Thursday, November 24, 2011

Girls' Friendly Society

Girls' Friendly Society (GFS) charm, donated to Wiawaka
in memory of Margaret S. Pattison.

Wiawaka was founded as a part of the Girls' Friendly Society or GFS, an international Episcopalian charitable organization. The GFS was originally founded in England in 1875 by Mary Elizabeth Townsend and was the first organization within the Church of England(1) with the purpose of serving women. Part of the mission of the Society in the early twentieth century was to protect single working girls – in Troy, often young Irish immigrant women – from what were perceived as the dangers of urban life. These dangers included idleness and pre-marital sexual activity. They also arranged educational programs for the working girls to teach them proper etiquette, various skills, and household management. GFS meetings and activities were held in the cities during much of the year, serving to both educate the young women and to literally keep them off the streets. Girl members of the GFS were required to be “virtuous” (code for virginal) and were expelled from the organization if they became “unvirtuous” by being sexually active outside of marriage. This standard was changed during the second quarter of the twentieth century.

Wiawaka was one of several Holiday Houses operated by the GFS across the country. The GFS found holiday houses particularly important, as many of the regular meetings and activities were curtailed during the summer months when the organizers went on holiday. The holiday houses were a means for working girls to experience the healthy benefits of consuming leisure and nature, while still being under the moral supervision and direction of the GFS. The working women who stayed at these holiday houses were referred to as “girl guests;" GFS organizers were known as associate members.

Certainly, many of the women working in the factories were very young. I don't (yet) have data for workers in the Troy factories, but women working in the Triangle factory in New York in the very early twentieth century were as young as 14. Single women at the time were also generally referred to as girls and not considered grown women until they married. Class status also played a role in the designation of women as girls – the founder of Wiawaka, Mary Wiltse Fuller, never married, but most certainly would not have been included in the category of unmarried women called “girls."

The Girls' Friendly Society in America Associates' Record, a publication documenting the activities and programs of the GFS from 1912 to 1914 (including descriptions of events and activities at Wiawaka -- search for "Wiawaka" and "Lake George") is available online via Google Books. You can read it online, or download it for free as a .pdf. It's a very interesting read, helping to put the early years of Wiawaka into a larger context.

The GFS remains a vital and active international organization serving girls and young women. There is only one surviving holiday house in the US operating under the auspices of the GFS; it is located in Cape May, New Jersey. There is very little academic research about the history of the GFS, and what has been written deals predominantly with the British arm. Some references include:

Cordery, Simon (1995) Friendly Societies and the Discourse of Respectability in Britain, 1825-1875. Journal of British Studies 34(1): 35-58.

Harrison, Brian (1973) For Church, Queen and Family: The Girls' Friendly Society 1874-1920. Past & Present 61: 107-138.

Richmond, Vivienne (2007) It Is Not a Society for Human Beings but for Virgins: The Girls' Friendly Society Membership Eligibility Dispute 1875-1936. Journal of Historical Sociology 20(3): 304-327.

If you don't have access to these through an academic library or online resources (most are available through JSTOR if you have a subscription), you can request them through your local library's reference/inter-library loan service (there may be a small cost for copies).


(1) The Church of England is also known as the Anglican Church and the Episcopal Church.


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