22 December 2011

John 'Ben' Pickard: A House Becomes a Home: The Women of the Amesbury Whittier House (2007)

John 'Ben' Pickard, the author of this booklet, is the great-grand-nephew of John Greenleaf Whittier. The background on the cover is a photo of the wallpaper from the east attic of the Amesbury Whittier house.

Written for a talk which took place five years before the publication of Whittier and His Elizabeths and also published in the same year (2007) by the Whittier Home Association, this booklet (along with the other) is interesting in that it approaches John Greenleaf Whittier's life from a feminist point of view, foregrounding the women behind the poet rather than the poet himself. It is also appropriate in that Whittier himself was a feminist, although perhaps more in theory than in practice.

Whittier (then aged 29) moved with his family to Amesbury, Massachusetts in 1836, leaving the home of his birth at the farm in East Haverill (pronounced 'HAY-vrill') which is about eight miles away and had been in the family since it was built in 1688: after the death of their father and uncle who had kept the farm, neither Whittier nor his brother Franklin wanted to be farmers, and the women of the household were not suited to the work.

These women were the mother Abigail Hussey Whittier, the single aunt Mercy Hussey, and the younger sister, Elizabeth Hussey Whittier. Pickard describes the first two women as 'domestic caretakers' doing the cooking, cleaning, and making the clothes for the male of the family, the man who would never marry and would remain at the house until 1876, when he joined his Johnson cousins in Danvers, Massachusetts.

Mercy died in 1846. Elizabeth Hussey Whittier was a companion to the poet for many years, although her health suffered a great deal in the 1850s, and it was also a huge loss to him when his mother died in 1857.

The following year Franklin's 13-year-old daughter — also named Elizabeth Hussey Whittier, but generally referred to as Lizzie — joined the household initially as a schoolgirl, although her aunt's ailing condition in the early 1860s meant that Lizzie increasingly took on the household tasks, also becoming companion and secretary to Whittier. Elizabeth died in 1864, and Lizzie's marriage to Samuel Thomas Pickard (later Whittier's biographer) in 1876 necessitated Whittier's move to Danvers. He died in Hampton Falls, New Hampshire in 1892 at the age of 85, leaving much of his estate — including the house — to Elizabeth 'Lizzie' Hussey Pickard, who had been with him for several of his final weeks.

Although Ben Pickard's booklet stresses the vital importance of women in the Whittier household (and indeed by extension in many other 19th century households) it is also the story of the physical evolution of the house, the alterations it underwent through the decades, and the story of late 19th century political disagreements between the Whittier Home Association and the Elizabeth Whittier Club.

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