May 19, 1852

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Wednesday 19th May  Washed the windows in the 

parlour and cleaned it   all that is necessary this spring

Was about house until about four Oclock

when Mrs Swain came and spent the 

afternoon  Mr Swain came to tea  Worked

on the garden about an hour  Susan has

the nose bleed almost every day.  This afternoon

came home before the school was done

 

Spring cleaning was late this year, as the women’s attention had been given over to family illness. The kitchen had been repainted some weeks earlier, but other rooms hadn’t been dealt with. Evelina set out to rectify the delay and, probably with support from Jane McHanna, donned her apron to tackle the best room in the house, the parlor, much of which had been redecorated back in February, so needed little attention beyond its windows and a basic cleaning.

One imagines Evelina and Jane in working clothes as they went about with their brushes, rags and mops. But what did Evelina wear under her apron, or after she changed out of her choring dress? Was she wearing any mourning attire? Did her outfit signify at all the recent loss of her nephew George?

In the 19th century, “[m]ourning was particularly a woman’s affair,”* perhaps because of a societal norm that women were sentimental and emotional, and men were not. There were rules about attire to be followed after the loss of a loved one. At the beginning, black crepe dresses, black veils or headgear, and even black jewelry – onyx, usually, or pins netted with a lock of hair of the departed – were expected to be displayed in some manner. After a certain period, black was put away and lavender, grey or purple dresses were acceptable. The closer the relative was to the deceased, the more exacting the expectation.

In her fine book about death in the Civil War, This Republic of Suffering, Drew Gilpin Faust notes:

“By convention, a mother mourned for a child for a year, a child for a parent the same, a sister six months for a brother. A widow mourned for two and a half years, moving through proscribed stages and accoutrements of heavy, full, and half mourning, with gradually loosening requirements of dress and deportment. A widower, by contrast, was expected to mourn only for three months, simply by displaying black crape on his hat or armband.”**

By these calculations, Sarah Ames Witherell had been dressed in black or lavender too often before. Her husband had died in August, 1848, her young son Channing in May, 1849 and now her son George. Sad to say, she would have had a black dress or two, plus the appropriate accessories, in her cupboard. But what was Evelina obliged to wear? Perhaps not a black dress – although she had one – but an armband? Or a black ribbon in her bonnet? What was the expectation for an aunt?

 

Jack Larkin, The Reshaping of Everyday Life, New York, 1988, p. 102

**Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering, New York, 2008, p. 147

 

 

 

 

May 13, 1852

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Thursday May 13th  Worked in the garden about an hour

this morning  Assisted about putting George into the 

coffin, put in some geraniums leaves feverfew

blossoms and wild flowers  Has rained very hard

all day.  funeral at three Oclock  Mrs Lovell &

son brought Mrs Witherell and Mr & Mrs Brown came

beside a few neighbors.  Mr. Whitwell spoke well

On this cold, stormy spring day, George Oliver Witherell was laid to rest. Although he is now buried in the Village Cemetery in North Easton, he was initially buried elsewhere near his father, Nathaniel Witherell; his little brother, Channing; and his grandmother, Susannah Angier Ames and a few other Ames relatives. Only after the Unitarian Church was built in 1875 were the remains of all moved to the cemetery behind the new church.

Evelina helped place her nephew George in his coffin and added what could almost be described as a potpourri of geranium leaves, feverfew and wild flowers that would have provided a sweet, masking scent. Feverfew, an aromatic member of the daisy family, was also commonly used as an herbal medicine. Gardener and housewife that she was, Evelina would have had these dried leaves and petals on hand.

The service for George would have begun at the house and moved to the graveside, rain or no rain. A memorial sermon would follow the next Sunday, but this day Reverend Whitwell spoke over the coffin in a heartfelt service for family and close friends. Besides the Ames clan, who would have been there in full force, George’s paternal grandmother, Mrs. Witherell, was brought down from Boston to attend. To no one’s surprise, “Mr. Whitwell spoke well.”

March 27, 1852

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1852

March 27  Sat  Have been mending again to day and painted

some spots in the back entry chamber  Mrs Witherell

& Mrs Lovell from Bridgewater came to see Mrs Witherell

& spent the day.  Mrs Lovell called on Hannah.

