The Gibson Girl

When you think of feminine ideals, what comes to mind? Venus? Twiggy? Marilyn Monroe’s hourglass curves? How about the Gibson Girl?

After the fussy bustles of the Victorian era, but before the flapper, there was the Gibson Girl. In the Edwardian era of the late 1800s and early 1900s, she was it.


Gibson Girl, Charles Dana Gibson.

In the late 19th century, Charles Dana Gibson was an art school dropout determined to make it in the art world. He was clearly talented but his drawings left a lot to be desired and editors were, by and large, not interested. He worked to improve, though, and in 1886, sold a drawing to a new magazine called Life. It was just the encouragement he needed. He continued to accept small commissions and a few years later, sold another drawing to Life.

Two drawings in one magazine made him feel almost professional. So almost professional that he set up a studio in New York City where he studied other artists and continued to hone his craft. At the same time, the way that magazines were being produced changed. Magazine printing moved from wood engraving to photomechanical engraving. Where most pen and ink drawings had details too small for engravers to capture on wood, that wasn’t the case with this new technology. Gibson’s new-found style was perfectly suited to photomechanical engraving.

Gibson Man by Charles Dana Gibson

The Gibson Man. Image via Gary W. Clark.

People loved Gibson’s style. The boldness of his pen strokes, his social commentary, and, most of all, these certain figures that became known as the “Gibson Girl” and “Gibson Man.”

In a 1910 New York Times interview, Gibson told the story of how the Gibson Girl was born. He told the interviewer, “The first time the name was used was in a story which The Century gave me to illustrate. It dealt with a certain type of girl, and in the manuscript, when it came to me, this type was called, I think, the ‘Goodrich Girl.’ I noticed that the word was written over an erasure in the manuscript wherever it occurred, but that did not impress me. Later, when — that ‘Gibson’ took the place of ‘Goodrich’ on the printed page — I saw what had been really done, I blushed. I have been blushing ever since. Let’s drop the ‘Gibson Girl.’ I don’t want to feel uncomfortable tonight.”

The Gibson Man was, like the figure above, ruggedly handsome and well-dressed. He was modeled after Gibson’s friend, war correspondent and adventurer, Richard Harding Davis. The Gibson Girl was delicately beautiful and was reportedly modeled after Gibson’s wife, Irene Langhorne Gibson, and sister, Josephine Gibson Knowlton.

Both figures were unmistakably Caucasian.

The Gibson Girl was more than an idealized version of feminity. The Gibson Girl, along with the Gibson Man, was a model of what the newly-forming middle class could strive to be. They were both attractive, happy, and youthful…and they made it all seem so attainable. Her look was natural, although she did wear corsets to give her a slim waist and voluptuous bust and hips. Her hair was often carefully piled on top of her head with tendrils framing the delicate features of her face giving her an ethereal look. It didn’t take long for women to begin copying her hairstyle and dress. Life began to imitate art.

The Gibson Girl was the “New Woman”

This woman participated in physical activities like tennis, golf, and bicycling. Gibson and other illustrators of the time promoted the idea that it was fashionable and, more importantly, socially acceptable for women to participate in physical activities. (Of course, they were often doing these activities in full skirts, long sleeves, and hats but we’re making progress here and that’s all I can ask for.)

Gibson Girls playing football

Sometimes Gibson even drew women playing football. “The Coming Game”, 1895. Image via Gary W. Clark.

The Gibson Girl was also interested in the arts. She played instruments, sang, and was often an artist herself. In several drawings, you can see a Gibson Girl sketching or painting.

She even served on juries! In the early 1900s, women very rarely served on juries, and even then, it was only if the defendant was female (rarer still). But in Gibson’s drawings, women and men served in almost equal numbers and in one drawing, seen below, the jury was all women.

This was the time of the suffragette and the fight for women’s rights. Drawings like the all-female jury sent a clear message. In the United States, jury duty and voting are inextricably linked (in some jurisdictions, registering to vote puts your name in the jury duty pool but, contrary to popular belief, you do not have to be registered to vote to be selected for jury duty.)

