If These Walls Could Talk

Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum. Photo: JDickson

 Historic figures are sometimes connected with a place.  Lincoln and Illinois.  King and Atlanta.  Jefferson and Virginia.  Capone and Chicago.

Susan B. Anthony’s connection is probably upstate New York, especially as she is tied to the Seneca Falls Woman’s Rights Convention, held in 1848.  It was in Adams, Massachusetts where she was born and where her birthplace home is now a small museum.

Anthony lived there until she was 6.   The house, built by her father, is now a small museum and has been almost entirely restored, with attempts to make it as authentic to the 1820s period as possible.   Wide floor boards; uneven lath and plaster walls.  Two rectangular-shaped, small rooms lay adjacent to each side of a stairway up to a second floor with the same pattern of four rooms and a center hallway.  Sounds a lot like a house my wife and I own, not 20 miles away, built a few years later.       

Walking through Anthony’s birthplace home, visitors must wonder what it was inside those walls that contributed to young Susan developing into a committed, unbending woman’s rights, temperance and abolitionist reformer.  Reformer may be too mild, as her newspaper was called “The Revolution.”  She even had two brothers who joined anti-slavery crusades prior to the Civil War, traveling to Kansas to join John Brown in his violent activities opposing the expansion of slavery there. 

Perhaps, it was her father’s Quaker pacifist, temperance beliefs.  One can imagine growing up with family conversations surrounding her father’s decision to marry Lucy Read, a Baptist, and even referring to the injustice of having to apologize for marrying outside the Quaker meeting.   (Betsy Ross, 50 years earlier and hundreds of miles further south, saw her sisters and experienced the shame herself as Quakers marrying outside the Meeting.) 

 Further, it is easy to see a possible impact coming from living with as many as a dozen young women who worked at her father’s mill, across the road.  Imagine conversations the child Anthony might have had with or overheard from these young role models and mentors, focused on exhausting work, sharing their wages with families, looking ahead to lives as second-class citizens.  Perhaps it was Anthony’s own experiences helping her mother cope with the feeding and care of all these boarders that contributed to her legendary organizing skills.  It could have shaped her desire to get an education to avoid that kind of work, only to have a teacher deny her the opportunity to learn.

Still one more family anecdote had Anthony’s father selling liquor in the small store located in the front room of his house.   Was his decision to abandon the sale of alcohol from his home at the insistence of his fellow Quakers behind Anthony’s embracing the temperance movement as one of three “causes” to which she devoted her life? 

Anthony’s birthplace home is a humble house, compared to the grand-er restored mansions in Berkshire County which some of the country’s wealthiest built as summer escapes and now serve as shrines to the Gilded Age.  But, her home serves another, perhaps more important, purpose besides trying to figure out her early influences.  This home tells more closely the story of most residents eking out a living in the early 1800s in New England.

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