In praise of maiden aunts

Sally Leeds. Author’s collection

As most genealogists focus their in-depth research on direct ancestors, I have adopted the term “genealogical orphans” for persons with no living descendants to take an interest in researching them. While we usually document the births of all known children in a family, and sometimes their marriages and deaths, we less frequently go beyond the basics to learn about their lives. We have been encouraged to investigate family, associates, and neighbors (the “FAN club”), but often do so only in search of evidence to document a hard-to-prove family relationship. Yet I have found that these maiden aunts, bachelor uncles, and childless couples often have fascinating stories, and sometimes had profound impact on our ancestors.

A major presence in my childhood was my grandmother’s unmarried sister, Sally Leeds (1896-1984). She was generous with gifts, took my older sisters on a “Fairy Tale Castle Tour” cruise of the Rhine, and (most importantly!) was the main source of family lore, pictures, and artifacts. Trained by the Junior League, she chaired the boards of several Springfield, Massachusetts non-profit institutions, led the fund-raising campaign for her church’s new parish house, was director of Springfield’s Central Volunteer Bureau during World War II, then chaired the city’s post-war Citizen’s Committee on Displaced Persons and was appointed by the governor to the Midcentury White House Conference on Children and Youth. A forceful woman, even her widowed father (a Yankee businessman of few words) called her “The Boss.”

I had heard lots about Aunt Sally’s achievements first-hand as a child, but only when I started researching family history did I discover how many interesting “genealogical orphans” adorned the family tree. A few years ago I wrote about one, the black sheep Roger Morgan (1867-1936), after unearthing the many reasons why Aunt Sally—usually so eager to share family stories—had so little to say about him.[1] His life was full of romantic and business drama, and, although I’d always heard he was childless, I discovered he had an adopted daughter (with more drama).

[Many] interesting “genealogical orphans” adorn the family tree.

Recently, I dug into Roger’s more elusive, childless brother, Daniel Harris Morgan (1879-1958), who, it turns out, married Grace Van Rensselaer Dwight (1876-1963)—the divorced (!) daughter of Hartford’s mayor—eschewed business, and moved to Greenwich Village to squander his inheritance. The couple lived high on the hog, while the money lasted, with three live-in servants (including a chauffeur),[2] European travel, and Parisian couture; they were close friends with the famous avant garde group of artists known as The Eight, especially William Glackens (1870-1938) and his wife, Edith Dimock (1876-1955), a childhood friend of Grace’s and an artist in her own right (with her own inheritance to support the artist’s family). Glackens was a high school classmate of Alfred Barnes, who tapped him to make the initial purchases for his art collection, the nucleus of Philadelphia’s incomparable Barnes Foundation; Glackens remained Barnes’s influential art advisor for years.[3]

Imagine my surprise to discover that not only had Aunt Grace written a charming book of children’s stories, illustrated by Edith Dimock,[4] but that she appears in William Glackens’s “signature piece”[5] – his “largest and most important work,”[6] “Family Group” – which was first exhibited at the famous Armory Show in 1913, reproduced in LIFE magazine in 1956,[7] and now hangs in the National Gallery! Although Grace was not part of the Glackens family, William’s son Ira said: “Mrs. Morgan … returned from Paris with some fashionable clothes and among them was a stunning creation by Paul Poiret, at that time the leading French couturier. Father liked this brilliant costume and asked Mrs. Morgan to pose in it, and completely reorganized the color scheme of his painting.”[8] Curator Avis Berman says that “Morgan’s addition to the canvas symbolizes the necessity for progressive American artists to recognize and embrace contemporary currents in French art.”[9] Grace and “Dan” Morgan appeared in other Glackens paintings, too.[10]

“Family Group.” Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ira Glackens. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Not every “genealogical orphan” will turn out to be a fascinating reprobate or appear in a major artwork (or both). But many have played pivotal roles in our ancestors’ lives. After my paternal grandmother Ruby Barrus (1882-1959) and her brother George (1884-1971) were orphaned young, they depended on childless and unmarried aunts from both sides of the family. George recalled that “Mother died when I was 3yrs. and father put us with his sister Theresa [Theresa (Barrus) Peckham (1856-1920)]. Then he died when I was 9 yrs and I staid on until 14 yrs of age when I chose aunt Aggie [Agnes Barton Latta (1844-1915)] as my guardian. Aunt Thres held onto Ruby to wash dishes and do the house work. Ruby was afraid to argue upon choosing [a] guardian at 14 yrs of age. Because Ruby staid with him [uncle William D. Peckham (1855-1928)] gave her $500000 when she bought the house in Haddonfield[, N.J.].”[11] That is the house in which my father grew up.

