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words and images from the past

Louisa May Alcott and Boys

June 29, 2018

“…many people think boys are a nuisance, but that is because they don’t understand them.  I do; and I never saw a boy yet whom I could not get on capitally with after I had once found the soft spot in his heart.” -Jo (March) Bhaer, Little Men, published 1870

Boys. Louisa May Alcott expressed over and over in her writing that boys held a special place in her heart and that she understood their restless, loud, active ways better than she understood the proper, quiet ways of girls.

When I was about seven or eight years old, my parents gave me an illustrated copy of Little Men (1965 Golden Press Classics). I didn’t know who Louisa May Alcott was or that the book had been written over 100 years ago or that it had been the sequel to another book.

Little_Men_1st_ed (1)

A few years later, a friend placed my first copy of Little Women in my hands as a birthday present, and I was introduced to the younger Jo. Somewhere along the way, I connected the two books and realized that Josephine March was Mrs. Bhaer, the mother to the boys who lived at Plumfield.  Jo March’s moody, restless, “topsy-turvy” weaknesses that she tried so hard to tame and manage, became strengths to boys who needed understanding, fun, and space to be a little wild now and then.


Original illustration by May Alcott 1869

I know, for I am now in my fifteenth year working at a home for boys. Somehow, I have come to live out my own version of Jo March’s life. We are technically a “residential facility for at-risk youth,” but that just sounds cold and institutional. In reality, we are a temporary home for boys needing discipline, guidance, training, and counseling.

Our boys are placed with us for various reasons, as described at the end of Little Women and the beginning of Little Men. Our founders even started the program with a nephew, just as Friedrich Bhaer took in his German nephews Franz and Emil. We have had boys who struggle with learning disabilities (like Nat), who are full of energy and live to be outdoors (like Tommy), and who long for complete independence (like Dan).

Just as at Plumfield, our residents are all unique and are encouraged to learn a trade or develop their talents, especially those they naturally possess, a basic Transcendentalist tenet the Alcotts embraced. Jo and Friedrich Bhaer could be real-life staff at our “school,” for we, too, grow gardens, teach our boys basic farming, and offer trade skills such as woodshop, welding, mechanics, and cooking. We feel the boys’ hurts, from sore throats to broken hearts.

As the English teacher, I have included Little Men in my curriculum for Middle School English. Every year I teach this book, my students each identify with a character. Once I had a student who proclaimed, “I am Tommy. I understand why he gets into so much trouble even though he doesn’t mean to!”


via Wikimedia Commons by The City of Boston Archives

Above is a school in Boston created in honor of Louisa May Alcott, apparently around 1910 or 1920, after her death. Hmmm….This plain structure with no flower gardens or spaces to roam or inspiration seems very far from the fictional Plumfield.

LMA may have had, in a loose sense of the term, a sort of day home for boys. They likely came to her often for a listening ear, a bit of nursing of cuts or bruises, advice about girls and future careers, and the many “projects” boys always seem to be planning. We know of a few of these boys from her journals and can only speculate how many are inserted in her stories as fictional characters.

It seems to have begun with Alcott’s mother Abigail Bronson Alcott. Anne Brown Adams (daughter of John Brown) came to live in Concord for a time after her father’s execution and boarded at the Alcotts’ home at Orchard House. She remembered that Mrs. Alcott thought it “the duty of every mother in the land to invite a few men to spend their evenings at their home and so fill them with rational amusements, that it would draw the young men away from bad places” (Shealy 8).

The family (the real-life Alcotts) with perhaps the fewest monetary resources in town became the hub of social life, promoting and leading activities such as plays, clubs, long skates on the river, and discussions about art and literature and God and life. Afterward, their guests might have shared in baskets of fresh, popped corn and crisp apples.


The real Louisa May Alcott

We see the March girls offering a refuge such as this for young Theodore Lawrence in Little Women, including the lonely boy next door in harmless, but creative, entertainments.  He later acknowledges that they have, in a way, saved his life and put him on the right track in life: “You have all done more for me than I can ever thank you for, except by doing my best not to disappoint you” (349).

Many years earlier, Frederick Llewellyn Willis, who first became acquainted with the Alcott family in 1944, also boarded with the Alcotts (at Hillside). Having a more intimate knowledge of them, as he was a distant cousin by marriage, he hints that he was let into the close-knit family circle and allowed to see them as they were. This was before the family was famous. He recalls that Louisa was exactly as she described herself in the opening chapters of Little Women and “always lamented she was not born a boy” and “preferred boys’ games” (Alcott Memoirs 38).


