"Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless?" The life of an "ordinary" woman

“Do you think I am an automaton? — a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! — I have as much soul as you — and full as much heart!" – Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (1847)

Let's look at one woman and her life: Appolonia "Adeline" Best (1856-1935), daughter to Adam Best who built a mineral water business in Cincinnati. The only formal documentation of Adeline’s life include city directories, federal censuses and a death certificate.

 1880 Federal Census showing Adeline Best as a 22-year-old milliner at her family home at 205-07 W. McMicken. Courtesy of Ancestry.com.

1880 Federal Census showing Adeline Best as a 22-year-old milliner at her family home at 205-07 W. McMicken. Courtesy of Ancestry.com.

Rather than assume that hers was a "obscure, plain, and little" life, merely because she left so little behind of herself, let's read between the lines. Sometimes it seems that only the women “who rarely behave,” as the bumper stick reads, “make history.” While we should applaud pioneering women in medicine, health, science, literature or whatever, name your field, such expressions of “making history” support misguided notions of historical significance and, for sure, eclipse many real people in the past. Stressing that only the rebel-rousing women of the past “make history” ignores that so many women challenged norms and pioneered something in their lives too, though perhaps in subtler, less traceable ways. Maybe it was only in their daily thoughts that they dreamed that they too could have the economic opportunities or artistic freedoms that were only available to men. And even women who did not dwell on "dangerous" ideas still matter. 

Back to Adeline. What we know:

We know she was born in Cincinnati in 1856 to two German-speaking immigrants, one of them a 1848 revolutionary. We know she grew up in 205-207 W. McMicken in Over-the-Rhine, surrounded by many brothers and other men that worked for her father’s mineral water business. We know she often worked as an embroider, milliner and dressmaker, especially in her older years. We know her father died in 1880, and thereafter, throughout the 1880s and ‘90s, her brothers and then her mother succumbed to various diseases. By 1905, only Adeline remained living. We know she never married.[i] We also know that, at the age of seventy-nine, Adeline passed away on October 28th, 1935 of a stroke and was buried at Spring Grove with her family.[ii]­

 At Spring Grove.

At Spring Grove.

Let's imagine some possible—totally cherry-picked—experiences in Adeline's life, including a few intimate moments in a woman's life:

#1:  regulating her love life 

Adeline might have been listed as “single” on censuses and on her death certificate but that doesn’t preclude romantic relationships in her life. Perhaps she had a beau. Ancestry.com records would speak nothing of this intimate experience in a woman’s life unless it resulted in a marriage certificate.

One of the things that young women of Adeline's generation were increasingly doing was dating the way that we date now (minus Match.com, of course). Around the turn of the 20th century, in cities young working-class and/or immigrant women like Adeline were becoming slightly more economically independent thanks to growing available work for them, particularly in the garment trade (which Adeline participated in). As cities grew in size, so did industrial demands and employers of clothing manufacturing (and a variety of other trades) turned to women to fill these jobs. Deeming the work “unskilled” and "feminine" allowed industries to pay their female workers very little while expecting long work shifts from them. But! It was still money that young women were making. For the first time, they were independent economic workers who could pocket some of their wages (many were still expected to turn some, if not most, of their wages over to their fathers or husbands). With the little bit they saved, young women skipped lunch and chose instead to purchase dresses, hats and tickets to the many heaters, amusement parks and dance halls that had began to pop up. What did these young women like Adeline want to do there? Hang out with young men. Dating, as we know it today, began, where a young man takes out a young woman and spends some money on her and the date. Historians have traced a rise of sexual activity amongst these young people because of these trends (in 1850, historians estimate 10% of brides were pregnant; from 1880-1910, the figure jumped to 23%). Let’s pretend Adeline can be counted among other young women who participated in these progressive trends.

In Cincinnati, like many other cities in the late 1800s, birth control options existed but were not overtly advertised since contraceptives were illegal. Having a sympathetic, discreet physician on your side was invaluable yet such relationships often only existed for women of means. Thanks to the Comstock Law passed in 1873, birth control was defined as obscene, along with “inflammatory literature,” and through interstate commerce and the U.S. Postal Service, prohibited. Health and social reformers wanted to promote women’s unique ability to bear children and sought to reverse the declining fertility rates of white, native-born women in the U.S.[iv]

 Anthony Comstock, an investigator for the YMCA’s Committee for the Suppression of Vice and later a special agent for the U.S. Post Office. Courtesy of ChurchandState.org/uk.

Anthony Comstock, an investigator for the YMCA’s Committee for the Suppression of Vice and later a special agent for the U.S. Post Office. Courtesy of ChurchandState.org/uk.

