Author: Nina Rodwin
When Emily Parker began working for the ISFG in 1856, she reflected the 19th-century ideals for white, upper-class women. In fact, it could be argued that Emily’s background may have inspired her to work at the ISFG, as she was raised in a family deeply involved in the reform movements of the 19th century. At the same time, her family’s participation in volunteer societies both reflected and reinforced specific gender roles. Advocates for social change routinely praised the “greater virtues” of women; they saw religious piety, sexual purity, submissive natures and inherent domesticity as hallmarks of women’s natural benevolence. In Emily’s family, this gender dichotomy was clearly demonstrated by each member’s respective causes. Men in Emily’s family participated in larger cultural organizations which reflected their class standing, while the women participated in charitable organizations which exemplified their compassionate nature.
As a successful businessman, Emily’s father, Daniel Pinckney Parker, was involved in was numerous cultural organizations, including the Boston Athenaeum, and the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Daniel was already a well-known merchant and shipbuilder by the time Emily was born on December 5th 1826. His wife, and Emily’s mother, Mary Parker, was involved in cultural organizations herself, serving as the president of the longest standing sewing circle in Boston, the Fragment Society. By around 1830, Daniel Parker, Mary Parker, Emily, and her three older siblings were living at 40 Beacon Street, in a house designed by the famous architect Alexander Parris. About 25 years later, the family moved a few blocks away to 89 Beacon Street, where Emily lived for the rest of her life.
Due to her family’s wealth, Emily enjoyed a life where leisure, socializing and community work were essential to class standing. Like many women during the 19th century, Emily corresponded with her friends and family through letters. It is likely she looked forward to seeing her name appear in the Boston Herald’s “letter list,” as this column let her know she had received mail. Emily’s father may have introduced Emily to prominent Bostonians; he was good friends with the Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, Lemuel Shaw, and the author Herman Melville. Evidence suggests that that Emily was creative; at 22 years of age, she participated in a “Grand Juvenile Concert,” at City Hall as part of the 1848 May Festival. With several other women, Emily sang a song – “Flowers” – and read her own poetry in the closing ceremonies. It is also likely that Emily studied in a female academy, where she could learn domestic skills, as well as additional “accomplishments” such as painting, embroidery or a foreign language.
As archaeologist Suzanne Spencer-Wood explains, women were expected to create a positive and comfortable home to mold the minds of their children, and to protect their family from an increasingly immoral and chaotic world. But the first steps to reforming the outside world began with the home; marriage, motherhood and housework were viewed as bulwarks against the destruction of society itself. In this environment, Emily’s decision to work at the ISFG was likely viewed as a natural choice for a woman of her social class.
Such thinking shaped the ISFG mission to the improve the lives of the destitute girls through the positive influence of training in the domestic arts, and ultimately “hiring out” the children as domestic servants to well-off families. In the ISFG’s first annual report in 1856, the managers explained that: “we desire to exert on these children the influences of home; and, in most cases, it is the first true home they have ever known.” In their roles as the moral compass of the family and home, upper-class women tried to expand their sphere of influence for the benefit of society. In benevolent programs in industrial schools, for example, upper and middle-class women sought social change by instilling middle-class values and habits of work, religion, culture and morality among lower-class and destitute women and children.
Emily was listed as a “manager” at the ISFG between 1856 and 1860. As part of her duties, Emily assessed the character of families who wished to hire a child as a domestic servant. Although Emily was expected to control and save the child’s wages, she was also supposed to be a kind guardian to the “hired out” girls, visiting them to ensure they “may never feel . . . forgotten among strangers.” Since managers only met at the school monthly, it is possible Emily became the secretary for the ISFG in 1860 as a way to participate more in the school’s mission. In her new role, Emily recorded the admission information on each child, as well as the minutes of the monthly meetings. Emily’s time at the ISFG was likely an exciting period in her life; her duties allowed her to have a meaningful impact on the lives of destitute children, while also providing her with increased respectability in her own community. Emily married Benjamin Pickman, a doctor from Nova Scotia, on August 1st 1863.
Sadly, the newlyweds had little time together before tragedy struck. By October, Emily was forced resigned from the ISFG “in consequence of ill health.” Emily’s health continued to deteriorate, and she died just four months after her wedding on December 4th 1863, at 37 years old. Her death record states Emily had succumbed to “phthisis,” an older term for tuberculosis. She was buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery, next to the graves of her father and two sisters.