A popular book of the late 1800s via Flickr

A decade later, in 1856, Alcott mentions being teased by “the boys…about being an authoress” (Life, Letters, and Journals 88). Still in her early twenties, the writer was clearly comfortable around males who were younger than she, probably only by eight or ten years. Surely many of these had crushes on the older girl with the dark expressive eyes.

During the Civil War, Alcott bravely nursed wounded men, dispensing medications, feeding, bathing, dressing wounds, and watching over the critically ill. I find this astonishing for a time period in which an unmarried woman would have felt too innocent or shy or proper to do such things. She also provided for the other, emotional, needs of the men, writing their letters to home, reading, listening to their struggles, plumping pillows, comforting amputees, and amusing all with her wit and sense of humor, as described in Hospital Sketches.


Civil War soldiers wait for meds in this drawing via Flickr

From that time on, it seems she thought of herself as a sort of mother or older sister to these and others (her journals are fraught with references to herself as the older matron), including Ladislas Wisniewski, the young man she met on her travels to Europe and whom she later marked as “Laurie” in her journals (179). In researching, it is quite telling just how many of those who knew her as young men believed themselves to be the true “Laurie.” They must have recognized episodes from their own lives in her fiction, but all felt special to her in some way or another.

It is ironic that the woman who so loved and understood boys is best known for her story of four young women. Yet, Laurie is central to the story, as each girl takes him under her wing and influences him in her own way. Is it not as much the story of a motherless boy who finds solace in a home, and are we not taken into that home just as he is?

Jo finds her life’s work in doing this sort of thing and, with Fritz, creates a “happy, home-like place for boys who need teaching, care, and kindness” (Little Women 351). She sees this first group of boys grow up, marry, and create homes of their own. She learns that not every single one will be famous or wealthy, but each one has been touched by his time at Plumfield.

Now and then I get a phone call and a thank you from a now-grown “boy” who is married and has children.  I have one biological son, but many, many others I will never forget. Recently, I received the most touching message I have ever received from one of my own boys who has gone on to the next phase of his life. He is the “Nat” of my career, the one who is truly a selfless example to others. He wrote from his heart, ending with the words: “I am so grateful for the work that you put into what God has put in front of you.”

I believe I am doing what I do, in part, because Josephine March was such a strong influence upon me. The fictional home of Plumfield was likely a metaphor for Louisa May Alcott’s own homes (one need not think too long nor hard to see a connection between Plumfield and Orchard House) and the many lives that were touched by those who visited them. Although girls were her greatest fans, it was, no doubt, boys who knew the real Lou.



Alcott, Louisa May. Hospital Sketches. Boston: James Redpath, 1863. Retrieved January 17, 2018 from

Alcott, Louisa May. Little Men:  Life at Plumfield with Jo’s Boys. Boston:  Roberts Brothers, 1888. Print.

Alcott, Louisa May. Little WomenPart Second. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1869. Print.

Cheney, Ednah D., ed. Louisa May Alcott:  Her Life, Letters, and Journals. Boston:  Little Brown and Company, 1898. Print.

Forbes, Edith Willis Linn. Alcott Memoirs: From the Journals of Dr. Frederick L. H. Willis. Boston:  Richard G. Badger, 1915. Print.

Shealy, Daniel, ed. Alcott in Her Own Time. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2005. Print.


When I open my reading app (I have an Amazon Fire Phone, sort of like owning an Edsel in the 1960’s), I see the first five or six books are texts I am reading simultaneously. I don’t read serially because my moods change and drive my decisions, my cravings, even my goals. Here are my current reads:

A Winter Away by Elizabeth Fair

I think it goes without saying that I began reading this in the, ahem, winter. I cannot claim to have devoured it, but I will saying I am slowly relishing it. The golden mysteries (especially British) are my top pick when I need to relax and be transformed to another time and place. This book is not actually a crime story, but reads more like a mystery than a typical country house novel.


The story revolves around a 25-year-old who has come to stay at her older cousin’s country house and work for a wealthy neighbor (also older). I love a book that is unpredictable, and this writer has layered her characters with flat traits on the surface, but complex traits underneath.

Part of the intrigue involves figuring out who can be trusted and who cannot. She does drop clues, but you must listen to the other characters very closely.

Amplified BibleClassic Edition

This book never falls far down on my list. This Bible is not a word-for-word translation, but rather a linguistic translation that takes into account what was intended in the original text, both Hebrew and Greek.

