Sunday on the Street Cars

If you’ve read any of Isabella’s books, chances are you’ve noticed that her Christian characters refused to travel on Sundays.

Day of Rest, an engraving by Currier and Ives, 1869 (from Library of Congress)


While others in the story may have planned a carriage ride to a pleasure garden, or a train ride to the next town to hear a famous minister preach, good Christians in Isabella’s stories didn’t go anywhere on Sunday unless they could get there on foot.

Walking to Church in Charleston, 1864.


That was true of Ruth Burnham in Judge Burnham’s Daughters. Here’s an exchange between Ruth and her young son:

“Mamma, what makes it wicked to ride in the steam cars on Sunday?”

“My darling, don’t you remember mamma told you how the poor men who have to make the cars go cannot have any Sunday—any time to go to church, and read the Bible, and learn about God and heaven?”

“I know, mamma; but the cars go all the same, and the men have to work, and so why can’t we ride on them? They wouldn’t have to work any harder because we went along.”

A motorman on a street-car, about 1930 (from Library of Congress).


Ruth’s son voiced an argument that wasn’t new. Isabella had heard it herself many times; but she believed in the sanctity of the day of rest, and she followed her church’s direction on the proper way to observe Sundays.

A busy street-car in 1909 (from the Library of Congress).


When Isabella was growing up in New York, it was much easier to observe the Sabbath because there were laws on the books that enforced Sabbath rules and eliminated personal choice:


There were similar laws in most other states. Having been raised in such an environment, Isabella’s strict observance of the Sabbath rules became second-nature to her.

A cartoon from an 1895 issue of Puck Magazine, showing New York legislators dressed as Puritans. On the left are businessmen and women in stocks and pillories with signs of their crimes: serving guests wine on Sunday, shaving on Sunday, delivering ice on Sunday, selling a glass of beer on Sunday, and blacking shoes on Sunday. A notice states “Behold the Punishment of the Wicked Sabbath Breaker. Let All Evil Doers Beware”.


In the early days of street-cars, many cities barred cars from operating on Sundays. Here’s a record of a driver who was arrested in 1859 for violating the law:


It wasn’t just street-cars that fell afoul of the fourth commandment. When the Postmaster General of the United States proposed delivering mail on Sunday to aid in its efficient flow, conservative Christians took swift action, circulating a petition to stop the plan:


But by the end of the 19th century, the average American’s perception of Sunday had shifted. No more was Sunday a traditional day of rest; it had morphed into a day of liberty. After a long, six-day work week, people wanted to do something or go somewhere, and trains and street-cars made it possible.

With street-cars, pleasure gardens and museums were only a short ride away. And a day at the sea shore was possible, thanks to an intricate network of train tracks and passenger cars that whisked people away from the hot, humid city twice a day on Sunday, and returned them safe and sound to the city in the early evening.

Sunday, the Day of Rest. A cartoon in a 1918 edition of Puck magazine (from the Library of Congress).


Cities and states soon saw the commercial benefits of allowing restaurants, theaters and other businesses to open on Sundays; and they began to quietly repeal the old Sabbath laws.

Like many Christians, Isabella viewed the changes with concern. After all, America was a country founded on Christian principles. But as more and more Sabbath observances fell by the wayside, many Christians saw the change as a symptom of a bigger issue: Christianity was losing its grip as the leading religion of the country.

A street-car in Washington DC, 1890 (from the Library of Congress).


But Christians didn’t take the changes lying down. They organized and petitioned, wrote their congressmen, and fought for new laws and ordinances to protect the Sabbath, to no avail.

The newspapers and magazines caught wind of their efforts and labeled them Sabbatarian Fanatics.

When Christians protested plans to open the 1901 Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York on a Sunday, Puck magazine spoofed their efforts with this cover illustration:

A female figure labeled “Enlightenment” pushes open the doors of the Pan-American Exposition on a Sunday, knocking out of the way an old woman labeled “Sabbatarian Fanatic” and a man labeled “Sabbatarian Bigot” who tried to prevent the opening. (from Library of Congress)


Isabella knew all about the “fanatic” label. She probably had heard it used in regard to herself; and since she often used her own life experiences in her books, she wrote about it in Judge Burnham’s Daughters. When Ruth refused to entertain unexpected callers on a Sunday, the town gossips said:

What a pity it was that so fine a woman as Mrs. Burnham should be so completely under the control of fanatical ideas!

