Bookwomen building Chicago: an international sisterhood

Part III 0f IV

Adele Hast


ike Fanny Butcher, Josefa Veronika Humpal-Zeman (1870-1906) was a journalist, but her life was quite different. Josefa Humpal was a Bohemian immigrant who came to Chicago with her family in 1874, when she was four years old. Almost 45,000 Bohemians were living in the city. Seven years later, the family returned to Bohemia so the children could be educated there, and she attended high school. After her mother died in 1884, the family came back to the Chicago area. Josefa Humpal would become a journalist, a publisher, and a women’s rights activist.

She married Robert Zeman in 1887, and they moved to Cleveland. Josefa Humpal-Zeman quickly saw that the marriage was a mistake and left her husband eight months later. Six months after the breakup, she had a son, Benjamin, who lived for just a year. During this difficult time, Mary Ingersoll, a prominent Cleveland churchwoman, became Josefa’s patron and mentor. Under Ingersoll’s influence, Humpal-Zeman, who had been a freethinker, joined the Presbyterian church and accepted temperance as a cause. She registered for courses in the College for Women of the Western Reserve. At the same time she traveled to Chicago and founded a chapter of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union among Bohemian women.

She became a journalist, editing the student newspaper. She also wrote articles for Midwestern Slavic periodicals. When the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 was being planned, she exchanged letters with prominent American and Bohemian women, including a Czech poet and a Czech women’s rights advocate, about representation of Czech women at the exposition. Humpal-Zeman accepted the position of secretary of the Bohemian Columbian Exposition Committee and left college to work on the Czech exhibit.

Her participation in the exposition became a key experience in her future career as an author and an advocate of women’s rights. At the exposition she met Jane Addams and other important Chicago reformers. After the exposition, she moved into Hull House and studied at the University of Chicago. In 1894 she began publishing a Bohemian women’s newspaper, Ženské Listy (Woman’s Journal), with a masthead slogan that stated her philosophy: “through education is women’s freedom born!” Bohemian women liked her newspaper, but three male editors of other Czech newspapers in Chicago publicly objected to her advocacy of women’s rights and her Christian message. One of them edited a paper written for women by men, and all of them saw Humpal-Zeman’s paper as a strong competitor. They attacked her in caricature cartoons and words. Nevertheless, the newspaper — and Humpal-Zeman — did well.

Two years later the Union of Slovenian Journalists, an association with an all-male membership except for Josefa Humpal-Zeman, elected her secretary. In 1900 she established the Bohemian Women’s Publishing Company and employed 50 women workers. Since her male competitors continued the personal attacks, she feared that the newspaper might collapse and decided to leave Chicago in 1901. She settled in Prague, where she worked as a correspondent for the Chicago Daily News. On a lecture tour through 30 towns in Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia, she spoke about life in America and lauded the U.S. public schools as providing women with opportunity. Her competitors in the Czech-American press prevented her lectures from being published in the United States. In Prague she started another women’s newspaper, Štastný Domov (Happy Time), in 1904. Her life was cut short when she died two years later at the age of 35 after a stroke. Her Chicago newspaper remained in publication until 1976, although the owners, the name, and the perspective changed over the years. The entry on Josefa Humpal-Zeman required research in two countries and in two languages. The procedures followed by the author, Julia Noblett, show the resourcefulness needed to put a biographical puzzle together. Noblett did not read Czech and traveled to Prague to meet with a scholar there, Alena Zárasová, who could read the Chicago Czech newspapers and other sources. Zárasová was doing a doctoral dissertation on Humpal-Zeman and added her information, and the two researchers became co-authors of the text.

Like Josefa Humpal-Zeman, her contemporary Kate McPhelim Cleary (1863-1905) was an immigrant whose talent made her a successful writer — a novelist, short story writer, and poet. Cleary too died young, suffering heart failure at age 42, just 10 months before Humpal-Zeman’s death. Both of them moved in and out of Chicago but kept writing ties with the city.

Kate McPhelim was born in 1863 in New Brunswick, Canada. Her parents had each migrated from Ireland and had married in Canada. Kate’s father died when she was two years old, and, several years later, the family moved to Ireland to live with relatives. In the 1870s, they migrated to Philadelphia. Kate, her mother, and her older brother Edward earned money for the family by writing stories and poetry for periodicals and newspapers. Kate McPhelim’s career as a writer was launched when she published her first short story at the age of 15. She then published regularly using a series of pen names, including Kate Chrystal or Kate Ashley.

When she was 17 years old, the family moved to Chicago, where they continued to support themselves by writing. Kate concentrated on short stories. In stories printed in the Chicago Tribune, she wrote of the poverty of the family during those first years in the Midwest. She injected satire and humor into her writing then and in the future, describing the experience of Irish immigrants in Chicago. At 20 years of age, she married Michael Thomas Cleary, a fellow Irish immigrant. They moved to Hubbell, NE, then a frontier village, where Michael went into the lumber business.

Within three years, Kate Cleary wrote two novels. Her 1887 novel, Villa Vernell; or, an Amazing Marriage, published under the pseudonym Mrs. Sumner Hayden, told of twins Vella and Voyle Vernell, raised by a wealthy uncle in Chicago. Cleary described the city, ranging from mansions through the businesses on State Street to slum neighborhoods.

