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Emma Abbott the pre-Madonna prima donna: extraordinary everyday lives of women in 19th century America

Image © Sallie Bingham Center for Women's History and Culture, Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University Libraries. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Singing about California while wearing a cupcake bra, running a business, racing yachts around the world, writing and producing a TV show, telling jokes to millions of people, leading a political party, writing Nobel prize-winning fiction, looking for cures, performing surgery … the list of fun, incredible and important work that women do these days goes on and on. Ok, so we don’t all own a cupcake bra like Katy Perry, but we do have the ability to choose a career that we want and for most women work is a part of our everyday lives.

March was Women’s History Month, which I thought was a great opportunity to look back and highlight some inspiring women and the work they did. Everyday Life & Women in America 1800-1920 has a wealth of information relating to the social, cultural and popular aspects of Women’s History in America, which is where I found a fascinating rare book called Woman of the Century. It comprises 1500 short biographies and 1400 portraits which make up a comprehensive encyclopaedia of the lives and achievements of American women in the 19th century.

Image © Sallie Bingham Center for Women's History and Culture, Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University Libraries. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

One of these short biographies tells the story of Emma Abbott, a prima donna, born in 1850 in Chicago to a music teacher father who encouraged her musical talent from a young age. At age 9 she stepped in as prima donna and guitar player at one of her father’s concerts and continued to do so after great success. By 13 she was teaching guitar and by 16 sang in the synagogue in Peoria and joined the Lombard Concert Company of Chicago. They travelled across a few states before disbanding, leaving Emma stranded and penniless, having to start again giving concerts alone. She made her way to New York City but failed to gain recognition there and returned to Chicago. However, it wasn’t long before she was discovered by Clara Louise Kellogg, who gave Emma enough money to go to New York and study with Professor Errani in 1870. It was here that she got her first salaried singing job and her career took off.

Image © Sallie Bingham Center for Women's History and Culture, Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University Libraries. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

She had further musical training in Milan and Paris and appeared in the opera ‘La Traviata’ in London. On her return to America she set up her own opera company and starred as Marguerite, a role that made her famous, in the Park Theatre, Brooklyn. Emma continued to draw large crowds wherever she performed and earned millions of dollars in a very short period of time. Emma’s story is just one of the fascinating glimpses into the lives of American women in the 19th century offered in this rare book.

From just a brief look into this collection I found that by 1880 2.5 million women in the U.S. were working for wages and by 1900 a fifth of all U.S. women were wage earners, mainly working as domestics, on farms, as teachers or in factories. Just 10 years later approximately 8 million women were working outside of the home. While this was still a small number, less than the entire population of New York at the time, it encompassed some incredible firsts for women in America such as the first woman to run a circus, the first Native American female medical doctor and the first American woman to win a gold medal in the modern Olympic Games. This rare book and much more about women and everyday life in America between 1800-1920 can be found in the Everyday Life & Women in America 1800-1920 resource, available now.

For more information, including trial access and price enquiries please contact us at info@amdigital.co.uk.






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