linking past & present
Gertrude Blackall was a businesswoman—this much I know—a woman who worked for herself as a stenographer at the turn of the last century. In this she was unique. Stenography back then was a man’s world, as was most of American commerce.
Gertrude never married, and if you never married in those days, unless you were of a certain class, you worked. She was middle class. (How wealthy the Blackalls were remains another mystery, but they were comfortable enough to afford vacations and own their own home. And I’m guessing their financial support was one reason they knew Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass.) Gertrude lived at home as an adult, as did her sister Florence, who also never tied the knot.
The first mystery of Gertrude: How did she come to open a business? And what did her business look like? Did she employ others? Where was she educated? Was it considered prestigious to have offices in the Powers Building? And while we’re at it, did she know Martha Matilda Harper, who opened her own salon empire in the Powers Building around the same time?
The second mystery of Gertrude: How active was she in the suffrage movement? Several letters to her from Susan B. Anthony show that she helped the famous suffragist sort mountains of paperwork on a number of occasions. Maybe she transcribed some things for her; I’m not sure.
“It was very good of you to feel that you wanted to help me see through the piles of unanswered letters – but I felt all the time you couldn’t do so, without neglecting your own more important work,” Susan wrote her on Christmas Eve in 1897.
“The great good that came to me from the attempt was the coming to know and appreciate you more than ever before, for which I am very grateful – I had always looked upon you a heroic young woman who had fought through hard battles and gained a most enviable position in your profession – but it was left to those few morning hours to teach me the lesson of your deeper and higher qualities.
“So we are both the better for the little experience, and I trust we may in the future see and know more and more of each other.”
The letter is one of a few small windows I have to peek into Gertrude’s life—and into Rochester at an important time in its history.
Originally published 8/21/2011