The Painful History of Painless Dentistry

31 January 1891 - Hartford, Connecticut

Horace Wells statue in Bushnell Park
In Bushnell Park, near the east end of the pond, stands the bronze statue of a gentleman wearing a bowtie and holding a cane. On the pedestal is carved: “Horace Wells, the Discoverer of Anaesthseia, December 1844.” I was intrigued by this. Who was Wells and why was his statue here in Hartford?

What I uncovered was a tale that sounded like something out of a Gothic horror--a gentle doctor turned into a monster by his own experiments! A real life Jekyll and Hyde. And yet a man whose soul purpose was to help humanity.

Horace Wells was born in 1815 in the town of Hartford, Vermont into a well-to-do, family. Wells learned Dentistry in Boston and in 1836 setup practice here in Hartford, Connecticut. He became quite successful with some of the city’s most illustrious citizens as his patients. He was well known for his promotion of dental hygiene, in effect trying to put himself out of business.

However these were the early days of dentistry. Dentists learned their trade from other dentists. Extraction was usually the only method of treatment and had to be performed without painkillers. The best dentists were those who could pull teeth the fastest while the patient squirmed and screamed in pain. There was no known effective painkiller. Yet it was necessary. An abscessed tooth killed many a man before dentists.

Horace Wells
Wells was a highly sensitive soul who was sometimes so traumatized by the pain he inflicted he would have to take a day or two off to recover. There had to be a better way.

Elizabeth Wells thought a night’s entertainment might do her husband Horace some good. On 10 December 1844 “Professor” Gardner Quincy Colton came to town with his show. A former medical student, he left school when he discovered he could make good money putting on demonstrations with nitrous oxide, better know as laughing gas.

Nitrous oxide had been around since the 1790s. No one could find a good use for it, except as a recreational drug for the rich or as sideshow entertainment. Lectures like Colton’s would let volunteers take a few puffs on stage, so their neighbors could laugh at their antics. One of the most common effects was to give the user the giggles, thus the name “laughing gas.”

That evening one of the volunteers was Samuel Cooley, a clerk at the local drugstore. He got inebriated by the gas, stumbled and hit his leg. He came down off the stage and sat next to Wells. Cooley pulled up his pants leg revealing a wound. “I can’t feel a thing!” Cooley said in amazement.

Wells instantly saw the significance. Could nitrous oxide be used to stop the pain of pulling teeth? Wells needed a guinea pig to prove his theory. Being the noble man that he was, he decided he would be the volunteer.

Gardner Colton
Wells asked Colton to come to his office the next day. Colton administered the gas until Wells became unconscious. Wells’ student, John Riggs, pulled Well’s worst molar. When Wells woke up he exclaimed he hadn’t felt a thing. Painless dentistry was born.

In the following weeks Wells used nitrous oxide on over a dozen patients with great success. This was too good to keep a secret. The world needed to know. So in January 1845 Wells went to the Boston, home of the Harvard Medical School. At Massachusetts General Hospital he demonstrated his new discovery.

Something went wrong. The gas was probably pulled away too soon. When Dr. John Warren extracted the tooth, the patient woke up howling in pain. The students laughed and booed, the doctors scoffed, and Wells slunk away humiliated.

Wells had a nervous breakdown and had to quit his practice. In July he had recovered enough to help local surgeons by administering nitrous oxide to their patients. Harvard might have rejected him, but Hartford believed in him.

William Morton
Then in 1846, Wells former student, William Morton, gave a demonstration to the same audience pulling a tooth using ether (except Morton called it “letheon,” hoping to patent it.) Wells had experimented with ether, but had decided nitrous oxide was safer. Morton’s demonstration went without a hitch and he was proclaimed a genius. Wells now felt betrayed.

Wells left the country and went to France, hoping to start a business as an art dealer. However his reputation proceeded him. He was persuaded to give demonstrations in some leading medical institutions in Paris. The French were amazed and began using his methods. You can find a statue to Horace Wells in Paris today.

