August 3, 2015

History Comes to Life on a Quilt - Part 4

Part 4.  A Window on Life in 1897

(Part 1 tells the background of a quilt inscribed with many names, and how I started my search for the details of its history.  Part 2 details some of the interesting family stories.  Part 3 tells a long story about three intertwined families.)

In general, I'm noticing that many households included more than our typical nuclear families.  It becomes clear pretty quickly that most families took in extended family members when the need arose, single or widowed aunts and uncles and parents, for example.  Many households took in boarders, and many hired servants, often recently arrived from Ireland, especially during the early childbearing years.  Hardly anyone lived alone.

Most people didn't move around much.  Most people were born in Massachusetts or other New England states.  And they pretty much stayed put in Melrose or the nearby area.  Some people were immigrants from Europe, generally British, or from Canada.  The most far-flung I've found is Sarah Hart Hunt and her brother Sidney Hart.  One of their parents came from Nova Scotia and the other came from Cuba.

The Workaday World

It's fun also to note the professions of the time.  Some sound very familiar - physician, clergyman, carpenter, superintendent, accountant, mechanic, vocal teacher, professor at training school.  Some are probably careers that are still around today, just expressed somewhat differently - sea captain, real estate dealer, lumber camp laborer, clerk, proprietor of a grocery store, retail merchant of home furnishings, sewer inspector.  Salesmen are listed with the particular product - tea and coffee, beef, lace curtains.  Clerks and bookkeepers worked at an elevator company, railroad, bank, state prison, and manufacturing company.

But some professions are clearly from a different era:
leather cutter
drawbridge operator
paper hanger
rubber shoe maker
clerk, patent medicine
brass finishing
comb manufacturer

And some will take some research to understand:
clerk, patterns

These lists concern the men.  The most common listing for women is "keeping house".  Sometimes, when unmarried or widowed, they owned the houses in which they lived and took in boarders.  Women sometimes had careers outside the home, too.  The women of Melrose were:
teacher, public school
supervisor, public school
cashier, dry goods
music teacher
milliner, department store
owner, millinery shop

In 1880, Harriet Cobb was living in Cambridge, MA, age 41.  She was a widow and a physician.  She was living with her mother and two younger brothers, one a store clerk and one (if I'm reading it correctly) a manufacturer of straw goods.  In 1900, she was still living in Cambridge and still a physician.  She was living with two of her sisters, seven boarders, and two servants.  She is notable as the only woman I've found so far that has entered what was then so clearly a man's profession.  Both she and Jenny Howes who owned a millinery shop were widows.


And then there are the names!  Such wonderful names, just right, not surprisingly, for a period novel!
My favorite: Charlotte Saltmarsh
Clara Fogg
Fannie Macomber
Sophronia A. Ford
Reginald Wooldridge
Belle M. Montgomery
Augustus L. Holmes
Sarah M. Lavender
Ella Laviolette

I intend to keep researching until I've found everyone I can.  I'm having such a good time!

(Part 5 sums up my research.  Part 6 shares the first information from librarians and historians in Melrose.  I've written a little aside about the fun of being able to look at original records online.  And, since the quilt did initially come to me for repair, and I did eventually stop reading census forms and do the repair work, and wrote up the techniques and choices involved.  And then I went back to the research, and continued to find lots of great information. And also, a summary on the occasion of the exhibit about the quilt, December 2018, in Melrose.  After the events, I described the homecoming experience and the exhibits, and wrote about the little quilt I made that was inspired by the historical quilt.  A set of summaries of the data and stories that brought the quilt to life.) And a very astonishing coincidence with another quilt and a family tree.  I was given a photo of one of the people named on the quilt. 


  1. Seeing your comment about one of Harriet Cobbs brothers being a manufactur of straw goods, I was reminded of reading a story about a young woman living in New England whose family made straw braid for the many different straw hats of the era. She was required to braid so many feet of straw every day. During the summer her way of measureing was to drop the braid out of the window and when it touched the ground she was finished for the day. Unfortunately, I cannot remember where or when I read this but thought it might throw some light onto your research.

    1. Thanks! I immediately pictured Rapunzel dropping her braid out of the tower window. Maybe that story inspired the girl to measure her work the same way. Hee, hee! Also, yes, it's interesting to think of family and home businesses including all the family members in this way.