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Fanny Fern 1811-1872: Famous American 19th Century Woman Newspaper Columnist

Updated on March 5, 2020
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I love history; it forms the basis of my interest in genealogy and has an influence on our itinerary when on family holidays.

Victorian scrapbook of Newspaper Articles compiled by George Burgess
Victorian scrapbook of Newspaper Articles compiled by George Burgess
Ruth Hall and Other Writings by Fanny Fern (American Women Writers)
Ruth Hall and Other Writings by Fanny Fern (American Women Writers)
The first of many novels by her and a great read as it's based on her life and therefore gives a good insight into what made her who she was. A paperback book of Ruth Hall, the first novel written by Fanny Fern, is essentially her autobiographical giving a scathing portrait of her father and other family members.

Prominent American Woman Writer of the 19th Century

Fanny Fern (1811-1872) was a prominent 19th century American woman newspaper columnist who wrote on social issues; her real name was Sarah Willis. She was born in Portland, Maine, America and her parents were Nathaniel Willis, a newspaper owner, and his wife Hannah Parker. She is of particular interest to me because of my interest in genealogy and Victorian history, particular as this was the era when my great-great grandfather was born and lived. I discovered her works and learnt about her by reading through my great-great-grandfathers scrapbook where he has saved several articles published by her which I find fascinating to read because they give a real insight into everyday life as it was in America during this golden age of exploration. Below is a sample of her works and links to the full transcripts I made from the articles passed down to me.

The five newspaper articles written by Fanny Fern and showcased here are:-

  1. Fact and Fiction – Not being able to tell a book by its cover
  2. How it happens - Failing to look behind the mask people wear
  3. The Tragedy of Indulgence - Over Protective Mothers not preparing their daughters for life
  4. Her report on American Mental Health Institutions, and
  5. Men and Women - A scathing prod at the women who read her newspaper articles

Newspaper Articles Written by Fanny Fern

And Saved by George Burgess in His Victorian Scrapbook

Pictured above is my great-great grandfather George Burgess (1829-1905) born in Bristol, England. Over a 12 year period between 1845 and 1857 George Burgess spent a lot of his youth living in America, briefly returning to Bristol three times during that period to visit his ailing mother. During his time spent in America George Burgess saved five of Fanny fern’s newspaper articles in his Victorian Scrapbook which ultimately contained over 500 Victorian Era newspaper articles from both Britain and America.

Fanny Fern (1811-1872), born Sarah Willis, was first married to Charles Harrington, a banker; they had three children. Their eldest daughter died of meningitis in 1845, age about six and shortly afterwards her husband died of typhoid fever leaving her, without support from her family, nearly destitute. She remarried in 1849 to Samuel Farrington, a merchant, but that didn't work out so they divorced two years later.

Fanny Fern published her first article 'The Governess' in 1851 in the ' Olive Branch', a weekly paper published in Boston, Massachusetts, America, followed by several short satirical pieces. Shortly afterwards she began using the pen name 'Fanny Fern'.

With no regular income and two children to support Fanny Fern started writing in earnest but her brother (a magazine owner) refused to publish them claiming they would not have any appeal outside of Boston. However other newspapers and periodicals in New York and elsewhere outside of Boston did begin printing them and in 1852 she became the first woman to have a regular newspaper column. It was at about this time that publisher 'Oliver Dyer' hired her to write exclusively for his New York newspaper, the 'Musical World and Times'. The following year Oliver Dyer helped her find a publisher for her first two books; and from there she went on to publish a number of children's stories for next two decades.

George Burgess 1829-1905
George Burgess 1829-1905

Fact and Fiction

The Back Window Rather Than Front Window View of Life

In Other Words You Cannot Tell a Book by its Cover

FACT AND FICTION is a short newspaper article by Fanny Fern that basically says you cannot tell a book by its cover although the analogy she uses is the ‘back window view of life’ rather than the ‘front window view’. By this she means that looking at the front of the house, no matter how splendid it may look and how wealthy the occupants may appear to be, appearances can be deceiving. The occupants may be old and frail, they may have domestic issues with their children or marital issues or they may be finding it financially difficult to keep up the charade of their wealthy lifestyle; while you, who may not live in such a glamorous house, may be healthier, fitter and younger, and a happily married person living within your means. She concludes by saying that it is sometimes good to take the back window view of life in that like the heart, houses keep their rubbish in the rear.

