Isabella Alden was a great traveler. In her young adult years, she traveled all over the eastern part of the United States—from New York to Ohio, Pennsylvania to Washington, D.C.—as her husband took charge of different Presbyterian churches.
When her writing career took off, so did Isabella’s travel schedule. From California to Florida and everyplace in between, Isabella spoke at churches, taught Sunday-school classes, and delivered lectures on a variety of topics before women’s groups.
At the time, train travel was the only transportation option available to her for traveling long distances.
But there was a problem with train travel: it was a dirty business.
Soot and smoke and dust from the steam engine’s exhaust permeated everything it touched; train stations, passengers, and luggage were all tainted.
But all of that changed when the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad (a Pennsylvania-based rail company) introduced a new power source for their train engines: Anthracite.
While Anthracite is a coal, it has fewer impurities than common soft coal, and it burns cleaner. The Lackawanna Railroad company had almost exclusive access to America’s Anthracite source.
Realizing their clean-burning Anthracite-powered engines were an advantage for travelers, the Lackawanna Railroad came up with an ingenious marketing plan to highlight Anthracite’s advantages.
They launched an advertising campaign that featured a fictional character named Phoebe Snow.
Gowned in white, and wearing only a corsage of purple lilacs for a touch of color, Miss Phoebe Snow confidently traveled “The Road of Anthracite” and arrived at her destination as fresh and clean as when she first set out.
In addition to Phoebe’s image, each advertisement contained a short poem, written to mimic the cadence of a moving train.
The ad campaign was a hit. Soon Phoebe Snow’s image and the catchy railroad jingles began appeared in newspapers and magazines, and on postcards and posters.
As her popularity grew, so did Phoebe’s adventures.
She was spotted camping in the Rocky Mountains, and strolling along Broadway in New York City.
She even counseled mothers on the pleasures of traveling with children on “The Road of Anthracite.”
In 1903 Thomas Edison’s newly-formed motion picture company jumped on the Phoebe Snow band-wagon, and produced a short silent film about Phoebe and her railroad-riding adventures.
In the film, Phoebe’s travels include finding love and getting married to a fellow train rider dressed in (what else?) white.
Phoebe Snow’s adventures might have gone on forever, were it not for World War I. In 1917 the Lackawanna Railroad’s source of Anthracite was rerouted to help with the war effort, and Miss Phoebe Snow’s traveling days came to an end.
In her almost twenty-year career, fictional Phoebe inspired a generation of young women to travel. She was also the inspiration behind an entirely new genre of American advertising: the character-driven ad campaign, which we still see used in advertising today.
When Isabella wrote Interrupted in 1881 she was forty years old and had lived through one of the greatest financial disasters in American history.
It was a troubling time for the country, and Isabella reflected that trouble in her story. The main character, Claire Benedict, is a young woman raised in the lap of luxury, who suddenly finds herself—along with her mother and sister—virtually penniless when her father dies unexpectedly.
How do such things occur? I cannot tell. Yet how many times in your life have you personally known of them—families who are millionaires today, and beggars tomorrow? It was just that sort of blow which came to the Benedicts.
Isabella had seen real-life examples of wealthy businessmen turned into paupers overnight. Just eight years before Interrupted was published, America suffered through The Panic of 1873.
The Panic was caused by many factors, but the fatal spark came from Jay Cooke & Co., an American banking house that borrowed heavily to finance railroad expansion in the U.S.
Cooke was caught using a number of deceptive business practices, including shell companies to hide costs from investors, a scheme discovered in 1872. The revelation damaged investor confidence, and Cooke’s bank suffered heavy losses until, in 1873, Cooke was forced to suspend all deposits and payments, and closed the bank’s doors.
That announcement sent shock-waves through Wall Street, and led to a panic of bank runs and bank failures throughout the country.
The extent of the economic crash was so great, the New York Stock Exchange closed two days later and stayed closed for ten days.
Those banks that survived the initial crash immediately called in their debts, which caused an alarming number of foreclosures and bankruptcies throughout the country.
The Panic of 1873 commenced on September 18; by and the end of the year . . .
One in every eight Americans was unemployed
Employers that were still in business cut wages, on average by 25%
Construction of businesses and homes came to a standstill
The value of land dropped and profits crashed
Tens of thousands of workers—many Civil War veterans—became homeless transients, making “tramp” a commonplace American term
Retailers did their best to keep their doors open. Many abandoned attempts to make a profit and had to be content to merely break even.
It was a desperate time in America; and the economic depression that followed the crash lasted almost seven years.
As the economy began a slow recovery, the average Americans found the financial rules had changed.
For starters, there was a lopsided disparity of wealth distribution. Rich industrialists like Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller, who survived the Long Depression intact, now owned over 71% of the nation’s wealth.
The average American found banks no longer wanted their business. J. P. Morgan’s banking house required a minimum personal value before they allowed a new customer to even walk in their door.
So Americans had no choice but to turn to cash.
