IN these studies of American life nothing is invented or purposely colored. They are reports of the experience and talk of persons I have known, and their interest, for me at least, is in the thought of these men and women, in the effect of their circumstances, experience, and total environment upon their intellectual character and activities. In all my acquaintance with the working people, I have observed that the women appear to be depressed and injured less than the men by the hardships of their life. The anxiety and suffering to which so many of them have been exposed during the last few years have usually been borne by the wives of workingmen with superior patience and courage, and they have developed such readiness of resource as yields only to absolute impossibilities. In many cases the wives of workingmen have for several years supported their families almost entirely. While there has been no work for the men, the women have done washing, sewing, and general housework for all who would employ them. Some women do the washing for half a dozen families each week. In such cases their own home-work must be done at night, and on Sunday. But there are few women who have strength for so much work of this kind, and families often live upon what the wife and mother receives for two, three, or four days’ work each week. Sometimes the men assist their wives in the home housekeeping, and even in the washing which is taken in for the neighbors, but I have seen few workingmen who seemed able or inclined to render much assistance in women’s work, although idle for months together.
Workingmen’s wives are, as a class (so far as my acquaintance extends), more saving or economical than their husbands. They have also less dislike for small jobs, and less contempt for the trifling sums received for them. I am compelled to say that many workingmen appear unwilling to accept transient employment, especially if of a kind to which they are not accustomed; but their wives are usually ready for any kind of work, however disagreeable or poorly paid it may be. The men often yield to complete discouragement, and become listless and stupid, and are sour and cross at home, until, unable longer to endure the misery of inaction, they take to the road and become tramps. It is easy to censure the folly of leaving home for work in times like these, but few persons who live comfortably understand the mental strain and torture borne by unemployed workingmen, who see at each meal that every mouthful on the table is really needed by their children. Hunger does not make men philosophical. In the cities and larger towns some workingmen’s wives take to drink, as do the men, when their condition and prospects have become desperate, but among working women who do not drink I have never yet seen one relinquish effort and yield to despair. Even when the wolf has long been inside the door, and life is a daily struggle with pinching want, I have noted the silent endurance of workingmen’s wives, the effort always renewed, the spirit which never yields.
One such woman, whom I have known for several years, has often excited my wonder by the quiet strength and beauty of her character. She is about thirtyfive years of age. Her father was a prosperous farmer, and she grew up in the large, old-fashioned farm-house, where the abundance of hired help made it unnecessary for her to do anything beyond taking care of her own room and clothing. But she learned housekeeping in the intervals of attending school, taught school two or three years near her home, and then married a business man whose fortune, consisting largely of landed property, was amply sufficient to promise a life of comfort, and the opportunities for intellectual improvement which she so much coveted. Their life was pleasant and prosperous until a few years after the war. Then her husband sold his property and removed to a distant State, where he bought afarm which had been exhausted by bad tillage, and which required extensive improvements. About this period the approach of the hard times began to be foreshadowed by a general decline in values, to the consequent disappointment of business men who had looked for profits from the continued rise in prices.
Some of the men to whom our friend had sold portions of his property were unable to pay. Loans which he had thought well secured were not repaid, and could not be collected, The man’s health declined, and he was obliged to hire all the labor required in the cultivation of his land. It soon appeared to be advisable to sell the farm, as it was rapidly absorbing all that remained of his money, and yielding very little in return. It was sold for an amount much less than the aggregate cost of the land and improvements. A house was bought in a small town at a price which now seems extravagant. About half of it was paid at the time out of the money received for the farm, and a mortgage on the house given to secure the remainder. Most of these changes now appear to have been unfortunate, but they were such as many business men were making in those years, and to have followed a wiser course would have required a degree of foresight which very few at that time possessed. Our friends soon found themselves without any assured income. The hope of receiving something on various old debts was not relinquished until several years later, but it has never been realized. There were now four persons in the household, the two children being nearly old enough to go to school. The father hoped to find in the village some employment which would enable him to support his family, but salaries were being rapidly reduced, and each month added to the number of men seeking places. About this time the wife was engaged for some months in sewing straw goods at home for manufacturers in one of our large cities. It did not yet appear absolutely necessary for her to earn money for the sustenance of the family, but she preferred to help. Their state and prospects became more serious, and the piano was sold. It had been a marriage gift to the wife from her mother.
