In Isabella Alden’s novel Twenty Minutes Late, young Caroline Bryant mistakenly takes a wrong train and ends up in a strange city far from home. Alone and afraid, she finds temporary shelter in the home of kindly Dr. Forsythe and his daughter Dorothy.
Meanwhile, Caroline’s family anxiously awaits her return. Her brother Ben meets every train at the station, hoping Caroline will be on it; and Caroline’s mother and sister Daisy watch the mail for a letter from Caroline, even as they prepare a celebratory meal to welcome her home:
And now it was nearing the hour when she ought in all reasonableness to be expected, if the day was to bring her. It had been a long, nervous one to get through with. The little family watched for the ten and three o’clock mails, half uncertain whether to hope for or to fear a letter; but when none arrived their hopes grew strong; even the mother allowed her heart to say, “The dear child must surely be coming today.”
Ben had announced, as he dashed in to report no letter in the three o’clock mail, that he should not come home again until he brought Line with him. “I shall go straight to the station from the office,” he announced gleefully; “and as soon as our four feet can bring us you may expect to see us walk in. Have your nose at the window-pane, Daisylinda, for Line will want to see it the first thing.”
When Isabella wrote that the family “watched for the ten and three o’clock mails,” she gave us a hint that the Bryant family lived in a rather large town themselves.
Twenty Minutes Late was published in 1893; at that time the United States Post Office provided “person-to-person delivery” of mail in most major cities.
“Person-to-Person delivery” meant that mail carriers delivered mail into their customers’ hands . . . literally. If a customer didn’t answer the carrier’s knock, ring or whistle, the carrier kept the customer’s mail in his satchel until the next trip.
By 1914 city mail carriers spent up to an hour a day waiting at doors, trying to complete person-to-person deliveries. That changed in 1923, when all city customers were required to provide mail slots or receptacles in order to receive mail.
Mail was delivered Monday through Saturday. The number of daily deliveries varied by city.
In 1905 letter carriers employed at New York City’s main post office made nine daily deliveries to businesses and homes.
By contrast, customers in St. Paul, Minnesota received mail once a day, depending on which area of the city they resided.
With that kind of delivery schedule, it wasn’t unusual for local mail to be delivered from one part of the city to another within hours of being sent.
Replies to letters traveled at the same speed. “By return mail” was an often used phrase—especially in business letters—requesting an immediate response in time for the next scheduled delivery that day. (Miss Webster used the phrase in Chapter 23 of Miss Dee Dunmore Bryant.)
Although the number of daily deliveries in large cities changed over the years, the U.S. Postal Service maintained this hectic delivery pace until the 1950s, when they finally limited the number of deliveries in residential areas to one per day “in the interest of economy.” For the most part, multiple daily deliveries to businesses ended in the 1970s.
As you read Isabella’s stories, you’ll see that some of her characters wrote quick letters that they wanted to have “ready for the early mail.”
Other times her characters listened for the postman’s whistle, which signaled the arrival of “the morning mail,” or “the ten o’clock mail,” or even “the next mail.”
Isabella’s novels and short stories are little testaments to the fact that there was once a time when the U.S. Postal Service delivered letters, bills, newspapers, greeting cards, catalogs, and advertisements with impressive speed and accuracy—without the aid of Zip Codes, automation, and computers.
What do you think? Do you know anyone who works for the U.S. Postal Service? How would you like your mail carrier to personally hand-deliver your mail to you?
You can read more about Isabella’s books mentioned in this post by clicking on the book covers below:
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.
Isabella’s novel Twenty Minutes Late was first published as a serial in The Pansy Magazine in 1892. Isabella originally named the story “Way Stations,” referring to the unexpected train trip one of the characters—Caroline Bryant—takes in the story.
Twenty Minutes Late is the sequel to Miss Dee Dunmore Bryant (which also began life as a serial in The Pansy), and follows the fortunes of the Bryant children as they learn to trust Jesus as their savior and friend.
Isabella often test-drove her novels by publishing them as serials in her magazine; then she made final edits and adjustments to her stories before they were published in book form.
You can find out more about Twenty Minutes Late and read sample chapters from the book by clicking on the cover image.
Isabella often wrote stories that featured children trying to earn money to help support themselves or their families.
Long before today’s labor laws and social service programs existed, children worked long hours in factories or in the homes of wealthy people, usually for pitiful wages.
Eleanor H. Porter, the famous creator of the Pollyanna books, wrote about the plight of one such child in her novel Cross Currents.
And famed artist Thomas Benjamin Kennington painted a series of portraits of homeless and destitute children in an effort to raise awareness of the problem.
