*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.
If you live in Evansville, and/or are interested in social justice issues, then you’ve probably heard of the Albion Fellows Bacon Center. According to its website, it’s “a non-profit organization whose mission is to prevent domestic and sexual violence and to empower victims through advocacy, education support services and collaborative partnerships. The center provides services to victims of abuse (emotional, physical, sexual, and financial) in 11 counties in southern Indiana.” So . who is Albion Fellows Bacon (of AFB), and why was this center named for her?
AFB (as I will refer to her throughout this blog) was born in Evansville in 1865. Her family came to Evansville in 1862 when her father, Albion Fellows, was appointed as pastor to Locust Street Methodist Episcopal Church. He was involved with the construction of what is today Trinity United Methodist Church, which was completed in 1866. He would have been Trinity’s pastor had he not died of pneumonia in March 1865 at the age of 38. AFB was born several weeks after his death. Her mother, Mary Erskine Fellows, was from a family that settled in McCutchanville in 1820. Mary had to help raise her siblings after her mother died, and as a result, her education was somewhat sketchy. Mary wanted more, and in 1852, she and 3 of her siblings moved to Greencastle, Indiana to attend school. The boys went to college, the girls attended the Ladies Seminary. While there, she met her future husband.
Following her husband’s death and the birth of her daughter, Mary moved the family back to McCutchanville to be near her family. For the next 16 years the family seemed to move between McCutchanville and Evansville, sometimes living in one town, sometimes the other. At this time, McCutchanville was just a rural settlement, with no streets or stores. AFB loved this rustic life, close to nature, surrounded by family. This, church, and school formed the pillars of her life. Learning and books were greatly valued (both AFB and her sister, Annie Fellows Johnston, became published authors). Later, when she became involved with housing reform, AFB would attribute her time in the country with enabling her to recognize the ugliness of overcrowding instead of being inured to it. She also credited her experiences with equal rights on the playground with giving her “giving her courage to meet men upon a broader field” (Bacon, pgs. 5-6).
In 1881, the family moved back to Evansville. The oldest daughter, Lura, had married prominent businessman George P. Heilman, and the family lived with them. Annie taught school for 3 years, AFB took art lessons and attended Evansville High School. In 1883 she was the salutatorian of her high school graduating class, one of 40 students.
Like her mother, AFB wanted to pursue her education, but again, as in her mother’s situation, her family could not afford to send her. She took a job as a court stenographer and secretary to her great uncle, Judge Asa Igleheart, eventually rooming with his family. For a shy and diffident girl, this job proved invaluable, particularly in her later endeavors. “No college course could have been more valuable to me. Not the least of value was learning to write business letters, to make up court records, to go without fright into public buildings, to keep my own counsel, and to avoid feminine flutterings” (Bacon, pg. 15). During this time, she met Hilary Edwin Bacon. Bacon, born in Kentucky, had moved to Evansville with his brother in 1873 and became a successful businessman. By 1887, he co-owned Keck and Bacon, a dry goods business at 207 Main Street. After a 3-month tour of Europe with her sister, Annie, during which AFB ordered her wedding gown in London, the sisters came home for a double wedding at Trinity on October 11, 1888 (Annie married William L. Johnston). The Bacon’s set up housekeeping at 1025 Upper 2nd Street.
The Bacon’s lived a middle-class existence. “All my friends lived on pretty streets, and my shopping was done in the best business blocks, so I did not have to see much of the rest of the town” (Bacon, pg. 16). Deepening this disconnect was her understanding of the words in Matthew 5:8, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” She’d been taught that every evil thing seen and thought would leave a stain on her soul, cause her to not be pure in heart; in order to avoid this fate, AFB deliberately closed her eyes and ears to “every ugly and blighting thing” (Barrows, pg. 31).
