June 7, 2019

An apology for becoming a flapper of the advanced age variety

Brigid Christison

"Off with my little old lady's p—g!"
The grey haired spinster cried."
Off with these scolding locks that have
So long my patience tried!"
So down she marched to the barber shop
And sat her in his chair"
Ten years I'll shave off of your age!"
The barber did declare.
So he clipped and snipped and snipped and clipped
And laid the tresses by.
A side-long glance discovered them,
She winced to see them lie.
Symbol of dignity—alas!
T'was such to call forth tears,
To think she should have cherished them
These many, many years!"
Do you want this hair?" the barber asked,
The lady shook her head"
Pathetic little faded wisps!"
Unto herself she said.
"Now lady come and see yourself!"
The barber beamed with joy.
She looked—"Great God!" the spinster gasped,
"I've turned into a boy!"

- Annie Montague Alexander, 1921

Listen to the poem :

An apology for becoming a spinster of the advanced age variety by Annie Montague Alexander, recited by Brigid Christison

A colourful digital illustration based on a photograph of Annie Montague Alexander and Louise Kellogg. They are two white women wearing early 1900s geology gear. Annie stands to the left, her hair cut short under her hat, her hands on her backpack straps. She looks to the right, where Louise is standing, tilting her head left and looking left to Annie. Louise is carrying a large pickaxe over her shoulder. Behind them is a mountainous sand dune with a full moon peeking out from behind it, and a sky full of stars and meteors. The image is coloured in teals, purples, and yellows, and has a dreamy effect.
Annie (left) and Louise (right)Guest art by Katrin Emery (Website: kemery.ca Instagram: @katrin.jpg Twitter: @KatrinEmery)

According to On Her Own Terms by Barbara R. Stein, Annie Montague Alexander and her partner Louise Kellogg would sing a song of their own making, "I'll Away to the Fossil Lands," while together doing palaeontological field work. Unfortunately, the text of this song does not seem to have ever been written down anywhere, so we cannot feature it as a palaeopoem. Luckily, we have this poem by Annie about her haircut instead.

For most of Annie's life, she had worn her long hair in a bun. As she says in her poem this was a status symbol for Victorian ladies. By 1929 however, the Victorian Era was over and years of field experience probably had something to do with her impulsive decision to cut it all off in a flapper-style bob at age 61. This poem is from a letter she wrote to her close friend Martha Beckwith.

Annie and Louise

A digital illustration of a memorial outside the university of Colorado. It reads "Annie Montague Alexander: she found men a nuisance on her arduous field trips" and sits on green grass in front of a pink sky.
Guest art by Katrin Emery (Website: kemery.ca Instagram: @earth.sister Twitter: @KatrinEmery)Based on the monument on the University of Colorado campus

A digital illustration of a memorial outside the university of Colorado. It reads "Annie Montague Alexander: she found men a nuisance on her arduous field trips" and sits on green grass in front of a pink sky.

We wanted to share this poem for Pride Month (2019) to celebrate Annie Montague Alexander and her partner Louise Kellogg, who lived and worked together for four decades. Though they never stated that they had a romantic relationship, they were very private and lived in a time when they would have faced extreme stigma for coming out. They lived happily together for over 40 years, and whatever the relationship was, by all accounts it was based in love for each other, and it only ended with Annie's passing in 1950.

Annie was born in Hawaii in 1867, to a family with wealth, privilege, and freedom. She grew up traveling with her family (especially her father) and meeting scientists. She met her dear friend Martha Beckwith (to whom the poem was written) while doing field work in Oakland, and Martha was the one who first got Annie interested in palaeontology. Annie then went to the University of California to learn more about the history of the Earth.

When visiting Kenya with her father in 1904, he was killed by a falling boulder. For women at this time, everything you did would be allowed by your father or husband. Annie had neither, and her family had no desire to control how she spent her money. Annie went on to finance and participate in natural history expeditions.

She carefully selected women to accompany her, because it was far too scandalous for her to be alone with a group of men.  When preparing to go to Alaska for two months (another trip Annie was financing), Annie struggled to find a female companion whose parents would allow her to go. It was by coincidence that she met and half-jokingly invited Louise Kellogg, who happily accepted.

Louise was born in Oakland in 1879, and grew up in love with the outdoors. She didn't travel like Annie did, so found her excitement in the wilderness around her family home. She learned to hunt and fish and work with machinery. She loved working with her hands, but as was typical for a young woman of wealth and good social standing, her university degree was in classics, and she became a school teacher soon after graduation. In the summer of 1908 she met Annie and went on field work for the first time. They went on to spend the next 42 years together.

Annie not only proposed that UC Berkeley build a natural history museum, she bankrolled the project, along with a museum of palaeontology. During their many field expeditions, Annie & Louise collected fossils, mammals, and plants to fill the new museums. The two of them had a farm where the work was tough but rewarding. They loved field work and each other, and shared a life that revolved around nature and science.

This article was originally published on PalaeoPoems.com on June 7, 2019

Further Reading

Poem source & Annie Montague Alexander biography

  • On her own terms: Annie Montague Alexander and the Rise of Science in the American West by Barbara R. Stein

Other sources on Annie & Louise

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