"Ingenuity in Earning a Living"
December 27, 1902
Congregationalist and Christian World

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"Ingenuity in Earning a Living"
December 27, 1902
Congregationalist and Christian World


Ingenuity in Earning a Living

CURIOUS dramatic stories are told of some of the women in this country who were forced to go out into the market place to earn their living and who made of the venture a notable success. One or two of these cases, it seems to me, give a useful hint to other women who must work for their living but who have not yet decided what trade or business to undertake. The majority live in small villages or farms and are outside of the great marts of trade. They have not the modern collegiate training nor any especial talent nor accomplishment which will bring in dollars and cents. What are they to do?

The most noteworthy instance which I know of the success of a woman in wresting a livelihood out of the barest conditions of country life is the following:

Mrs. S--, twenty years ago, was the wife of a sea captain who commanded a vessel running from Philadelphia to an English port. She lived in a small house among the New Hampshire hills, with a couple of barren grass-grown acres about it. She was a cripple, unable to take a step alone, but was otherwise healthy and strong, and kept a vigorous watch over her household as she was pushed about her little domain in a Bath chair. Her husband's salary was not large and barely sufficed to supply her actual needs. But there were some poor kinsfolk that she longed to help and there was always in the background the threatening presence of that grim old age waiting for her and the kindly old captain. But there was no comfortable little hoard stored away with which to hold him back. What could she do?

Every day she looked wistfully at the two stony fields surrounding the house. Neither flower nor herb would grow in them, not even a single trumpet vine to feed the bees if she should buy a hive. There were only grass and gravel enough on the waste to keep two matronly old hens alive. How they strutted to and fro, noisy and consequential! One day as Mrs. S-- looked at them, she suddenly leaned forward eagerly and stopped, smiling, while she watched them and their brood. Then she left the window, consulted a book, a pamphlet or two, and wrote a letter.

A week later one of the setting Bantam hen-mothers, going back to her nest after a five-minutes' dissipated run about the field, rustled anxiously as she settled down on her eggs. Were they chilled? Had they shrunken in size? She scrambled off the nest again and eyed them with sharp suspicion while Mrs. S-- in her Bath chair on the other side of the field scarcely drew her breath in her agony of suspense. If Biddy should throw up the job! The poor lady had no more ten dollars to spend on a clutch of eggs of a famous breed. But after a few moments of misery she heard the mother Bantam's worried cluck as she snuggled down again in the nest. That brood were late in coming out and there was something mysterious in their build and bearing which vexed the maternal hen mind, but it gave solid comfort to Mrs. S. The foundation stone of her fortune was laid.

But the fortune itself was long in building. It requires great patience and accurate knowledge and long untiring care to succeed in any work, even in raising fancy poultry. She persevered, studying by night and working by day, until she had a stock of several kinds of the best breeds. Then she inserted a brief advertisement in a New York paper, giving the names of the breeds whose eggs she was prepared to supply to customers. A few customers came, her eggs were fresh and carefully packed by her own hands.

At first she managed the yards with the help of but one lad; she was wheeled around the grounds all day long and knew every hen by sight and name. As her sales increased she employed a large force of assistants and bought all of the new appliances used in her business. But she gave the same personal care to it, even to the packing of every egg. "It is the master's eye that brings luck and trade," says the old Dutch proverb.

Mrs. S--'s trade increased with every year and her eye was watchful until it closed in death. Her venture was absolutely successful. She won comfort and even luxury for herself and her husband and she filled the last years of her life with a new, healthy interest and with ideas outside of the narrow village gossip. It is certain too that these live interests and the outdoor life which she led lengthened her later years.

A curious story, which is absolutely true, was told to me of the origin of a certain liquid pepper sauce which was brought into public notice a year or two ago by its use at West Point in the scandalous hazing frolics there.[1]

In the Attakapas district of Louisiana is a large estuary called Vermilion Bay which opens into the Mexican Gulf. In it lie five green wooded islands, each of which, by the way, has its strange romantic history. One of them was for years the secret haunt of the pirate Lafitte.[2] The graves of the buccaneer and four of his followers, looking like brick boxes, can still be seen in the swamp, but they have been broken open by modern savages more brutal than themselves in search of their treasure. The farthest outlying island, "La derniere isle," was the scene many years ago of a tragedy so terrible that it is still spoken of with bated breath throughout the South.[3] A tidal wave one night swept over it, washing away great hotels filled with guests, and happy homes and their sleeping inmates.

The largest island, in which were salt springs known in the days of Bienville, was, before the Civil War, part of the great estate of Judge A-- of New Orleans. The A-- family often resorted to this island for the fishing or gunning. There was a plantation house on it and quarters for a few slaves.

