Mobile’s Borrowing Habit

Writer Frances Beverly recounts some of the most egregious borrowers of 19th-century Mobile.

Illustration by Colleen Comer

Born in 1865, Frances V. Beverly toiled away at her home on Government Street throughout the 1930s and ‘40s, writing what she hoped would become the almanac of Mobile. Unfortunately, it was not to be. Beverly died in Mobile in 1954, leaving behind piles of manuscripts hidden from the very audience whose lore and customs she so tirelessly documented for posterity — that is, until now. In this series, MB presents the Frances Beverly Papers.

No one really knows exactly when the “borrowing habit” originated in Mobile, but it is quite safe to conjecture that it started when the French colonists arrived. Remember that at the beginning of the 18th century, when the settlement was new, there were no stores within a radius of hundreds of miles, and the only source of supplies was across the ocean. So, when groceries became scarce and a ship failed to arrive, conditions were deplorable. That was a good time to start almost anything, and the women of Bienville’s expedition had to depend upon each other for assistance in feeding their families.

In the year 1880, the custom was well established; a century of practice had made the habit perfect. Nobody escaped. It was like an epidemic, likely to strike anywhere, unless a person was of a very positive nature and refused to be imposed on. By that time, “corner grocery stores” were everywhere and there was no excuse to depend upon neighbors.

The writer’s mother was a person who did not know how to refuse, so she was a constant victim, and her children learned a lesson which they have never forgotten. Never borrow.

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There was one neighbor who lived in a large and very imposing house, and whose family of nine adults dressed well, had all of the comforts and had many luxuries, whose custom was to send a large 12-quart dish pan over to us, on the 27th of every month, (and she never failed) to borrow enough groceries to last until the 1st, which was the date when the head of the house ordered the month’s supply. She would borrow sugar, butter, lard, flour, grits, coffee, baking powder and salt. This happened regularly for about 10 years. Sometimes a few of the articles would be returned, but never the full amount, and never any butter, coffee
or sugar.

The climax to this orgy of borrowing came one February, when a member of the family died and, as was the custom at that time, every one of the women had to wear a black dress to the funeral. A sister of the writer had just bought a very lovely black dress, which the neighbor sent over to borrow to wear to the funeral. It was returned at Easter, completely worn out, with no word of apology for its condition nor thanks for its use.

Another neighbor who was wealthy and affected many airs, but was as close as the bark on a tree, had a most alarming habit. If unexpected company came, she was never prepared, but would make a wild dash for our kitchen and off would go our dinner. The most lasting memories of such an occasion was when the daughter came dashing in one day and, almost before we realized it, she had a pan of pocketbook rolls, a glorious lemon pie and half of a fruitcake and was on her way to feed the unexpected guests.

If one had a garden of beautiful flowers, somebody was sure to die, and a neighbor would come with tearful eyes and ask you to lend her some flowers, saying that she would give you some of hers when they were in bloom. It always happened that your friends never died when her flowers were in bloom. If you had a cherished potted plant with only two leaves on it, someone would surely ask you to give them one of the leaves.

Shoes, hats, gloves and umbrellas were considered legitimate prey to a chronic borrower, and you could never be sure that you had any. Eyeglasses or spectacles, as they called them in those days, were an article which was never safe from the family or neighbors. A person perhaps would be very busy writing a letter when a neighbor’s child would come and say, “Ma says to send her your spectacles, she just got a letter from Aunt Mary and wants to read it.” You would be lucky if the spectacles were returned at all — nine times out of 10 you had to send and borrow them back.

Borrowing money in small sums was the most reprehensible habit, because the majority of women had very little to spend, and every dime had its allotted place in the scheme of things. Perhaps you would meet a friend downtown, and she would gushingly invite you to go into a drug store to have an ice cream soda with her. She would order the most expensive one, and when the check was given to her, she would begin to dig frantically into her purse, in search of the money which she knew had never been there. After diligently uprooting its contents, she would beam at you, and say, “It is too bad, but I will have to borrow the money from you. I must have left my change on the dresser. I just haven’t a cent with me.”

Of course there was nothing else to do but pay the check and vow, as you parted with your 40 or 50 cents, that you would never be caught again. It was a very common trick, and some women boasted that they never paid for an ice cream soda, a car fare nor a dinner.

The most audacious attempt to borrow was when a social-climbing young woman on Spring Hill Avenue tried to borrow a house for a weekend. It was in the summer of 1880, and the young lady lived in a small cottage next door to a very pretentious home. She had been on a visit to Louisville, Kentucky, where she had met some very prominent wealthy people. In an effort to impress them, she had bragged extensively about her home and her family and had invited them to come to Mobile and pay her a visit, never dreaming that the invitation would ever be accepted. She was horrified when, one fine morning, she received a letter from these friends telling her that they would be in Mobile the following week to spend a few days with her. If the entire earth had opened up, she could not have been more horrified.

She had posed as a society leader, with a beautiful home and money in abundance. She was desperate — her home was small and shabby, and there was no money except the very small salary made by a young brother and her mother’s small income. In desperation, she rushed to her neighbor and demanded the use of her house for the duration of her friends’ visit. She had it all planned: The lady could move out on the back porch and keep out of sight during their stay. It would not be hard to do that, and it would save the situation. The neighbor told her that while she might be able to move out on the porch and keep out of sight, she could not ask her husband, father, three half-grown children, and a visiting niece and her husband, to move out and keep out of sight as well.

The girl was in a rage, and said, “But Mrs. M—-, don’t you see that you have just got to do this for me. I cannot face those people, nor have them see what kind of a home I have. I can arrange it so that you can stay and I will introduce you as a relative and the children can go and stay with my mother and the men can stay downtown. It just has to be fixed in some way.” She talked until she was in a perfect fury and, finding that she could not borrow the house, left in a rage, declaring that she never expected to speak to the family again.

No one knew exactly what she did in the matter, but the guests did not come. Her neighbor was of the opinion that she either killed some member of her family or rendered them dangerously ill of some malignant disease. Whatever she did, the friendship of three families was disrupted, because a woman had so little consideration for another’s trouble that she refused to let her home and its contents be borrowed. This is the most wholesale example of borrowing that was ever attempted in Mobile.

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