Daughter Margaret was born in 1889, followed by Albion Mary in 1892. Sometime after the birth of her second daughter, AFB fell ill with what was then diagnosed as nervous prostration. While this diagnosis is vague, it seems to have afflicted a great many, including men, during this period. One faction attributed this to women seeking to go beyond their “natural” sphere of influence (i.e., the home), while others said it was due to extreme tedium and thwarted ambition. Today we might call this post-partum depression. Whatever the true diagnosis was, it was not until 1896 that AFB felt fully recovered. Perhaps instrumental in this return to health was the Bacons’ building of a new home, their final one, at what is today 1121 First Street, and Annie and AFB co-authoring a book of poetry.
In 1896-97, AFB joined the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society and later the Ladies Aid Society. Prior to this, she had turned a deaf ear to pleas for assistance. “Too full to crowd another thing into it, I told the committee from the charities organization that came to enlist my aid. We are glad to give… but I don’t know anything about that kind of work, and I think it is better for those more experienced to do it.” (Bacon, pgs. 20-21). The first cracks in this façade appeared as issues of personal concern for the well-being her children. While visiting her daughter’s school to discuss a bullying issue, AFB was struck by the filth around the school and wondered why there could not be a decent playground. She discussed this with friends on the Civic Improvement Association whose children attended the same school; they spoke to/lobbied the city attorney concerning this matter, and later the playground was created. The second school-related issue involved the fact that both her daughters came down with scarlet fever, apparently caught from classmates. She learned that some of these classmates came to school in less than hygienic condition, already bearing signs of infection. Another child with a persistent cough was currently absent to attend the funeral of her mother, who had died from tuberculosis. Shocked, AFB determined to join the sanitation committee of the Civic Improvement Association.
Admittedly, this was but a small step, but AFB, to her credit, began to read and educate herself. She was greatly influenced by the seminal work of Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives, published in 1890. This work exposed the lives of the poor in the tenement slums of New York City, based in part on Riis’ personal experiences after he first came to this country. His muck-racking journalism was illustrated with photographs he had taken. She began to loosen her blinders. “Hitherto, when I passed an alley, I had turned my head so as not to see the disagreeable things of which the smells warned me. Now, I stopped and looked up the alley and sniffed; stopped long enough to notice the dark, slimy streams slowly trickling down the middle of the alley, the papers, tin cans, and old shoes scattered about, the garbage cans at shed doors. Sometimes I saw little children darting to and fro, and wondered at their being in the alley. It never entered my mind that they could live there” (Bacon, pgs. 29-30).
It’s one thing to read about poverty, but it’s another to see it first-hand. Again, to her credit, AFB contacted Caroline Rein, general secretary of the Associated Charities of Evansville, requesting to visit the poor in her own hometown. Like most cities, Evansville was, at this time, both enjoying the fruits of industrialization as well as suffering from them. By 1880 there were over 3,000 men, women, and sometimes children employed in Evansville’s shops and factories. Although willing to learn, AFB expressed her naivete to Rein: “We haven’t any slums in Evansville, have we? Not the real sure enough ones, with those terrible conditions that Jacob Riis writes about in New York?” (Bacon, pg. 36). And then they arrived at the old St. Mary’s tenement, one of the largest in the city. This building, at 916 West Ohio Street, had been built in 1856 as the Marine Hospital. The Marine Hospital ceased operations and vacated the building in 1870, and in 1872 St. Mary’s renovated it and opened its hospital there. In 1894 St. Mary’s moved to a new location on First Avenue. By this time, the building was at least 44 years old and had been used as a hospital twice. Its last renovation was 28 years prior. Noise, filth, squalor, lack of privacy, overcrowding—the little girl raised in bucolic McCutchanville and living a comfortable life was having a rude awakening. She said, “The bandages were being taken off my eyes, but so slowly that, standing there in the alley, I had seen but dimly the outlines of evil” (Bacon, pg. 34). At first, she asked why the people didn’t clean and repair properly. She was told that water was scarce (and none too clean), making sanitation difficult. Furthermore, repair and upkeep take money and skill, at least one, if not both of which, these tenants lacked. But why didn’t the landlord take better care of them? Well, under current laws, landlords were under no obligation to make repairs, etc. Some 15 years later, as AFB was looking back over her life, she recalled, “Seeing! The word is too passive. Sights and smells rose and assaulted me, choked and gashed me, and the scars remain yet. They will remain until my dying day. I had never dreamed that people lived like that in our city. Since then I have seen places much worse. … But it was the first time I had taken a square look at Poverty, and its sordid misery, its bare ugliness, were overpowering” (Bacon, pg. 38).
