“The Room is Now so Still!”
by Juan-Fernando León
In 1911 the National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union published a small booklet called the Historic Rest Cottage to commemorate the place where Frances E. Willard lived and worked, beginning in 1865 and until her death in 1898. This is what the booklet said about the Den,
The Den, as Frances Willard’s called her study and library, is the heart of Rest Cottage. The room is now so still! The oak rocking-chair near her desk, in which she sat when she penned the famous Polyglot Petition asking the governments of the world to do away with the brain poisons, alcohol and opium, is vacant…The hand-bag on the now unused desk, and the satchel, ‘Old Faithful,’ placed under it, are eloquent reminders to the visitors of Miss Willard’s unwearying, persistent journeyings over land and sea as…she burned out her life in altruistic service, and ‘made the world wider for women and more homelike for humanity.’[i]
The oak rocking-chair, the desk, the hand-bag and as a whole the Den was not always so still. On the contrary, this space was in constant flux, both in terms of its physical configuration and intellectual activity, as palpable from the literature surrounding the Den.
The Den is a rear room, formerly a maid’s bedroom, located on the second floor of the original Rest Cottage. At some point after Frances Willard became involved with the temperance movement in 1874, and after meeting Anna Gordon (future WCTU president, and Willard’s longtime companion, and personal secretary) in 1877 – the room ceased to be a maid’s bedroom and became an office.
Willard describes this space as a “little up-stairs bedroom, …long and narrow, with one window looking out on the back lawn.”[ii] It is likely that that Willard moved her office into the maid’s room during the 1878 addition of Rest Cottage’s north-side “Annex,” a space constructed for Frances Willard’s newly widowed sister-in-law Mary Banister Willard and her four children to reside. Moving into this space, allowed her to “be out of sight and away from the many interruptions” that she came to experience as a leader for the WCTU.[iii] “Here I lived and worked for years” was how Willard described her time in the “little up-stairs bedroom” that gradually transformed into her Den.[iv]
As her reputation in the temperance movement continued to escalate and her social influence colored national and international cultural struggles, newspaper reporters and photographers became acquainted with Rest Cottage. Newspaper reports and pictures taken during the 1880s, attest to Willard’s resolve and simultaneously show the Den’s physical transformation, helping us, reconstruct how the space functioned in Rest Cottage and what it meant to Frances Willard, both before and after its renovation in 1889.
In 1886 Caroline Merrick, a New Orleans reporter, describes the Den as
facing east to get the morning sun, a back room with book-lined walls, a heavy oak writing desk, unframed photographs of philanthropists friends, an easy chair, and a window opening onto a porch overlooking the lawn and flower beds.[v]
Merrick’s report of the Den is further confirmed by a Chicago Tribune article titled “Miss Frances Willard: The World-Known Leader of the W.C.T.U. and Her Work” published on January 29, 1888, in which the reporter describes the Den as
a room crowded with souvenirs of places, people, and events. One window lights it, a broad lounge with inviting pillows stands in a recess, and a stationary chair, luxuriously upholstered, is built in comfortable proximity to the crackling little stove which supplements the heat of the furnace. There is litter in the room, but it is not a disorderly litter – it is merely that which busy-ness makes.[vi]
On December 5, 1889 another article was published in The Union Signal titled “Rest Cottage Mottoes,” in which once more the Den is mentioned and although emphasis was given to Willard’s maxims, which populated the walls of this room, the inexorable link between the mottoes and the space is revelatory of what this space meant to Willard and those who came in contact with it, as per this article. The article came as a result of a group of women who, while attending the NWCTU Convention,
much impressed by the beautiful and helpful mottoes upon the walls of Miss Willard’s study and sleeping room […], requested that she (Willard) send them to The Union Signal[vii] for publication, believing they would be a means of spiritual uplift to many, as they are, undoubtedly, to the dear one who owns them.[viii]
Not too long after The Union Signal publication, the most drastic physical transformation of the Den happened. In 1889 Mrs. A.C. Thorp of Cambridge, Mass., “started a subscription list which resulted in the raising of one thousand dollars, with which a new ‘Den’ for [Willard] in the place of the old one” was built.[ix] Willard describes that “it was fitted up tastefully, with best of light and ventilation, a chimney with an open grate, electric light, bay-window and a balcony.”[x]
Images of this new Den appeared in Anna Gordon’s posthumous biography of Willard (The Beautiful Life of Frances E. Willard: A Monument Volume) where we can see the upgrade, from a “dingy” space to a “corner office” type of space where Willard could carry out her work with greater ease.
