In her novels, Isabella wrote about all kinds of people: from heroic physicians to ladies of wealth and leisure; from mischievous boys to angelic little girls.
But of all the character types who appeared in her novels, the working class clerk was the most common.
Alfred Ried (in Ester Ried Yet Speaking) worked long hours for little pay in a busy downtown shop.
Robert Parks and Hester Mason did the same in Workers Together; an Endless Chain.
Isabella seemed to have quite a bit of sympathy for these overworked, underpaid young people. Around the turn of the Twentieth Century the average man earned about $11.00 per week; but young men, like Alfred and Robert, who were just starting out in their careers, earned considerably less.
Because she was female, poor Hester would have earned only half (sometimes less) of what her male counterparts earned.
After they paid rent for their lodgings, they had little left to live on.
During the work day, when it came time for their mid-day meal break, they had to return to their lodging house for their meal, which was often included in the cost of their rent.
But if their rented rooms weren’t close to the shop where they worked, they had to find a nearby place to eat with menu items they could afford.
Luckily, some small restaurants in large cities catered to working people in that very situation.
Haim’s Quick Lunch Restaurant in New York City was one such place. Every dish on their menu was designed to be served quickly, so working clerks like Robert, Hester, and Alfred could have a simple meal and get back to work.
So what kind of dishes did Haim’s serve? Here’s their 1906 lunch menu:
Their heartiest dishes were the most expensive. For about ten cents Alfred could have two eggs cooked to order. And Robert might have a bowl of milk toast or a sandwich.
Since Hester had to make her pitiful wages go farther than Robert or Alfred, she might have ordered one of the less expensive items on the menu, like griddle cakes.
Or she might have ordered a bowl of Force, Malta Vita, or Power, which were very much like cold cereal we eat today.
What do you think of Haim’s menu choices?
If you were a shop clerk and had only 15 or 30 minutes to grab a quick bite of lunch, which Haim’s menu item do you think you would order?
If you’d like to learn more about any of Isabella’s novels mentioned in this post, click on the covers below:
“Nurse” was a word that figured often in Isabella Alden’s novels, but not all her nurses were created equal.
In some of her stories, “nurse” was another term for a nanny—a woman who took care of young children.
That was the case for Miss Rebecca Meredith in Wanted, who hired herself out as a “nurse-girl” after she applied for the job listed in this newspaper ad:
Wanted—A young woman who has had experience with children, to take the entire care of a child three years of age. Call between the hours of four and six, at No. 1200 Carroll Avenue.”
In other novels, like The Older Brother, nurses were everyday people who knew what to do whenever illness struck, like Aunt Sarah:
Aunt Sarah proved herself a veritable angel of mercy. She was able to lay aside her brusqueness and her sarcasms, and become the skillful practical nurse, taking her turn and indeed more than her turn with the others, and compelling the anxious mother to take such rest as she needed.
Aunt Sarah and Rebecca Meredith developed their nursing skills through practical experience, and a history of caring for neighbors and family members who were ill.
But when Helen Betson’s father fell ill in Echoing and Re-echoing, the doctor insisted on securing the services of a “professional nurse,” which threw Helen into days of anxious waiting:
If she could have done a share of the nursing—but they had been forced to employ a professional nurse who shared the task with her mother, so that it was only now and then a little service that Helen was permitted to do; and she grew weary of the long waiting that seemed so purposeless.
In Isabella’s lifetime, it was common for physicians to train their own nurses, but they often found it difficult to find candidates who already possessed basic knowledge of human anatomy, nursing science, and mixing medicines.
The best candidates were trained in a hospital setting, but hospital training programs had drawbracks:
Most programs had age limits that disqualified women who were middle-aged and older.
The coursework took years, and tuition was expensive at a time when there was no such thing as tuition assistance or student financial aid.
The programs tended to attract only local students because the best teaching hospitals were in large American cities where the high cost of living proved a barrier to outsiders.
Fees charged by graduates of hospital programs meant their services were unaffordable for the majority of Americans, especially those in rural areas of the country, so nursing school graduates tended to live and practice in larger cities.
