“The Woman With the Bread Tray” As Seen From Woman’s Viewpoint   Leave a comment

Nellie Barrett Letter November 15, 1920

Above:  A Clip from The Atlanta Constitution, November 15, 1920

Image Source = Kenneth Randolph Taylor

Clip Obtained Via newspapers.com



I have applied my historical research skills to this letter, one side of a story.  My efforts to locate the poem to which my great-grandmother objected have proven unsuccessful.  Along the way, however, I deduced that “Dr. Melton” was almost certainly Professor Wightman Fletcher Melton (1867-1944), Professor of English and Journalism at Emory University (1908-1924) and Poet Laureate of Georgia (1943-1944), whose daughter, Emily, married in October 1920.  I found accounts of her wedding, the wedding rehearsals and associated meals, et cetera.

I can, however, place the letter in larger historical context, based on my great-grandmother’s opening line.  She wrote at the end of the Great Migration, an African-American exodus from the South to the North and Midwest in the face of the boll weevil, World War I, lynchings, non-violent racism, and overt recruiting.  The exodus was of a size sufficient to cause labor shortages in domestic work, prompting local governments to try to stem the mass migration.

So, without further ado, I present my great-grandmother’s letter without any subjective comment (except that she was of her generation and that more than chronology removed her from Betty Friedan–not that I expected otherwise)–just some explanatory details.








Editor Constitution:

In this time when the servant problem is such a vexing one it seems to me unfortunate that anything should be printed or said that fosters even remotely the idea that it is beneath the dignity of anyone to work.  Certainly the cast spirit should not be fostered the least bit.

Hence I beg you to publish, if you will, this friendly comment on Dr. Melton’s poem.

I am afraid there are too many women who may read it, who will will pity themselves the more, rather than see that after all they have too much to be thankful for to repine because they have to preside daily over the kitchen in their own homes.  If one woman must not work day by day, then who shall say where the line shall be drawn between those who should and those who should not work?  Has God created anyone under such limitations?

Does Dr. Melton mean to protest against the dull routine of providing daily for the physical needs of the family?  He will have to blame it on the women themselves if they degenerate into mere human machines with no higher motive than to get through the day somehow or other.

No woman needs to drudge with her mind.

If she must wield the rolling pin and the bread-tray, wash dishes and do the thousand and one things that make up the life a housekeeper and mother, even though she may be uncultivated and so limited in her mental outlook, she can fill her mind and her soul full of the knowledge that these things are but incidental to her real work–being the builder and caring for the living temples of the Holy Ghost.  What woman that realizes this great truth will ever wish [that] God had not made her a woman?

Does he [Dr. Melton] mean to picture for us the very poor farmer’s wife  of the uneducated, uncultivated class?

I thought so until I read his poem carefully and noted that he referred to

renewing her taste for music and the play.

Then I concluded he was protesting against the housekeeping cares of women as a whole; and then my soul rose in rebellion against having home-makers so misrepresented.

There are, unfortunately, scores whom this description will fit exactly; but they are women who never had a taste for the higher culture to be removed.  Surely these, however much they call for our pity and sympathy, cannot be taken as a type of the housekeeping womanhood of the world.

“The Woman With the Bread-Tray,” to my mind, should be shown as a woman–perhaps with

lines of care and sorrow on her face,

for these come to all mothers sooner or later, but also with eyes full of hope and love–a love so great that it makes the

burden of the home

a rapture she would not exchange for all the indolent, self-seeking indulgence in the world.  [This paragraph was in the published letter yet not in my great-grandmother’s typewritten copy.]


Wagner and Chopin, Tennyson and Twain

ever meant anything to her, they mean more now than to the carefree girl.  If her eyes have ever been open to the beauties of the

golden sunset and the blushing flower,

she will be more vividly conscious of them than before; and yet, to her soul, the roses on her children’s cheeks are lovelier than the rarest blossoms of either hot-house or wild-wood, and the rippling music of childish laughter and song is far sweeter than even the glorious strains of Elijah  [by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy] or The Creation [by Franz Joseph Haydn].  True, she may–usually does–lose some of her girlish grace of form–maternity, even among the plants is at the cost of the early loveliness, but to those who have eyes to see it, the gain in other ways more than compensates for that.

“The Woman With the Bread-Tray,” if a type of the home-makers–home-makers, mark you, not mere housekeepers, as a whole is not

neglected, unprotected, doomed to toil.

She is honored, saved as many steps and burdens as it is possible for her husband and children to save her, and when he comes home from his work, and the children from school, she finds joy in abundance in the knowledge that it is through her toil and care that they are well and happy; and she, though ever so humble, holds her head proudly as she thinks of her husband and sons, to whom she is the queen of their realm.

Women who picture their lot as Dr. Melton draws it, usually are ruined by self-pity, and develop something of the type as he shows; but the woman who sees her lot as it really is–although filled with care and toil, yet the most important under the skies, since to her hands is committed the making of the destiny of immortal souls–will hold her head high, while her soul bows in humble gratitude to her Maker for giving her the place of honor–that of serving both Him and the human race.



NOVEMBER 5, 1920

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