Not long after the Den’s expansive renovation, however, Frances Willard would soon come to find it difficult to find peace in her “Rest Cottage.” Indeed, the early 1890s were among the most intense in terms of mourning and grieving for the Rest Cottage household. Julia A. Ames and Mary Allen West, two of the members of Willard’s “inner-circle” passed away in 1891 and 1892, and Willard’s mother—Mary Thompson Hill Willard—died at the home in 1892. In the same way the Den was charged with much intellectual activity because of Willard’s work, other parts of the Rest Cottage, like the parlor (which was the designated space for the wakes), were charged with grief and sadness because of the death. “Father’s remains were laid in the parlor of his own house” was how Willard remembered the parlor in Rest Cottage in 1868.
Considering this, Anna Gordon wrote, “now that Frances Willard was motherless, Rest Cottage [was] only ‘a dumb dwelling.’” Indeed the memory one develops of a place is dramatically fixed to the attachment and remembrance one has of it. Clearly, Willard sought a new place where she could mourn and as Gordon explains,
Hundreds of loyal and lovely homes longed to shelter and console her, but God had opened an English home, a gracious, queenly heart, and the last six years of miss Willard’s life were to be…divided between the ‘mother country’ and the home land.”[xi]
Isabel Somerset’s residence in Reigate (England) was the place where Willard coped with the loss of her mother. Somerset, who met Willard in 1891 at a WWCTU conference in Boston, came to be indispensable in that effort, as she became one of Willard’s strongest supporters and associates in WWCTU work. Although Willard was very thankful for the hospitality she received in England, Carolyn De Swarte Gifford in Writing Out My Heart: Selections from the Journals of Frances E. Willard, 1855-96 explains, Willard
still missed the fellowship of the simple home worship of Rest Cottage, with her mother in the center of the family circle. She also longed for her home church with its Sunday services and social life (Gifford, 356).
The record is sparse during this time concerning the Den. We know that in 1894, the Merwin family, relatives of Mary Bannister Willard, are listed as residents of the north side. In 1897, the Kimball family, also her relatives, are listed as living on the south side (Lori Osborne, “Frances Willard House – Rest Cottage Draft History,” 2001). However, based on the record we have after February 18, 1898, the day Willard died of complications from influenza in New York, a spontaneous memorialization of the original part of Rest Cottage began, which included of course the Den. Anna Gordon, Mary Banister Willard and the WCTU were named the legal legatees on the estate, and in such capacity took necessary steps to preserve Rest Cottage.
In the Twenty-Sixth Annual Meeting in October 1899, during the President’s Address, it was determined that WTCU Headquarters be moved to the Annex (where they remained until 1922 when they relocated to the new headquarters built on the west side of the property, behind Rest Cottage). Noting the significance of Rest Cottage for the WCTU, Lillian M. N. Stevens (the WCTU president after Willard), spoke of the house as a holy place, one befitting pilgrimages from WCTU devotees:
it is a privilege that cannot be too highly estimated that our national offices should be there, that our prayers, our plans and our daily work…should have the consecration of such surroundings and that Rest Cottage should thus continue to be the center from which our influence as a NWCTU can most widely radiate, a Mecca for the prayerful thought and devoted love of white ribboners everywhere.[xii]
Indeed Rest Cottage and especially the Den became a place of pilgrimage and a shrine space for many “white ribboners” – as described, for example, in the 1911 WCTU publication where a white ribboner explains to her daughter that “’Here in this room [referring to the Den]…the World’s W.C.T.U. was really founded.”[xiii] Even the Chicago Tribune published an article in 1902 titled “Miss Willard’s Room Is as She Left It: No Change in Her Favorite Nook in Rest Cottage” in which a picture of the Den appears – overpowering the newspaper page. Similarly The Union Signal continued to publish articles and updates about Rest Cottage and the Den. As time progressed Rest Cottage gradually turned into a house museum in 1900 and in 1965 it became an National Historic Landmark.
To think about the Den as a static space or as a place so still would seemed shortsighted, it is better to consider it as an organism that hosted a wealth of thoughts, worldviews, social reform maxims and progressive ideas. The physical expansion of the Den symbolically shows how women’s social sphere was expanded and how incongruous it would be to think that domestic and private spaces in the ninetieth century only operated within those limitations. The way the Den functioned, as a workplace, seems to contest that idea. The Den was indeed the “heart of Rest Cottage” not only because of the one who occupied it, but also because of what it meant to women and social reformers then and now.
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