Part of the money obtained by the sale of the piano was used to buy a sewingmachine; and while the husband did what he could as a day laborer, at gardening, farm-work, sawing wood, etc., the wife took sewing from a large manufactory of woolen clothing. The price for her work was ninety cents per dozen of the garments upon which she was employed. For several months she used the sewing-machine fifteen hours per day, and by working for that length of time she could make three fourths of a dozen of these garments each day. She was thus able to earn three and a half or four dollars per week. But the labor was too great for her strength, and in less than a year she was compelled to relinquish it. During this period she was often unable to sleep from the weariness and pain resulting from excessive labor.
The first payment made on the village property was also the last. All that could be obtained by the efforts of both husband and wife was often insufficient to supply the family with needed food. The man’s strength declined so much that his labor was not very profitable either to himself or to his employers. It became impossible to pay the interest on the debt for the house, now overdue, and the property was surrendered to the former owner. Owing to the great decline in values, it would not now have sold for more than the amount which was still due on it. Since that time this woman has paid rent for the house which she once hoped soon to own. It is but six dollars per month, yet that is a large sum for her. There have been many dark days. After it became plain that the work with the sewing-machine could not be kept up, my friend learned to make various small articles of women’s apparel then in fashion, and has kept a small store of them at her home for sale, and has taken orders from customers for their manufacture. The family needs for food, as she has told me, three dollars and a half per week, but there have been many times when they lived on a dollar per week. Sometimes in winter they have been without food or fuel. They often live almost wholly upon bread, and have no meat for weeks together. The woman is a member of a prosperous church, and attends its meetings with great regularity.
“ Does your minister come to see you?” I inquired.
“Oh, yes.’ ’
“ Does he know how you are situated? ”
“ Why do you not tell him? ”
“ He has not asked me, or spoken of such things, and I would rather converse with him on other subjects.”
“ But some of your friends in the church are acquainted with your circumstances ? ”
“ They know that we have nothing to live on but what I earn, except when my husband can do a little work now and then; but I do not think they know anything about how much or how little we have.” Here she paused, and I saw that she was making an effort to speak quietly. Her lips moved in silence, but she soon spoke again in the same clear voice : “It is sometimes hard to be told that such and such ladies have remarked that I am always wonderfully well dressed. It is quite certain that I should have more work if I were ragged and slovenly. People would interest themselves about me, and give me something to do, if I gave up trying to be neat. But I can’t do that, you know.” And she laughed gayly, though her eyes were ready to overflew.
She possesses in an unusual degree the power, apparently so easy and natural for some women, of dressing with exquisite taste, even with the poorest materials. My wife says that Mrs.-
would appear well dressed if she had only an Indian blanket, and would somehow make it look about the same as the costume of all women of taste. People say that she does not look like a working woman. After a few months’ rest from work with the sewing-machine she grew stronger, and undertook dress-making. an industry which she still practices. But there are many others engaged in it; many ladies do their own sewing of late, as a measure of necessary economy; and our friend often has great difficulty in obtaining sufficient work. She feels that debt would be failure and ruin. “ I could never keep up heart and energy if we were in debt.”
“What are your expectations, your hopes, for the next few years? ”
“ My children have thus far been kept at school; they are doing well in their Studies, and I feel that they must, at any cost, have a tolerable education. My daughter, now about fourteen years of age, has a passion for teaching; and it is my utmost ambition, I suppose I may say, to fit her for that work. My hope is that my health and strength may hold out, and that I may have work enough for the support of my family, and especially to pay my house rent.”
“ Do you ever look back with regret? ”
“ I have not time, and if I had, that would be foolish and useless.”
“ Do you blame anybody for your hardships? ”
“ I feel sometimes, as I suppose all women do in such circumstances, like saying, ‘ If you had only taken my advice, or done as I wished; ’ but it would do no good, and I have never allowed myself to say it.”
“ Does it seem to you that people are cold and harsh and unkind? ”
“ No ; they are generally kind-hearted. They are sometimes thoughtless, but we must expect that. Not many know much about the lives of those around them.”
