All Things Italy December 2022 19th-C. Asks from Italy Pre-date Giving Tuesday

December 9, 2022 / Etta Madden / Subscribe

Dear Friends,

This issue of All Things Italy pushes into the past as well as across the Atlantic as I consider end-of-year giving and its traditions. I hope you’ll bear with me and read along. . . . And, to those of you who are new subscribers—welcome to what is NOT a typical issue. It touches on a controversial topic–religious missions–but in an historical context which speaks today. Next month will be different. I promise.

I’m motivated this week by traces of Giving Tuesday, which are still showing up in my inbox. So many institutions refuse to let me forget their needs! The tradition long predates email, of course.

Many of us remember (and still receive) paper envelopes full of postage-paid and pre-addressed envelopes, ready for our return gift by check or credit card. Some, not postage-paid, say, “your stamp is a gift to us.” Some, a little thicker, include return address stickers, notepads, calendars, and the like—little gifts to incentivize our end-of-year gifts. There are so many good causes. And, of course, there are tax incentives.

But the tradition long predates end-of-year income tax incentives, which extend at least as far back as the early 20th century (according to an attorney I live with, who also dabbles in basic tax accounting). 

The end-of-year appeals may have emerged from the tradition of gift-giving during colder weather and darker days, when some people become more aware of others in need. The appeals may have emerged from the practice of reviewing the year past while preparing for the year ahead.

(Spiritual groups like the Shakers, formally known as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, encouraged such an annual reckoning and goal setting—a precursor to our “New Year’s Resolutions.” Some annual reviews remain in their manuscript church records at Sabbathday Lake, Maine, for example.) 

Whatever the origin, I know that at least one nineteenth-century expat woman in Italy engaged in the practice. End-of-year appeals appear in the writings of Emily Bliss Gould, one of the three women in my book Engaging Italy: American Women’s Utopian Visions and Transnational Networks. Two of her letters and a couple of other documents resonate for me this time of year. One was an appeal to children, which she requested be read in Sunday School classes. Another was a letter she wrote in the company of a friend, Caroline Crane Marsh, and her husband George. More on these follow.

Emily Bliss Gould’s December 1874 fundraising letter addressed to her “dear Children”
(from a document of the New York Historical Society)

Gould, a New Yorker, went to Italy with her husband James in 1860—supposedly for her health. Her husband, a retired naval physician, began treating the expat community in Rome. Emily often accompanied James as he visited patients, doing what she could to assist with the needs of the ill and their families. But within a few years of her arrival in Italy, she saw another need which diverted her attention from her husband’s work.

Gould’s portrait from a biography published after her death (now in the public domain)

She felt a pull to serve children she saw in need of food, clothing, shelter, and, primarily, education. Following the model of Waldensian schools she witnessed in the Italy’s Piedmont region, Gould began working first in Florence and later in Rome to raise funds for schools. She also supported the school’s affiliated orphanages.  

Early in this process of following her calling, in December 1867, Emily sat in the dining room of the Villa Forini in Florence—the home of the US Ambassador to Italy George Perkins Marsh and his wife Caroline (also featured in Engaging Italy).  The Solstice sun set low over the Arno that day, just three days before Christmas. She begged the American and Foreign Christian Union President Thompson to send funds for education.

“Our own purses are empty, while our hearts are brimming full,” she wrote. For a second winter the Anglo community had provided a tree and gifts for the Italian children. And, she added, “The little fingers of our American children have been busy for some weeks. . . preparing activities” for the “comfort and pleasure” of the non-Anglo children in the school.  

Gould’s December 22, 1867, letter to Dr. Thompson, President of the American Foreign and Christian Union, written from Marsh’s home in Florence, the Villa Forini (letter is in the archives of New York University)
Sunset over the Arno River in Florence–but closer to summer solstice rather than during December’s dark days.