Isabella’s novels The Man of the House, Miss Dee Dunmore Bryant and Twenty Minutes Late all dealt with the issue of children’s working conditions in cities across America; but Isabella always made certain her books had a happy ending. She imbued her young characters with high ideals and strong work ethics that often brought them to the notice of a wealthy benefactor who changed their lives.
That was the case in Isabella’s short story, “Which Way?” about a twelve-year-old boy trying to make enough money to pay the rent on his family’s home. It first appeared in The Pansy magazine in 1889 and you can read it here:
He was a curly-headed, pleasant-faced boy, of about twelve; his clothes were growing short at the ankles and wrists, and were a good deal patched, yet there was a neat trim look about them that one liked to see.
He stood at the corner where two roads met, balancing in his mind the important question which way to go. Both roads led homeward, by an almost equally direct route; one was a trifle sandy part of the way, the other was up hill.
“Hill or sand?” he said to himself, with a smile. “It makes a lot of difference in a fellow’s lifetime which! What if it did, though? What if it should make a difference all the rest of my life? He told about smaller things than that bringing great things out of them. If I had a penny I might toss it up, only I don’t believe he thinks that’s the way to decide things.
“He” meant a stranger whose satchel the boy had carried that afternoon, and who, as they walked along, had spoken a half-dozen cheery words to him about the importance of little things; helping the boy to think more gravely, perhaps, than he ever had before. Then the stranger had gone his way on the three o’clock train, and Jamie never expected to see him again; but he could not help thinking a little about the words. To tell the truth, but for these words to think about he would have been very downhearted.
It was toward the close of a long summer day, in which he had been tramping from one end of the town to the other in search of work, and had failed. It was the old story, father dead, mother hard-worked and poor, with two children younger than Jamie to care for. There was great need that he should find work to do. The dreadful rent, which seemed to eat up every penny, was nearly due again, and little Eddie had been sick for a week, hindering his mother from going out to her regular day’s work, so that times were harder than ever before.
On Monday morning Jamie had started out with a brave heart, sure that for a strong and willing boy of twelve, there must be plenty of work to do; but now it was Thursday evening, and though he had tramped faithfully from morning till night, no steady work could be found, only a few odd jobs; which, though his mother told him would help a great I deal, seemed very small compared with what he had meant to do. It seemed hard to have to go home and say that he had failed again. This was why he loitered by the way, and tried to fill his mind with other things.
“I’ll go this way,” he said at last, dashing down the less familiar street. “Who knows what may happen?”
What “happened” was that the hostler at the great stone house on the corner, who had been kind to Jamie, called to him as he passed to ask if he would take a note to his cousin Mary Ann who lived at Mr. Stewart’s on the next corner.
Of course Jamie was glad to accommodate him and made all speed to the great house of whose gardens he had often wished he could get a closer view. A game of tennis was in progress here. Jamie stood a moment watching the graceful movements of the players; wondering, meantime, which way to turn to find Mary Ann. Presently the lady who seemed to be the chief one of the group noticed him, and he made known his errand.
“Mary Ann? Oh, yes, she is in the laundry, I think; or no, she is probably upstairs by this time. Wait a moment, my boy, and I will see if I can find her,” and she took her turn in the game.
“Are you in haste?” she asked presently, turning to him with the pleasantest smile Jamie thought he had ever seen in his life.
“Oh, no, ma’am,” he said, returning the smile, “I’m never in a hurry.” His face sobered instantly as the fact that he had no work to make him feel in haste, came back to him unpleasantly. It appeared that the game was very near its close; a few more turns, and with much laughter and many pleasant words the players said good-night, leaving the young lady and Jamie alone. He was glad that her side had beaten.
She turned toward him, smiling. “So you are never in a hurry; that must be a rather pleasant state of things.”
“I don’t know, ma’am,” said Jamie again. “I guess I’d like to have a chance to be in a hurry.”
“Would!” with lifted eyebrows and an amused, questioning look. “That is strange! I’m in a hurry a great deal of the time, and I don’t enjoy it always. There is Mary Ann at this moment.” She signaled the red-faced Irish girl to approach, and Jamie delivered his note, then turned to go, having made a respectful bow to the lady. But apparently she was not through with him.
“Why do you go away so soon, if you are never in a hurry?” she said pleasantly.
“Why, I’ve done my errand,” said Jamie, “and I supposed the next thing was to go.”
“Why shouldn’t the ‘next thing’ be to come and look at my roses? Bright red and yellow ones. You like them, don’t you? In the meantime you can tell me how you manage it so as not to be in a hurry.”
