November 19, 2015

Evelyn Cameron's Dynamic Baggage

by Zoe Ann Stoltz, Reference Historian

Montana residents, through the MHS, are blessed to be in possession of Evelyn Cameron’s diaries (1893-1928), thousands of her photographs, Ewen’s ornithological articles, Evelyn’s cameras, and so much more. Each artifact and photo offers a glimpse into both the Camerons’ lives as well as homesteading history. In the words of biographer Donna Lucy, “Hers is perhaps the most complete portrait we have of one woman’s pioneer experience –a virtual home movie of life on the frontier.”

While the vastness of Cameron artifacts, photos, and papers allows a uniquely thorough study of her life and personality, two artifacts offer particularly poignant clues to understanding this amazing woman: first, a remnant of her former life as a daughter of wealthy British merchants, the second a tool to assist her as a homestead housekeeper.
MHS Artifact Collection
Evelyn Cameron Collection
The first is a late 1890s formal dress, purchased in London from the M.A. Gryll dress shop, located on Conduit Street, just off of the affluent shopping Bond Street district. It is formal and elegant. Created in two pieces, the dress is red silk satin draped with black lace. The bodice is figure hugging, and intended to be worn with a corset. The skirt, typical of the time, is bustle-free, but with a full behind and slender front. Cameron’s diaries make references to a “Gryll red dress.”[1] While she may have purchased the dress earlier, she had the dress with her during a twelve month visit to Scotland and England in 1900-1901. On October 27, 1900, she reported wearing the dress to a “long” family dinner in Banbury. They were served “soup, codfish, veal, fruit, sago, omelet dessert, walnuts, and chestnut, grapes.”[2] Other entries discuss having the dress altered and dyed.

The second artifact is a much-used 1890 edition of Mrs. Lincoln's Boston cook book: What to do and what not to do in cooking. Mrs. Cameron inscribed the inside cover with “New York, March 1890,” suggesting that she purchased the book in New York during the Cameron’s 1889-90 honeymoon trip to the U.S. and Montana. The volume epitomizes a loved cookbook, with stains on favorite pages and endpapers filled with hand written notes. Not only does the book’s condition testify to its use, but Cameron’s diary entries refer to the book as though it were a dear friend. September 14, 1898, she reported, “Soup, chicken & rice, remains of Sunday’s pie, greens, mashed tatoes, tea, cake, . . . Read Mrs. Lincoln.” On 5 April 1904 she wrote, “Made cookies, successful from Mrs. Lincoln.” Time and time again, Evelyn documented her joyful use of the cookbook.
Cameron obviously treasured both the dress as well as the cookbook. The dress crossed the Atlantic, perhaps several times. And Evelyn kept the gown for decades after she ceased using it, not unlike contemporary women who preserve their wedding dresses. The dress symbolized her former life of "long" meals and monies spent on current fashions. The cookbook, on the other hand, was purchased during the very earliest stages of the Camerons' marriage, hinting that Evelyn was planning for her own kitchen. Mrs. Lincoln's cookbook signifies Evelyn's successful transition from a woman raised with servants to a self-sufficient rancher, photographer, and housewife. Although Mrs. Cameron left behind a wealth of words, photographs, and artifacts, we need only these two treasures to recognize the choices made by Evelyn Cameron and her journey from England to Terry, Montana.
Catalog #PAc 90-87.35-5
"Evelyn Cameron Kneading a panful of dough in her kitchen, August 1904."
Photograph by Evelyn Cameron

[1] 1991.07.40 Dress, Montana Historical Society Museum

[2] Cameron diary, 27 October 1900.