Living History

In Character Part I: Meet Lucy

Part 1 in my series about developing and sewing for a living history character. Other parts can be found here.

Before I could start designing for my character, I had make certain decisions about her: where she was from, what class of society she fell into, her religious and political beliefs, and what type of work she would be doing in the village.

Since I have no background in theater or performance, I decided to base a lot of her characteristics on myself, my family history, and certain non-negotiable parts of my personality. For example, I knew that I would not be able to convincingly portray a meek housewife. I knew that no matter what, I would end up discussing women’s rights and education. One thing that really drew me to the idea of playing a first person role in the village was the idea that so many social and political discussions from the 1860s are still happening today–immigration, women’s rights, civil rights, healthcare, state’s rights vs. federal interference. I know what side I stand on all of these issues; it would not be possible for me to speak against them just because of the time period.

I did a lot of research on these subjects for that reason, and my research is on going. I took what I had learned, and built it up into the persona of Lucy Spinnerman, a 27 year old writer and social reformer from Boston, Ma.

The unique thing about Lucy in terms of the other first person characters you might meet on a visit to the Village is that she is not actually a resident, but rather is “passing through” on a lecture tour (though she will be staying the summer!). A progressive character like Lucy from an upper class family is not the sort of person who would typically be found in a small Ohio farming village, and in order for her to have the education she needed for the role I wanted to play, she would almost certainly have to be upper-class.

Once I determined that I was dealing with a well-to-do lady, but one that had been traveling for several weeks (I decided that her lecture tour ran from Boston to Denver), I decided that given her (my) personality, practicality would be key. I chose comfortable cottons, but picked prints and bright colors that would not be common in a simple work dress. The cut of the blouse is somewhat a-typical, but still keeping with the time period.

Knowing her personality and her background determined the cut and quality of her clothes, the items she carries, the activities she engages in while at the village, and how she interacts with patrons and villagers.

If you would like to read her full bio (it’s kind of long!), then you can find it behind the cut.

Lucy Spinnerman was born in 1837 to Mary Lynn and Laurence Spinnerman of Boston, MA. The Spinnermans are of English Quaker descent, which prompted them to move from northern England to the US where they settled in New York and made a name for themselves as ship builders, supplying ships for the Revolutionary War. While one branch of the family still owns the business, the branch that Laurence is an offshoot of converted to the Lutheran religion around 1810, supposedly because his father had a falling out with the Quaker community (he will not talk about it) and their new home in Boston was in the German quarter.

Her grandfather, Johnathan Spinnerman, began a small shipping company (transport, not the building of ships like his family) which Laurence first became a partner in and then inherited in 1846. By this time it was one of the largest businesses in Boston, and enabled Laurence to acquire several other businesses, including factories that made crates and other materials needed for their business, and several blocks of buildings downtown which he rents.

Lucy is the youngest of 6, but none of her five older brothers survived past the age of three. For this reason, her parents were very doting and her father gave her the education that he would have wanted for his sons. Lucy attended a very progressive female seminary modeled on the Heartford Female Seminary run by Catherine Beecher in Heartford, CT. Her education included mathematics, French, a smattering of Latin and German, as well as painting, drawing, philosophy, composition, geography, and history. There was a requirement for chemistry, but like the Latin it did not stick, though she tries to use the French and German when possible to keep in practice.

Her education lasted until the age of 18, which delayed her marriage prospects. Uncertain of what to do with her education and independent mind, she took a position working in her father’s office despite the disapproval of his colleagues. From this position she saw first hand the plight of the sweat shop worker from her father’s factories, and convinced him to make several changes for the betterment of his employees, including better ventilation, lighting, extra wages to the tune of five cents a week, and warmer workplaces in the winter.

This lead to her involvement with several union and labor groups in Boston, and eventually to abolition and health causes as well. Uncomfortable with her work in her father’s office, she left and put her efforts whole-heartedly into her causes, chief among them abolition and women’s suffrage.

It was at one of the Abolition society meetings that she met Dr. Eric Stowe. The two worked closely together before he proposed in autumn of 1860.

Thrilled that their daughter would not be a spinster after all, her parents insisted on a big wedding, to take place the following June.

Unfortunately, the war broke out in April. Thinking that the war would be short, the lovers parted and promised to meet again and marry in the fall, once all of the nasty business was behind them. Instead, however, Dr. Stowe was killed July 21, 1861 at Bull Run while tending to a soldier wounded in the field.

Shocked at the loss, Lucy assumed full mourning for a period of six months, and was in seclusion in her room until the spring of 1862. During this time she read a great deal and wrote her first full length novel, The Gilded Shadow, which explored the idea of traditional femininity, expectations for women both as wives and outside of marriage, as well as grief and mourning. From this point until the end of the war, she remained in half mourning, in part for Eric’s memory, and in part to show her own disinterest in marriage.

Deciding that the best way to honor his memory was to renew her involvement in their shared causes, she once again took up work with the abolition society and the sanitary commission, where she obsessively knit stockings, bandages, gloves, hats, and more for the soldiers and penned half a dozen articles for anti-slavery tracts in the north east.
Typically a quiet person, it was not until the head of the Boston Sanity Commission suggested a lecture tour that Lucy even considered such a thing. Deciding however that she needed to get out of Boston and expand her horizons, she agreed to travel for the Commission and raise support for their cause.
Traveling with her lady’s maid, Maggie Roush, a sturdy, robust woman in her 30s of Irish origin; Mrs. Hannah Talbot, a 40 year old widow representing the Sanitary Commission; Mrs. Talbot’s maid, a young girl named Gwen; Lieutenant Robert Johnson, an amputee lately of the Union Army, and a rotating host of local and semi-local commission representatives, Lucy visited Providence, Hartford, New Haven, New York (where she met Elizabeth Blackwell and Elizabeth Caddy Stanton), Trenton, and Philadelphia.
By the time this tour was over, so was Lucy’s second book, Strong Roots, which was a romance with underlying moral themes, once again looking to the role of women in society, and heavily influenced by her months of nomadic travel. Additionally, she had written several articles and all of her own speeches.
This travel occupied September and October of 1862. In January of 1863, her publisher proposed a lecture tour to promote her books, which were selling rather well. Lucy agreed on the condition that there be no men in her traveling party, after having to deal with the wandering hands, lewd looks, and explosive temper of the alcoholic lieutenant. Reluctantly, her publisher agreed. In April of 1863 she set off by train with a new maid, Rose Matthews, and Mrs. Charlotte Brighton, the wife of her publisher, and Mrs. Brighton’s maid, Eva Long. A the prospect of increasing travel demands, Maggie left the service of the Spinnermans, deciding instead to take a position in a factory as a seamstress.
At every station, they were met by Mr. Brighton, who traveled a day ahead of them. On this journey, Lucy visited Hartford, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore before veering north west to Pittsburgh. She stopped in several small towns as well as Buffalo, Rochester, and Albany. In Albany she met Susan B. Anthony, where her views on women’s rights really coalesced. This became the inspiration for her third book, The Shifting Fog, in which a young woman finds herself destitute and alone and must find her own way. The tragic ending gave light to some of Lucy’s own frustrations within the abolition community, where the focus was on the rights of (black) male voters, despite the work that so many women had put towards their freedom and rights.
In the summer of 1864, Lucy was once again traveling, this time with a group of about 6 people from the sanitary commission and the abolition society. Their tour encompassed most of the Union states, eventually bringing them to Columbus and the Ohio Village.