In the next decade, Cleary had six children, two of whom died within those years. She continued to write articles, poetry, children’s stories, and humorous sketches for a number of magazines. She published realistic short stories about western life in the Chicago Tribune and “Prairie Sketches” in several Chicago newspapers. Like Humpal-Zeman, Cleary was involved in the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, when two of her poems were read at the Nebraska Building. Her 1897 novel, Like a Gallant Lady, set in Bubble, NE, and in Chicago, enhanced her reputation as a humorist.

In 1898, when Kate and Michael Cleary were both in poor health, the family moved to the Austin area of Chicago, a bustling Irish neighborhood. Here Cleary wrote her most realistic stories, including “The Mission of Kitty Malone,” about a poor Irish couple living in Chicago. Between 1900 and 1903, Michael moved from one job to another, still in bad health. Kate had to halt her creative writing and produce potboiler fiction to bring in money for the family. She wrote daily and quickly, publishing stories in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Daily News, and with syndicates for short stories.

For the next two years, she was laid low by illness, but continued to support the family with the popular stories she composed. In addition, she wrote several articles on reform Mayor Edward Dunne, who was a candidate for governor.

She published her last story in the Chicago Daily News in April, 1905. Three months later, she died suddenly of heart failure. In her lifetime, she experienced the difficulties of adjustment to a new country and new places. At the same time, she was able to perceive the experiences of Midwestern life and translate them to popular fiction. Her stories and novels had outstanding local color combined with satiric humor.

Humpal-Zeman and Cleary had two contemporaries in the book world whose careers developed in the 20th Century. One was a novelist, Lucy Fitch Perkins, the other a librarian and curator, Carolyn McIlvaine.

Perkins (1865-1937) was known for a series of 28 children’s novels about the adventures of twins all over the world. She was a popular author during her lifetime, selling more than two million copies of the twins books. Before she started writing, however, she had a full career as an artist.

She was born in Maples, IN, and her family moved to Kalamazoo, MI, when she was in her early teens. Her interest in art was encouraged by her family. She first published at age 16, when a number of her drawings were printed in the Kalamazoo Gazette. After she graduated first in her class at Kalamazoo High School in 1883, she attended the Museum of Fine Arts School in Boston. Her three years there became the foundation for her future life. She worked at the Louis Prang Educational Company, doing illustrations for their educational publications. In 1887, Walter Scott Perry, the new director of Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY, asked her to work with him. For the next four years, she taught at Pratt, a school for engineering and manual arts.

In Boston, she had met and fallen in love with Dwight Perkins, who was a student of architecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1891, when Perkins took a job in Chicago with the architectural firm, Burnham & Root, Lucy Fitch, she joined him, and they married in August of that year.

She did not plan to continue her career, but in 1893, during a national economic depression, she took a position in the Chicago branch of Prang Company to bring income into the family. For the next ten years she published illustrations and taught. Perkins painted murals for public buildings, including schools. By 1904, Dwight Perkins’s income improved, and he designed a home for his family — they now had a daughter — in Evanston. Lucy Perkins wished to continue working, and she focused on murals, doing the art for a hotel and for a home interior in Winnetka. She also edited and illustrated several books for young children.

In 1911, at 46 years of age, she combined her talents for art and writing, when she published The Dutch Twins, the beginning of her series. The book was a success, and for the next 25 years Lucy Perkins wrote and illustrated one or two twins books a year. These books were designed to teach eight-to-ten year olds about the lives and culture of children in many countries. The stories had adventure, humor, and mystery. She hoped that the books would promote understanding of differences among people. She did careful research about each country and always spoke to someone who had grown up in a country and had been a child there.

She believed that her work as an artist gave her an awareness of detail that was helpful in writing for children. Seeking the child’s perspective, she read everything she wrote to her “Poison Squad,” neighborhood children who gave their reactions while she was revising her manuscript.

In her personal life, she was a member of the Chicago Woman’s Club, a group involved in several areas of social reform; the League of Women Voters, active after women got the vote in 1920; and the Midland Arts Club. For the publication of the two millionth copy of her twins series in 1935, Carl B. Roden at the Chicago Public Library gave her a specially-bound copy at a celebration to honor her.

When she died in 1937, a memorial service was held at Lincolnwood school in Evanston. The setting was especially appropriate, because her husband had designed the school and she had painted its mural.

While Lucy Perkins followed a career acceptable for a woman — writing novels in her home — she carried out her sense of responsibility for social reform by trying to teach children to respect and understand people of other nationalities. She saw this mutual understanding as necessary if there was to be peace on the planet.

To be continued.

Josefa Humpal-Zeman, company founder (l) with other women printers

Josefa Humpal-Zeman, company founder (l) with other women printers at work in the Bohemian Women’s Publishing Co., Chicago. (Bohemian Women’s Publishing Co. Records (BWP neg.2) Special Collections, University Library, University of Illinois at Chicago, through whose courtesy it is used.)

Lucy Perkins

Undated photograph of Lucy Perkins found in a book of her poetry. Provided through the courtesy of the Evanston Historical Society.

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