From Florence to Rome in 1870

With the unification of Italy in 1870, outsiders flooded Rome, which became the new capital after Florence. The outsiders included non-Catholic groups such as the Waldensians, eager to share their religious views and help children they saw in need. Gould, living in Rome, became a part of these efforts.

Her appeals for funds began to appear in annual reports for the Italo-American Schools in Rome, the institution she founded in collaboration with the Waldensians in 1870. As occurs today, the report included a list of contributors on the final pages. Everyone (except the few who chose anonymity) could see exactly who donated how much. Groups of children and Sunday School classes contributed smaller amounts, while wealthy benefactors donated more. The amounts ranged from a few francs or dollars (let’s say about $50 today) to a few hundred pounds (almost 45,000 dollars today). Most were undesignated funds. But in the report of 1873, readers see that Mrs. George P. Marsh, along with several others, contributed to the Christmas Tree. 

Gould’s 1873 report, which included an account of holiday activities and requested funds (document in the New-York Historical Society)
Gould’s balance sheet for the schools, at the back of the report, followed a list of subscribers
(document in the New-York Historical Society)

Gould wrote warmly of the Christmas events. She wanted readers to feel the love. Then they might be moved to give—or to give more and feel good about their past gifts.

“Our Christmas tree was of course a great event to our children, many of whom had never seen any thing of the kind.” The “kindness of friends” and “self-denying labors” of a small group contributed to the success. Preparations had demanded “two to four evenings every week,” she explained. 

The efforts were truly transnational. She explained that “representatives of five different nations” made the decorations. A German provided the tree and “hung a golden star,” and “young Danish girls hung golden and rich colored tinsel.” 

Among the gifts, each child would receive “a lace bag worked in worsted, and filled with bonbons.” Plus, each boy would receive “a ball in a bright colored net” and each girl “a nicely dressed doll.” (Yes, the school’s teachings were highly gendered!)    

The party’s refreshment table was spread with “white bread, plain cake, and oranges.” Another table was piled with clothing and “a variety of little articles in worsted”–all “presented by friends.” 

After the Preparations, a Program and Party

These preparations were all set before the children entered the room through two doors, with “one column bearing the American, and the other the Italian flag.” They encircled the tree and continued with a combined patriotic and religious program. After admiring the tree, “they burst into a Christmas song.” Then followed the story of Jesus’s birth from the accounts of Matthew and Luke, and next “various recitations, interspersed with hymns and patriotic songs.” This combination of the patriotic, or political, with a religious emphasis, was not unusual in the era. I wonder how many of you recall public school parties or programs with religious elements??? 

After this more formal part of the program, the distribution of gifts began, starting with the youngest children of the “Crêche,” or pre-school. “The little guests were just old enough to be delighted with the brightness and coloring about them, and themselves made a beautiful scene in the picture,” Gould explained. She noted “one affecting little incident” in particular. One mother “who had recently lost her child,” had donated the little loved one’s clothing to the institution. When these littlest children came in to see the tree, “she lifted one . . . [who] was dressed in a little coat which she had but lately wrapped about her own babe.”  

These children of the institution, Gould continued, “would otherwise be literally in rags,” if not for the generous gifts of this “most necessary and Christian charity.” But, she explained, the holiday party did much more than clothe the children and add sparkle to their eyes. It impacted the community—for better and for worse. It made “an excellent impression” on some children and parents, “by showing . . . . the interest taken in the schools.” But it also angered those conservative Roman Catholics opposed to the Protestant relief effort.    

The opposition to Gould’s work only fueled her fire. She continued writing and raising funds until her death in 1875. Less than a year before, in December 1874, she wrote directly to children, telling them about the work, naming their counterparts—Marietta, Pepino, and others—who had been without decent food and clothing and, sometimes, without parents. She asked them to consider their warm beds and full bellies and give what they could to help these poor children in Rome.   

