In 1779, two affluent Quaker women suddenly ended an eight-year relationship of intimate correspondence with one another. The reason why has never been revealed.
Though many historians are interested in this abrupt end to a continuous exchange of letters and prose, the relationship between Sally Wister and Deborah Norris Logan nevertheless shines a light on the roots of a unique salon culture and female friendship among Quakers in the 18th century.
Stenton, the historic Germantown home of William Penn’s secretary James Logan, explored this intriguing relationship Thursday during their Lunch and Learn series.
The presentation, “Sacred and Inviolable: Sally Wister and Deborah Norris Logan, Female Friendship and the Roots of Salon Culture,” featured Princeton University doctoral student Rebecca Rosen and was held in collaboration with Grumblethorpe, the historic house of Sally’s relative John Wister.
Delving deeper into the story
Rosen described the friendship of the two women, which began while they were at school together, as the main catalyst for writing. In the 18th century, friendship was the main topic and reason for writing, said Rosen, noting, “friendship was the only circumstance under which they would write.”
It was dangerous for women to write at this time due to the male-dominated world of published poetry.
“Women didn’t fare well in their writing,” said Rosen. “Any published female writers were ridiculed.”
Many used pennames to conceal their identity, but also to heighten the feeling of intimacy between writers. The salon culture of meeting to share ideas also began at this time.
Since women rarely met in person, letters and manuscripts served as their only means of intellectual communication.
Though many women weren’t published, commonplace books featuring anything from satire to recipes were widely circulated among social circles, creating the main ties between women writers. Those social circles consisted mostly of extended family and family friends.
Quakers were especially interested in manuscript transmissions across great distances, which may have spurred their tradition to formally educate women.
Guests came from as far as New York and Virginia to hear Rosen speak in Germantown.
“I’d love to sit down with her and talk about the friendship networks,” said Delaware resident Nancy Gardner. “If you did a grid map connecting people who wrote each other, six degrees of separation would be irrelevant.”
Stenton was especially interested in hosting the presentation because of the relation to the house’s history as Deborah Norris Logan married into the Logan family and resided in the home the family built.
“The very interesting diaries and the mysterious breakoff” appealed to many local history buffs and curators of partnering historic sites, said programming coordinator Kaelyn Taylor.
Rosen, who is pursuing her Doctorate in English with the intention to teach, learned of Stenton through a friend of her academic advisor at her undergraduate school, Barnard College.
“I’ve always been interested in the history of women writers,” said Rosen, who intends to make her dissertation proposal in the upcoming year and focus on the writings and circulations of women writers.
Stenton’s Lunch and Learn series holds four to five presentations yearly, mostly geared towards scholarly discussion of local history.