Florence Higinbotham (1870-1949): An Ignored Narrative 

by Rosie Wright

Far too often, I have found that historic house tours place too much emphasis on the male characters in their historical narrative. What I find perhaps most fascinating about this – especially with my experience of studying and working in historic houses – is that typically, the female stories relate more closely to the house itself. What’s more, these women’s stories help build a narrative that usually stands contrary to how historical literature has perceived them.  

Last year I visited The Castle Hill on the Crane Estate in Ipswich, MA. The house, constructed in 1910, preserves a turn of the 20th-century country home (Country Place Era) that once belonged to Mr. and Mrs. Richard T. Crane, Jr of Chicago. The house and tour focus on Richard T. Crane Jr and his father, Richard T. Crane, the founder of R.T. Crane & Bro., a Chicago-based manufacturer. Other than an unproven theory that Mrs. Crane believed the initial construction of the first castle was “too atrocious,” leading to it being torn down and re-built in 1924, she is largely ignored. So, who was “Mrs. Crane?” Before marriage, she was known as Florence Higinbotham. 

The Castle Hill
(image: Author’s own)

Florence Higinbotham Crane (image: http://www.househistree.com)

One of Paris’, London’s, and New York’s most eligible debutants, Florence had viable options in her choice of marriage. “Small, slender, and exquisitely dainty,” she had an intoxicating spirit to those drawn to her “large grey eyes and soft brown hair glint[ing] with gold.” Florence was born in 1870, in Chicago, Cook, Illinois, to Rachel Deborah Davison and Harlow Niles Higinbotham, into massive wealth. Her wealth and beauty earned Florence the title of one of the most “fashionable and aristocratic young women of Chicago society.” Although little is known about Florence as a child – especially as young women were seldom talked about until their debut in society – she grew up to have a “brassy voice and bossy manner.” 

In her youth, the Higinbotham’s mainly resided in their Chicago mansion at No. 2838 Michigan Boulevard. While the home was used for various balls and parties, perhaps most important to Florence was her debut into Chicago society on Friday, December 16, 1892. The purpose of the coming-out ball was essentially a way for young women to be presented to other “appropriate” men of the same social standing. Between 8 and 11 o’clock, around 800 ladies and gentlemen whose names were prominent in the world of fashion thronged the spacious halls and drawing rooms. Florence wore a rich gown of white bengaline, trimmed with tulle and embroidered in peals and bands of sable. Herbert M. Kinsley, Chicago’s finest restauranteur, served guests supper while Giuseppe Valisi’s Mandolin Orchestra entertained guests as they arrived and mingled in the white mahogany music room. Although eligible bachelors thronged to Florence as “one of the most fashionable and aristocratic young women of Chicago society, and…heiress to about $10,000,000,” Florence did not marry until much later in life. Like many women of her generation, she dedicated the first half of her life to social reform movements, charitable efforts, and, last but certainly not least, to the fight to advance women’s rights.  

Progressive Women and Sport

Perhaps making her point that marriage was not in the cards early in her youth, Florence made the papers again in the late 1890s, triumphing in one of “society girls’ latest fads.” A far cry from Victorian feminine sensibilities, Florence joined other upper-class progressive women in cities by learning to fence. Florence quickly mastered the art, on one occasion “disarming her teacher, much to monsieur’s chagrin.” Her persistence led to her father’s billiards room conversion into an armory, giving her and her female friends the necessary space to “bout.” 

We have seen many certain forms of literature portray turn of the century women in the same light as Victorian Era Women. There were stark differences between Victorian and Progressive Era women, and Florence’s life is a perfect example of this. Unlike the Victorian Era, where women were discouraged from participating in sport, Progressive women were encouraged to engage in physical activity. These sports were mostly pursued by the upper and middle classes and included horseback riding, boating, bathing or swimming, golf, archery, field hockey, figure skating, bowling, fencing, tennis, and rowing. In fact, the physical health of white upper and middle-class women was considered a necessity for the well-being and strength of American society. 

The convulsion of labor and the political strife in the cities in the late 1870s and early 1880 spurred the development of Anglo-Saxon nativism. (This nativism was prefaced by scientific racism and findings from the eugenics movement). As a result, the ideology promoted strengthening the white, native-born population. In a speech before the National Congress of Mothers on March 13, 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt claimed that “old stock” American mothers needed to have more children to prevent the “racial suicide” of the Anglo-Saxon race. In the same way, nativists believed that the physical health of women and girls was essential to the production of strong, healthy children and thus to the unwavering strength of the Anglo-Saxon race. 

