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Before I tell you anything about myself, I would like to tell you, or at least identify for you, the world into which I was born. My background. I mean of course my mother—my father. My two parents.
Mother died when I was forty-odd.
Dad died when I was fifty-odd. Thus I had them as my … Well, they were always for over forty years—there. They were mine.
From where I stood:
Dad at the left of the fireplace.
Mother at the right of the fireplace.
Tea every day at five.
They were the world into which I was born.
Katharine Martha Houghton was born February 2, 1878. She was the daughter of Caroline Garlinghouse and Alfred Augustus Houghton.
Alfred Houghton was the younger brother of Amory Houghton, who was the head of the Corning Glass Company. It started in Cambridge, Massachusetts, moved to Brooklyn and ended in Corning, New York. Alfred’s first wife had died leaving him a daughter, Mary. He then married Caroline Garlinghouse. They had three daughters—Katharine, Edith, Marion.
Alfred and his wife were happy. They were financially comfortable. Not rich. Not poor. He played the violin—she played the piano. They were interested in Robert Ingersoll, “the great agnostic,” and went to all his lectures. They had abandoned the recognized church. Alfred was about twenty years older than Caroline. Apparently his relationship with his older brother Amory was complicated. Amory had fired him from the glassworks because he was always late. Then Alfred became the head of the Buffalo Scale Works. He was a moody fellow by nature and a victim of severe depressions. During one of these episodes, he was visiting Amory in Corning and he disappeared. He was found, dead of a self-inflicted gun wound in the head, on the railway tracks. No note—nothing.
So Caroline was left with her three daughters to bring up. Then it was discovered that Caroline had cancer of the stomach. She knew that she was doomed to die in fairly short order. Caroline dreaded leaving her girls to be brought up by any of their available relatives, whom she considered hopelessly reactionary. She wanted her daughters to go to college. She visited Bryn Mawr College with my mother. She made arrangements for Mother to go there and made arrangements for Edith and Marion to go to Miss Baldwin’s boarding school, almost next door to the college.
By the time her mother died, Katharine was sixteen, Edith fourteen and Marion twelve. Katharine was filled with her mother’s feeling about the future. She wanted to go to college, to Bryn Mawr. She wanted to lead her younger sisters in the right direction and was not about to let Uncle Amory boss her around. Uncle Amory, by the same token, was used to having his own way. He thought that girls should be girls and should go to finishing schools to learn to be ladies. These girls wanted an education—to be independent. Everything seemed at a standoff.
The girls wound up the winners only after Mother figured out the guardian step which really foiled Uncle Amory. Before that, the girls were sent to one relative after another to sort of “try out.
They would move in determined to be charming and sweet BUT wildly noisy. They would bang on the floor above the living room. They would scream and yell at each other. Everyone wanted to get rid of them.
Then Mother realized that she was old enough to appoint her own guardian. Uncle Amory was the one who managed her money but he was not her legal guardian. She threatened to appoint a man very unfriendly to Uncle Amory as their guardian, and forced his hand and got her way. She went to Bryn Mawr. The girls went to Baldwin and later they both went to Bryn Mawr.
Just to give you a little idea of the atmosphere that Mother was born into, I’m going to insert here a letter from this same Uncle Amory to Mother in 1904. It gives you a good idea of the Uncle Amory who controlled her purse strings.
Corning, N.Y., Feb. 4, 1904
I have your letter of February 1st, and note that you have, during the past seven years, been borrowing money of Mary Towle, until now it amounts to a thousand dollars, besides what you have paid her back from your salary. Your income has always been ample, and you never ought to have borrowed any money, and Mary Towle did a great wrong in lending you any money. My opinion of you is the same as it always has been—that you are an extravagant, deceitful, dishonest, worthless person. You have squandered thousands of dollars and left your honest debts unpaid. But I do not think you are capable of comprehending the mistakes that you have made. Now that you are paying up Mary Towle, how would it do to pay the various other accounts that you owe? When you see Tom, please tell him I do not think he could do worse.
I enclose your draft for one thousand dollars, and have charged same to your account. I suppose you will endorse on the back of this draft—Pay to the order of Mary R. Towle, sign under it, Katharine M. Houghton, and then send the draft to Mary R. Towle.
Your affectionate uncle
A. Houghton, Jr.
When you were a little girl and went into Buffalo and got trusted for some dry goods which you were not allowed to keep (they were returned) your father remarked “Kathie is a feather head.” It is true. Kathie is a feather head; always has been, and doubtless always will be.
When Caroline Garlinghouse died, she was thirty-four years old. She must have been a very strong character. My mother talked a lot about her: her beauty, her strength of character—her determination that the daughters get an education and live lives independent of the very dominating Amory Houghton Corning Glass group. Her credo: Go to college! Get an education!
I can see Mother to this day as she described herself sitting next to her mother. Her mother was lovely-looking. And I felt the enormous effect she must have had on my mother, the eldest of the three girls. So my mother was that one who received the powerful philosophy of George Bernard Shaw:
This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.
Don’t give in.
Fight for your future.
Independence is the only solution.
Women are as good as men.
You don’t have too much money but you do have independent spirits. Knowledge! Education! Don’t give in! Make your own trail.
My sister Peg said that once she was sitting crying because our sister Marion and a friend wouldn’t let her play with them. “I don’t blame them,” said Mother. “You’re a moaner.” Peg learned her lesson. She began to make things fun.
“So-and-so doesn’t like me.”
“Well, if he had good taste he’d like you,” said Mother. “If he has bad taste, why would you want to arrive with him?”
Once when she was at Bryn Mawr, Mother needed money. She could only find someone who needed help in trigonometry. She didn’t know trig. So she got the books—called the girl and kept two lessons ahead of her for six weeks. The girl passed the exam and so did Mother.