Tag Archives: Victorian charity

The Point-Lace Handkerchief: 1871

A reporter, who witnessed the re-opening of a great dry goods establishment in Chicago, which had been burned out on the 8th  of October—mentions that he saw a point-lace handkerchief sold to a lady for $59. This little commercial transaction has been much and severely commented on, and we are told that it is even a disgusting incident. We can’t see it, the exceeding sinfulness of the conduct of the lady who bought the handkerchief. All depends upon circumstances, whether she was right or wrong in investing so liberally in a “wiper.” If the money she gave for the handkerchief was honestly hers, she committed no sin whatever in exchanging it for point-lace, unless we are prepared to say that all expenditure save for the absolute necessaries of life is sinful. Is it more sinful to give $59 for a handkerchief than it is to give $10,000 for a horse? Yet there are men who spend thousands, yearly, on horses—and whose rings are many, and rich. Is it a greater offence to lay out money for lace than it is to lay it out in keeping a yacht? A veteran smoker, who consumes many cigars, and those of the best brands, expends every month more for tobacco than the Chicago lady expended once for a handkerchief—and her handkerchief may last for years, and even decades—perhaps for generations, and become the property of her granddaughter—whereas the man’s cigars must vanish in fumo, or they are worthless. In some old European families they have lace that was made and bought, and originally worn, hundreds of years ago. Lace, if it be really rich is an investment that endures, keeping its worth for ages, and growing more valuable as it gains in time. Cigars burn up, horses die, and yachts are lost, but lace lasts. Who knows but that the fair Chicagoan is a prudent, sensible woman, who was only making a sound investment of some of her floating capital? But, we are told, she should have given the $59 to relieve some suffers by the great fire. How do you know that she had not given liberally in aid of the sufferers in her city? It is going rather far to assume that she had given nothing for that purpose. If it be said that she should have given all she had to the sufferers, the obvious answer is, that she was no more bound to do so than were the men who gave something to relieve the persons who were burned out, but who did not give all their possessions. They have many articles in their possession quite as superfluous as her lace handkerchief, and yet they do not think of parting with those articles, because many persons want food or clothing, or both. Why should she not have her luxuries as well as they? It is not fair to censure her while extravagant men are allowed to pass uncensored.

Boston [MA] Traveller 16 December 1871: p. 2

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Lace, although enduring enough to be heritable by another generation, is still more ephemeral than the poor and the suffering, who are always with us. It would have taken more than the cost of a point-lace handkerchief to restore the losses of victims of the Great Chicago Fire, although a gentleman’s outlay for his yacht might have aided a significant number of the displaced.

Mrs Daffodil considers that the lady in the example above was quite thrifty compared to  these titled and royal personages who paid sinful prices for their lace-edged handkerchiefs.

It took seven years to make a handkerchief for which the Empress of Russia paid $5,000.

New York American 20 October 1898: p. 8


The late Marquess of Angelsey owned three dozen handkerchiefs for evening dress wear. They were of the purest white linen, with his crest worked in human hair in the corners. They were made in Switzerland at a cost of $6 apiece. The late Duc d’Albe, Spanish grandee and uncle to ex-Empress Eugenie, was in the habit of ordering twelve dozen handkerchiefs at a time, for which he paid $120 a dozen. But the most expensive handkerchief is in the possession of the Queen Mother of Italy. It took three women five years to make it, and it is valued at $30,000.

Cleveland [OH] Leader 27 November 1913: p. 8

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.


A Sewing Machine for Christmas: 1898


I very well remember the day before Christmas in Boston some years ago, when the mail carrier brought the morning letters, and one of them had in it a check for $50 from a well-to-do friend, inclosed in a letter which said: “I have more money than time. I would like to do something to make Christmas a little more cheerful and happy to somebody, but I have no time to look up a case. You must, in your work, know of some family where this money will make the Christmas time seem a time of good will. Use it in your own way to bring the most happiness.”