“ Does your religion help you? is it a real force and aid? ”
“Yes; there are times when I could not go on, or have the strength I need, without it. I am not a very pious person,— not enthusiastically religious; I do not expect that God will do my work for me, or make everything easy and pleasant; but I could not live, I think, without the feeling that his goodness and justice and love are over all things, and that somehow, in ways I cannot understand, he is with me and cares for me in the darkest times. I am obliged to believe that help is sent me sometimes in answer to prayer. ’’
“Then, why is it not always sent? why is prayer not always answered? ”
“ That is not for me to understand.” This woman’s religion appears to be a real force in her life. There seems to be but little mysticism in her thought. She does cheerfully and courageously all that lies in her power, and endures patiently the hardships she cannot avoid. Site is certainly made stronger by her faith in the divine goodness, which, in spite of appearances to the contrary, she believes is at the heart of things, and is a factor in all human affairs. She thinks that human labor, wisdom, and self-sacrifice are necessary for the right direction of human life, individual and social; and that men must learn how to avoid and cure the evils that now afflict society. “ God will not do these things for us, but He will help us if we do our best in any good work.” She does not seem to have been injured by her harsh and trying experience. I have observed that many women (and men too) are made cynical by hardship; others adopt eccentric theories about religion or the organization of society, and console themselves by a vehement advocacy of these opinions, or steep their faculties in benumbing dreams of the future, losing thus all power and disposition for present struggle. But this woman, while ready for any drudgery that will enable her to support her family, has lost no iota of self-respect, and does not seem to have been in any wise weakened or degraded by trial and suffering. She retains her old interest in culture, especially in literature, and manages to read each year a few good books. She is well acquainted with the writings of the best American and English poets, and likes biography and essays. She converses well, has a fine presence, and is always in request to preside at tables at church fairs and festivals. Our friend’s circumstances do not of course permit her to be much in society. She is rarely away from home, and has no traits or qualities that would fit her to be a reformer of any kind; but her example and influence are most wholesome and encouraging,
My next story is of a woman who, although a good housekeeper, has had much to do with the life in numerous homes besides her own. She is the wife of a mechanic, an unusually intelligent and thoughtful man. Their home is in a village not far from a large city, and there are several manufacturing towns of considerable importance in the same region. I became acquainted with these persons soon after the close of the civil war. They are so inseparable in their thought and work that I cannot well write of one alone. The husband had entered the Union army early, and served to the close of the contest, and they both felt that their connection with the nation’s struggle had been a kind of religious experience to them. This first, drew me to acquaintance with them. They had a clear idea of a principle of patriotism which should draw men together in times of peace, and inspire them with a feeling of comradeship and of devotion to the interests of their country. As I was myself at that time thinking much of these subjects, and becoming more and more fully convinced of the importance of encouraging and propagating such ideas, I soon became greatly interested in the thought and activities of this workingman and his wife. The man had read much, and was still reading, about government and the organization of society, and had a Considerable knowledge of history. He talked with his wife about his reading, and often read aloud the most important passages. For some time before I met him he had been troubled by the growing conviction that many things in the best writings on political economy and similar subjects were inapplicable and impracticable in this country, and among the workingmen whom he knew; and it had just occurred to him to inquire whether there are perhaps some special or peculiar conditions or elements in the circumstances and character of society in this country which have not yet been sufficiently considered by our teachers.
At the period referred to, artisans were still making money in the shops and factories of that region, and there was much talk among them about life insurance. We spent many evenings together: my friend reported the discussions which had occurred at the shops during the dinner hour, and read from various books passages bearing upon the subject; his wife told of what the women were saying, and expressed her own judgment in relation to the matters we were considering. While, her husband had been in the army she had had much intercourse with the families of workingmen in the village, and since his return they had worked together for the advancement and elevation of the class to which they belonged. They both thought there were serious objections to life insurance, though it might yet be the best thing available, as a method of saving, for many working people.
“ Something of the kind is necessary,” said the wife, “because the men cannot keep money. As soon as they have a small sum they either wish to buy something with it, or to invest it in a way that will bring them more. Most women can keep money much better than men can-. It pleases them to go on adding to the little stock they have hoarded up, and to look at it now and then; but when a man has a few dollars, he is apt to be restless and unhappy till he has expended it.”
“But this is a costly way of saving,” observed her husband. “ I have been at the principal offices in the city. Two of the companies are putting up showy and expensive buildings. Their officers have good salaries, and the commissions allowed to agents are large. Of course all these things are paid for by the people who are insured. The men who are building up and managing this great business of life insurance are doing it for the profit it will bring to them, of course. That is all right, but it will be far more profitable to them than to the working people.”
“ The women are inclined to like savings-banks better,” said his wife; “ they think the money would not be so entirely out of their reach.”
