Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Mary Moody Emerson's Civil War


Mary Moody Emerson  (1774 - 1863), perhaps in her 20s
Silhouette signed Williams, Concord Free Library collection, portrait
 reproduced in the published journals of her nephew Ralph Waldo Emerson (V. 4)

Mary Moody Emerson's life spanned two defining American wars. Her last years in her late 80s during the Civil War were spent in Brooklyn, New York. Those who knew her were probably relieved that cognitive degeneration interfered with her understanding of the world outside the Williamsburg home her younger relatives had made for her, so far from her familiar New England.

A year before the war began 86 year-old Mary M Emerson was living at the home of August and Hannah Parsons on South Fourth Street in Brooklyn.

Today Mary is appreciated for her singular attributes and her determinedly single life. She was born a year or two before the war for independence to a soon-to-be-war widow in Concord, Massachusetts near the battlefield famous for "The Shot Heard Round the World." Mary resolved not to marry at about the time the silhouette above was cut. She realized she was ill-suited without the "meekness or gratitude required" in marriage but "throbs of vanity and triumps [sic] of self exultation." Unable to understand others she believed most of her female peers would also prefer to be "unyoked."

(Must tell you most of Mary's analysis was written long after events.) She kept a series of "Almanacks," which Waldo Emerson read and copied for inspiration and enjoyment. An 1870s house fire at the Emerson's "Bush" damaged the Alamanacks and the Emersons' good neighbors Louisa and May Alcott helped clean them but the manuscripts show the damage.

Kin to many clergy, their wives and a few philosophers, most notably nephew Waldo Emerson whose father was her younger brother, Mary Moody Emerson also had several more than eccentric relatives, some institutionalized. This woman came to be viewed as a force of nature by family and neighbors. Her self-confident youth was spent in the home of a childless aunt and uncle in Malden, Massachusetts after her mother remarried and began adding stepchildren to Mary's Concord family.

Library of Congress/HABS/Late 1930s
Mary's birthplace "The Old Manse" was her mother's home with two husbands
over many decades.

Mary's childhood self-confidence was remarkable in her recollections. She later wrote of an exalted sense of her youthful self and her ultimate purpose based on an unusual religious fervor grounded in  New England's Puritan/Congregational/Unitarian/Trinitarian/Transcendental transition. 

Ghostly apparitions often 
appeared in shrouds.

Mary was viewed as an irascible eccentric, but she exceeded that New England personality type with a religious vision encouraging her to spend a good deal of her adult life wearing a burial shroud at home and on the street. She looked forward to death in both manic and depressive episodes, infuriated when doctors pulled her back from its doors. Those unfamiliar with her garment believed she wore her nightgown to the shops and services---eccentric. A shroud---perhaps mentally ill.

In the summer of 1863 Waldo commented on the dying woman's wardrobe.

Mary who suffered little influence from others also came up with some admirable ideas, abolition being one important concept in a family with a history of slaveholding. After nephew Waldo married Lidian Jackson in 1835 and she moved to Concord Aunt Mary created a social event at the newlyweds' breakfast table with a small group of antislavery advocates.

Lidian sent a donation to the National Anti-Slavery Association
during the Civil War. Aunt Mary did not change Lidian's basic
position but she did make it easier for her to meet the local anti-slavery leaders.

"I love to be a vessel of cumbersomeness to society."---one of Mary's apparent personal maxims.

Waldo was fond of and intrigued by his Aunt Mary. (We'll omit those five years some time after that breakfast when Mary was not invited to the newly established Emerson house in Concord.)

The Emerson's "Bush" on the Old Cambridge Pike was also home to Waldo's
 widowed mother Ruth Haskins Emerson after his second marriage. 

Lydia Jackson Emerson (Lidian) about 1850

Daughter Ellen remembered Mary & Lidian's sharp relationship as "diamond cut diamond" but we know of no other description of the sisters-in-law's relationship.

Ruth Haskins Emerson (1768-1853)
Mary's sister-in-law
We do note, however, that when in Concord Mary checked into a hotel.

