• A home on a sleepy street

      Perkins Gilman house (Photo – Matt Hormann)

      Author, social reformer, and feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) wrote her most famous short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” while living in a small cottage near the corner of Orange Grove Boulevard and Arroyo Terrace in Pasadena in June, 1890.

      By Matt Hormann

      Southern California was experiencing a record heat wave when Gilman, then 29, sat down at her desk and began the story. For two sweltering days, temperatures fluctuated between 102 and 105 degrees, but by the evening of June 7th, she had finished the first draft.

      It would take over a year to get it published, but it was a turning point in Gilman’s career. The story caught the attention of writer William Dean Howells, an early admirer of Gilman’s work, who promoted it, and it was eventually published in New England Magazine in January, 1892.

      Though best remembered for “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a classic of the short story genre, Gilman was extremely prolific—writing 186 short stories, hundreds of poems, and numerous articles, lectures, novels, and non-fiction books.

      The place where her writing career began

      Gilman’s time in Pasadena was brief, but in later years, she would credit it as the place where her writing career began. “Before that there was no assurance of serious work,” she wrote in her autobiography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. “To California, in its natural features, I owe much.”

      Gilman moved to the city in 1888 from Providence, Rhode Island, after separating from her husband, artist Charles Walter Stetson. She had written a little before that, including several unpublished short stories and poems and a suffrage column for a labor-oriented newspaper called The People, but she found it difficult to balance the responsibilities of a 19th century marriage with her literary ambitions. She struggled for several years with depression following the birth of her daughter, Katherine, in 1885, and a disastrous trip to a Philadelphia doctor who infamously advised her to “Live as domestic a life as possible. Have your child with you all the time […] and never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live.” (The visit would later inspire “The Yellow Wallpaper.”)

      A sense of freedom and autonomy

      With Gilman’s move to Pasadena came a sense of freedom and autonomy. Gilman rented a “little wood-and-paper four-room house,” for ten dollars a month, and gave painting lessons to support herself. “In that first year of freedom,” she recalled, “I wrote some thirty-three short articles, and twenty-three poems, besides ten more child-verses.”

      Having written several articles on women’s rights while she was living in Providence, including “Why Women Do Not Reform Their Dress” and “A Protest Against Petticoats,” Gilman soon became in demand as a lecturer for the Nationalist Club of Pasadena, a socialist-leaning organization. She would lecture for them on alternate Sundays in Pasadena and Los Angeles, for which she was paid between $3 and $6 per appearance.

      Pasadena years

      Gilman’s closest companions during her Pasadena years were the Channings, who lived at the corner of Orange Grove and Walnut Street. Their daughter, Grace, was a childhood friend and also an aspiring writer, and she and Gilman would often write and act in plays together. “There was an admirable group of amateur actors in Pasadena,” Gilman later remembered. “Somewhat to my surprise I was usually cast in comic parts—being always willing to make a fool of myself.”

      One of their plays was performed as a charity benefit at the Pasadena Opera House—a comedy in which Gilman portrayed a “too-affectionate old maid.”

      Grace’s father, Dr. William Channing, had a great influence on Gilman. A former abolitionist, social reformer, and inventor, he was also a supporter of women’s rights, and, unlike the doctor Gilman had been sent to in Philadelphia, seemed to have had enlightened views on the treatment of depression. Gilman wrote much about him in her diaries. He even inspired the character “Dr. Willy Clair,” in Gilman’s 1915 short story, “Dr. Clair’s Place” (though Gilman changed the gender of the character).

      Gilman wrote other well-regarded stories in Pasadena, including “That Rare Jewel,” “The Unexpected,” and “Circumstances Alter Cases,” and lectures and articles on such wide-ranging topics as “How Much Must We Read?” and “Social, Domestic, and Human Life.”

      Grace Channing left Pasadena in 1890, and Gilman soon began to feel lonely without a close female companion. In September 1891, she moved to Oakland, California to be with another friend, Adeline Knapp, whom she had met on the lecture circuit.

      A pivotal time

      She had lived in Pasadena less than three years, but it had been a pivotal time for her. Later, she recalled in her autobiography, “In two years of work in Pasadena something had been accomplished. Verses widely quoted, not ‘poetry’ in an exalted sense, but living words.” The night before she left, she jotted in her diary, “I have lived much here. I love the place—Pasadena, and mean earnestly to return, build, and live.”

      Gilman did return to Pasadena periodically, to lecture and visit friends, and wrote her well-regarded book Human Work during an 1899-1900 visit, but she spent much of the following decades on the East Coast, where she eventually married her first cousin, Houghton Gilman.

      In 1932, Charlotte Gilman was diagnosed with inoperable breast cancer, and after Houghton died in 1934, she decided to spend her final days in Pasadena to be closer to her daughter and grandchildren and to her old friend Grace Channing.

      On August 17, 1935, she took a lethal dose of chloroform at her house at 239 South Catalina Avenue. She left a brief typewritten suicide note, in which she wrote, “Human life consists in mutual service.”

      The house was designated a Pasadena Cultural Heritage Landmark in 1980, and in 1993, it was moved to the corner of Cypress Avenue and Villa Street, not far from where Gilman first lived in Pasadena.

      “The one predominant duty is to find one’s work and do it,” Gilman once wrote. “And I have striven mightily at that.”

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        • Matt Hormann

          Matt Hormann is a lifelong Pasadena resident and a graduate of the L.A. County High School for the Arts (LACHSA) and Cal State University Northridge, where he received his B.A. in English. He’s a history nerd with a knack for investigative journalism and social justice.

          Colorado Boulevard is your place for enlightening events, informative news and social living for the greater Pasadena area. We strive to inform, educate, and work together to make a better world for all of us, locally and globally.

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      1. Nicholas Hormann says:

        A really lively account of some of 19th century Pasadena’s creative community and forward thinkers.

        In its way, this charming cottage amplifies the horror of the doctor’s wife’s descent into madness. Chilling juxtaposition: her diary and sweet yellow house.

      2. Jo says:

        Enjoyed reading this article on Pasadena history! Will look for her work. Thanks so much for posting.

      3. Elinor Diane Dibble Fox says:

        “The Yellow Wallpaper” !!!. I had no idea there was a Pasadena connection. Thank you for posting this.

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