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A "Nerve Center"of Woman's Suffrage: The Bristol Ferry Group

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Letitia Lawton, Cora Mitchel and Emeline Eldredge 1907

National suffrage leaders called the Newport County Woman Suffrage League a “nerve center” for suffrage work in Rhode Island.*  The league was founded in 1907 by Cora Mitchel and her group of “philanthropic” women from the Bristol Ferry neighborhood. The organization would continue to spread across Aquidneck Island and it functioned until Rhode Island ratified the 19th amendment in 1920.  This article focuses on the founding days when Cora Mitchel served as president.

Who were the women of the founding Bristol Ferry group?  What were their backgrounds?  Where did they meet?  What were their suffrage activities?  Newspaper articles help us to get a picture of these wonderful women and their work to gain the right to vote.

Who were the original members? The “History of Woman Suffrage” lists a few of the women.  This source lists the date of 1908 as the founding, but newspaper accounts show they were founded and active in 1907.  The ladies listed as part of this group were Cora Mitchel’s friends:   Sarah Eddy, Mrs. John Eldredge (Emeline), and Mrs. Barton Ballou (Mary).  The history goes on to say that “Mrs. Julia Ward Howe was present at the first meeting and as long as she lived took great interest in its work.”  A photo taken in front of Sarah Eddy’s home shows three of the members – Cora Mitchel, Emeline Eldredge and Letitia Lawton.  Early meetings were held at the home of the “Misses Mitchel” so Cora’s sister Sophie was probably involved as well.

The original Bristol Ferry ladies came from different backgrounds – farmer’s wives, a wealthy heiress, a manufacturer’s wife, and artists.    As you read about them you will notice that the Bristol group had a distinct advantage.  At least three of the women had long experience with the suffrage movement on the state and national level.

Cora Mitchel (1847-1929) came from a brave and resourceful family that had to make a daring escape from Florida when the Civil War broke out. The family settled in the Bristol Ferry neighborhood which was part of their mother’s heritage.  The Mitchel family had large tracts of land around Bristol Ferry Road.

Sophie Mitchel (1853-1912) was Cora’s younger sister.  She was an accomplished artist with studios at Bristol Ferry and Brooklyn.  She originally painted landscapes and flowers but turned to working on miniature paintings.  Sophie was involved in arts education.  She would travel to different locations in the Northeast and bring young women artists with her to practice their painting.

Sarah Eddy (1851-1945) was a noted painter and photographer. She used her family fortune to promote good causes.  Humane treatment of animals, arts education and providing a community center (the Social Studio) were among her main causes.  She began her suffrage activities in Providence but made a permanent move to Portsmouth around 1900.  Sarah’s family had connections to national leaders such as Susan B. Anthony.  She often attended national meetings as a delegate.

Mary Ballou (1837-1926) was married to a wealthy jewelry manufacturer from Providence.  She worked in suffrage causes for fifty years on the state level, in Providence and in Newport.  She was one of the founding members of the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association.  She served as a treasurer.  Around 1900 the Ballou’s built a summer home on Bristol Ferry Road and Mary became a bridge between Providence and Portsmouth suffragists.

Emeline Eldredge (1853-1934) was the wife of a Portsmouth farmer.  A close friend of Sarah Eddy, she was the director for the Social Studio, an art center founded by Miss Eddy.  Emeline was active in the Portsmouth Free Public Library Association and was a superintendent of schools in Portsmouth.

Letitia Lawton (1860-1939) was a local Portsmouth wife and mother who was active in her church and helped nurse people who were ill.  She was often a companion to the Mitchel sisters in their travels.

Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) was famous for writing the words to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”  Julia is noted for her abolition work and literary accomplishments.  She spent summers in Portsmouth for over 40 years.  Julia helped found the New England Suffrage Association in 1868  and later the American Women Suffrage Association as well as a statewide Massachusetts Women Suffrage Association.  She edited the Woman’s Journal for 20 years.  Julia was a noted speaker for the suffrage cause.

The newspaper accounts do not mention specific suffrage activities, but they seem to meet frequently.  Perhaps gathering more local women into the fold was the first activity.

*Susan B. Anthony, Editor – History of Woman Suffrage Vol. 4

More information can be found in this blog about the women.