Mary cared little for others' opinions and maintained a mighty sense of resentment over slights small and large--- Large being her exile to relatives at the age of four. Some of the smaller resentments.... typical behaviors in an innate narcissist. One could never do enough for her.

Waldo's journal reminds us how much laudanum (opium & alcohol) fueled the
daily life of proper females. (And how much she amused him.)


Franklin Sanborn, editor of Boston's Commonwealth wrote an obituary for Mary: "She was thought to have the power of saying more disagreeable things in a half hour than any person living."  Waldo could not argue.                 

Elizabeth Peabody published a tribute to Mary Emerson on her death in The Boston Transcript recalling her Antislavery activities and her intellect.

Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Washington Whirlwind # 7: Whirling Star


Washington Whirlwind # 7: Whirling Star for the First Lady
by Elsie Ridgley

Despite the war Washington's social life whirled around frequent 
White House receptions.
Above: Mary Lincoln in a typical off-the-shoulder dress showing off
her "poitrine" as they say in France.

During the first year of White House life Mary Todd Lincoln must have enjoyed herself mightily as the nation's First Lady. She set about refurnishing the Executive Mansion, acting as hostess and buying a wardrobe that "befitted her position," as Julia Taft recalled. Mary's idea of that position was a bit lofty for a democracy. She and some newspaper editors viewed her as a "Republican Queen." She modeled her wardrobe on the French Empress Eugenie's.

Eugenie, Emperor Napoleon III's consort from 
1853 to 1870, set western fashion with her 
elaborate bell-shaped skirts.

Mary Lincoln clipped sketches of the Empress's gowns and asked seamstress Elizabeth Keckly for copies.

Whirling Star by Becky Brown

Mary Clemmer Ames (1839-1884)

During the Civil War journalist Mary Ames sent dispatches to various newspapers including one widely copied story telling of the "Late Slaves," meaning once-enslaved Washingtonians now free. 

This 1862 article about Lizzie may be the first published reference to Elizabeth Keckly's skills. 

Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly (1818-1907)

Whirling Star by Elsie Ridgley

Jean H. Baker in her 1987 biography of Mary Lincoln tells us of the French Empress's influence. Baker thought Mary Lincoln's personality problems and her need to outshine others were due to her mother's early death and resulting trauma, a somewhat Freudian explanation.

"Nobody suffered as she suffered."

Mary Clemmer Ames seems to have been more perceptive. In her 1873 book Ten Years in Washington: Life & Scenes in the National Capital, she describes the First Lady:
"Incapable of lofty, impersonal impulse. She was self-centered, and never in any experience rose above herself. According to circumstances, her own ambitions, her own pleasures, her own sufferings ...consumed every other. As a President's wife she could not rise above the level of her nature....."

Freud had not yet borrowed the term Narcissist for the extremely self-centered but Mary Lincoln seems to have been a classic example.

National Museums of Liverpool
Greek myth painted in 1903 by John William Waterhouse.
The rejected Echo looks on as Narcissus loses himself in his own reflection.
He cannot pull himself away and eventually dies, his handsome corpse
turned into the daffodils named for him.

Writing in 1914 Freud would have linked Mary Lincoln's personality disorders to sexual repression or some such thing but today that inability to view the world through any other prism but one's own feelings is considered an innate personality disorder, crippling in many cases. The Narcissist is often "her own worst enemy."

New Year's Eve at the White House, December 1861, London Illustrated News

Whirling Star by Elsie Ridgley

Like many Narcissists Mary was attractive and even compelling. Her husband did love her despite her tantrums. At her sparkling best she was quick-witted, amusing and up-to-date on the latest conversational topics, something he seems to have valued.

Mary's social whirl may have gotten her and the White House budget into financial trouble but this first year as First Lady was the only bright year in her Washington life. The year 1862 would bring her the first of the losses she was constitutionally unable to overcome.