“ They are partly right,” the husband replied, “ but we are coming to have too many savings-banks, and life insurance companies too. The depositors in the savings-banks have no real security for the safety of their money except the honor and foresight of the bank officers. It is always possible in a time like this that the value of real estate securities may decline so much as to fall below the amount for which they are pledged. It is not likely that prices will always keep up. ”
“ I am sure,” said the wife, “ that men are buying too many things; they make too many improvements; and these things eat up the profits, it seems to me, of all kinds of business about here. If I should buy so much improved machinery for housekeeping, we should soon be in debt instead of saving anything, and that appears to be just what the men are doing. And if so many people go to making shoes and silks and steel rails, it will bring the prices down so that there will be no profit. Besides, I should think we would have more of these things by and by than anybody will want, or can afford to buy. I cannot see that many people, either workingmen or others, are really saving anything except as they insure their lives or deposit something in savings-banks. So I suppose these plans for saving will really benefit people.”
“ No doubt they will do good in some ways,” was the reply, “but much of the money so invested will probably never come back to those who earned it.”
“ Then there is something very wrong about it,” answered the wife, “ for the certainty of having what they save is more important for the working people than anything else connected with money. I have thought a great deal about this matter of interest for money as it affects our people. No doubt it is necessary and right for rich men, who loan large sums, and in the great affairs of the business world. But for working people it does harm, and not good. Many of our class are excited and dazzled by the thought of their money increasing, and, as they say, ‘ piling up while we are asleep,’ so that they often risk losing the whole of it by lending it to men who are not to be trusted, or venturing into wild speculations. I suppose some of these things are too deep for me, but I am sure the effect of interest for money is, for many of the working people, very much like the influence of gambling. It gives them unreasonable hopes for the future, and leads them to desire above all things to escape from the necessity of work; and, as I said, they often lose their money by it.”
“ Do you not think the ambition to rise above the condition of working people a good feeling, and one to be encouraged? ” I asked.
“ No,” said she, “I do not. If we are able to rise above the condition of working people, who will be left to do the world’s work? Everybody seems to think it would be very fine, but I can see that such notions are doing mischief. Is it really degrading to work? It sounds well to talk about our fitting ourselves for something better. There must be some deception in what our teachers are saying about these things, if we could be wise enough and unselfish enough to do our part by everybody as working people should, I think we should be more useful in the world, and much happier than we can be by trying to rise to positions which are not suited to us. Five or six of the men at the shops have bought pianos within a year or two. A political speaker from the city spoke of this at the town-hall, a few weeks ago, as an evidence of the superiority of American workingmen and their opportunities, and said that laborers in other countries cannot have such things. That is true, I suppose, but I think if our men had been wise they might have found better uses for their money. You can hear one of the instruments now. Our neighbor’s daughter is taking lessons. Her teacher tells her it is a great pity she could not have begun sooner, because the work she has done has spoiled her hands for the piano. Her mother does all the hard work now, and her daughter dresses in style and takes care of her hands. It is not at all likely that her playing will ever be the means of real cultivation to herself or of pleasure to others. A year or two ago she was an earnest, industrious girl, affectionate and happy; now she is affected, discontented, and disagreeable. She wants many things which she cannot possibly have, and has no idea of being serviceable to anybody. Such changes are going on among nearly all the working people that we know, and if there’s a great deal of good in them, there’s some harm too.”
“ Well, wife,” said her husband, “tell us, since you are in the way of it, what you think the working people ought to aim at, and what they most need.”
“ We ought to do our work well and faithfully, so as to be really of service to our employers and to the country. We need to feel more interest in one another as a class, without any enmity toward other people, and to help and encourage one another to gain more of such kinds of knowledge as will be of use to us in our circumstances and way of living. The knowledge that makes the working people dissatisfied with their lot is no blessing, and it is not a kindness to give it to them. We need somebody to tell us and teach us what would be most useful to us. But I can see that the women need to know how to cook a great deal better than they do now, and how to keep their houses and things around them in a wholesome condition, so as not to invito disease into their families. They need to feel more responsibility for their children every way. And then—I must come back to that — the working people need some way of saving money that will be absolutely safe, so that they can be perfectly certain of having it when they want it. Whenever men have steady work, even at moderate wages, they can save something, and they ought to lay by a little at a time, till each family has two, three, or four hundred dollars, as a provision against sickness or possible lack of employment; or has a little sum for each of the children as they grow up and begin life for themselves, and perhaps some small provision for the old age of the parents. To use all our earnings as we go along has an unfavorable and demoralizing effect. To bind ourselves by a resolution to save a small part of each week’s income is a useful discipline, — one that we all require. It teaches us to be able to do without some things that we could have, and that is a kind of education that would be good for everybody. But the uncertainty about receiving their money does more than anything else to discourage the working people from trying to save. I have thought a great deal about this, and it seems to me a, very important matter, and one that the wise men of the nation might well think about. I do not know anything about the science of government, but there must be something very imperfect in our civilization, or the organization of society, when all the wisdom of this great, country and all the power of the government cannot give a laboring man who saves fifty dollars any security that he shall have it returned to him when he needs it. I have sometimes seen such mischief and suffering result from this state of things that I could not sleep, and I have spent many hours in trying to think out some plan for changing it. Whenever money that is loaned or put in a savings - bank is lost, it makes workingmen reckless and improvident.”
