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XII. marketable accomplishments.

I once knew of a young man who had a methodical mind and a large acquaintance among young women. He used to keep their names in a book, with memoranda of their accomplishments — noting carefully which could dance well, which could embroider prettily, which make sponge-cake, which drive a horse; so that, should there be a social demand for either of these gifts, it could be supplied. A similar variety of attainments is found in the nursery ballad about the three ships that came sailing by with a pretty maid in each

And one could whistle, and one could sing,
And one could play on the violin.

But, after all, it is often asked, What is to become of the pretty maids on some day when their fathers' ships do not come in, and they are left in poverty? What good will their accomplishments do them?

It is pleasant to be able to answer that all these resources may, if well handled, do a great deal for them in just that emergency. Accomplishments [61] are really just as marketable as anything else, so long as there are other people who wish to learn or borrow them. It is common to say that adversity comes peculiarly hard on those who are new to it, but the truth is that such sufferers often feel it less than those who have been ground down by it all the time. The courage of the new beginners is better; their spirits are better. I have known young girls who pronounced it “a lark” to have their fathers lose all their possessions, so that they themselves could have the new excitement of self-support. Again, they have usually more friends and more zealous counsellors than those who have been poor all their lives. In our easy American society a sudden loss of property does not, as in older countries, at once transfer a person to a different social grade; we see too many ups and downs for that; and towards a young woman especially, who is obliged to shift for herself, there is usually a cordial and generous sentiment among the friends of more prosperous hours. It is apt to be easier for her to obtain work or instruction or capital than if she had always been poor. The things essential are energy, a cheerful spirit, and a quick discovery of the gift, whatever it is, that will be her strongest hold.

As to the selection of this gift, it is, perhaps, good advice to say, Try the thing that you can do [62] best already, before spending time and money in learning something else that you cannot do at all. If you have a particular kind of preserves for which you are famous, see if they are not available in a wider circle; many a household of Southern women made this their main resource after the devastations of the civil war. In the same way the mere possession of a remarkably good receipt for molasses candy was once quite a treasure to a Northern family of my acquaintance during a time of commercial panic. Among non-culinary accomplishments the range is also considerable. In boyhood I learned dancing of an accomplished lady, the daughter of a judge and the sister of a naval officer who was afterwards eminent; being temporarily straitened in circumstances, she tried this means of support, and was only the more respected in consequence. I know another lady of whom the same is true today; she teaches in a private school in the morning, and has five different dancing-classes in the afternoons.

I heard lately of another who had always been accustomed to wealth, but who, on falling suddenly into poverty, called the roll of her acquirements, and found that she knew nothing really well, except whist-playing. She had, therefore, the courage and ingenuity to see if she could not make something out of that. Her proficiency was well known, and [63] she now has ten small classes in that difficult art, and receives from them a fair compensation. There are women who are so well known among their friends for their especial skill in tennis-playing or skating or swimming that they would find it easy to form classes for these accomplishments if they went into the matter with energy. Of course the work must be done, if undertaken, in a perfectly business-like way — no fine-lady dawdlin ; it must be simply trying to earn an honest penny by the thing a woman knows, instead of apprenticing herself to stenography or to type-writing, which she does not know. The list could easily be extended. In the large community where I live there is absolutely no one to teach a young girl to ride on horseback — a thing which an accomplished horsewoman could do as well as a man. Last year I knew a young girl who, having mechanical aptitude, bought a jig-saw, and had to search through the whole neighborhood, and almost give up in despair, before she could find any one to teach her how to use it; yet she would willingly have paid for the instruction. Even in a thing so universal as crochet, I am told that there is always a demand for some one who knows the very newest stitches.

All such suggestions as these are apt to be misconstrued; the adviser is supposed to have given the absurd assurance that such enterprises will find [64] an easy success, without allowance for time or place or circumstances. Quite otherwise; the path of self-support is never very easy under any circumstances. It is failure that is easy. You may find no employment as a governess, no pupils for a school, no encouragement as a copyist. These occupations are always crowded; but if you have a special gift it is likely to lie in some line where, if the demand be less, there is also less competition. As civilization advances, arts and accomplishments develop. I can remember the time when there was hardly a teacher of gymnastics in America who was not an ignorant and vulgar pugilist, whereas such instruction now is an occupation for educated men and women. What I mean to urge is that the very gifts which are considered ornamental may often be utilized if combined with energy and ingenuity; and that for this purpose those who “have known better days” possess a real advantage in a circle of acquaintance ready-made and willing to aid them, and also in the acquired manners which make their work attractive. It always seemed to me that the impoverished heroine of Mr. Howells's “A woman's reason” would not have had quite so hard a struggle in real life as that with which his ingenuity has provided her.

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