Clara and the Language of Stamps

Clara was missing her friend, Elizabeth, who might as well have been a thousand miles away. Though Elizabeth was living in nearby Piqua, a stretch of about thirty miles from Dayton, the trip by Western Ohio’s interurban trolley would be an all day affair in 1907. Besides there were so many chores at hand and Mama expected her to keep a watchful eye on Beatrice, Eddie, and Mary. The life of a fifteen-year old girl in Dayton’s Victorian Era was not where one could afford a frivolous day trip.

But the two found another way to stay in touch.

With the price of a penny postage stamp, postcards were becoming the new trend of communication in 1907 and collecting these colorful cards was a favorite hobby for many young girls.

From Smithsonian Institute Archives

On February 27, 1861, the US Congress passed an act that allowed privately printed cards, weighing one ounce or under, to be sent in the mail. That same year John P. Charlton (other places seen as Carlton) copyrighted the first postcard in America.

The first commercially printed postcards were introduced in 1893 at the Chicago World’s Fair, issued as souvenirs of the historical event. In 1901, the United States Postmaster General granted private printers the right to use the term “Post Card” instead of “Private Mailing Card” on their stock. Until 1907, the back of the postcard was for the mailing address only. There was no space for a written message.

On October 1, 1907, printers were permitted to change the design of postcards to a “divided back.” Now a vertical line is added so the mailing address is on the right and a personal message can be written on the left. This seemingly simple change brought the postcard into the Golden Age of Postcards (1907-1915).

From the New York State Library

The decade between 1905-1915 – the Golden Age of Postcards – saw postcard collecting reach a zenith of staggering proportion. Literally millions of postcards were printed, imported, sold and mailed. Official U.S. Post Office figures for the year ending June 30, 1908 revealed that approximately seven hundred million postcards had been mailed in this country. By 1913 the total number mailed had increased to over nine hundred million, and, by this date, the craze was reportedly on the decline!

In the days long before heart-eyed emoticons represented how you felt, another trend found a renewal along with the colorful postcards in these early days of the twentieth century.

The not-so-secret Language of Stamps had already been a thing with young lovers sending letters as a matter of courtship. This is one interpretation, which makes me wonder if it differed by region and if the occasional misunderstanding took place.

The Buffalo Enquirer, Sep 15 1906, Page 2

Courtship by correspondence sounds rather romantic and innocent, doesn’t it? Like those notes you’d be passed during Social Studies in middle school written with “Do you like me?” and had two check boxes for “Yes” or “No.” Kinda sweet and awkward.

“With all good wishes and sweetest kisses from Elizabeth.” Postcard postmarked April 10, 1909, Piqua, Ohio.

As good friends, I suspect Elizabeth’s stamp language to Clara (see image above) was more of a “Hey, girl! Miss you!” than following any other postage protocol of the time.

Clara’s Post Cards Book holds 61 postcards from friends and family.

Clara’s postcard collection ranges from early 1907 (her mother died unexpectedly later that year) to 1909. By 1911, she was married to George Washington Sword, a industrious young man who’d arrived from his Maryland farm to start a new life. But that’s a story that needs its own page.

In honor of today’s holiday, I want to share with you the Easter cards that Clara kept in her collection. A brief look at the designs of the time period of 1907-1909 and what appeals to a Catholic teenager of that era. I hope you enjoy this gallery of flowers, chicks, and maidens of long ago.

And a special call out to those fine, fine legs on Mr. Easter Bunny in the second card.

And I leave you with a postage stamp joke from 1910. I don’t know, does make you feel vaguely uncomfortable? No, it’s just me? Different times …

The Dayton Herald, Sep 10 1910, Page 4

Clara Cecelia Boga (1891 – 1974) is my husband’s grandmother, Grandma Sword. She was the second child of first generation French-Italian American, Anthony (Tony) Boga, Jr. (1865-1944), and first generation German American, Thiekla Cecelia Gertner (1867-1907).

She married the boy who moved in across the street, George Washington Sword (1886-1961) in 1911 at the age of nineteen. They had three sons, George Washington Sword (1916-2003), James Monroe Sword (1917-2008), and Merrill Martin Sword (1923-1971). Clara lived to the age of 82.

The Boga home at 128 Ashley Street is gone today, although a few houses of that era remain in the neighborhood. Ashley Street is off Brown Street, near the strip of restaurants that feed the students of the University of Dayton. If we could overlay maps of the two time periods of 1909 and today, the Boga home would be in the shadow of Miami Valley Hospital.