Mary Ballou:  https://portsmouthhistorynotes.com/2019/12/13/mary-ballou-a-rhode-island-suffrage-pioneer/

Sarah Eddy: https://portsmouthhistorynotes.com/2019/11/14/sarah-eddys-suffrage-work/

Cora Mitchel and Sophie Mitchel: https://portsmouthhistorynotes.com/2018/03/25/portsmouth-women-the-mitchels-cora-sophie-floride-and-clara-may-miller/

Emeline Eldredge: https://portsmouthhistorynotes.com/2017/09/08/portsmouth-people-emeline-eldredge-suffrage-agitator/

Julia Ward Howe:https://portsmouthhistorynotes.com/2019/12/17/a-division-among-the-suffragists-julia-ward-howe-and-susan-b-anthony/

What was the Social Studio?

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When I first became aware of Sarah Eddy, I started collecting postcards of the “Social Studio”  which Sarah founded.  Just what was the Social Studio?   As I read the newspaper and magazine accounts from early in the Twentieth Century, it seems the Social Studio had many purposes.   It was a community gathering place (a social center), an arts and crafts school (a studio), a clubhouse for young people, an art exhibit space, an arts and crafts store, and a school for humane education.

The earliest account of the Social Studio was in a Fall River Evening News article in December of 1902.  The article reports that John E. Manchester will be in charge of the building process.  It also says that Miss Eddy has had other work done by Manchester during the last four years.  That helps us date Sarah’s cottage and when she may have come to Portsmouth as around 1898.  This article states that the studio will be for “public uses such as woodwork carving, lectures, stereopticon views, suppers or any object which will benefit those who attend.” The article says that  “It will contain a hall, 22×36, and a kitchen on the first floor, with rooms above, and will be artistic as well as ornamental.”

According to another Fall River Evening News article (2/24/1903), the Social Studio opened less than two months later at the end of February.   The studio is featured as a “spot for people to gather and spend an evening. The Social Studio is fitted with a piano, reading matter, etc… The studio was built under the direction of Miss Sarah J. Eddy and it was through her courtesy that the public was invited to gather at the place on Saturday, and to attend the meetings each Friday evening.”  The activities would soon grow to many more days of the week and throughout the year.

What kind of activities took place at the Social Studio?   Again, the newspaper articles and the postcards help us to understand what went on.  Among the first activities arranged by the Social Studio were boys clubs and girls clubs. The 1906 article in Good Housekeeping lists sixty members in the boys club and thirty five girls in their club.    Many articles tell of plays being performed and there was even an orchestra connected to the Social Studio Boys’ Club.  Handicraft Magazine in 1911 tells of an arts and crafts exhibition and sale.  Lessons were given in various household arts such as wood carving, weaving, and basket work.  Up for sale were Irish crochet lace, intricate metal work (repousse), hand carved pieces including a serving tray and Japanese ideographs (writing). The Social Studio had an artist’s cooperative called “associated workers,” adults who had their work on sale at the studio and they would pay a certain number of cents for each sale.  These workers would leave a sample of the work and the Social Studio would take orders for them.

“The Commons Magazine” lists classes in pyrography (wood burning), drawing, water color painting and raffia.  According to this magazine, the classes were “conducted by competent teachers, a nominal fee being charged for instruction.”  Good Housekeeping Magazine in 1906 adds embroidery and sewing to the list of lessons.  There were many different types of clubs.  The reading club met on Tuesday  afternoon and the social club met on Tuesday evenings.  Among the first clubs organized were those concerned with teaching about the protection of animals.  This topic was particularly dear to Sarah’s heart. Children were taught to know and love the birds and not to disturb nests.  The idea of “Bands of Mercy” came from Sarah Eddy’s 1899 book – “Friends and Helpers.”  Sarah believed that when children learned to respect animals they would learn to respect the rights of people as well.

“Kindness to all living creatures” is one of Sarah’s mottos.  The “Golden Rule” club with smaller children (20 members) gave a portion of their work and time to help others.  The “Estrelles Band of Mercy” have assisted families by donating vegetables, clothes and small amounts of money.

According to The Commons Magazine: “Such a social and educational center would be a great gift and open up wonderful privileges and opportunities in the lives of country boys and girls, who, after the day’s work, might satisfy a legitimate cravings for amusement and society in a more wholesome manner than loafing about the post office or store, retelling petty gossip or engaging in the more dangerous pastime of immature lovemaking.”