A woman in black dress and hat sits with young boy in her lap and girl at her side
Emily Bliss Gould (1825-1875) with Venetian Bartoli children, Pepino and Marietta.
from Italo-American Schools at Rome [1874], New-York Historical Society.

Traces of Gould’s labors with the Italo-American schools remain in Italy today. In a Waldensian guest house for tourists in Florence’s Oltrarno, a wall plaque provides a simple history of her work.

Her story, which touches upon religious division and strife, as I discuss in Engaging Italy, is not without its problematic elements of American Protestant exceptionalism. Yet her earnest efforts are worth noting, at least for how they speak to women’s labors, which are often overlooked and forgotten.  

As we face numerous requests for end-of-year giving this month, we might recall Gould’s work and think not only about social divisions due to religious and cultural differences but about the needs surrounding us. If we are not called to write and to raise funds as she was, perhaps we can find ways to give during this winter season.  

Looking Ahead to 2023 

In January I promise to turn from these thoughts of the past to writing about the present. Many of you have asked me about popular shows you’ve streamed and about social media posts—so I’ve decided to take time to write about a couple of these in the next issue. I also plan to share more about travel. Stay tuned. And if you know anyone who might enjoy reading these short monthly accounts, please share a link with them. 

Updates on Engaging Italy  

Why not a copy of Engaging Italy for any history-lover you know? With the 30% off coupon code above, the paperback is a great buy. And, if you’re interested in a signed copy but not in the Springfield, Missouri, area, you can order a copy through Pagination Bookshop, with whom I have arranged to sign and ship copies. These are a little pricier than purchasing directly from SUNY Press with the coupon code above, but you’re supporting a good cause–a local, indie bookstore. The details are here

Women’s History Month Talks?

It’s not too early to schedule a book talk for women’s history month. March will soon be here! I am always happy to talk about Engaging Italy or other topics related to my research and writing. If you or a group you‘re a part of are interested, let me know! We would arrange to have book copies available for purchase and signing.

Podcasts & Recordings on American Women in Italy

If you’re interested in learning more about Engaging Italy as you walk, or clean, or rest, you can listen to some past recordings.

First, and most recent, there’s a Let’s Talk Books event from November. I enjoyed the opportunity to be a guest on Professor Lynn Domina’s series through the University of Northern Michigan’s English Department. (That recording is available here.) Thanks much to those who tuned in. It was especially uplifting to hear the questions from friends I know are newsletter subscribers! Your presence and support keeps me going through the sometimes lonely work of research and writing.

Earlier in the fall, there was a podcast with BIO (Biographer’s International Organization). We discussed the book’s content and why these nineteenth-century women matter today. But we also talked about the craft of writing biography–especially one focused on a group of women.

Another was with Lost Ladies of Lit, focused on Anne Hampton Brewster’s novel set in Naples.

A third is coming up in 2023. It will be with Kelly Pollack’s Unsung History. We will talk in general about Engaging Italy.

And there may be another as well . . . I’ll keep you informed!

Upcoming Events

In addition to the upcoming podcast, I’ll be speaking about journalist Anne Hampton Brewster in January.

Anne Hampton Brewster, ca. 1873 (from the Library Company of Philadelphia)

Mr. Kate Cromo: News Correspondent Anne Hampton Brewster in Rome, 1869-1890

January 19, 2023 @ 6:00 pm – 7:00 pm CST

This presentation, part of the Library Company of Philadelphia’s Fireside Chat Series, focuses on Philadelphian Anne Hampton Brewster’s career as a news correspondent in Rome. The talk will also provide a brief overview of the book. Brewster’s personal library, papers, and several other items were left to the Library Company after her death in 1892. Research in these materials laid the foundation for Engaging Italy and for the talk. The talk will be streamed and recorded. Register for this FREE event here.

Updates appear on my Events page, and I share reminders about them on social media. I hope you’ll participate and share them as well.  

As we await the longer days and approach 2023, I hope dreams of All Things Italy will keep you going!

Etta Madden