The Psalms are extremely comforting and powerful in this version:

“As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us. As a father loves and pities his children, so the Lord loves and pities those who fear Him [with reverence, worship, and awe]. For He knows our frame, He [earnestly] remembers and imprints [on his heart] that we are dust.” (Psalm 103: 12-14 AMP)

Postcards from Across the Pond by Michael Harling

Harling reveals the differences between the everyday lives of Americans and Brits as he adjusts to marriage and to a whole new way of life in Great Britain. Although written some years ago (I think serially at some point), this books pulls you in, and I am re-reading it. Well done!

Here, he talks about the bathroom sink:

“…the English haven’t yet caught on to the concept that hot and cold water, coming out of the same faucet, produces warm water. In the tub and the sink, there are two taps. One is cold, the other, ostensibly, hot…which necessitates moving your hands rapidly back and forth between the hot and cold taps. You could use the small rubber bung chained to the sink to stop up the drain…but having been raised on the single tap method, this doesn’t occur to you.”

A few days ago, I was watching a British home show and noticed the two separate taps on the tub. I probably would never have thought about it had I not been reading this book.  Don’t worry, though. He doesn’t disparage the British in favor of Americans, and he really does love his life. He just shows us that, although we share a language, we are different culturally. (Harling has also written a sequel explaining that much of this has changed, and modern comforts are now common in GB.)

My husband just had a DNA test done to find out his heritage, and he is like 90% British. I knew that without needing a test to tell me. If he only had a British accent, he would make perfect sense!

Prairie Fires: the American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser

I have basically collected Laura Ingalls Wilder books since I was a young girl, writing my first “research” paper in 6th grade using non-fiction biographies I owned at the time. Since then, I have accumulated many more, and Prairie Fires was a must-read for this year.

Strangely, I have taken my time reading this text, as I need to think about what the author is saying and what I have read over the years both about and by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Fraser is much more objective than I thought at first, so I am definitely learning all sorts of new tidbits. Her focus gives a heavy dose of the real struggles of the Ingalls and Wilder families.

For example, when Laura and Manly’s house burns down, according to Fraser, Laura crumples to the ground sobbing, as Rose looks on. I had never thought of the many and extreme disappointments this family experienced being so felt and expressed by Laura, who gave a much more positive and hopeful slant (purposefully, as she was writing for children) in her own writings.

The Worn Doorstep by Margaret Sherwood

As I began to read the first chapter, I was convinced this was an autobiography. As with Elizabeth von Arnim, Sherwood writes so naturally (and with a first-person point of view) that one is drawn into her world and made to feel we are being entrusted with her secrets. Surely, this must be drawn from person experience!

Really, this book gives a glimpse of those left behind during world war, especially the wives left permanently behind who needed to create a new life for themselves. The American narrator buys an English cottage, one like she and her British husband had dreamed of buying together, and fixes it up and learns about herself and British domestic life at the same time. Home design and DIY are not new ideas! Read this book for free by clicking here.

This is just the sort of book I might read when I am extremely worn out and trying to make decisions in my life. I feel comforted by the familiarity of someone expressing their own worries and thought processes.


Yes, I see common themes in my picks. As a lover of non-fiction, I seem to choose even fiction that has a biographical feel. How about you? What books are in your top list right now, whether you are taking a slow journey or reading voraciously and with purpose?

Seed Packet Illustrations

May 13, 2018

Vintage illustrations include those drawn for children’s books, works of art chosen carefully for the covers of magazines, and copies of flora and fauna hand-drawn from observation for encyclopedias and other reference books.

Some of the loveliest vintage art, for me, can be found on calendars, seed packets, and other, more utilitarian papers. As an amateur gardener, the month of May inspires me to visit gardening centers, plan out my beds, and dig my hands into the earth! This post is dedicated to seed packets and catalogs from long ago. Oh, how I would love to have some of these flowers for my own garden.

Adorning the following packet, graceful asters in heritage pinks and violets (and one fiery red bloom) curl towards the sun as the wind softly blows their petals.


Via Wikimedia Commons By Maule, Wm. Henry (Firm) [CC BY 2.0 (

According to the Maule family website, William Henry Maule helped his father’s seed company become “renowned worldwide” ( Maule created colorful catalogs and marketed them towards individuals, showing the importance of beautiful art in advertising.

Next, I have chosen a packet with blooms so deep, they can only be heirlooms (from 1894). These giant petunias, in deep reds, purples, and creamy whites, show off their ruffles. Note the lovely striped and multi-color effects of these beauties:


Via Flickr from Manual of Everything for the Garden (1894)

The photo above reads:

“Peter Henderson and Co., New York. 1894. Petunias: Giants of California. Seeds of any of the above varieties 25c per packet. The collection her show each packet separately for $1.50.”