In January of 1848, Wells moved to New York City. He began studying chloroform as a possible anesthesia, trying to find the best and safest doses. As always he used himself as the first test subject. He very quickly discovered that the sweet-smelling liquid is not only highly addictive, it’s highly toxic and causes one to become deranged!

While under the influence, Wells ran out in the street and threw sulfuric acid on the clothes of two prostitutes. One was burned on the neck. He was immediately arrested and sent to New York City’s Tombs Prison. After a week Wells head cleared and the full horror of what he had done hit him. He took one last dose of chloroform to blot out the pain, then slit a major artery in his thigh and quickly bled to death.

Horace Wells was only thirty-three years old. He left a letter to his wife telling her he had become mad and begging her forgiveness. His body was taken back to Hartford, Connecticut and buried at Cedar Hill Cemetery. Hartford was horrified at the bizarre fate of their beloved dentist. In 1875 they erected this lovely statue to him.

As for the fate of the other players:
William Morton spent the rest of his life trying to prove he invented the use of anesthesia and trying to patent it. He went so far as to attempt to sue the United States Government.

John Riggs
Wells other student, John Riggs, inherited Wells practice, and later went on to become the leading authority on periodontal disease and its treatment in the United States.

And Gardner Colton decided to strike it rich in California. Failing that, he moved back east in 1863. He started the Colton Dental Association with clinics in New Haven and New York City, using his old knowledge of administering nitrous oxide. Between 1864 and 1897, Colton and his associates used the gas to safely extract tens of thousands of teeth. Ironically, it was the former huckster who made nitrous oxide popular with dentists everywhere.

I’m sure Horace Wells would have been pleased at “Professor” Colton’s success and helping to spread the word. Wells never wanted to get rich off his discovery. He only wanted to make dentistry painless. He gave his life to that cause.


Without Further Introduction

20 January 1891 - Hartford, Connecticut

Today I visited 351 Farmington Avenue in hopes of interviewing (or at least glimpsing) one of the Victorian Ages greatest writers, Samuel Clemens, better known by his pen name, Mark Twain.

The cab dropped me off at a three-story Gothic-style mansion. Created by an imaginative architect for an imaginative man. I trudged through the snow up the driveway to the house.

Near the porch I found a chap in a fur coat and hat shoveling the walk. His back was to me as I approached him. “Excuse me, sir. Do you work for Mr. Clemens.”

He turned and twitched a lush dark mustache peppered with grey. “No, I work for Mrs. Clemens,” he drawled.

Samuel Clemens circa 1891
“Mr. Clemens?”

“It would appear the jig is up.” He chunked the shovel in the snow. “Are you here to sell me insurance or do you just want an autograph?”

“No, I’m a freelance journalist for the London Times.” That line usually worked.

Mr. Clemens looked even more irritated. “Reporters. Bad enough every reporter in New England pesters me. Now they are importing you scoundrels. I’m busy.” He went back to shoveling the snow.

I stepped up on his porch out of the snow. “I know this might not be the best time. If I could make an appointment for a more convenient day.”

He just grunted.

I felt something brush against my ankle. I looked down to see a tabby rubbing against me. “Why, hello there, little one.” I knelt down. “What are you doing out in the cold?” I scratched the moggy’s ear and she purred.

“You like cats?” Clemens asked.

“Yes, of course. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of Dickens, my cat. I’m afraid I travel too much to have one now. Perhaps some day.”

Clemens broke out in a grin. “Sir, any man who loves cats, I count as my friend without further introduction.” He came up on the porch and leaned the shovel against the pillar. “Besides I need an excuse to stop this useless labor. It will probably just need shoveled again tomorrow. At least we aren’t having a blizzard like we did back in ‘88.”

Olivia "Livy" Clemens
Clemens scooped up the cat, and led me into the house. A middle-aged woman with a pleasant face came into the room. She was small and delicate lady. “Did you finish the walk, dear? Oh, we have company?”

“Just a reporter, Livy dear. I was going to take him up to the billiard room and see if I couldn’t bamboozle him out of some money.”

