The Nanny Diaries 19th Century Style

black nannies

One of my best friends was  a nanny. Minding the children was the easy part. Living in the family’s basement (though it was a nice basement) with no car, no legal rights (she over stayed her visa) and no windows was kind of bleak. Thank God she had me to take her drinking in Hoboken every Friday night. I remember how attached the children got to her and how upset they were when she left. My friend always grew to resent the parents of these children–annoyed that they had so little time for their own kids.8679708b43595b144c4a073d9f95e458 She worked in a very prosperous part of New Jersey and the parents felt my friend was lucky to have the opportunity to mingle with  the cultural elite. I enjoyed it, but I could leave at any time.

I wonder what these women thought. Some of them may have been slaves but others definitely were hired on. Some photos are from the US, but some were taken in other parts of the world. Obviously no one thought there was anything shameful about having a nanny or a nurse as they were usually called in the 19th century. If you look carefully at the first picture it appears that this nanny (with the nicest eyes I’ve seen in a long time) was married. Men sometimes make you smile like she does–or maybe her employers loved her and she loved them.

Playing horsey in Brazil.

Playing horsey in Brazil.

Now sometimes when parenting or minding children we find ourselves in weird positions we wouldn’t like to share with the world but seem fun at the time. If this was just a snapshot it might not seem so odd but . . .

A relative of mine adopted a Korean child and pretty much treated her like a house servant. I wonder how my relatives rationalized it. The girl had a brief rebellion, took a job at a fast food joint and if I remember correctly started dating bad boys for a while. What blurred lines there are in life!

My mother’s friend had a 98-year-old mother who needed home care assistance (the old lady disagreed and would often get up extra early to do her own bath and fix her hair before the lady from Trinidad arrived. The helper soon became a dear friend to everyone in the family and remains so long after the feisty old woman’s death.

What do we make of imaginary boundaries? What should we make of color boundaries? If we saw white nannies in these pictures would we think it quaint? Home health care aides do the work none of us want to do, but work that is so very important to the poor person too sick or weak to do for themselves.5140655625_2604153e48

I love the girl in this picture. She doesn’t seem to be enjoying her job. She looks like a very modern teenager. She’s probably already annoyed with changing diapers. The mother’s body language almost suggests a tug of war for baby though the teenager could care less.

My mother who pretty much raised herself often wondered why people had children if they didn’t want to raise them. My grandmother liked men and sex, but I’m not so sure she loved the responsibilities of child-rearing. I wonder if these women sometimes felt as my friend did–a mix of sadness and possessiveness towards the children being raised by hired help.


Dying For A Lost Cause–Is It Worth It?

Fun times in the slammer.

Fun times in the slammer.

Rose O’Neal Greenhow‘s father was murdered at random by an unknown assailant. That’s enough of a story for most lives, but there’s more. This pretty little lady became a famous Confederate spy credited by Jeff Davis for the win at the First Battle of Bull Run.

Before the war she married well and moved to Washington, DC becoming instantly popular with the political crowd. Unfortunately her husband was killed in an accident, after which Rose determined to support the South in any way she could. Four of her eight children actually made it out of toddler-hood with their lives. The youngest is pictured above visiting her mother in prison after being caught as a spy.

After getting out Rose ran the blockade, sailing to Europe in search of support for the Confederate cause. The British blockade runner carrying her back to the states ran aground after being pursued by a Union gunboat. Rose, afraid of getting caught,  jumped into a rowboat, but a wave capsized it and she drowned, weighed down by $2000 worth of gold for the Confederate cause sewn into her underclothes and hung around her neck.

Battle of the British Photography Babes


In this corner the ugly duckling of her family with the nickname “Talent.” Julia Cameron was given her first camera in her 40’s. The rest is history. “I longed to arrest all the beauty that came before me and at length the longing has been satisfied.” Julia Cameron


For more info about this talented artist:


And in this corner Lady Clementina Hawarden (it is suggested that her immune system was weakened by constant contact with the photographic chemicals causing her death).

Francesca Spickernell, photography specialist at Bonhams, said: “It was pioneering for a woman to be taking photos like this at this point in the 19th century. Her output was prolific and she won awards for her work. She struck out into areas and depicted moods unknown to the art photographers of her age.”

For more info about this talented artist:


And who wins the prize? Anyone willing to be judge?

Where Does Beauty Get You?


Thankful Crenshaw

I’ve been thinking lately of my female characters and how little I actually understand about them. This isn’t a bad thing because it keeps me curious, but inevitably I get dazzled by their beauty or annoyed by their tendency towards bitchiness. (I’m glad that this word is no longer a cuss because if you’ve ever seen hens happily hanging out together suddenly gang up and peck a seemingly innocent friend you know female bitches aren’t just human).

Because my grandmother was such a bitch and also didn’t protect my mother and her sisters from their stepfather, my mother instilled in me a sense that one should never trust a friendly woman with a smile–at least not too much. It’s led to a certain wary, superficiality in my friendships and possibly in the treatment of my female characters.

Katherine Weldon’s only friend, Margaret, in The House On Tenafly Road is a full-on bitch who protects her friend by domination and  the occasional pointed stab of “helpful” advice. Book two brings Margaret’s daughter, Thankful Crenshaw, into view and with her comes a different sort of tension. Thankful is the beautiful twin. I found these pictures at a garage sale a few weeks back. Don’t the two young women look like sisters? They are now officially Thankful and her sister Meg. Meg is dowdy and bitter and hardly deserves notice–or that’s how the family sees her. I know her fate and there’s no transformation.

Yet Thankful troubles one and all. Of course she’s expected to marry well. With her raven curls, innate intelligence and optimistic air her ascent is assured. Even William Weldon who loves her knows this and steers clear of her. Poor Thankful believes the hype. When she looks in the mirror it is incomprehensible to her that someone so physically stunning would have anything but an easy path to satisfaction in all things. When William goes West she steals money from her father to follow only to realize that this beauty she carries as a talisman doesn’t free her. It had never occurred to her that she wanted freedom.

A traveling suffragist lectures Thankful, warning her that even with beauty, the world is a man’s one, but Thankful refuses to believe . . . until much later. Her sister Meg, the dumpy one, remains a quiet mystery, but Thankful begins to demand a new world, a new life and sometimes demanding things when people really only value your beauty doesn’t go very well. Thankful’s fate is still unknown, but even I have a difficult time imagining someone so pretty coming to ruin.


Meg Crenshaw