Sometimes an author doesn't have to choose a subject; sometimes the subject chooses the author. This was the case for author and historian Greta Nettleton who has worked as professional writer, editor, and researcher for clients ranging from the World Bank to Microsoft.
Like other families, Nettleton's family saved items in an attic for years and then at some point, it was time to pass on the collection to the next generation. That was how Nettleton came to receive a trunk filled with the diaries, scrapbooks, miscellaneous articles, and keepsakes belonging to her great-grandmother, Cora Keck (1865-1921).
As Nettleton noted in her email to me: "While researching her story, I hit the jackpot; I rediscovered the forgotten career of her mother, Mrs. Dr. Rebecca J. Keck (1838-1904) from Davenport, Iowa, who was second only to Lydia Pinkham as one of 19th century America's most successful self-make female patent medicine sellers." (Mrs. Dr. was the terminology used at this time to distinguish that the woman in the ad or an article was a woman.)
Readers hit the jackpot, too, as Greta Nettleton provides much more than a tale about her family; she provides a fascinating snapshot of life for women of the late 19th century in her new book, The Quack's Daughter: A True Story about the Private Life of a Victorian College Girl.
Focus Is on Cora's College Life
As the book title explains, the focus of this book is about Cora Keck, who is sent to Vassar as a way to redeem her family's reputation.
Like Lydia Pinkham, Rebecca Keck turned to healing and the prescribing of patent medicines because she needed to provide for her family. (Cora's father lives with the family but Mrs. Dr. Keck supports the family.) Though Mrs. Dr. Keck is successful enough that she travels to many cities to see patients and sell product, she encounters resistance from physicians who were trained at medical schools, and she spends a fair amount of time in legal battles over her right to practice medicine. These issues pigeonhole the family as "less than" in Danvenport, so Cora and her siblings and parents are looked down upon by others in town.
In the 1880s, Vassar College was facing severe financial difficulties and was seeking income by growing the student body. The college started enrolling "prep" students who might one day qualify for the rigorous college program, and the college opened its doors to special students in music and art. Cora was a very good pianist, and her talent -- and her mother's ability to pay tuition -- bring her to Vassar as a music student.
In offering Cora a socially acceptable escape from Davenport, Iowa, the family must have hoped that some of the luster of Cora's accomplishment in being accepted at Vassar would reflect well on them.
The Collection in the Trunk
Cora was a person who saved things, and Nettleton clearly has a wealth of materials to draw from, ranging from diary entries to articles Cora clipped about friends and family; she also saved articles that reflected the alumnae vs. board battles about saving the college.
Cora's scrapbooks are also rich with tantalizing items that send Nettleton off in search of stories: Cora preserved items ranging an unsmoked cigarette saved from a memorable evening socializing with "dudes" (the slang of the day for well-to-do young men) to notes left on her college door.
Because local newspapers often printed gossipy tidbits about the comings and goings of some of the townspeople, Nettleton perseveres and finds additional detail about Cora's visits to friends and relatives.
Tells a Complete Story
As a result of Nettleton's dogged research, she tells a very complete and fascinating story of the era. Readers come away with information on what was happening at Vassar during the time Cora was there, what New York City would have been like when Cora goes home with her good friend Kitty Rogers for various weekends and vacations. She also tracks down the backgrounds and of friends and relatives and provides an amazingly complete picture of Cora's life and the world of Cora's day.
Among the surprises that Nettleton notes was how Cora's activities very much reflected what we would consider normal adolescent behavior. While the upper crust young women may have had a more constrained lifestyle, Cora and her friends defy the Victorian stereotype. Cora frequently creates excuses for getting into New York City, assuring administrators that she has parental permission to travel in to see a doctor. There are also a few instances when Cora and friends crawled out a dorm window after curfew in order to have a good time.
In the book, Nettleton writes that before starting the book, she anticipated that Mrs. Dr. Keck would be portrayed as a villain (a quack), but as Cora's story continues, Nettleton comes to respect Cora's mother who seems to practice good-sense medicine. When Cora's daughter is very ill and treatment by Elkhart physicians seems to make her worse, Mrs. Dr. Keck uses common sense (small bland meals, etc.) and very mild medicines, and the daughter improves. Medical professionals in that day had no antibiotics or even aspirin so they used medications that were opium-based or often had a high mercury content; none of these were healing.
Women's Lives Were Very Limited
Cora's story illustrates how women then -- and for many years after -- were in a terrible bind. If they got an education there were few acceptable ways to use it. Nettleton shows the battle for parity at several levels.
The Vassar alumnae during this time are fighting to gain representation on the board; they see that the all-male board of trustees is failing the institution, and they want access. (The first female board members were seated in 1888.)
Cora excelled in music, but it was not socially acceptable for a woman to perform. When Cora returns to Davenport having failed to snag a husband, there are few options open to her because of the low-esteem in which her family is held.
Cora's mother is highly successful at what she does but is looked down upon by the community. Regardless of skill or ability, a woman could not make progress unless she achieved social acceptance/success first.
Cora does eventually marry well. She elopes to marry a retired widower who came from a good social standing in Elkhart, Ind. When Cora moves to Elkhart, she is able to participate meaningfully in society by establishing a St. Cecelia Society, dedicated to encouraging musical performance and study. For Cora's era, this was a fitting use of her love and ability in music.
Nettleton is now at work on a book about Mrs. Dr. Rebecca J. Keck (1838-1904). The Quack's Daughter: A True Story about the Private Life of a Victorian College Girl is a wonderful addition to the story of college-age women in the late 19th century, and undoubtedly, this next book will be a great contribution to what we know about women entrepreneurs of this time.
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