She turned to me. “Could I get you some coffee, sir.”

“Erm, no thank you.” I tried not to make a face.

She laughed. “By that look, I’d say you aren’t a coffee drinker. Would you prefer tea, Mr.--eh, what is your name?”

“Howe.” I stuck out my hand to her. “Mr. Wendell Howe. And tea would be delightful.”

Clemens steered me up the stairs to the third floor to a large attic room. In the middle of the was a large billiard table. At the far end was a desk. Apparently this was also his study where he wrote. He walked over to a whicker chair full of cats and dumped the cat he was holding among them. It curled up and joined them in a nap.

Clemens Billiard Room and Study
“Do you smoke?” He pulled a cigar out of a wooden box, offering it to me.

“No, but feel free to smoke. This is your home.”

“How about a shot of whiskey?”

“I do not wish to be rude, but I don’t drink, either.”

Clemens eyebrow raised as if his opinion of me was dropping. “I suppose you don’t cuss either.”

“Of course not. It sounds like bloody hell,” I said with a straight face.

Clemens laughed and slapped his thigh. “I like you Howe, even if you are straight-laced. At least you aren’t some self-righteous prig who tries to foist his bad habits on others.” He stuffed the cigar in his mouth and lit it. As he shook out the match, he gave me an odd stare. “Have we met before? You look familiar.”

Actually I had asked for his autograph at a lecture ten years from now, but he wouldn’t remember that since it hadn’t happened for him yet. I racked my brain. Yes, we had met before--more than once. “No,” I lied. “I just have one of those faces.”

Clemens studied me and nodded. “Yes, I suppose you do at that. Do you play billiards?”

“In a manner. I am quite adept a losing graciously.”

“Then I might actually beat you. I usually lose to the cats.”

Twain's cats wide awake now
I had no idea what that meant until he setup the balls and began whacking them about the billiard table. The first “clink” woke up the cats. They jumped up on the sideboard of the table to watch, while a couple swatted at any ball that came close to them, destroying what might have been a not too horrible shot. I’m not at all sure how you keep score in cat billiards, but I found it the most amusing game of snookers I ever played.

A lovely girl in her late teens came into the room, carrying a tray with a tea set and a mug of coffee on it. “Papa? Can I come in?”

“You may enter.” Clemens bowed to her, dramatically. He came over and took her tray. “Mr Howe, I would like to introduce my eldest daughter, Olivia Susan Clemens. We just call her Susy.”

Susy Clemens
Susy gave a playful curtsy. “Charmed, Mr. Howe. Now I must leave. No women or children are allowed in the billiards room. It’s Papa's one act of tyranny.”

“Men need a room they can drink, smoke, gamble and cuss in.” Clemens defended himself.

I bowed to Susy. “Very nice to meet you, Miss Clemens. Thank you for the tea. And thank your mother for me please. Tell her the game stakes are only twenty-five cents and we are both losing to the cats. Your home is safe...unless the cats collect.”

Susy giggled and left. Clemens watched her with fatherly pride. “My Susy is as smart as she is beautiful. She’s quite the writer. You just wait Mr. Howe. Long after the world has forgotten Mark Twain, they will remember Olivia Susan Clemens, the great author!” He looked over at me. “Are you all right, Howe? You look kind of haunted.”

I try to control my face and show no emotion, but sometimes my eyes betray me. “Sorry, sir. It’s just that I had a sister named Susan. Struck down by scarlet fever.”

I never had a sister. But I knew Susy’s future. She will die of spinal meningitis in five years. It’s a blow none of the Clement family will ever recover from. While Samuel Clemens loves his other two daughters dearly, Susy is his favorite.

I tried to change the subject. “This is a very lovely home you have, Mr. Clemens.”

“Built it myself. All right, contractors built it, but I designed it. Okay, that’s not entirely true either. Livy designed a lot of it. Probably would have looked like a farmhouse if I had designed it all. Livy has all the taste and style a boy from Missouri lacks. I have done many a foolish thing in my life. Marrying that woman was not one of them. I fell in love with her before we even met.”