She’s starting to sound a bit like Barbie, is she not?

Gibson Girls The Weaker Sex by Charles Dana Gibson

“The Weaker Sex II”, 1903. Image via Library of Congress.

The Gibson Girl was more assertive with men. She was self-assured and was not going being controlled by potential suitors. The use of the hatpin above wasn’t something Gibson made up, although he does present it in a striking way, making the man look like an insect the women are going to pin to a specimen board. No, sometimes women literally used hatpins to ward off unwanted advances.

Gibson Girl The Jury Disagrees by Charles Dana Gibson

“The Jury Disagrees”, 1904. Image via Library of Congress.

While the Gibson Girl was usually seen in middle class to upper-middle class settings, she could be seen in high-society from time to time, like in the image above. Gibson loved to create satirical images, especially involving high-society. “The jury”, this time a group of upper-class women, stick their noses up at her while the men smile on. Although she’s not being wholly welcomed into their world, she seemingly handles it with grace. The Gibson Girl could navigate any social situation with ease.

She appeared in songs, clothing lines, and even wallpaper designs (a version of which you can now purchase on Amazon because of course.) Other artists tried to create their own icons of feminity but none came close to the Gibson Girl. Gibson’s image of a beautiful young woman paired with his subtle social and political commentary was a hit. But Gibson said the Gibson Girl didn’t exist. In that 1910 interview with the New York Times, he said, “There isn’t any ‘Gibson Girl,’ but there are many thousands of American girls, and for that let us all thank God.” He saw the Gibson Girl in young (white) American women.

The confident, stylish, do-it-all woman of the pre-war era paved the way for the next feminine ideal: the flapper. Of course, Gibson applied his signature style to the new “It Girl.”

Flappers by Charles Dana Gibson

Charles Dana Gibson, “Duplicates.” Image via The Red List.

Charles Gibson Struggles with Life and the Gibson Girl Fades Away

In 1920, Gibson partnered with a few other artists to purchase Life Magazine. He held the majority of the shares until 1932 when, struggling to keep the magazine afloat due to competitors, he sold it. He retired that same year and took up oil painting, a medium he dabbled in decades before. Despite being one of the most admired and imitated illustrators of this period known as the Golden Age of Illustration, it didn’t take long for him and his once-beloved Gibson Girl to fall out of public consciousness. He suffered a heart attack in 1944 and died a few weeks later. He suffered a heart attack in 1944 and died a few weeks later.

His Gibson Girl was the 20th century’s first feminine ideal. She was a new woman ushering in a new century, carving a path for women who would come after her.

All of this from an illustration. Art is a powerful thing.

Sources (contains affiliate links)

The Gibson Girl Analyzed by her Originator
The Gibson Girl’s America at the Library of Congress
Lessons from the Gibson Girl by Gary W. Clark
Charles Dana Gibson at Illustration Art Solutions
Charles Dana Gibson on The Red List
Charles Dana Gibson at the National Museum of American Illustration
The Gibson Girl and Her America: The Best Drawings by Charles Dana Gibson, Edmund Vincent Gillon
Beyond the Gibson Girl: Reimagining the American New Woman, 1895-1915 by Martha H. Patterson


Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, Part Two

For part one, click here!

When we left Lizzie, she had just purchased her freedom for the second time. Since the money had been given to her by many of her clients in St. Louis, she considered it a loan and immediately got to work to pay it back. Of course, she quickly made the money to pay back the St. Louis ladies.

Something else was bothering her, though. Her husband, James. He was still not a companion or helpmate, but a burden. She later wrote, “He was rapidly debasing himself, and although I was willing to work for him, I was not willing to share his degradation.” She asked for a separation and was granted one. One more way in which she was free!

Ms. Keckley Goes to Washington

In 1860, she left St. Louis, headed for Baltimore where she attempted to teach other young black women how to cut and fit dresses. This was unsuccessful, though, and after six weeks, she was left with just enough money for fare to Washington DC. Once she arrived in DC, she began working for $2.50 a day.

