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Stranger Than Fiction?: The Reading Habits of Early Twentieth-Century Working Women

Although middle- and upper-class observers viewed the leisure habits of working-class women with condescension, few of them actually knew much about what working women did with their spare time. One exception was Dorothy Richardson, a woman from a middle-class Iowa family who had to work in a factory to support herself. In 1905, she published a fictionalized version of her experiences under the title, The Long Day. In this excerpt, she described a discussion among her fellow workers about their favorite novels and music. Despite her disdainful view of their interest in “ungrammatical, crude, and utterly banal . . . cheap story books,” her account demonstrated the importance of popular culture in the everyday lives of women factory workers. The novel that the women discussed, Little Rosebud’s Lovers, was written in 1886 by Laura Jean Libbey, a bestselling author of popular fiction. Libbey was particularly known for placing working-girl heroines within sensational and melodramatic plots.


“ Don’t you never read no story-books?” Mrs. Smith asked, stirring the paste-pot preparatory to the afternoon’s work. She looked at me curiously out of her shrewd, snapping dark eyes as she awaited my answer. I was conscious that Mrs. Smith didn’t like me for some reason or other, and I was anxious to propitiate her. I was pretty certain she thought me a boresome prig, and I determined I’d prove I wasn’t. My confession of an omnivorous appetite for all sorts of storybooks had the desired effect; and when I confessed further, that I liked best of all a real, tender, sentimental love-story, she asked amiably:

“ How do you like ‘Little Rosebud’s Lovers’?”

“ I 've never read that,” I replied. “Is it good?”

“ It ‘s fine,” interposed Phoebe;“ but I like ’Woven on Fate’s Loom' better—don’t you?” The last addressed to Mrs. Smith.

“ No, I can’t say as that’s my impinion,” returned our vis-a-vis, with a judicious tipping of the head to one side as she soused her dripping paste-brush over the strips. “Not but what ‘Woven on Fate’s Loom’ is a good story in its way, either, for them that likes that sort of story. But I think ‘Little Rosebud’s Lovers’ is more int’resting, besides being better wrote.”

“And that’s just what I don’t like about it,” retorted Phoebe, her fingers traveling like lightning up and down the corners of the boxes.

“ You like this hot-air talk, and I don’t; and the way them fellows and girls shoot hot-air at each other in that there ‘Little Rosebud’s Lovers’ is enough to beat the street-cars!”

“ What is it about?” I asked with respectful interest, addressing the question to Mrs. Smith, who gave promise of being a more serious reviewer than the flippant Phoebe. Mrs. Smith took a bite of gingerbread and began:

“ It 's about a fair, beautiful young girl by the name of Rosebud Arden. Her pa was a judge, and they lived in a grand mansion in South Car’lina. Little Rosebud—that’s what everybody called her—had a stepsister Maud. They was both beauties, only Maud didn’t have a lovely disposition like Little Rosebud. A Harvard gradjate by the name of Percy Fielding got stuck on Little Rosebud for the wealth she was to get from her pa, and she was terrible stuck on him. She was stuck on him for fair, though not knowing he was a villian of the deepest dye. That’s what the book called him. He talked her into marrying him clandestinely. Maud and her mother put up a job to get rid of Little Rosebud, so Maud could get all the money. So they told lies to her pa, who loved her something awful; and one night, when she came in after walking in the grand garden with her husband, who nobody knew she was married to, she found herself locked out. Then she went to the hotel where he was staying, and told him what had happened; but he turned her down flat when he heard it, for he didn’t want nothing to do with her when she wasn’t to get her pa’s money; and then—”

She stopped her cornering to inspect my work, which had not flagged an instant. Mrs. Smith took another bite of gingerbread, and continued with increasing animation:

“ And then Little Rosebud turned away into the night with a low cry, just as if a dagger had been punched into her heart and turned around slow. She was only sixteen years old, and she had been brought up in luxury and idolized by her father; and all of a sudden she found herself homeless, with nowheres to sleep and no money to get a room at the hotel, a scorned by the man that had sworn to protect her. Her pa had cursed her, too, something awful, so that he burst a blood-vessel a little while afterwards and died before morning. Only Little Rosebud never found this out, for she took the midnight express and came up here to New York, where her aunt lived, only she didn’t know the street-number.”