Clemens then told me how in 1867 a paper paid him to go on a European tour on a decommissioned naval ship, “Quaker City.” He sent back letters to be published for the readership. These articles were so popular, they were published as a book titled Innocents Abroad, which became Clemens biggest seller during his lifetime. The trip not only made Mark Twain famous, it would change Clemens life in other ways.

Love at First Site
One of his fellow tourist was a gentleman named Charles Langdon, the son a wealthy coal merchant. He showed Clemens a photo of his sister, Olivia. It was love at first site. Even though she was ten years younger, Clemens had Charles introduce them. Clemens took Olivia to a lecture by Charles Dickens on their first date. She was frail, but she was college educated, spirited and down to earth. Clemens proposed. She rejected him, but gave in two months later. They were married in February 1870.

In November, their first child, Langdon Clemens was born premature. He died at nineteen months. Clemens paused a moment here. Then he brightened as he spoke of the three daughters that followed: Susy (1872), Clara (1874) and Jean (1880.) They were the joy of his life. Clemens went on and on about them. As he talked about the plays he wrote for them and the games they played, I was sure the girls would have gushed over their father.

Clara, Jean and Susy in 1881
I asked Clemens if he would mind autographing a copy of his last book for me. I pulled A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court out of my frock coat pocket.

“So you are an autograph hunter,” he sounded more amused then irritated. “Sure my good fellow.” He signed my book and handed it to me. “So, did you like it? I thought I would do something different.”

“It was--” I caught myself. I almost said he beat H.G. Wells time travel story by six years, or that the book had invented the science fiction genre of “alternative history.” “Erm, it was brilliant.”

“Didn’t care much for it, huh?”

“No, I loved it! I especially liked your observations that cats would make better monarchs. They would lay about, get into indelicate situations and act haughty like other crowned heads, but they would ingratiate themselves to their subjects by never having anyone beheaded, imprisoned or inflicting any other injustice. Cats would be far more loved than human kings and far more deserving of that love. I believe that was the gist of it.” I petted our closest billiard partner, who purred her approval. “I’m looking forward to your next book.”

Clemens shook his head. “No more books. No more lectures. I’m retiring. I am currently sitting on a big bonanza that will make me rich beyond my wildest dreams.”

“You bought into a gold mine?”

‘I did indeed, sir. A fellow by the name of James Paige showed me a contraption he is working on, the Paige Compositor. It is a typesetting machine that will replace humans. Being a former printer and typesetter myself, I knew the need for such a marvel. I’ve seen it work. Every time I see it in action my admiration for it towers. It will revolutionize the printing industry. All right, it does have a few minor problems, but Paige is ironing those out. It will repay itself a hundred fold.”

The Paige Compositor
“I take it you invested money?”

“Most of the profits of my books and Livy’s inheritance. About $300,000.”

I’m afraid a snorted as I fought back a yelp. In 1891, $300,000 is a fortune! Enough to--well, build this mansion, travel around the world and retire very comfortably indeed.

“Yes, I know it’s a gamble.” Clemens shot a ball into a pocket without a cat. “But it is a sure deal.” He smiled, and took another shot. This time a cat whacked it right off the table.

The poor blighter. I force a smile and nodded at him. I can’t warn him and it would do no good if I could. The Paige Compositor is too complex and prone to breakdowns. Already Ottmar Mergenthaler is perfecting his Linotype typesetting machine which will be the industry standard until it is replaces by offset lithography in the 1960s and 70s. Clemens will learn soon enough what a mistake he has made.

University of Connecticut wanted me to capture Mark Twain at the peak of his private life. This is the beginning of the end. From 1874 he and Livy have lived in this wonderful house, raising their three daughters and creating many happy memories. During this time Clemens has written his most famous works: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), A Tramp Abroad (1880), The Prince and the Pauper (1881), Life on the Mississippi (1883), Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889.)