The result: America had a great shortage of competent, trained registered nurses. Dr. Everett mentioned the problem in Isabella’s novel, Workers Together:
Professional nurses are good when you can get them. It is unfortunate that they are especially scarce just now. I have been on the look-out for one all the morning without success.
A New Yorker named Cyrus Jones decided to do something about it. Because he lived very close to Chautauqua Institution, he was familiar with the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle. The CLSC conducted first-class four-year college degree courses via correspondence. He was certain nurses could be trained using the same methods. He said:
There must be many thousands of bright, earnest women, young and old, who would be nurses if they could learn the profession without going to a hospital. Other branches of knowledge are taught by mail and learned at home. . . . Why not nursing?
Mr. Jones launched the Chautauqua School of Nursing in 1900, and it was immediately successful. Over 200 students enrolled the first year.
Unlike other schools, Chautauqua School of Nursing did not have age limits, welcoming many women who were denied admission to other schools because of their age.
Since the enrollment fee was only $75.00, women who intended to work as professional nurses knew they would soon earn back that cost because they would earn between $10.00 and $35.00 a week as a registered nurse after graduation.
But the highest enrollment came from students who lived in rural and isolated areas where conventional hospital training schools didn’t exist.
Like the hospital-based schools, the Chautauqua School of Nursing bestowed upon its graduates its own pins, caps, and certificates.
In every respect, its graduates appeared to have the same training and cachet as graduates of hospital programs. The public couldn’t tell the difference.
They also employed a very unique marketing tactic: They advertised their students.
The school used their real students as models in their print ads in magazines and newspapers.
And if a prospective student was unsure whether or not she should enroll in the course, she had only to write the school.
In return, the school would provide the prospective student with the name and address of the graduates closest to her, with an invitation to contact any one of them to get more information about the school, the teaching curriculum, and what graduates’ lives were like as professional nurses.
By 1910 the school had bestowed diplomas upon 12,000 nursing students; the class of 1911 alone exceeded 3,000 enrollees.
In all respects, the school was a success. Because of the Chautauqua School of Nursing, hundreds of communities had a trained, reliable nurse for the first time . . .
. . . and thousands of women entered into a respected profession that helped their communities, and produced a steady income for themselves.
Click on a book cover to learn more about Isabella Alden’s novels mentioned in this post.
In 1922 Emily Post wrote, “with a hair-pin and a visiting card, [a woman] is ready to meet most emergencies.”
There’s evidence of that maxim in Isabella Alden’s books. In several of her stories a simple calling card played a prominent role in the life of one of her characters.
In Spun from Fact, Jeanie Barrett had cards printed with only her name and this sentence in plain text:
“Are you saved by grace?”
Each time she gave away one of her cards, she did so with a purpose, and knew exactly how she wanted to engage that person in conversation about the straight-forward question printed on the card.
In Workers Together; An Endless Chain, Dr. Everett’s calling card was printed on both sides. The front of the card gave the address and hours for his medical practice. On the other side he listed the times for Sunday worship services, Sunday School classes and weekly prayer meetings at the church where he was superintendent of the Sunday School.
In A New Graft on the Family Tree, John Morgan received a calling card that changed his life. He was hungry and homeless, hopping one rail car after another to find anyone who would feed him in exchange for doing some work.
John’s situation was desperate; he was weak from hunger when he came across neat-looking house, with a neat kitchen-door; he knocked at it, and asked for a bit of bread. A trim old lady answered it. To his surprise she invited him in and fed him a savoury breakfast. And while John ate, the old woman talked to him:
“Well, there are a good many homeless people in the world. It must be hard; but then, you know, the Master himself gave up his home, and had not where to lay his head. Did it for our sakes, too. Wasn’t that strange! Seems to me I couldn’t give up my home. But he made a home by it for every one of us. I hope you’ve looked after the title to yours, young man.”
