Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Parting the Brooklyn Curtain: Imogene C. Fales

 Newspaper sketch of Imogene C. Fales, delegate to the 1896 Populist Party
Convention. The first women delegates to the Republican and Democratic
party conventions were seated in 1900.


One morning in September 1902, an auctioneer named P.H. McMahon arrived at 126 Macon Street, Brooklyn, to sell the contents of the home of Imogene Fales, who had died one month earlier.

Bric-a-Brac, Turkish Parlor Suite, Pier Mirrors, Cyl-desk, 
Library Dwarf Bookcases with volumes of books, Hair Mattresses,
Refrigerator, Crockery, Velvet Carpets. . .

Imagine those volumes of books – sociology, religion, politics, philosophy – for their owner had been a 19th century reformer.

Imogene Corinne Franciscus Fales (1830[?]-1902) worked closely with Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the suffrage movement. She helped lead the U.S. co-operative movement, which promoted shared production and profits; as she put it, “public ownership of public necessities.”

She wrote about utopia and industrialization and lectured on Darwin and the cosmos. An adherent of New Age ideas and editor of a brief-lived journal called New Commonwealth, she participated in numerous organizations including the Association for the Advancement of Women, the National American Woman Suffrage Association, the Brooklyn Metaphysical League, the Women’s National Progressive Political League, and perhaps the most prestigious women’s club of the nineteenth century, Sorosis.*

In 1894, a New York Times story titled “Open-Air Meeting a Fizzle” counted Imogene Fales among the speakers:

“All the old agitators who have been denouncing capitalists in Union Square for years.”

(I love that!)

The last house she occupied still stands with its carved oak front door and filigree iron fence and gate bordering the sidewalk, in the neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant. From here and other homes in Brooklyn, Imogene Fales conducted the business of her life.

She flourished within a large circle of vibrant women who lived in New York City during the second half of the nineteenth century. In Brooklyn, these included the author Laura Holloway Langford; businesswoman & children’s advocate Rebecca Talbot-Perkins; “suffrage hiker” & educator “Colonel” Ida Craft; and Girls High School principal Catherine B. Le Row.**

These ladies were good company, impassioned about achieving influence and power for women. Their interests often converged; for example, Imogene lectured on “The Value of Industrial Art to Women” at the School of Industrial Art for Women, founded by educator and carpet designer, Florence E. Cory. Each did not necessarily embrace all of her friends’ causes, however.

 From the Light of Truth Album, Photographs of Prominent
Workers in the Cause of Spiritualism (1897)

When Imogene was a little girl, her family moved from Baltimore to New York City where she was educated privately. In 1850 she married Edward Spaulding Fales and moved to New Bedford.

Her husband had been born in Matanzas, Cuba, in 1833. He came to the U.S. as a child. The well-liked Fales spoke nine languages and became editor of the New Bedford Mercury at age 17. He studied law and traveled through Mexico and Central America before settling in Rio de Janeiro where he represented the firm Lanman & Kemp, wholesale druggists known for their beauty products.***

              In between Edward’s voyages, he and Imogene moved to Brooklyn with their two sons. Edward died prematurely in 1875. After that, Imogene sprang into action, laying plans for the Sociologic Society of America. Formally organized in 1882 with Imogene as its president, the society issued a statement:  

What is needed is, not so much an advance in wages, as the concession of the right of Labor to share in profits. In other words, to introduce a new industrial system, where Capital is restricted to a fixed rate of interest, and Labor, over and above the market rate of wages, is allowed a share in the profits of the business.

Imogene called it Industrial Partnership or Co-operation. The cause would preoccupy her for the rest of her life. But there was more – suffrage and the arts and her three children. 

The eldest, William E. S. Fales, a bon vivant, lawyer, editor, poet, diplomat, and occasional poser, fully inhabited a Gilded Age life. In the middle, Harrison Colby Fales became a fur merchant. Daughter Ethel, reportedly a gifted singer on the verge of a great career, died at age 21 in 1889.

After Ethel’s death, Imogene fled to a cottage in York Harbor, Maine, where she grieved deeply. A year later, she returned to Brooklyn, picking up where she left off.

Elected a delegate to the National Populist Convention in 1896, Imogene traveled to St. Louis where the People’s Party ensured its own demise by endorsing William Jennings Bryan as the Democratic candidate. That was 120 years ago this summer.


Imogene C. Fales delivered a paper at an 1884 meeting
of Sorosis. (Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College)

See post about William E. S. Fales, 1/25/17

*Sorosis was the first U.S. women’s professional study club, founded in 1868 by journalist Jennie June Croly, who also established the Woman’s Press Club and General Federation of Women’s Clubs.

**Ida Craft, a militant member of the Suffrage Pilgrim Party, routinely walked from city to city leading an army of suffragists.

***Now known as Lanman & Kemp-Barclay, the firm still manufactures its famous Florida Water.

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