All too soon the debts will mount up and Clemens will realize the hot water he is in. This June he will close up their home and take the family to Europe to go on a speaking tour to make money. He will go back to his typewriter in between engagements. Although he will be forced to declare bankruptcy, Clemens will have all his creditors paid back by the beginning of the new century.

Clemens lectures are like no other. Instead of a dull speech or book reading, he gets up and tells funny stories and makes witty observations about life. Some day the likes of Will Rogers and Bill Cosby will steal his act. Clemens is in fact the world’s first stand-up comedian. That will be acknowledged later when in 1998 The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts will create an award for the top comedians and humorists in the country. They will name it the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

While Clemens is a big celebrity now, these coming tours will make him an international super-star, hob-knobbing with kings and giants, who are just more adoring fans. However, his private world will unravel. Susy will die in 1896. Livy will be unable to return to their home here in Hartford. There are just too many memories. Then his wife, editor, friend and soulmate will pass away in 1904. Jean, his youngest daughter, will have an epileptic seizure and drown while taking a bath, Christmas Eve 1909. Her father will be downstairs at the time, unaware anything is wrong. It is one more blow he will never recover from. Only Clara, the middle daughter, will live to a ripe old age.

After Livy’s death Clemens will take speaking engagements, not so much to make money (by then he was solvent again) but to alleviate his loneliness. He will “adopt” a bevy of little “granddaughters,” trying to recapture those happy days in 1880s Hartford. In 1910, at the age of seventy-five, he welcomed death. He said he had come in with Halley’s comet and he wished to go out with it. And he did.

Clemens waiting for Halley's Comet
I concentrated on my game, keeping my back to Clemens as these things went through my mind. The gruff curmudgeon was far more sensitive than he let on, and did not wish for him to read my emotions. First rule of Temporal Anthropology: Live in the present (whenever you are) and don’t think about the future. Right now Clemens is alive and happy. I had to concentrate on that.

At the end of the game we concluded that the cats were indeed the winners. I paid up “two bits” to buy the felines cream. Clemens laid a quarter on the table next to mine. I thanked him for the interview and wished him good luck in his endeavors. I told him the world needed a typesetting machine. (He could interpret that as encouragement if he wished.)

Clemens escorted me to the front door. I turned to him. “Thank you, sir for making me laugh.”

“You should thank the cats for that.”

“No, I mean thank you for making me laugh on those lonely nights when my only companion was one of your books.”

Samuel Clemens smiled at me. I’m not sure, but I think his eyes got misty.

1909 movie footage of Mark Twain

Taken at his estate “Stormfield” in Redding, Connecticut by Thomas Edison. The young women are his daughters, Clara and Jean (just months before her tragic death.)

Hal Holbrook recreation of Mark Twain’s standup comedian act
Holbrook’s one-man show called Mark Twain Tonight, won him an Emmy Award when broadcast on CBS. He ran it three times on Broadway (1966, 1977, and 2005), the first won him a Tony Award. Every line of the act is “stolen” from Mark Twain. So you could say Clemens won both an Emmy and Tony as the playwright.

The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor

Steve Martin accepting The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
in pdf and ebook with original illustrations (free)

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
read by John Greenman (also free)

The War Prayer
Mark Twain’s short anti-war tour-de-force. None dared to publish it until six years after his death.
“I have told the whole truth in [the War Prayer,] and only dead men can tell the truth in this world.”
Warning: May be disturbing to children or those with a soul.

Nikola Tesla (in background) with Mark Twain
Samuel Clemens made many friends in his travels. With his love of gadgets, it’s not surprising he found Nikola Tesla fascinating. As for Tesla’s attraction to Clemens, here is an excerpt from Tesla’s autobiography:

“I had hardly completed my course at the Real Gymnasium when I was prostrated with a dangerous illness or rather, a score of them, and my condition became so desperate that I was given up by physicians. During this period I was permitted to read constantly, obtaining books from the Public Library which had been neglected and entrusted to me for classification of the works and preparation of the catalogues. One day I was handed a few volumes of new literature unlike anything I had ever read before and so captivating as to make me utterly forget my hopeless state. They were the earlier works of Mark Twain and to them might have been due the miraculous recovery which followed. Twenty-five years later, when I met Mr. Clemens and we formed a friendship between us, I told him of the experience and was amazed to see that great man of laughter burst into tears.''