Now “converted,” at least in part (her understanding would grow with experience), AFB joined the Friendly Visitors Circle of Associated Charities of Evansville. Friendly Visitors provided moral support, showing a real interest in the problems of poor mothers and their families. Practical aid was permissible, but in no case should personal financial aid enter the equation. Any gifts given had to be no more than what you might give a friend—things like books, flowers, sweet treats, etc. For help with thornier issues with men and boys, a male Friendly Visitors Circle was established, with Hilary Bacon as a member. Meetings took place at the Bacon house, with problems discussed and solutions suggested. AFB found these meetings very satisfying but noted that being a Friendly Visitor was not for everyone—not everyone had the right temperament or tact. “It would be a sin to exploit the poor to save the souls of the well-to-do,” she said (Barrows, pg. 37). AFB and her fellow female Visitors depended on their “mother-nurse” instincts but were overwhelmed by the level of disease. Tuberculosis, pneumonia, rheumatism, typhoid, and dysentery ran rampant. Tuberculosis could affect not only the pulmonary system, but there were strains that affected the skin and glands.
So much was due to overcrowding and lack of sanitation. One row of old, one-story houses held 28 rooms housing 61 people. Even though water mains were often on the street in front of houses, the poor only had cisterns—mostly uncovered, dry, or full of trash. And what happened if the breadwinner got sick and could not work, could not support the family? AFB and her friends established a Visiting Nurses Circle—they supervised and financially supported the nurse. They met with the nurse monthly to hear her report and discuss what to do, sometimes even visiting with the nurse. They soon discovered that the nurse could have a bigger impact on hygiene issues than the Friendly Visitor could. Advice from a “friend” might be resented, but a nurse—a nurse was a respected authority whose advice should be heeded, and word obeyed!
Despite her growing passion for this work, at this point AFB devoted very little time to it. In 1901 she gave birth to twins Hilary and Joy, and for a period of 2 years devoted herself solely to her children. Returning to action, as it were, she continued to learn more and more about poverty. Visiting the factories, she was appalled to find both young and middle-aged women in low paying jobs, dealing with poor working conditions, and returning home to lousy housing conditions. Some girls were “fresh off the farm,” coming into the city from the country in search of a better life and were subject to the evils of slavery and prostitution in their naivete and/or desperation. The Working Girls Association (WGA) was founded; its first accomplishment was to open a room for a temporary shelter, serving those new to the city and/or without family and resources. The factory workers, if they did not go home for lunch, were forced to eat amidst the din and confusion of the workspace. Next up for the WGA was to find a space in the business district for a dining room, a space to rest and read, and a lavatory. Meals were available for an average of 11 cents. In the evenings the space was used as a gym, a place for classes to be held, singing groups to meet, etc. Eventually a house on Main Street was found with bedrooms to rent. In addition, a summer camp was established at the end of the trolley line. Girls could go directly to work from there and return in the evening to stay in the bungalows.
Despite the real value of the WGA, its work was not inexpensive, and as time went on, it became harder and harder to continually raise money. Fortunately, the YWCA finally came to Evansville in 1911, and the work of the WGA was incorporated into its mission. AFB’s involvement with social justice did not cease, however. A new general secretary of the Associated Charities of Evansville had begun the Monday Night Club. It was made up of some 25 men and women and government officials representing the various civic and philanthropic groups in Evansville. Meetings were held at the Bacon home. One activity of the Club that AFB helped to organize was a lecture series. Speakers were sometimes local, others from outside of this area, and experts in the field of social welfare. The Club also established a Housing Committee, which AFB immediately joined. Her civic work to this point had convinced her that housing reform undergirded everything. “And we were finding out that our eager efforts to alleviate the wretchedness of the poor ended in—alleviation. … I began to notice how the threads of the social problems, the civic problems and even the business problems of a city are all tangled up with the housing problem, and to realize that housing reform is fundamenta.” (Bacon, pgs. 162-63).
