Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
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ElizaBTweetin: March 18-25, 1872: Friends and Neighbors

Posted on March 25, 2013

During the week of March 18-25, 1872, Eliza B. Wheaton’s diary entries mention eighteen individuals, including neighbors, family members, Seminary teachers and Trustees. She no doubt interacted with many more during the Seminary’s end-of-term public examination, a trip to Boston, and Sunday morning church services.  Most of these people will reappear in later diary (and blog) entries.

Through Eliza’s diaries, we learn details about Norton locals that might otherwise be lost to history. Henry Hunt, Mr. Crane and Mr. Hagerty (possibly Charles, b. 1821), work on her kitchen, spackling and painting.  Mrs. Benjamin Briggs does heavy cleaning, sometimes assisted by her husband, and later their child “Issy”.  Seamstress Mrs. Mabel Babbit later joins Mrs. Wheaton’s inner circle, indicating upward social mobility in a small town.

One neighbor, George Wheaton Wild (1828-?), was also a family member. Cousin of Laban Morey Wheaton, and elder brother of the young man adopted by Eliza and Laban Morey, George served as business agent and secretary to Laban Morey Wheaton, and after the latter’s death, to Eliza.  The Wild family lived in the house just to the East of the Wheaton’s, and the families were very close.  The official name of this E. Main Street house, now faculty/staff housing, remains the Wild House.

Eliza’s favorite family members also appear.  Younger brother Samuel Austin Chapin, for whom Chapin Hall is named, wrote from California.  Her sister Mary, and favorite niece Mary Abbie Chapin, Wheaton Class of 1873, joined her on an expedition to Boston to shop and hire a farmhand.

Among Eliza’s closest friends were Seminary teachers Maria Mellus and Ann E. Carter.  They were the first unmarried female teachers allowed to live outside the Seminary Boarding House, purchasing a home east of Seminary Hall, later called Carter Cottage.  Frequent visits were exchanged between the two houses, and the women spent many hours together.

While it is dangerous to interpret relationships in the past from limited primary resources, it appears from careful reading of the observations of close friends that Mellus and Carter may have enjoyed what scholar Elizabeth Edwards has called a “homoerotic friendship”.  Wheaton alumna Caroline Stickney Creevey wrote of her teachers,

Miss Mellus, teacher of drawing, and Miss Carter, Miss Larcom's successor [in literature], loved each other with that soul devotion which unmarried women sometimes feel for one another. After a time, they lived in a cottage of their own, and came to their classes from outside.  (Caroline A. Stickney Creevey, A Daughter of the Puritans: an Autobiography, 1916, p. 229)

Everyone who knew them recognized the remarkable friendship between Mellus and Carter.  Lucy Larcom spoke of their companionship at Miss Carter’s memorial service in 1882,

The perfect harmony between her and the sister teacher, with whose her daily life was interwoven, made the place a true home.  One learned there that happy family and social relations could be established by women whose lives might otherwise have been very solitary, and that the secret of the home-happiness found under that roof lay in its hospitality, in its enlarging itself to shelter and help other lives. (In Memoriam: Ann E. Carter, died March 4, 1882, p. 19.)

For those interested in a scholarly view of the emotional bonds between teachers at women’s colleges, I recommend Elizabeth Edwards’ article, “Homoerotic friendship and college principals, 1880-1960”, published in Women’s History Review, 1995 (4:2).  Written about principals of British women’s schools, nevertheless the ideas may well relate to Misses Mellus and Carter.

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