--from "My Inventions: the autobiography of Nikola Tesla", Hart Bros., 1982. Originally appeared in the Electrical Experimenter Magazine in 1919.

Apparently laughter IS the best medicine.


Chief of the Beautiful Towns

17 January 1891 - Hartford, Connecticut

Downtown Hartford during bicycle parade
I am now in Hartford the capital of Connecticut in the New England section of the United States of America. The city’s current population is 53,230. Only one hundred years ago, in 1790, it was a mere 2,683. But do not think Hartford is a new city, for it is one of the oldest in the country. It is also one of the richest.

The first settlers (after the native Americans, of course) were the Dutch in 1623. I’m not sure if you can call them settlers, because they merely set up a trading post, Fort Goede Hoop (Fort Good Hope.) In 1654 they abandoned it, probably because of the “bad element” moving in--the English.

In 1635 Pastor Thomas Hooker and Governor John Haynes led 100 settlers and 130 cattle to this spot from Newtown, Massachusetts (later renamed Cambridge after Harvard University was founded there.) Originally these pioneers named their new settlement Newtown after the old Newtown, but two years later changed it to Hartford after Hertford, England. (People had problems spelling back then.) John Haynes would have the distinction of having been a Governor from both Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Lyman Beecher (1775-1863)
Hartford sits on the Connecticut River which was deep enough for small 17th century ships, but not for later cargo ships. It is also quite a ways from the sea. Probably why Hartford never got too involved in the slave trade. If Providence was once the American center of the slave trade, Hartford was the center of the abolitionists movement. One of the countries major leaders were Hartford's Rev. Lyman Beecher and his many children.

When Abraham Lincoln showed up to Hartford to campaign, he was greeted with a torchlight parade by the abolitionist group, the Wide Awake Club. (I wonder if poor Lincoln first wondered if they had come to tar and feather him.) The idea of the torchlight parades caught on and became a staple in mid to late 19th century campaigning.

Wide Awake Club welcoming Lincoln
Hartford has many factories building everything from pistols to bicycles, but one of it’s leading industries is insurance. It will be my job to track down as many of these companies as I can. Some will be long gone in a hundred years, but others will be going strong. Probably why Connecticut’s nickname will one day be “the Insurance State.”

Hartford is prosperous and full of beautiful Victorian buildings. I know I will enjoy my stay. Is it any wonder Mark Twain remarked "Of all the beautiful towns it has been my fortune to see this is the chief."

Hartford as it looked in 1890

Photos of Victorian Hartford


My Search for Hard Scrabble and Snow Town

13 January 1891 - Providence, Rhode Island

If you will recall my last trip was to Liverpool, which had made its early fortune in the slave trade. Providence is its American counterpart, once being the center of North America’s African trade. And like Liverpool it acquired a large African population, first as slaves, then as freedmen.

Providence has one of the oldest black communities in America. In the 18th century they made up over 10% of the population. Now it’s down to 2%. Immigrants from Europe have skewed those numbers. However, there has been immigrants of African descent from the southern states and Cape Verde, hoping to find work in the factories, on the wharfs or as domestics servants.

I know it’s hard for you folks back in the 27th century to understand, but society in the 19th century was divided by class and “race.” Not only did the people of the 19th century believe there were multiple races, they believed some ethnic groups to be sub-human--a separate species! They judged a man by the color of his skin. My own theory is that Europeans knew it was evil to enslave their fellow man, so they convinced themselves that Africans somehow were not human and therefore exempt. Completely insane, I know. But then they believed people lived on Mars, too.

