Skip to main content

Newark Life

Newark resident specializes in the social history of women in mid-Victorian America

Oct 03, 2017 01:32PM ● By Steven Hoffman

Linda Duffy remembers the day she became fascinated by history. She was 11 years old and tagged along with her father, George Russell, to a meeting of the 118th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, a group of Civil War re-enactors. The gathering was held in an impressive mansion on the Main Line. While the re-enactors held their discussions in another room, Duffy was left to browse in the mansion’s dark but expansive library. It was there that Duffy saw her first copy of a “Godey’s Lady’s Book.” Beginning in the 1830s, Philadelphia publishers Louis Antoine Godey and Charles Alexander printed the series of enormously popular monthly magazines for women. The magazines featured intricate illustrations, artistic fashion plates and articles offering advice on raising children, women’s health, current events, literature, and more.

“Nothing went in those magazines that couldn’t be read to the entire family,” Duffy explained. “Godey was careful with that.”

As she looked at the treasures that Godey’s Lady’s Books held in their pages, Duffy was captivated. She was set on the course of a lifelong pursuit of learning about and enjoying history—especially everyday life for people in the Civil War era.

Today, more than 50 years later, the Newark resident is still enamored by history. She is a retired surgical technologist and cardiac sonographer, and she has often mixed her love of history with her work through the years. At one time, she owned an antique business. Later, in the early 1970s, she became an interpreter and curator at The Colonial Pennsylvania Plantation. She then entered the medical field. It makes sense that a person interested in women’s history during the Civil War era would also be interested by a career in the medical field—many women played important roles in caring for injured soldiers during the Civil War. Aside from necessity, women didn’t work professionally but the carnage of war drew them into basic nursing care. There were role models like Dorothea Dix who demonstrated that women could make a real difference on important issues. Dix an American activist served as the superintendent of Army nurses during the Civil War, she previously lobbied lawmakers to create regulated mental asylums in the U.S.

Women like Dix inspired Duffy to learn about other women in history. But she also still cares deeply about and is fascinated by the everyday life of ordinary women.

She has a nice collection of Godey’s Lady’s Books in her Newark home that are filled with interesting information. During the time that the magazines were published in the 19th Century, they were periodically collected and bound as books. They offered an expanded look at life for many women of that time.

“I got more interested in what the women wore and what they did at that time,” Duffy explained, reflecting about when she was first discovered Godey’s magazines and books. Since that time, she has been slowly building a collection of historical artifacts. She preserves a large collection of women’s clothing and accessories from the early-1800s to the present, with an emphasis on the mid-19th Century. She has also accumulated thousands of photographs and a variety of period literature published for women.

Duffy has also immersed herself in history in many ways. She is a long-term member and participant in Colonial, Civil War and living history events with several regional groups. She was a charter member and former vice president of the Cape May County Civil War Roundtable, and is a member of the 26th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry reenacting group. She has studied widely the lives of mid-19th Century women--everything from fashion and beauty to health and education--focusing on the everyday lives of typical women, including their roles in their families and in society.

The favorite piece in her collection is a petticoat that was made by a slave seamstress. A note pinned to the garment explained its story. It was shipped on one of the last vessels to sail from the Charleston Harbor before the Union Naval blockade during the Civil War. The girl that it belonged to was to be married to a cadet at West Point, but the wedding never took place and the trunk never was returned to her.

For Duffy, finding items like that and having the opportunity to preserve and protect them is part of what she loves about history.

How does she find the items in her collection? She occasionally buys items from specialized auctions. However, these days she concentrates on the preservation of her collection. But anywhere that Duffy finds herself, she’s on the lookout for interesting items with a history.

“You just keep looking,” she smiled. Now retired, she has more time to devote to her study of history. She is a board member of the Pencader Heritage Museum in Newark, and also serves as the museum’s curator.

Through the years, Duffy has displayed her collection at colleges, libraries, conferences, seminars and in museums. She has also won several awards for faithfully reproducing women’s clothing from the Civil War era.