One of the first pieces of housing reform in the United States was the passage of the first tenement law in New York City in 1867. A local building ordinance was proposed for Evansville, and AFB asked Mayor John Boehne if tenement regulations could be included. He agreed, with one caveat—AFB had to prepare the wording for the regulations.
“Surprised by the request, but accepting the challenge, she wrote to New York, Chicago, and smaller cities requesting copies of the regulations in effect at those places. [Just think how much easier and quicker research is now with the help of your friendly USI librarian!]. She was stunned to discover, when the return mail brought her unexpectedly “bulky packages,” how large and complex tenement laws could be—a whole book, in some cases. And she was, initially, disappointed to discover the highly technical nature of such regulations, reading some of them aloud to her husband and children with a sense of confusion and frustration. While she hoped “to give the poor some comforts, some conveniences, she found nothing that would “make the wretched old houses look any better or more homelike.” But as she dug deeper and began to understand the meaning and effects of the convoluted legal language, she became more encouraged. “After all,” she wrote, “I found that tenement laws require light and air, fire protection, water, drainage, sewerage, repairs, prevention of dampness, prevention of overcrowding and all those unsanitary conditions that caused us so much trouble in our tenements.” She very quickly realized that although there were many things a tenement law could not do to improve conditions, “those things a law could do were the most vital of all” (Barrows, pg. 48).
Her regulations were added to the housing ordinance, presented to the city council, which promptly shunted the whole matter aside for months. Eventually, AFB’s tenement regulations were reformatted into a separate ordinance and passed.
In October 1907, the Indiana Conference of Charities and Correction met in Evansville, with AFB presenting a paper on poor housing conditions in Evansville. Perhaps emboldened by her success locally, by the next year she was hard at work on an Indiana tenement law. With due diligence, she went to the law library to research what regulations might already be on the books. “It came to me with something of a shock that the poor in our state had no legal right to light and air; in fact, no tenant had, only those persons who owned enough ground to insure light and air to their dwellings” (Bacon, pg. 173). It was necessary to investigate conditions statewide; Indianapolis was doing its own investigation, and, of course, she was intimately familiar with Evansville. She mailed questionnaires to all charity secretaries in the state, asking for details of their local housing conditions. Responses poured in. “There were whole slum villages, where miners lived, or quarrymen, in “company houses.” There were little settlements and suburbs of shanties and shacks, where the poorest lived. The worst one was a shack settlement for rag pickers, built on the dumps, where the people ate garbage, and degradation was extreme.” (Bacon, pg. 174). Because housing reform was an unfamiliar issue, and the concept of landlord responsibility was both unfamiliar and unpopular, she began an education campaign.
The 1908 Indiana Conference of Charities and Correction was held in South Bend. AFB presented her findings and a draft resolution, which was approved. On October 22 of that year, she presented it again to what was the forerunner of the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, which agreed to sponsor the bill in the state legislature, but only if AFB presented it. On January 13, 1909, the bill was introduced into both chambers and presented to the joint housing subcommittee 6 days later. AFB addressed the General Assembly, lobbying for her legislation by lining the corridors with photographs of the worst Evansville tenements. The bill passed, but only after such major amending that it only applied to Indianapolis and Evansville. The fuller legislation (applying to all Indiana municipalities) was introduced/re-introduced in 1911 and defeated. AFB had once described her own timidity thus: “It was like cutting a suit of armour out of a piece of chiffon” (Bacon, pg. 1). Undeterred, this chiffon warrior saw the bill introduced again in 1913. By this time, it had the full weight of the Indiana Federation of Clubs behind it as well as a growing voice of advocacy from many women’s clubs. In a relatively short time, the House passed the bill 92 to 1, the Senate concurred, and the governor signed it into law.