While I held the letter in my hand, grateful in my heart to my friend for choosing me as the messenger of his good cheer, and wondering where I could best use it, to make it meet his requirement, I was called from my study to see a little girl from one of the worst alleys of the South Boston slums of that day. She was about eleven years of age, but though she was not large for her years, there was in her face an acquaintance with care, and a knowledge of suffering, that made her look like a little old woman.

It was a sad little tale of woe she had to tell me. Her father had been killed a few months before by falling from a building. The mother and the four children, of whom this was the eldest, were left without anything but their own resources to get a living. The mother was not strong enough to go out to wash or scrub, and so she had tried to keep the wolf from the door by sewing while the little elven-year-old was housekeeper and caretaker of the other children.

The mother had bought a sewing machine some months before, and had been trying to pay for it by installments, but had had a hard time to meet the weekly payments. She did it for a while, but when the cold weather came on in November, and they had to have coal and a little extra clothing she had fallen behind, and now, on this day before Christmas, the agent had been around, and threatened to take away the sewing machine, and then what was to become of them they could not tell.

If you could have looked in that little girl’s eyes, and heard her tale, you would have had a new conception of what a great thing a sewing machine may be, under certain circumstances. If it had been a title to heaven she was talking about, the little thing could not have been more tearfully in earnest.

I clutched my friend’s check in my hand with a sudden consciousness of what I was going to do and told the little girl to tell her mother not to worry, and that I would look the matter up and see what I could do for her.

I went at once to the sewing machine company and found that there was still owing $28 on the machine. I paid off the contract and put the receipted paper in my pocket. Then along toward evening I had a grocer load up his wagon with a barrel of flour, a barrel of potatoes, some sugar, and tea, and a whole host of goodies, including a good fat chicken for the Christmas dinner, and with some soft blankets and some warm clothing and toys for the children. I paid a Christmas eve visit to that little tenement house suite in the slum alley.

I called just ahead of the wagon, and told her I hoped she would be willing to accept a little Christmas remembrance, which a good hearted friend of mine had asked me to bring for him; and then before the astonished eyes of the mother and children the flour and potatoes, and all the good things came in, borne on the shoulders or rolled in by the big bluff grocer boys.

The woman was overcome with gratitude and the tears ran down her cheeks, while the little children danced for joy. The woman tried to thank me, and then she said what seemed to me at the time, the most pathetic thing I had ever heard.

“Do you think this good friend of yours, who has been so kind, would be willing to take back part of these things and pay the amount on my sewing machine lease?”

Poor soul, how could she be happy so long as the mortgage on her sewing machine was unappeased, and her one permanent stay in self-support threatened to be taken from her?

You can imagine the joy with which I thrust my hand into my pocket and took out the canceled lease and handed it to her, saying: “My friend wanted me to hand you this paper, too, and tell you that nobody would ever trouble your sewing machine again.”

Then there seemed nothing left to wish for. The mother grabbed both my hands, and in spite of all I could do, wet them with her kisses and tears. The children were finally speechless at such munificence, and I went out from them with my heart singing, if it were in my throat, and the tears blinding my eyes.

My only regret was that my generous friend could not see with his own eyes the joy his gift had brought, and thus be able to realize more clearly than would otherwise be possible the truth of Christ’s words, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”


Plain Dealer [Cleveland OH] 11 December 1898: p. 30

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mr Banks was the author of White Slaves: or, The Oppression of the Worthy Poor, The Saloon-keeper’s Ledger, and many works on temperance and religion. He was well-positioned to seek out those in need of assistance, although Mrs Daffodil has always found the sorting of the poor into “deserving” and “undeserving” to be a trifle unjust.  Surely the Unworthy Poor are similarly oppressed and may starve just as efficiently. And, speaking frankly, where should we be if we were all given exactly what we deserved? Mrs Daffodil does not normally make a habit of it, but who can quarrel with the notion of being kind?