In his Manual for Everything in the Garden, Henderson cleverly disguised an annual seed catalog as a reference for gardeners, but it was a true guide, as well, with detailed descriptions and instructions for planting. I would have looked forward to this every year.

I have chosen the next graphic because it is a French seed packet, and I love its style:


via The Old Design Shop (please go to her site for permission to share)

Dahlias, with their understated elegance, are my new love this year in my garden. They offer the delicacy and richness of roses, but without the thorns. The cream and deep wine roses in the following illustration are quite tempting for me, though:


via The Graphics Fairy

I can imagine the white and red roses grown together (at 75c each). The Dingee and Conard Co. were a “primary grower of roses in America” in the early 1900’s and were also the first company to introduce miniature roses.

We just bought our home two years ago, moved in after the first growing season was over, and are still trying to uncover the garden, overgrown from years of neglect. Originally, someone planned the landscaping around our home meticulously, with shrubs (dozens of forsythias), flowering trees, perennials, stone paths, and an underground sprinkler system. As a result, we have named our house Forsythia Cottage.

So far, I have only added some lavender and bee balm until I see what blooms naturally. I  prefer carefree, airy plants and long for a cutting garden with a mix of French and English styles.

I leave you with a flower that grows quite well here in the Ozarks, even in our hard, rocky soil. I refer to these as spring Phlox or Dianthus, but in literature they are often known by the quaint name Sweet William:


In literature, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote a memory about Sweet William(s) in an article for the Missouri Ruralist in 1917:

“A window had been broken in the schoolhouse…and the pieces of glass lay scattered where they had fallen. Several little girls going to school for their first term had picked handfuls of Sweet Williams and were gathered near the windows. Someone discovered that the blossoms could be pulled from the stem and, by wetting their faces, could be stuck to the pieces of glass in whatever fashion they were arranged. They dried on the glass and would stay that way for hours and, looked at thru the glass, were very pretty. I was one of those little girls and tho I have forgotten what it was that I tried to learn out of a book that summer, I never have forgotten the beautiful wreaths and stars and other figures we made on the glass with the Sweet Williams.”

April, Cardinals, and Birthdays

April 29, 2018


via Flickr by Swallowtail Garden Seeds

The late spring this year reminds me of childhood Aprils in Iowa, apple trees clothed in white blooms, warm grass beneath my feet, and the promise of warm days to come. Here in the Ozarks, spring often comes much earlier, woods coming alive in a parade of colour: redbuds, magnolias, and dogwoods (although not early this year).

April and Elizabeth von Arnim

References to April in literature abound. Elizabeth von Arnim refers to her oldest daughter as the April baby. This precocious five-year-old, born in the month of April, changes the story of Adam and Eve so that it ends happily, asks lots of questions about God, and wants to know what angels wear and if they are girls (Elizabeth and Her German Garden 66).

Elizabeth von Arnim also gave us one of the most iconic English holiday stories in The Enchanted April. The characters gain new perspective at the Italian seaside bursting with beauty in the month of April:

 “…the wisteria was tumbling over itself in the excess of life…[and] scarlet geraniums, bushes of them, and nasturtiums in great heaps, and marigolds so brilliant that they seemed to be burning and red and pink snapdragons, all outdoing each other in bright, fierce colour. The ground behind these flaming things dropped away in terraces to the sea, each terrace a little orchard, where among the olives grew vines on trellises, and fig trees, and peach trees, and cherry trees…in blossom…” (109).


Vintage image of a Marigold c. 1887 via The Graphics Fairy

The Song of the Cardinal

The writer who gave us A Girl of the Limberlost seemed to have some sort of secret handshake with nature that allowed her to be a party to its mysteries. In truth, Gene Stratton-Porter had a keen gift of observation and immersed herself in woods, streams, and fields.

In her novelette The Song of the Cardinal (dedicated to her father), this naturalist and storyteller paints a picture of April in the northeastern United States:

“Thrusting aside the mold and leaves above them, spring beauties, hepaticas, and violets lifted tender golden-green heads. The sap was flowing, and leafless trees were covered with swelling buds…The catkins bloomed first; and then, in an incredibly short time, flags, rushes, and vines were like a sea of waving green…There was intoxication in the air” (published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1913).

April provides the backdrop as the Cardinal woos his mate.

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Illustration by Frederick William Frohawk 1887 via Flickr

Frederick William Frohawk, a British naturalist of the 19th century, shared Gene Stratton-Porter’s love for moths, birds, and butterflies. Like Audubon, Frohawk first observed and then sketched, painted, and colored everything from eggs and cocoons to feathers and shells.

In the above sketch, Frohawk captures the expressions of the lovebirds, including the pride of the male bird as described in The Song of the Cardinal.