Despite this law, birth control and contraceptives have always been around (condoms are very old, actually) and a black market soon arose to help disseminate barrier forms of birth control like condoms, rubber diaphragms, cervical caps, IUDs, douching syringes and medicated sponges. The water cure was also common (doses of water douches). And much of this was accessible: condoms, for instance, became cheaper with the standardization of rubber manufacturing, and both working-class and middle-class women purchased them. These birth control options were also important given that human fertility cycles were poorly understood then, even by the medical community.

Birth control was often advertised in immigrant, Black and penny presses, available for ordering. You could find at-home methods in recipe books. The language was often coded and referred to the devices as a part of “feminine hygiene" or a “female remedy": other names included "female pills,” “prevention powders,” “regulators,” “disinfectant” and “Mother’s friend.”[v]

 Advertisements referring to contraception.  Cincinnati Enquirer , March 12, 1895. Courtesy of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

Advertisements referring to contraception. Cincinnati Enquirer, March 12, 1895. Courtesy of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

It also helped that the Postal Service was understaffed in the late 1800s, hindering the effectiveness of the Comstock rules. When a company was brought to court for manufacturing birth control devices, courts often debated the issue of privacy and what was a contraceptive, further undermining the efficacy of Comstock. While larger pharmaceutical and chemical businesses continued to sell rubber or other parts needed, smaller businesses, some of them female-owned, could pretty easily disguise contraceptive products and sell them, similar to the decline of big breweries during Prohibition and the rise of smaller, more discreet ones. For sure, there were problems with these schemes for women: they had to self-regulate quack or bad products themselves.[vi]

 Advertisement for contraception.  Cincinnati Enquirer , September 10, 1892. Courtesy of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

Advertisement for contraception. Cincinnati Enquirer, September 10, 1892. Courtesy of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

By the 1920s—when Adeline was an elderly woman—a birth control movement headed by Margaret Sanger (founder of Planned Parenthood) and other social reformers was pressing for legislative reform. In 1936, birth control under medical direction was legalized. Not until the 1960s and '70s, though, was contraception, with or without a physician's intervention, available for all women. 

#2 - her "Sweating" hands

As I mentioned, one of the few records of Adeline that exist is her employment record as a seamstress, embroider, milliner or dressmaker. Especially in her older years (in her 50s+), she was regularly employed in this work. 

 Women doing what Adeline did for pay, NYC, 1908. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Women doing what Adeline did for pay, NYC, 1908. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

This doesn't surprise me that much. Lots of other first- and second-generation immigrants worked within the garment industry in the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th century. Huge numbers of them, especially immigrant women, worked as seamstresses, dressmakers, milliners, shirt and collar makers and embroiderers. Labor in this time was pretty much totally sex-segregated, with men working in "skilled" trades, heavy industry and a growing number of professional and white-collar jobs; women could find work in light industry (particularly soap making at P&G here in Cincinnati), domestic work (as maids, laundresses) and, among white women, clerical work.[vii] 

What was Adeline's garment work like? Ill-paid, hand-numbing, neck-cramping, stressful—and also liberating ($$).  

“Earning twenty-five and sometimes thirty to fifty cents a day made me feel independent, like a real person.”
— Sara Smolinsky, a young immigrant woman on earning money for the first time in NYC, early 1900s. Anzia Yezierska, The Bread Givers (1925).

Beginning in the early 19th century, textile mills offered women some of the first paid industrialized labor in the U.S., extending the feminine tradition of home-based cloth manufacturing into the factory, and throughout the century, more and more women worked in all the various stages of mechanized clothing production. Garment making and silk mills in particular employed more immigrant women than any other entity. Even with the rise of these mills and factories, manufacturers also sent work out to be done by contractors and subcontractors. This sewing, hemming, stitching and finishing cuts of clothes was often performed in small shops or at home, which allowed women to perform domestic duties while still earning wages.

