Flowery Verses from a Tough Cookie

Lydia Huntley Sigourney (1791-1865)

In a season of flowers, the “Sweet Singer of Hartford” floats over the Hartford History Center and reminds us that Lydia Huntley Sigourney, who loved flowers and once compared her daughter to a “thornless rose,” is still worthy of study and attention. Born the daughter of a gardener in Norwich, Lydia Sigourney became a gifted educator and America’s best-selling poet during the first half of the 19th century, and by speaking directly to the hearts of antebellum American women, she became one of the nation’s first women to earn a living from her writing.

Passionate about education for young women, Lydia Huntley was encouraged to open a school in Hartford, but she stopped teaching after her marriage to Hartford banker and hardware merchant Charles Sigourney, a  widower with three children. Sigourney felt that teaching was not appropriate for a married woman and although he did not object to her publishing poems anonymously, when her poems began to appear with her initials, then her name, and her fame grew, so did his discomfort.

But Lydia Sigourney, with her poems, novels, and devotional books tapped into what she saw as the commonalities of women in her time, and though she also had children with Charles and managed a large household, she became a force in the publishing world. In an era of high mortality among infants and children, she wrote movingly about a loss most women – and she herself – suffered; she bore five children of whom only two survived. At a time when many women were moving West with their families, she wrote glowing, elegiac poems about Ohio and the Western Reserve. Women emigrating from the East to the West in the 1830s, 1840s and 1850s carried Sigourney’s books with them and there are large collections of her books at the University of Kansas and the University of Michigan.

Poems such as “The Western Home,” gave women courage:

High noon, on broad Ohio’s tide, –

                And while its flashing waters glide,

                ‘Mid fringed bank, or sunny glade

                Or unshorn forest’s towering shade……

“I suppose, if you were bouncing along in a buckboard to God only knows where, and could take only a few books, you would take hers. She comforted women,” said Sigourney scholar Alice DeLana in a magazine article in 1984. Sigourney shared a publisher and common themes with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, helped foster the career of John Greenleaf Whittier and wrote at least sixty books of prose and poetry. She published widely in the magazines and newspapers of the day, and maintained a personal correspondence estimated at two thousand letters a year. When her husband suffered business reverses, she helped maintain their household with her earnings.

More widely read than Edgar Allen Poe or Herman Melville in her day, Sigourney’s reputation fell into obscurity in the early twentieth century, her work condemned as outdated. Yet the reappraisals that have come to other writers of that time also have followed Lydia Sigourney. The Bacon Collection, which is now in the Hartford History Center, was the gift in 1984 of Janet Russell Bacon, a direct descendent of Sigourney’s. Consisting of forty-four Lydia Huntley Sigourney books and many pieces of her correspondence, the Bacon Collection provides a useful dovetail to the Lydia Huntley Sigourney Papers at the Connecticut Historical Society, a mile across town.

Lydia Sigourney’s faith and devotion to duty, often expressed in flowery verse, might seem old fashioned today, but there was nothing old fashioned about her life. She had an unsympathetic husband, unfriendly stepchildren and lost three children of her own. She fought for a place in the publishing world and drove a hard bargain because, as a woman, she had to. She wanted to express herself and get paid for it.  Nothing old fashioned about that.

Anne Farrow,  Hartford History Center