Vintage Icons from Delaware
Jan 22, 2020 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
Delaware was the first state to ratify the U.S. Constitution and is therefore our next entry in this series on vintage icons. We often wonder about the power of place and reading more about this state’s heritage resoundingly tells us that geography does matter! Delaware’s history is filled with a cast of passionate visionaries. Perhaps there’s something in the water at Brandywine creek? Let’s find out as we learn about a few of the vintage icons from Delaware.
We’ll begin with the complicated legacy of Emily Bissell. Born in Wilmington, Emily was naturally drawn to helping the downtrodden. A fierce advocate for children, she was the driving force behind the founding of the city’s first kindergarten. The idea of educating children at the turn of the century (i.e. the peak of the Industrial Revolution), was itself revolutionary. During this time, society viewed children as a labor resource, a key instrument in economic progress. Any student of history knows that working conditions during this time were unsafe and unsuitable for able-bodied adults, let alone children. But at a time when making ends meet was difficult and the labor pool was small, children’s rights were pushed to the side in the name of development. This “status quo” was not acceptable in Emily’s view and she championed child labor laws throughout the state. To see what conditions were like in Delaware & around the country, please see this photo essay here. Looking into these kids’ eyes, it’s easy to understand why Emily would take up this cause. By the 1880s her charitable focus expanded further to the immigrant community. With America’s economic expansion, many Irish and German families arrived in Delaware, seeking better fortunes. Emily noticed that they were often adrift in their new land, unable to speak English and vulnerable without key social connections. She founded an organization to help provide vital services and support to these newcomers. Today it remains a thriving neighborhood hub and stands as a true testament to the power of one caring voice.
Turns out Emily wouldn’t have just one initiative that continued into the 21st century, but two! In 1907 she founded the Christmas Seals program in the United States. The idea started in Denmark as a way to raise funds in the fight against tuberculosis. With the fundraising goal of $300, Emily designed the first stamp and began her crusade. She was able to get local post offices to sell the stamps for a penny each. That price point was very important to her, as she wanted everyone to be involved in the fight against tuberculosis (not just the upper crust). The grass roots campaign didn’t work as intended. The stamps didn’t raise enough funds, but the regional press soon picked up the story and that attention allowed her to raise $3,000 (that’s almost $85,000 in today’s money!). Fueled by this success, she continued to create these Christmas Seals (with the help of an icon we’ll introduce you to in a little bit). Today, the Christmas Seals tradition continues across the country.
Sometimes you’ll get the question: if you could eat dinner with someone from history, who would it be? Emily Bissell would definitely be on my list. I would love to understand why her passion for the downtrodden didn’t include women’s rights. Emily, writing under the pen name of Priscilla Leonard, was vehemently against women’s rights to vote or to have careers. She felt that a woman’s freedom should start and stop in the home, the domestic realm. For a woman whose reach was decidedly national (if not international), I find that interesting. Discovering more about her perspective and beliefs would make for a vibrant discussion!
Annie Jump Cannon was one of Emily’s contemporaries and did not share Emily’s view on a woman’s place in society. Annie’s realm wasn’t defined by the four walls of a home, it was as big as the universe itself! You see, Annie was a trained astronomer who tirelessly worked to quantify the amazing field of stars and far-flung planets. Partnering with Edward C. Pickering, she went on to create a classification system that served as a foundation for modern scientific discoveries. Annie’s interest in the great beyond began in childhood, with her mother fostering Annie’s passion for math and science. She was always finding opportunities to learn – whether that was translating skills for running a house into finishing a thesis, or celebrating the world through photography and poetry. Annie was a joyful student. However, following her 30th birthday, she was stricken with scarlet fever and lost most of her hearing. Annie used that feeling of isolation as rocket fuel, diving into her passion for study. That focus led her to Harvard and to Edward C. Pickering’s research group. It may be easy to quip “and the rest is history”, but I think that does Annie a disservice. Much like her peer Emily, Annie made tremendous achievements at a time when the feminine voice didn’t carry quite as far as it does today. When Annie lost her hearing, and later her beloved mother, she could have allowed that loss to envelop. But she soldiered on, discovering 300 stars in the process! We understand the night sky better thanks to Annie’s pioneering efforts. Just think: how amazing would it be to dine with Annie and Emily?
We’ll conclude our brief study of vintage icons from Delaware with Howard Pyle. Howard was another contemporary of Emily & Annie – in fact – he designed the second Christmas Seal stamp for Emily! Pyle, a native of Wilmington, had an eye for artistic storytelling from an early age. Much like Annie, Howard’s mom was a source of encouragement and support. Shortly after his 23rd birthday, Howard journeyed to Virginia and that maiden voyage was a source of inspiration and motivation! He created an illustrated story about his travels and it caught the eye of a New York publisher. The move to the big apple proved challenging as it took a while for things to take off. Young Howard embodied the “starving artist” type for a few years, but soon he had his big break with Harper’s Bazaar. As his popularity grew, Howard looked to the future. Four years after leaving for the bright lights of NYC, he returned home. Busy with other magazine commissions, he began pursuing his passion for book illustrations. In fact, Cause A Frockus readers will recognize one of Howard’s fans, the incomparable William Morris! Howard went on to teach – channeling the enthusiasm his mother had showered on him. His first mentoring role was at the Drexel Institute, but in 1900 he founded his own school. Students of the “Pyle method” were recognized as masters of the Brandywine School (a nod to Delaware’s natural beauty). Looking across the genres of film from Disney to Errol Flynn, you see Howard’s influence everywhere.
Delaware’s history is brimming with inspiring figures and it was tough to limit this article to three. But there is a common thread in these three innovators – a lifelong desire for learning. Howard saw the world through the lens of adventure and imagination. Annie saw the world through the lens of wonder and discovery. Emily saw the world through the lens of outreach and compassion. Tell me dear reader, how has this trio inspired you? Let us know in the comments…