By the year 1824, there were about a thousand African-Americans living in Providence, mostly in an area of town called “Hard Scrabble.” It was the poorest neighborhood with the cheapest rent. Few African-Americans could get descent jobs then, but had to take those no one else wanted. Some would rent rooms, buy some rum, and set up temporary pubs or Bawdy Houses to entertain sailors in port. Things could get raucous at times in these establishments. Unfortunately, it was one of the only means of making any money with limited resources.

William Spears, editor and sole writer for a second-rate newspaper, the Providence Beacon, wrote an abusive editorial on the Hard Scrabble neighborhood 16 October 1824. Not the first people he had ever attacked. Spears was constantly getting into libel suits with his malicious gossip and fabricated stories. This time however he started a violent event.

Two days after the editorial, a race riot broke out. In the 19th century a “race riot” meant whites attacking blacks for no good reason. A mob descended on Hard Scramble and began tearing down 20 homes. Only four rioters were arrested and only one found guilty. Spears congratulated the vandals in his paper. The residents left and moved to a new neighborhood called Snow Town.

Reward Notice for Information on Snow Town Rioters
The victims had not run far enough. In 1831 white rioters again attacked the black neighborhood, destroying homes. This time, however, Providence did not applaud. The governor sent in the state militia, which shot into the white rabble, killing four. The town then created a police force to protect it’s citizens--ALL its citizens. The African-Americans might still be second class citizens, but they at least got some protection from brutality.

Shelter for Colored Children
Some of Providence’s people wanted to do more to help. In 1838, the Quakers created the Providence Shelter for Colored Children. (“Colored” was the polite term for people of African descent in the 19th century. Apparently people of European descent have no color and are transparent.) At first the shelter was a home for orphans, but it soon expanded its scope to include day care for working parents and vocational training for their children.

The Quakers also starterd a school for African-American children in the 1820s. Providence setup a public school system in 1828, for all children. However, they also created a separate school for “coloreds.” Thankfully in 1866 the city outlawed these silly segregation laws.

Both Hard Scramble and Snow Town are both gone, swallowed up by a rapidly growing city. Historians argue where those sites now are. I was asked to find them There are black neighborhoods in South Providence, West Elmwood and on the East Side. Only a few old people even remember Hard Scrabble and Snow Town. I am getting mixed reports from them. I think they have suppressed some of those memories, so I am having a very hard time pin-pointing the areas. Still the current neighborhoods will disappear in the 1960s so I am careful to at least record them.

Edward Bannister
Times are still hard for the African-Americans, but some are making great strides. Many are still factory workers and domestics, but some are successful businessmen (and women) as well as artists and teachers. In 1877, Inman Page and George Washington Milford became the first African Americans to graduate from Brown University. Another chap, Edward Bannister, is a landscape artist and winner of the bronze medal in the 1876 Centennial in Philadelphia. He helped co-founded the Providence Art Club and took part in the founding of the Rhode Island School of Design.

Things are looking up in 1891, but Providence has a long way to go before there is any real equality. But African-Americans are a plucky lot. They are working hard so future generations can have what they were never allowed.

Rhode Island Black Heritage Society

African American Providence

Providence Newspapers and the Racist Riots of 1824 and 1831

"Driving Home the Cows" by Edward Bannister


Moses Brown's Dream

12 January 1891 - Providence, Rhode Island

Campus of Friends School
Today I visited the Friends School here in Providence. It’s run by the Society of Friends or Quakers. Originally meant for the moral and mental training of Quaker youths, it was always open to all, no matter their religion, race or sex. Founded in the days before public schools, it allowed parents to educate their children who otherwise couldn’t afford it, since this is a day school instead of a boarding school.

Moses Brown
The school was founded by Moses Brown, the same chap that co-founded Brown University, along with several other family members. The Browns were descended from Chad Brown who helped Roger Williams start up Providence. The Browns are strict Baptists and were heavily involved in the slave trade. Moses however converted to the Quaker religion and became an abolitionist. However, he didn’t give up his factories with some of the country’s spinning machines, so Moses had plenty of money with which he could be benevolent.