“ Tell our friend about your plan,” said her husband, “and perhaps he will say what he thinks of it.”
“ My plan seems to me a very simple one. It is for the national government to receive money from the people at the post-offices everywhere, and give them certificates of deposit, charging a small fee to pay for the clerical labor involved. The important thing, as I look at it, is that the government is not to pay interest on these deposits. Even if only two or three per cent., or only one per cent., were proposed, there would be serious objections to such a system; but I cannot see how this plan could do any harm, or why there should be any great difficulty in putting it into practical operation.”
“ The present organization and character of life - insurance and savingsbank business,” remarked the husband, “ tends to produce everywhere an increasing feebleness of community; and anything that does that works an injury for which nothing can be sufficient compensation. Every life-insurance company and savings-bank is a partnership made up of the men who establish the business and of all who invest money in it, — that is, the depositors and those who are insured. The thousands of men whose earnings furnish so large a proportion of the Capital have no voice or power in the management or direction of the business. But what is much worse than this, the partners are not acquainted with each other. The managers do not live in the same community with their partners in the business, and they possess none of those common interests and responsibilities which proximity naturally tends to establish. In anything so important in its effects upon character and the chief interests of society, each community, village, or neighborhood should, as it seems to me, organize and direct its own business. If I lend money to my neighbor, he is more apt to conduct his business carefully, and to repay me honestly, because he is my neighbor. When the working people have put their money into the hands of men in the city whom they have never seen, they may feel more interest in the welfare of the city people; yet this is a barren kind of interest, as there can be no personal relations between them; but the working people will feel less interest in their own town and in the welfare of their fellow-citizens and neighbors here. I think our money, our business, our interests, should, as far as possible, all be here, where we live, and that we should all be concerned and responsible for the welfare of all the members of the community. If we have savings-banks or life insurance, the entire business should be here, all the officers our own citizens, and no money should be drawn from the people of other places. There should be no expensive buildings, and as little as possible of the element of speculation in the business, but the greatest possible degree of certainty in the preservation of the funds. But the life insurance which I think most important is that which consists in the Strength of community among the people of each village or small town; in their neighborly good-will, interest, and practical kindness for each other; in their coöperation in what we may call the moral control and administration of the community; in the education, protection, and guidance of all its members; in the repression of license, of ignorance, idleness, and all other vices which seriously threaten social or public interest.”
I have not room for any farther report of these conversations. My friends still live in the same village. Visiting them early last summer, I found that most of these opinions had been confirmed by observation and experience of the effect of trial and hardship upon the working people. This man always advised his neighbors against trades-unions and secret societies of every kind, but urged them to have places of meeting where anybody might come and talk. Such open clubs have from time to time been sustained by the workingmen there, and have been useful. When the general prostration of business and industry reached the place, my friend had saved nearly a thousand dollars, but had not insured his life, or put his money into a bank. He had loaned it without interest in sums of one or two hundred dollars to business men who were his neighbors. It was all repaid him; but he told me that a man who had about two hundred dollars of his money came to his house one evening, and said, “ Here is your money, I cannot go on much longer, and there will not be much for anybody, I fear. This is a personal matter, and I cannot have you lose anything.” At one time all the laborers in the shops and mills were discharged, and a few months’ idleness reduced some of them to great straits. My friend then began lending small sums, without interest, to the most needy workmen,— from two to twenty-five dollars to each. He says most of the money has been repaid, and loaned again so often that the aggregate is more than four thousand dollars. He has lost about one third of his money, as he supposes, finally. Some of the men who had it have gone away, and he has lost sight of them, and a few have died. “ But,” he says, “ the good and help of it all were so great that I do not regret a dollar of it.” He still thinks this the best kind of life insurance. His wife has taught the women how to make old clothing over again to the best advantage, how to cook beefbones so as to obtain much food from what they had before thrown away (by long boiling to extract all the nutritious elements), to utilize scraps and remnants of all kinds, and to avoid dangers to health from foul cellars and bad drainage. The two have influenced in a. notable degree the life of the village. This report of our conversations is from notes made at the time many years ago. I then preserved these records of the talk of a workingman and his wife, because I thought they contained some germs, at least, of genuine American thought. The man was born in Vermont, and the woman in Massachusetts. The families of both have been in this country more than a hundred and fifty years, and have always been working people, and, as my friends say, “ none of them were ever ‘ in better circumstances; ’ they all had to work for their living, so their descendants have not had to ' come down in the world.’ ”
I have for many years enjoyed acquaintance with a woman whose home overlooks the great prairies of Southeastern Kansas. Twenty-five or thirty years ago, as she has told me, it was common, where she grew up, for girls engaged to be married to go out to service and earn money for the purchase of their housekeeping outfit. She was in her sixteenth year when she left home for this purpose. Her girlhood had been happy and busy. Her parents lived on a small farm. There were many daughters, and,they learned to love the freedom of out-door work in haying and corn-planting time. Idleness and pianoplaying and the modern styles of dress had not then become fashionable among young women in that region. An earnest, practical spirit ruled the somewhat primitive society, and the better class of young people had a real thirst for knowledge and improvement. Tinfew books and newspapers were passed from hand to hand, and read in almost every house of the neighborhood. My friend says there is much more reading among the young people now, but the books read are not, where she is acquainted, equal in character to those with which she was familiar in her girlhood. They are less thoughtful, and require less mental exertion on the part of the reader.
