Thursday, July 15, 2021

In Sickness and In Health: Dr. Freeman Allen, Mary Ethel Gibson, and Mental Health and Addiction

This blog post is part of an occasional series about the Gibson House Museum Archives, a repository of personal documents and photographs from the Gibson family. The archives are accessible by appointment; contact to make arrangements.

“I said that although I had always thought that it might be best to resume work in Anesthesia on a moderate scale, that you had absolutely declined to have me do this and that I had definitely made up my mind to be guided by you in the matter, and that of course if you did not want me to do it and would not stand for it, that settled it. 

 . . . 

I will now follow your advice and take a rest before the walk which I hope will take place. 


I am, darling little Wesscat, with more love and gratitude than I ever felt before in my life, and many kisses for your sweet little self, 


Your affectionate husband 


Gibson House Museum Archives.

Dr. Freeman Allen wrote these words to his wife, Mary Ethel Gibson Allen, in 1926 while he was a patient at Bloomingdale Hospital in New York. A physician and pioneer in the anesthetics field, Freeman suffered from depression and narcotic addiction, and he spent the last five years of his life being treated in institutions. Throughout it all, he wrote letters to his wife, updating her on his health as well as relaying mundane matters like requests for bowties and candies. As an intern at the Gibson House Museum this spring, I was tasked with reorganizing the over 400 letters that comprise the Mary Ethel Gibson Allen and Dr. Freeman Allen correspondence sub-series. The letters span thirty-six years, starting with their over decade-long courtship and ending with his death by suicide in 1930. The true story of his death was discovered by the museum just a handful of years ago; this revelation is recounted in a blog post here. My work in the archives this semester allowed me to follow Freeman and Mary Ethel’s relationship from its timid beginnings to its resilience in the face of illness and shame.

Friday, April 2, 2021

1898 Mangle: Laundry Is the Mother of Invention

Have you ever wondered what doing laundry was like in the 1800s? Today, most laundry routines consist of shifting clothes between washing machines and dryers. But what kind of technology was involved in laundry in the nineteenth century?

Trade card for the Bench Wringer
Collection of Historic New England
Laundry in the Victorian era would have been a very time-consuming process. Collecting, cleaning, and drying out the clothes would have taken hours. According to The Library Company of Philadelphia, “clothes would be soaped, boiled or scalded, rinsed, wrung out, mangled, dried, starched, and ironed, often with steps repeating throughout.” Victorian clothing often included delicate fabrics, intricate detailing, and unique closures, all of which would have affected how a garment was cleaned. Making laundry even more challenging was the fact that many households in the 1800s did not have running water.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Thomas Dalton, Boston Abolitionist (1794—1883)

Gibson House Museum( 1992.401.82) 
The women of the Gibson Family—Catherine Hammond Gibson, Rosamond Warren Gibson, and Mary Ethel Gibson Allen—kept albums filled with photographs of relatives and friends. These images were typically studio portraits, traded as part of the custom of leaving calling cards when paying someone a social visit. At the Museum, we find them to be a helpful "who's who" of Boston, and especially the Back Bay, in the nineteenth century.

In two different albums, Catherine included a photograph of Thomas Dalton. Dalton was a free African-American man born on the North Shore in Gloucester in 1794 who became a well-known activist and abolitionist in Boston's Black community. At the age of twenty-three, Dalton moved to Boston, where he first worked as a bootblack. He eventually opened his own used clothing store on Brattle Street and went on to become a prosperous merchant. His store, located near today's Government Center, was at the foot of the west slope of Beacon Hill, the center of Boston's Black community.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Little Women Clubs and Boston Philanthropy

Illustration by Jessie Wilcox Smith, c. 1915.
Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, published just after the Civil War, was a runaway best seller that impacted generations of readers and significantly influenced American culture as a whole, through countless editions, versions, sequels, translations, images, plays, and films. Little Women was so compelling that it inspired young fans to create spontaneous clubs, such as the “Little Men and Little Women,” the “Alcott Reading Club,” and the “Alcott Literary Club.” Inspired by the March sisters’ Pickwick Portfolio, five sisters from a small town in Pennsylvania created a family newspaper in 1871 that boasted a thousand subscribers nationwide before winding down a few years later.
A charming spinoff, The Little Women Club (1905), by Marion Ames Taggart, a children’s book about four friends aged eleven to thirteen who decide to form a club and who enact the novel in their daily lives, seeded Little Women Clubs across the United States. The clubs became so popular that adults soon took notice and began taking control. Some clubs were created to preserve the Alcott homestead, Orchard House, transforming it into a house museum. Young settlement workers followed the trend, creating a Louisa M. Alcott Club for Jewish immigrants, which aimed to “instruct small girls in all branches of housekeeping.” There was an Alcott Club sponsored by Hull House in Chicago, and a San Francisco chapter of the Little Women Club that provided poor children with “practical and moral training” and a few weeks of country life under the care of settlement workers. Little Women Clubs became generally associated with mental cultivation, character development, and philanthropy.