In the winter of 1860, Senator Jefferson Davis, and his wife, Varina, arrived in DC. Varina was in need of a modiste, or dressmaker, and Lizzie, already working for one of Varina’s friends, came highly recommended and got the job.

I think that bears repeating: Lizzie Keckley, a former enslaved person, became dressmaker to the future First Lady of the Confederacy. If you think that’s a weird twist of fate, just hold on.

Elizabeth Keckley 1861

Lizzie, circa 1861. Photo via WUNC.

Varina kept her busy making clothing for herself and the Davis children. Then she decided that she wanted to give Jefferson a dressing gown for Christmas and who else would make it but Lizzie Keckley? Lizzie finished it on Christmas Eve and it was given to Jefferson on Christmas morning. She wrote, “As the clock struck twelve I finished the gown, little dreaming of the future that was before it. It was worn, I have not the shadow of a doubt, by Mr. Davis during the stormy years that he was the President of the Confederate States.”

As war approached, Varina put forth the idea that Lizzie should come south with them and continue to be her dressmaker. And Lizzie seriously considered it! She and Varina trusted each other and had built a relationship. When the Davises left DC, Lizzie “half promised” to join them in the South if she changed her mind. She didn’t. But she did come across a statue of Jefferson Davis in Chicago after the war’s end. He was wearing a dress that he was purported to have been captured in. Lizzie recognized the dress immediately as one she had made for Varina! He was wearing a coat when he was captured, not a dress, but Lizzie swore the statue was wearing one of her creations.

I just can’t get over all of that.

Lizzie K. Meets Mary T. (Lincoln)

Mary Todd Lincoln

Mary Lincon in on of her inauguration gowns, purportedly made by Lizzie. Photo via Library of Congress.

Since she had arrived in DC, Lizzie decided that she would do anything to work in the White House. Since she already made a name for herself in St. Louis and Washington, her name made it through the grapevine to Mary Lincoln, the new First Lady. Mary was in a bit of a bind. She spilled coffee on the gown she planned on wearing to the reception after Lincoln’s inauguration. Mrs. McClean, one of Lizzie’s clients, recommended her to Mary and after assuring Mary that her prices were reasonable, Lizzie had the job. She made it to the White House!

She made many dresses for Mary and the two became close friends. Their working relationship and friendship were not secret and on at least one occasion, Lizzie had to rebuff requests to use her influence with Mrs. Lincoln for someone else’s personal gain. Lizzie was extremely loyal and wouldn’t dream of betraying Mary’s trust.

In 1861, tragedy struck. Her son, George, was killed in the Battle of Lexington. Being biracial, he was able to pass as white and enlist in the Union Army. Lizzie does not write of this in her book.

Willie Lincoln Death

Photo via Library of Congress.

In early 1862, twelve-year-old Willie Lincoln, President and Mrs. Lincoln’s third son, contracted typhoid fever. He passed away in February of the same year. Lizzie watched President Lincoln’s grief consume him and make him a “weak, passive child.” Lizzie wrote that Mary’s grief was inconsolable. She sobbed, went into convulsions, and was so consumed by her grief that she was unable to attend Willie’s funeral. So close was Lizzie to the family that she prepared Willie’s body for burial, washing and dressing the little boy.

Later in 1862, freed slaves began pouring into Washington from Maryland and Virginia. Freedom was more difficult than many anticipated, though. They had nothing. Noticing this, Lizzie founded the Contraband Relief Association (freed slaves were called ‘contraband’ at the time) to raise funds and collect clothing for freedmen. That same year, Lizzie accompanied Mary on a trip to New York. Lizzie saw this as a wonderful opportunity to gain support for her relief association. She appealed to prominent black citizens to donate, garnering plenty of interest in her association. When Mary went to Boston to visit her son Robert at college, Lizzie came with her and Mary called on the city’s philanthropists to donate. President and Mrs. Lincoln were frequent donators themselves.

