Women in the Gray diary: Part Two

Hedwiga Gray diary1
Hedwiga Regina Shober Gray diary, entries for 5-7 February 1864. R. Stanton Avery Special Collections

Regina Shober Gray kept a diary for 25 years. Taking a smaller portion of the diary – the period between 1861 and 1870 – and with a focus (for Women’s History Month in March) on some of the women the diarist mentions, I have assembled a few representative entries from those years. (See last week’s post for the 1861–1865 entries.)

Mrs. Gray’s reflections range over marriage for money and position (March 1861), the servant question (June 1862 and October 1867), women in the public sphere (March 1863), her own emotional state (April 1865), a chastening romantic episode (February 1866), the coarsening effects of modern life (February 1868), and a modest attempt to aid poor but proud working women in Boston (January 1870):[1]

Sunday, 18 February 1866: Our papers announced the death of Miss Mary Wallack aged 81,[2] last week. She taught music here years ago – and I remember seeing her in 1831 at old Mr. Bradlee’s[3] house in Pearl St. and being told years later when I was grown up, a romantic story about her being one of a party of gay girls, who agreed in a frolic to advertize for a husband.

She, being the brightest of them all, was deputed to write the notice – which elicited some witty reply; some correspondence & personal acquaintance, attachment, and an engagement of marriage followed between her & her correspondent – which he eventually broke, leaving her a heart broken woman.

She was a very superior person however, and rose above her sorrows, doing well her long day’s work in life. But oh what a lonely, weary life it must have often been for her – earthward at least – for she may have had the sweetest consolations of “Our Father’s” love, heavenward, to shed light & cheer on the dreary ways of the long journey she has ended at last.

Sunday, 6 October 1867: Our chambergirl, Maria Murray, tells me she wants to leave as soon as I can supply her place – as she was married some 4 months ago!

Tuesday, 18 February 1868: The dancing class [at Lorenzo Papanti’s dancing school] has degenerated into a children’s ball with ribbons & bells and bouquets & toys – [of] all [of] which most of us mothers highly disapprove – not only for the actual outlay, but on principle; it is just a part of the extravagance & pleasure seeking that characterise our whole social life, now-a-days.

The girls are miniature women in elaborate elegance of dress – only the impropriety which shows itself décolletée[4] in our married women and our innocent young girls too, too many of them, in these children follows the lead of the old woman going to market “with eggs for to sell.” [They] are cut off in skirts to the knees – great girls of 12 & 13 – with fancy kid boots, pink, blue, white or even tinsel’d – and no perceptible pantalettes; and the rooms look as if a juvenile corps de ballet were rehearsing! Several of us agreed to remonstrate with Mr. Papanti about the bouquets &c and as Sallie Gray[5] did so yesterday we hope for a reform there at least.

Sunday, 23 January 1870: Some of our friends are interested in a “friendly drawing-room” project, for the shop-girls &c. The city offers the use of 2 fine rooms in the bureau of charity building – the ladies to be at expense of light, warmth, furniture &c. A staff of matrons & young ladies are to receive daily from 7 p. m till 9½ p.m – games, books, and [needle]work are to occupy the time & music. The girls are to bring their mending &c &c & spend their evgs. comfortably, instead of shivering over the work in their cold cramped attics, by light of a poor little lamp; or going to bed right after tea for warmth – or worse still roaming the streets exposed to countless temptations, before which unwary innocence falls, as readily as bold recklessness.

The plan is a good one – but it is threatened with failure at the outset, because the meetings are held at the Public Bureau of Charity. These girls say – and truly – they are not objects of charity & do not choose to be so considered. It wounds their self-respect to be recipients of City charity. They are working women struggling to keep themselves in independence & respectability & however little of luxury or even comfort may fall to their lot, they content themselves & ask aid from none. If their more prosperous sisters wish, with womanly sympathy, to bridge the chasm between them, they should invite them to their own houses, or at least not to a rent free city charity! &c &c.

As to our own houses, that idea is utterly absurd & impracticable. Our very servants would rebel at the work it would make, & beside we do not open our houses to our personal friends once a week, & these people come from one knows not where – and go we know not whither, and may bring we know not what into our homes.

But I can see the force of their objection to meeting in rooms, loaned as a charity – and think it would be better to hire rooms ourselves, or assess the girls a trifle, to save their self-respect and honest pride by letting share the expense. The addition of a good cup of tea or coffee with buns or some such simple food, would be a good plan; but of course would add largely to the cost & trouble. It is also suggested that the girls should be allowed to bring their brothers, lovers &c. It is questionable how that plan would work – some of these appendages might prove coarse & rude or even vicious – and yet how draw a line excluding such.

At the same time, how could such young people meet, with less risk, than at these gatherings, ordered by ladies of dignified character and position bearing the authority of rank & experience and having all the influence of womanly sympathy & refinement. And after all “the lads will love lasses & the lassies love lads too.” It is the broadest, most deep-seated instinct of our nature & can not be righteously ignored. Our sons & daughters meet & enjoy meeting their friends of both sexes – why should we frown on similar innocent pleasures for these others according to their degree?

And yet can I be willing, if this plan be adopted, to let my daughter Mary assist once a week in receiving at the rooms – and play waltzes & other cheerful music and accompaniments for vocal music, as she now proposes doing? I do not know.

Notes

[1] All entries from the Hedwiga Regina Shober Gray diary, R. Stanton Avery Special Collections.

[2] Mary Wallack (1784?–1866) died on 10 February 1866.

[3] Josiah Bradlee (1777–1860), the father of Mrs. Gray’s stepmother Mrs. Samuel Lieberkuhn Shober.

[4] Suggestive dress displaying the neck and upper arms of the wearer.

[5] Sarah Frances Loring (1811–1892) married Dr. Gray’s brother William in 1834.

About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward has been NEHGS’ Editor-in-Chief since 2013. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

2 thoughts on “Women in the Gray diary: Part Two

  1. As always, these excerpts are fascinating. Some sound so contemporary, like her concern over “the younger generation.” Some, like her consternation about how to be “charitable” to the lower classes of women without “contaminating” her own home, sound at first blush to be very unlike life today. Yet, if we’re honest, how many upper class women today would be willing to invite a crowd of young lower class women into their homes on a weekly basis? I can imagine her concern that they “may bring we know not what into our homes.” might mean head lice or the like, or moral corruption for her own daughters. She’s pretty clear she has her qualms about her daughter helping out even at the Bureau of Charity. It is amazing how honest she is able to be in her diary. One wonders whether the ladies who proposed the idea were so honest in their discussions. It’s interesting that the women they wanted to help were quite candid in their responses. Does the diary say whether a project like this ever got off the ground?

    1. Thanks, Doris! I think the whole entry about the women’s charity is fascinating: she talks through several (opposing?) viewpoints and ends up with the, I think, genuine question about whether she would want her daughter Mary to help out. She is, as you say, so honest about her own qualms and about the differing interests of the “ladies” and the “working women” — even the Board of Charity!

      I keep telling myself she was born in 1818, but so often her observations have the ring of someone living in 2015…

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