory, and seem long. No mother at the table, no mother to run to a dozen times a day, no mother to kiss at night; for as the disease waxed fiercer, mother came less and less frequently, sometimes not at all, even for her night’s rest, which she had planned to take at home. When she came, we were often not allowed to see her—we younger ones—nor even to go to that part of the house where she was. Do you wonder that I sat often with one foot tucked under me on the old settle and swung the other listlessly, and wished that the summer would go faster?

Nor was this all; I began to be afraid. The fever continued to spread—to grow more virulent—and day after day the bell tolled and tolled for still another whose body was being carried to the village cemetery; for in those days the church bell used to toll in long, slow sobs as the procession, always on foot, wound its slow way around the curve near our home, with sometimes four and sometimes six men leading the way, bearing a coffin. I can close my eyes and see it all again.

Mother came home at last, her self-appointed duty done. Two of the children she had nursed recovered, one had died. Mother was too worn to go to others—there was some comfort in that. We had her at home once more; but she was grave, and I could see that she held us, her treasures, very closely those days, and watched us almost sternly, lest we should step unawares into danger.

And at times, when the bell would toll, she would look around for us, and put her hand suddenly to her heart, as though the breath came heavily. Day and night through the dreaded ten days in which she kept herself reminded that perhaps she had brought the poison to us, she told me afterwards that we were not out of her thoughts for a moment, sleeping or waking, it seemed to her.

A season to be remembered. I did not understand or at least appreciate my father and mother’s courage and sacrifice and faith as I have since. I knew they were criticized, my father and mother. I knew the neighbors said they were “tempting Providence,” and I wondered what that could mean.

I knew one woman said that when it came my mother’s turn to hang over her own children she would be sorry she had so coolly brought death to her door; that for her part she thought it was hard enough to take it when it came, without going out to bring it.

I pondered over all these things and was afraid. I did not know that I, as a middle-aged woman, would one day recall the disconsolate little girl swinging one foot in the sunshine and wishing for mother, and feel great throbs of joy that I had such a mother to wish for!

But there was one part of the story which impressed me then, and impresses me now.

The disease spent itself at last. The long, slow summer moved away, and life began to be more like itself; and we had this to think about and wonder over, almost with awe, even then:

All about us the fever had been. On either side of us the houses were close; the windows of one room where the sick were lying almost looked into the windows of our sleeping-rooms.

On our right, on our left, across the road from us, away up and down the streets on both sides of us, the fever came. In every home there was a victim; in many two or three. From many of them that slow procession moved, while the bell tolled. And on all the long street ours was the only house where no sickness came!

Did the dear Lord send a protecting angel to guard the home of the mother and father who put their trust in Him, and went forward in the hard road where they believed duty pointed?


Isabella also lived through the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918. You can read more about it by clicking here.

No Pockets? No Problem!

During Isabella’s lifetime women dressed modestly. Their clothing covered them from head to toe, with high collars at their necks, long sleeves that extended to their wrists, and skirts with hemlines that brushed the floor.

An 1877 reception gown (from the Minnesota Historical Society)

With so much of the body covered, a new gown—even one with a simple design—was a big investment. The average dress in 1900 took eight to twelve yards of fabric to construct.

This day dress from 1882 illustrates how much fabric a dress required.

But even with all that fabric, women’s gowns lacked one essential convenience modern women today take for granted: pockets.

The slim silhouette of a 1913 ladies’ gown left no room for pockets.

When you think about all the things we carry in our pockets—from keys and eye glasses to reminder notes and smart phones—it’s hard to imagine life without those small but handy additions to our shirts, skirts, and pants.

Ladies fashions in 1900, from The Designer magazine.

So how did Isabella and other women of her time carry around small but necessary objects so they were always close at hand?

They used a chatelaine.

A chatelaine was a piece of jewelry with chains from which accessories were hung.

Some chatelaines were ornate and expensive; others were purely practical.

If you watched episodes of the TV show “Downton Abbey,” you may have seen Downton’s housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes, wearing a plain and utilitarian chatelaine.

From her chatelaine she suspended a few essentials she probably used regularly throughout the day in such a large household: a small pair of scissors, and keys to the silver closet, perhaps, or maybe the wine cellar.