No answer from John, The old lady sighed, and said to herself, as she trotted away for a doughnut for him:
“He doesn’t understand, poor fellow! I suppose he never has had any good thoughts put into his mind. Dear me! I wish I could do something for him besides feeding his poor, perishing body!”
The little old lady trotted back, a plate of doughnuts in one hand, and a little card in the other.
“Put these doughnuts in your pocket; maybe they’ll come good when you are hungry again. And here is a little card; you can read, I suppose?”
The faintest suspicion of a smile gleamed in John Morgan’s eyes as he nodded assent.
“Well, then, you read it once in a while, just to please me. Those are true words on it; and Jesus is here yet trying to save, just the same as he always was. He wants to save you, young man, and you better let him do it now. If I were you I wouldn’t wait another day.”
John waited until he left the woman’s house and was tramping down the street before he looked at the card she gave him.
It was a simple enough card, printed on it in plain letters these words:
“It is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners.”
“I am the bread of life. He that believeth on me shall never hunger.”
Still lower on the card, in ornamented letters, the words:
“The Master has come, and calleth for thee.”
Then a hand pointing to an italicized line:
“I that speak unto thee am he.”
John thrust the card into his pocket and strode towards the village depot to board another train, unaware that the little card would eventually change his life.
You can still find examples of religious calling cards on ebay, Etsy and other Internet sites. But Isabella’s books demonstrated that religious calling cards by themselves were not enough to change a person’s life. In her stories, a calling card may have opened the door to a conversation about salvation, but it was the act of the person who gave the card—their kindness and concern for someone else—that turned those small pieces of cardstock into the means by which a soul was saved.
You can read more about the vagabond life John Morgan would have lead. Click here to read our previous post, The Fraternity of the Tramp.
Click on a book cover to read more about Isabella’s books mentioned in this post.
In her memoirs, Isabella Alden wrote about the first time her father and mother visited her after she was married. It happened when Isabella’s minister husband was new to his church and was working hard to make the Wednesday prayer meetings a success. He wanted the prayer meeting attendees to participate, so on Sunday mornings he would announce from the pulpit the topic for the Wednesday meeting. He asked everyone to come on Wednesday with a Bible verse that supported or illustrated the topic.
One Tuesday, Isabella’s mother and father arrived unexpectedly for a visit. The next evening Isabella proudly escorted her parents to the church and sat beside her father as her husband, Reverend Alden, led the prayer meeting. But something happened that forced her to make a terrible choice.
Her father had always strongly opposed women speaking in public and that opposition extended to prayer meetings.
Yet Isabella had prepared a Bible verse to recite aloud if necessary to help and support her husband. None of the other attendees were responding to Reverend Alden’s call to participate and an uncomfortable silence stretched on for several minutes. Isabella wrote:
“I sat in distressed silence for several minutes; so did everybody else. Suddenly I looked at my husband. I had promised him, had even talked with him about some of the thoughts that I wanted to present. What must he think of me now?
“Oh, Christ!” I prayed in my heart. “Tell me what to do!”
And the answer came, she said, as plainly as spoken words. She broke the silence and recited aloud the verse she had prepared:
“Thus saith the Lord who created thee: “Fear not, for I have redeemed thee; I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine.”
As soon as she finished, others followed in quick succession, and the prayer meeting continued on.
But Isabella was keenly aware that her father never said a word to her about the meeting or the verse.
“He was kind and tender toward me, but graver than usual; I had a feeling that I had hurt him by showing no respect for his opinions.”
Her mother and father left early the next morning and never visited the Alden home again.
That was an experience that stayed with Isabella. In fact, it made such an impression on her that she described that scene—in different ways—in many of her books.
In Workers Together: An Endless Chain, Miss Joy Saunders knew that the church she belonged to “believed in woman’s sphere, and desired her to keep strictly within its limits” and “on no account to let her voice be heard” in its religious meetings.
But when Joy followed her conscience and spoke a simple verse in an otherwise very quiet prayer meeting, she “set in motion forces that are pulsing yet” because the verse she recited touched so many hearts.
