In the first few months of 1918, the Boston-area newspapers all carried a story about a local Salem family, the Gibneys of Oak Street, who had received a letter from President Woodrow Wilson thanking them for the service of their four eldest sons. All the stories printed the President’s letter verbatim, and detailed the service of the young Gibney soldiers, but they also directed a spotlight on their mother, Mrs. John (Alice) Gibney, who clearly represented the perfect wartime mother: an expert war gardener, frugal cook, and Red Cross volunteer. There are lots of stories about women rising to the challenges (and opportunities) of the home front during World War One, but I think Alice Gibney’s service was quite simply her life (and vice-versa).
Boston Sunday Post, February 3, 1918 & Boston Sunday Globe, April 7, 1918.
So let’s look at the life of Alice Marion O’Brien Gibney (1869-1945) in the Spring of 1918. She was a Lynn girl who married a Salem boy in 1890: they had fourteen children, three of whom died in infancy. The family home on Oak Street looks like it might have acquired some additions over the years, but even in its expanded state it’s a bit difficult to envision it containing a family of thirteen although obviously there was more room with the four oldest boys in the service. At around the same time that Alice and John Gibney received their letter from President Wilson, he was laid off from his job at a Lynn shoe factory, so he fell back on what seems to have been a secondary line of work, ferret-breeding (and later, extermination). So Alice not only had a houseful of children but also ferrets out back. Nothing phased her: she told the Boston Post reporter that “surely we haven’t the right to grumble over a little personal discomfort” when boys such as hers “have taken their lives in their hands for the sake of their country.” In addition to her work as one of the founding members of the Bowditch (School) Parent-Teacher Association, she established the Company H Woman’s Auxiliary, which “carefully looked after 150 boys….even if they are far away in France (with her son Alfred): for Christmas of 1917 she personally packed 150 Christmas parcels for these soldiers. Along with the ferrets, there were several gardens out back: a vegetable garden which enabled Mrs. Gibney to can 150 quarts of tomatoes and 32 quarts of beans and “put down” bushels of carrots, parsnips, and celery in her cellar, and a flower garden “which brought forth 10,000 blossoms” in 1917, which were sold in the market. She made jars of pear preserves and grape “catchup”, all the while also supervising the war gardens of her younger children, who took top prize in the Salem Chamber of Commerce garden contest several years in a row.
The standard war-time recipe for grape “catchup”, sometimes called catsup and later ketchup: it evolves into a relish over the twentieth century, but earlier in the century there were many different types of catchups: cranberry, mushroom, any fruit or vegetable really, and it was recommended that such sauces be served with roasts. I bet Mrs. Gibney had a more economical recipe for her grape catchup as 2 pounds of sugar would have been very dear in 1918.
Every day, in her free time, Alice Gibney went to the Red Cross headquarters in Salem to work on surgical dressings, baby layettes, or knitting projects, “wherever the need is greatest”. She also turned her practical experience at provisioning and feeding her large family to account in the service of Salem’s food conservation campaign. All four Gibney soldiers came home at the end of the Great War, several had families, and Mrs. Gibney lived to see her grandsons go off to war as well. She died at the close of World War II and is buried in Harmony Grove cemetery, not very far from her lifetime home.
We just discovered that Hamilton Hall served as a Surgical Dressings center for the Salem Red Cross in the summer of 1918, so Mrs. Gibney might have worked there—my attempt at a ghost sign for the Hall!