Visit Chautauqua in 1890

In the summer of 1890 Isabella Alden and her family were once again at her beloved Chautauqua Institution.

That year, attendance at Chautauqua was remarkable. The Evening Journal—a newspaper in nearby Jamestown, New York—reported on the size of the crowd in an article printed August 20, 1890:

Another Sunday at Chautauqua has come and gone, and yet the big crowd and its interest in everything continues.

A crowd gathered in an open area of Chautauqua, about 1915.

There was plenty to be interested in. Chautauqua’s daily schedule included Bible lectures, practical daily living classes, entertainment, nature hikes, and plenty of opportunities for exercise.

An added attraction: that weekend Mr. Leland Powers, known as the “Dramatic wonder of America” presented a three-act comedy based on a story by Frances Hodgson-Burnett, in which he played all the parts!

A publicity photo of Mr. Leland Powers


The newspaper explained one major reason for the crowd size that weekend: more people were making longer stays at Chautauqua:

The outgoing stream has been large during the past week, and yet not enough to keep pace with the one pouring in. The outlet does not equal the inlet, and so the crowd grows larger. It will probably reach its culmination on Recognition Day, which will be Wednesday of this week.

“Recognition Day” is Chautauqua’s version of graduation for members of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle. In 1890, all the C.L.S.C. members who successfully completed their four-year study course gathered at Chautauqua. Together they made a stately procession through the symbolic Golden Gate that stood near the Hall of Philosophy, and then they received their Chautauqua diplomas.

The Golden Gate at Chautauqua Institution

The same newspaper article reported:

Enthusiastic C.L.S.C’ers are coming in daily by droves, by swarms, by multitudes. Meetings of the various classes are held almost every day, and excitement is fast reaching its height. It seems scarcely possible that in another week the Chautauqua season of 1890 will be closed and the exodus will be begun.

A Chautauqua Recognition Day class procession in 1895. Each class carried their own distinctive banner.

Also on that Sunday morning, Isabella’s husband, the Reverend G. R. Alden, led a memorial service in honor of prominent Chautauquans who died during the preceding year.

Reverend Gustavus Rossenberg Alden

What a very busy weekend at Chautauqua! That Sunday evening brought rain, which reduced the crowd size at the remaining events. After so much activity, the newspaper report describes for us a peaceful Sunday night:

A ramble about the grounds just after the sermon, even if it did rain, well repaid the discomfort. Every cottage, every tent, every room in every cottage and tent, gleaming with lights through the dismal mist, presented a scene unprecedented and well worth seeing. The chimes rung out another Sunday at Chautauqua.

You can read the full article that contains many more descriptions of that busy Chautauqua weekend in 1890. Just click here; you’ll find the article in columns four and five.

Isabella, the Baby Bride

When Isabella Macdonald married Gustavus “Ross” Alden, she was 24 years old. She had been earning her own living as a teacher for years; and though she remained very close to her family—especially her sisters Marcia and Julia—she considered herself a very independent and grown-up young woman.

Young Isabella Alden in an undated photo
Young Isabella Alden in an undated photo

But when her relationship with Ross Alden began to blossom, so, too, did Isabella’s realization that many people thought she was too young to marry Ross. Isabella wrote:

“I was very sensitive about my age at that time. I seemed always to be guessed much younger than I really was.”

Even a friend of Isabella’s—a lady Isabella described as an intimate acquaintance—was surprised to find out that Isabella was only ten years younger than Ross. The friend would have guessed that Isabella was even younger than 24.

That ten year age difference never bothered Isabella; but it did bother her that people thought she was too young to marry Ross and too young to take on the responsibilities of a pastor’s wife.

“I certainly allowed it to worry me, perhaps because I had at that time nothing more important to worry over.”

It didn’t help matters when Isabella overheard a man and woman walking slowly down her street shortly after she and Ross settled into their first home together.

“Isn’t this where the Presbyterian minister is staying?” asked the woman.

“Yes,” said the man, “and I hear that he has brought back a baby for a wife!”

Reverend Gustavus Rossenberg Alden
Reverend Gustavus Rossenberg Alden

Isabella suffered yet “another thrust,” as she called it, a few days later. She had been with Ross in a book store, where a clerk helped them find a copy of a popular book on theology. Two days later, Isabella returned to the same store alone, where the same clerk came forward to wait on her. He bowed and very courteously asked if her father was pleased with the book on theology he had bought earlier in the week. Isabella recalled that she stood on her toes and replied in a voice of stunning dignity, “My husband was!”

Unlike Isabella, Ross took such encounters in stride. When he introduced Isabella to a middle-aged woman he knew, the woman stared at Isabella and said, “Your wife looks very young to take charge of a parish.”

Ross replied, philosophically, that Isabella “will be gaining on that youthfulness every day, you know.”

Isabella thought the woman would laugh; instead she just stared at Isabella, sighed and said, “Yes, that’s so.”

Years later, Isabella wrote in her memoirs:

“Even at this late day I feel almost ashamed to confess the dismay which this little word of criticism gave me.”

But she soon shook off that criticism when she realized that for every person who doubted her because of her youth, there were just as many who embraced her and welcomed her into their homes and hearts. Isabella worked hard to support her husband’s ministry and to silence her critics . . . and she succeeded.

Gustavus "Ross" Alden in later years (about 1912)
Gustavus “Ross” Alden in later years (about 1912)

In 1892, after 26 years of marriage, the Ladies’ Home Journal interviewed Isabella for an article they were running on women writers. The interview was conducted in the Alden home (they were living in Washington D.C. at the time) and the magazine’s writer had ample opportunity to observe Isabella and Ross together. When the article was published, he included this assessment of the Alden’s marriage:

“It would be difficult to find two people better suited to each other, more tenderly devoted, or more thoroughly one, in all their interests and aims.”