Some women customized their chatelaine for a specific purpose. For example, a seamstress or a mother who regularly found herself mending her children’s clothes might accessorize her chatelaine with needles, thread, and other sewing essentials.

This chatelaine carried (from left to right) scissors with a protective sheath, a scent bottle. sewing kit, and a whistle.

Inside the sewing kit was a dowel with thread, a small thimble, and a cylinder for holding needles.

Here’s another example of a silver-plated chatelaine customized with five sewing tools:

It was accessorized with a needle holder, a thimble, a pin cushion in the shape of a book, a tape measure, and a scissor sheath.

Artist Franz von Defregger depicted a chatelaine in his painting, The Letter (1884).

The chatelaine below was accessorized for a nurse, and contains (left to right) a pencil, an ivory notepad, pill box, scissors, tape measure, and a whistle.

A nurse’s chatelaine (from Wikimedia.org).

Scent bottles were common components of a lady’s chatelaine. Because women’s corsets often left them short of breath or feeling faint from heat or exertion, a small bottle of smelling salts was essential.

A silver and crystal perfume bottle from an 1898 chatelaine.

Sometimes women filled the bottles with perfume, which they held to their nose to ward off foul odors that were common at a time before deodorants and reliable sewer systems. In such cases, these bottles were often called “vinaigrettes.”

A whistle was another common accessory. Since well-mannered ladies never raised their voices, even in times of danger or emergency, a whistle was the best way for a woman to summon help.

Many women added small bags to their chatelaines. Made of metal mesh, fabric or leather, they held handkerchiefs, coins, and eye glasses.

A silver and leather chatelaine bag from Tiffany and Co. (courtesy of MetMuseum.org).

During Isabella’s lifetime, chatelaines were popular enough to draw criticism and comedy. One newspaper lamented the number of chatelaine accessories women were willing to wear, and printed this illustration of a wife who went a little overboard with her accessories:

The same publication poked fun at mothers who over accessorized their chatelaines:

But chatelaines came in all shapes and sizes. The lady in the photo below is dressed for the out of doors; her short chatelaine looks like a piece of jewelry and is accessorized with a watch and a whistle, among other things.

While many chatelaines were clipped to a woman’s belt or waistband, some small chatelaines were designed to be worn as a brooch. The young woman in the photo below is wearing a small chatelaine accessorized with a dainty little scent bottle.

Ladies in Isabella’s circle also used chatelaines. Here’s a photograph of Isabella and her family members at Chautauqua Institution. Seated left to right are Isabella’s husband Dr. Alden, Isabella, Mrs. Christensen, Isabella’s sister Julia Macdonald, Grace Livingston, and Dr. Hannah B. Mulford. Standing are Miss May Williamson and Isabella’s son Raymond.

A closer look at Julia and Miss Williamson shows that both ladies were wearing small chatelaines, although it’s difficult to make out what accessories they wore.

What do you think of chatelaines? Would you wear one?

If you had a chatelaine, what kind of accessories would you have?

A final note: Not all chatelaines were metal. An 1894 issue of The Youth’s Companion magazine published a simple pattern for a chatelaine you can make from fabric and ribbon. Click on the image below to see a larger version of the instructions.

 

You Can Be a Nurse. Yes, You!

“Nurse” was a word that figured often in Isabella Alden’s novels, but not all her nurses were created equal.

In some of her stories, “nurse” was another term for a nanny—a woman who took care of young children.

Nurse and baby, about 1910.

That was the case for Miss Rebecca Meredith in Wanted, who hired herself out as a “nurse-girl” after she applied for the job listed in this newspaper ad:

Wanted—A young woman who has had experience with children, to take the entire care of a child three years of age. Call between the hours of four and six, at No. 1200 Carroll Avenue.”

In other novels, like The Older Brother, nurses were everyday people who knew what to do whenever illness struck, like Aunt Sarah:

Aunt Sarah proved herself a veritable angel of mercy. She was able to lay aside her brusqueness and her sarcasms, and become the skillful practical nurse, taking her turn and indeed more than her turn with the others, and compelling the anxious mother to take such rest as she needed.