Even Ruth’s husband applied the word to her:

I do not quite understand how you came to be such a slave to fanaticism, Ruth; it does not seem like you. Your father had a touch of it, to be sure, but I think he must have caught it from you, since you go so far beyond him.

But Isabella—like Ruth—held fast to her fundamental belief that the Sabbath should remain holy. Despite the name-calling and the opposition around her, she held to her belief that the Lord’s Day should be spent in Divine activities that celebrated her relationship with God. And that was something Isabella knew she couldn’t accomplish on a street-car.

Street-car traffic in Washington DC in 1918 (from the Library of Congress).


In the early 1900s Reverend R. A. Torrey compiled the works of different conservative writers into an article titled, “Why Save the Lord’s Day?” You can click here to read the complete article.

Many thanks to Marie Peters who inspired this post! If you have a question about Isabella or a related topic you’d like to see explored on this blog, leave a comment here or on Facebook!

100 Years Ago at Mount Hermon

It’s summertime, and that means events at Mount Hermon Christian camp are in full swing. Nestled in the mountains of Santa Cruz, California, Mount Hermon is a place of quiet beauty, where people can renew and build on their relationship with Jesus Christ.

The train station at Zayanta Inn, Mount Hermon, California; 1915.
The train station at Zayanta Inn, Mount Hermon, California; 1915.

One hundred years ago, Isabella Alden was a frequent summer visitor at Mount Hermon. She and her husband Ross moved to the Santa Clara area in 1901. When Mount Hermon opened four years later, they were overjoyed to have a nearby place of rest and retreat similar to their beloved Chautauqua Institution.

The Lake at Mount Hermon, 1913.
The Lake at Mount Hermon, 1913.

Isabella Alden loved Mount Hermon, and she had many happy memories connected with it. 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.

Bean Creek at Mount Hermon, 1910.
Bean Creek at Mount Hermon, 1910.

As she had in the old Chautauqua days, Isabella spent as much time in the out of doors as possible at Mount Hermon:

Tent life seemed to belong to it as much as houses belong in most other places. We ate out of doors, and worked out of doors, and practically slept out of doors, with all the curtains of the tent looped high.

Giant California Sequoias.
Giant California Sequoias.

Nestled among the mammoth California redwoods of Mount Hermon, Isabella rested, read and worshipped.

Dr. James Gray, 1910.
Reverend James Gray, D.D., 1910.

Her spirit was fed by some of the world’s most prominent theologians who spoke at the camp: Dr. James Gray, dean of the Moody Bible Institute; evangelist Reuben Archer Torrey; and Reverend A. B. Pritchard of Los Angeles.

Reverend R. A. Torrey, 1907.
Reverend R. A. Torrey, 1907.


Reverend A. B. Pritchard, 1903.
Reverend A. B. Pritchard, 1903.

Isabella reveled in Mount Hermon’s program of Bible study. She immersed herself in classes about the Second Coming of Christ, and the Pentecost. She spent a week studying Colossians, and said afterward that she felt “as though I had a new Bible.”

An announcement in the San Francisco Call, July 13, 1906.
An inviting announcement in the San Francisco Call, July 13, 1906.

Amid all the conference meetings, presentations, and Bible studies, she found time for her own writing.

I had a little retreat where I used to take refuge when I wanted quiet for writing or study. It was the burned-out stump of a sequoia tree. The space left was forty feet in diameter with a wall of stump all around. New branches had formed and had climbed till they reached away up toward the sky, and interlaced overhead to form a room of green. The sequoia leaves are odorous and make a lovely soothing atmosphere in which to rest.

A giant Sequoia in nearby Calaveras Grove, California; 1902.
Giant Sequoia in nearby Calaveras Grove, California; 1902.

It was in this atmosphere that Isabella was inspired to write The Browns at Mount Hermon, which was published in 1907; and her experience at Mount Hermon even inspired her novel’s premise. During one specific summer, over 60 people with the surname Brown attended Mount Hermon; Isabella used that bit of trivia as the catalyst for a merry mix-up of people named Brown in her novel.

Cover of The Browns at Mount Hermon

Isabella cherished every lesson and every sermon she heard at Mount Hermon. Each summer for the remainder of her life—health permitting—she made the short trip to Mount Hermon, the beautiful place of worship and rest nestled in the mountains of Santa Clara.

Did you know Mount Hermon is still an active Christian camp and retreat? Find out more about Mountain Hermon by visiting their web site:

Or visit Mount Hermon’s YouTube channel to see the latest videos of what’s going on at the camp: