"Open Doors. I"
November 27, 1869
Hearth and Home

Dublin Core


"Open Doors. I"
November 27, 1869
Hearth and Home


”Open Doors. I”

“I am not educated, and therefore cannot teach; and I am no seamstress. Yet I must live. Is there no way for me out of starvation and idleness? Is there no door open for me by that of the kitchen, and that other which I cannot name?”

            The letter was signed Sarah Johns. It was illy spelled and badly written; but it seemed to me full of straightforward sense and genuine feeling. The pathos of it might have grown stale to us well-fed people, from its frequent iteration nowadays; but it wrung the heart of Sarah Johns no less for that.

            What could I say to her? Some of my friends would tell her that woman’s suffrage, when it came, would right all this. But meanwhile, as she pertinently remarked, she must live. The end of my perplexity was that I took her letter in hand, and went out to try to find what she called an open door for her.  Surely, that bright fall morning in the great, busy city of Penn, where charity has so long been at work in helping men, some way has been devised for women to help themselves.

            Now, I wish in a few words to give the result of that morning’s walk for the benefit of those women among us who want an immediate practical way of earning a decent livelihood. One fact, no doubt, is worth more to them than a myriad theories.

            I stopped first at the door of a plain dwelling-house  in one of the quiet side-streets, only distinguished from tis neighbors by the mouth of a speaking-trumpet at the door, and a black-lettered porcelain strip on the shutter:

“Nurses’ Home.”

            At that, one could not but remember Mrs. Gamp,[1] who “lodged next door to the mutton-pie shop, and directly opposite to the original cats’-meat warehouse,” and her chamber, where bulging bandboxes, the umbrella, and pot of gin tea hung about the bed like angels guarding her in her sleep. Her ghost haunted me into the neat little parlor into which I was shown. Shade of Betsey Prig![2]what new order of things is here! I had only time to glance at the cases filled with readable, healthful books, the great ledger on the table, with pen and ink ready, and the two venerable pictured faces on the wall, that gave a kindly, earnest meaning to the room, when a step was heard outside. What could Quaker philanthropy do to metamorphose the immortal Sairey? There entered a delicate little Quaker lady, with a fresh, sweet face and pleasant, chirrupy voice, who sat down on the sofa opposite. She was the matron? Yes; she was ready to answer all my questions.

            What could Sarah Johns, an uneducated but intelligent woman, unacquainted with the business of a nurse, do to obtain entrance to the Home?

            Nothing more was needed than to present herself with satisfactory references as to good character. These would be laid before the Board of Managers. She would then be admitted as a pupil. No fee was required. Her board was furnished at three dollars per week—good, wholesome fare, and plenty of it. She was expected, however, in addition to this, during her period of tutelage, to assist with the chamber and lighter work of the house. Beside a course of study, the instruction consisted of fifteen lectures, delivered by a professor of obstetrics, in a room of the Home, where with the aid of manikins, the nurses were thoroughly practised in the routine of their work, and fitted to take the physician’s place in case of his absence. After these lectures, Sarah would be given six cases of two weeks each, under the supervision of the physicians attached to the Home. These would be charity cases, under the supervision of the physician and nurses were furnished gratuitously to the patient—the nurse, however, being paid by the Home. After this, six other patients of the class who were able to pay the nurse small wages—say three dollars per week. After these twelve cases, she would receive her diploma, and her name would be entered on the regular corps. Her board thereafter, when out of work, would be furnished for five dollars per week, with an addition of fifty cents weekly regular deposit for “Home privileges”—that is, a room kept for her, and her place on the corps.

            “What salary did nurses receive?”

            Well, that varied; from three to fifteen dollars per week—the higher prices in cases of contagious fevers and the like. The demand for the nurses of the Home is far greater than the supply; they are sent from the neighboring cities, Baltimore, New York—indeed, there are few parts of the country to which they have not gone.

            The institution had been in operation for about twenty years. Dr. Joseph Warrington (with a glance at a benign old face above me) founded it, in connection with the Philadelphia Dispensary. It was almost self supporting now—about three fourths so.

            “How many charity patients had received the services of physician and nurse?”

            She turned to her book: “Seven thousand six hundred and eighty-eight.”

            “The nurses remained in the Home generally, after receiving their diplomas?”

            She smiled, “I think they find it pleasant. Some of them have been with us for sixteen years.”

            My only object to-day was to discover what chances there were here for Sarah Johns and her class, and my business was ended; but I could not but remember some pleasant stories I had heard of these old skilled nurses; how there solitary rooms here were made bright and homelike for life by grateful patients; how some of them became fixed adjuncts, as it were of, of certain families; tried and sure friends from one generation to another, about whom hung the tenderest associations of the grave or the cradle. I knew women of culture who had chosen this work, and found in it not only a liberal support, but constant exacting exercise for all their knowledge, tact, and refinement.

            I bade the cheerful old lady good morning, hoping that my friend Sarah might choose this open door. I don’t know where could be found more womanly work for a woman than that which lies beyond it, nor any which could give a true servant of our Master better chances to be helpful to his little ones. And then what a wide, bright, heartsome side the picture has! Only think of the long succession of shaded, pleasant rooms, the foolish, happy fancies of young mothers, the blessed little babies to be hushed and handled! There is an appetizing fragrance in the smell of catnip and gauze flannel which no man appreciate. If it does not tempt Sarah Johns into this pleasantest of wisdom’s ways, she does not deserve the name of woman.

            I could find nothing of Sairey Gamp as I came out. Not even her ghost, that has frightened many a woman from a nurse’s work; not even the scent of her pipe and gin, melancholy reminders that she had been there. In fact, I was force to the conclusion that, so far as this house was concerned, she had gone to join the shade of her friend, Mrs. Harris,[3] “and there was no sidge a person.”

[1] Sairah/Sairey Gamp is an untrained and largely incompetent nurse-midwife in Charles Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44)

[2] Betsy Prig is another nurse figure in Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit who works alongside Sairey Gamp.

[3] Mrs. Harris is a friend of Sairey Gamp in Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit that Gamp often refers to, although most of the other characters do not believe she actually exists.


Emily Dolan
Yale University



Emily Dolan Yale University, “"Open Doors. I"November 27, 1869Hearth and Home,” Rebecca Harding Davis: Complete Works, accessed August 5, 2020, http://rebeccahardingdaviscompleteworks.com/items/show/50.

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