This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
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The Girls of Dorothea Dix Hall

29 September 2012

Show business is tough work. After the few minutes on stage, a performer has late hours, poor food at cheap hotels, and hundreds of miles to travel to the next stage. Add a spouse and children to the mix and the strain on an entertainer's career can be overwhelming. In the 1890s, one Boston man sought to make a difference, and organized a school just for children of theatrical families. These six smiling girls came from that school, the Dorothea Dix Hall, and they were children of the stage too.

This postcard was sent on Sept. 23, 1909, to Master J. Russell Breitinger of Philadelphia, PA.

We are all sorry we could not get up to see you off . And we hope to see you next summer - From - Ethel, Doris, Vera, Ruth, Baszion, Katherine and May
Dorothea Dix Hall - 63 W. Newton St. Boston Mass.

Seven names for six girls. I suspect this was written by an apprentice publicist, to a young stage door fan.

The Dorothea Dix Hall was established in 1893, by Rev. W. W. Locke as a school just for the children of actors. It was named after Dorothea Dix (1802-1887),  a professional nurse and an early advocate for the humane care of the insane and mentally ill. A Massachusetts native, during the Civil War she was appointed Superintendent of Nurses for the Union Army and was instrumental in improving the medical training and standards for nurses. She died in 1887 and had no background in theater, so it is unclear why Rev. Locke chose to name his school after Dix. It may have been because of the location in Boston or her earlier career as a teacher.

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Today we might call this a charter school, or an academy for the arts, but it was a modest brick house, with room for only 24 children, and 4 teachers. This was a era of new experiments in education, and Rev. Locke took his interest in the theater, combined it with an idea of progressive education, and organized a boarding school that would take in the children of actors. Accepting both boys and girls, the school also took in local children who showed talent for the stage but came from an indigent background.

In order to fund the school, and actually pay the children for performing, they produced their own shows for Boston theaters. These were mostly short skits that resembled music hall shows, but had an emphasis on classics and on cuteness. This ad came from the Sunday edition of the Boston Globe, for January 26, 1896.

Whenever Boston theaters needed running-in children, Dorothea Dix Hall would provide them. The children received instruction in singing and dancing in addition to dramatics, and some even learned to play a musical instrument to accompany the others.  In 1897, the stage children presented an operetta called the Three Little Kittens. Musicals were as much a part of their repertoire as classic plays.

By the 1900s, the Dorothea Dix children had become fairly successful in the Boston theaters and several magazines featured articles about these precocious tykes and their playacting. This one is from the 1904 edition of the New England Magazine.

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Dorothea Dix Hall performances were now taken as far as New Jersey, New York, and Philadelphia. In December 1908, this story, The Lonely Children of the Stage, appeared in Good Housekeeping, along with a letter on the Emancipation of Education by President Theodore Roosevelt. The first photo illustration show the same six young girls in costumes similar to those in the postcard pose.

In 1907, the 28th annual report by the Massachusetts State Board of Charity gave the Dorothea Dix Hall Association's mission statement and financial statement. Now run by the Rev. W. H. van Allen, the school had 20 children that year, earning a respectable income of $1,492.34 from entertainments,etc. with total expenses of $4,268.35.

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This dramatic photo from the 1908 Good Housekeeping article shows four girls, Ruth Francis, Katherine McGregor, Baszion Fleece, and Doris Horslin in nightgowns, pointing up to the moon or Peter Pan perhaps. Doris on the right is the same girl, I think, as the one second from right in the postcard. She shows up in a other photos in the article including this more mature group of five girls in beautiful white dresses.

I found the name Doris M. Horslin in the 1910 census for Boston. Born in 1895, she was the youngest daughter of George A Horslin, who owned a stable. The census did not record an occupation for her mother, but an older sister was a saleslady at a confectionery store. It seems likely that Doris was one of the local juvenile talents who did not come from a theatrical family.

In January 1910, Doris M. Horslin, age 14, applied for a passport along with five other girls from Dorothea Dix Hall, Vera Barry, 13;  Juliette Day, 17; Ruth Fielding, 10; Florence Maguire, 13; and Vera Morrison, 17. All six girls listed their occupation as actress. Note the detailed personal description: eyes - blue, nose - large, mouth - ordinary, chin - large.