Mrs Daffodil wishes her readers the joys of the season and all good things in the New Year. She will return on 4 January, 2017, with more jottings on fads, fashions, and follies.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.


The Corpse Counted the Coins: 1892

corpse sitting up


The story is just being told of a remarkable swindle which was perpetrated recently in Hawthorn (Vic), and it goes to show the extremes to which people will sometimes go in order to carry out imposition on the charitably disposed (says a Melbourne exchange). It appears that some little while back a leading official of the Hawthorn Ladies’ Benevolent Society was waited upon by a woman who was crying bitterly, and who was apparently in deep and genuine distress. Her appearance was that of one poverty-stricken and woebegone in the extreme. She told a pitiful tale to this lady, whose character for charitable deeds is well known.

For a long time, she said, they had had scarcely anything to eat, and, worst of all, her poor husband had just died, and there was no money in her possession to give him a decent burial. The recital of this terrible tale of alleged destitution was accompanied with much sobbing, and hypocritical blessings were called down upon the charitable lady, when a promise was given that the case would be attended to. No time was lost, for with an equally kind-hearted and generous lady friend a visit was at once paid to the house where this terrible family disaster had occurred.

The two ladies entered the house. It was found to have very little furniture in it, and what there was was of the poorest description. The place was dirty and ill-kept; but this was accounted for by the “widow” by the statement that want of food had deprived her of the requisite strength to do household work. The hearts of the ladies were indeed touched at the picture of poverty presented to them. They were assured there were no food in the house, while walking through the house was another woman mourning loudly, like the mourners of old, and tearing her hair at the decease of her brother.

Filled with pity for the poor creatures the two ladies entered what they supposed was the chamber of death. What a picture was here presented. On a stretcher lay the body of a splendidly-formed man, and even now it was in the poorest burial shroud which it had been possible to procure. Evening was coming on, and the corner of the room was wrapped in gloom.

“Look, at his dear dead face,” the woman said, wringing her hands the while and lifting the sheet at the same time. The ladies were rather frightened at the spectacle which presented itself during the few seconds the sheet was lifted, for beneath it was the face of a man of less than middle age. It bore the hue of death, and hastily turning aside the ladies proceeded to be practical.

In the first place they left an ample sum behind them for the funeral expenses, and informed the mourning relatives that they would order the necessaries, and even luxuries, of life to be forwarded from a local store. Then they departed, but after being gone a few minutes one of the ladies discovered that she had left her umbrella in the house. She ran back, and went straight into the room where the body had been.

She started back in affright, for there was the corpse sitting up in bed, coolly and collectively counting over the cash which had been left for his burial. The strange and startling discovery was at once reported, but before steps could be taken to award punishment the coterie of swindlers had flown. It was amply proved afterwards, however, that the face of the “corpse” had been liberally treated with coloured whitewash to give it the appearance of a dead person, and there is every reason to suppose that he has “died” in the same way many a time before.

Ohinemuri [NZ] Gazette 16 July 1892: p. 9

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  This was a popular “old chestnut” to judge by the many variants one finds in the popular press. In some the corpse is already coffined in a borrowed casket and clinks the coins to ascertain whether they are genuine; in others, the money is snatched back from the corpse by the charitable lady. It is certainly possible that the imposture actually was perpetrated on numerous occasions, but the tone and the changing locations to suit each newspaper (Melbourne, Baltimore, &c.) suggest an “urban legend.”  There were also many stories of corpses reviving from cataleptic trances, but one doubts that the first act of those resurrected persons was to count the charity cash or to check it for counterfeit coin.

Mrs Daffodil found it interesting that the “widow” in this story claimed she was too weak from hunger to clean house. Cleanliness in the face of dire poverty was one of the marks of the “deserving poor.” The charitable ladies apparently found this excuse a plausible one.