Aunt Sarah and Rebecca Meredith developed their nursing skills through practical experience, and a history of caring for neighbors and family members who were ill.

But when Helen Betson’s father fell ill in Echoing and Re-echoing, the doctor insisted on securing the services of a “professional nurse,” which threw Helen into days of anxious waiting:

If she could have done a share of the nursing—but they had been forced to employ a professional nurse who shared the task with her mother, so that it was only now and then a little service that Helen was permitted to do; and she grew weary of the long waiting that seemed so purposeless.

In Isabella’s lifetime, it was common for physicians to train their own nurses, but they often found it difficult to find candidates who already possessed basic knowledge of human anatomy, nursing science, and mixing medicines.

A young nurse in the 1890s.

The best candidates were trained in a hospital setting, but hospital training programs had drawbracks:

Most programs had age limits that disqualified women who were middle-aged and older.

The coursework took years, and tuition was expensive at a time when there was no such thing as tuition assistance or student financial aid.

Portrait of a graduating class circa 1890.

The programs tended to attract only local students because the best teaching hospitals were in large American cities where the high cost of living proved a barrier to outsiders.

Fees charged by graduates of hospital programs meant their services were unaffordable for the majority of Americans, especially those in rural areas of the country, so nursing school graduates tended to live and practice in larger cities.

Four nurses at Samaritan Hospital, Sioux City, Iowa, about 1910.

The result: America had a great shortage of competent, trained registered nurses. Dr. Everett mentioned the problem in Isabella’s novel, Workers Together:

Professional nurses are good when you can get them. It is unfortunate that they are especially scarce just now. I have been on the look-out for one all the morning without success.

Graduates of Roots Memorial Hospital nursing program, Arkansas, about 1908.

A New Yorker named Cyrus Jones decided to do something about it. Because he lived very close to Chautauqua Institution, he was familiar with the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle. The CLSC conducted first-class four-year college degree courses via correspondence. He was certain nurses could be trained using the same methods. He said:

There must be many thousands of bright, earnest women, young and old, who would be nurses if they could learn the profession without going to a hospital. Other branches of knowledge are taught by mail and learned at home. . . . Why not nursing?

An advertisement in Christian Nation magazine, 1915.

Mr. Jones launched the Chautauqua School of Nursing in 1900, and it was immediately successful. Over 200 students enrolled the first year.

Unlike other schools, Chautauqua School of Nursing did not have age limits, welcoming many women who were denied admission to other schools because of their age.

The administrative offices for the Chautauqua School of Nursing in Jamestown, New York.

Since the enrollment fee was only $75.00, women who intended to work as professional nurses knew they would soon earn back that cost because they would earn between $10.00 and $35.00 a week as a registered nurse after graduation.

A young woman’s nursing school graduation photo, undated.

But the highest enrollment came from students who lived in rural and isolated areas where conventional hospital training schools didn’t exist.

A 1913 newspaper ad.

Like the hospital-based schools, the Chautauqua School of Nursing bestowed upon its graduates its own pins, caps, and certificates.

A 1913 diploma (from Flickr).

In every respect, its graduates appeared to have the same training and cachet as graduates of hospital programs. The public couldn’t tell the difference.

From the Columbus Weekly Advocate (Columbus, Kansas), November 27, 1913.

They also employed a very unique marketing tactic: They advertised their students.

The school used their real students as models in their print ads in magazines and newspapers.

Print ad for Chautauqua School of Nursing, 1915.

And if a prospective student was unsure whether or not she should enroll in the course, she had only to write the school.

Three Chautauqua nursing graduates, 1910.

In return, the school would provide the prospective student with the name and address of the graduates closest to her, with an invitation to contact any one of them to get more information about the school, the teaching curriculum, and what graduates’ lives were like as professional nurses.

Chautauqua school advertisement, 1909.

By 1910 the school had bestowed diplomas upon 12,000 nursing students; the class of 1911 alone exceeded 3,000 enrollees.

In all respects, the school was a success. Because of the Chautauqua School of Nursing, hundreds of communities had a trained, reliable nurse for the first time . . .

. . . and thousands of women entered into a respected profession that helped their communities, and produced a steady income for themselves.

Click on a book cover to learn more about Isabella Alden’s novels mentioned in this post.