Paranoia Consumes Mary and Tragedy Strikes (Again)

Mary Lincoln dress

Another of Mary’s dresses thought to have been made by Lizzie. Photo via Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

By 1863, Mary was becoming increasingly paranoid about assassins. Mary Lincoln often, unfairly, I think, gets painted as mentally unwell so it would be easy to chalk those concerns up to that. But Lincoln regularly received letters threatening his life. He disregarded them but they fed Mary’s anxieties as well as the anxieties of Lincoln’s friends. Sometimes friends of the couple stayed at the White House if it was thought that the President was in real danger (this was pre-Secret Service protection.)

During the 1864 election, Mary often talked to Lizzie about her worries over whether or not her husband would be reelected. Mary was very afraid that he would not be. But once he was reelected, she seemed to wish he wouldn’t have been. She could see the toll the presidency was taking on him. Nevertheless, Lizzie dressed Mary for the inauguration and the following festivities and Washington celebrated four more years of President Lincoln.

Of course, Lincoln would not serve four more years.

On April 14, 1865, Lincoln was shot while watching the play “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theatre. Lizzie was asleep and recalled being woken up at around 11 PM by friend and neighbor, Miss Brown. Miss Brown told Lizzie that the Cabinet had been assassinated and Mr. Lincoln was shot, although not fatally. She quickly got dressed and went to the White House, where she was told that President Lincoln had not been brought there and that no one would be allowed in. She went back home but couldn’t sleep. She wanted to go to Mary but still didn’t know where the President had been taken. Around 11:00 the following morning, Mary sent a carriage for her. Upon arriving at the White House, Mary asked why she didn’t come to her the previous night. She specifically asked for Lizzie and three messengers were sent to find her. They all misremembered Lizzie’s address so Mary was without her best friend on what was perhaps the most horrific night of her life.

But they were together now and Lizzie, along with Robert and Tad Lincoln, tried to comfort Mary.

But sometimes comfort just won’t come.

Lizzie helped Mary pack up and prepare to leave the White House. Mary planned on moving to Chicago and was under the impression that Lizzie would move with her. Lizzie did go to Chicago for a short time but soon returned to Washington and her dressmaking business.

I wish Lizzie’s story ended here. But it doesn’t.

Even the Best Laid Plans of Mice & Men Often Go Awry

Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley

Photo via UNC Libraries.

Mary Lincoln had a shopping habit. The kind of habit where she’d buy three hundred pairs of gloves at a time. Because she was the First Lady, shops gave her items on credit. As you can imagine, she racked up debt. A lot of it. When President Lincoln was assassinated and she was no longer First Lady, those shops came after the money she owed them. She didn’t have it, not even close. In 1867, it all came to a head and she wrote Lizzie telling her of her financial troubles. She hatched a plan to sell some of her wardrobe, much of which had never been worn, as a means of generating income. Lizzie agreed to help her and the two met in New York to begin selling Mrs. Lincoln’s wardrobe. Mary was very embarrassed about needing to do this and it was to be a secretive operation.

This plan was foiled when the dealer she partnered with recognized her immediately. She ended up holding a public auction and exhibition of her clothing, which was a total failure. Not only did she not make any money from it, but it became a PR disaster. The extent of her spending was exposed and she was accused of being a spendthrift and even of desecrating President Lincoln’s name. Her name was run through the mud and Lizzie’s was too, by proxy. This became known as the “Old Clothes Scandal.”

That’s when Lizzie decided to write her book, Behind the Scenes. She felt that her story of escaping slavery was similar to that of Frederick Douglass and wanted to share it. She also thought that by writing her life story, she could shed some light on Mary’s situation and clear the air (and their names).

Unfortunately, that is basically the opposite of what happened.

Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House

Behind the Scenes by Elizabeth Keckley

Photo via UNC Libraries.

Mary felt that Lizzie’s book only added to the gossip and felt betrayed that her best friend would put personal details out there. Lizzie was vilified by the press for exposing so much about the First Family. After the book’s publication, Mary cut all ties with Lizzie and the two never spoke again.

