One of Marblehead's little beaches, "where young children and young at heart play in the quiet waters," bears modest witness to a woman whose contemporaries praised as "unselfish," unfailingly public-spirited, and of "generous impulses." Grace Oliver Beach honors her name as founder and president of the Marblehead Visiting Nurse Association (1896), but those gentle ripples of water should whisper that there is more to discover about Grace Atkinson Oliver.
One month after Grace Atkinson Oliver was born in Boston to merchant James Lovell and Julia Augusta (Cook) Little, the end of the world was reportedly nigh. The righteous would be "caught up" to live with Christ in a world cleared of sin by fire, then regenerated for the saved.
As the date approached and a comet streaked the sky, many panicked; some went mad. Some shrugged. According to one story, Theodore Parker, accompanied by Ralph Waldo Emerson, when warned of the prophecy and the imminent crisis, stated calmly that it could not concern him for he lived in Boston. Emerson added he could get along without the world.
Soon enough, however, the Boston newspapers filled with agitated fallout from the failure of the Millerites' millenarian prophecy for October 22, 1844. The world (with Boston at its hub, of course) continued to spin, so Grace safely grew to maturity along with her siblings, secured and supported by her father's successful business career.
In 1869, Grace married a young lawyer, John Harvard Ellis; he died about a year later. His widow cast about for diversion from grief, and began her adult literary career with submissions to Edward Everett Hale's magazine "Old and New," then continued writing for publications such as the "Boston Transcript," "Advertiser," and "Atlantic Monthly." Her first book was published in 1875. More biographies followed, "lives and works" of Theodore Parker, Maria Edgeworth, and Arthur Penrhyn Stanley (dedicated to her father) among them.
She wrote her "Study of Maria Edgeworth" (1767-1849) author of the pioneering feminist work,"Letters for Literary Ladies" (1795) after a season in the vibrant literary society of London, encouraged by members of Edgeworth's family.
Grace advocated for women's intellectual training and education, just as Edgeworth had. But Oliver had the fortune to be writing and working in the latter part of what leaders like Frances Willard and Mary A. Livermore declared to be "woman's century." Said they, "Since time began, no other era has witnessed so many and so great changes in the development of her character and gifts and in the multiplication of opportunities for their application."
For well-placed women such as Oliver, it was a time of abounding confidence in their own version of a "regenerated world," when American women's achievements would inevitably lead to "the vast outlook and the marvelous promise of the twentieth century."
In 1879, Grace married Dr. Joseph Pearson Oliver, a Boston physician who later would become a lecturer in the department of pediatrics at the Harvard Medical School. In 1889, after her father died, Grace bought and moved to a house in Salem. (In 1890, Dr. Oliver was listed as living and operating his office in Boston's Back Bay. The couple may have been living apart, for in that year Grace also bought a small piece of land on Marblehead's Doliber Cove for her "summer home.")
In Salem, Oliver became vice-president of the Thought and Work Club, a member of the Essex Institute, served on the Salem school board, and was active in the New England Woman's Press Association and New England Woman's Club. She also served as president of the Salem Society for the Higher Education of Women.
With the other founders and members of the Thought and Work Club of Salem, Oliver brought a sense of beauty, elegant practicality, and dedication to building a vibrant intellectual life to Salem, the region, and Massachusetts. We'll leave our story of the Thought and Work Club and its energetic founders here with a representative moment.
In the winter of 1897, a meeting of the Massachusetts State Federation of Clubs at Springfield inspired Salem's Thought and Work Club members to bring another aspect of beauty to the city. The topic of the meeting was "Art, the need of the beautiful in the home, the schools, the streets." Kate Woods was swept up by the vision of bringing art into the everyday life of students. The club purchased a set of 21 "masterpiece" reproductions, and donated them to Salem's public schools for display in classrooms. Exhibits of similar nature were promoted throughout the region.
"In our large cities there is much for the people to enjoy in our libraries and museums, yet even with the treasures within their grasp it is often necessary to do considerable [work] not only with the children but with their elders to lead them to fully appreciate what they have at hand," opined a contemporary account of the movement. "Works of art often need interpretation and their beauties made evident to the untrained eye."
Lives, too, can be works of art. The women of the Thought and Work Club of Salem strove to show how beautiful a productive intellectual life can be. Perhaps, with no need for elaborate interpretation at all, we might hear them calling encouragement across the years from "their" century to ours.
Musician, educator and lecturer, Maggi Smith-Dalton is the president of the Salem History Society. Author of "Stories and Shadows from Salem'ss Past: Naumkeag Notations"? (The History Press, 2010) she is working on her second book of Salem history for 2012. She and her husband, Jim Dalton, are also co-authoring a book on music in Salem's history and have released two new recordings of 19th-century music. Reach her at singingstring.org. For information on joining the Salem History Society, go to salemhistorysociety.org.