Rebecca Harlow, the heroine of Links in Rebecca’s Life, was well aware that people in her church thought women and girls should keep silent when they were at prayer meeting. But after one of those long “awful pauses” in which no one at the meeting said a word, Rebecca spoke up and asked the people to pray for a friend who was in temptation.
That was all she said and though she couldn’t see anything wrong in her words, she knew there were some in the room who “thought it was out of taste.”
And when Ester Ried attended her first prayer meeting in New York, she was astonished by the proceedings:
“Now,” said the leader briskly, “before we pray, let us have requests.” And almost before he had concluded the sentence a young man responded.
“Remember, especially, a boy in my class, who seems disposed to turn every serious word into ridicule.”
“What a queer subject for prayer,” Ester thought.
“Remember my little brother, who is thinking earnestly of those things,” another gentleman said, speaking quickly, as if he realized that he must hasten or lose his chance.
“Pray for everyone of my class. I want them all.” And at this Ester actually started, for the petition came from the lips of the blue-ribboned Fanny in the corner. A lady actually taking part in a prayer meeting when gentlemen were present! How very improper. She glanced around her nervously, but no one else seemed in the least surprised or disturbed; and, indeed, another young lady immediately followed her with a similar request.
In Ruth Erskine’s Crosses, Isabella described the reaction when Ruth’s half-sister spoke up at the weeknight prayer meeting:
The words she uttered were these: “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Now, if it is your fortune to be a regular attendant at a prayer-meeting where a woman’s voice is never heard, you can appreciate the fact that the mere recitation of a Bible verse, by a “sister” in the church, was a startling, almost a bewildering innovation. Only a few months before, I am not sure but some of the good people would have been utterly overwhelmed by such a proceeding. But they had received many shocks of late. The Spirit of God coming into their midst had swept away many of their former ideas, and therefore they bore this better.
A Happy Ending:
Not long after that Wednesday night prayer meeting when Isabella spoke out in front of her parents, her father became very ill and she traveled to his home to be with him in his final days. One evening she was alone with her father when he said, unexpectedly:
“Thus saith the Lord who created thee.”
He explained to Isabella that he well remembered that Wednesday night prayer meeting and the verse she recited.
“The first time I ever heard it, your beloved voice gave it to me,” he said. “I can’t begin to tell you what [those words] are to me now, lying here. ‘Fear not; for I have redeemed thee; I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine.’”
That was the last private talk Isabella had with her father and she cherished the memory of it.
“I thank the dear Lord,” she later wrote, “that one night He gave me courage to repeat words which brought joy to Father’s heart.”
Click on the “Isabella’s Books” tab at the top of this page to read more about the books mentioned in this post.
In the latter half of the 18th Century and the early 19th Century, illness of any kind was not to be taken lightly. A simple head cold or case of influenza, if not properly cared for, could easily prove fatal.
Isabella Alden illustrated the point in her novel Jessie Wells, when Jessie’s friend Mate came down with a cold and died within days of complications from a fever.
Illness, disease and death were topics Isabella Alden regularly dealt with in her books; but she also gave insight into the remedies of the time. Patent medicines were widely available but home cures were even more popular. (You can read a previous post about the Molasses Cure by clicking here.)
By far the most popular cure Isabella mentioned in her books was beef tea, and for good reason. Beef tea was more frequently prepared for invalids and patients than any other curative. In 1863 The New York Times published an article about care Union soldiers received during the Civil War, citing their “beef-tea diet” as part of “their daily fare in hospital, its excellence and variety, and the admirable arrangements for their comfort.”
An 1886 article in Arthur’s Home Magazine called it “the food which is perhaps more valuable and more frequently prepared for invalids than any other.”
“When first supplied in cases of weakness, beef-tea is usually taken with great relish. It seems to give strength and to supply just what is wanted, and a patient will look for it and enjoy it heartily.”