Lizzie’s business declined to the point of nonexistence and she never made a cent from her book. She supported herself by teaching young women to sew and eventually got a position teaching at Wilberforce University in Ohio. When her health began to decline, she moved to The Home for Destitute Women and Children in Washington, which she helped establish during her years as president of the Contraband Relief Association. She died in 1907 at the age of 88.

She still had a picture of Mary Lincoln on her dresser.

Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley

Mary & Lizzie. Illustration by Jody Hewgill.

Sources (contains affiliate links)

Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House by Elizabeth Keckley (.99 Kindle version here!)
A Strong Thread in a Torn Union by John Williams
Disarming the Nation: Women’s Writing and the American Civil War by Elizabeth Young
The Story of Elizabeth Keckley, Former-Slave-Turned-Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker by Emily Spivack
30 Years a Slave, 4 Years in the White House, WUNC North Carolina Public Radio by Anita Rao and Frank Stasio
The History Chicks Episode 72, Elizabeth Keckley

Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, Part One

I intended this to be one post but as I got writing, I realized that it would be entirely too long. I felt that leaving out big chunks of her story would be doing her a disservice so I’m breaking it up into two posts! (Find part two here!) If you’re unfamiliar with Elizabeth Keckley, you are in for a treat. Now enjoy the first part of Lizzie Keckley’s story…

Of her own life, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Keckley wrote that it “has been an eventful one.” I believe that might be a bit of an understatement.


She was born into slavery at the Dinwiddie Courthouse in Virginia in 1818. Her parents as she knew them were Agnes and George Pleasant Hobbs, although one biographer asserts that her parents’ master, Colonel Burwell, was actually her father. Regardless, Lizzie wasn’t able to have a relationship with George, as he belonged to another man nearby. When Lizzie was a child, her family was permanently separated. For a time, George was permitted to visit Agnes and Lizzie at the Easter and Christmas holidays and at one point, it looked as though they’d be reunited. They weren’t though, and George was forced to move out west with his master. Of this, Lizzie wrote,

“The announcement fell upon the little circle in that rude-log cabin like a thunderbolt. I can remember the scene as if it were but yesterday;–how my father cried out against the cruel separation; his last kiss; his wild straining of my mother to his bosom; the solemn prayer to Heaven; the tears and sobs–the fearful anguish of broken hearts. The last kiss, the last good-by; and he, my father, was gone, gone forever.”

George and Agnes were literate in a time when enslaved people were prohibited from learning to read and write. After George was taken west, they never saw each other again but they did exchange letters. In one letter, George wrote, “Tell my darling little Lizzie to be a good girl, and to learn her book. Kiss her for me, and tell her that I will come to see her some day.”

Did your heart just break? Because mine did.

Lizzie never saw her dad again.

Elizabeth Keckley in North Carolina


Lizzie’s historical marker in Hillsborough, NC. Photo via WUNC.

When she was 14, she was loaned to her master’s son, a minister with a “helpless” wife. Four years later, she moved with the couple from Virginia to Hillsboro (now Hillsborough), North Carolina. It was in Hillsboro that she endured four years of rape and assault by a man she chose not to name. This led to her becoming pregnant with her only child, a son she would name George. Of this, she wrote, “If my poor boy ever suffered any humiliating pangs on account of birth, he could not blame his mother, for God knows that she did not wish to give him life; he must blame the edicts of that society which deemed it no crime to undermine the virtue of girls in my then position.”

Sometime later, Lizzie doesn’t provide specifics here, she returned to Virginia with her former master’s daughter and her (the daughter’s) husband, Mr. Garland. Although she was still enslaved, leaving North Carolina was a relief to her.

Elizabeth Keckley in St. Louis

Mr. Garland struggled in Virginia and moved his family to St. Louis. You can’t run from your troubles, though, and the family continued to struggle in their new city. His financial situation was so dire that Lizzie wrote that he was unable to pay the dues on a letter addressed to him. In order to better their situation, Mr. Garland proposed that Lizzie’s mother be placed “out at service.” I am unsure, but I believe this means that she was to be loaned to another family for a fee, essentially rented out, as awful as that sounds.Regardless, Lizzie was not having it. “I would rather work my fingers to the bone, bend over my sewing till the film of blindness gathered in my eyes; nay, even beg from street to street,” she wrote in her autobiography.