Of course the sub-text of this story is the importance of a “decent burial,” even to the very poorest. There were also religious committees where ladies gathered to sociably sew shrouds for the poor. For example, that funereal person who wrote The Victorian Book of the Dead found notices of the meetings of the “Ladies’ Shroud Sewing Society” in Denver, Colorado in 1904-1912, where the women of the synagogue made shrouds both to sell as a fund-raiser and for burying the poor.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.


Fashionable Benevolence: 1866

The Empty Purse, James Collinson, 1857. Tate Gallery

The Empty Purse, James Collinson, 1857. Tate Gallery

An improving work of fiction to inspire us all to thankfulness and a zeal for charity in this holiday season.

“And she works exquisitely, too, so much better than that impudent Mrs. Blanchard , who, if you will believe it, Ann, never put on that double frill, even after my express direction; and I, not doubting but that the creature had done as I told her, never perceived the omission until I put on the dress to wear to the ball.”

“But where did you hear of this poor woman, Emma, who works so well and so cheap? She must be destitute, to do it for such a trifle.”

“Oh! yes, she is wretchedly poor, with a family of children, and her husband dead or absent. Our girl, Mary accidentally found her out, and told me she thought Mrs. M—, that is the woman’s name, would be glad to sew for me; so I sent for her, and bargained her down, until she was willing to do it for almost anything, rather than not at all. But all this is entre nous , for you know I could not withdraw my former seamstress to bestow on a new one, unless she was cheaper. I thought she might sew for you, when she was not engaged for me. It is something of an object to save more than half what we give Mrs. Blanchard .”

“I am half delighted to think that you have met with such a prize, for I am convinced that these fashionable milliners and mantua-makers are very expensive; and most all of the work this woman can do just as well, I dare say.”

“She works beautifully, although Mary says one would not think, to see her wretched condition, that she could have the heart to do anything; that is what makes her willing to throw away her work so, as Mrs. Blanchard would call it. Are you going to the ‘Social Circle’ this afternoon, Ann?”

“Certainly; Mr. Handon is to read us some extracts from the new novel; and besides the object is so good. ‘Angels of mercy,’ you know he called us. But do you know, Emma, why Jane Gleason has never joined? She must have been invited.”

“No; for I asked her myself, and her reply was, that she would inform me if she concluded to become a member of the ‘Circle,’ and I have never heard a word from her on the subject since that.”

“She is very peculiar; but, as it is whispered that she does good to the poor, I thought she would be among the first to aid an enterprise like this. Did you read a description of the fair at P—? We shall have a splendid one soon, and then Jane will repent of her oddity. Is it time to go?”

“Yes, a little past the hour appointed; and I must hear that affecting scene in the new novel, if it is read.”

Shall we follow our young friends to the scene of their charity? Attractive as it was, we fear that it is impossible to do justice. Bright faces might be seen grouped here and there, and fair fingers employed in every kind of fanciful and ornamental devices. Gentlemen too, who, although not privileged “to wield the polished shaft,” yet creditably sustained their part as the inspirers of the inspirees. Books, though sometimes listened to with tolerable attention, were soon thrown aside as less interesting, than conversation. Dress, manners, and characters were fully discussed; parties and balls projected; flirtations canvassed— “all the endless round of nothings.” Emma Roberts and her cousin Ann, were among the most zealous; Emma being one of the directresses of the “Social Circle.”

“How handsome she is!” said Henry Benton to his friend Harwin; “and so benevolent, too. Did you hear how enthusiastically she spoke of the approaching fair? I heard her tell sister Catherine that it would do so much good. How unusual to hear young ladies talk of such things. I must become acquainted with her,” and crossing the room he began an animated conversation with Miss Roberts, who failed not to convince him still more, that she was truly and uncommonly disinterested.

“I had no idea,” said Henry, to his sister, on their return home, “that your Circle was so pleasant. I think I shall accompany you more frequently in the future.”

