Susan B. Anthony (right) and Ida Husted Harper work on Anthony’s biography in the upstairs workroom.
The same workroom today
Photo credits: Susan B. Anthony House
A history-maker’s house
By JACKIE PERRIN
In a red brick house in Rochester’s middle-class Madison-King neighborhood, everyday furnishings and Montgomery Ward wallpaper in a no-nonsense pattern set the scene for some remarkable history.
For 40 years, No. 17 Madison Street was the home of legendary civil rights leader Susan B. Anthony, best known for her work to gain women the right to vote. But if not for the plaque outside announcing the site’s status as a national historic landmark, passers-by might easily mistake it for just another period home.
Just down the street, in a park designed by the firm of Frederick Law Olmsted, a bronze statue hints at the extraordinary person who lived and slept within the now-famous walls.
Step inside the site where Anthony spent her most politically active years, and you’ll gain an appreciation for the work that made national treasures of Anthony and her seemingly ordinary Rochester residence. For visitors tired of the usual historical home tour, a visit to the Susan B. Anthony House is a refreshing detour.
It was in the house on Madison Street that Anthony carried out her 50-year campaign for women’s voting rights. It was a tireless fight, and it didn’t end until the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, 14 years after her death. But Anthony’s life work involved other issues too, a fact unknown to many first-time visitors.
In addition to suffrage, Anthony was involved in temperance, labor, education and anti-slavery movements, says Ellen Wheeler, the museum’s director of development and public relations.
“She concluded that if women had the right to vote, they would not be denied other rights,” Wheeler says.
Anthony traveled extensively throughout the country and abroad to deliver speeches for reform, returning to her Rochester home to rest and plan future crusades.
“This was where various campaigns were launched and where a lot of her writing was done. She and Elizabeth Cady Stanton met here and elsewhere to create strategies and position papers,” Wheeler says.
Stanton, another key figure in the suffrage movement, was an accomplished writer, but like most married women of the day, she had a large family to tend to. Anthony, who remained single, was free to travel and took on the task of recruiting others to the cause.
“She was a most reluctant public speaker to begin with,” Wheeler says. “I think it is heartening for people to know that one of the best orators in the world didn’t relish it.”
Rochester activist Frederick Douglass owned property nearby. He and Anthony were friends and allies in the anti-slavery and women’s suffrage movements. Down the street, in Susan B. Anthony Square, a sculpture by local artist Pepsy Kettavong called “Let’s Have Tea” depicts Anthony and Douglass seated in conversation.
Visitors on a guided tour can see where Anthony was arrested for voting in 1872, in the front parlor of her home. In a second-floor bedroom is her signature alligator purse, one of several bags she carried in her world travels.
In a third-floor office, Anthony worked with official biographer Ida Husted Harper.
“That addition was made to the house in the 1890s. At that point, Susan was in her 70s and they needed more space and room to spread out the scrapbooks,” Wheeler explains.
In recent years, the home has undergone structural as well as interior restoration.
“In restoration, taking apart the rooms is as important as putting them back together,” explains the museum’s executive director, Deborah Hughes. “It’s like an archaeological dig to investigate and discover the people who lived there and what their life was like. Each nail hole is uncovered, each layer of wallpaper is carefully removed to discover what it may have looked like back then.”
Referring to old photographs, curators of the museum are re-creating original wallpaper that Anthony and her sister, Mary, selected for its affordable price.
The sisters’ modest means created an unexpected restoration challenge, Hughes says.
“There are lots of Victorian homes that are being restored, but almost all of those homes were wealthy people’s homes, so the wallpaper was widely available,” she explains. “(The Anthonys) literally picked their wallpaper out of the Montgomery Ward catalog, and that isn’t available anymore.”
To Hughes it’s a familiar challenge: to celebrate the extraordinary achievements of a woman of ordinary means, with limited resources.
“Almost all of the historic house sites that are national landmarks are the homes of wealthy people. They left money to create museums that would remember them. The Anthony house is in a working, middle-class neighborhood. Until 1967, the house was just a house on Madison Street.”
Anthony died in 1906 and was buried in the family plot in Mt. Hope Cemetery; Mary died the following year. For 40 years, the home was maintained by private owners until it was purchased by the Greater Rochester Federation of Women’s Clubs for the purpose of establishing a permanent memorial. In 1966, the site was declared a national historic landmark.
In 1977, a nine-block area surrounding the home was designated a national preservation district. It’s thought to be one of only two such intact urban districts in New York. Nearly a dozen properties in the area have undergone exterior renovation in the last year with the aid of the Landmark Society of Western New York Inc.
The Susan B. Anthony House today runs as a non-profit organization and relies on the assistance of more than 100 unpaid volunteers, many of them teachers, scholars and librarians.
Taking inspiration from Susan B., whose famous words “Failure is impossible” ring on, Hughes and her staff persevere in passing on Anthony’s message.
“It seems that when anything happens in society, there is something that happened in Susan B. Anthony’s history that can speak to that,” Hughes says. “She really did her work one day at a time.”
Susan B. Anthony House, 17 Madison St., Rochester, 235-6124, www.susanbanthonyhouse.org