Tag Archives: Palo Alto

Isabella Goes West!

6 Nov

This is Part 2 of a story about Isabella’s farewell to Chautauqua in the Autumn of 1901. You can read Part 1 by clicking here.

When Isabella’s friend Frances Hawley wrote about the Aldens packing up their Chautauqua cottage, she ended her account by saying that the Aldens left for “a prolonged stay in the west.”

For Isabella and her family, “the west” meant California.

Their decision to make the journey had been in the works for some time. By autumn of 1901 the Aldens—Isabella, Ross, and their daughter Frances—were living in Philadelphia, and some key events had taken place in their lives:

  • Isabella’s husband Ross had retired from the ministry.
  • Isabella’s son Raymond had completed his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania, and had already moved to Palo Alto, California
  • Isabella was beginning to feel the passage of time. She was about to turn 60 years old, and Ross was already 69.

Of her advancing age Isabella wrote:

I am really growing old very fast now, you know. It seems to me that I have changed a great deal lately. I cannot do anything as quickly as I once could and I tire very easily.

Their decision to retire to California was probably based on a number of things, the most important of which was that they had always been a tight-knit family; and with the exception of one or two short periods of time, they had always lived together as a family, too.

Since Raymond had already moved west, he might have written to them about California’s clean air and warm temperatures. And maybe he had written about the Presbyterian church he was attending and the welcome he received there. By November 1901 he was already teaching a Bible class at church.

From the Palo Alto Press, November 27, 1901.

A Cross-Country Trip

Whatever their reason for make a change, Isabella and Ross finished packing up their belongings at Chautauqua and immediately set out for California to join Raymond.

From the New York Daily Tribune, December 33, 1903.

The first leg of their journey was probably from New York to Chicago. If they took one of the many “express” or “limited” trains, they would have made the journey in about 24 hours. From there, they would have taken a train to California.

From the New York Tribune, December 8, 1903.

A “limited” train, like the one in the ad below, would have taken a direct route from Chicago to San Francisco, and would have made as few stops as possible, bypassing many of the towns on the route.

New York Tribune, April 24, 1902.

On a “limited” train, their journey across the country would have taken about 66 hours, or almost three days. By contrast, travel on a regular train, making all the stops along the way, would have doubled their travel time.

This 1895 map from the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad Company shows the dizzying number of stops a regular train would have made en route from Chicago to San Francisco. Click on the map to see a larger version.

By Christmas 1901 the Aldens were in southern California, staying with their friends, Mr. and Mrs. Carl Johnson.

Isabella’s fame followed her there. A local newspaper, The Los Angeles Herald, caught wind of her visit and arranged to interview her.

In addition to asking Isabella the usual questions (e.g. “How did you get the name Pansy?”) the article listed all Isabella’s work, and noted that in addition to writing novels, Isabella was still:

  • Editor of the Herald and Presbyter
  • Associate editor of Christian Endeavor World
  • Wrote stories every month for The Sunbeam (the Y.W.C.A. Gazette published in London)
  • Wrote for the Junior Christian Endeavor World
  • Composed Sunday-school lessons for the Presbyterian church’s “intermediate quarterly”

It’s no wonder Isabella was beginning to feel tired!

The article ended with news that Isabella was going to do a reading the following week from “an unpublished story,” titled David Ransom’s Watch (which was eventually published in 1905).

The interviewer must have asked Isabella what her plans were for the future, because the article ended with this prophetic sentence: “It is probable that the Aldens will make California their home.”

The Aldens continued their stay with the Johnsons through at least the end of January of 1902. Their visit was reported in the Los Angeles Times society page:

From The Los Angeles Times, January 1, 1902.

A New Life in Palo Alto

Sometime in early 1902 the Aldens left Los Angeles and returned to Palo Alto, and they settled into their new life in the Palo Alto community.

They joined the same Presbyterian congregation that had welcomed their son Raymond. By April, Isabella was in San Francisco where she delivered a speech on one of her passions: Mission work at home and abroad.

Around that time the Aldens also began a search for a home large enough to accommodate their entire family and expected houseguests. In the end, they decided to build a custom home that would satisfy their many and unique needs. They purchased property in Palo Alto, hired an architect, and began designing their dream home.

A few years later Isabella and Ross joined other Christians in attending the Mount Hermon Christian Camp when it opened in 1905.

The rustic Mount Hermon train station, about 1910.

