Stories from the Big House

16 April 2015

Springtime Sentiments

By Tricia Kelly
The Carus children enjoying the outdoors on the west lawn
of the Hegeler Carus Mansion.
For Victorians in Illinois, there was perhaps no better time of year than spring.  Spring was a time of rebirth and renewal, a time to see life peeking out from winter’s hard frost in the form of blue Scilla, white Hepatica, and Spring Beauties.  Soon to follow come Trout Lilies, Yellow Bellworts, and Wild Ginger.  They are then replaced by Trillium, Goldenseal, Buttercups, Jack-in-the-Pulpits, Dutchman’s Breeches, and countless others until the whole land over is covered with Columbine, Jacob’s Ladder, Bluebells, Doll’s Eyes, ferns, and Solomon’s Seal.
Amid this palette of pastels, the Victorians found great delight.  Many adults who had spent the entire winter indoors were glad to step out and get two lungs full of fresh air.  Picnics were for summer, but there were plenty of other things to do in the spring.  For instance, the nanny or governess could now take their young charges on a walk to the park.  Boys had always been encouraged to be outdoors and active no matter what the season as it was believed to make them heartier.  Girls, on the other hand, were perceived as delicate and fragile.  Their lungs were smaller than boys, and thus weaker; therefore, taking a deep breath on a crisp fall day was a sure-fire way for a young lady to “catch her death of cold”.  Spring was another story, and many outdoor activities were arranged by women for their ‘sisters’ to enjoy.  There were wildflower walks, where young ladies would canter about in fields and parks gathering flowers for arrangements or pressed keepsakes.  Some of these girls were especially skilled, and knew how to keep a delicate bloom preserved in gelatin beneath a glass cloche.  Many young Victorian ladies formed flower clubs, where flowers became symbols for friendship, love, health, etc.  Arrangements would then be made and taken to people who were sick, or in mourning, or who lost all they owned in a fire as a gesture of kindness.  Emma Borden and her younger sister Lizzie belonged to one such club.
Then there was the bicycle, that bipedal rebel of the gilded age.  The popularity of bicycles really began around 1860 with the Penny-farthing craze.  Unfortunately, because of its huge front wheel and tiny back wheel, there was very little stability, and accidents were frequent.  Then there came the Boneshaker, a solid frame bike that literally shook your entire body around as you rode it.  In 1885 the first “safety bicycle” was created, and the sport became wildly popular…and controversial.  Doctors were adamant against ladies riding such contraptions.  It was believed that they could be damaging to a woman’s internal organs or, worse, stimulating.  Young women, however, rallied for the cause and rode the bicycles anyway.  This created a resurgence of the ladies’ bloomers that were originally a pre-Civil War fashion.

Finally, visits to the seaside began in the late spring and lasted until late summer, and were enjoyed by boys and girls of all ages.

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