Reading with Rose: ‘Tis the Season

For this month’s book blog, we are going to explore a book owned by two generations of Nichols women: The Star of Bethlehem, or, Stories for Christmas. 

The Star of Bethlehem was published in 1852 in Philadelphia.

This book provides valuable insight into the Nichols’ family values. Although it is inscribed to Rose Standish Nichols, it originally belonged to her mother, Elizabeth Homer Nichols. Elizabeth, or “Lizzie,” as her family called her, was eight years old when she received the book as a gift from her mother. It’s a pleasure to find a book that was passed along to Rose, from the mother she so loved.

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“Lizzie Homer. From her Mother, Sept 12th 1852. 8 Greenville St. Roxbury.”

If you’ve come on a tour with us, you know that the Nichols family traveled quite frequently. Some of their travels took place during the winter season. In December of 1893, Elizabeth wrote to Rose about a tea party she hosted during the winter season:

“My tea yesterday was successful. It was a fine day and I think there were about fifty here.[…] Then we had a little mistletoe about […] and the rooms really looked very attractive.”

Elizabeth writing to her daughter, Rose, December 19, 1893

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Postcard from Rose Standish Nichols’ collection.

Three years later, Elizabeth told Rose of another winter season, spent in the Nichols’ summer home in Cornish, New Hampshire:

“We find things here about as we left them, the principal difference being that there is enough snow, though barely enough to justify sleighing. So as our new Canada sleigh, otherwise called a cariole, has arrived, papa and I have been out twice.”

Elizabeth writing to her daughter, Rose, January 26, 1896

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Margaret with her children, Sarah, William and Jack (left to right) and their horse Whitey.

Wherever they were, the Nichols women didn’t let the winter season slow them down.

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Margaret and Elizabeth, 1921.

Old Chest, New Woman

In Rose Standish Nichols’ bedroom, positioned at the end of her bed, is a seventeenth century English dowry chest. In 1910, the Nichols family acquired this chest from the company “John Wilson & Son” while abroad in England. For a time, this chest was likely placed in the front entry hall between two of the carved chairs that are now located in the library. The chest would have given this space the atmosphere of an English country house and as evidenced by the pastoral motifs throughout her needlework, we know this is a style Rose favored.

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The dowry chest seen in Rose Standish Nichols’ bedroom, 1964.

The dowry chest dates back to the Middle Ages, spanning many continents and cultures. By the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the custom had reached American shores and become popular amongst the middle class.[1] At this time, the tradition was affectionately renamed a “hope chest” often beginning at pre-adolescence. Becoming an accepted part of the American marriage custom, young women would have filled their hope chests with personal items in anticipation of marriage.[2]

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Joined chest with drawer, 1699, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

 

This carved and paneled oak chest would have stored items belonging to a bride, transported from her father’s home to her new home with her husband; all personal wealth or inheritance attributed to a woman became her husband’s upon marriage. “Cupboards and textiles belonged to a category of household goods called ‘moveables.’ Unlike real estate, which was typically transmitted from father to son, moveables formed the core of female inheritance.”[3] The initials of the original owner, H.I., adorn the front of the chest. At this time, “to inscribe one’s name on a material object assured some sort of immortality.”[4] Further, since “barely a third of women in late-seventeenth-century Massachusetts could sign their own names, these [initials] signified both ownership and literacy.”[5] Perhaps more than any other piece in the Nichols House Museum, this dowry chest represents the strides women have made in having their rights and freedoms acknowledged.

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All three of the Nichols sisters were intrepid pioneers in the fight for women’s equality, embodying the spirit of the New Woman. Rose, Marian and Margaret were all active participants in the suffrage movement and as her father recalls, Rose hosted suffrage events at 55 Mount Vernon Street.

“Rose invited about 30 ladies to a conference about Women’s Suffrage. Remarks were made by Mrs. Chas. Park of the Suffrage League, Mrs. Stone of the Elizabeth Home, and Mrs. Glenny of the Municipal League.”

 Arthur Nichols’ diary entry, Sunday, February 11, 1912

“About 50 ladies and gentlemen filled our parlor this evening to hear a talk about Women’s Suffrage. The speakers were Mrs. Florence Kelley, and Mrs. Charles Park. Mrs. Dewey gave an account of a visit to the strikers at Lawrence. Mrs. Kelley and Miss Wiggin dined with us.”

Arthur Nichols’ diary entry, Monday, February 12, 1912

The Mrs. Charles Park named above is almost certainly Maude Wood Park, a key figure in the suffrage movement. Maude Wood Park also attended Radcliffe College, graduating in 1898 one year prior to Marian. Finally, on August 26, 1920, the Nichols sisters witnessed a pivotal moment in U.S. women’s history, the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which provided full voting rights for women nationally. After women’s right to vote was acknowledged, Maude Wood Park served as the first president of the League of Women Voters, an organization of which Marian Nichols was a member.

Just one month later, Marian Nichols launched her campaign as Independent Candidate for Ward 8. Although she did not win this election, she remained influential in local politics.

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Marian Nichols’ 1920 campaign poster

The turn of the twentieth century marked the first time in American history where marriage was no longer imperative for women, allowing both Rose and Marian to lead successful careers as an alternative to family life. Despite being married and a mother to six children, Margaret Nichols-Schurcliff was also lionhearted. The youngest of the Nichols sisters, Margaret ran a carpentry business out of the top floor of her home at 66 Mount Vernon Street; a feat unheard of for a woman of her time.

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Margaret Nichols Shurcliff’s business card from her carpentry business.

Today, women continue the fight for gender equality. Although we have not yet elected our first woman president, the undaunted spirit of the Nichols women brings hope that women will soon break the ultimate glass ceiling. This dowry chest sits at the base of Rose’s bed in bold confrontation of those who would discount women’s abilities and discourage them from leading active, engaged lives.

By Laura Cunningham, Archival Intern

[1] Otto, Herbert A., and Robert B. Andersen. “The Hope Chest and Dowry: American Custom?” The Family Life Coordinator 16, no. 1/2 (1967): 15-19. doi:10.2307/581576.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. The age of homespun: objects and stories in the creation of an American myth. n.p.: New York : Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 2001.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.