Most likely, Adeline worked from her apartment or went to a contractor's shop for whatever hat-making and dress-stitching she was doing. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that in early-20th-century Cincinnati these shops were generally 18x20 SQFT and contained 15-30 people. The Cincinnati Lancet-Clinic, a popular medical journal, labeled such rooms as "hot-beds of infectious disease." If she worked from home, the Bureau reported women like Adeline used the kitchen or parlor and would step up work by a window for best light. As manufacturers paid garment workers by the number of items produced, as opposed to a set rate per hour, workers like Adeline were encouraged to “sweat more,” giving rise to “sweatshop labor.” For instance, per Cincinnati rates of the time, she would have earned 25 to 40 cents per coat and 17 to 30 cents per pair of trousers; employers then sold the trousers for $5-10.[viii]

Sweat shops, as a rule, are located in the top stories of tenement buildings where rent is cheap and there is practically nothing to divert the minds of the employees from their work. In a few instances, they are located on the ground floor, but where that is the case the lower sashes of the windows are curtained in order to keep outsiders from looking in or the operators from losing a moment’s time by any attraction on the street.
— M. D. Ratchford, Commissioners of Labor Statistics, 1906, re: Cincinnati

Around the turn of the 20th century, electrically-powered machines further boosted the garment industry and created the new position of “operator,” usually for a young woman who could operate a sewing machine. Some sweatshops did not invest in this technology though, claiming the electricity to run sewing machines was more than they were worth.[viv]

By the 1920s, when Adeline was in her 60s, Adeline "sweated" less than in her younger years. The garment industry had both switched to ready-to-wear clothes sold in department stores, and a growing number of garment workers had unionized. The U.S. severely restricted immigration during and after World War I, which in Cincinnati made the number of garment workers smaller than before—giving women like Adeline bargaining power. Wartime needs also helped women negotiate their situations. In Cincinnati in 1916, after a general strike, cloakmakers were the first to organize new locals as part of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU). New rules were signed with employers guaranteeing safety and set wages. By 1919, shirtmakers, "skirt pressers" and "cutters and trimmers" had also organized as part of the ILGWU.[x]

#3 - her teenage years

Adeline was a teenager in the 1870s. What was that like? Well, there was no Our Bodies, Ourselves. and probably no indoor plumbing.

Puberty for most young women began much later than today, around 15-16 years of age. It was slowly creeping down, much to the alarm of many parents and physicians who feared an earlier onset of womanhood would mean an increase in premarital sexual activity. Medicine also supported the notion of ovarian determinism—that of all her organs, Adeline's ovaries dictated her mood, her intelligence, her physical health, her everything. Too much thinking took a toll on this important organ, leading some to argue that too much education for young women was harmful. A young girl's physical development was linked to a strong moral development. Certain underwear was encouraged for this: until puberty was over, at which point Adeline would have worn a corset, young girls wore undershirts and camisoles. 

 Birds-eye view of Adeline’s childhood/teenage home at 205/207 W. McMicken. Most of those buildings behind the main structures were a part of her family’s mineral water business—but also included back there was the family privy. Not much privacy for a young woman. Sanborn Insurance Map, 1904. Courtesy of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

Birds-eye view of Adeline’s childhood/teenage home at 205/207 W. McMicken. Most of those buildings behind the main structures were a part of her family’s mineral water business—but also included back there was the family privy. Not much privacy for a young woman. Sanborn Insurance Map, 1904. Courtesy of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

Unlike her mother, Adeline probably had very little information on puberty. No awkward health classes like we grew up with. In contrast to earlier generations, fewer mothers discussed embarrassing facts of puberty and sexuality with their daughters by the mid- to late 1800s. Dr. Edward John Tilt, an OB/GYN, reported that in 1852, 25/1000 (2.5%) young women had no idea what menarche was. Another study in 1895 showed 60% were ignorant. The issue was closed lips: the body, especially between mothers and daughters, was talked about a lot less. It wasn't that Adeline's mother was a bad mom. She probably thought by telling Adeline less, it would protect her. These were also the years in which physicians still did not understand fertility cycles (and would not until the 1920s). 

Adeline most likely got her information about puberty—acne, growth spurts, mood changes—from her friends, especially her slightly older friends (she didn't have any sisters). Increasingly health and hygiene books offered advice too, but "girl talk" was preferred. But these books did not discuss details. Women of Adeline's generation had to figure out how to care for themselves during their periods. Napkins were made of folded linen, sometimes cotton or chambray. Only in the 1890s did Sears-Roebuck catalog offer mass-produced disposable napkins. 

 Circa 1900.

Circa 1900.

The books did not help with acne either. Skin issues were thought to indicate there was something wrong with a woman's morality, that she had impure thoughts and had a venereal disease. How helpful. For treatment, physicians would give young women cod liver oil, mixtures of arsenic and iron, mineral waters and salts or sometimes just hot water or soap and water. Young women would also roughly rub their skin with strips of soaped flannel (further irritating the skin). It didn't help that by the end of the 1800s, mirrors were increasingly common in most households, furthering the quest for perfect skin among young people. Mirrors also encouraged Adeline and others to spend more time arranging and brushing their long hair (daily shampooing was seen as a health risk in the late 1800s). Something that did help with puberty and acne—bangs. First in the 1890s, these were a popular way to hide facial imperfections.[xi]

#4 - another kind of Love Life? 