Lizzie Becomes the Breadwinner

Mr. Garland gave Lizzie permission to find a solution herself. She was a talented seamstress and soon found herself with all of the dress-making work she could handle. She was a master at fitting bodices and could apparently drape fabric like nobody’s business. When word of her skills got out to the society ladies of St. Louis, she made enough money to support seventeen people for two years and five months. She was one woman supporting seventeen people for over two years. As is expected, the heavy workload and stress of supporting that many people began to take its toll. Lizzie’s health began to decline. It was about this time that Mr. James Keckley, a man she met years earlier in Virginia, came to St. Louis and proposed marriage. She didn’t even consider it. She didn’t want to bring more children into slavery and although she loved George very much, she struggled with the fact that he was born by no will of her own, into slavery.

Lizzie Buys Her Freedom

It was 1852 and Lizzie decided to ask for permission to buy freedom for herself and George. When she approached Mr. Garland, he gave her money for a ferry ride across the Mississippi. If they crossed the river, they’d be free. Lizzie was insulted. She had crossed the river many times and could have just run away. She wanted it to be official. Without papers, she and her son could be captured and returned to slavery at any time. After consideration, Mr. Garland agreed to take $1200 in exchange for freedom for Lizzie and George.

Now that she was free, she agreed to marry James. Things quickly soured in the marriage, however. James told Lizzie he was a free man. He was not. He was enslaved. Lizzie continued to work to support George, James (which she referred to as a “burden instead of a helpmate”), and the Garland family. She had bought her freedom but she was still enslaved. Due to the strain of supporting even more people than before, she was unable to save the money to purchase her freedom for the second time.



Lizzie’s second bond of freedom, issued on May 5, 1859. Photo via the Missouri Historical Museum.

Around this time, Mr. Garland died and Mr. Burwell came to settle Mr. Garland’s estate. Burwell decided that Lizzie should be free and helped her to raise the money necessary to pay for freedom. I think he could have just freed her but…anyway. The plan was for Lizzie to go to New York and plead for money. Before she left, though, one of her patrons, Ms. Le Bourgois decided that she and the rest of the society ladies should pay for Lizzie’s freedom. Ms. Le Bourgois put up $100 and appealed to the other women to pitch in. Soon they had raised the $1200 needed for Lizzie and George. They were free, this time for good.

Of regaining her freedom, Lizzie wrote, “Free! the earth wore a brighter look, and the very stars seemed to sing with joy. Yes, free! free by the laws of man and the smile of God–and Heaven bless them who made me so!”

For part two of Lizzie’s story, click here!

These two posts were inspired by this shirt I got from a really awesome little company called Historical Dream. I think it’s the most comfortable shirt I own and I already have my eye on their Harriet Tubman dolman top!

Sources (contains affiliate links)
Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, And Four Years in the White House by Elizabeth Keckley (free in website format here or .99 Kindle version here)
Keckley, Elizabeth Hobbs at American National Biography Online
Elizabeth Keckley at the Virginia Historical Society
Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley at the Burwell School Historic Site
30 Years A Slave, 4 Years In The White House on WUNC, North Carolina Public Radio by Anita Rao and Frank StasioThe History Chicks Episode 72, Elizabeth Keckley

A Visit to Biltmore

A few weeks ago, my husband and I took a short trip to Asheville to visit Biltmore Estate. He had been before but I never had. I was really excited to visit the house and grounds…it’s so much bigger than I expected! I knew it was the biggest private residence in the US but I still wasn’t quite prepared. Some of these pictures were taken on my DSLR but it was so dark in the house (and so crowded!) that I used my phone for most pictures.

biltmore estate

Biltmore is George Vanderbilt’s palatial estate in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The house covers over four acres of floor space, has 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, and 65 fireplaces for those chilly mountain nights. The entire estate, as it is today, covers 8,000 acres.