Aunt Aggie Latta and Aunt Theresa and Uncle Bill Peckham appear to have lived quiet lives in far upstate New York. They made homes for their young niece and nephew and, ultimately, their cash helped provide a stable, secure home for Ruby’s young family through the Depression.

One way the memory of maiden aunts, bachelor uncles, and childless couples lives on is through namesakes.

One way the memory of maiden aunts, bachelor uncles, and childless couples lives on is through namesakes. I have not done a systematic tally, but it seems their names carry on more frequently than those of siblings with children of their own. My grandparents named my uncle Barton Latta Searle in honor of Ruby’s beloved maiden Aunt Aggie, who herself was named for her aunt, Agnes (Latta) Barton (1774-1858). Both my sister and my mother’s cousin were named for my mother’s childless great-aunt, Ellen Lambert (Leeds) George (1869-1958), who was in turn named for her maiden aunt, Ellen Louise Lambert (1837-1914). My maternal grandmother carried her childless aunt’s name [Mary Warren (Leeds) Devens (1874-1925)], and so received all of her monogrammed silver when Aunt Mary died.

You might have a passel of genealogical orphans just awaiting your discoveries, too. Looking back three generations, I find that 36% of my great-grandparents’ generation (the earliest for which I have complete information) who lived to adulthood were either unmarried or childless. In the prior generation I have incomplete information about collaterals in many lines, but 41% of the known adult siblings of my great-great-grandparents were either unmarried or childless. That is a lot of “genealogical orphans.” Because they have no descendants to research them, it’s up to me. I’m sure I’ll find a few more intriguing tales that have been lost to memory.

Notes

[1] Andrew Searle Pang, “Was Uncle Roger Truly ‘n.g.’?,” The Connecticut Nutmegger 49: 2 [2016]: 103-16.

[2] United States census, population schedule, 1910, New York, New York County, Borough of Manhattan, Ward 15, Enumeration Dist. 822, page 2B, dwelling 18, family 19, Daniel H. Morgan, viewed at Ancestry.com, 1910 United States Federal Census [database on-line], Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2006.

[3] Mario Naves, “Exhibition Note: On ‘William Glackens’ at The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia,” The New Criterion 33: 5 [2015]: 57, https://newcriterion.com/issues/2015/1/exhibition-note-8060.

[4] Grace Van Rensselaer Dwight, The Yellow Cat and some friends (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1905).

[5] Aubrey Nagle, “THE ONE: Curator Avis Berman on William Glackens’s Family Group,” Philadelphia Magazine, November 24, 2014, https://www.phillymag.com/things-to-do/2014/11/14/one-curator-avis-berman-william-glackens-family-group/.

[6] National Gallery of Art, “Important Twentieth-Century Painting Acquired by National Gallery,” news release, Washington, DC, 23 November 1971, https://www.nga.gov/content/dam/ngaweb/research/gallery-archives/PressReleases/1979-1970/1971/14A11_44174_19711123.pdf.

[7] “American Ladies the Artists Painted,” LIFE, December 24, 1956, pp. 158-63.

[8] National Gallery of Art, “Important Twentieth-Century Painting Acquired by National Gallery,” news release, 23 November 1971.

[9] Aubrey Nagle, “THE ONE: Curator Avis Berman on William Glackens’s Family Group,” Philadelphia Magazine, November 24, 2014.

[10] Richard J. Wattenmaker, “William Glackens’s ‘Beach Scenes’ at Bellport,” Smithsonian Studies in American Art 2: 2 [1988]: 74-94, JSTOR, accessed 24 March 2021.

[11] George Latta Barrus, handwritten recollection dated “7/23/64” (23 July 1964) on back of birthday party invitation addressed to Miss Aggie Latta, 2 October 1893, original in possession of the author.