Mount Hermon was the first Christian camp west of the Mississippi, and it must have reminded Isabella and Ross of Chautauqua’s early days. Isabella fell in love with the place. She wrote:

I wish I could give you a picture of Mount Hermon, a blessed place where I have spent precious weeks living out under the great redwood trees. It was wild and quaint and beautiful. I have many happy memories connected with it.

For the next few years they made annual trips to Mount Hermon until health concerns prevented them from traveling there.

From Daily Palo Alto Times, 1907.

Through all these new experiences Isabella kept busy writing books. Between 1901 and 1908 she published eight books, most of which were written with her adult readers in mind:

Mag and Margaret: A Story for Girls (1901)
Mara (1902)
Unto the End (1902)
Doris Farrand’s Vocation (1904)
David Ransom’s Watch (1905)
Ester Ried’s Namesake (1906)
Ruth Erskine’s Son (1907)
The Browns at Mt. Hermon (1908)

Isabella Returns to Chautauqua

Isabella also found time to return to Chautauqua on probably two occasions, where she stayed with friends or relatives who had cottages there.

In May 1912 Isabella and Ross traveled to New York, where they first visited her dear friend Theodosia Toll Foster (who co-wrote a number of books with Isabella under the nom de plume Faye Huntington). It is very possible the Aldens went from there to Chautauqua in June when the 1912 season commenced.

from the Rome New York) Daily Sentinel, May 14, 1912.

In 1914 the Aldens were again at Chautauqua, where Isabella and her niece, Grace Livingston Hill were among the authors honored at a C.L.S.C. reception.

By August of that year they were back home in California, where they were “welcomed by many of their friends.”

The Palo Altan, August 21, 1914.

It’s possible Isabella visited Chautauqua again in the years following, but no record of those visits survives.

Whether Isabella visited Chautauqua again or not, her friends at Chautauqua and in New York certainly kept track of her as a favorite daughter. In 1916 the newspaper in Rome, New York (located near the town in which Isabella was born and raised) covered Isabella and Ross’s golden wedding anniversary celebration with this article:

The Rome Daily Sentinel, June 6, 1916.

The article’s mention of their prominent place in Palo Alto society is a testament to the loving friendships the Aldens formed in their new home in California.


You can read more about Isabella’s dream home in Palo Alto by clicking here.

You can read more about Isabella’s adopted daughter Frances by clicking here.

Happy Anniversary, Isabella!

30 May

On this date in 1866 Isabella Macdonald married Gustavus “Ross” Rossenberg Alden.

In the writings she left behind, Isabella never gave a description of her wedding gown; however, based on fashion history for the period, we know her gown probably had a wide skirt, long sleeves and a narrow waist.

This wedding gown from about 1870 is an example of what Isabella’s dress may have looked like.

It is made of cream silk gauze, trimmed with cream silk embroidered net lace. Both the bodice (which fastens with hooks and eyes) and the polonaise overskirt are bordered with lace and silk satin ribbon bows. The gown is on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

An 1870 French fashion plate depicting a fashionable wedding gown for the period.

In 1916 Isabella and Ross celebrated their golden wedding anniversary with about 150 close friends and relatives, who gathered at the Alden’s home in Palo Alto, California.

This photo commemorates the occasion. In the center of the photo stands a tall gentleman in cleric’s collar; that’s Ross Alden; Isabella is the woman holding flowers, and standing between them is their son Raymond.

Left of Ross, dressed in white and wearing a large shawl is Isabella’s sister Julia, who resided with the Aldens. The young woman seated on the right holding a young child is Raymond’s wife Barbara.

The celebration was written up in several newspapers, including a newspaper near Isabella’s home town of Gloversville, New York:

In all, Isabella and Ross were married almost 58 years, before Ross passed away in 1924.

Happy anniversary, Isabella and Ross!

Happy Birthday, Isabella!

6 Nov

Isabella was born on November 3, 1841 in Rochester, New York.

When she celebrated her 87th birthday in 1928 she was living in Palo Alto, California. A few days later, on November 6, a San Francisco newspaper ran a short article, describing Isabella’s birthday celebrations.

Mrs. Alden is confined to her room, which was filled today with flowers, gifts and birthday messages.

It’s nice to know Isabella received so many expressions of love on her special day!

Amazingly, Isabella was still writing, and the article mentions the last three books she worked on: Memories of Yesterday, The Fortunate Calamity, and An Interrupted Night.

