Descendant secures state marker for Rebecca Harding Davis

  • By Katherine Mansfield
    Staff writer
June 30, 2012
Dr. Jennifer Harding of Washington & Jefferson College holds 19th century author Rebecca Harding Davis’ most famous work, “Life in the Iron Mills,” at the site of the former Washington Female Seminary. Harding applied to the state for a historical marker to honor Davis, whose works advocated for social justice and ushered in the Realist movement.

The name Rebecca Harding Davis has not appeared in print for decades. But on April 23, the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission approved the addition of 15 new state markers. Soon, both Davis’ name and legacy will be etched in gold on a blue historic marker.

Rebecca Harding Davis is the influential but little-known 19th-century author whose works gave a voice to the working poor and ushered in the Realist movement. Though she spent most of her life in Wheeling, W.Va., and Philadelphia, Davis was born in the Bradford House in Washington and received her formal education at the Washington Female Seminary.

“The time that she spent here made a lasting impression on her,” said Jennifer Harding, the Washington & Jefferson College English professor responsible for securing the marker.

That influence is reflected in Davis’ first and most famous work, “Life in the Iron Mills.” Published in 1861, the novella artfully exposes the treacherous working conditions and unfair labor laws in American mills.

Encouraged by the instant success of her novella, Davis continued to pen works that advocated social justice and women’s rights. While her works influenced future writers like Walt Whitman to realistically portray American life or to expose society’s ills, none of Davis’ 500 other writings ever achieved the popularity that “Life in the Iron Mills” did.

“What I have always found interesting about the story is that the setting is a lot like Pittsburgh,” said Harding. “It is a really nice connection with our area.”

Thanks to Harding, Davis’ contributions to American literature and her ties to Washington – which she fondly recalls in her autobiography, “Bits and Pieces of Gossip” – are finally being noted. Next spring, the focus of W&J’s quarterly journal Topic will be “Rebecca Harding Davis and Her World,” and the historic marker installation and dedication ceremony will take place in April 2013.

The site of the marker has not been officially decided, but Harding hopes to install it near the intersection of East Maiden Street and Lincoln Avenue, the original site of the Washington Female Seminary.

“It’s just nice to honor the seminary,” said Harding. “It’s wonderful for Washington to be able to claim (Davis, who has) a historical presence in our community.”



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