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

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


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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."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822953562
Publisher: University of Pittsburgh Press
Publication date: 06/30/1983
Series: Turn-Of-The Century Memoir
Edition description: 1
Pages: 135
Sales rank: 1,272,672
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range: 16 - 17 Years

About the Author

Ethel Spencer (1889-1966)  graduated from Radcliffe College and did graduate work at St. Hilda's Oxford. Later she was a professor of English at Carnegie Tech from 1920 to 1955 (now Carnegie Mellon University), and was the head of the Department of General Studies when she retired. The third of seven children of Charles Hart Spencer  (1852-1912) and Mary Acheson Spencer (1863-1950); upper middle-class, Presbyterian, Pittsburghers, who raised their family in (then) suburban Shadyside at the turn of the 19th century. Her family lived on Amberson Avenue until the death of Mary Spencer in 1950. 

Michael P. Weber and Peter N. Stearns, who edited the memoir and wrote the introduction, are historians in the Department of History and Philosophy, Carnegie-Mellon University.

Read an Excerpt

"Of course we all wore hand-me-downs.  A dress that began with Adeline, traveled down to Kate, then to me, to Mary, to Elizabeth, provided it was made of stout enough material to hold out until it reached the youngest....  The Spanish dress {happened to be} made for me while the Spanish war was in progress—a red and yellow gingham, the colors of Spain.  How my patriotic soul hated that dress!  My schoolmates teased me every time I wore it, called me Spanish, implied that I was a traitor; but I had to wear it anyway.  And when I thankfully outgrew it, it passed to Mary and then to Elizabeth carrying with it a heavy load of built-in hatred.  I don't think my little sisters had the faintest idea why it was hateful, but they loyally hated it anyway." 

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