You can read the entire news article below. Just click on this headline to see a large version.


You can read more about Isabella’s home in Palo Alto by clicking here.

Click here to read more about Isabella’s last book, An Interrupted Night.

 

 

 

Searching for Pansy’s Daughter

13 Sep

There was a person in Isabella’s life whom she loved dearly, but rarely talked about. Her name was Frances Alden.

In 1892 Isabella and her husband Gustavus “Ross” Alden were living in Washington, D.C. Ross was the minister of the local Presbyterian Church; their son Raymond was 19 years old and studying not far away at the University of Pennsylvania.

Through one means or another Isabella—at the age of 52—became a mother again. She and Ross adopted a baby girl, whom they named Frances.

Isabella plunged into her second motherhood with the same energy and thoughtfulness that marked all her endeavors. She and Ross took Frances with them everywhere. She was always nearby when Isabella gave a speech or lecture. This news clipping documents one time when Isabella had to cancel a speech because Frances was ill:

From the Evening Star (Washington, DC) April 5, 1895

By the time she was three years old, Frances had wintered in Florida, spent summers at Chautauqua, and traveled across the country from coast to coast, all in the company of her adopted mother and father.

From The Los Angeles Times, Wednesday, January 1, 1901.

Perhaps Isabella’s speeches and magazine articles on the topic of rearing children offered fresh new perspectives because of her experience with Frances.

From the Sacramento Daily Union, October 25, 1897.

When their son Raymond secured a teaching position at Stanford University, Isabella and Ross moved their little family to California. They built a beautiful home on Embarcadero Road in Palo Alto (read more about their home here) and enrolled Frances in the local public school. They cheered her accomplishments large and small, including her promotion from third to fourth grade:

Palo Alto Press, May 21, 1902.

Thanks to Isabella’s successful writing career, she and Ross could afford to give Frances every advantage. When they realized Frances had been blessed with a talent for music, they ensure Frances had the best music and voice teachers.

By the time Frances entered her teen years, she was an accomplished singer and musician, and often performed in school and at church.

The Daily Palo Alto Times, March 9, 1907.

She was also acquiring a reputation as a notable beauty; and Isabella and Ross were determined to protect their daughter from flatterers.

When Frances was fifteen, they enrolled her at Park College, a small Christian school in Missouri.

The Daily Palo Alto Times on August 20, 1907.

There are no records to account for Frances’ time at Park College; but by the time she turned 18 in 1911, Frances was once again living at home with Isabella and Ross.

And she had changed quite a bit. Frances had become either rebellious or something of a prankster; either way her actions resulted in her having to appear in juvenile court at least once. The more Isabella and Ross tried to curb her behavior, the more Frances resisted.

In desperation, Isabella and Ross sent her to the Florence Crittenden Home, which was a nationwide network of residential homes that specialized in treating and caring for delinquent teens and unmarried pregnant women. Frances remained at Crittenden for four months.

When she returned to the Alden home, Frances decided to enroll at Stanford University, where her brother Raymond was a Professor of English. Her willingness to pursue her education must have been encouraging for Isabella and Ross.

Unfortunately, when Frances entered Stanford, she did so dressed in disguise. For three days she masqueraded as a male student on the campus and in the classroom. The discovery of her deceit caused a scandal, and probably caused Raymond quite a bit of embarrassment, as well.

Her prank was the last straw for Isabella and Ross. Once again they made the decision to send Frances away, but this time, they decided to send Frances to the Florence Crittenden Home in Los Angeles, 362 miles away.

Still rebellious, Frances arrived in Los Angeles, but instead of checking into the Crittenden Home, she went, instead, to the Home of the Good Shepherd, and tried to sign herself in under the name Vera Carter, which she declared to be her real name.

As bad as the entire experience was for Isabella, there were even more trying times to come.

Somehow, the newspapers caught wind of the situation. Isabella awoke one morning in January 1911 to find her troubles with Frances described in large print in newspapers across the country.

Reno Gazette Journal, January 18, 1911

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From the San Francisco Chronicle, January 16, 1911.

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Oakland Tribune, January 16, 1911.

How long Frances remained at the Home of the Good Shepherd is unknown, and once again, there are no records to help us understand what happened to Frances next. Records do show that she remained in Los Angeles.

In 1923, at the age of 31, she married a man named Bertram Minch. Bert worked for an oil company as a well operator in the oil fields, and later as an engineer for the city of Beverly Hills, California.