Here, another pair of British birds, Redstarts, construct their nest in the month of April. Soft leaves serve as a frame to the gray female and the more colorful male:


Illustration by Henrik Grönvold (d. 1940) from The Birds of Great Britain and Ireland

Charlotte Bronte, Shakespeare, and Birthdays

Illustrators and writers alike from past centuries seemed to view April as the true coming of spring, not as a month of pure rain and umbrellas. Charlotte Bronte, born in April of 1816, compared herself to her birth month, noting that like April, she was girl of many moods. Here is an excerpt of a letter she wrote to her aunt while she was in Brussels:

Believe me, though I was born in the month of April, the month of cloud and sunshine…My spirits are unequal, and sometimes I speak vehemently, and sometimes I say nothing at all; but I have a steady regard for you, and if you will let the cloud and shower pass by, be sure the sun is behind, obscured, but still existing” (The Life of Charlotte Bronte: Volume I).


A young Jane Eyre in an early 1897 edition via The British Library (Flickr)

I love the illustration above, by Edmund Henry Garrett, as it captures the heart of a writer, one who feels deeply, is a bit of a loner, and gets lost in her own world. Charlotte Bronte and Jane Eyre both claimed to be emotional (in a controlled way) and unable to move on from things easily, and it is easy to see that Bronte put some of herself in this character.

Shakespeare, another April baby, refers to his birth month as “lovely” in Sonnet 3 and personifies April in Sonnet 98:

“From you have I been absent in the spring,/When proud-pied April, dress’d in all his trim,/Hath put on a spirit of youth in everything.”

Shakespeare describes April as colorful and youthful. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, proud-pied means “gorgeously variegated.” Whatever he may have meant by this, it seems that Shakespeare and Charlotte Bronte both observed the many dimensions of April.

Like the writers above, Kate Greenaway described life, but in her own way, through pictures. In the Birthday Book for Children, this pictorial view of April is found at the end of the month. The daughter’s arms are flung with the freedom and light of springtime. All three are dressed in white gowns proclaiming that warmth is here to stay, and mother kisses baby while seeming to float as she strolls.


Via Wiki Commons

April is nearly over, but it will leave its mark on us, with its unfurled leaves, days of drops and splats, dogwood blossoms, and many shades of greens, perhaps the very reason Elizabeth von Arnim chose to center an entire vacation around this month. April looks forward and brings inspiration to women from all seasons of life.


100 Years Ago: Cleaning House

April 19, 2018

When I was younger, I developed a slight obsession with housekeeping. Oh, not with actually cleaning my house, but with reading books and manuals about cleaning! This started when I was still in my teen years, and I discovered a book called The Messies Manual by Sandra Felton, which taught its readers to clean a room by starting on the left side of one wall and working around the room (referred to in the book as the “Mount Vernon method”). Here is the version I owned:



This obsession (for me) culminated around 2005 with possibly the most comprehensive book ever written about housekeeping:  Home Comforts by Cheryl Mendelson.


( If books were priced by their thickness or number of pages, this one would be one of the best deals ever!)

Perhaps this passion really started with the home Laura Ingalls Wilder described in the Little House in the Big Woods, the first chapter book I ever remember reading.

“Ma sat in her rocking chair, sewing by the light of the lamp on the table. The lamp was bright and shiny. There was salt in the bottom of its glass bowl with the kerosene…and there were bits of red flannel among the salt to make it pretty” (38).

Ma always scrubbed her house clean, no matter which little house they were living in (dugout, cabin, shanty, or store), and did her chores and kept a routine, even in the midst of a snowstorm or when faced with hard economic times. Her house always seemed, to me, so cozy and warm. As a young girl, I never realized they lived in poverty most of those years. These routines seemed to truly give purpose to their lives.


Mrs. Wilder actually began her career as a non-fiction writer, submitting articles to magazines (many of them describing farm life on their five-acre home in the Ozarks). Here, in an article for Country Gentleman (published in 1925), nearly one-hundred years ago, she describes some of her cleaning supplies:


“Above the sink are cupboards, one for cooking dishes, the other for the lamps, laundry soap, scouring powders, and so forth. Under one cupboard, against the chimney, is a shelf for my flat-irons, and the towel rack is fastened to a corner of the shelf” (A Little House Sampler, edited by William T. Anderson, published 1988 by Harper, p 142).


She was a believer in housekeeping as a science and, with Almanzo, purposefully planned her kitchen for easy cleaning:

“We painted the whole room white–two coats of flat white and a finishing coat of white enamel. I would hardly have attempted this in an ordinary farm kitchen but mine has no place to catch dust; no baseboards, no window sills, no beveling on doors. Wherever there is a corner it is rounded with a piece of molding and white paint is really much easier to keep clean than dark paint” (A Little House Sampler 142).

