July 9, 2013 | by Meganne Fabrega
It’s a gray day in April and after nine hours on a crowded BoltBus I arrive in Philadelphia to see my old friend from college, Nicole, a fellow writer and veritable one-woman repository of Philadelphian history. I’m here to celebrate her birthday, to drink wine, and to comb through the detritus of a difficult past year for both of us. Really, I’m not here for research.
So, of course it makes perfect sense that within five minutes of picking me up she turns her car toward 4100 Pine Street, an address I’ve seen scrawled on the front of numerous letters, in nineteenth-century directories, in the chicken-scratch handwriting of an 1870 Philadelphian census worker, and in journal after journal of Amy Ella Blanchard.
I first encountered Blanchard’s work as a sullen adolescent, forced to go to an island in Maine every other weekend with my father and soon-to-be stepmother. The house where we stayed was built by Blanchard in the early twentieth century and her books lined the shelves, but I was too busy reading classics like Salem’s Lot to be bothered with these dusty old tomes. The fact that she was a relative of my father’s girlfriend made Blanchard’s novels even less attractive to me.
Not many readers these days know who Blanchard was, but just barely a century ago she published at least a book a year, sometimes more, for girls and about girls. During her lifetime she wrote over eighty books, a play in 1896 about the importance of exercise for women, and even a couple of small booklets flouting such morals as “fritterings” and being “pound foolish.” A self-described late bloomer, Blanchard’s writing career started, and sputtered, with a story she published in a Salem, Massachusetts newspaper when she was in her teens, but it wasn’t until she was well into her thirties that her novels became an indispensable part of every young girl’s library.
4100 Pine Street is where Amy Ella Blanchard met her writerly fate, personally and professionally. In 1871, when she was fifteen years old, the Waugh family of Philadelphia hired her to be a tutor for their young son, future marine artist and camouflage designer Frederick Judd Waugh. Patriarch Samuel Bell Waugh was a renowned Philadelphian painter of portraits, including at least two of President Lincoln; his wife, Mary, specialized in miniatures; and Frederick’s older half sister, Ida, was hard at work pursuing her own painting career. A family of artists, the Waughs quickly took young Amy under their wing. They kept inspired company in their time and introduced Amy to a creative world that was far removed from her hometown of Baltimore in more ways than one.
During her time on Pine Street Amy formed a hard and fast bond with Ida, who was ten years her senior. When it was time for Frederick to move on in his studies, Amy and Ida moved together to New York City in 1880 and lived in a series of rooms and apartments on the lower East Side. It was there that Ida and Amy finished writing their first book together, Holly Berries, with illustrations by Ida and verses by Amy. It was published by Edward P. Dutton’s then-fledgling firm.
Their collaboration continued with picture books with titles such as Our Pussy Cat, Wee Babies, and The Butterfly, and they spent their evenings practicing their banjos, going out and “beering” with their tight group of friends, sewing, painting, and taking advantage of the nonstop nightlife that the city had to offer. They moved often and kept a separate studio where they could paint together. Their life was full of friends and adventures; the kind of adventures they wouldn’t have been able to have if they were married women in mid-Atlantic cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore.
Nicole and I cautiously approach the house that, until now, had only been a blurry photo on Google maps … and my heart sinks. It is run down, with a dead Christmas tree forgotten on the porch, a yard full of discarded plastic toys, and a small, dried-up cement pond. I step up the crumbling steps to a broken door, tentatively peer in the window, and try to imagine what the New York Times described in their “Items from Philadelphia” column in 1901 as “… the little house out on Pine Street that looks quite like the rest of West Philadelphia—till you get inside.”
“You should leave your number,” Nicole says, as she inspects the trees and scrubby plants in the yard, constantly on the hunt for native heirloom plants.
I scribble a note to the residents that I hope makes sense, one that would appeal to their sense of history and possible artistic natures, with a little touch of mystery thrown in for good measure.
We walk around the front of the property to the other side of the house and find a separate apartment. Nicole remarks on the size of the windows and how cold it must be in there in January, and I remember reading about how Ida and Amy tried fruitlessly to cover the floor-to-ceiling windows in the winter so the frigid air wouldn’t seep in.
