York Town Square

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Isabel Cassat Small helped organize the Ladies Aid Society to provide aid for wounded soldiers in the Civil War. She later was involved in the startup of the Children's Home of York. Her husband was leading York businessman Samuel Small. (York County History Center photo)

In COVID-19 and other battles, York County women fight to win the war

Photos in this day of COVID-19 show women at sewing machines making masks.

This brings us to those days in the Civil War that women emerged in the public square to aid in what was becoming a public health crisis.

York County first hosted a training camp for thousands of Union soldiers, Camp Scott at the old fairgrounds. Then in 1862, a military hospital opened at Penn Park and treated thousands more soldiers.

So early in the war, Isabel Cassat Small spearheaded women’s efforts in the community to provide aid to Civil War soldiers. The women established an organization to recruit others – the Ladies Soldiers Aid Society.

Local farmers opened great chests brought with them from Germany to equip the women with linen to make dressing for wounds.

The women met in a large room set aside at P.A. and S. Small’s store. Isabel Small’s husband, Samuel,  was the “S” in the store’s name.

They wound bandages from this donated linen, sorted donated clothing and sewed new clothing. Children helped, too.

That was just a small piece of Isabel Cassat Small’s contributions to the York County community in her long life and can be seen as a visible early moment in which York women entered the public square.

Today, in the COVID-19 war with its social distancing requirements, the sewing machine is a symbol of these contributions. The lasting image will be women working alone at their machines making face masks at a time of shortages.

Which brings us to another war – the American Revolution – and the York home of the Widow Mihmins. Massachusetts statesman Timothy Pickering, visiting York as part of Continental Congress’ nine-month stay, observed his landlord constantly working alone at her spinning wheel, the sewing machine of its day.

Perhaps she was sewing to make ends meet in times of the war’s scarcities and high prices. Or perhaps she was making clothing for the men serving in the military. Either way, she was contributing to the war effort – alone at her machine.

Pickering wrote about widow of a Pennsylvania Dutch physician:

“I have not felt as much at home since I left Salem (Mass.) She lived all alone and now sets from morning till night at her spinning wheel, which, by the way, is a very modest one. And when I am at home writing or reading, it gives me no more disturbance than the purring of a cat.”


Sheri Linehan has been making homemade face masks out of her small business in Franklin County, The Sewing Cats. (YDR file)

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