Frances and Bert remained married until his death in 1963. They never had children of their own.

There are no records or newspaper accounts to tell us if Frances and Isabella ever saw each other after Frances entered the Home of the Good Shepherd. It could be that Frances severed all ties with her mother, or perhaps it was Isabella who severed ties with Frances.

Either way, in her memoirs, Memories of Yesterdays, which she wrote in the last months of her life, Isabella did not mention Frances at all. And after Isabella was badly injured in a fall, it was her daughter-in-law Barbara Hitt Alden who took care of her, not Frances.

When Raymond Alden passed away in 1924, Frances’ name was not mentioned in his obituary as a surviving family member. The same was true when Isabella and Ross died; Frances’ name was not listed in their obituaries.

Isabella built her career and her reputation on her love for children and her desire to lead young lives to Christ. With this in mind, her experience with Frances had to be among the most difficult and painful events in her life.

Isabella always said:

“Whenever things went wrong, I went home and wrote a book to make them come out right.”

Perhaps, in one of Isabella’s books, there is a character like Frances with a mother like Isabella, whose stories end with a happily ever after.


This post is part of our Blogiversary Celebration! Leave a comment below or on Isabella’s Facebook page to be entered in a drawing for a $25 Amazon gift card! We’ll announce the winner on Friday, September 14!

No Simple Case of the Flu

14 Nov

It’s autumn in the United States, and for most Americans, that means shorter days and colder temperatures.

It also means the start of the flu season, when about 20% of the population can expect to suffer feeling feverish, achy and just plain crummy for about a week between now and April of 2018.

Influenza season was troublesome in Isabella’s time, too; especially because Americans didn’t have the advantage of the flu vaccines and anti-viral drugs we have today.

But in 1918, when Isabella was 77 years old and living in Palo Alto, California, Americans suffered through a terrifying epidemic of influenza known as the Spanish Flu.

United States Health Service flyer from 1918

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The first documented wave of Spanish Flu struck the U.S. with a vengeance in the fall of 1918. Americans quickly realized this strain of flu was not the usual variety that brought chills, fever and fatigue that lasted a few days.

This new strain of flu was highly contagious, and it proved particularly fatal to healthy young adults—an alarming complication. Previous strains of flu usually resulted in death for children and the elderly; and health officials were baffled by the fact that the healthiest segment of the population seemed to be the most vulnerable.

A nurse takes a flu patient’s pulse at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., 1918.

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Another terrible consequence was the speed with which the flu struck. Victims died within hours or days of their symptoms appearing. In fatal cases, the victims’ skin turned blue and their lungs filled with fluid; nothing could be done to save them.

The first wave of the epidemic struck the eastern part of the United States hard.

From the Los Angeles Times, September 17, 1918.

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Large cities, small towns, and rural areas suffered equally. One physician at an Army station in Massachusetts wrote:

“These men start with what appears to be an attack of la grippe or influenza, and when brought to the hospital they very rapidly develop the most viscous type of pneumonia that has ever been seen. Two hours after admission they have the mahogany spots over the cheek bones, and a few hours later you can begin to see the cyanosis extending from their ears and spreading all over the face, until it is hard to distinguish the coloured men from the white. It is only a matter of a few hours then until death comes, and it is simply a struggle for air until they suffocate.

“It is horrible. One can stand it to see one, two or twenty men die, but to see these poor devils dropping like flies sort of gets on your nerves. We have been averaging about 100 deaths per day, and still keeping it up. There is no doubt in my mind that there is a new mixed infection here, but what I don’t know.”

In very short order, hospitals were overrun with patients. Health officials had to commandeer meeting halls, golf courses, large private homes, and any other places that could be converted into temporary hospitals to house victims of the epidemic.

Make-shift hospital tents set up to hold influenza patients in 1919. From the Centers for Disease Control.

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In some towns officials shut down all public places, including schools and churches, and ordered citizens to wear masks at all times.

An ad printed in the October 18, 1918 edition of Illustrated Current News.

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The numbers of fatalities increased steadily. In some places entire families were wiped out. Physicians, nurses, and healthcare workers couldn’t keep up with the numbers of patients that needed their care, and they soon became patients themselves. By October 1918 New York City’s health department estimated that over 20% of the city’s nurses were sick.

Mortuaries were also overwhelmed; bodies piled up. Morticians and cemetery workers were struck down with the flu like everyone else, and some communities had to resort to disposing of bodies in mass graves. In other places, grieving family members had to dig graves for their own loved ones.