In the 1920’s, books on “household management,” cookbooks, and several home magazines were already popular amongst housewives, some of the bestselling published works of the day. A home economics textbook from one hundred years ago instructs:

“Rooms which are in constant use should be swept and dusted every day. A thorough cleaning of each room in the house will be necessary every week or two” (Household Science in Rural Schools published 1918).


This seems reasonable until I see that a weekly cleaning includes dusting everything that is “moveable” and taking it out of each room (while one cleans the floors), brushing the walls and ceilings, washing all of the woodwork with wood soap, taking the rugs outside and beating them, putting everything back in place, and then boiling the used dust cloths.  In the bedroom, one was to also dust the bedframe, turn the mattress, and shake the curtains.

I consider this a yearly cleaning at best, my version involving a rug shampooer. I think every housekeeping book I have ever read from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s insists one must turn the mattress every week and do so for each bed in the house. This explains why beds were so much smaller and mattresses thinner (yes, it was likely the other way around, that the thinner mattresses wore better this way, but I can’t help but wonder)!

Dust, like a villain in a melodrama, was the enemy of an excellent housekeeper. One book from this era explains in detail, perhaps for those young women whose mothers did not teach them:

“Sweep the cobwebs down with your clean broom…get up on your stepladder, and with brush and dustpan, clear the dust from door and window tops, and dust the mouldings with the whisk broom. Brush the walls, and dust the baseboards with the broom, then sweep the floor with light strokes…” (Anna Maria’s Housekeeping pub. 1912).

Published in London, a city fighting against smog, coal dust, fumes, and the refuse of industrialism, the book above instructed one to “time yourself to do this sweeping in fifteen minutes, then sit down for a five minutes’ rest ” and “after you have swept and dusted everything by brushing it, begin cleaning.” Apparently, the real cleaning involved, among other things: boiled water, ammonia, sand, and soap, taking out drawers, washing window frames, clearing the dust from the window locks, and turning the kitchen table upside down to clean underneath.

Kitchen work might easily have consumed the majority of a housewife’s day. It was recommended that the sink be washed three times daily with sand soap or kerosene (please do NOT try this at home) followed by pouring boiling water down the pipes. A good housewife would also scrub “all parts of the inside” of the refrigerator twice per week. Stoves were a completely different appliance then, and care may have involved “blacking” the stove or at least, in the case of a gas stove, rubbing it clean and keeping it filled with oil.

According to The Housekeeper’s Handbook of Cleaning (by Sarah J. MacLeod), published in 1915, “cabinets should be emptied of contents at least once a month and washed thoroughly” (31).


This same book has an entire chapter devoted to floors, the choices including varnished floors, waxed hardwoods, linoleum, and cork. The trend then was toward linoleum (at least in the kitchen and bath) because it provided some support for weary feet. The oiling or waxing of floors was a tedious job, but allowed the housekeeper to wipe them clean on a daily basis. Linoleum needed to be swept with a damp broom and washed with soap and water. Rugs, popular then as now, were swept with a broom and taken outside to be beaten.

Books for young girls at this time abounded, didactic, suggesting that neglecting one’s duties a terrible sin.

In literature, writers such as L. M. Montgomery give us some glimpses of this era as well. Anne’s House of Dreams, published in 1917, shows a young, newly-married Anne as a wife and homemaker. Rachel Lynde comments:

“Anne’s a good housekeeper…I’ve looked into her bread box and her scrap pail. I always judge a housekeeper by those, that’s what. There’s nothing in the pail that shouldn’t have been thrown away, and no stale pieces in the bread box.”



Montgomery reiterates what the books at the time taught. Una and Faith in Rainbow Valley (published in 1917) attempt to clean their house by taking all of the furniture out onto the lawn as “an orgy of sweeping followed,” as well as dusting and washing windows. The girls cannot understand why their windows don’t “sparkle” after using soap and water to wash them!

Housekeeping one hundred years ago required energy, planning, and a lot of elbow grease! None of the above even takes into account babies, diapers, or cooking for a family. Yes, housekeeping was more than a full-time job.

Snowy Vintage Illustrations

January 12, 2018

Even though January can be dark and cloudy and the weather unpredictable, it can also be breathtakingly beautiful, even in a vintage illustration!


Winter Lady with Letter at The Graphics Fairy

Olive greens, browns, and deep reds remind us of robins, cardinals, holly, and evergreens, the bright spots of winter. Did you ever notice how you really see houses when they are highlighted by snow? Or how pines and spruces suddenly come into the foreground once the deciduous trees have lost their leaves?