Even though Amy had at least one long-term relationship with a man, her lifetime commitment was to Ida. Through the 1880s and 1890s Amy and Ida worked and lived together in New York City and abroad. Ida reached the peak of her painting career in 1889 when her painting Hagar and Ishmael was shown at the Paris salons, and by this time Amy averaged a book a year with and without illustrations by Ida. Amy had become an official member of the Waugh family and 4100 Pine Street was her way station to and from her travels to her hometown of Baltimore, Washington, DC, and Rockville, Maryland, where her sister, Lulu, lived.
While Ida strung together a career painting and illustrating, including popular images of babies and children for the Louis Prang Chromolithic company, Amy’s books moved from being young-child focused to teen-centric. Her books were often reviewed in the New York Times alongside those by Louisa May Alcott and Frances Hodgson Burnett. She specialized in series; her most popular were The Four Corners and Camp Fire Girls, but she also tried her hand at novels about college girls and a wide range of historical fiction.
As Amy and Ida earned more from their respective careers, their commitment to each other strengthened. In 1890 Amy was thirty-four years old and Ida was forty-four years old and from family papers, letters, and journals it is evident that the two women had formed a “romantic friendship” (as Lillian Faderman calls it in her book Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers), where they were able to lead autonomous lives, including pursuing their chosen careers, and have a dependable partner without the constraints of traditional marriage. The two extended families were thickly intertwined and there was no question that Ida and Amy were anything less than a true partnership. In fact, their “firm,” as it was termed by the New York Times, was a major source of financial and emotional support for both families.
Amy wrote in fits and starts; sometimes she’d write for days on end (there was always a new novel in the hopper), others she’d make champagne jelly, roly-poly pudding, or sew on one of her dresses or hats. She kept meticulous records of her finances, and duly noted every check she received. She and Ida were always fretting about money, but it didn’t seem to stop their adventures overseas and at home.
During the course of their relationship Amy and Ida owned five homes on Bailey Island, Maine, and a home in Redding Ridge, Connecticut. For additional income the women rented out their homes in Maine while maintaining and furnishing the homes; writing endless letters to family, friends, and business associates; traveling extensively abroad and within the United States; managing their publication rights and income; and producing artwork and writing that would provide them the means to maintain this expansive web of responsibility. There was little time for complete rest.
I write a note to the other side of 4100 as well (often referred to in the journals as 4100 ½) and wedge it between the squeaky metal storm door and the worn wooden frame with little hope that someone might call me. I want to linger, to keep staring in at the rooms that Amy and Ida had wandered around in between travels. The sitting room where they’d collapse after a night listening to the Philadelphia Orchestra, or their bedrooms where they’d retire after a walk around the woodlands. However, I don’t want to look like I’m casing the joint, so with a final glance Nicole and I step outside of the dull gray walls that surround the house and start back to her car.
We cross the street and see a stone-fronted house with neatly painted trim and a tidy front lawn. It has an official Pennsylvania Historical Society sign out front that proudly declares that the painter Herman Herzog once lived in this house. I see the dates and note that when Herzog lived there the Waugh family lived across the street. Maybe he’d go to the Waughs for a glass of beer, or perhaps their children played together.
I turn around and stare at 4100 Pine Street. I take in the bowed, rusted roof that barely covers the front porch and the window where only one cracked shutter remains, the other one long gone. I feel about the house the way I feel about Ida and Amy. It has been neglected and forgotten. They have been forgotten.
While Ida’s illustrations can be found on any vintage print or eBay site, and Amy’s out-of-copyright books are reprinted by companies in England and India, very little information about their lives is available. Ida is a mere footnote to the artistic careers of brother and father, while Amy’s prolific writing life has been whittled down to a short entry on Wikipedia riddled with errors.
Ida died from liver failure in 1919 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Philadelphia next to her father and unmarried sister. Amy died at her desk at her home on Bailey Island in 1926: according to family lore, she was writing a prescient poem about her impending death. She was laid to rest in Baltimore next to her younger brother; her older sister joined them there a few years later.
The current residents of Pine Street don’t call me and I’m not surprised. Who cares about two women who rode the crest of girls’ fiction in the Gilded Age, who quietly lived unconventional lives, and who separated only in death? It’s just one city story in a place where this country’s rich history lives under every street corner, beneath every gnarled tree, and in each crumbling manor.
Nicole and I drive away, trailed by the faint smell of turpentine and the rustling of artists’ aprons.
Meganne Fabrega is a writer and a regular book critic for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Her work has appeared in Brain, Child, Alimentum (online) and the Christian Science Monitor, among other publications. She lives in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where she is currently at work on a novel about Amy Ella Blanchard and Ida Waugh’s life together.