Some Dayton Saints and Prophets
Mrs. John G. Lowe
MRS. JOHN G. LOWE
IT happens always, in the course of the progression from town-hood to city-hood, that business localities impinge upon the residences, gradually swallowing them up in the tide-wave of commercial enterprise. First, the residences are left standing, business fronts being added; by degrees the whole is torn down to make way for modern office blocks.
This is notably so on South Main Street. Formerly the stores were to be found only as far as Fourth Street; beyond, only dignified residences, with long flights of steps and verandas with iron work. Now, the show windows follow each other in uninterrupted line from Fourth to Fifth.
Not long since, having an errand to one of the downtown offices, about mid-way in the block, I entered an elevator, and was left in an office-room on the second floor. While awaiting my turn, my eyes rested upon the walls and wood-work, slowly realizing something familiar in the general contour of the room. A colonial mantel seemed to say, "Don't you know me?" and the fireplace below it was surely never meant for an insurance office. Gathering my wits together, they told me, after a moment or two, that I was in Mrs. Lowers sitting-room.
How I wish I could reproduce it as it was when she used to sit there! Her window, looking out through vines upon Main Street, had been swallowed up in a new wall. I could see where her chair used to stand; if she were not in it, in those days, she would be found lying upon a couch across the corner of the room. Never a strong woman, Mrs. Lowe developed some weakness which kept her, during the latter years of her life, out of social life, and confined to the house. This did not make her idle,---far from it. Mrs. Lowe was one of the most beautiful housekeepers I ever knew; the kind of housekeeping which involved organization, the training of servants, the methodical ordering of supplies for a large house, the looking ahead from season to season. Until two weeks before her death, at the age of eighty-two it was Mrs. Lowers habit to order all supplies daily, from her own room. She was also largely charitable, and responded most generously to any and all demands.
It is interesting to compare her life with that lived to-day by many women of fifty or sixty; lives of large public activities, and of sometimes bewildered strenuousness. Mrs. Lowe never belonged to committees, nor served on boards. There were none to serve on in her day, and, I dare say, she would have been horrified at the thought. Her obligations were all with her house, her children, her church.
Her interests, however, embraced the widest scope. National politics were a passion with her, and she discussed them with an acumen truly masterful. All the blood of her Presbyterian ancestors boiled at the idea of men in bondage. She knew Whig principles by heart; she tolerated no future for American society, except one of freedom for black, as well as for white. Of this, however, I knew nothing at that time. Her talks to me were not of States Rights, but of other more intimate things; books and music, poetry and pictures, and the best way for young girls to arrange their hair. I can see now the bound volumes of old music, through which I used to browse in the dim parlor; sentimental ballads, such as were sung in the early Thirties; and "Serenades," with steel engraving frontispieces of lackadaisical ladies with large hoops, under a weeping willow.
Mrs. Lowe represented to me the type of the high-bred gentlewoman of the old school. A certain quality in her manner was an education in good breeding. Her eyes, her hands, her voice, were all unconscious instructions on "how to be it." What a school for a hoydenish girl of fifteen! Her dress represented refined things; black silk, thread lace, a cap of course, with little puffs of silvery hair on each side; only a blasphemous imagination would connect Mrs. Lowe with any modish effect of sleeves and skirt. She never wore jewels, although in later years, jet earrings and pin were an invariable part of her toilette. Everything about her suggested correctness, fastidiousness, and (if the word be not worn out with bad usage) elegance. The finest of linen, the softest of fabrics, the quietest of color, were always associated in my mind with Mrs.Lowers presence.
Alas! The gentlewomen of the past generation are gone, and there seems to be no likelihood of more coming on to take their places. Present day grandmothers dress like their granddaughters; there are no real old ladies left. A distinct loss to society! The reserve and placidity of the old is needed quite as much as the aggressive activity of the young.
When women occupy themselves with so many outside duties, they miss a certain absolutism in their motherhood which Mrs. Lowe had. Her children, grown and married, nine in all, gravitated around her like planets and the sun. Her husband's frank admiration of, and courtesy to her were unfailing. Colonel Lowe was always quoting his wife, with a wave of his hand toward the arm-chair by the window, as if there could be no more said on the question. It was beautiful. And how well she justified it! I shall never forget a certain tone, irreproducable, in which she said, "My sons. It was as if an empress had said, "My Dominions.'
These qualities of Mrs. Lowe, which I have but weakly delineated, were fully explained when, later in life, I learned what had been her training. As a girl, she had had exceptional advantages, having been sent for four years to Eastern schools. Every fall she traveled in a carriage from Dayton to Troy, New York, where she remained all winter, a pupil in the Emma Willard School, returning in the same way in the spring. Here she studied French, German, painting, drawing, dancing, and music. This institution was then considered the best school for girls in America, being equipped with every appliance known to the best educators of those days. This was most unusual at that time. It is said that there was but one other girl in Ohio who had as great advantages, Mrs. Lowe’s dearest friend, Miss Longworth, of Cincinnati, afterward Mrs. Larz Anderson. School days over, Mrs. Lowe, then Marianna Phillips, made several visits to Princetown, N. J., her grandmother's home, and the seat of the Phillips family. Her grandfather, Jonathan Dickinson, was then President of Princeton University, and through him she felt that wider touch with people and things which made her to the end of life, a cosmopolitan. Her stories to the children of experiences as a belle in Princeton, the social gayety, the prominent people she met, the long carriage trips with her grandfather to Philadelphia, were as racy as a novel. She was a belle in Dayton society. Salmon P. Chase was one of her lovers, and there were many more. Her choice was Robert Thruston. A bride at sixteen, she was a widow with four children at twenty-five. Later she married John G. Lowe, and lived in the Main Street house until her death.
That element in Mrs. Lowe's character which her children most insist upon, and which seems to have left a dominant note sounding through the second and third generations, is that of a stanch morality. No compromises were possible to Mrs. Lowe. All her forbears were Presbyterians with Puritan instincts. It is not surprising to learn that she and her pastor, Dr. Thomas, held long sympathetic conversations upon religion, slavery, and the war. They should have been good to listen to, those talks, considering the convictions on both sides, and the skill of each in expression. Her hatred of slavery was so bitter, and the desire for its annihilation so great, that she once said, if she had ten sons instead of four, they should all enlist in the war. Three did enlist, the youngest only sixteen, and when Colonel Lowe, at the head of his regiment, marched past the house, she waved a brave and cheerful farewell from her balcony.
If the personality of Mrs. Lowe was an education in refinement, her house was no less so. It was large, and filled with beautiful things, the fruits of several years of foreign travel. A wide staircase, with slim mahogany hand-rail and curving steps, swept up from the lower hall. Here it was that the public compliments to Colonel Lowe were enacted. Many times it was filled with men who had come to the house on some political errand, to offer a seranade, or a testimonial. Colonel Lowe was most active in local and State government, and those were hot political times. There could be much interesting said about him were it not more enjoyable to write about his wife. There in the hall they both stood, smiling and greeting their visitors whom they invited into the dining-room, and offered wine and refreshments. That room also presents itself to my memory as a stately room, with family portraits. A mahogany sideboard, upon which stood rows of cut-glass decanters, with silver labels hanging about their necks.
Ah, yes, always, but never in excess. It was unthought of.
This kind of a house, with its dim light, fine old furniture, paintings, brass, and candelabra, has been put into literature in "Lady Baltimore. It is a pity there are not more of them.
But the old houses, like the old ladies, are no more.
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