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Chautauqua's Heart


The Pansy Collection




Chautauquans love their history and traditions. CLSC alumni are no exception.


When Alumni Hall experienced a large leak a number of years ago, some of the Pansy books suffered water damage.  In 2021, Kathleen "Kat" MacMurray and the Class of 2013 found a way to finish presenting the Alumni Association with the White Gift they began donating in 2017 - replacing the damaged books.  Along the way, they had a great deal of help from Daena Creel, author and historian.  Kat announced the collection is "...a complete - or close to it - set of first editions in all their excessive Victorian splendor." 


The last three titles to be added were Four Mothers at Chautauqua, Eighty-Seven, (a rare, hard-to-find publication), and Judge Burnham’s Daughters. Previous replaced titles included Four Girls at Chautauqua, Chautauqua Girls at Home, Ruth Erskine’s Son, and The Hall in the Grove. The Hall in the Grove was a CLSC selection during the 1881-1882 season. (If you are interested in reading The Hall in the Grove, the Winifred Kemp Collection Reading Room does have a copy.)


In the summer of 2021, Donna Dominick, the librarian of our Winifred Kemp Collection Reading Room, and Kat carefully placed the newly found Pansy books into their glass front display case in the main hallway of Alumni Hall.



Donna Dominick, standing, and Kat
MacMurray place the Pansy
Collection in the display case.


What is the background on these books? Why are they called that? What is their history? Donna, Kat, Daene, and the library committee have a plethora of Pansy knowledge.  The following is a brief article Daena wrote, as well as some pictures she sent.  We certainly appreciate their knowledge and willingness to share their information.



"At the Assembly of 1875, a quiet, unassuming little lady was present, who was already famous, and helped to increase the fame of Chautauqua. This was Mrs. G. R. Alden, the wife of a Presbyterian pastor, but known everywhere as “Pansy,” whose storybooks were in almost every Sunday School library on the continent. She wrote a book, Four Girls at Chautauqua, which ingeniously wove into the account of the actual events of the season...her four girls, so well imagined that they seemed real. Indeed, when one read the account of one’s own speech at a children’s meeting, he could not doubt that the Flossy of the story who listened to it was a veritable flesh and blood girl in the audience. The story became one of the most popular of the Pansy books, brought Chautauqua to the attention of many thousands, and led large numbers of people to Fair Point.”


— Jesse Lyman Hurlbut, D.D. in “The Story of Chautauqua” (1921)


Isabella Macdonald Alden wanted to be a teacher, not a writer. But when her best friend secretly submitted one of her stories to a writing contest in 1864, the success of that prize-winning Sunday-school book turned into something unexpected—it became a calling. In the 19th century when owning a book was a luxury, the Sunday school library bridged the literary divide for many children.


As Isabella penned book after book, it became clear that she was going to be a teacher, but on a much grander scale. Soon, the term “Pansy Book” became synonymous with wholesome, Christian stories that taught children important life-lessons. She would go on to write nearly 100 books in her lifetime; countless short stories and serials; and her magazine, The Pansy, educated children and their families for 22 years.


Isabella spent decades of summers at Chautauqua, often leading The Sunday-school Primary Teachers’ Class and taking great pleasure in the opportunity to give readings of her latest stories of inspiration and redemption. She spent much of her free time writing new ones in the Pansy Cottage at 20 Forest Avenue.


The cottage at 20 Forest Ave as it appears today.



Her Four Girls at Chautauqua—Ruth, Eurie, Marion and Flossy—came to Chautauqua on a lark but went home forever changed. The Pansy books follow them throughout their lives until the final book in the series. Four Mothers at Chautauqua ushers in a new generation and also introduces Isabella’s readers to her niece, author Grace Livingston Hill, with true-to-life events from the summer of 1912.


Grace’s own career was launched at Chautauqua in 1887 when her first book, written to earn the money to travel from Florida to take part in Recognition Day, became the subject of a discourse by Bishop Vincent on Old First Night. He shared with the crowd her delightful tale of the birds, flowers, trees and animals uniting in their own Chautauqua. Grace followed quickly in her aunt’s footsteps and wrote just as prolifically in her own unique style.


The C.L.S.C. was especially dear to Isabella’s heart. Her 1882 novel, The Hall in the Grove was honored with a spot on the reading list, but, like Grace, she was also a member of The Pansy Class of 1887. She promised to write a book for “our class” with its heart and soul taken from hundreds of pages of personal recollections they sent to her for the project. In Eighty-Seven, she weaves actual events together with her fictional characters and “...groups within a few lives, the actual experiences of many...[to] illustrate the manner in which helping hands might be extended by members of the C.L.S.C. reaching lives where they least expected and setting in motion influences which should tell for eternity.”


One of the Chautauqua Girls says it another way in Ruth Erskine’s Crosses: “To God, nothing that an immortal soul can say appears trivial because he sees the waves of influence which are stirred years ahead by the quiet words.” Those quiet influences in the Pansy Books, set into motion in the 19th century, still reach helping hands across the years into 21st century lives as new generations are touched by Pansy’s unexpected calling.


- Daena M. Creel (c)2021




Daena Creel manages the Pansy website.  It is a full and fascinating site and can be reached here.


Also, the cottage at 20 Forest Ave can be rented.  For more information, click here.


Thank you to Daena Creel, Kat MacMurray and Donna Dominick for your help in putting together this article.


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