Mrs S Ames came in soon after dinner and staid

most of the afternoon  We called to see Mrs

Witherell & Lovell  Have read in the papers this

evening

Sarah Ames Witherell, Evelina’s sister-in-law, had visitors today from Bridgewater. Sarah’s mother-in-law, Lydia Witherell, and a Mrs. Lovell called. Mrs. Witherell was a recent widow, more recent even than her daughter-in-law, Sarah, who had been widowed three years earlier. Where Sarah’s late husband, Nathaniel Witherell, Jr. had died in October, 1848, his father, Nathaniel Witherell, Sr., had passed away in January of this year. Sarah and her two children, George and Emily, had traveled through a snowstorm to attend the funeral.

The Mrs. Lovell who came to call may have been Emeline Perry Creasy Lovell,  wife of Reverend Stephen Lovell, former resident of Easton and one-time pastor of the recently defunct Protestant Methodist church in Easton. But the clergyman and his wife possibly lived in Boston, too, so this Mrs. Lovell “from Bridgewater” may have been someone else. Yet her extra visit to see Hannah Lincoln Gilmore, who was still ailing, suggests that this Mrs. Lovell was familiar with at least some of the residents of North Easton.

While this visiting was going on, Evelina stayed on her side of the house with her other close sister-in-law, Sarah Lothrop Ames.  How did it work to have two separate social conversations going on under one roof, one on each side of divided parlor walls? One imagines that Evelina and Sarah Ames were curious about the nature of the call in “the other part of the house.”

January 5, 1852

Abbott H. Thayer, Angel, 1887, oil Smithsonian American Art Museum Gift of John Gellatly

Abbott H. Thayer, Angel, 1887, oil
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Gift of John Gellatly

 

/52

Monday Jan 5 th

Another stormy Monday and we have not been 

able to put our clothes out  Susan washed the

dishes this morning and Jane has done the rest

of the work.  I have finished Susans hood and 

it looks very nice  Mrs Witherell came from

Boston to night  Mr Witherell died about six

yesterday morning

 

Old Oliver was keeping track of the stormy weather, noting that “it raind + snowd all last night. the snow fell about 2 inches deep + is a snowing now wind north east but it does not blow so hard as it did yesterday. it snowd untill about 3 O clock but was cloudy all day.” One imagines that he had his face close to the window panes of his sitting room – or accounting office, perhaps – as the snow fell outside.

Sarah Witherell returned from Boston in that same snow and wind, having managed to reach her father-in-law’s bedside before he passed away. She would gather her children and return to the city for the funeral.

Evelina, meanwhile, sewed and supervised household chores. “Another stormy Monday” meant that wet laundry was dried in the kitchen and around the house, near heat registers and the air tight stove that helped keep Evelina’s plants from freezing. Parts of the house were draped with white sheets and garments, the floors or carpets wet beneath them. Susie Ames helped some by doing the dishes, a chore that was becoming her regular responsibility. Jane McHanna, of course, bore the lion’s share of the work, with the laundry and “the rest.”

 

 

January 3, 1852

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1852

Jan 3d Saturday 

Finished my old hood and ripped Susans

old one & washed the lining and have partly quilted

it once again  Have spent all the afternoon in 

mending Franks shop coat.  Sewed this evening

untill nearly ten have not read at all

Mrs Witherell received news last night that her

father Witherell is not expected to live and she has gone

to see him.

Three-and-a-half years earlier, Sarah Ames Witherell had lost her husband, Nathaniel Witherell, Jr.  Now, she had the sad duty of traveling to Boston to say goodbye to her husband’s father, Nathaniel Witherell, Sr. Someone must have written a letter to tell her he was ill and, ever dutiful, Sarah Witherell responded quickly to the news.  Off she went.

Better news was that today was the birthday of one of Evelina’s many nieces, Mary “Melvina” (or “Malvina” as Evelina spelled it) Torrey. The youngest daughter of Evelina’s late older sister, Hannah Howard Gilmore Torrey, Melvina turned 11. Her father was Col. John Torrey, a high-profile personage in North Easton, of whom Evelina often writes. Melvina and her sister, Abby Torrey, were great favorites of Evelina; Melvina is the niece to whom Evelina gave a bloomer hat the previous summer.

In another ten years, Melvina would marry an older man, Sanford Blake Strout, who also lived in the village of North Easton, on Center Street. She would bear two sons, Byron Howard Strout and Havilen Torrey Strout.

 

Illustration from Godey’s Lady’s Magazine, 1851