Whirling Star by Denniele Bohanon

The Block

The pattern is Blockbase+ #3295, attributed to the Nancy Cabot column in the Chicago Tribune. 
Fifty years ago when I was compiling my Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns I relied on other indexers as sources and this is one I cannot back up today. But it's a pretty block in shades of mauve & magenta, representing the Republican Queen well. 
Further Reading:

Read Mary Clemmer Ames's 1873 book Ten Years in Washington:

Psychology Today on Narcissism:

And information about Mary Lincoln's questionable associates:

Wednesday, July 3, 2024

The Lint & Bandage Mania in Boston

Soldiers marching on Washington Street, Boston
Caroline Healy Dall witnessed an impressive community event in Boston in late August, 1862. Shocked to hear that Confederate forces had badly defeated the Union Army at the First Battle of Bull Run, Bostonians resolved to do something about this unexpected loss as they heard that a second battle was being waged. Women responded by gathering en masse to make bandages and scrape lint, used to pack wounds.

Currier & Ives's print frames a Union victory but the
truth was the reverse.

Caroline Wells Healy Dall (1822-1912)
 in the hairdo popular in the 1840s

Caroline who lived in nearby Medford rode to the city on a car "crowded to a crush with women & bundles. Most of them were weeping." Outside Tremont Temple three tables had been set up to receive donations to pay for shipping the hospital supplies.

Tremont Hall
"On the side walk immense boxes were being packed. In the building 1800 women sewed all day."

She was most impressed by the bundles everyone was carrying into the hall, filled, presumably, with fabric and material from which to make the bandages.
"Women with bundles were crowding all the avenues and the streets as far as we could see...."The bundles were passed...tossed from hand to hand along the lines, till they reached the immense inner work-room."
For bandages newspapers advised volunteers to use absorbent, unbleached cotton muslin rather than bleached or glazed fabric, cut in long strips rolled into cylinders secured with a pair of pins. New fabric was often unavailable, and much cotton and linen from household textiles and clothing was recycled into hospital supplies.

Lidian Emerson was glad to supply the necessary pins as the war went on. See a post about her daughter Ellen and the pin donation here:

 Varina Davis, wife of the Confederate president, recalled that linen was prized for both bandages and linting. A patriotic Southerner "sacrificed "the table linen she had treasured for forty years."

Detail of a painting by Mihály Munkácsy
showing European women scraping lint in 1871.

When the war began everyone was sure that poultices of well-worn linen thread scraps were the best thing for packing wounds. 
"Lint should be made of unraveled linen, new or old (the latter preferred), by cutting it in pieces of four or five inches square, which would be highly acceptable, while lint made from canton flannel is irritating to the wound.” Peterson's Magazine, August, 1861
Northerner Mary Livermore recalled the "lint and bandage mania" with hindsight in her history of women's work during the Civil War.
"Every household gave its leisure time to scraping lint and rolling bandages, till the mighty accumulations compelled the ordering of a halt."
Apparently, enthusiastic women donated far more supplies than necessary and the whole idea of packing wounds with lint or fluff raveled from linen quickly fell into disfavor with the doctors' experiences. Commercially produced linen lint was available and some surgeons preferred new cotton wadding, also available commercially.

A national call for lint a few days after the second battle of Bull Run.

Caroline Dall happened upon an example of the enthusiastic, early response of women when the nation realized that the Civil War was going to be a series of bloody battles. When she returned to Medford she found a smaller version of the same street activity. "A perfect crowd were hurrying with bundles."

Read more about lint scraping here:

See a preview of Caroline Healy Dall's published diary Daughter of Boston, edited by Helen R. Deese:

Wednesday, June 26, 2024

Kentucky Classic # 4: Goldenrod for Belle Robinson


Kentucky Classic # 4: Kentucky Goldenrod for Belle Robinson
by Elsie Ridgley

In the late 1930s the Federal Writers' Project had the excellent idea of interviewing older Americans such as ex-cowboys and former slaves. Thousands of interviews were conducted with standard questions.
Mother & daughter by Alice Huger Smith
Alice painted and drew her South Carolina neighbors in the early 20th century.

 The interviewees who'd been held in slavery before 1865 were over 70, most of them children before the Emancipation Proclamation.

