Robey Household • St. Louis, Missouri
A uniformed driver with a top hat steered the stylish carriage up
Market Street, en route to the Robey household on West Bell Place.
Blanche watched her first city unfold before her blue eyes—tightly spaced buildings with unusual details; advertising services; a store with a carved fish over the entrance; a red-white-and-blue-striped pole at a barber shop; a ten-foot-high
beer mug at a tavern. Their swift carriage followed other horse-drawn ones up
the wide and busy boulevard. Sometimes they passed a double train car on a
track in the center of the street. A city train, Blanche thought. None
of what she saw seemed intimidating to her. It was just the first colorful page
of her big-city adventure.
After twenty minutes, the carriage stopped at a three-story red-brick building with a glass vestibule. The building was much larger than a house, and it was in a
cluster of eight similar buildings.
Blanche followed Mrs. Robey to the bathroom and closed the door. Just a few hours ago, she had seen a flush toilet and porcelain sinks for the first time. It was
amazing how quickly one got used to these things! She came out feeling much
“Blanche, Greta is cleaning the pantry for you. You can sleep there. You will have your own room for privacy, with a door and a light.” Mr. Robey closed the pocket watch and returned it to his vest pocket.
“Come, Blanche,” said Mrs. Robey. “Greta will walk you to the girls’ room to get your belongings. I have put your white dress in their closet. You can use your shawl as a bed cover.”
The two walked down the dark hallway, Blanche a few feet behind Greta.
As they returned to the kitchen, Blanche smelled the strong odor of vinegar coming from the pantry. Greta stepped aside as Mrs. Robey approached.
The pantry was only six feet wide, with floor-to-ceiling shelves and cupboards on both sides. It had no window and seemed airless. Opposite the pantry door was a built-in cabinet with a pull-out enamel surface for mixing dough. Below that were bins for flour and onions. Beyond the tall cabinet were two more cupboards containing baking supplies and bins of potatoes. The wall that backed the
kitchen contained narrow shelves and was generously stacked with jars of jam,
preserved vegetables, nuts, coffee, and spices. At the back wall were cleaning
supplies, all stored neatly on old newspapers. This left a mere thirty-inch by
six-foot space, with a floor drain in the middle. A single gas light hung by a
bare cord from the ceiling.
“Well, here we are,” said Mrs. Robey.
Blanche saw a folded tarp with an old feather mattress over it. There was also a ragged pillow covered in purple floral fabric at the far end of the pallet, next to damp mops.
“You will be warm and dry here—much better than at the train depot. Greta will walk you to the bathroom, and then you can find your way back here on your own.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said a very tired Blanche.
Blanche finished her bathroom chores and found her way back to her bedroom, which she knew was really a kitchen pantry, not a bedroom. But on this first night, she was grateful for any safe place to sleep. She turned on the single dim light, closed the door, and took off her gingham dress, hanging it over the aprons. She got the pillow next to the wet mops and brought it over to the pantry door. The smell of vinegar and onions filled her nostrils. She turned out the light, leaned against the pantry door, and wiped a single tear from her cheek.
She thought about the day. She thought about the two sweet girls to whom she was assigned and their very reserved parents. She was in a home with nice
furniture, lovely music, and good food. Maybe this was the beginning of “sweet
hope” and new things to learn. But then here she was, about to sleep in an
It was not a happy space, but it was safe.
A sob came out as a choke.
Tonight I will
have vinegar dreams, she thought. Sour and scary dreams.
She tumbled over and wrapped herself in the blue shawl.