The Dowager’s Diary – Week One Hundred and Thirteen

April 12-19, 1917 

It was just a week after the United States declared war on Germany and the country was rallying behind the troops, knitting socks and rolling bandages to send overseas, yet life went on in the world of Kate Roosevelt on April 13, 1917 with a semblance of normality. First on her list of things to tend to was going to visit a place called The House of the Holy Comforter. Apparently she was visiting her old and infirmed Aunt Jane Cordish, a relative from the Shippen side of Kate’s family in Philadelphia.

2. photo, kate shippen roosevelt, holy comforter home for incurables, book cover, public domain

Tribute to Sister Louise Gardner Hall of the Home of the Holy Comforter

The House of the Holy Comforter was established in 1879 by Sister Louise Gardner Hall at 241 West 23rd Street to provide a retreat where the physical and spiritual needs of the helpless could be met. Founded under the auspices of the Episcopal Church, its mission was to care for destitute Protestant woman and children of the “better class” suffering from incurable diseases.  At the time of its opening, it was the only free nursing home in the city of New York.  Although it maintained ties with the Episcopal Church, it did not depend on them for subsistence. Instead, Sister Louise and her helpers had to beg for food and money.  Many of the local produce dealers and dairies provided them with food and milk, and monetary donations were always welcomed. When the House of the Holy Comforter opened, it had received one donation, enough to pay for one month’s rent and care its one patient. By 1881 they had forty patients in their care and had moved to a larger residence at 54 West 11th Street with the assistance of a generous donation that paid the rent for three months.

3. photo, kate shippen roosevelt, holy comfoter home for aged, family at table making flowers, george eastman photo

Family Making Artificial Flowers in Tenement Kitchen

In a letter written by Sister Louise to her mother and signing it “With Love, Your Devoted Daughter Lu-Lu,” she provided a look inside, “White curtains bound with red, looped back with red.  Short curtains to lower half of window with fringe and a wide sill full of the loveliest plants, many of them in bloom. Lying next to one window is a woman, twenty-nine years-of-age. Been in bed for seven years.  Never out of bed, always knitting, crocheting or working. Always a pleasant smile and word. Next to the other window, lies Mary, age, twenty-three. Totally paralyzed. Only able to use her hands and is most industrious. Never idle. Poor child. She was made helpless from the effects of the arsenic used in making artificial flowers. Been in that condition since she was fourteen.”

4. photo, kate shippen roosevelt, holy conforter home for aged, children in tenements making flowers, public domain

Children at Work

The home was established to take in many like Mary, victims of being poor but proud in New York City. The tenements of the Lower East Side fed them a myriad of sad cases, many coming from the thickly populated tenement area south of 14th Street where child labor was rampant.  A study compiled by social researcher Mary Van Kleeck in 1908 noted that, “Little children were often seen on the streets of New York City carrying bundles of unfinished garments and boxes containing materials to assemble artificial flowers.” Many families eked out a living by taking in piece-work handed- out by manufacturers to be finished in tenement workshops where children provided the labor.

5. photo, kate shippen roosevelt, holy comforter home, 196 street, forgotten new york

Holy Comforter Home 196th Street in the Bronx

New York City laws prohibited the employment of children under fourteen years of age from working in factories and stores, but was not extended to the living spaces squeezed into tenements infested with human assembly lines. One tenement on Sullivan Street was awash in child labor. Vito, aged fourteen; Karrie, aged twelve; Jen aged nine and Antoinette, aged seven made “June Bugs” at eight cents a gross. Their total earnings combined with that of their mother and older sister amounted to between fifty and sixty cents a day.  On the floor below them, Michael, aged thirteen and his mother made paper flowers. Across the hall, Maggie, aged sixteen; Angelina, aged fourteen; Josephine, aged eight; Tony, aged six and Frank aged four worked on a more-complicated kind of flower, the artificial rose that earned them twenty-five cents a gross. Black violets, bringing in five cents a gross came from the factory with the petals stuck together. The children’s job was to separate them and paste them on stems. And the stems, pardon the pun, were where the arsenic poisoning stemmed from. Arsenic was used as a dye that produced a green color used in wallpaper and in the stems and leaves of artificial flowers. It was a virulent poison when inhaled, causing a multitude of illnesses and deaths.

Sister Louise, always sickly herself, died in 1883 at the young age of thirty-five, but her work in caring for the helpless did not.

6. photo, kate shippen roosevelt, st. andrew; and stuyvesant square, area where hospital was, wiki

St. Andrew’s Convalescent Home Near Stuyvesant Square

With hundreds of women and children waiting for admission, by 1915, the home moved to a larger space at 196th Street and that is where Kate Roosevelt was met with some less-than compassionate words by the sister in charge. In short, she was told “That I must positively take Aunt Jane away from there tomorrow.” On such short notice, I could only imagine what prompted such an abrupt ending to the old woman’s stay at the Home of the Holy Comforter and I also wondered why a relative of the very wealthy Kate Roosevelt would qualify for charity care, unless she was taken in because she was a member of the “better class,” as dictated in the home’s mission statement. To Kate’s credit, the next day she wrote, “Took Aunt Jane home with me and hired, Mrs. Fern, a trained nurse.” I don’t think the arrangement lasted long because in no time at all Kate Roosevelt was making regular visits and attending fundraisers and teas for Saint Andrew’s Convalescent at 237 East 17th Street, advertised as a home for girls and women of “good character.”

Sharon Hazard’s Dowager’s Diary appears on Thursday.

Photo One:
Tenement Workers making artificial flowers
Library of Congress

Photo Two:
Tribute to Sister Louise Gardner Hall of the Home of the Holy Comforter
Public Domain

Photo Three:
Family making artificial flowers in tenement kitchen
George Eastman Photo

Photo Four:
Children at Work
Library of Congress

Photo Five:
Holy Comforter Home 196th Street in the Bronx
Forgotten New York

Photo Six:
St. Andrew’s Convalescent Home Near Stuyvesant Square