One of the many John Singer Sargent portraits in the house. I got excited every time we found a new one!

Vanderbilt opened Biltmore to friends and family in 1895. The house wasn’t yet finished and parts of it remain unfinished to this day. Three years after opening his estate, he married Edith Stuyvesant Dresser.

The Vanderbilts loved entertaining and George built Vanderbilt with entertaining in mind. The house has 20 dressing rooms for both men and women so they could enjoy the indoor pool without being indecent. There is also a billiards room, two-lane bowling alley, and gun room for guests to choose their weapon for on-site hunting.

George Vanderbilt passed away at the age of 51 in 1914. He got to enjoy his estate for less than 20 years. Upon his death, Edith sold approximately 87,000 acres of the estate to the US Forest Service for less than $5 an acre.


There is also a rose garden on the estate. Ok, there are quite a few gardens at Biltmore. There is also a bass pond, miles of trails, and massive greenhouses. It’s all very beautiful but we went during a heat wave and the greenhouses were almost unbearable.


Something else I was very excited about is the fact that Frederick Law Olmstead designed the grounds. He was the landscape architect in the late 19th century and designed spaces like Central Park, Prospect Park, and the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (AKA “The White City”).


But let’s rewind for a second. In 1900, work began on the construction of a dairy farm on the estate. George wanted the dairy to provide dairy products for his family and those that worked on his estate and, of course, the dairy farm provided another source of income. When his dairy produced more than they could consume or sell, he donated it to local hospitals. In the 1980s, though, dairy was out at Biltmore. Wine was in. Where the dairy farm once stood, there is now the Biltmore Winery. I had purchased Biltmore Wine before and was pleasantly surprised at how good it is. I know how weird that sounds given that it bears the Biltmore name but I have to be honest, North Carolina does not always produce the best wine. A free tasting is included with your admission, which is really nice.

In Antler Hill Village, a separate part of the estate with the winery, shops, hotels, and restaurants, there is an exhibit space where there was an exhibit about weddings in the Biltmore family. The highlight was this veil. It is known as the Lee Family Veil and was worn by Mary Lee Ryan at her marriage to George Vanderbilt’s grandson, William A.V. Cecil. Oh, it was also worn by Jacqueline Bouvier at her marriage to John F. Kennedy. Small detail there.

There are still animals in Antler Hill Village, some of which you can pet! These goats just wanted me to admire them from afar, though.

I barely scratched the surface of the history of the estate and its impact on the economy of Asheville (which is absolutely fascinating). For more information, visit the Biltmore site, read this article from Our State magazine, and listen to this episode of Stuff You Missed in History Class!

Dorothea Dix: Teacher and Mental Health Advocate

When I first moved to Raleigh nearly six years ago, I became aware of Dorothea Dix because (spoiler alert!) one of the institutions she helped set up still stands right outside of downtown Raleigh.


Part of the Dorothea Dix campus in Raleigh. Photo via zalevaika on Flickr.

The campus takes up over 300 acres of land that the city has gained ownership of and is in the process of turning it into a “destination park.” But this post isn’t about Dix Park. It’s about the woman herself.


Dorothea Dix. Photo via Museum of Disability on Flickr.

Dorothea Dix was born April 4, 1802 in Hampden, Maine. She was the oldest of three children. Her father was an alcoholic Methodist preacher and her mother was in poor mental health. As you would expect, her home life was very unhappy and her father was likely abusive. The family moved to Vermont shortly before the British invaded Hampden during the War of 1812. When her two younger brothers were born, she took over caring for them. When reflecting on this time of her life, she would later write, “I never knew childhood.”