In 1777 at the New England Yearly Meeting of Friends, Moses Brown joined a committee dedicated to creating a school for young Quakers, to teach them of their faith and to give them an education to make a living. They finally opened the school in 1784 at the Yearly Meeting administration center located in the Portsmouth Friends Meeting House on Aquidnick Island. Problem was it a rather isolated location. After four years of trying to recruit students and teachers, they decided to close the school for one year. It turned into 31 years.

Moses Brown, however, never did not give up on the idea of a school. He was only able to convince the committee by donating 43 acres of his own farm in Providence in 1819. The New England Yearly Meeting Boarding School was opened. Three years later his son Obadiah, left $100,000 in his will to the school, assuring it’s success. This was the largest single contribution ever made to an American school at the time.

Alumni Hall and Drawing Room at Friends School
The school’s name was too long and has been shortened to Friends School. Since the Civil War, the curriculum has been expanded to include music, art and athletics. The school has evolved into a prep school, , teaching children from five to eighteen years old, many graduates going on to Brown University.

Friends School Scholars
In 1904 the board of trustees will change the name to Moses Brown School, a name it still retains in the 27th century. While it still remains a Quaker School, the teachers are of all denominations, even now in 1891.

I must say I enjoyed walking through the campus and watching all the eager faces of the children. The Quakers are teaching them to believe in peace, equality and tolerance--lessons I think we all need to learn.


Better Than a Drinking Fountain

5 January 1891 - Providence, Rhode Island

If you will recall back in September of 2656, I visited the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in July 1876. All the states and territories had sent exhibitions for what is considered America’s first official World’s Fair. It was the first World’s Fair to have a Women’s Pavilion dedicated to the contributions of females to society. It’s theme would be “The New Century for Woman,” back when women were still fighting for the vote.

Women's Pavilion - Centennial Exhibition of 1876
The Rhode Island Women’s Centennial Commission did their part for the Women’s Pavilion. They did such a great job raising funds that they were left with a surplus of $1,675. The ladies came up with the grand plan of building a drinking fountain in Roger Williams Park with the left over money.

Then Helen Adelia Rowe Metcalf came up with a daring proposal. Why not take the money and start a school of design? The city needed one. With all the jewelry, silverware and textile firms, it would be useful. Of course there would be classes in the fine arts, but School of Design sounded more serious. This was to be a college to train professional designers and artists and not an art school for mere hobbyists.

I’m sure the ladies thought her a bit mad. This was 1877. A bunch of women couldn’t start a college. It was a tempting prospect, though. One worth the gamble. So the 34 women of the committee voted to use the surplus money to start the Rhode Island School of Design.

Early photo of Rhode Island School of Design
Helen Metcalf was made head director, a capacity she held until her death in 1895. Despite its humble beginnings and because of Mrs. Metcalf’s influence and administrative skills, the School of Design has been admired from it’s inception, gaining the respect of even its giant neighbor, Brown University, one of the oldest college’s in the country. When Mrs. Metcalf passes away, her daughter, Eliza Greene Metcalf Radeke, will take over until her own death in 1931.

Needless to say, the college was co-ed from the beginning. Since many schools of higher education are closed to women, RISD has attracted many ladies from around the country. For that reason women students currently outnumber men. However male artists have not shunned the school, eagerly enrolling from the very first semester.

The School of Design not only trains artists, but also jewelry designers, fashion designers, graphic artists, architects, photographers, industrial designers and someday even digital designers and animators. It has a library devoted to books on art and design, one of the first of it’s kind in the country. There is also talk of creating a museum, so students and the public can study and admire great art. I believe that will come about in just two years. Eventually it will take up several buildings. Already the name Rhode Island School of Design looks impressive on any resume.

And all because a group of wise women decided Providence had need of something better than a drinking fountain to quench an even greater thirst.

Rhode Island School of Design (125 years later)

Arthur Douglas Collection
first term student of the Rhode Island School of Design

An Incomplete List of Notable Alumni
from the Rhode Island School of Design