The Story of Old Mobile

Dear Mrs. Beverly, ” begins the 1938 letter from the Works Progress Administration of Alabama. “Referring to our effort to compile material for the proposed Almanac for Alabamians, 1938, the editor who will have charge of this assignment has prepared a series of suggestions which you will find helpful.”

An almanac, the editor suggests, should include the following: “Odd and interesting bits of history not usually known, ” “laws and ordinances of unusual interest, ” “weather signs and lore and planting superstitions of farmers, ” “catchy and entertaining rhymes and phrases, ” and so forth.

What that editor didn’t know was that Beverly was way ahead of him. At the time this letter was written, 73-year-old Frances Beverly had already spent 8 years researching and writing about the history, customs and oddities of Mobile. Born in 1865, Beverly came from a line of newspapermen and writers. She was a relative of writer and naturalist William Bartram, and her grandfather served as the dramatic critic for the Mobile Register in the 1840s. Beverly herself worked for the Louisville Courier Journal and the Atlanta Constitution before settling in Mobile at 1675 Government Street.

For more than 20 years, she toiled away at her desk in Mobile, intent on publishing what she called, “The Story of Old Mobile.” The result of this project, which is now housed at the University of South Alabama Archives, is about 1, 200 documents — a fragile treasure trove of Mobile history and anecdotes, all written in Beverly’s witty, informative and sharply sarcastic voice. (In reference to an old term no longer used in Mobile, Beverly quips, “Whoever was guilty of inventing such a name deserved expert guillotine service.”) The article titles alone invite curiosity: “When a Girl Married in 1860, ” “How Mobile Delivered Milk in 1880, ” “A Mobile Girl in an English Prison, ” “Mobilians are Suckers, ” “The Manly Art of Dueling.”

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Although there are indications that Beverly self-published at least some of her work, the project would never reach the conclusion she always imagined. 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.

Frances Beverly…

On Good Manners

“In the early part of 1880, the streets of Mobile were not in a good condition, especially in rainy weather, and often it was necessary to walk several blocks to find a place to cross. There was no drainage, and the gutters overflowed, and sometimes the water would stand at a depth of six inches at the crossings.

“After a very hard rain, a lady was standing at the corner of Claiborne and Dauphin streets, looking helplessly up and down as far as she could see, hoping to find a place that she could get across. The body of water was six inches deep and about three feet wide; it was impossible to jump across, as she had on a new pair of handmade shoes which had cost her ten dollars, she could not wade across. She was disgusted and dismayed. Anything that she could do would spell disaster to the shoes. Suddenly, she felt herself lifted in the air and deposited on the other side of the street, and her rescuer, without turning his head, had gone around the corner and disappeared in the crowd.

“In those days it was the ultimo thule of every girls’ ambition to have a pair of McAleer shoes, and no doubt the man who saw the lady ruefully eyeing her feet and the water knew from his own experience with girls that only a pair of the McAleer creation could have caused such distress.”

“Even as late as 1900, no lady would have been guilty of such indelicacy as even surreptitiously powdering her nose on a street car; and it has always been a subject of wonder what the ladies of the 1860s would think if they could see their granddaughters of today, going to business on the street car with nail file and scissors, do a manicure, then with mirror, powder, rouge and lipstick do a complete act of exterior decoration, utterly oblivious of the presence of the other passengers. And as a grand finale, off comes the hat and a vigorous combing of the hair, and the young woman is ready to get off at Royal Street to go to her job, not in the least concerned that her grandmother is writhing in her grave in Magnolia Cemetery, at what she would have called indecent conduct.””

On the Homes of Mobile in the 1870s

“There were many who had portraits of children, but these pictures always hung over the piano … This was a very pathetic picture, and all of the old ladies had tears in their eyes when they showed them to you; two such loving children were always a touching sight.”

“The photograph album was on the other side of the table, filled with pictures of solemn-faced ladies and gentlemen with long whiskers, whose heads were held straight and stiff by an implement similar to the rest on the back of the dentists’ chair. These two books were of the most invaluable aid in promoting conversation, and without them many an evening would have been spent in deadly silence.”

“The footstools, which went by the highfalutin name of ‘ottomans, ’ were in every parlor, and in all kinds of unlooked-for places, and the horrible things would skid from under you, and leave you a sprawling mass in the middle of the floor, just when you thought you were making a most graceful exit or entrance.

“In the years gone by, before the invention of the telephone, the automobile, and the introduction of the night club and the movies, Mobile was entirely different from the Mobile of today, as far as the home was concerned. A man’s home was his castle, and it was a woman’s pride and delight. At present, it is just a place to go, when nobody asks you to go somewhere else.”

On Mothers and Daughters

“Mothers in those days were very much more in the habit of blowing daughters’ horns than they are today. One mother of two very popular girls in the 1880s was a most marvelous cook, and every time a man came to the house, she would say, ‘Oh, yes, you just must sit down for a minute, Mary or Sallie has made the most delicious pie that I ever saw and you must have some of it.’ Mary and Sallie would not have known a pie plate from a punch board.”

On Backyards in Mobile from 1880 to 1920

“Most of the backyards in Mobile are very attractive, or at least they begin that way, but if your neighbor has a dog who insists upon making your pansy bed his repository for surplus bones and the children next door race around concrete walks and tumble off their bicycles and snap off the branches of your valuable azalea bushes and crush your narcissi beds to a pulp, it is rather discouraging.”

On Strange Mobile Customs

“A very funny custom prevailed for years in Mobile and aroused no end of speculation and wide-eyed wonder. Whenever ladies went shopping to buy any kind of cotton goods, they always asked for a small sample, out from the original bolt of goods, especially if it were highly colored. This little sliver was put in the mouth of the prospective buyer and chewed vigorously for quite a while. After this intensive chewing, the sample was laid across a forefinger, and if it showed no sign of loss of color, the verdict was reached that ‘it would not run, ’ then the purchase was made.”

“The custom of giving ‘lagniappe’ is strictly a custom of Mobile and New Orleans, which meant that each purchaser of food stuffs, particularly, received a cooky [sic] in a baker shop, or an apple in a grocery or a stick of candy in a drug store. This was a great joy to children, and there was no trouble in those days to get a child to go on an errand. Grown-ups, when they paid a bill, of any considerable amount, were always given a box of candy or a bag of fruit, with the most profound bow and appreciative thanks … Times have changed; when one pays a bill now, the money is received with a grunt or a snort and an air of disgust at having to wait until the first of the month to get it.”

“People were warned to remain indoors after the sun went down and to keep the windows and doors closed. Each family had so strongly imbibed the idea of the deadliness of night air that as late as 1880 only the most reckless would have a window in a bedroom open at night. Those who ventured to do such a foolhardy thing were thought to be flirting with death, and were furtively watched by relatives and friends, for signs of some deadly malady… One very solicitous father used to take a candle and hold it over the bed of his son and heir, to see if any wind could touch him.”

On Funny Mobile Children

“With an air of importance, little Donald, the small grandson of a prominent real estate man in Mobile, announced to his Sunday School teacher, ‘Miss Minnie, the Devil is dead.’

“Miss Minnie looked surprised and asked, ‘Why do you think so, Donald?’

“‘Oh, I know it, Miss Minnie, because Daddy said so, ’” replied the child. ‘We were standing on the street looking at a funeral yesterday, and he said, “Poor devil, he’s dead at last.”’”

Are you a relative of Frances Beverly’s, or are you familiar with her life and work? Let us know! Email [email protected] to give us the scoop.

intro by Breck Pappas • text by Frances Beverly

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