Here,  an olive-clad mysterious lady with a basket, a fur muff, and a letter, shows us that she is carrying a secret. What is so important that she must brave the cold and snow to deliver its contents? Or has she just received important news?

The crusted snow mirrors the letter. Both have crisp, white exteriors, but secrets lie beneath.

I will probably always be an Iowa girl at heart, and the soft grasses peeking from beneath the snow make my heart skip a beat.


Vintage Winter Bird Nest Label at The Graphics Fairy

This chirpy robin is saying something, and the vintage card would have allowed the sender to fill in her own message beneath…whatever she wanted the bird to say. Perhaps:  cozy up in your nest and stay warm this winter! Or maybe she is announcing the birth of some baby birds this coming spring or perhaps a human baby.



In an old book illustration, a red-caped maiden entices a robin as it sits atop a bare branch. Gold and gray Victorian dresses, ice-covered branches, and a French garden wall frame the pretty little bird as it tries to decide if it should trust her. This illustration by L. E. Barker, found on the British Library’s collection of vintage images on flickr, is from a book of poetry published in 1853 (Poetry of the Year: Passages from the Poets).

It is almost as if this illustration is a closeup of the one above, showing us that for the robin in winter, the struggle is real! Oh, I want to bring it indoors, poor thing.

My parents feed these sweet birds all year long, but in the winter in Iowa, birdseed, shelter, and a heated birdbath are the difference between life and death. The image is by J. Hall from a book published in 1893 titled Nursery Songs.




Image found at the Graphics Fairy

Soft greens surround a mademoiselle leaving a church service, who has caught the eye of a gray robin. “We are the same,” they seem to be saying to each other, “with our muted pink dresses and our covered heads…we may not be as fancy as others, but we are survivors!”

The bird and the girl stand out amidst soft snow and gray skies and are surrounded by branches and a latticed window that mimic the ribboned frame. I’m not sure what the purpose of this vintage image, but it may have been a simple Christmas card or maybe a calling card for the winter:  “I came by to see you.”

In this image, the beauty lies in the colors and textures of winter. Biting winds and stinging cold may make us long for spring, but we are so much more appreciative of small comforts and simple beauty.

I’m so glad images such as these continue to be available to us many years later. Happy January!



New Year’s, Bigfoot, and Lucy Maud Montgomery

January 9, 2018

I guess I’ve always had a thing for sleuthing. When I was nine, my best friend and I formed a Mystery Club. We were convinced that Bigfoot prowled around our neighborhood at night. With notebooks in hand, we inspected the fields and tree rows near our houses and wrote down anything that looked suspicious. Once, we found a stepladder leaned up against a tree and footprints nearby. That confirmed for us that we were very close to finding him.

Many years later (not to tell my age, but Trixie Belden was my hero), I still love mysteries. While I no longer prowl around looking for physical clues, I still enjoy finding “clues” in books. Finding an author in her work or discovering what life was like in the past through the everyday experiences of characters is like finding a treasure.

New Year’s Day was last week, but was no holiday for my students at the facility where I teach. While trying to get back into a routine again after my Christmas vacation, scanning my lesson plans, loading videos that I wanted to show, and assigning books to students for the new semester, I began to think about how New Year’s was celebrated long ago. Perhaps, I thought, it was more than a ball dropping, a countdown, and a toast.

A poem for children from 1881 titled “A New Year’s Dialogue” by Marion Douglas reveals small children making resolutions on New Year’s Eve in a simple poem. Nothing about weight loss or organizing their rooms or career goals is mentioned. Rather, these are moral resolutions to be more cheerful, kinder, and more disciplined:

TheNursery“The past is past; the year is new:
We will be patient, brave, and true;
When we are bidden, quick to mind;
Unselfish, courteous, and kind;
And try in every place to see
What good, good children we can be.”

We see this reiterated in L. M. Montgomery’s The Golden Road (the sequel to The Story Girl), published in 1913, when the Prince Edward Island children decide to make New Year’s Resolutions. The narrator, a boy of around 14 years old, suggests that resolutions should be “giving up wrong things or doing right things” after his brother Felix proclaims he going to stop eating apples as his resolution for the year (62).


Cousin Cecily worries incessantly that they are not being kind enough to one another on the last day of the year, and hired boy Peter promises, “I will try…to say my prayers every night regular and not twice one night because I don’t expect to have time the next…” (68).