The Grass Widow Scandal

I know, I know. This is a bit of a downer story. But take a moment to read through this article, won’t you? Because I wanna talk about it.

The Dayton Herald, May 19 1885

Ok, first of all. OMG.

A horrific tale of a child possibly murdered by his own mother. But you know, this also is sensational journalism at its worst. To be honest here, this is heresay.

We are ready to believe this woman’s story, yet the only name identified is Coroner (W. P.) Treon. The informant, the accused, and even child are unnamed. I wonder if the correspondent came across this story by stopping in at the coroner’s office to ask “So hey, Bill, what’s new?”

Of course, the undercurrent of it all reflects the difficult life of an unmarried woman in 1885. The only thing we know about the anonymous informant is that she’s traveled ten miles to reach downtown Dayton from Taylorsburg, which at the time was a small community located in what is now the City of Trotwood. The township mentioned in the text below is Randolph.

History of the City of Dayton and Montgomery County, Ohio, Volume 1, Page 921, Augustus Waldo Drury. S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1909 – Dayton (Ohio)

We don’t know if she traveled alone, but it’s obvious she was at least uncomfortable, if not actually afraid, to connect her name to the story. She came to the coroner to request somebody of authority to check into the suspicious death of a child. And with a wave of a hand, was dismissed as a gossip monger.

And what are we to believe about the the grass widow who wanted to marry a man who had no interest in raising a child that wasn’t his. Unfortunately, we’ve heard this story in our modern times as well, haven’t we? We’ve all read too many news stories about women who make that nefarious choice.

It’s not really fair to make the assumption about our grass widow, though. Of course, an unmarried woman in 1885 would have it hard, especially with raising a child. She wouldn’t own the land she was living on, so likely had to make a living as a seamstress, laundress, or have a low paying factory job. Getting married would be a quality of life improvement, even if the guy was a straight up ratbag. But still, that’s quite a leap to say she murdered her child.

Perhaps instead, the community could have chosen to be sympathetic to a woman who lost her only child and rally around her with casseroles, good wishes, and maybe a dollar or two. But as a grass widow, respect was hard to come by.

When I first saw this story, which was shared by the Randolph Township Historical Society’s Facebook page, I was confused by the term Grass Widow. You too? I did some reading on this and found that the meaning has changed over the years, from respectful to naughty and eventually to an accepted term.

It seems the original meaning began as an English term for women whose husbands were away at length, whether at war, conducting business in another country, or have otherwise made a temporary “widow” of their wives. As the the usage became more common in the United States, the meaning began to change.

National Banner and Nashville Whig, Jan 10 1829, Page 1

Consider this article from 1829 written by a gentleman from Woodville, Mississippi who just wanted to share information on his fine community with anyone interested. This is from his letter to the editor of a Nashville newspaper.

A grass widow in 1829’s Mississippi may have shared the same connotation as the British usage. But we might have started to shift over to referring to women who are married, but are separated from their husbands with no expectations of living together again. The term is also attached to women who’ve had a child outside of marriage.

This little snippet of info from 1858 reflects when Grass Widow started to be used for a divorced woman. Apparently, Wabash, Indiana was the place to go to make this happen. A woman merely needs to board there for ten days, then can lawyer up. You may be as surprised as I was to see the term bewitching vixens in a Victorian era newspaper story. Because obviously, if you’re a single woman with experience, let’s turn it into something rather naughty.

By the way, this story was written by a Dayton reporter and was shared in newspapers across our great nation. Of course it was.

The Advocate, Buffalo, New York, Jul 8 1858, Page 3

But not so fast there, Wabash.

South Bend, Indiana, says hold my tar and feathers and watch this.

Brooklyn Evening Star, Aug 16 1859, Page 2

Speaking of lack of respect, there’s always been this. I give you 1890. And props to Boston for their use of creative adjectives. We’re just missing vixen here.

The Boston Globe, Apr 6 1890, Page 11

Not really surprising is how Congress made a mess of things when they enacted the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887 outlawing polygamy as practiced by the followers of the Church of Latter Day Saints. By declaring plural marriages illegal, our government created their very own version of grass widows. Splitting these Mormon families resulted in countless women pushed out from their homes. They can no longer live with their husbands, who in the meantime are having their own problems with persecution. For lack of a better idea of what to do with these surplus wives, those in political power had a large hotel built in Salt Lake City to house them together.