.That was certainly the case in Workers Together: an Endless Chain. In the story Mrs. Saunders took a sick young man named Robert into her boarding house. Following doctor’s orders, she immediately began nursing Robert with doses of beef-tea:
The new nurse was ready-handed and cheerfully authoritative. She tucked a fine damask napkin under her patient’s chin, and skillfully fed him with spoonfuls of beef-tea from a solid silver teaspoon. When she decided that he had taken nourishment enough, she whisked away spoon and cup without question, straightened the bed-clothes, beat up another pillow and arranged it dexterously under his head, telling him, meantime, that he looked better already, and that he must keep up good courage, which was always half the battle in everything. Then she drew down the shades, and told him to mind the doctor and go to sleep; and assuring him that Tommy, the bell-boy, should sit just outside the door and would hear if he but just touched the little silver bell by his side, she disappeared before Robert had time to reflect on the questions that he wanted to ask her.
In Her Associate Members, Chrissy Holmes served her husband a cup of beef tea every night to help him recuperate from an illness. When she found out her neighbor Mrs. Carpenter was ill, too, Chrissy took some of the beef tea to her:
“I should recommend some beef broth for a change, and fortunately I put into my basket a bottle of some which I made fresh today for my husband. I brought my little spirit-lamp along also, to heat it on, for the day is so warm I thought you might not have any fire.”
While she spoke she busied herself in getting out the bottle and lamp, and a delicate china cup, tinted in pale blue. Mrs. Carpenter watched her with severe eyes.
“Mrs. Holmes,” she said, at last, “there isn’t the slightest need for that, and I wish you wouldn’t. If you think you make me more comfortable doing it, you don’t. I would much rather be let alone; I’m not used to being taken care of. I have had no care since I was a young girl, and I never expect any again. I don’t want it. All I ask of this world is a chance to work and be let alone.”
Chrissy did not react to Mrs. Carpenter’s ungrateful comments.
In silence she poured out and administered the beef tea once more, standing silently by while the contents of the cup were being drained again and pronounced very good.
“I can feel that it is giving me strength,” said Mrs. Carpenter, as she returned the cup; “and I am obliged to you, though I’ve almost forgotten how to express such feelings.”
Beef tea was widely believed to give strength to the ill, but by the 1880s the medical community began to frown on it as a cure.
“Beef tea is a stimulant rather than a food. A person may be hungered to death on it,” declared J. Milner Fothergill, M.D., in an 1880 paper to the Royal College of Physicians in London.
But by that time, belief in the healing powers of beef tea was deeply entrenched in public lore, helped in large part by the manufacturers of beef extracts. The products were a boon to homemakers, since making beef tea in the kitchen was time consuming and wasteful (a pound of beef yielded barely a pint of tea.)
This 1896 trade card for Armour’s Extract of Beef promotes the product’s use in making soups.
But in other ads, the same company also promised health benefits to people who used their product, as this 1895 magazine ad shows:
In the 1860s a whiskey distiller in Cincinnati, Ohio began producing a “tonic elixir and liquid extract of beef” they claimed could cure “female diseases,” indigestion, and weaknesses of all kinds.
American companies like Cudahy Packing Company and Armour & Company—which originally manufactured beef products to make broths, soups, and gravies—boosted their sales by claiming healing properties in their products.
Johnston’s Fluid Beef, which originated in Scotland, took great care to publish testimonials in America that strengthened their health claims:
Soon other companies like Liebig Company followed suit. They promised good health, strength and vitality to individuals who consumed their product.
Bovril, a British product developed by Johnston’s Fluid Beef of Scotland, didn’t promise simply to cure American consumers of disease. They went one step further and promised to prevent disease.
Bovril’s advertising to Americans typically featured images that reinforced their claims of strength, vitality and energy. Strong, charging bulls, healthy, masculine men and beautiful, energetic women graced Bovril’s advertisements.
And this ad conveyed a subliminal message that if Bovril was used in hospitals throughout the world, the product’s health claims must be true.
Today Bovril is still marketed around the world, although the company no longer makes inflated health claims based on dubious scientific testimony. The product has a loyal following, particularly among fans of football (that’s soccer to us in America), who take it along as a hot drink to sip while cheering on their favorite team on chilly mornings.