They were about to embark on a grand tour of Europe and the Mediterranean, beginning with a voyage across the Atlantic on the RMS Baltic of the White Star Line, which had a ship manifest where I found all the girl's names. This was no ordinary ship, as the Baltic was for a time the largest passenger liner in the world. The year before, in 1909, it had gone to the aid of two ships that collided in the North Atlantic resulting in the sinking of one ship. In 1912, the Baltic sent a radio message to the Titanic, warning of ice bergs spotted in the shipping lanes. 

Looking up these names on, I discovered a program of this 1910 tour, posted by descendants of one of the girls, Veronica Agnes Barry. For this grand trip the school was now called the Boston Educational Children's Theater, a training school for professional stage children and children of actors. Shortly before they left, in January 1910, the school's children performed Shakespeare's Mid-Summer Night's Dream at Boston's Symphony Hall with musicians of the Boston Symphony providing Mendelssohn's famous incidental music. 

The tour took them to many exotic places including Constantinople, Jerusalem, and Cairo where they gave many performances. They also visited Spain, Italy, England, and Ireland before returning to Boston. Few children today would get a field trip like that.

Sadly the history of the Dorothea Dix Hall seems to evaporate shortly after this, as I can find no references after 1911. But Doris Horslin shows up in the Boston city directories of 1912-17 as a dance teacher. The promotional material from the 1910 program suggests that many of the Dorothea Dix children graduated to adult careers as stage actors in the traveling stock companies, vaudeville, and big city theaters.

 But what became of Master J. Russell Breitinger?

Born in Philadelphia in 1894, he grew up and became an attorney. In 1923, he applied for a passport to travel to Italy and France.

By this decade, photographs rather than just a description were required for a passport application, so we get to meet J. Russell Breitinger. Older and wiser no doubt, but perhaps he always gave a wistful sigh when he looked at his postcard of the girls of Dorothea Dix Hall.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where you might find more stories of legless boys and girls.


Peter said...

Writing your posts the way you do, I sometimes worry whether there is sufficient time left for sleep and nourishment.
But in all earnest, I always read your blog posts with pleasure. Usually they introduce me to whole new world, as is the case with this one. Thanks very much!

Christine H. said...

Peter's right; you don't seem to rest until you have squeezed the last bit of information out of all of your sources. I have also used the passport applications as an information source--very useful.

Wendy said...

I wonder what an "unordinary" mouth might look like and how it might be described. As always, I learned a lot from this post. I bet the Dix school was a godsend for many parents pursuing their own acting dreams.

Little Nell said...

The 'talented tots' reminded me of 'the infant phenomenon' in Charles Dickens' novel 'Nicholas Nickleby'. That's an engaging picture of the six girls, and what an unusual name Baszion Fleece had! Mike, for some reason I am not seeing some of those pages in your post; there is a link to a google search and a couple of pages, then two blank pages. Apart from that a thorougly enjoyable post,

Mike Brubaker said...

Nell, I'm not sure why Google does it but sometimes the internal links for the missing PDF reader or images get dropped. Refreshing the webpage works for me and I've tested the post on the three main browsers. But sometimes Blogger just does stuff. It's a mystery.

Kathy said...

I was confused as I read about Dorothea Dix Hall, as I associated the name with my schooling in Social Work and thought maybe I had confused the name with someone in show business. Glad you cleared that up for me. Perhaps her name was selected because the school took indigent children as students - and took some inspiration from the work of Dorthea Dix? Anyway - always amazed at what you share with us.

Queen Bee said...

Thanks for the time & research you put into your interesting posts. Fun history lesson concerning the Dorothea Dix school. I did a search at Genealogy Bank for a record of the school past 1911 out of curiosity, but it came back with no record also.

Anonymous said...

Another fascinating and educational post, Mike. Your research is meticulous :-) Jo

Tattered and Lost said...

This is so fascinating. I love how you impart some new piece of history to us each week.

There are wonderful stories to be told about this place.


Seeing that first postcard, I just knew I'd be in for some fun. Funny though, if the school was meant to give a proper education to these kids that they would end up touring themselves, though, what a journey it must have been for them!! But what if a child born from actors had no talent him/herself?

Sad that the Titanic didn't heed so much the Baltic's warnings...

I would love to see "the 3 kittens".

Postcardy said...

An interesting bit of history. I thought maybe the boy was a student there during the summer only.

Polly-Vous Francais said...

Thanks so much for this! I have just found some of their programs from 1909-1911. They spent summers in New Salem, MA (in the house we now own), when they weren't traveling. It was owned by a benefactor who wanted to have some carefree summer days in the country. One of their most famous members was Mary Miles Minter. Very helpful research you have done!


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