About Andrew Searle Pang

Andrew Searle Pang has been researching family history in fits and starts since his teenage years. In the late 1990s, he was a professional researcher with the New England Historic Genealogical Society’s Enquiries Service (now Research Services) and edited several genealogical books, including the 2002 Jacobus Award-winner, The Burling Books: Ancestors and Descendants of Edward and Grace Burling, Quakers [1620—2000] (2000) by Jane Thompson Stahr. Now a retired independent school administrator and consultant in fund raising and non-profit governance, Andrew lives in eastern Massachusetts.

21 thoughts on “In praise of maiden aunts

  1. I must document my great aunt Edith’s life! You have given me inspiration to do so! The youngest of 5 children, Edith graduated Johns Hopkins in the early 20th century, moved to New York City to eventually “come home” to help my grandmother after a leg amputation. The sisters lived two doors down from us until my Grandmother passed. Edith then moved on to New Hampshire then Sacramento. She lived a life. From Ohio to Maryland, New York, Michigan, New Hampshire and California.. She travelled frequently with friends, Scotland being a favorite spot.

    1. I’m so pleased that you feel inspired, Nancy! You’ve highlighted two aspects of “genealogical orphans” that I have frequently noticed: roles as caregivers for family members and the freedom (and sometimes resources) to do things they could not if they had family responsibilities, such as travel. My Aunt Sally was also a frequent world traveler and I have treasured souvenirs that she brought back for me as a boy from Scandinavia, South America, etc. Your Aunt Edith definitely deserves to have her life recorded.

  2. Fascinating article – for the beautiful Glackens’ reproduction as well as the research. A number of such “orphans” dot my maternal Irish-American family. Being an “orphan” myself, I have been inspired to research their often interesting and colorful lives.

    1. Thank you for the kind feedback, Paul. “Fascinating” feels like high praise for my first blog post. And “colorful” is just the right word for some of the characters I’ve discovered among the genealogical orphans. And Grace Dwight Morgan’s French outfit was literally colorful! Please share some of the interesting stories from your research.

  3. Andrew, I have had that title tucked away in my “someday write a book” list for years and years. Probates of those unmarried aunts and uncles are the first that I look for.

    1. Dear Alicia,
      I haven’t copyrighted that title, so it’s still available for your book! Care to collaborate?
      Those probates can be genealogical gold.

  4. I had one maiden great Aunt Rose who was a private nurse to wealthy people in New York. Many of them gave her gifts which she often shared with me and which I still treasure. After moving to Ca she would send the newspaper coverage of the Rose Bowl parade every year before TV was around.
    In my generation my cousin Lucile, was our maiden aunt having lost her husband to be in a terrible auto accident a few weeks before their wedding date. She then devoted her life to nursing getting a Masters at U of Michigan and then worked on a community health project in Tennesee and lastly as director of Public Health Nursing Department for the city of Akron, Ohio. She also taught nursing at Kent State U and was the author of several chapters in nursing textbooks. At her funeral last summer in my eulogy for her I said the Italians had their don but we had Lucile. She kept our family together, arranging many family get togethers, taking care of her niece and nephews, and when we were with her she was our boss. We miss her so much and my Maher family will never be the same without her. She made the best pot roast and blonde brownies in the whole world and our cousin Dale always made her Old Fashions for her promise to take care of him in his old age. Now he, I, my sister, and his brother are the only ones left in our generation and miss our cousin Lucile. Maiden aunts are very unappreciated.

    1. Cousin Lucille sounds like a treasure, Mary, and clearly she (for one) was not unappreciated. Please do write down her story for posterity!

  5. All relatives really have a part in your family history. One great-grand aunt (never married) was interested in our family history and corresponded with a cousin and shared information that was very important. And if not for the correspondence between a niece of my great-grandfather (unmarried) and my grandfather, much family history could have been lost to us – as well as pictures we may never have seen. So thankful for these ladies as they have been key in my family history. One was a teacher and principal of a school. The other was a nurse in the British Army in WWI. I even got a great photo of her that came from her corresponding with my grandfather.

  6. Thank you for this. There is something rather poignant about the subject, given that the memories of these childless people likely fade after a couple of generations.

