Sunday, October 2, 2016

Jane Sabine at Smith

As you intrepid readers know, I've been researching the family of Wallace Clement Sabine (1868–1919) and Jane Downes Kelly Sabine, (1863–1950) who lived at my address from 1909 to 1950. 

In January, I spent an afternoon in the archives at Smith College in Northampton. I requested materials about Jane and the class of 1888, and they brought me a rolling cart full of file boxes. Inside I found a slim folder on Jane's undergraduate career, with a few photos and some newspaper clippings from the 1938 commencement, when she received an honorary degree. They also brought me a register or a wooden stand, opened to the page with her transcript. 

The file boxes were full of the annual class letters, which were published in little paperbound volumes beginning in 1889. I found letters from Jane in almost every one until the year she died. From them I learned a lot about Jane and her family through the years, but I can't quote any of it without permission because it's still copyrighted until 2020. 

What I can show you are a few photos of Jane from class group photos during her years at Smith, and a few more taken during reunions. It took me a while to recognize her in the sea of her classmates' tiny faces, but once I did, she became familiar and unmistakeable. (All photos are from the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College.)

The class photos were not dated, but this strikes me the earliest photo. She was not one to smile for the camera, as some of her classmates did. She often looks pensive, serious, even a bit grumpy. In this photo she seems wistful. I keep in mind that she had recently lost both of her parents; her father was badly wounded in the Civil War and had been an invalid for much of her life. After she became an orphan, she lived with her grandmother in Providence, Rhode Island.


Here's another. She was a petite woman and her hands seem tiny in those tight kidskin gloves:


I like the photo below, where she is looking directly at the photographer. I see spirit and intelligence in her expression.


Here is her graduation portrait. She was 25 and one of the most academically accomplished and career-minded members of her class. She was close to many classmates, and they stayed in touch and visited each other through their lives. She planned to teach science:


This photo was also used as her engagement portrait in 1900, twelve years later. In the intervening years she taught, traveled, worked as a chaperone in a girls' school, and graduated from Northwestern University's Women's Medical School — during the Chicago World's Fair, where she and her future husband once ran into each other, having met previously while she was doing medical research at Harvard. She left Chicago to do post-graduate work at Johns Hopkins and then settled in Boston in 1895, where she opened a medical office in Back Bay while working at Children's Hospital. (Boston was a welcoming city for women doctors.) She became very involved in the women's suffrage movement for a time but moved on ("surrendered" probably describes it best), saying that Massachusetts would likely be the very last state to give women voting rights.

It was far more common for well-bred women like Jane, a Mayflower descendant, to marry in their teens than to graduate from college and take up a man's profession. Many of her Smith classmates would have returned home after graduation and married soon after, in their early 20s, if they hadn't already dropped out of school to marry a beau. Those who remained single and had to work often became schoolteachers. I imagine that many of her friends had written her off as a spinster for years when she surprised them by marrying at 36. At that age most were already established matrons with half-grown children. 

A Harvard assistant professor of physics, Wallace Sabine was a fellow nerd; their courtship was based around technical discussions of physics, medicine, and new technologies. Besides being brilliant, he was kind, modest, charming, attractive, and five years her junior. His parents adored her and were proud of her accomplishments.

From her student years until she died, Jane wore her long, straight hair in a twisted topknot, never adopting the bobbed hairstyles that became popular in the '20s, when she was a widow in her 50s. She also continued to wear her skirts long, even though they tripped her sometimes and made her fall. 

Jane knew she "never did take a good photograph." I have never seen a wedding portrait of her and Wallace, or any photo of the two of them together. They had passport photos taken when they had to, and they sat separately for studio portraits shortly before he died in 1919.

But here's a detail from a reunion photo, perhaps from 1903. She's on the right, of course. There is a pencil inscription on the back this photo that says, "Choice specimens of '88."


If this is indeed June, 1903, Jane is 39, married to Wallace and enjoying a busy career as an orthopedic surgeon. She is also four or five months pregnant with their first child, Janet. 

I can't help thinking that she, despite her Old New England propriety and her professional gravitas, was something of a badass. In spite of all the gracious and affectionate messages she sent to her classmates across the decades in nearly sixty annual class letters, I look at this photo and imagine she also had "attitude." How else could she succeed in the 1900s as a female surgeon and half of a dual-career couple, that rarest of birds even in Boston at the time?


At the very least I would say that she didn't suffer fools gladly. Would you want to start an argument with this lady? 

The next Smith photos of Jane were taken at her 50th and 60th reunions in 1938 and 1948. I was rather taken aback at this dour portrait of her at her 50th, when she received an honorary degree:


Imagine my delight when she wrote about this photo in her class letter of 1941. She said she never photographed well, but, to "comfort [her] wounded pride" over this photo in particular, she explained that the reason she seems to be "biting nails" is that she had accidentally "seized" her husband's mortarboard instead of her own when she was packing for Northampton. It was "topply" as it balanced on her topknot, she reported. Even with lots of pins, her expression was "due to fear" that her cap looked foolishly awry, disgracing herself and her classmates in the photos. She didn't realize that it was Wallace's cap, which didn't match her robe, until she came home.

I'm even more delighted that she went to the trouble to explain all this three years later to her whole class, in a letter that is supposed to be a summing-up of the previous year. It's also touching to know that she kept Wallace's academic cap with her own for nearly twenty years after he died.

She looks much more relaxed and pleasant in this photo from the 1938 reunion:


In the last photo I have of Jane, at her 60th reunion, she is still recognizable, at 84, as the serious young woman in the first photo, above:


She's wearing a rather weird ensemble for 1948; her classmates were mostly turned out in simpler, tea-length, silk or rayon dresses. Her Manhattan fashion-maven daughter Janet had died two years earlier, leaving her to her own devices, it seems. In earlier class letters, Jane describes Janet in such a way that she seems to have played the role of fashion police for her mother, for redecorating the house and surely for her wardrobe as well. I think this is a velvety, lace-trimmed evening coat worn over a black dress with a lace neckline.

By 1948, Jane had survived losing her husband and both daughters, leaving only a granddaughter, also named Janet, as her next of kin. She reported with pride that Janet was a Smith undergrad at the time of this reunion. In her '48 class letter, she also mentions her rheumatic knee, which kept her from marching in the reunion procession and accounts for the cane. Over the years, she had taken some bad tumbles down the stairs of the house where I now live. 

In this photo I can see that she's wearing what appears to be a wedding band on each hand. The one on her right hand must be Wallace's; he had died 29 years earlier. Everyone in her family was cremated and interred at Mount Auburn Cemetery, so his ring would not have been buried with him.

In her final, 1949 class letter, published a few months before she died, she reported that her knee was better, allowing her some "promenading," but only around the block. She was afraid to cross the street lest she fall in avoiding an "unexpected recklessly driven automobile." (Some things in Back Bay haven't changed.) When I leave our house, which was hers for so long, I often think of her preceding me on the same brick sidewalks. Her life and times were so different, but it has been strangely easy to discover facets of her, and to come to know her a little.

For more about the Sabine family, click the "Sabines" label in the right column.

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