“I am anxious to go to school next quarter.”

“I am anxious to go to school next quarter.”

Lavinia Goodell, December 26, 1853

Lavinia Goodell was a sickly child and, as a result, had very little in the way of formal education until she and her parents moved to Brooklyn, New York in 1853. It has long been known that Lavinia graduated from the Brooklyn Heights Seminary, a girl’s school, in 1858, but we have recently discovered that before matriculating there, she briefly attended two other schools. We do not know the names of these schools, but Goodell family letters describe her coursework and experience at these institutions.

Lavinia Goodell, c. 1854

Lavinia apparently did not commence school until early 1854 since in a letter written in late December of 1853 she told her sister, “I am anxious to go to school next quarter but don’t know where to go.” By February 1854, fourteen-year-old Lavinia had begun a course of study but was apparently not enthralled with all aspects of the instruction. Lavinia’s mother wrote to her elder daughter:

I am glad she is in school. Her teacher gives her words with the definition and wants her to write sentences and bring in those words. I cannot see any great advantages from that myself. L does not like it very well.  

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“Miss Goodell is a person of rather a singular character.”

“Miss Goodell is a person of rather a singular character.”

Written by a friend of Lavinia Goodell, May 9, 1866

When she died in 1880, Lavinia Goodell left behind hundreds of letters, multiple diaries, and many published articles which provide insight into her character and personality, but how did the people closest to her view her? Fortunately the William Goodell Family Papers in the Special Collections and Archives at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky provide firsthand descriptions of Lavinia as a young woman. Maria Goodell Frost wrote a lengthy unpublished biography of her sister.

Maria Goodell Frost

While highly complimentary of its subject, to be frank, parts of that work come across as a bit stilted and hard to read. But the Goodell Family Papers also contain a brief three page biography in which Maria succinctly summed up her sister’s character:

Lavinia inherited the logical traits of her father and the keen sprightly wit and quick perceptions of the Cadys. This combination fitted her by nature for her chosen profession of law, in which she distinguished herself. The friends of William Goodell loudly lamented that Lavinia was not a boy that she might succeed her father as a philanthropist. She was often told that she ought to have been a boy, which obligation exceedingly amused her, and she failed to perceive why being a girl she could not also be a philanthropist and do some good in the world. 

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“If a woman can’t dress in a rational and decent way, I shouldn’t like to live among such barbarians.”

“If a woman can’t dress in a rational and decent way, I shouldn’t like to live among such barbarians.”

Lavinia Goodell, December 8, 1853

In 1853, fourteen year old Lavinia Goodell tried unsuccessfully to encourage her twenty-six year old sister Maria to try a new fashion trend: bloomers.

A bloomer dress

In the mid 1800s, women wore corsets and multiple petticoats weighing as much as fifteen pounds in order to fill out their skirts. These voluminous undergarments made movement difficult and sometimes impaired breathing. In 1851, an editorial appeared in the Seneca [New York]  County Courier suggesting that women wear “Turkish pantaloons and a skirt reaching a little below the knee.” Amelia Bloomer, the editor of an upstate New York women’s newspaper called The Lily, chided the male Courier writer for advocating for dress reform but not for women’s rights.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer
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“I screamed ‘Fire’ and called to Pa”

“I screamed ‘Fire’ and called to Pa”

Lavinia Goodell, December 28, 1853

Fourteen-year-old Lavinia Goodell experienced two harrowing events in December of 1853. On December 10, while working in her father’s offices in lower Manhattan she witnessed the huge fire that destroyed Harper & Brothers publishing company. On December 28 she was again helping her father when a fire broke out in the next room.

William Goodell had moved to Brooklyn with his wife and daughter earlier in the year and began publishing American Jubilee, an anti-slavery publication, at 84 Beekman Street, in what is now New York’s financial district.

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“You have probably heard news of the great fire.”

“You have probably heard news of the great fire.”

Lavinia Goodell, December 14, 1853

Lavinia Goodell lived in New York (mainly in Brooklyn but also, for a year, in Manhattan) from 1853 until 1871. During her years in the city she witnessed many historic events. She watched president-elect Lincoln’s carriage procession from a Fifth Avenue balcony. She and her family survived the deadly draft riots of 1863. In December of 1853, fourteen year old Lavinia was an eye witness to the huge fire that destroyed Harper Publishing’s offices in lower Manhattan.

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“We next proceeded to Barnum’s museum.”

“We next proceeded to Barnum’s museum”

Lavinia Goodell, October 12, 1853

P.T. Barnum was a nineteenth century showman who is best known for founding the Barnum & Bailey circus in 1871. But nearly twenty-five years earlier he purchased a museum in what is now New York City’s financial district, added unusual – and often fake or deceiving – exhibits, and renamed the establishment Barnum’s American Museum. In the early 1850s, the museum was a popular tourist destination and in October of 1853, fourteen year old Lavinia Goodell, whose family had recently moved to Brooklyn, visited the Barnum museum for the first time.

Barnum’s American Museum in New York City
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“I visited the Crystal Palace and must tell you all about it.”

“I visited the Crystal Palace and must tell you all about it.”

Lavinia Goodell, November 23, 1853

In the summer of 1853, the Crystal Palace exhibition building opened on 42nd Street in New York City, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, in what is now Bryant Park. Inspired by London’s 1851 Crystal Palace, the New York edifice had the shape of a Greek cross and featured a dome that was 148 feet high and 100 feet in diameter.

Crystal Palace as shown on Lavinia Goodell’s stationery

Officially called the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations, the Crystal Palace was New York’s first world’s fair. The poet Walt Whitman, a frequent visitor, wrote that it was “certainly unsurpassed anywhere for beauty.” Fourteen-year-old Lavinia Goodell visited the exhibition in November of 1853 and shared many details of what she saw in a letter to her sister, Maria Frost, written on a sheet of paper she bought at the Palace.

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“It is very proper for a man of fourscore to be so honored.”

“It is very proper for a man of fourscore to be so honored.”

Josiah Cady to Lavinia Goodell, July 14, 1854

Deacon Josiah Cady, Lavinia Goodell’s maternal grandfather, was born in Killingly, Connecticut in 1774. He lived in Providence, Rhode Island much of his adult life. An 1830 census listed his occupation as shoemaker.

Josiah Cady, Lavinia Goodell’s maternal grandfather

Josiah played a prominent role in the Goodell family. William Goodell, Lavinia’s father, was boarding with Josiah in Providence in 1812 when he met – and became smitten with – Josiah’s daughter Clarissa. William and Clarissa married in 1823. William Goodell’s father died when William was young, and Josiah Cady became a surrogate father to him. Scores of letters between the two men survive, and they always referred to each other as “Father” and “Son.”

Sometime before 1850, Josiah had moved to Lebanon, Connecticut and was living with his daughter and son-in-law, Mary and Peleg Thomas, and their children, one of whom was Lavinia’s close confidante, Sarah Thomas. Although there is scant record of communication passing between Lavinia and Josiah, a letter from 1854 recently came to light that indicates a true affection existed between fifteen year old Lavinia and her seventy-nine year old grandfather.

Josiah Cady’s letter to Lavinia Goodell July, 1854
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