In 1814, due to her parents’ failing health and inability to care for their children, her paternal grandmother took Dorothea and her brothers to live with her in Boston. Madame Dix was very wealthy and lived in a home referred to a “Dix Mansion.” Despite their new lifestyle, Dorothea continued to care for her brothers. Dorothea and her grandmother also butted heads about Dorothea’s rejection of the finer things in life, like a private dance teacher and personal seamstress. Madame Dix was furious when she discovered Dorothea giving food and clothing to “beggar children” outside the mansion’s front gate. Dorothea didn’t act like the wealthy girl she suddenly was and it bothered Madame Dix so much that she send Dorothea to her sister’s house (Dorothea’s great-aunt’s) to become a “lady.” Once she arrived, she immediately assumed the role so that she could go back to her brothers at Dix Mansion.

It was around this time that Dorothea decided she wanted to be a schoolteacher. She was informed, however, that girls were not allowed to attend public schools. Her cousin, Edward Bangs, suggested she start her own “little dame school” to get around this. Dorothea was sold and Edward helped her secure space for her lessons. In 1816 at the ripe old age of 15, Dorothea held her first class.

I’m going to fast forward now to 1841, when she had an experience that was the catalyst for her work in mental health reform. Between 1816 and 1841, she continued to teach and opened a school right in Dix Mansion with the support of Madame Dix. It was during this time that she began writing books for children. Around 1836, she took an extended trip to Europe to recoup from tuberculosis. In January 1841, she returned to Boston.

A few months after her return, she volunteered to teach Sunday school classes to women at the East Cambridge Jail. What she saw appalled her. The cells were unfurnished, unsanitary, and unheated, despite how brutal New England winters can be. She also thought it was unfair that mentally ill inmates were locked away with criminals. When she asked why inmates were forced to live under these conditions, she was told, “the insane do not feel hot or cold.”

She knew that this was not right and immediately began investigating other prisons and asylums. She found more of the same. In 1843, she used this data to submit a pamphlet (also known as a “memorial”) to the Massachusetts state legislature. Since women couldn’t vote or hold office, this was the only way she could get this in front of the legislature. (She wasn’t even allowed to present it herself. A man had to present it for her.)

It worked and funds were set aside for the expansion of the Worcester Mental Hospital


Worcester State Hospital postcard. Photo via

After this victory, she began traveling to other states to do the same. In the end, she helped establish 32 hospitals for the mentally ill, 15 schools for special needs children, a school for the blind, and several training facilities for nurses. She covered every state east of the Mississippi and then some. She did the same in Europe in the 1840s, covering 13 countries in two years. At home, she continued to be involved in the government as much as she could, which was not much considered the restrictions placed on women. During the Civil War, she became the Superintendent of Union Army Nurses and served for the duration of the war. She spent the last six years of her life in a hospital in Trenton, NJ. She passed away on June 17, 1887.

We’re not done here, though. We haven’t actually talked about her beliefs!

Obviously she believed that mentally ill people deserve to be treated like people. Unfortunately, this way of thinking was radical during her time. The mainstream belief was that mentally ill people could never be cured and they were fine to live in their “dreadful conditions.” Dorothea believed that better living conditions could help treat mental illness. (While it won’t cure you, as someone who has gone through depression and severe anxiety, I can tell you that sometimes just taking a shower and tidying up makes a world of difference.)

About a young woman, she wrote, “some may say these things cannot be remedied, these furious maniacs are not to be raised from these base conditions. I know they are…I could give many examples. One such is a young woman who was for years ‘a raging maniac’ chained in a cage and whipped to control her acts and words. She was helped by a husband and wife who agreed to take care of her in their home and slowly she recovered her senses.”

No one understood the processes in the brain that were occurring in these individuals but Dorothea knew that at the very least, providing them with habitable conditions wouldn’t harm them.

During her life, Dorothea eschewed praise and often did not even put her name on the books that she wrote or hospitals that were opened during her lifetime. Even today, she is mostly unknown. Still, she is responsible for the 19th century shift in thinking about mental health in the US and much of Europe. We still have a long way to go but Dorothea ignited change during a time when everything was against her.



Dorothea Dix by Jenn Bumb
Dorothea Dix (1802-1887) by Manon S. Parry
Dorothea Lynde Dix by Tana Brumfield Casarez