Spinster aunts, part one: Grace Duncan (b.1885)
“Finding out about what happened to your widows and spinsters may once have been low on your priorities as a family historian, but the effort will only enhance your understanding of women’s lives and your own family relationships.”
– Margaret Ward, The Female Line
Inspired by a recent post from Amy O’Neal at Gravestoned, and by the fact I’m finally reading Margaret Ward, I’m spending a bit of time looking specifically at the unmarried women in my tree. I’ve sort of run aground with Berkin’s Revolutionary Mothers (a book I started reading for blog reasons, oh, months ago) and with Augusta’s story all told, it seems time for a fresh angle.
As Ward points out in The Female Line, it’s very common for researchers to skim over unmarried women – “barren twigs on the family tree” – but “many spinster daughters cared for elderly parents or young nieces and nephews, ran the home and the family, had work or careers of their own, were at the forefront of charitable works or put their considerable energies into political and social reform. They deserve to be given their due in our family history researches, even if they did not provide another generation and are marked on the tree with a short line denoting ‘no issue.’”
I nearly, and I should probably not even admit this, collected a few so-called spinster aunts into one post, on the grounds that I don’t have very much information about any of them and was worried individual posts would be too scrappy. Fortunately, I realized in time that if your goal is to explore the lives of female relatives beyond their unmarried status, crushing three of them into one patronising blog post on that very basis doesn’t really serve the cause. So, scrappy it is, I’m afraid.
We’ll start with Grace Duncan, younger sister to my great-grandmother Mina. Grace was born in Dundee in 1885. I didn’t know anything about her until her name came up over lunch with my mother a few years ago in the restaurant at McEwen’s department store in Perth (we’ve been going there regularly since I was tiny; despite modernization, something about it remains pleasantly time-warpish and conducive to family history discussions). Chatting about the largely-forgotten sibling group of which Mina was a part, my mum started recalling details she hadn’t given much thought to for a while. I scribbled a lot of notes on a paper napkin and then went home and tried to flesh them out with online research.
Grace was the fifth of six children. Their father was a commission agent for a tobacco firm. In 1901, at fifteen, Grace was employed in a warehouse; this was the year her mother died. By twenty-five (as the 1911 census shows) she was a clerkess in a confectionery factory, still living at home with her father and two of her sisters. Dundee was an industrial town with a recent history of rapid expansion and prosperity, but by this time things were changing for the worse, with unemployment creeping up as the jute trade faced competition from overseas.
In 1912, Mina left home to marry my great-grandfather, leaving Grace as the elder of two remaining unmarried sisters. The following year Grace emigrated, unaccompanied, to America, heading straight for the burgeoning industrial paradise of Detroit.
I’d love to know what led her to strike out on her own, but in the absence of evidence I can only admire her boldness and speculate about the details. My best guess is that she’d simply decided her prospects in Dundee as a single woman in her late twenties were too limited, and decided to seek out greener pastures. I do know, having found her on a passenger list, that she travelled on the SS Saturnia in September 1913. She arrived in the States by way of St Albans, Vermont, naming Detroit as her final destination. (You can imagine Detroit, at that point known as “the Paris of the West”, sounding extremely attractive to a young woman who’d grown up around warehouses and factories and was keen to broaden her horizons; she had the right skills to make a shot at an independent life there.) Her occupation – “clerkess”, as on the census – is stated on the passenger list; this, and the address given as a reference, helped me to be sure I had the right woman.
We don’t know much more. My mother thinks that Grace stayed in the States, and probably in Detroit, until her death, but can dimly recall her visiting Scotland once during the 1950s: a smiling woman with an accent, bending to speak to her little great-niece. She also remembers that Kate, Grace’s youngest sister, travelled widely in later life and used to visit Grace in America quite a lot during the post-war years. We’re not aware of Grace ever having married, but nor have I been able to find her under her own name in the 1920 or 1930 US census records. In the absence of evidence, I continue to think of her as a spinster aunt (which in my mind is a good thing), and will do so until such time as I learn otherwise.
Much has changed in Detroit during the past century. You don’t really get people comparing it to Paris very much these days. I’m not sure how much I’ll be able to find out about Grace’s later life, but some links I’ve noted for future investigation include the Detroit Society for Genealogical Research, the Michigan Women’s Historical Center and Hall of Fame, and the Michigan Genealogical Council. I’ve also just stumbled across Amy Elliott Bragg’s Detroit history blog, Night Train to Detroit, from the Amazon page for her book Hidden History of Detroit: lots of interest to follow up there, including a good set of links to other Detroit resources.