April 30, 2012

TEEN LIFE WAY BACK WHEN: Orphanages - Warehouses for Children

When we think of orphanages today, images often come to mind of a starving Oliver Twist begging for more porridge or, perhaps, the drunken headmistress in the movie Annie played by Carol Burnett.  And, as with most stereotypes, there is often a kernel of truth associated with these images.  Although most of the founders of orphanages were well-meaning, the very nature of these institutions made then little more than warehouses for children.

Take The State Public School for Dependent and Neglected Children that operated in Owatonna, Minnesota, from 1886 to 1945.  Children, from babies all the way up to the age of eighteen, lived there. It was the third largest orphanage in the nation in the 1920’s.  Although adoption was the goal, adoption rates were low and most of the children, if they were placed out at all, were sent out to be indentured servants. Many children spent their entire childhoods in the State School.

The State School is now a museum.  Harvey Ronglien, who lived at the school for eleven years, is often there chatting with visitors about his experiences growing up in Cottage 11.  When his mother died and his father was sent to jail, Harvey and his brothers and sisters were lined up outside the courthouse in Benson, Minnesota.  The townspeople came and took all but two of the children:  Harvey and his brother.  They were both sent to live at the State School.

Looking back, Harvey, writing in the State School News (Vol. 1, No. 1, July 3, 1993) said this:  “As an adult, I came to realize the institutional environment did not provide certain needs a child craves.  Although the environment made us physically strong, it left many of us emotionally deficient.  Emotional starvation is inseparable from institutional life.  Due to its size, individual attention was minimal; consequently children suffered from lack of attention, appreciation, recognition, and love needed for a healthy childhood.  For many it left scars that would last a lifetime.”

Next Topic:  Teen Life Way Back When:  No Cars, No Planes, No Motorcycles - No Kidding!

For additional reading and references, see Extras .

April 25, 2012

A Walk Back in Time

Yesterday, I took a walk back in time.  As I mentioned in my last blog post, Swede Hollow has always held a special place in my heart.  It was a beautiful spring day here in Minnesota:  warm sun, brilliant blue sky, trees just beginning to leaf out.  So I decided to spend it down in the Hollow.

What was once a thriving, bustling neighborhood of immigrants nestled in a deep narrow ravine is now a park.  Back in the 1956, officials of the city of St. Paul discovered there were still people living there without sewer or water facilities, a situation that had been ignored for a hundred years. The families were moved out, the creek that ran through the ravine was diverted underground, and Swede Hollow was set afire and out of existence. Over time, the Hollow deteriorated into an overgrown dump.  Angry Eastside citizens, bent of preserving this special place, prevailed, and a nature center was born in 1976.

 Yesterday, walking through the ravine, there is a still a sense of the families that lived there:  a few blocks from an old foundation, a vine covered stone wall, the steep stairway that leads up and out of the Hollow.  I could almost hear the laughter of the children at play, see the housewife hanging the laundry out to dry, hear the whistle of a steam powered train as it chugged along the tracks overhead.  As Gentille Yarusso, a resident of the Hollow from 1905-1915, remembers:
“We people were happy, we dressed the same, spoke the same language, ate practically the same kinds of food, we were very emotional, we sang almost continuously, and yet, we cried, too.”

Swede Hollow:  Sheltered Society for Immigrants to St. Paul.  Mollie Price.  Ramsey County Historical Society.  Vol. 17. No. 2. 1982

April 23, 2012


Copyright 2012 Carol J. Larson
All rights reserved
Last week I talked about places that fascinate and intrigue us.  For me, Swede Hollow is one of those places.  In the nineteenth century, Swede Hollow was a poor immigrant neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota.  It appears in both of my novels, Big Stone Heart and The Secret Society of Sugar and Spice.  Here is how I imagine Swede Hollow: The heroine of Big Stone Heart, Carrie Smith, walks out into the night…

The sky was moonless and the air was dense and moist with the smell of snow on the way.  There were no streetlights in the Hollow, no real streets at all, just paths worn in the dirty snow.  Carrie felt like she was walking through a thick dark soup as she tried to find her way down the path that led to the other end of the Hollow. Most of the houses, arranged in a crazy quilt pattern up the sides of the Hollow, were dark.  No one was about.  Wispy curls of smoke drifted from the chimneys.    She could just make out the rows of outhouses along the banks of the creek like strange sentries guarding the shore.  The pungent smell of sewage drifted up with every breeze.  Finally, she saw the steps that loomed out of the darkness zigzagging straight up into the night. As she climbed up the steep narrow stairs, Carrie felt that she was stepping out of one life and into another.

 Carrie was but one of the thousands of people who began a new life by climbing those stairs.  The poor who settled in Swede Hollow had one driving ambition: to work hard enough, long enough, and to learn enough English to leave for a better life up in the streets of St. Paul. Moving up was more than just getting out of the Hollow; it was a tangible expression of success. For the height of the land on which your house was built was a direct reflection of your wealth and social status.  The very rich built their ostentatious mansions high on Summit Hill overlooking the city and the Mississippi River.  The merchants and bankers clustered on the rolling land above the river. The shop girls, brewery workers, and mill hands lived on the barren floodplain by the river.  And the poorest of the poor lived down in Swede Hollow.

For references and additional reading, see Extras.
Next topic:  Teen Life Way Back When:  Orphanages

April 20, 2012

Carol's Quaint Quotes

Were you ever told that you might have to play dumb?  From 1843:

Men frequently look with a jealous eye on a learned woman, and are apt to dominate her a blue, be cautious, therefore, in a mixed company of showing yourself too much beyond those around you.

Etiquette for Ladies; with hints on the preservation, improvement and display of female beauty.  Philadelphia:  Lindsay and Blakiston, 1843.

Note:  I tried to find out what "a blue" means.  This is how it was spelled in italics in the original text.  Synonyms for "blue" include a learned or educated woman and profane or indecent. 

April 17, 2012

Big Stone Heart - Available in Six Weeks!

St. Paul, Minnesota  1883

Seventeen-year-old Carrie Smith lives a life of quiet desperation behind the walls of an orphanage. Her only joy is the care she gives to the abandoned babies. When a letter arrives from a man in Dakota Territory who is looking for a wife, Carrie must choose between her lonely life or take a chance on a man she’s never met in a world about which she knows very little.

April 16, 2012

What Are the Places That Fascinate and Intrigue You?

Boy Mailing Letters, 1880
Courtesy of the National Postal Museum
via Flickr Commons
This week I was going to write about some unusual neighborhoods for my series Teen Life Way Back When:  Where Did Teens Live?  That got me to thinking – why do we write about certain places and not others?  What fascinates or attracts us so much that we want to write about it?  We’re told ad nauseam when we first start out that we should write about what we know.  Nonsense.  Science fiction writers don’t know what the future world looks like, yet, out of their imagination and creativity, they construct a whole new world for us to enjoy.  I didn’t live in the nineteenth century yet I revel in all things 1800’s.  In fact, everybody who did live then is now long gone.  Oh, some buildings remain and lots of literature and artifacts, but there is no one I can talk to who actually lived it.  So in my own way, I must create a world that is believable and tangible to my readers.  Those that write contemporary fiction still must show us our familiar world through a new set of eyes.

Why does one writer choose a future world, another the past, and some the present?  I can only speak for myself.  I think much of what we do is rooted in our childhood.  If I really think about it, my fascination with the nineteenth century and the settling of the Great Plains came from reading Laura Ingalls Wilder.  Orphanages seem to crop up in my books, unbidden and without conscious thought.  Why?  I lived across the street from an orphanage when I was growing up.  Could I write about the Regency period?  Yes.  Could I write about a future world where everyone is turned into robots?  Yes.  Do I want to?  No.  Because that’s not what rings my bell.  What are the places that fascinate and intrigue you?  Are you writing about them?

April 13, 2012

Carol's Quaint Quotes

When you see a girl with a novel in her left hand, and a fan in her right, you may be assured she is not fit for a wife.

The Youths Companion, May 30, 1850, pg. 20

April 9, 2012

TEEN LIFE WAY BACK WHEN: Where did teens live? Hey, you forgot the girls!

Nope. Didn't forget.  Truth is, there isn't much to say about where  girls lived in the nineteenth century.  They lived at home...then they got married...then they lived in their new home.  True, there were a fair share of spinsters.  Some chose to be single, most did not. After the industrial revolution got going in the second half of the nineteenth century, some girls worked.  Wages were low, hours were long, and the work was hard.  If they worked, it was a matter of sheer survival.  The independent career woman was a long, long way in the future.

I think the bride at the left looks a little scared, don't you?  Rightly so, because although couples found lots of ways to live apart, divorce carried strong societal and religious repercussions. And, for a woman, divorce was hard to get.  So our bride knew when she said her "I do's", that marriage was for life.

Next topic:  Teen Life Way Back When:  Where did teens live?  Some unique neighborhoods

For references and additional reading, click Extras


April 6, 2012

Carol's Quaint Quotes

As many of you know, I am a retired physician.  Check out this quote from 1871.  Don't you just love it!

"There is a great deal of debate nowadays as to the fitness of women for the profession of medicine.  Is the serious consideration of this question intended to dignify and inflate the hoards of masculine boobies who throng our medical universities, or to utterly disparage the intellignece of women?  Which?"

Plain Home Talk and Medical Common Sense.  E.B. Foote, M.D., A.L. Bancroft & Co., New York [etc.] 1871, pg. 211.

April 4, 2012

Having fun researching

This lovely lady is my husband's
great grandmother,Olga, at age fourteen.
Had a great time the other day tooling around researching my third YA book, a sequel to The Secret Society of Sugar and Spice.  I  find it very helpful to scope out the settings for my scenes by actually visiting the locations.  Since all of my novels are set in the late 1800's, many places have been irretrievably altered.  For instance, I was looking for the site of a maternity hospital founded in 1886 by Dr. Martha Ripley, one of the first female physicians in Minneapolis.  She was a real reformer dedicated to improving the lot of poor women and unwed mothers.  What I found was a scruffy vacant lot nestled up to an immense barrier wall bordering the interstate highway.  Next stop was the site of The Babies Hospital in St. Paul.  Much to my surprise, the building is still standing but is now a private home. I wonder what stories those walls could tell about the babies that were abandoned there over a hundred and thirty years ago.

April 2, 2012

TEEN LIFE WAY BACK WHEN: Where Did Teens Live? The young man and the sea

John Singleton Copley's
Midshipman Augustus
Brine, 1782. Courtesy
of the Metropolitan
Museum of Art
at Flickr Commons

Sea?  We’ve been talking about the Great Plains in the 1800’s.  What does the sea have to do with the Great Plains?  Ah, think about it!  Across the northern half of the United States lies the Great Lakes and the Great Lakes connect to the sea.  The Great Lakes have been a bustling nautical highway for most of our history.  In the 1800’s passenger lines carried immigrants to busy ports on the lakes – the same immigrants who settled the vast tracts of land lying to the west and south.

Early on there were sailing ships. Steamers and paddle wheelers replaced sailing in the early nineteenth century.  Ships needed crews.  Boys, some very young, signed on to learn the trade of a common sailor and often spent most of their lives aboard ship.  In the navy, boys destined to be officers joined as midshipman.  The painting of the handsome lad you see to your left was thirteen when he joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman.

It’s easy to romanticize life aboard ship back then.  But life was harsh, dangerous, and sometimes fatal.  For a glimpse of life aboard a ship in1834, read Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana Jr.  He was nineteen when he set out as a common sailor.  You can read the book here: http://mysite.du.edu/~ttyler/ploughboy/pgtwoyearsbeforethemast.htm.

Next topic:  Teen Life Way Back When:  Where Did Teens Live?  Hey, you forgot the girls!
For references and additional reading, click Extras.

See Carol's Reading Recs for more great books about boys at sea.