Claflin Tennessee

“Walking” around the 1870s and “bumping into” two amazing sisters

Business card from the Chiropodal Institute, operating at 208 Broadway, at the corner of Fulton Street, New York City

I found Dr. W. E. Rice’s business card on the floor of my mom’s garage when I was clearing it out last spring. I have no idea whose it was or why they chose to keep it, or why nobody in the last 149 threw it out. And, seeing as how it’s been “here” so long, I certainly wasn’t going to be the one to do it. Besides, it’s kind of fun to look at, warts and all. Imagine all the feet shuffling along Broadway in agony in the 1870s only to enter No. 208 to have their “lives” transformed.

As you can see, I managed to trace this podiatry business back to the 1870s. It was not hard to do (but what came next was a big surprise). My quick Google search brought up two copies of Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, a publication I’d never heard of. One issue from February 14, 1874, and the other from September 13, 1873. Expecting it to be an average, mild-mannered magazine from that period, I quickly realized this was an entirely different animal, for along with the masthead’s proclamation:

P R O G R E S S ! F R E E  T H O U G H T ! U N T R A M M E L E D  L I V E S !
BREAKING THE WAY FOR FUTURE GENERATIONS.
…my visit to the ad pages at the end of each issue turned up ads for the services of clairvoyants and mystics, and an illustrated mail-order book about sexual physiology, mentioning words one never would expect to find on the pages of any Victorian-Era publication.

Dr. Rice’s ad in the September, 13, 1873, issue of Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly

My first thought was: why did Dr. W. E. Rice decide this was a good place to advertise?! Assuming there was method to his madness, I decided to do a bit of research on Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, initially thinking, of course (given the time), that this was a paper named after two gentlemen. Two eccentric gentlemen? Perhaps, my mind wandering, this Woodhull was some descendant of Abraham Woodhull, the Washington spy…? (Watch the AMC TURN series, if you have not already.) But, no, what I found was something even more interesting: amazingly this was a publication, a highly controversial one, produced by two sisters: Victoria California Woodhull and her younger sister Tennessee Celeste Claflin.

From the February 14, 1874 issue; the sisters had many followers and no doubt made a small fortune from these sales.

Way ahead of their time, and perhaps even ahead of our time in some ways, the two tackled all sorts of subject matter, including women’s suffrage, free love, supposed scandals (some of their own invention), vegetarianism, and spirituality, and made their mark in some then men-only careers. They were among the first women to run a publication; they were the first women to operate a brokerage firm on Wall Street; they were leaders of the women’s suffrage movement, and Victoria even ran in the presidential election of 1872. The running mate she named? Frederick DouglassWoodhull & Claflin’s Weekly did not last too long; at its height, 20,000 issues were sold, but over time, the controversies associated with its content (mostly written by the two sisters, Victoria’s husband Colonel Blood, and an anarchist by the name of Stephen Pearl) and its own scandals dragged it down. Advertisers fled. By 1876, it was breathing its last.

Cabinet photograph of Victoria C. Woodhull. Albumen silver print on card. Date between 1866-1873. Source: Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Museum, Historical Photographs and Special Visual Collections Department, Fine Arts Library; Author Mathew Brady (1822-1896). US PUBLIC DOMAIN – Wikimedia Commons

Fortunately for me (and you, if you are interested in learning more), the Museum of the City of New York has a blog that has published a two-part story about these Ohio-born sisters, the children of a snake oil salesman father and a religious fanatic mother, and how they ended up in Manhattan befriending Cornelius Vanderbilt, and I encourage you to give it a look when you have time. Their lives were truly fascinating. (For Part I, click here, and for Part II, here.)

When I come upon such interesting historical figures, whether I agree with their thoughts and views or not, I wonder why I’ve never heard of them before and realize, in the overall scheme of things, I know very little about American history beyond what I learned in school. Discoveries like this always make me want to learn more.

Tennessee Celeste Claflin. Author Geo. Stinson & Co., publishers, Portland, ME. Source: Wikimedia Commons – US PUBLIC DOMAIN

I was somewhat surprised to learn that later in life these two firebrands walked back and even reversed many of their positions, and that they eventually moved to England and lived out their lives there…  I was expecting a much more fiery finish in this country for these ladies. But, nonetheless, they made their mark, and are worth knowing about in this 21st century of ours.

Anyway, I hope you’ve learned something new by stopping here today.

I am now tucking Dr. Rice’s business card away for one of the younger crowd to find some day.

Categories: 1870s, Advertisements, Claflin Tennessee, Woodhull Victoria | 1 Comment

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