  7. In the last few months I’ve written stories of my aunt Laura for whom I’m named; she died as a child. Also, I detailed tales of my great grandmother’s older sister Grace who never married. You’ve given me inspiration to tell more stories of those without descendants.

  8. The ‘maiden aunt’ in our family was my grandfather’s sister Marge. She had an amazing career as a librarian which ended as head librarian of the Labor Department Library in Washington D.C. A few years ago someone reached out to me on Ancestry and said she was Marge’s grand-daughter! Turns out, Marge had a child in 1929, the man would not marry her, and she gave the baby up for adoption. After getting acquainted through email and then phone calls I went to visit my new-found second cousin and her mother, Pat. Pat was grateful to look at the photos I brought and learn a little about her mother’s side of the family. My first cousins and siblings have been delighted to welcome Anne and Pat into the family.

  9. I have such an “orphan” aunt as well, who shared many of the characteristics you cite. As the only daughter in a family of six children, she was the keeper of photographs, Victorian autograph books, and even locks of hair…which have now largely come to me. Aunt Fae lived by her own rules, and was not technically a maiden aunt, having been divorced after a few years of marriage. My great-grandmother went to live with Fae in her last years, down in the sunny climes of Los Angeles. This probably contributed to Fae becoming custodian of the family “collections,” and I remember riding home to Oregon following our spring break trip to Disneyland as a child, with an impressive Victorian monstrosity—a 30” tower encrusted with small shells—between my brother and me.

  10. Thanks for such an interesting and appreciative treatment of unmarried and childless relatives. I’m one myself, but the article mainly made me think of Aunt Mamie, my maternal grandfather’s sister, Mary Elizabeth Dolan (1879-1979). She lived a quiet life with multiple generations of family, working as a librarian in her hometown of Lawrence, Massachusetts. She was a benign and loving presence at family gatherings, and with her longevity she provided a link to the past well into the adulthoods of myself and my siblings. And, she helped get me started on my genealogical journey, patiently answering questions and providing details when I began to show curiosity about ancestors. By the way, she had the benefit of the presence of four maiden aunts, sisters of her father (my great-grandfather) Terence Dolan. One of the sisters, Margaret Dolan, lived to be 95 and thereby played a similar role in the family to the one Mamie played a generation later.

  11. Speaking as a bachelor uncle (until marriage was made available to us) and family archivist, I find it discouraging that many genealogies document married family members who have children far better than those of us without children. I note that even in some recent NEHGS publications.

  12. Responding from a purely emotional level here, it’s painful and somewhat hard to reconcile the term *maiden* with the lives of accomplishment so well outlined in your article. *Maiden* seems to connote a person who remained a child her whole life, because she was never chosen and never reproduced. Older, single, childless women are real heroines, grittily earning their own keep and contributing generously to others whilst manifesting real talent and creativity…quite unlike those celebrated and remembered for marriage and child rearing which are pursuits often borne of significant self-interest.

    1. I want to acknowledge the pain you describe and, without downplaying it, point out that there are few choices for a substitute, all less suitable. “Spinster” and “old maid” are surely more degrading; “feme sole” is a legal term and not well known; “vestal” carries entirely different connotations. Roget’s offers no better options. I can say that in my family, these women were deeply admired and loved for the generosity, grit, talent, and achievements that you laud. All were called “maiden aunts” and I never sensed any negative connotations in its use. That does not mean it doesn’t carry negative connotations to others’ ears. Perhaps deeply-ingrained societal norms about gender roles simply make, for some, any descriptor of a woman’s unmarried status sound negative, in contrast to the more neutral “bachelor” for men. Similarly, I think the same societal attitudes ascribe any unmarried woman’s state passively to being “never chosen.” Again speaking only for my family, I feel pretty confident that at least some of these strong women made their own choice not to wed, exhibiting the same sense of agency that they showed in other aspects of their lives.

      1. Andrew, Your piece here is just a beautiful and truly thought provoking. There’s so much more going on here than really can be addressed, certainly not in any short comment. Suffice it to say that I couldn’t agree more with your statement of, “…at least some of these strong women made their own choice not to wed, exhibiting the same sense of agency that they showed in other aspects of their lives.”
        Well done, sir.

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