“Look, single ladies,” they said. “Stay here so we can keep an eye on you, ok?” With only one registrant upon opening the hotel, the building was eventually sold for other purposes. In the meantime, tales were being shared in the Midwest that if a man were desperate to find a wife, go to Salt Lake City and you can pick one out.

As we move out of the Victorian Era and into the twentieth century, we do see Grass Widow still in use and still with the watch-your-husbands mistrust of these woman with life experience.

Photo by Lukáš Dlutko from Pexels

By the time we reach the 1960’s, Grass Widow is nearly always referring to a divorced woman. And by the 80’s, the term is considered well out of date and is treated as a curiosity.

Today we given this old-fashioned term a new life as a name for a lovely purple flower, the Grass Widow (Olsynium douglasii).

I’m curious though, who was already familiar with Grass Widows? Share your story in the comments!

The Lady and her Deutsche Dogge

I once asked a friend, a professional dog handler, for some advice about training tools. She told me that it doesn’t matter how heavy the leash is, it’s all about how much control you have over your dog. A thin leather leash is all that’s needed for a well-mannered canine companion. At the time I had just taken on a young German Shepherd Dog who had the unfortunate combo of brute strength and a strong fear response to anything the world had to offer. There was never a time I felt comfortable with a thin leather leash with this fella.

I was reminded of this conversation when reviewing this remarkable cabinet card photo.

Unknown Woman with a Great Dane. Photographer H. Ohm, Sangerhausen Germany. c.1895

Those who’ve been following our sister site at Raising a Super Dog are aware of my appreciation of All Things Dog. I am absolutely fascinated by all facets of the canine-human bond.

So besides taking the talk for a walk, so to speak, by raising service dogs and volunteering as a pet therapy team, I collect stories to share how dogs change our lives in positive and profound ways.

Awhile back, I created a Dogs of Yore Pinterest board as a jump start to capturing the long history of people enjoying life with their four-legged companions. In a time when a photo-op was a planned event, and not just “IDK, feeling cute. Might delete later,” these were folk who wanted to showcase their relationship with their canine partner.

Since starting the digital image collection on Pinterest, I began looking for original images as well. And so I welcome my newest acquisition of this cabinet card of a lovely young German lady, who shares a vague resemblance to Sigourney Weaver, and her brindle Deutsche Dogge, a breed we now know as the Great Dane. And one really, really thin leash.

Based on the type of cabinet card and the young lady’s attire, I’m taking a swag this is just about 1895. Let’s take a closer look at the details for any other possible clues.

The reverse side of the cabinet card has the standard stuff with the name and address of the studio, along with how they are able to make more prints upon request. In this case, the photographer uses the term “die platten,” which indicates they were likely using a dry glass plate process.

A close-up of the young lady shows more details of her dress, which appears to be a dark velvet beneath the puff-shouldered frock; a decorative pin at her throat is the only jewelry she is wearing. Her gaze is one of confidence and is only matched by her dog’s expression.

What scares this woman? I’m guessing not much.

Ich esse Drachen zum Frühstück

The Deutsche Dogge, or Great Dane, was popular in the early 1800’s in Germany as boar hounds. This explains the closely cropped ears on our handsome friend here, which was still the style at the time of this photo. However, this guy was most likely a beloved pet of a family with modest wealth, not a hunter.

And that beautiful head shape shows a bit of the Mastiff background bred into these dogs. But hey, what about that one-ear-up and one-ear-down thing he has going on there? It takes some of his street cred away, doesn’t it?

Speaking of street cred, let’s take a moment to respect the leash loosely held in the young lady’s hand. Consider that she left her home holding that thin phone cord of a thing, strolled the streets to reach the Mr. H. Olm’s studio at the Georgenpromenade, entered a building with strange men with beards and hats, then she posed with a dog so massive they had to move the camera equipment back to get the whole dog in the shot. You did notice the front paws hanging off the edge, right?

“Could you move your dog back a bit, please, Miss? Nein? Uh, ok, then.”

As always with these things, I wish I could know more about this photo. What was her name, did she grow up with this breed of dog, if the geraniums on the table indicate it was summer, wasn’t it too hot to wear velvet?

And the dog’s name? It must have been something heroic, right? I’m guessing he might be a Kätzchen, Törtchen, or something befitting.

But I could be wrong. Maybe it’s closer to 1900.