Although the Community Christmas Party continued on for many years, most of the activities for children seemed to taper off by the First World War.  The Social Studio continued to be a gathering spot for adults up until the 1930s.  All types of organizations used the Studio and it was frequently used for church gatherings.  Every women’s church group in Portsmouth used the Social Studio for fundraisers and socials and it became a summer chapel for St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.  Sarah Eddy’s close friend Emeline Eldredge was the director of the Social Studio for around twenty years and her death in 1934 may have contributed to the ending of activities.

The Social Studio is still a useful building today. It is a family home and although there have been additions and modifications, it is still recognizable as the gathering place it once was.

Sarah Eddy and Susan B. Anthony: The Artist and Her Subject

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Sarah Eddy’s mother and grandmother left Susan B. Anthony money in their wills to further the cause of woman’s suffrage, but the two ladies had not met until 1885.  Miss Anthony had been able to get away from her work to go to the “Progressive Friends” (a Quaker offshoot) meeting in Pennsylvania.  In her diary she wrote:  “Last evening as I sat on the sofa Miss Eddy put her arms around me and said, ‘I am so glad I love you; I should have felt very sorry if I had not.’ And so should I, for the sake of her dear mother and grandfather, who had so much confidence in me.”

Sarah and Susan went on to New York together and then to visit Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  A friendship was formed that lasted until Susan’s death.  Miss Anthony could not be there when Sarah would visit Rochester for a convention.  Miss Anthony wrote a friend “I am sure you would be glad to entertain her, she is a sweet, lovely little woman; thoroughly sympathizing with everything and everybody that suffers injustice.  I am very sorry that sister Mary and I must be away and can not have the dear girl with us.” *

Larger portrait re-creating 80th Birthday

Susan B. Anthony came to Portsmouth to visit Sarah and sit for a portrait.  In August of 1901 a Rochester newspaper account quotes Miss Anthony saying that after a meeting in Buffalo – “Oh, after that I am going to make a long promised visit at Bristol Ferry, with Mrs. Sarah Eddy,…Mrs. Eddy has been trying to get me to sit for her for my portrait for years, but I have never seen the time when I could stay long enough, but now that I am taking life so easy that I have consented, and she will see what she can do with me as her subject…**

Small portrait now at Bryn Mawr

Miss Anthony would write to her sister about the visit.  Every morning was spent sitting for the two portraits Sarah was painting.  One was a “bust portrait” – the other was a larger image of Susan’s 80th birthday celebration.  This birthday celebration was two years before in Washington, D.C. Eighty children filed pass Miss Anthony to bring her an American Beauty rose.  Sarah used local children as her models.  As a subject, Susan B. Anthony didn’t consider the portrait flattering.  In a letter almost a year later to Sarah, she would write that “There is something about the hollowness of the left cheek that makes me look as if I had had a ball thrown at me and hit me good and hard!  Could you fill it out with a touch of the brush?” ***

Turret Room with 5 windows.

In her letter to her sister Susan wrote: “Every afternoon I have the most refreshing sleep and when I wake the slanting rays of the sun are shining on Narragansett Bay and from all the five windows of my big room is the most glorious view imaginable. We have delightful drives over the old stone bridge that connects us with the mainland, to Tiverton and along the shores of Sconset River, which is really an arm of the ocean, and here we can see the whole length of the island with Newport in its beauty on the coast.  It is ten miles away and we went by train one day, took the famous ocean drive and passed the palaces of the nabobs.  I went in the carriage one afternoon to call on Julia Ward Howe, whose summer home is six miles from here; she was charming and I had an interesting time.” ****

A Rochester newspaper account of the visit reports that Miss Anthony visited the women’s section of Brown University.  She remarked to the women:  I see you girls at present have to peek over the fence at the boys, but the time will come when you will be admitted there on equal terms with them.”  The 200 women students applauded the idea. *****

  • *From “Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, 1880-1887.  Rutgers, 1997.
  • **Rochester Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester NY, 8/11/1901)
  • ***Letter from Susan B. Anthony to Sarah Eddy – June 12, 1903 in the collection of the University of Rochester.
  • ****The Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony, Vol. 3, Ida Husted Harper 1908.
  • *****Rochester Democrat and Chronicle (11/8/1901).