She was married at. seventeen, and soon afterwards set out on the westward journey of a thousand miles to the region in which she was to find, or rather make, her home. The young couple had money to purchase enough wild prairie land for a farm, and to supply the means of living till they could raise the first crop of corn, but not much more. The grassy plains stretching away to the horizon on every side showed few human habitations. There were at first about a dozen houses within as many miles, and within that distance all were neighbors. But there were new arrivals every year, and life soon became less lonely, or at least less solitary, for the young wife, who battled bravely against home-sickness, and threw herself with energy into all the activities of her new sphere of action. The settlers in the neighborhood represented nearly nil parts of the country, except the Pacific coast. There were families from New England and the Middle and Southern Atlantic States, and from the different regions of the great Mississippi Valley, north and south. One of the first things in the new life which impressed this young woman was the fact that the moral differences between the life around her and that to which she had been accustomed all seemed to have been produced by a lowering of the old standards. Men who used profane language acknowledged that they had not done so in their old homes ; some who had brought letters of fellowship from Eastern churches went hunting on Sundays. Nearly everybody made and received visits on that day, and it was a jolly, social holiday. The new citizens and neighbors were good men and women; there were few coarse or vicious persons among them, but there was a strong and general tendency to revert to a much lower type of civilization than any of them had been acquainted with in the older portions of the country. This facility in adopting lower standards, so manifest all about her, caused the young woman many an hour of anxious, painful thought. It was by no means easy to determine what would be right or wise for herself under the new conditions of her life. Here was a modest, quiet girl, with no one to advise her, with no one at first even to understand her, who saw that society was in process of formation around her, and felt that, some very important elements and influences were wanting, the lack of which she was sure would be felt more and more as an evil and injury as inclination hardened into habit, and tendencies became fixed in custom. Her interest was the greater because her husband appeared not at all disposed to resist the influences which excited her distrust. He grew fond of ranging over the prairies with his gun, and steady work on the farm seemed to affect his health unfavorably. When several men worked together he was willing to share in the labor for the sake of companionship, but solitary employment grew more and more distasteful to him. This often led to exchanges of work and other plans for enjoying the society of some of his neighbors, who, like himself, liked conversation so much that work seemed an interruption and an impertinence. His farm and dwelling soon showed signs of neglect and inefficiency, and it was not long till he had contracted debts which the surplus productions of the farm were not sufficient to pay.