In December of 1905, Rosamond Warren Gibson attended a Congregational church fair in Norwood, Massachusetts, which was sponsored by the “Mission Circle” and the “Little Women.” Rosamond was on the Committee of Arrangements. Cake and candy tables, a fancy table (featuring precious or whimsical handmade items for sale), and a photo and art table were all well patronized. Entertainment consisted of a cantata entitled Santa Clause’s Mistake, a dumbbell drill by two squads of girls, with piano accompaniment, and “a tambourine drill in Spanish costume by 12 young ladies.” Designed to promote mental cultivation, character development, and philanthropy, Little Women Clubs were an outgrowth of two important social trends spanning the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the women’s club movement and the settlement house movement.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Power in Suffrage

This blog post is part of a series about the Gibson family and the lead-up to the 1920 presidential election, which promised "a return to normalcy" after many years of social upheaval. Read about Boston's experience of World War I here and Boston during the flu epidemic of 1918 here.

The first two decades of the early twentieth century saw huge social movements in the United States, most notably the suffrage movement. Women had been fighting for their right to vote for many years, but the movement gained more traction in the 1910s. Women across the country marched, protested, and rallied for suffrage. An anti-suffrage movement also existed, largely driven by white, upper-class women. These women, although still second-class citizens in the United States, possessed a degree of relative privilege due to their race and class. The Gibsons belonged to this group, and the Gibson women used their position to advocate against women’s suffrage. 

Mary Ethel, the oldest Gibson daughter, was an anti-suffragist. In 1914, she and many other Back Bay women sold red roses to the public just ahead of a suffrage parade. As red was the color of anti-suffrage, the women intended for the thousands of roses to make a “dignified protest” against the suffragists in Boston. She protested alongside other women from her social circle during this event. Mary Ethel may have also participated in other anti-suffrage events in Boston; her sister and mother may have felt similarly about the cause.

Boston Globe, October 17, 1915.

The upper-class culture of Beacon Street led to its becoming a center of anti-suffrage in Boston. In fact, suffragists in Boston called the street “enemy’s country” because of its large anti-suffragist population. These privileged women could not take part in governmental politics, but were able to be involved in and influence the social politics of their upper-class culture through their connections. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Epidemic in the City

This blog post is part of a series about the Gibson family and the lead-up to the 1920 presidential election, which promised "a return to normalcy" after many years of social upheaval. Read about Boston's experience of World War I here and the Gibsons and suffrage here.

In the spring of 1918, in the midst of World War I, an influenza virus called Spanish Flu (or “Grippe”) because it was believed to have originated in Spain, spread through the United States. A lethal second wave began that summer in Boston. Much like the waves of the COVID-19 pandemic we are currently experiencing, the influenza of 1918 turned daily life upside down. 

Influenza cropped up in Boston in late August of 1918 at Commonwealth Pier, where sailors trained before going overseas. Like the rest of the country, Boston was fully immersed in wartime efforts. Over 100,000 male Bostonians between the ages of eighteen and forty-five registered to be drafted in early September. The federal government’s Liberty Bond campaign to offset the cost of war was in full swing, with Boston expected to raise 129 million dollars through the sale of bonds at Liberty Loan parades and drives. 

Boston Globe, September 2, 1918.
A “Win-the-War-for-Freedom” Labor Day parade held on September 2, 1918, consisted of 4,000 people; civilians, soldiers, and sailors from Commonwealth Pier mingled, spreading the virus among Boston residents. The parade wound around Boston Common, quite close to the Gibson family home at 137 Beacon Street. 

Charlie Gibson, Boston, and the War in Europe

This blog post is part of a series about the Gibson family and the lead-up to the 1920 presidential election, which promised "a return to normalcy" after many years of social upheaval. Read about the Gibsons and suffrage here and Boston during the flu epidemic of 1918 here.

Charlie Gibson, a Citizen Soldier: The Plattsburg Movement and the First World War 

On May 7, 1915, a German submarine torpedoed and sank the HMS Lusitania, a British cruise liner traveling from New York City to Liverpool, England. Almost twelve hundred people died in the attack, including 123 Americans. 

Gibson House Museum
For almost two more years, President Woodrow Wilson maintained official neutrality and a policy of American isolation. Others in the United States believed that American entry into the conflict was inevitable and joined the Preparedness Movement, an effort to ready American troops for war. Led by individuals such as former president Theodore Roosevelt and General Leonard Wood, the Preparedness Movement gained much of its membership from upper- and middle-class Americans in the Northeast.