It was a natural reaction, since most Americans were aware that buying on credit and shady financing deals had caused the Panic of 1873 in the first place. They came to distrust credit and lending institutions, and developed their own barter systems and cash-only policies.
Isabella wrote about it in The Pocket Measure.
In that story, Mrs. Spafford suggests to a group of girls from church that they earn money by starting a business selling hand-made items.
“Where would we get our material?”
“We would need a buying committee—someone whose duty it would be to purchase material.”
“Suppose she hadn’t money enough for the purchases?”
“Then we should manifestly have to do without the material until such time as we could afford to enlarge our business.”
“Couldn’t we buy on credit?”
Both Mrs. Spafford and Addie Stowell shook their heads emphatically at this, and Addie said:
“No, ma’am! You don’t catch me launching out in any enterprise that hasn’t a solid cash foundation. I should expect my father to disown me forthwith. If there is anything he hates, it is the credit system.”
Almost all of Isabella’s novels reflect that sentiment. From David Ransom’s Watch to Ester Ried’s Namesake, Isabella made certain her characters earned the money they needed. They didn’t buy anything “on credit.”
Her characters saved up for years to purchase a train ticket or a new dress.
They counted pennies and survived on johnny cakes and molasses.
In fact, most of Isabella’s stories feature characters who live in poverty—the sort of poverty Isabella witnessed first-hand in the years following the 1873 crash.
What do you think?
Do you have a favorite Isabella Alden book that features characters who were poor or insisted on earning the money for the things they wanted to buy? Share your favorite Isabella book by commenting in the Leave a Reply box below.
You can learn more about the Financial Panic of 1873 by watching this short video about the Panic’s impact on the citizens of Illinois:
And you can click on any book cover to find out more about Isabella’s novels mentioned in this post.
Isabella Alden lived during the golden age of train travel, and her books reflected the time. At the turn of the last century, an intricate systems of railroad tracks and heavy, powerful locomotives connected nearby towns and far-away locations.
Railroads made it possible for people to easily travel to summer resorts, as Eurie, Marion, Ruth, and Flossy did in Four Girls at Chautauqua. Advertisements made distant American destinations sound exotic and adventurous.
But railroad travel also made it possible for people to quickly and economically travel short distances between towns.
In Christie’s Christmas, Christie Tucker set off on a simple, twenty-mile train ride to visit her relatives for the day in a neighboring town.
Christie’s parents arranged the trip based on the arrival and departure times that were posted at the train station closest to their farm. Christie’s mother told her:
“You are to go up on the train that passes at seven in the morning, and come back on the six o’clock, and that will give you nine whole hours at your Uncle Daniel’s. I’m sure that will give you time to see a good many things.”
The trip was a thrilling adventure for a girl who lived on a farm miles from the nearest neighbor or school.
And though train travel was fairly economical, Christie’s parents had to scrimp and save to afford the fare:
“Eight-five cents there, and eighty-five cents back; that’s a dollar and seventy cents! It seems a good deal to spend; but it is your birthday, and it is Christmas day, and you’ve worked hard, and father and Karl and I think you ought to go.”
To accomplish her day trip, Christie probably traveled in a standard Pullman car, with its narrow seats that faced both front and back.
By contrast, Miss Mary Brown (in The Browns at Mount Hermon) could afford to travel in luxury. When Mary left the mid-western village of Centerville, it took her two full days to travel by train to California. Her accommodations probably included a seat in a very nice club car during the day.
For the overnight portion of her journey, Mary could have secured a berth in a sleeping car.
No matter how long the journey, travel by train usually took preparation. Travelers had to consult departure timetables and plan for connections between railroad lines.
In those days, travelers had to visit their local train station to obtain printed routes and schedules. But if an in-person visit wasn’t possible, they wrote a letter to the railroad’s passenger agent to ask for help in planning their journey.
The station master wrote back with instructions, usually accompanied by printed schedules.
Once on board, train passengers were ruled by the train’s conductor. It was his job to ensure the train arrived on time at each stop, and that his passengers’ needs were taken care of.
For the most part, train travel was incredibly efficient. The Georgia Railroad claimed their trains were so timely, residents in the city of Atlanta could set their clocks by the sound of trains going by.
It was also a relatively safe mode of travel. An in an age when few women walked a city street without a chaperone, many women felt comfortable traveling alone by train.
No matter how long the journey, train travel could be tedious; and it was up to the passengers to find ways to entertain themselves.
With the exception of Caroline Bryant, who slept through her train ride in Twenty Minutes Late, Isabella’s characters usually accomplished their journeys by making new friends of their fellow passengers.
That’s what Christie Tucker did. When her twenty-mile train ride came to an unexpected halt because of trouble on the tracks ahead, she set out to make herself useful to her fellow passengers, and reaped unexpected rewards in the process.
Many more of Isabella’s books featured travel by train than those mentioned in this post. Do you have a favorite Pansy character who road the rails? Please use the comment section below to share your favorite.
If you’d like to learn more about train travel in Isabella’s time, visit Rails West.
Be sure to view their page on overnight accommodations, where they have some interesting illustrations of sleeping cars on trains.