A family posing while wearing masks during the influenza epidemic.

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Entire cities came to a virtual halt; so many people were ill there was no one to deliver mail, collect garbage, or harvest crops. Businesses closed and government agencies shut down because there was no one well enough to report to work.

A New York City street sweeper on an almost-deserted street in 1918.

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Health officials and town leaders fought against the disease in the only ways they knew how. They told citizens to stop shaking hands. They ticketed anyone who coughed or sneezed or spat in public.

Health Department poster on the back of a trolley car.

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They closed theaters and barred libraries from circulating books.

They passed ordinances prohibiting people from gathering, hoping to stop the virus from spreading.

Headline in the October 7, 1918 edition of the Indianapolis News.

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Some cities required residents to wear masks any time they stepped outside the doors of their homes.

Meanwhile, residents in mid-west and west coast states of the country—such as in California, where Isabella was living at the time—could do little more than hope the deadly epidemic would remain confined to the east coast.

Students at Brigham Young University wear hygienic masks during a lecture in 1918.

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Their hopes were bolstered by uninformed health officials who, in an effort to keep the public calm, spread incorrect information about the deadly virus.

Misinformation printed in the Los Angeles Herald, September 27, 1918.

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But in truth, mid-west and west coast states could do little to halt the epidemic’s march toward their cities and towns.

Red Cross workers in St. Louis report for duty with their ambulances, October 1918.

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It didn’t take long before the first confirmed cases of Spanish Flu were reported in Northern California.

From the Los Angeles Herald, October 12, 1918.

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In the Santa Clara Valley, where Isabella lived with her husband and family, the first documented cases of Spanish Flu hit in November, 1918.

County officials and town leaders imposed quarantines and prohibited residents from congregating, hoping to stop the spread of the virus.

Like other places in the country, Isabella’s neighborhood hospitals were soon over-crowded with patients. Health officials cancelled all school classes and converted the newly-built San Jose Normal School into hospital wards.

Aerial view of San Jose Normal School, 1909.

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By the time the epidemic ran its course in the spring of 1919, fifteen residents of Isabella’s community had died, and over 300 had been infected.

Volunteers at San Jose Normal School prepare meals for patients and healthcare workers.

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The impact of the flu on the country was staggering. One out of every four Americans had been infected by the time the Spanish Flu epidemic ran its course in  1919. Over 550,000 Americans had died, and more than 50 million people worldwide were killed.

Isabella’s family was spared. While she and her family may have taken ill, no members of the Alden or MacDonald families died from the Spanish Flu. Still, it must have been a frightening and anxious time for Isabella, as it was for all Americans.

Here’s a brief video that explains the impact the Spanish Flu had on residents of South Carolina, especially its small communities, like Isabella’s:

And this video (from PBS’s American Experience series) includes interviews with Americans who survived the epidemic and give first-hand accounts of its impact on their families and neighborhoods:

 

 

Let’s Decorate!

19 Apr

When Isabella’s husband Gustavus “Ross” Alden retired from the Presbyterian ministry in 1901, they moved to California.

Isabella and Ross settled in Palo Alto, about three miles from Stanford University where their son Raymond was a professor of English.

They purchased two adjoining residential lots and began construction on a new home. They worked with renown Bay Area architect A. W. Smith, who helped them design the home of their dreams.

Ross and Isabella Alden with their son Raymond in 1916

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When it was complete, the house measured over 5,000 square feet. It was a duplex, built in the shape of a U around a central entrance court. Flanking the courtyard were two almost identical homes. Isabella and Ross moved into one side of the duplex; Raymond and his wife Barbara and their children moved into the other.

The house at 425 and 427 Embarcadero Road in Palo Alto. In the middle of the photo you can see steps leading to the central courtyard. (From PastHeritage.org)

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At the bottom of the U-shaped structure was a large living room which served as the connection between the two sides of the house.

An aerial view of 425-427 Embarcadero Road, showing the U-shape of the house, as it appears today. (From Google Maps)

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The side of the house occupied by Isabella and Ross had four bedrooms and two baths. Isabella’s sister Julia had a two-room suite to call her own. In later years, Isabella’s sister Mary also came to live in the house on Embarcadero after her husband passed away.

The house was designed in the Craftsman style, with a few Swiss Chalet touches under the eaves and on the balconies.