Fact and Fiction by Fanny Fern
Fact and Fiction by Fanny Fern

How it Happens

Failing To Look Behind the Mask People Wear

In Fanny Fern's newspaper article HOW IT HAPPENS she talks about people's discontentment and their barrier to enjoyment in life through the folly of comparing their own life with that of others, while at the same time ignoring the fact that many people hide their true feelings and thoughts so how people appear outwardly may not be how they truly feel inwardly (inside) e.g. under the Facade of their mask.

How It Happens By Fanny Fern
How It Happens By Fanny Fern

The Tragedy of Indulgence

Over Protective Mothers

THE TRAGEDY OF INDULGENCE is a Lengthy newspaper article by Fanny Fern where she discusses the tragic over indulgence of mothers towards their daughters by protecting them from life rather than preparing them for life.

The Tragedy of Indulgence by Fanny Fern
The Tragedy of Indulgence by Fanny Fern

An Early Example of News Reporting in the Field

Fanny Fern visit to a 19th century American Lunatic Asylum is an early example of news journalism in the field; and is probably the most enlightening of all her newspaper articles featured here. In this newspaper article by Fanny Fern she starts by saying:-

'My verdict after visiting a Lunatic Asylum is, that there are quite as many people outside, who should be in, as those already there. In other words, that almost everybody has some crazy streak that should serve as a passport quite as well as any doctor's affidavit.

Reading Fanny Fern's findings in her newspaper report on her visit to a 19th century American lunatic asylum it sounds as if the Americans where way ahead of the British in the humane treatment of the mentally ill. Having learnt a lot about Victorian mental institutions from my interest in genealogy, in Britain people considered mentally ill were treated a lot worse and a lot less humane than in America; and there was little change in England to this system for almost another century. In Britain right up until the 1950s people, predominantly women e.g. single women getting pregnant in their teens were all too often committed to mental institutions for the flimsiest of reasons, and often for life. A prime example being Lady Harriet Mordaunt (1848-1906) born in Scotland and who married Sir Charles Mordaunt, baronet and Member of Parliament. Following a scandal where Lady Harriet Mordaunt had affairs with the Prince of Wales (later to become King Edward VII) and others her husband tried to divorce her. But following a counter claim by her family that she was mentally insane and unfit to plead in her divorce case the jury in the resulting trial found her to be mentally ill where upon she was committed to an asylum for life.

Fanny Fern Reports On the State of 19th Century American Mental Health Institutions

Fanny Ferns newspaper column on American Mental Health Institutions
Fanny Ferns newspaper column on American Mental Health Institutions

Men and Women

Fanny Fern Having a Scathing Prod at the Very Women Who Read Her Newspaper Articles

I wonder what the women readership thought when they read this rather brave article published in the newspaper where Fanny Fern writes critically about women, as highlighted below:-

Fanny Fern's article starts:-

  • 'How delicious is the blunt, honest frankness of men toward each other.'

Then she goes on to say:-

  • 'In contrast with the polite little subterfuges, which form the basis of women - friendships!'

Later in the article Fanny Fern quotes Lady Mary Wortley Montagu as saying:

  • "The only comfort I ever had in being a woman is, that I can never marry one."

She concludes with:-

  • 'The moral of all this is, that women need reforming'

And finishes with the words:-

  • 'But if you think I am going to tell them this in person, you must need suppose that I have already arranged my sublunary affairs in case of accident. This, not being the case, I decline the office, except so far as I can fill it at a safe distance on paper.'

Men and Women by Fanny Fern
Men and Women by Fanny Fern

Fanny Fern Full Transcripts for Free Viewing

View the full transcripts and original newspaper articles by Fanny Fern on my Nathanville genealogy website.

Vote on Your Favourite Newspaper Article

By Fanny Fern (19th Century American Author and Writer)

From the reviews of the five American newspaper articles above written by Fanny Fern which did you find the most informative.

Which of the five articles reviewed above did you find the most informative?

See results

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 Arthur Russ

Your Comments on Fanny Fern

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    • Nathanville profile imageAUTHOR

      Arthur Russ 

      3 years ago from England

      Thanks ismeedee; yes you may well have a point; especially with the insanity of some of the politics in free democratic countries these days, voters certainly can be fickle.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Wow, I found this so fascinating I'm going to have to come back and read more! I love the story of finding the saved newspapers from your grandfather (felt a little connection being from Mass. and now living near Bristol). I laughed so hard when I read the article on the asylums: 'more people outside that should be inside'!!!! Great stuff! Angel Blessed!


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