“It is sufficiently pleasant,” replied Catherine, “but I sometimes doubt its utility. The work which is accomplished by the young ladies, I have feared was taken from, and thus injuring the interests of the poor persons, and the time, exertion, and money thus spent in ostentation and parade, might be employed in a more simple and private way by individuals.”

“You are too scrupulous, my dear Catherine; surely united effort must accomplish more than individual; and sociability, and friendly feeling are thus promoted, and, as Miss Roberts told you others are benefitted.”

“I hope it may be so, but do not think me censorious if I say that sometimes others might be benefitted still more if these young ladies were each of them to visit those scenes of poverty and distress, and give their counsel, sympathy, and assistance. Now, it seems pleasant to them to meet together, when they have no other engagements, and talk in general terms of charity, etc., but how few, it is to be feared, know what are self-denial and perseverance against obstacles, in order to do good.”

“I cannot judge them so harshly. It seems to me that ladies like Miss Roberts, for instance, are more likely to be admired for the sincere benevolence of heart which they display, than for all the charms of person or even of mind.”

“I know nothing of Miss Roberts which would contradict that appearance of kindness, so delightful, so praiseworthy, where-ever and whenever seen, of which you speak. With you, I have often admired the interest she manifests in everything relating to our circle, and I only hope my dear brother, that public and private charity may accompany her. But I have been surprised not to see Miss Gleason at any of our meetings; she always seems social and friendly, and I expected to meet her there.”

Months passed by, bringing the wished-for fair near at hand, and report said that Henry Benton was becoming daily more pleased with the pretty, interesting, and benevolent Miss Roberts. No one could approve these on dits, or wished they might prove true, more ardently than the lady herself; for Mr. Benton was, as the fathers would have styled him, a safe party, to mothers a desirable one, and the daughter a perfect one. With wealth, rank and talents, joined to accomplished manners, and firm integrity, his society was universally courted. As yet, however, he had never paid his devoirs at any fair shrine; but, like most of those whom fashion or interest has not moulded to do her bidding, he had a beau ideal in his own mind of the being he should wish to call his, and that had never yet been realized. Miss Roberts, attractive as she was person, would probably have excited in him no peculiar interest, had not her apparent benevolence of heart won his attention. One who could talk thus eloquently of relieving suffering, must, he thought, be amiable to no common degree. She cannot be one of those frivolous heartless beings, absorbed in selfish gratification, thinking not of the responsibility devolving upon them, and forgetting the sacred ties that bind us each to each.

It was a cold and dreary night when Henry Benton and his sister sat by their cheerful fire conversing on the merit of a book, from which he had just been reading. Everything around looked bright and pleasant, and it might well seem almost impossible for the inmates of that dwelling to think that any one could be less happy than themselves. It seems to be the natural effect of extremes of joy or sorrow, to prevent us from realizing the misery of others. It is difficult for the heart bounding with joy, to whom all things round bear la couleur de rose, to imagine the smaller miseries and greater sufferings of others, and one who is himself plunged into the depth of unhappiness, is too apt to be absorbed by the consideration of his own calamities. Our friends were not selfish, but certain it is, that the misfortunes that “flesh is heir to” were not then present to their minds, when Catherine was informed that a poor woman lived near her, who was or had been very sick.

“You were going out for a short time, Henry,” said she to her brother, “and I will go with you to this woman’s house, where you can call for me as you return.”

“Do not venture out such and evening as this, Catherine. You can send some one to inquire into her circumstances, and give her aid.”

“But I shall feel better satisfied to see how she does, myself—nay, do not object, my dear,” said she smiling; “do you think the cold can penetrate through all this fur? I know the exercise will benefit me. Come, let us go. This is the house,” said she, as they arrived at the dwelling where she had been told the object of her visit resided. “Now you can come for me as you return,” and she gently opened the door of a room where a light faintly glimmered. But she was not, as she afterwards declared, prepared for the scene that met her view. In a miserable hut insufficient to protect its inmates from the inclemency of the weather, was extended the sick woman on a low bed, supported by Miss Gleason, who was administering a cordial. The apartment, too, though indicating poverty, bore an air of neatness, and little comforts were strewed here and there, as if some kind hand had lent its aid.