Jamie followed her with great satisfaction, but finding she waited for his answer, said:
“Why, you see, ma’am, the way of it is, I’ve got nothing to hurry about, and I wish I had. I’ve been hunting for work for three days as steadily as I could, and haven’t found any yet, and am not likely to. That was what I meant.”
“Oh! I understand in part, but I should think your lessons would give you almost enough to do without a great deal of work.”
“I’m not in school, ma’am,” said Jamie, speaking low. “There are reasons why I can’t go very well; mother needs me to help earn the living, so I’m looking for a chance.”
“I begin to understand quite well. What sort of work do you want?”
“Any sort under the sun that I could do; and I could learn to do anything that other boys do if I had a chance,” he said eagerly.
“Such as weeding in a garden, for instance, and picking strawberries and peas? How long do you think it would take you to learn such work?”
“I was born on a farm, ma’am; mother only moved here this spring. It’s just the kind of work I’ve been looking for, but I can’t find any.”
“That is simply because you didn’t come to the right place. My mother has been looking for you all day. I dare say at this moment she is wishing you would come and pick some strawberries for tea, and I’m sure I do, for if you don’t I’m much afraid I shall have to do it myself. I think we would do well to go at once and talk to her about it.”
Jamie, as he followed her up the steps of the broad piazza, his heart beating fast with hope, told himself that he had never seen a sweeter lady in all his life.
Afterwards, while they were picking the strawberries—for she went with him to “show him how,” she said with a merry smile—he told her how he came to take the road home which led past her door; and then, in answer to her questions, how he was led into that train of thought by the earnest words which the strange young man said to him that morning.
“So you carried my brother Harvey’s satchel, did you?” she said, with a bright look on her face. “Very well; one of the ‘little things’ he told about has happened to you. Now you are sure of plenty of work about this house as long as you want it, provided you are a faithful, honest boy, as I seem to know you will be. I think I must have been looking for you; but I’ll tell you what I think, my boy; I don’t believe it is a happen at all. I believe your Father sent you.”
You can click on the cover images to find out more about the books mentioned in this post.
When Isabella Alden wrote about her characters “riding the cars,” she wasn’t referring to automobiles. The “cars” she wrote about were steam cars and streetcars.
Steam cars were steam-engine locomotives, which ran between cities on rails. By the late 1800s, the period when most of Isabella’s stories take place, railroad stations were springing up in small towns and running across rural areas as fast as workers could lay the rails.
Like locomotives, streetcars also ran on rails, but the passenger compartments were smaller and narrower. They were typically powered by either cable-pulley systems or electricity, but early streetcars were pulled by horses. Streetcars were common forms of in-town transportation in the early 1900s. Small, mid-size, and major cities across the country had robust street-car systems to transport riders throughout a city’s major business areas and often from one end of town to another.
In Twenty Minutes Late, Caroline Bryant saw her first streetcar when she arrived in Philadelphia. Her only previous experience with riding a car was a seven-hour train trip she’d taken with her mother years before. In Philadelphia, her companion led the way to the street and lifted his hand in a peculiar manner.
A man who was driving what was to Caroline the strangest-looking wagon she had ever seen, drew up his horses and the wagon came to a stand-still. It had a number of little wheels, smaller than Caroline supposed wagon wheels were ever made.
“We’ll get into this car,” he said, “and that will save us a long walk and leave us a long enough one at the other end. I often wish I lived nearer the depot, but then it wouldn’t be so nice for my children as where I am now.”
Caroline was busy with one word: “car.” But there was no engine, only two horses.
“It must be a street car.”
She had heard Miss Webster speak of them, and also Judge Dunmore, and here she was getting into one!
When Twenty Minutes Late was published in 1893, horse-drawn streetcars were the norm, but by the early 1900s, streetcars became more mechanical and horse-power was replaced by cables or electricity.
Smaller cities and towns had streetcars, as well. This hand-colored photo from a 1907 postcard shows a streetcar running the length of Main Street in Butte, Montana.
In Judge Burnham’s Daughters, the Judge’s young son, Erskine, was very fond of riding the cars. One Sunday the Judge offered to take the family into the city to attend church at St. Paul’s, a fashionable church where the worship music was supposed to be very fine.
It would have been an easy trip. From their small town the Burnhams would have ridden a steam car into the city. Upon arrival, they wouldn’t have had to leave the station to find a streetcar to take them to the area of town by St. Paul’s church.
But the Judge’s wife Ruth refused to let little Erskine go because she believed it was wrong to ride the cars on the Sabbath.
