Saturday, September 13, 2008

Lady of the House - Part 3

So, what was Laura Hawkins Frazer like?

Why, Laura was a product of her times…

She was the daughter of Judge Hawkins, a well-respected county judge in Hannibal. Judges have almost always belonged to the upper social stratum of society and hence were required to maintain an appearance of utmost respectability.

Social-economic profiles lacking, this judge most likely associated with the professional elites of the church, civil servants, academy, and commerce. Though this judge was no lumber baron or other member of Hannibal’s economic elite during the mid to late 1800’s, the Hawkins family was respectably upper-middle class.

As a female offspring of this household, Laura Hawkins would have been brought up and groomed to become the wife of a successful man similar to her class or better. This man would have been a doctor or lawyer or someone of considerable wealth.

Could Samuel Clemens, the teen who abandoned school to become a printer have even hoped to become a serious suitor of Laura's?

Laura Hawkins as a girl aka Becky Thatcher.
Photo from Mark Twain Museum Website.

Despite the advantages of an upper or upper-middle class upbringing in pre-Victorian America, a girl definitely had her place - to grow up as a woman living and staying at her home in a subordinate role to her husband. And, history does suggest that Laura Hawkins was your typical upper-middle class Victorian wife and mother. This meant:

She was pious.
During Laura’s lifetime, women were expected to be morally competent and the moral center of the home. It was even a part of a woman’s education to aspire her to “moral greatness”. In marriage and the home, women were charged with providing moral uplift, with the father being the family's moral and religious ruler.

In the latter part of her life after her husband’s death in 1875, Laura moved from Renssalaer to Hannibal and accepted the position of matron of the Home of the Friendless (for orphans). This fit neatly within acceptable societal expectations for moral righteousness and charity.

She was home-centered.
Home and marriage was the career-choice imposed on women in Laura’s day. Even if the woman had acquired advanced education as Laura did, women often saw this effort wasted away. Upper-classed women in particular had no professions available to them, and professions such as teaching and nursing were largely the lot of poor or middle-class women who distinguished themselves academically and henced faced the possibility of life as spinsters.

She endured hardships.
Life was unpleasant (by our standards) in Victorian America even for the well-to-do. For instance, people tolerated incredible filth with coal dust coating every interior surface. Clothing was heavy and dirty, and baths were infrequent. Food was extremely bland even for the elite. And, women rarely questioned their inferior status. It was generally accepted that women were mentally and physically weak, and women themselves seemed to accept this with little questioning.

Laura Hawkins at a 1922 movie premiere
featuring one of Mark Twain's books.

Note the heavy clothing diminutive Laura wore
after the Victorian era unofficially ended.

This appears to be the Star Theater in front of which Laura is standing.
The Star was very nicely restored a few years ago, bought only one day before it was to be taken down. It currently hosts special events and is a "dinner & movie" venue with a full menu and classic films. The theater is located at 213 South Main in Hannibal, almost directly across the street from the restored Mark Twain Hotel.

She was appropriately demure.
Victorian women were considered to be the fair or gentle sex, particularly upper and upper-middle class women. They were expected to walk quietly through the streets, seeing and hearing nothing that they ought not to. Upon meeting acquaintances, a woman would give a courteous nod and with friends, she gave words of greeting. She was expected to be unobtrusive and never to talk loudly or laugh boisterously. She wasn’t supposed to do anything to attract the attention of the passers-by. She went along in her own quiet, lady-like way and was modest, discreet, kind and obliging.

So, what was Laura's home like?

Laura had two sons. One of her sons, Louis. E. Frazer was to become a lawyer and commissioner and later, judge. It was in his house she would live during the latter part of her life. Hence, the social-economic life of a judge and the social mores of Victorian Hannibal dictated the family’s living structure.

Examples... it was common during this era for more than two generations to occupy one house. Also, Victorians strictly assigned each room in a house a specific purpose with different family members occupying their own areas of the house. Parents and children and servants each occupied separate quarters, hence the requirement for tall houses during this era. Furnishings were often created by hand during Laura's day and were handed down generation to generation. Almost nothing was thrown away hence furnishings generally reflected earlier time periods.

We purchased this youth bed (hand-made circa 1835) from the Becky Thatcher (childhood) house located in Hannibal's historic district. It would have been similar to one Laura Hawkins could have slept in as a child and will be on display in the
Laura Hawkins house.

In upcoming posts, we’ll carefully examine the details of Laura’s domestic life and how the house’s interiors and furnishings will reflect this “Cult of Domesticity” in Victorian America.

In the coming weeks and into winter,
there will be considerable activity at Laura's house.

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