“I expect to start Tuesday p.m. of Sept. 5”

Lavinia Goodell, August 27, 1871

During this week in 1871, thirty-two year old Lavinia Goodell left New York City and her job at Harper’s Bazar behind and boarded the first of a series of trains that would take her to Janesville, Wisconsin where she would live for the remaining eight and a half years of her life.

Lavinia’s departure from New York was unexpected. In June 1871, her sister and brother-in-law, Maria and Lewis Frost, with whom Lavinia’s elderly parents had been living on the south side of Janesville, rather abruptly announced they were moving  out of the area. Apparently it was not possible for the elder Goodells to accompany them, and they could not manage a household on their own, so rather than them relocating back to the east coast, where they had lived until moving to Wisconsin in 1870, Lavinia decided to move to Janesville to help care for them.


If Lavinia harbored any bitterness about the sudden lifestyle change, there is no printed record of it. Her Connecticut aunt, Lois Smith, was not so sanguine when she heard the news. Lois wrote to her sister Clarissa (Lavinia’s mother):

Your letter filled me with surprise & astonishment.  How you must have felt when you read the note. I presume you never would have left all your Eastern friends & associations if Mr. Frost had not written kindly to have you make his house your home not withstanding all your love & sympathy for Maria. I know Maria felt it deeply for she has the highest respect and love for her parents & whatever would wound their feelings would touch her to the quick.

Aunt Lois recognized the sacrifice Lavinia was making:

I think you will see a kind Providence in it for Lavinia would hardly have made such a move, if you had not been driven into straits & I know it is a great sacrifice for her to make in giving up employment for which she is so well qualified & receives such good pay. Lavinia is a dear good daughter & she will have a reward, if in no other way in the satisfaction of smoothing the declining years of her much loved parents.

Lois Smith letter to Clarissa Goodell June 16, 1871

In advance of the move, the Goodells had leased a house in Janesville, the location of which has been lost to history. Lavinia always liked to plan ahead, and she told her parents to try to hire a housekeeper. She said, “With respect to a girl, I think I should like an American girl best; or, next to that, a German. I presume I shouldn’t need one all the time, but it would be convenient to have one for a few weeks to help us get settled, and then we could see.” (While Lavinia’s remark would probably not be deemed politically correct today, she was a product of her time.) Since the elder Goodells had been living with Maria’s family, they had little in the way of household furnishings. Lavinia advised, “I think it would be well to compare prices and ascertain whether any little things that we shall need can be bought here cheaper than in Janesville. If so, I could bring them on. I mean such things as sheeting, or small household utensils that wouldn’t take up much room.”

At the end of August, Lavinia closed her account at the Williamsburg (Brooklyn) bank and mailed her parents a check for $285.41. She also informed them that she had “laid up another $100; that she had bought plated knives and forks for $11.12 “and they are very pretty, as well as valuable and useful;” and that she was taking her father’s advice and buying accident insurance for the journey.

Lavinia departed New York on Tuesday, September 5, 1871. Details of her trip, including a wayward trunk,  may be found here. Lavinia arrived in Janesville safely in the second half of September and began the last chapter of her life, which included becoming Wisconsin’s first woman lawyer in 1874.

Sources consulted: Lois Smith’s letter to Clarissa Goodell (June 16, 1871); Lavinia Goodell’s letters to William and Clarissa Goodell (June 25, 1871; August 27, 1871).

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