“ Where did she get the money to come to New York with?” interrupted the practical Phoebe. “That’s something I don’t understand. If she didn’t have no money to hire a room at a hotel down in South Carolina for overnight, I’d like to know where she got money for a railroad ticket.”

“ Well, that 's just all you know about them swells,” retorted Mrs. Smith. “I suppose a rich man’s daughter like that can travel around all over the country on a pass. And saying she didn’t have a pass, it’s only a story and not true anyway.”

“ She met a fellow on the train that night who was a villian for fair!” she went on. “His name was Mr. Paul Howard, and he was a corker. Little Rosebud, who was just as innocent as they make ‘em, fell right into his clutches. He was a terrible man; he wouldn’t stop at nothing, but he was a very elegant looking gentleman that you’d take anywheres for a banker or ’Piscopalian preacher. He tipped his hat to Little Rosebud, and then she up and asked if he knew where her aunt, Mrs. Waldron, lived. This was nuts for him, and he said yes, that Mrs. Waldron was a particular lady-friend of his. When they got to New York he offered to take Little Rosebud to her aunt’s house. And as Little Rosebud hadn’t no money, she said yes, and the villian called a cab and they started for Brooklyn, him laughing to himself aIl the time, thinking how easily she was going to tumble into the trap he was getting fixed for her.”

“ Hot air!” murmured Phoebe.

" But while they were rattling over the Brooklyn Bridge, another man was following them in another cab—a Wall-street broker with barrels of cash. He was Raymond Leslie, and a real good man. He 'd seen Rosebud get into the cab with Paul Howard, who he knew for a villain for fair. They had a terrible rumpus, but Raymond Leslie rescued her and took her to her aunt’s house. It turned out that he was the gentleman-friend of Little Rosebud’s cousin Ida, the very place they were going to. But, riding along in the cab, he fell in love with Little Rosebud, and then he was in a terrible pickle because he was promised to Ida. Little Rosebud’s relations lived real grand, and her aunt was real nice to her until she saw she had hooked on to Ida’s gentleman-friend; then they put her to work in the kitchen and treated her terrible. Oh, I tell you she had a time of it, for fair. Her aunt was awful proud and wicked, and after while, when she found that Raymond Leslie was going to marry Little Rosebud even if they did make a servant of her, she hired Paul Howard to drug her and carry her off to an insane-asylum that he ran in Westchester County. It was in a lonesome place, and was full of girls that he had loved only to grow tired of and cast off, and this was the easiest way get rid of them and keep them from spoiling his sport. Once a girl was in love with Paul Howard she loved him till death. He just fascinated women like a snake does a bird, and he was hot stuff as long as he lasted, but the minute he got tired of you he was a demon of cruelty.

“ He did everything he could, when he got Little Rosebud here, to get her under his power. He tried his dirty best to poison her food, but Little Rosebud was foxy and wouldn’t touch a bite of anything, but just sat in her cell and watched the broiled chicken and fried oysters, and all the other good things the sent to tempt her, turn to a dark-purplish hue. One night she escaped disguised in the turnkey’s daughter’s dress. Her name was Dora Gray, and Paul Howard had blasted her life too, but she worshiped him something awful, all the same. Dora Gray gave Little Rosebud a lovely dark-red rose that was soaked with deadly poison, so that if you touched it to the lips of a person, the person would drop dead. She told Little Rosebud to protect herself with it if they chased her. But she didn’t get a chance to see whether it would work or not, for when she heard them coming back of her after while with the bloodhounds barking, she dropped with terror down flat on her stummick. She had suffered so much she couldn’t stand anything more. The doctors said she was dead when they picked her up, and they buried her and stuck a little white slab on her grave, with ‘Rosebud, aged sixteen’ on it.”

“ Hot air!” from the irrepressible Phobe.

I felt that courtesy required I should agree upon that point, and I did so, conservatively, venturing to ask the name of the author.

Mrs. Smith mentioned the name of a well-known writer of trashy fiction and added, “ Didn’t you never read none of her books? ”

My negative surprised her.

Source: Dorothy Richardson, The Long Day, the Story of a New York Working Girl (1905; reprint, Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1972), 75–91.

See Also:Fractured Fairy Tale: Meet Little Rosebud's Lovers