Perhaps, in direct contrast to the beginning of this article, Adeline was not even interested in young men. Maybe she preferred female friendships. No record of her life would tell us this.

Intense female friendships in the 1800s, especially among middle-class and well-to-do women, were known and quite accepted. Whether or not they were romantic is less known and less accepted. Strong female bonds were seen as normal societally because women lived in a very sex-segregated world until the 20th century. Prescriptive literature also advocated female bonding as appropriate. None of the literature suggested anything physical or romantic between women, though; women in the 1800s were thought to be asexual.

Historians picked up on the existence of strong female friendships and their possible implications from wealthier women. These women occasionally left behind letters to their friends which exposed deep affection for one another. Emily Dickinson, for instance, wrote her friend Sue Gilbert in 1852, "Susie, will you indeed come home next Saturday, and be my own again, and kiss me as you used to?" Another woman, Sarah Foulke, wrote in her diary in 1808, "I laid with my dear R[ebecca] and a glorious talk we had until 4[AM]—O how hard I do love her." Some letters suggested physical intimacy; others did not.[xii]

In the time of Appolonia's womanhood, unmarried female friends sometimes lived together in what were known as "Boston marriages," coined by Henry James in 1885 in the Bostonians. Gertrude Stein, Jane Addams and Susan B. Anthony, among others, were known for this.

 This speaks to the utility of cohabitation (sharing expenses)—but it could have also suggested they wanted to live together for romantic reasons. Especially with rising employment opportunities for women, romantic friends might forgo marriage and make a life together (since they could afford it). As Adeline aged, she lived in multi-unit buildings with a lot of other people—after 205/207 W. McMicken, at 2412 W. McMicken with her brother’s family, then at 31 E. University and finally at 2825 Euclid in Corryville—so I can't tell whether or not she had a roommate.[xiii]

These Boston marriages and friendships "went underground" by the 1930s and '40s when, in general, same-sex love/friendships were less tolerated. In contrast to today's definitions of homosexuality and heterosexuality, a range of sexualities based on class and race existed prior to the mid-20th century.  

More possibilities another day

Who knows. Maybe none of these scenarios applied to Adeline. But the point is to at least think about them—to think about her as a complex woman with as many public and private (read: significant) moments as you and I have.

***

[i] 1860, 1870 and 1880 Federal Census, Familysearch.org; Ohio, County, Marriages, 1789-2013, FamilySearch.org; U.S. and Canada, Passenger and Immigration Lists Index, 1500s-1900s, Ancestry.com.

[ii] Ohio Deaths, 1908-1953, FamilySearch.org.

[iii] Beth Bailey, From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988); Nancy L. Green, Ready-to-Wear, Ready-to-Work: A Century of Industry and Immigrants in Paris and New York (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997); Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986); Steven J. Rolfes, Douglas R. Weise and Phil Lind, Cincinnati Theaters: Images in America (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2016); Miriam Forman-Brunell, ed., Girlhood in America: An Encyclopedia (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 2001), 73.

[iv] Forman-Brunell, ed., Girlhood in America, 71-73.

[v] Dr. Lauren Maclvor Thompson, "Mother's Friend: Birth Control in Nineteenth Century America," National Museum of Civil War Medicine, published February 5, 2017, accessed February 7, 2018, http://www.civilwarmed.org/birth-control/. 

[vi] Andrea Tone, Devices & Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001).

[vii] Andrea Kornbluh and Lynn Estomin, "Cincinnati Industry: Women Were There," Queen City Heritage (Winter, 1983): 30-34.

[viii] M. D. Ratchford, Annual Report to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Made to the Ohio Bureau of Labor Statistics (Columbus, OH, 1906); Cincinnati Lancet-Clinic, July-December, 1897.

[viiv] Doris Weatherford, Foreign and Female: Immigrant Women in America, 1840-1930 (New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1995), 204-209; Roger Daniels, Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 226-227; Nancy L. Green, Ready-to-Wear, Ready-to-Work: A Century of Industry and Immigrants in Paris and New York (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1997).

[x] U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, Monthly Review of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, March 1918); International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, The Ladies' Garment Worker (January 1918). 

[x] Joan Jacobs Brumberg, The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls (New York: First Vintage Books, 1997), 3-94. 

[xii] Quoted in Leila J. Rupp, A Desired Past: A Short History of Same-Sex Love in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 44.

[xiii] Rupp, A Desired Past, 43-53.