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The Spencers of Amberson Ave

The Spencers of Amberson Ave: A Turn-of-the-Century Memoir

Ethel Spencer
Photographs by Charles Hart Spencer
Michael P. Weber
Peter N. Stearns
Copyright Date: 1984
https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt5hjt6m
Pages: 208
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5hjt6m
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  • Book Info
    The Spencers of Amberson Ave
    Book Description:

    This appealing memoir introduces the family of Charles Hart Spencer and his wife Mary Acheson: seven children born between 1884 and 1895. It also introduces a large Victorian house in Shadyside (a Pittsburgh neighborhood) and a middle-class way of life at the turn of the century.

    Mr. Spencer, who worked--not very happily--for Henry Clay Frick, was one of the growing number of middle-management employees in American industrial cities in the 1880s and 1890s. His income, which supported his family of nine, a cook, two regular nurses, and at times a wet nurse and her baby, guaranteed a comfortable life but not a luxurious one. In the words of the editors, the Spencers represent a class that "too often stands silent or stereotyped as we rush forward toward the greater glamour of the robber barons or their immigrant workers."

    Through the eyes of Ethel Spencer, the third daughter, we are led with warmth and humor through the routine of everyday life in this household: school, play, church on Sundays, illness, family celebrations, and vacations. Ethel was an observant child, with little sentimentality, and she wrote her memoir in later life as a professor of English with a gift for clear prose and the instincts of an anthropologist. As the editors observe, her memoir is "a fascinating insight into one kind of urban life of three generations ago."

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-7134-4
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Introduction
    (pp. xiii-2)
    Michael P. Weber and Peter N. Stearns

    Ethel Spencer wrote this book in 1959, as a memento of the treasured growing-up years she shared with her two brothers and four sisters in the prosperous Shadyside section of Pittsburgh. Her story covers the early 1890s to about 1910, the heyday, at least as we like to recall it, of uncomplicated middle-class life. The Spencer family had a solid merchant and professional background, with store owners on the paternal side and a prominent judge on the maternal. Staunchly Presbyterian, the family leavened a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant heritage with German ancestry. It used its prosperity to provide a solid family...

  2. Shadyside in the 1890s
    (pp. 3-9)

    Although technically speaking our branch of the Spencer family from the very beginning lived in the city of Pittsburgh, the world of our childhood was not in the least urban. When Grandfather Acheson in 1877 moved his family from Allegheny to Amberson Avenue, Shadyside was not very far removed from the farm it had recently been. By the end of the century, though the streets had been paved and flagstones had taken the place of boardwalks, the rural atmosphere lingered. A row of sweet cherry trees on either side of Grandfather’s house still bore fruit of superlative quality—big cherries,...

  3. The Spencer family photographs
    (pp. None)
  4. Our House
    (pp. 10-29)

    After Mother’s death in 1950 a real estate man came to 719 Amberson Avenue to evaluate the house. Looking from the library room to the dining room he said, “You could put into these two rooms the whole of the kind of house they are building today.” Built in 1885–1886 in the so-called Queen Anne style, our house was ugly but roomy. One could turn around in it even when it was crowded. Though spacious compared with the houses of 1957, in our childhood 719 contained barely enough room to accommodate our constantly expanding household. When the family had...

  5. The Spencer family photographs
    (pp. None)
  6. Household Staff
    (pp. 30-43)

    To keep such a household as ours going a considerable staff was needed, and fortunately for us wages were so low that it was possible for Mother to have adequate help. During the early years of her married life a dollar and a half appears from her account book to have been the normal weekly wages for domestic service in our house at least. I think that throughout our childhood it never rose above five dollars. There were always a cook, a chambermaid, a nurse—two nurses when the twins were babies—and a laundress. I think that Mother began...

  7. The Spencer family photographs
    (pp. None)
  8. Relatives
    (pp. 44-57)

    The maids who lived with us when we were young were important because they kept the machinery of life going, though as the sewing burdens illustrate, they were only part of the household routine. Actually we took the maids for granted and never thought much about them until some cataclysm brought one regime to an end and started another. Much more important than these people who came and went, were the relatives who were a permanent part of life even though some of them lived too far away to be seen very often. The Achesons, because they were the most...

  9. The Spencer family photographs
    (pp. None)
  10. Growing Up
    (pp. 58-73)

    Though relatives were an integral part of life during our childhood, they were not, since they were mostly grown-ups, on quite the same level of importance as the friends of our own age with whom we played every day. Amberson Avenue has always been a neighborhood of children. When we were young it supplied playmates for every one of the seven Spencers. Next door to us the Macbeths lived, so close that we could talk across the space between our side windows. Whiskery Mr. Macbeth we didn’t know very well and Cousin Kate, his wife, we found alarming, but Helen...

  11. The Spencer family photographs
    (pp. None)
  12. Education and Religion
    (pp. 74-100)

    Play, unfortunately we thought, was too often interrupted by far less important activities. Of these school, of course, was the most timeconsuming. The education of their seven children posed a problem for our parents, but unaware of the speed with which their family would grow, they started off their two eldest in aristocratic fashion. Adeline and Kate began their schooling with a German governess named Fraulein Turk, who conducted a private class, sometimes in the home of Dr. Holland, sometimes at the Reed’s across the street from us, and sometimes at our house. Kate remembered sitting in our dining room...

  13. The Spencer family photographs
    (pp. None)
  14. Special Occasions
    (pp. 101-120)

    Our life, though unchanging in its main outline, was saved from dullness by holidays and special events that gave excitement to the even flow of our days. Some of them were recurring like Christmas, some of them unique like Adeline’s wedding, but all of them added color to the general design. The year for us really began, not in January, but in September with the opening of school. As a prelude to the beginning of the school year there were visits to the Exposition. The “Expo,” which opened toward the end of the summer vacation, we dearly loved, partly at...

  15. Our Mother
    (pp. 121-135)

    Our summer travels and our sojourns in Brookville, though we greatly enjoyed them, were after all only embroidery upon the solid texture of life. What was preeminently important was our life at home, and it was happy. I know that time tends to make one forget the sorrows of childhood and to idealize the past, but even so the Spencers are so unanimous in their feeling about their early years that I know that their childhood was more than usually satisfactory. I do not mean that there were no punishments or heartbreaks, for when I try I can remember some...

  16. The Spencer family photographs
    (pp. None)