Now, on the island, there grew a little wild pepper bush unknown elsewhere, and the judge, who was a skillful amateur chemist and a keen epicure, discovered a method of distilling the juice of these fiery pods into a sauce. He presently fell into the habit of making every summer a half dozen bottles of this wonderful decoction, which were sent as priceless gifts to certain of his friends, old gourmets like himself.

Then came the war, in which the A--'s took an active part. The Confederacy, shut out from the Kenhawa Salines, was in urgent need of salt. A son of Judge A-- began to work the springs on the island, and discovered the great dry salt caves which now rival those of Poland.

The war was over. The judge died, having lost slaves, office and fortune with the cause. His daughter, with her little family, went back to the island, which was the only remnant of their estate left to them, and took shelter in the old plantation house with her brother, who, without men or money, was bravely trying to work the salt mines.

In that terrible year, tens of thousands of black-robed women in both the South and North stood with outstretched empty hands looking to the right and the left to find work to keep their little ones from starving. The ordinary industries of the nation were shattered, the prices of the necessities of life were enormous, the men who had loved and worked for them were rotting in countless unmarked graves, their children were crying out for food. That was the real meaning of peace at first. These children must have food and their mothers earn it. But how? They could find no work and if they found it they never had been trained to do it.

I know of no more tragic figures in history than those of the American women in that terrible empty first year of peace. If the country rose quickly to prosperity, it was due to their endurance and their energy. It needed less courage and strength to march over the Southern hills for a year, to fight a battle and be shot and lie dead at Manassas or Fredericksburg, than to stagger on with a broken heart for years, carrying the weight of hungry children.

But to come back to our island and to the woman who for the first time in her life was fighting poverty there. Most of her father's old cronies were dead. One, however, remained, a man of high position in New Orleans. It occurred to her one day that it would surprise and please him if she should send a bottle of the red sauce to him on his birthday, as her father always had done. She had learned the secret of distillation from Judge A--. The pepper bushes had been killed by the workmen at the salt mines. She found one still living, however, gathered the pods, made the sauce and sent it to her old friend.

Now it so happened, or rather God so willed it, that the general had a dinner party that night, and that one of his guests was a New York man with a keen palate for a new taste. The sauce was produced and tested, and the general told his Northern guest the history of the judge and his daughter who was left penniless.

"Penniless!" cried the excited epicure. "If she can make this sauce and put it on the market her fortune is assured!"

The story is told. Given an energetic woman, with a single pepper bush and a secret which would turn every seed into gold and the dullest reader can spell out the conclusion. It required hard work and constant personal care for years, but they were given and success and fortune came. We all know the tiny bottles with their trade mark which are found now on almost every table in the United States. Be sure that a pepper bush with golden fruit is growing somewhere for every woman who wants work if she knows how to find and use it.

A large number of women in the South who had a peculiar skill in making some kind of pastry or confection went into their kitchens, made their cake or jam or pickle and put it on the market. As long as they gave the work their own personal care success invariably came to them. One Southern woman who manufactures pickles and a young girl in the North who makes jellies have amassed large fortunes by their work.

I know a widow in New York who bred Shetland ponies for the market with great success, and a young girl who earned a good income from her Persian cats. More than one Kentucky woman, left a widow, carried on large stock-raising farms with knowledge and skill. Why do I recite these odd bits of gossip? What do they mean? This: A large minority of the women o this country are forced now to earn their own living. Every craft, trade and profession is open to them. They ask anxiously which will be the most profitable for them to follow.

These stories hint that the best work for any woman is that which she understands best--which lies nearest to her, no matter how ignoble or mean it may be in itself. These lucky widows and girls might have taken to authorship or painting. But they did not understand literature or art, and they did understand ponies and pickles--hence their success.

What does the color of your horse matter if you know how to ride it with dignity and if it carries you through the battle?


1. Refers to the West Point hazing scandal of 1898-1901, which involved revelations that young cadet, Oscar Booze, had been force-fed hot sauce by superiors and peers.

2. Jean Lafitte (1780-1823); French-American pirate and privateer in the Gulf of Mexico in the early nineteenth century.

3. The 1856 Last Island hurricane (a.k.a. the Great Storm of 1856) was one of the deadliest tropical cyclones on record in Louisiana, resulting in at least 200 fatalities.


Dan Graham
University of Connecticut


Dan Graham University of Connecticut, “"Ingenuity in Earning a Living"December 27, 1902Congregationalist and Christian World,” Rebecca Harding Davis: Complete Works, accessed June 5, 2020, http://rebeccahardingdaviscompleteworks.com/items/show/40.

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