“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.”
In Ruth Erskine’s Son, the street-cars stopped at the corner of the Burnham’s residential street, where widowed Ruth Burnham lived with her son and his wife. Now an adult, Erskine Burnham took the 8:00 a.m. car to his office downtown each morning just “as surely as the sun was to rise”; and every evening he returned home by streetcar to his wife and his mother.
“I don’t suppose you two can fully appreciate what it is to me to get home to you after a stuffy, snarly day in town. I sit in the car sometimes with closed eyes after a day of turmoil to picture how it will all look. But the reality always exceeds my imagination.”
In the evenings, his doting mother, Ruth, was able to watch for Erskine’s return from her bedroom window.
She leaned forward, presently, and watched Erskine’s car stop at the corner, and watched his springing step as he came with glad haste to his home.
In the majority of her books, Isabella Alden’s characters rode on the cars to get to work, to escape the city for a country idyll, or simply to run errands around town. But riding the cars was a little different for women than it was for men. Watch for a future post,Ladies Riding Cars, that will explore one of the unique challenges women faced while traveling on public transportation.
In Twenty Minutes Late, Caroline Bryant’s mother supported the family by working in a canning factory during the growing season. In the winter she earned her money by sewing and taught Caroline to sew fine stitches by hand.
During Caroline’s stay with Dr. Forsythe’s family, she makes friends with Mrs. Packard, the housekeeper. One day Caroline watches Mrs. Packard use a sewing machine and wishes (with a heart-felt sigh) that she could buy a sewing machine for her mother so she can ease her mother’s burden.
Watchful Mrs. Packard, who had become a good friend to Caroline, heard the sigh. “Does your mother sew on a machine?” she asked.
“No, ma’am,” said Caroline, with a slight laugh, “not very often. When she goes to Mrs. Hammond’s to sew, and to one or two other places where they have machines, she does; and this is the kind they have, and she likes it ever so much; but at home she sews by hand.”
“My land!” said Mrs. Packard, “I should think that would be hard work. She can’t accomplish very much sewing, it appears to me.”
“She does,” said Caroline firmly, “accomplish ever so much sewing. She sews hard all winter long; makes dresses and shirts and underclothing, and all sorts of things for people, taking every stitch by hand.”
“For the land’s sake!” said Mrs. Packard, “what in the world does she do it for? Nobody does that any more.”
Caroline laughed a little sorrowfully. “She does it just as we do a good many things, Mrs. Packard, because she has to; she hasn’t any machine of her own, and we children haven’t got old enough yet to buy her one; but we are going to some day. That is the first thing Ben and I are going to do.”
Mrs. Packard kept her own counsel, and Caroline went away unaware that she had said anything of special interest to anybody.
In 1893, when Twenty Minutes Late was first published, sewing machine sales were booming; and their affordability made it easy for most families to own one. No wonder, then, that Mrs. Packard was astonished that Caroline’s mother supported the family with hand-sewing.
At the time Twenty Minutes Late was written, sewing machines weren’t new. They’d been on the market for many years, particularly in commercial settings; but it wasn’t until the mid-1800s when they began to be mass-marketed to consumers.
In 1885 The Singer Manufacturing Company began selling sewing machines directly to the public for home use. Early Singer machines featured a foot-operated treadle; and in 1889 Singer introduced an electric sewing machine to consumers.
By the late 19th century, other companies were producing sewing machines for home use, as well; and most companies allowed purchases on credit, making it easier for families to obtain a machine.
This trade card touts the Royal St. John machine as the only sewing machine that can sew forward or backward:
An 1890 painting by Fritz von Uhde shows a dressmaker using an older “turtle back” sewing machine (so named because of the machine’s shape).
The 1908 advertisements below feature a sewing machine ingeniously marketed under the name “The Free.” The Free sewing machine was distinguished from other machines as “the only insured sewing machine warranted for life.” The company pledged to replace any machine “destroyed or injured” with a brand new machine, without cost.
As sewing machines became more readily available, they also became more affordable. This turn-of-the-century advertisement depicts how enjoyable—and leisurely—life can be with a sewing machine in the home.
And this 1913 painting by Hans Heysen depicts a sewing machine set up beside a charming, sunny window for use by the lady of the house.
Would you like to learn more about sewing machines and the art of sewing during the 1890s and 1900s? Follow these links for more information:
Elias Howe’s Sewing Machine – This article features a comparison of the time it took in the 19th Century to sew various articles of clothing by hand verses machine. Some of the comparisons are astonishing.