Duffy is particularly proud of a display she organized for the former Civil War Library and Museum in Philadelphia in the early 1990s. She and a friend, Juanita Leisch-Jensen organized an exhibit, “The Look of the Ladies,” which concentrated on women’s clothing of the 1860s. Duffy is also fond of her 2006 exhibition, “Off the Pages of Godey’s,” regarding the influence of the popular magazines for the Fort Ward Museum & Historic Site in Alexandria, Va.

According to Duffy, one of the best aspects of her interest in history is all the wonderful people that she’s met as a result. “I have made so many nice friends from all of this,” she explained.

Research has been an important to her interest in history. She has extensively researched the Cooper Shop Volunteer Refreshment Saloon that was located near the Delaware River in Philadelphia. It started out as just a place where women volunteers fed Civil War soldiers. That expanded to include a hospital on the second floor. Nearly 400,000 soldiers received meals between May, 1861 to August, 1865. Eventually, they opened a soldiers’ home which became a refuge for discharged soldiers who couldn’t make it back to their own homes. Duffy has compiled biographies for 94 volunteer soldiers who passed away while receiving care and were buried at the nearby Mount Moriah Cemetery. Her research and original materials related to the Cooper Shop will eventually go to The Heritage Center of the Union League in Philadelphia.

As a result of her research and the collecting of historical items, Duffy is a purist when it comes to how history is portrayed on television and in the movies. She appreciates accuracy—and abhors a lack of it. There’s a tendency in Hollywood to make the clothes romantic and the people attractive by today’s standards. They also have a tendency in to over-dramatize actual events—which were often dramatic enough to begin with.

“It’s just wrong,” Duffy said. “Even if it’s fiction, it gives people the wrong idea of what women looked like and what they did. It should be right. If young people are going to have an idea of what came before, you have to get it right.”

If you search online for “Women in the Civil War,” you’ll find numerous stories about women serving as spies during the war or women disguised as men so they could fight. While there were certainly women who followed those paths, it was not typical for women to do either.

“They were not the average women of that time,” Duffy explained. “They represented such a small number.”

Between 400-700 women reportedly dressed like men to fight during the entire Civil War. That’s a fraction compared to the nearly three million men who fought. The impact that they would have had was minimal. Female soldiers and spies often overshadow the thousands of women who supported the military while working within the boundaries set by society in the mid-1860s.

Duffy is far more interested in what the common women of the time would have done to help the war effort. When the men went to war, women ran farms and took over family businesses. They found ways to combine housekeeping, raising children and caring for sick or elderly relatives while volunteering to provide aid and comfort to the soldiers.

“The average woman in Newark or Philadelphia or in the Midwest not only supported the war, they suffered because of it,” Duffy explained. “Women’s lives changed forever with the loss of a husband or father. They made difficult decisions regarding their family’s future in a time when few options were open to women.” She added, “women were admired for what they did in their homes.” When they left to nurse sick, wounded and dying men in hospitals they chanced losing respectability. But, they served in significant numbers and their hospital work eventually made a difference. The presence of females in the medical profession was gradually excepted and their war work became the springboard for professional nurses’ training in this country.

It’s those women that Duffy likes to study as she’s doing her research or collecting items from the period.

Duffy advocates authenticity because, like the favorite petticoat, each piece has a story to tell.

“With all of these things, someone sat down and made them,” Duffy said. “I don’t want a garment that wasn’t worn. They should show the life that was lived in them.”

To contact Staff Writer Steven Hoffman, email [email protected].

Historical costuming

Linda Duffy also has an interest in historical costuming that goes back decades. When she first started reenacting with her father in the 1960s, she made a dress of her own that was as historically accurate as possible for a child who was just 11 years old at the time. Her grandmother taught her how to sew while they were making that first dress. She wore it for the first time at a Battle of Gettysburg centennial event in 1963, which led her to make the next dress and then the next one. She has earned many awards for her historical costuming through the years.

Like what you're reading? Subscribe to Newark Life's free newsletter to catch every headline