In Elizabeth and Her German Garden (Elizabeth von Arnim), published in 1898, the very British Elizabeth, who is living in Germany with her husband, describes New Year’s Eve as having a “funeral sort of feeling in the air” as they attend a church service where the parishioners are reminded of their sins and encouraged to repent:

“The church was as cold as a tomb; some of the candles guttered and went out; the parson in his black robe spoke of death and judgment; I thought I heard a child’s voice screaming, and could hardly believe it was only the wind, and felt uneasy and full of forebodings; all my faith and philosophy deserted me, and I had a horrid feeling that I should probably be well punished, though for what I had no precise idea (157).”


It is also on New Year’s Eve that fictional Nat realizes the error of his ways and repents of spending too much money, idling away his time in superficiality, and not being focused on his music (Louisa May Alcott Jo’s Boys).

Like Elizabeth, he is in Germany at the time, and on New Year’s Day, his German landlady brings him a tray “on which st[ands] a bottle of wine and an astonishing cake bedecked with sugar-plums of every hue, and crowned with candles.” She and a neighbor both wish him not just a happy New Year’s Day, but wishes for a good year all-around (Alcott 235).


Bavarian Cream from Lowney’s Cookbook, published 1908

By incorporating seasons in her books, Alcott often gives us glimpses of our favorite characters in summer, fall, winter, spring, and various holidays. She again shows one of her characters repenting on New Year’s in Rose in Bloom, published in 1876. Charlie has gotten drunk after making “New Year’s calls,” which, it is implied, involved going to various friends’ houses to drink toasts.


Eight Cousins (Alcott, published 1874)

This hearkens back to the English tradition of wassailing:

“It was an ancient Saxon custom to begin the year by sending presents to each other. On New Year’s Eve the wassail bowl of spiced ale was carried round from house to house by the village maidens, who sang songs and wished everyone “A Happy New Year” (Old English Sports by P. H. Ditchfield).

According to the book referenced above and published in 1891, the gifts may have included oranges “stuck with cloves,” custards, or tarts (basically treats). By the 1800’s, this expanded to jewelry and other presents we might expect to receive at Christmas.

In fact, the word Yule translates to “second Christmas.”

This likely explains why the college students in L. M. Montgomery’s story “Ida’s New Year Cake” are commiserating at the beginning of the story “because none of them was able to go home for New Year’s” (Lucy Maud Montgomery Short Stories 1905 to 1906):

“This will be the first New Year’s I have ever spent away from home,” sighed Sara, nibbling chocolate fudge. “It does make me so blue to think of it. And not even a holiday—I’ll have to go to work just the same” (51).

The plot revolves around Ida Mitchell, who has invited everyone over for a celebration, but finds that her fruitcake has been delivered (accidentally) to another Ida Mitchell. In trying to retrieve her lost cake, she discovers that the recipient is a lonely, poor girl whose life has been brightened by the home-baked gift. The main character hasn’t the heart to tell her namesake the truth.

Jc rankin at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Dalhousie College in 1905:  JC Rankin at the English language Wikipedia (

In real life, Lucy Maud Montgomery did, in fact, attend a university for a time during the school year of 1895-1896 at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In her journals, she indicates that she was unable to go home for the holidays due to the weather and her grandfather’s being unwilling to meet her or return her to the station (The Selected Journals of L. M. Montgomery Volume I:  1889-1910: 151).

She also returned to Halifax to work for the newspaper in town as a proofreader in 1901-1902.

While the short story may not be autobiographical, LMM cleverly inserts another character, a “Miss Monroe,” who lives in the same boarding house as the college girls and is invited to attend the party. Miss Monroe is described as “a clever journalist, who worked on a paper, and was reputed to be writing a book” (52).

The author that gave us both Anne and Emily was able to show us the feelings of the introvert and the extrovert. She herself had been the popular college student, the lonely schoolteacher, the proud working girl, and the freelance writer (and all this before writing the books for which she is best known).
I end with an excerpt, recorded on New Year’s Eve, from Lucy Maud Montgomery’s journals back in 1891 when she was 17 years old:


Public Domain, from the British Library
Title – Illustrated Poems and Songs for Young People. Edited by Mrs. Sale Barker (1885)

“Thursday, Dec 31, 1891

The old year did not slip away in a green twilight and a pinky-yellow sunset. Instead, it is going out in a wild white bluster and blow. It doesn’t seem possible that another year has gone…I am cosily tucked up in bed now, sitting up to write this. It is a wild night out–one of the nights when the storm spirit hustles over the bare frozen meadows and black hollows and the wind moans around the house like a lost soul and the snow drives sharply against the shaking panes–and people like to cuddle down and count their mercies” (The Selected Journals…Volume I: 1889-1910:  71).

Happy New Year!

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