The house on Embarcadero Road showing the shingle detail and touches of Swiss Chalet trim work on the balcony and eaves.

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An ivy-covered wall surrounded the property, creating a private, tranquil garden-like setting for the family.

A view of the Embarcadero Road house from the street.

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After many years of moving from one minister’s manse to another, Isabella must have relished the idea of decorating her very own, brand new home. She would have been able to furnish her kitchen with the newest appliances available on the market.

And she would have been able to incorporate the latest design techniques in every room. One of the most popular decorating trends during the early 1900s was …

Linoleum

Linoleum was not a new product. In fact, it had been around for forty years; but in residential construction it was used almost exclusively in kitchens and bathrooms. Its attraction was that it was waterproof. It was also monochromatic, and its plain, utilitarian appearance (usually in a shade of deep brown) didn’t recommend it for use in any other room in the house.

Sample patterns from Armstrong’s 1922 designs for linoleum flooring.

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Then, in 1906 linoleum manufacturers had a breakthrough; they invented a machine that allowed them to cut straight lines into linoleum, which made it possible to inlay other colors into linoleum sheets in simple designs.

A 1916 print ad for Congoleum. (From The Ladies Home Journal magazine)

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Soon after, manufacturers developed methods to produce complex patterns in linoleum, and Americans took notice.

A Craftsman style living room, similar to the style that would have been in Isabella’s house; depicted in a 1921 Armstrong Linoleum print ad.

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Linoleum cost only a fraction of the price of hardwood floors; and with its durability, beautiful patterns, and low prices, Linoleum soon became America’s favorite flooring.

A portion of a 1922 print ad for Congoleum, Inc., manufacturers of linoleum flooring.

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By 1919 linoleum manufacturers were enjoying brisk sales, and Americans were installing linoleum at record rates.

A dining room featuring Armstrong linoleum (from a 1922 ad in The Ladies’ Home Journal).

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Linoleum came in every color of the rainbow, and in patterns ranging from florals to geometrics and everything in between.

A 1922 print ad for Blabon linoleum.

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It even mimicked throw rugs, wall-to-wall carpeting and hardwood floors.

With so many patterns and colors to choose from, Americans could lay linoleum in their parlors and dining rooms, bedrooms and entry halls.

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Professional decorators loved it, too. Here’s a bit of decorating advice on how to use linoleum in a sun room; it first appeared as part of an article in a 1922 issue of The Ladies’ Home Journal magazine:

And here’s the illustration that accompanied it.

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Housewives also appreciated linoleum because it was virtually maintenance free. It was easy to clean and required none of the regular waxing and polishing regimens needed for hardwood floors.

A 1921 ad for Blabon “Art Rugs” made of linoleum. The company often highlighted their product’s easy maintenance.

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And unlike traditional wool rugs, linoleum rugs didn’t have to be taken outside and beaten in order to keep them clean.

Part of a 1922 Armstrong linoleum ad.

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Isabella loved the house on Embarcadero. She had a dedicated room for writing, where she had her desk and typewriter. In that room she continued to produce stories and books until the late 1920s. She died in the house on August 5, 1930.

A 1922 print ad featuring Armstrong’s wood-look linoleum

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The house remained in the Alden family after her death; Isabella’s daughter-in-law Barbara lived there until the 1950s. The property was sold in 1966.

This Congoleum ad ran with the caption, “Sorry I called you extravagant, Sally. This new rug is a beauty for $16.20.”

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What kind of decorating style do you think Isabella used in her new house? Do you think she would have furnished her dream home with linoleum, the new wonder flooring product?

Or do you think she was more conservative when it came to decorating, and would have utilized traditional hardwood floors and wool carpets and rugs?


Here are some more ads for linoleum flooring products from the early 1920s (you can click on any of the images in this post to see a larger version):

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Pansy’s Banned Books

28 May

When you think of “banned books” what comes to mind? Books that encourage radical or treasonous ideas? Fiction filled with descriptions of salacious sex or horrific violence?

Imagine, then, what must have been Isabella Alden’s first thought when she discovered her books were banned in some public libraries across the United States.

Banned Books - Pansy Covers

Banning (or “debarring”) books from circulation in public libraries was something of a regular practice in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Libraries often questioned whether they were justified in giving shelf space to “common novels.” It was even a topic of extensive discussion at the American Library Association meeting of 1894.

With only so much shelf space and limited dollars with which to purchase books, library trustees often wondered if resources should be restricted only to books that offered “instruction, or culture, or taste.”