Thus, AFB became “Indiana’s municipal housekeeper.” This terminology perhaps seems less than flattering today, but recall that during AFB’s lifetime, it was considered unseemly for a woman to have a role outside the home. AFB was a woman of her time and in full agreement with that role model. The term “municipal housekeeper” was a way to describe her (and other women’s) involvement in public work as merely an expansion of the more traditional domestic activities and concerns.
AFB had accomplished a lot in the approximately 15 years since she stepped out of her comfort zone and into the wider world of social justice, but she wasn’t one to rest on her laurels. To cover her further efforts and accomplishments in detail would make this blog far too long, so a summary will have to suffice. She educated herself about the challenges of the black population in Evansville, particularly regarding housing, and served as a member of the Evansville Inter-Racial Commission. On December 28, 1915, she presented a paper entitled “The Powers of Darkness—The Housing Problem” to the 2nd Pan-American Scientific Congress. As World War I raged and America’s entry into it neared, she was “able to graft [child welfare concerns] successfully into the wartime agenda” (Barrows, pg. 97). In 1917 Indiana governor James Goodrich appointed an 18-member (17 men, 1 woman) State Council of Defense. One of the most important subcommittees was the Child Welfare Committee, chaired by AFB, which shared a close relationship with the national Children’s Bureau. Concerns about children’s health issues and high rate of mortality led to the finding that 29% of men called up for the draft were rejected for lack of physical fitness, much of which could be linked back to childhood diseases like scarlet fever and rickets. In 1919, as the war ended and thus also the State Council of Defense, a new state Commission on Child Welfare and Social Insurance was created with AFB as one of its 5 members. This Commission made 4 recommendations: to create a juvenile commission, to codify a child labor law, to create an agency to oversee child labor laws, and to create a school attendance law. AFB was particularly interested in juvenile justice and was president of the new Advisory Juvenile Committee (later Commission) from 1921-1933.
Locally, AFB worked to support Boehne Camp Hospital (for tuberculosis patients) and in 1921 was elected president of the Evansville City Plan Commission. (She was president for 3 years, then vice-president through the 1920s.) This led to her being elected vice-president of the Indiana Conference on City Planning (the 1925 conference was held in Evansville) and in 1931 was a delegate to the President’s Conference on Home Building and Home Ownership.
Albion Fellows Bacon died at home on December 10, 1933 at the age of 68. “The official cause of death was recorded as arteriosclerotic heart disease and chronic nephritis …. [daughter] Joy put it less technically but perhaps no less accurately: “Mother just burned herself out” (Barrows, pg. 167-168). The shy little girl from McCutchanville, who once thought that there were no slums in Evansville, traveled a road that led her to becoming an influential speaker and organizer with national, if not international, renown. Her autobiography, Beauty for Ashes, had been adopted as a text at several colleges, including Union Theological Seminary. Of her life’s work, she said, “It was the making of me. To have to assume responsibility and make decisions, such as none of my other work had involved, developed the ability to do it. These things strengthen one’s fibre wonderfully” (Bacon, pg. 114). She would be proud that her hometown had resources like a domestic violence shelter and be especially honored to have it named after her.
In addition to the photographs and materials concerting AFB that Rice Library has, Willard Library also has a collection that includes photographs, drawings, manuscripts, music, and books. Look at the photograph below to see some of the items Willard lent us for a temporary display in 2018.
Bacon, Albion Fellows. Beauty for Ashes. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1914. 3 copies available: one in General Collection, one in UASC/Special Collections, both with call number HD7303.I6 B3; also e-book
Barrows, Robert G. Albion Fellows Bacon: Indiana’s Municipal Housekeeper. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000. 2 copies available: one in General Collection, one in UASC/Regional Collections, both with call number CT275.B144 B37 2000