After long and painful resistance to a conviction which seemed a kind of disloyalty to her husband, the young wife was compelled to recognize the fact that the wisdom, energy, and responsibility properly belonging to the head of a family were required of her, and that unless her resources proved equal to the unexpected demand, her home life was likely to prove a failure, a life-long disappointment and misery. There was a period of wild and lonely bitterness, and then she quietly accepted her lot, and resolutely entered upon her work of building the temple of home upon better foundations, and of trying to cultivate and encourage as much as possible all the higher elements and aptitudes of her husband’s character. She wished, as I suppose most women do, to look up to her husband; to feel that he was her head; to respect his superior strength and authority. But she set, forward to make the best of everything, and soon developed a kind of happiness in courageous effort and endurance. She had much to endure. More than once the homestead itself has been imperiled by bad management. But the business men of the region gradually recognized the fact that when debts were paid it was by the wife’s economy and energy, and the danger from the husband’s injudicious investments and engagements lessened as the years passed. While she was thus endeavoring to do her part faithfully at home, her interest in the life around her grew more profound and serious. She told her husband of her feelings and desires regarding the intellectual and moral condition and needs of their neighborhood, and asked his counsel as to her own course. He thought that any effort to influence their neighbors would probably be resented by them as an officious and unfriendly interference, and, while deploring the want of moral and religious teaching in the region about them, was of the opinion that people should be left to the teaching of experience. “ If they do wrong and get into trouble, they will learn to do better next time.” Still he did not more decidedly oppose her wishes, and she felt that the way was clear for her doing what she. could. But what should she attempt? Although herself earnestly religious, she thought it not wise to undertake teaching religion directly or specifically. What she did may appear rather shocking to many good people, but I can only report the truth. The time was approaching for a great Sunday visit at her house. It was her turn to entertain her neighbors. Some fifteen or twenty persons, old and young, would dine with her, and spend the afternoon in conversation and such amusements as they were accustomed to enjoy or might improvise for the occasion. The aimless and thoughtless character of the talk in these social meetings had given my friend much discomfort. It had no direction or purpose, but depended upon mere impulse and accident in its selection of subjects. Its tone was often rather low, and there was never, as she said, anything profitable. If, as often happened, a young person made a serious or thoughtful remark, some older member of the circle would make it the point of a joke or repartee. This young woman’s beginning, that Sunday afternoon, for the regeneration of society, was a series of tableaux vivants, based on the pictures in a copy of Shakespeare’s plays. Everybody was delighted, and there was an unexpected and most gratifying desire to know what it was all about, — who the soldiers and ladies were who had been represented, and what they had done. ” Tell us about them,” said the young people. Her strength was failing. The battle had been fought, and she had gained the victory. She could not tell stories now. Years afterward she told me of her gratitude to a gentleman present, a physician, who, profoundly touched by the. change which he felt had passed upon their association, said earnestly, “ Not now; we have had enough for to-day. I have the books, — Shakespeare and the English histories, that tell about it all. If any of you will stop at my house, my wife will show them to you. It is time for us to go now.” And with a respectful dignity of manner which awed his neighbors he advanced to the centre of the room and took leave of his hostess. Everybody followed his example.
The next day the doctor rode a few miles out of his course across the prairie, to call on this new acquaintance. They had a long conversation, and she told him of her feelings regarding the community,— of her fervent wish for the beginning of a better order of things. “Well,” said the doctor, “we have had the beginning. We will meet at my house next time. Come over, you and your husband, on Saturday afternoon, and we will make our plans for the entertainment.” He was always afterward her faithful ally. It proved, as he said, that a beginning had been made.
The Sunday visits grew into meetings for reading, music, and conversation. From the first the mirth was less boisterous and the talk more thoughtful, but there was no loss of real freedom or geniality. I have always wondered most that my friend did not try to do too much. But the hour had come, and the woman. And she could not only do what the occasion required of her; what was quite as necessary to her success, she knew how to choose her marshals. People seemed to develop new capabilities under her influence. Her home life was always trying in many ways. It was necessary to hire some labor to assist in bringing the land into cultivation, and in order to have means for this she took two or three boarders, men from the East working upon new farms in the vicinity, who had not brought their families with them. The people for many miles around came to depend upon her superior judgment and readiness of resource as a nurse in all cases of severe illness of women and children. Her kindly arms were the first resting-place for scores of little ones upon their arrival in this strange, new world, and she closed the weary eyes of age as the shadows deepened of “ the night before the eternal morning.” Young lovers came to her, sure of one friend who would not smile at their perplexities and disappointments, nor break the kindly silence which guarded the secret of their pains or joys. No bride’s attire could be designed without her judgment. Few social enterprises were regarded as well begun without the sanction of some suggestion from her.
She had no children of her own, but two or three years after marriage she adopted two motherless little boys. One was two years old, but the other had come into life as his mother passed out of it. Never had orphaned babes a tenderer foster-mother. As they grew older, others like them were brought, one after another, to this house of refuge. Some remained for a short time, until they set their little faces toward the land where their mothers had gone before them. Others were nourished and guided until suitable homes could be found for them elsewhere. When a little child was left motherless by the death of a betrayed and.forsaken woman, the neighbors said, “ Mrs. -will take it,” and under her guidance the child whose life was a legacy of shame has grown to be a young man of unusual promise.
