Feminity Defined by a Postcard

One night my mother-in-law dreamed that she was standing in a crowd waiting for Clint Eastwood to pass.

When he walked by she called out, “Hi Clint! Remember me? I’m Jean Baltzer. George and I used to work for you at your ranch.”

And Clint said, “Hi Jean.”

I thought the dream was sad, but Jean seemed happy that Clint said hi to her.

“He was always real friendly,” she said.

The postcard in this collage was one of the early examples of celebrity culture. Neither E.L. Martin who wrote this postcard, nor her friend Emma Morgan, nicknamed “Puggie”, would have seen Miss Ellaline Terriss on the London stage. And this postcard was mailed a year before Ellaline Terriss’s first silent film. But Ellaline’s strength after the murder of her famous father, her marriage to another actor, and her raising two daughters, were all sympathetically covered in contemporary newspapers. Shown with a creamy complexion and the cinched waist of the Edwardian lady, Ellaline appears the model of womanhood.

The text on the postcard shows a less dramatic life with a very common dilemma. “No dear my way is not clear yet,” writes E. L. Martin aka “Muddles”. “Oh I do wish the answer would soon come. Geo. is so opposed to us going away he told me he would do everything in his power to prevent us from going  with the exception of ‘chaining me on’ with a piece of chain. So now it is very difficult for me to decide and Floss & Will are urging me the other way.”

The domestic interior in this collage shows the living room in Hawthorne Cottage, home to the mother and two sisters of Captain Bob Bartlett. They called this room “The Arctic Room” and filled it with photographs of Bartlett with famous people, apparently to promote his celebrity status. Ironically the Arctic Room is also covered in feminine flowers including the linoleum floor and the woodwork on the couch. Through the Great Depression, these women ran a farm and a teahouse, and struggled to maintain their cottage in style. The Arctic Room speaks to me of how hard women have worked to keep up appearances and meet external standards.

From the perspective of time, I am more curious about the domestic concerns of Muddles than the story of Ellaline Terriss. But any photo of E.L. Martin has been lost, and we are left with the image of celebrity. In the same way the Arctic Room doesn’t show us the turn-of-the-century lifestyle of the average woman in Conception Bay North, but the contemporary decorating fashions in London and New York. I don’t mean to be critical of the aesthetic choices of either the Bartlett women or Muddles. I thought that by framing their choices I could direct our attention to the women behind these images and the feminine ideal that shaped the lives of rural Newfoundland women in 1912.

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