Boston Banned Books San Fran Call 17 March 1901 headline

Headline in the San Francisco Call newspaper on March 17, 1901

 

The City of Boston Public Library devised a solution. They established a reading committee in 1895. The committee of 15-20 people was tasked to read all the fiction books the Boston Public Library was considering buying, and report their findings.

The Boston Public Library, circa 1908

The Boston Public Library, circa 1908

The Boston Public Library was always careful to say that the reading committee did not select books for the library; they merely gave an opinion about whether a book was “worthy.” But thanks to the reading committee’s reports, the Boston Public Library passed on most of the best-selling fiction books of the time. Jules Verne’s An Antarctic Mystery didn’t make the cut; neither did David Harum by Edward Noyes Westcott, even though it was the best-selling novel of 1899.

David Harum Cover

Where the Boston Public Library led, other libraries followed. The New York Public Library implemented a similar plan, and libraries in small and large cities across the country followed suit.

Public Library in Dayton, Ohio, 1906

Public Library in Dayton, Ohio, 1906

Unhappy readers complained, arguing that libraries should supply books the public wanted to read, but their complaints made little difference. Instead, the Boston Public Library added members to the reading committee and increased the number of books they reviewed each year.

Books

Adding fuel to the fire: libraries refused to give reasons books were banned or removed from circulation. Newspapers, publishing houses, and writers who deplored the practice were left to guess at the reason a particular book was banned.

In 1901 Isabella Alden’s books fell under the scrutiny of the Boston Public Library’s reading committee. Here’s an excerpt of an article that ran in the San Francisco Call on March 17, 1901:

Excerpt from the New York Times, March 2, 1901

Excerpt from the New York Times, March 2, 1901

In their annual report for that year the Boston Public Library didn’t specifically mention Isabella Alden’s books, but it did give some insight into the reading committee’s reports about books they reviewed. Here’s what the reading committee said about these fiction books:

Cover To Have and To HoldTo Have and to Hold, the best-selling novel of 1900, by Mary Johnston would have been better “if some of the agony had been reserved for another occasion.”

Unleavened Bread by Robert Grant was characterized as a “very disagreeable and excellent story against women’s clubs.”

The Soft Side by Henry James was “an interesting puzzle for one who cares to see how a clever writer can hide plot, expression, style, clearness and force under a rubbish heap of senseless words.”

Cover BlennerhassettBlennerhasset, the 1901 best-selling historical novel by Charles Felton Pidgin, was rejected because “the author conveys the impression that Aaron Burr was a gay Lothario, and nowhere indicates reprobation of his conduct.”

The annual report summed up what the committee believed made a good novel:

“People generally want something which is restful, interesting and will take their thoughts away from themselves, and something that ends well.”

That guiding principle of the reading committee may have influenced the library’s decision to ban Isabella’s books from their shelves. Unfortunately for Isabella, she wrote books that made readers think, search their hearts and examine their own actions. And sometimes Isabella’s books didn’t necessarily end on a happy note.

Interior of the Boston Public Library, 1896

Interior of the Boston Public Library, 1896

By 1902 The Boston Public Library gave up trying to hide the fact that they were not interested in stocking works of fiction:

“The trustees … are of the opinion that most of the books of this character now published have little permanent or even temporary value.”

Interior of Westmount Public Library undated

In other words, reported the Daily Sun on November 1, 1902:

“The library is no longer attempting to meet the demand, where the demand is for trash, and the word trash has been made to include a considerably larger class of stories than formerly.”

Indianapolis Public Library, 1905

Indianapolis Public Library, 1905

Because many libraries took their lead from the Boston Public Library, authors like Isabella Alden had good cause to be concerned.

Palo Alto Public Library, circa 1907

Palo Alto Public Library, circa 1907

In 1910 Isabella was living in Palo Alto, California when the local public library took exception to one of her books (that had been published eight years earlier).

From the San Francisco Call, August 1, 1910

From the San Francisco Call, August 1, 1910

It must have been shocking for Isabella to have one of her books labeled as “immoral” when the message of God’s love and plan for salvation was a strong and consistent theme throughout her novels.

We can only guess what action Isabella might have taken. Two weeks later, however, the Palo Alto Library reversed their decision and Isabella’s books were once again on the library’s shelves.

But Isabella had to remain vigilant to ensure her books, including her most controversial book, remained available in libraries for everyone to read.

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