“And you are here before me, Jane?” said Catherine, advancing towards her.

“Yes, I have been here some time. Mrs. M. has been very sick, but she seems more comfortable now.”

“I had never heard of her until to-day,” replied Catherine, “or I should have visited her before. I have brought some trifles, which I hope may benefit her till we can do something more.”

The sick woman groaned—”Oh! if I had what is justly my due, I need not trouble others so much. Lady,” said she, striving to speak distinctly, “long, long nights have I never closed my eyes to sleep, striving to earn something for myself and my poor children. She told me unless I did the work cheap, I could not have it, and I did it almost for nothing rather than not do it at all; but I have never been paid even that.”

“Who employed you, Mrs. M—.”asked Catherine.

“Miss Roberts sent for me, and gave me her sewing to do, and last night she sent me word, unless I completed some work which I have had out for a week, she must withdraw it all from me.”

“Do not agitate yourself about it Mrs. M—,”said Miss Gleason gently; “your wants shall be supplied, until you are able to exert yourself without injury.”

“But, my dear young lady, I cannot but think of it. I should not have minded it for myself, for I am sure, unless I could hope to show my gratitude for your kindness, and, watch over my children, I have nothing to live for; but to think of them!”

Mr. Benton at this instant stepped into the door, but not being perceived, he did not interrupt her by accosting his sister.

“I have seen them cry for bread, and I told Miss Roberts that destitute as I was, I could sew for anything that could procure them bread. Long nights have I never slept, but labored without a moment’s rest to procure them something. And when I asked her for the money, she said she never paid those little sums till they amounted to something; and added, she could not stop, either, for she was going to some society or circle as she called it, and could not listen. I came home, but could support it no longer; I could not even go out to beg food, and oh! my children, I must have perished had not this angel”—said she, turning to Miss Gleason, with tears in her eyes, and then sinking back, exhausted with the effort of speaking.

“She shall not be alone for the future, in her errands of mercy,” said Catherine, hardly able to speak. “Rejoice,” added she, turning as she perceived her brother, “that I came here, Henry, for I have learned a lesson not soon to be forgotten.”

The character and life of Jane Gleason were indeed worthy of being remembered and imitated. With a gifted and cultivated mind, she had a feeling heart and firm principles. Although every way fitted, if she had been so inclined, to become “the glass of fashion and the mould of form,” she chose rather to improve the talents committed to her charge, to higher and nobler purposes. In her charity she was constant and kind, and scrupulously followed His example who “went about doing good;” and although her name might never have been seen in public prints, as “lady president,” or directress of public societies, or a graceful presider over a fair, it was graven in the heart of many a widow and orphan, whom she gladdened by her kindness. To those who feel interested in the fate of Mrs. M—, we will add, that she did recover, and through the efforts of her friends, was enabled to maintains herself and family comfortably—of course with more generous employers than Miss Roberts, who still continued her enthusiasm for public charity, although we will confess, it has never since excited so much admiration in Henry Benton. The scene at the cottage often recurs in his memory.

Since the evening of which we speak, he has seen Jane Gleason the centre of attraction in the circle of her friends, exhibiting all the graces of mind and person, but never has she looked more lovely in his eyes, and never has he found her less worthy to be the companion of joy and sorrow, the sharer and heightener of one, the reliever of the other, than when in that poor cottage, dispensing alleviation to the afflicted, and affording such a striking contrast to “fashionable benevolence.”

The Vincennes Weekly Western Sun 4 August 1866

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Well, good gracious! The moral could not have been more pointed if the author had knocked the reader on the head with a pick-axe.  Happy endings all ’round!

Mrs Daffodil is always astonished how effective moral fiction can be and how it insinuates itself into the conscience, should one happen to possess such an article.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.