However, white women were only encouraged to engage in sports so long as their femininity and “natural” modesty remained intact. These sports were played mainly by women at newly established elite women’s colleges or in country clubs. Although these women were privileged to engage in such activities, their participation was carefully limited at these institutions; Country Clubs only allowed women access to facilities on certain days and within certain hours. Due to these confines, many middle and upper-class women like Florence used the spaces in their gardens and houses to shape and direct rules and regulations without any interference from men.

Charity Work 

Progressive women were drawn to reform. While educated middle-class women put their intelligence to the test, upper-class women contributed to the social reform with their money. Elite women put massive sums of money into major reforms like the settlement houses, industrial education, kindergarten, daycare, and social causes such as the suffragist, labor, and anti-war movements. Like Victorian upper-class women, progressive elite women were expected to be charitable. Florence used all of her houses to host charity balls, events, and fundraisers. Similar to the three-day open-air fete that Florence hosted for the Cable Hospital in July of 1921, some of these events lasted a number of days. 

Fortnightly Clubs

Florence and other Progressive women of her statue – inspired by their new educational opportunities and unable to join men in intellectual groups – formed fortnightly clubs. Fortnightly clubs were originally founded in the late 19th century as a place for women, especially those who were denied access or could not afford to attend university, to have an intellectual life where they could express their views in a unique setting, away from the dining room where their opinions were often vilified. The fortnightly club of Chicago, founded in 1895 by Kate Newell Doggett, a delegate of the National Woman Suffrage Association, was the oldest women’s association in Chicago. Other prominent members included Jane Addams, Ellen Martin Henrotin, and Betha Palmer. Florence was elected as the treasurer of the club in November of 1895. Although the women covered a wide range of subjects, especially those associated with social and political reform, the club discussed Parliamentary Law on Friday mornings. On one occasion, Mrs. Mary Urquhart Lee, an expert on parliamentary law, gave women instruction to educate the group on the body of rules, ethics, and customs that governed their various organizations and clubs. Although Mary Urquhart Lee’s books were never widespread – perhaps because she wrote on a subject deemed only appropriate for men to discuss – she wrote at least two books on parliamentary law. Both books were recommended to “gentlemen” who studied Parliamentary Law by Thomas Brackett Reed, 12 times serving House of Representatives for Maine. Florence was later elected Vice President in ay 1897.

Upper-class women are traditionally thought of as women who threw money at the causes close to their hearts but left the hands-on elements of reform to middle-class women. This inaccurate picture is slowly being re-written in fascinating ways. Historians such as Johanna Neuman, author of Gilded Suffragists: The New York Socialites who Fought for Women’s Right to Vote, have begun to address many of the inaccurate interpretations of upper-class American women on the East Coast. Although women like Florence used their money to benefit the suffragist movement in any way that they could, they by no means believed it useful to sit on the sidelines. In 1913, Florence and other debutantes of Chicago society created a school to train debutantes of Chicago society to become suffrage speakers. Florence served as an executive board member along with other prominent members like Miss Caroline Kirkland and Mrs. Tiffany Blake to “demonstrate the whole need of equal suffrage.” 

Recommended Reading

  • Richard Jay Hutto, Their Gilded Case: The Jekyll Island Club Members (Macon, GA: Henchard Press, 2006)
  • Alice Arlen (Author), Michael J. Arlen, Huntress: The Adventures, Escapades, and Triumphs of Alicia Patterson: Aviatrix, Sportswoman, Journalist, Publisher(New York: Penguin Random House, 2016)
  • June Hall McCash, The Jekyll Island Cottage Colony (Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 1998)
  • Olivia Mahoney, Douglas/Grand Boulevard: A Chicago Neighborhood (Illinois: Arcadia Publishing, 2001)
  • Johanna Neuman, Gilded Suffragists: The New York Socialites who Fought for Women’s Right to Vote (New York: New York University Press, 2017)

About the Author

Rosie studied an MA in Public History at the University of Massachusetts. During her MA, she primarily studied Public History and explored the best ways to interpret history to the public, whether in museums or public sites. She was fortunate enough to study during a transformative period for American museums, many of which were finding new ways to interpret their history away from the “male gaze.” She has worked with a number of historic house museums to identify areas for interpretative growth by analyzing the museum’s current interpretation. In other words, to ensure the museum’s period rooms, public tours, and educational and thematic programming do not fall privy to the pitfalls of presenting history in a single, stationary light. 

Rosie currently lives in Hong Kong. Alongside playing professional rugby 7ns, she works as a freelance writer and historian. She currently manages a blog that explores Hong Kong’s melting pot history through the lens of its colorful architecture: https://www.citybuiltondiversityhk.com/

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