Author: Caroline Littlewood
Christina “Tiny” Bixby spent three years as a resident and student of the Dorchester Industrial School for Girls. Her brief time here was just a fraction of her life, but it may be the most well-documented. Without this institutional connection, her story might have gone untold.
Nancy Christina Bixby was born October 15, 1849 to Albert and Eliza (Dearborn) Bixby. Her father worked as a carpenter, supporting his wife and six children through his trade. But on March 22, 1852, the Bixbys’ stable family life was rocked by Albert’s death at age 35. Albert left few debts and a wealth of furniture, but by 1860, the family unit had fractured.
Albert’s mother, Nancy (Kirk) Bixby, passed away in 1856. Any help she may have been able to provide her son’s wife and family was short-lived, and Christina’s siblings were scattered. Emma was adopted by neighbors; Martha and John went to their aunt’s home. Moses lived with a wealthy family, although he later claimed to have been orphaned and made to suffer “hardships and abuses.” The oldest son, Charles, joined up and fought for the Union for a brief time before deserting his post in 1863.
Christina was the only child to remain in close contact with her mother. In May 1860, Eliza Bixby brought Christina to live at the Dorchester Industrial School for Girls. In sharp contrast to the lonely situations faced by many girls at the school, Eliza remained a presence in her daughter’s life during her stay. Eliza worked in service nearby, living with a family of eight in nearby Cambridge. Her employer was Ebenezer Chandler, a native of Chester, Vermont and a possible relative of Eliza’s mother-in-law’s neighbor in Springfield.
Christina, or “Tiny” as she is known in school records, spent nearly three years at the Industrial School for Girls. As the Civil War drew donations and supplies to the Union cause, school administrators depended on the girls to contribute to the sustenance of the school. In Christina’s first year here, she and 29 other students constructed over 400 garments. She knit stockings for sale and contributed to the running of the household while learning the skills necessary to be “placed” in a household. In between duties, the girls recited poetry and read from the Bible or received instruction in “gymnastics” or singing. In the winter, the girls each received a Christmas present and occasionally went ice skating.
In 1862, Christina went out to work in the grand household of Hannah S. Nichols in Lynn, Massachusetts. Her time here is not remarked upon, but records of other girls’ placements illuminate the variability of these situations. Some girls were found unsatisfactory by their temporary employers and returned to the School; others were retained against their will. During these years, each girl had a “guardian” in one of the School’s managers who supervised her girl’s activities and made decisions in her best interest. Lack of remark on Christina’s time at the Nichols estate could signify her employer’s satisfaction, or it could simply mean that other issues consumed the Board’s attention during her months away.
In 1863, Christina left the School to be with her mother. Eliza’s situation had temporarily improved, having newly remarried. She had wed Alexander Lovett, a cooper by trade and a man twenty years older than herself. We may never know the nature of their marriage, but within two years Eliza was once again living with neither husband nor daughter as a servant for a large family in Watertown. In 1882, Mr. Lovett was run over by a coach. His obituary lauds his involvement with the Eliot School Association and remarks on his previous work as a policeman, but makes no mention of a wife.
We know very little about Christina’s life after her departure from the School. While Eliza continued her housekeeping work for various families in Somerville, Christina steered away from her mother’s profession and seems to have lived independently.
In 1880, she lived at 7 Chambers Street in downtown Boston. Boarding with thirteen other young unskilled and semi-skilled workers, she drew on training received at the Industrial School to support herself as a seamstress. This job would have offered her independence unheard of in service. Christina never married, but she did eventually turn to housekeeping in her later years.
Christina’s siblings made new lives for themselves far from Boston. Her brother Charles, Union Army deserter, settled in Kansas and supported his family as a carpenter. Moses made his way westward, eventually settling in Fresno, California. Martha remained in Springfield and married a man forty years her senior. John married twice and died tragically by hanging in the cellar of his Springfield home.
On September 30, 1904, Christina passed away at the Massachusetts Homeopathic Hospital. The cause of death was “chronic enteritis” (intestinal inflammation); the contributory cause was “senile dementia.” She was 54 years old. Her mother Eliza died two years later.