She has done nearly all the work of her housekeeping, including for many years past a Considerable dairy, with sometimes a little assistance for a few weeks when she is threatened with complete exhaustion of her strength. Her health has suffered greatly from her long-continued over-exertion. But her culture has gone forward, fed not only by her rich and varied experience of life, but also from the best literature of our time. She has read much; I can scarcely say how it has been possible for her to do so, but when I was for a short time at her house, four years ago, I observed that an open book lay always within her reach, and that it was often glanced at for a minute or two in some pause of the culinary processes, or a passage would be read now and then in connection with the conversation. She writes well, in easy, graphic narrative, with a clear and vital expression of thought and sentiment. A few articles from her pen have been published in Eastern newspapers, and she has written much for the papers of her own county. Her experience would be a treasure to a writer of fiction. At the time referred to I was looking into the geology and botany of the State in which she lives, driving across the country, in fine weather, in an open carriage. On two or three occasions I asked her to accompany me. Her enjoyment of the open air, of the dewy brightness of the morning, of the sultry summer noon brooding over the wide lands, was as fresh as that of a child. But what interested me most was her reception by the people. As we drove along the roads, and sometimes crossed the great farms where she knew the way, the men everywhere dropped their work, or left their teams standing, and hastened across the fields to greet her. They begged us to stop at their homes to see their wives; and where the house was near the women were called out. I noted a repressed intensity of feeling on their part, like that of lovers meeting in the presence of strangers. She seemed to be in complete sympathy with every one, and received their affectionate homage with quiet, frank delight. Afterward, when I met the physician, her early friend, and still her co-worker in various schemes for popular culture and improvement, he told me the story of her work. (Every one I saw had something to tell me of her kindness or wisdom.) He thought it one of the most noticeable features of her life and influence that she inspired all men with profound respect and admiration, and yet no woman ever felt in the slightest degree jealous of her. I dined with the doctor, and his wife told me the same thing. Said she, “ We women all love her, and the men adore her.”
The country is much changed since she made it her home. The great valley is populous now. There are half a dozen churches of different denominations within easy reach of her dwelling. She has not joined any of them, but often attends the meetings at two or three of the nearest. The ministers all visit her, and all regard her as a valuable friend and assistant in their work. No one appears to have thought her capable of sectarian feeling. One feature of the work of the Sunday reading club has been the establishment of a neighborhood library. The plan of dining together on Sundays was given up after the first year, as involving too great labor for the hostess, and also because it was fell that the convivial element and interest should be subordinated to the higher objects of the meetings. Most of the people now go to church in the morning, and a few still meet in the afternoon for reading and conversation. A recent letter says, " When the Eastern war came on we obtained a few books arid maps (very cheap little things they were), and thought we would give a week or two to learning about it. But our studies grew like the war itself, and we were led to the history of the Turks and of Greece, and kept on for many months. We should never have known Curtins’ and Finlay’s wonderful histories if it had not been for this war. We even got into the history of the Holy Roman Empire. I forget how it came in, but we read Bryce’s little book.” They gave a good deal of time to biblical studies a few years ago, and did not quarrel. My friend says that one of the most stubborn evils with which they have had to contend is the deluge of worthless reading matter which has within a few years extended to that region. She thinks it would be better for people not to read at all than that they should be miseducated by the writings of persons without culture or knowledge.
As we rode homeward on the last day of my visit, I asked her what was still most needed by the people of the valley. She said, “ They need discipline, the power and habit of self-restraint and self-direction in nearly everything, but especially in their use of money. They are full of life, and love good living,—• love to ‘ have things.’ They might all be rich, but they are so impulsive and extravagant that most of them are in debt, and are often pressed and harassed by' their inability to pay their notes when they are due. It is absurd that this should be so in a country with such resources as this region possesses. If we only had some good, convenient way of taking the women’s money, whenever they have saved a few dollars, and keeping it for them, they would soon grow more economical. As it is, they always say, ‘ It is my money, and if I do not buy something with it my husband will spend it for something that will do me no good.’ They have little foresight of possible future needs; but the worst difficulty is that they cannot keep money, and have no place to put it where it will be safe. Some of the girls who are at work about here leave their money with me, but I wish there were some officer, somebody appointed by the government, to take care of people’s money, and keep it safely for them. Could it not be so? ” “ What have been your greatest difficulties and discouragements? ”
“ My own lack of ability for the work of life, the want of opportunity for acquiring the culture I need, and the general disposition of people to be contented with low things.”
Both the parents of this woman are descendants of families who removed from Virginia to Ohio about the first of this century; their ancestors were from England, and came to Virginia in very early times.