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. Read More