Texan Tempie Cummins was probably a young child in 1865.
Some interviewees were photographed.

Belle Robinson (1853- after 1940) was interviewed in Garrard County, Kentucky, in June, 1937. The woman, about 75 at the time, had short answers to the standard questions because, “Lawdy, it has been so long that I have forgot nearly everything I knew....I was too young to remember much about the slave days.”  

The transcript of her discussion with local teacher and historian Eliza Ison is brief. Eliza found Belle working on a quilt when the visit began.
“I was born June 3rd, 1853 in Garrard County near Lancaster. My mother’s name was Marion Blevin and she belonged to the family of Pleas Blevin. My father’s name was Arch Robinson who lived in Madison County." 
The white Robinsons were wealthy landowners with many enslaved people throughout the area. One of their plantations was taken over by the Union as a recruiting and training station named Camp Dick Robinson. See pattern #3 for more about Camp Dick Robinson:

Belle spent much of her life with Mary Ann Beeler Brady (about 1821-?) and her family. The 1860 census found Mary Ann Brady at 39 living with an 18-year old hired hand John Ballard and one invisible person, listed on the separate slave schedule as an unnamed 7-year old female who must have been Belle. When Harrison Brady died his human property probably went to his heirs and not his wife, who bought Belle from the estate.
"When Mr. Brady died and his property was sold Mrs. Brady bought me back; and she always said that she paid $400 for me. I lived in that family for three generations, until every one of them died. I was the only child and had always lived at the big house with my mistress."

A "small gal" by Alice Huger Smith

The 1880 census shows two adjacent households in the town of Lancaster. Belle, unmarried at 26, and  two children---4 year old Betsy and 3-year-old William---are living with Joseph & Frances Beeler and several other adults who work for the Beelers. Belle is a servant. 

"The Servant" by Alice Huger Smith

Next door is Mary A. Spratt age 60. This may be Mary Ann Beeler Brady and a second husband Solomon Spratt (1820-1894), married in 1861, or perhaps one of Mary Ann's birth daughters. Nobody looks very prosperous 15 years after the end of the Civil War.

Later censuses find Belle living with Grand Anderson and his wife (Muriel?) probably Belle's daughter and four children. Belle's employed as a cook in 1920. In 1930 she was running a boarding house on East 5th Street in Lancaster and has assets worth $1,000.  In 1940 at 85 she was again living with the Anderson family, probably where interviewer Eliza Ison found her stitching a quilt.

Belle Robinson left far too much unsaid. Our current take on slavery's economic system and its inherent personal tragedies gives us little insight to the relationship of Belle and her white "family." She obviously took pride in connections that gave her a sense of who she was in this world. We cannot hope to understand the social customs and norms of the time.

The Block

#4 Kentucky Goldenrod

The various Kentucky appliques sometimes include this yellow-orange
floral. We have no idea what it represents but let's call it a 
goldenrod, Kentucky's state flower, chosen for Belle, a native Kentuckian.
One version appliqued with an embroidery stitch.

 Kentucky State Historical Society

The goldenrod pattern's loosely based on this version in a repeat block quilt, attributed to Millie Anderson McCain of Marion County. She included the carnation, fruit, roses and buds gathered in a very small container.

The Kentucky Historical Society owns 5 of Millie's quilts.

Lucy Kemper West
DAR Museum

One appealing design idea in these quilts, as we have noted, is the absurdly small vase. You may want to substitute Lucy's pink vase below for the taller vase in the Goldenrod pattern. 
I'd add a third flower or enlarge the original two a bit so it looks like the whole thing is going to topple over. Also see the little vase in pattern #2.

4 blocks finishing to 15" in the side-by-side set.
No medallion pattern this month.

Margaret Brodie McClain added a ribbon-like frame around
her center block with goldenrod and fruit sprouting from it.
Her quilt was found in Missouri.


The black & white illustrations by Alice Huger Smith are from Elizabeth Waties Allston Pringle's book
A Woman Rice Planter.