A woman ahead of her time

He­len Graves was a pi­o­neer in women’s worker equal­ity rights

The News (New Glasgow) - - PICTOU COUNTY - John Ash­ton

He­len Graves of Pic­tou County was a 19th- and early 20th-cen­tury pi­o­neer in the women’s worker equal­ity rights in the United Stated.

This re­mark­able per­son was also listed in a 1904 pub­li­ca­tion called Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Women of New Eng­land, where she was de­scribed as “a suc­cess­ful busi­ness woman of Bos­ton.”

Ellen (He­len) Mar­garet MacKen­zie was born in Rogers Hill (Scots­burn) in 1863 to par­ents David MacKen­zie and Christina (Suther­land). He­len would re­ceive her early ed­u­ca­tion at the Roger’s Hill one-room school and con­tin­ued there as a school mis­tress, or teacher, as­sist­ing her older ed­u­ca­tor brother David. At the age of 16, He­len made her way to Bos­ton, Mass., where she en­tered “upon ac­tive du­ties of life on her own ac­count.”

Af­ter var­i­ous dis­cour­ag­ing ex­pe­ri­ences in at­tempt­ing to find a po­si­tion for which she was fit­ted, she se­cured em­ploy­ment in the of­fice of a laun­dry ma­chin­ery com­pany, be­gin­ning there at the low­est round of the lat­ter. He­len felt this was the op­por­tu­nity she had been look­ing for and with de­ter­mined ea­ger­ness made the most of it “by do­ing her job well.” This un­wa­ver­ing and faith­ful ef­fort at­tracted the at­ten­tion of the of­fi­cers of the com­pany. Of which, a dar­ing de­ci­sion was made by the firm, plac­ing He­len in charge of a de­part­ment that had only pre­vi­ously been “con­ducted en­tirely by men en­gaged as trav­el­ing agents.”

The mere men­tion of em­ploy­ing a woman in this ca­pac­ity was re­garded as pre­pos­ter­ous. He­len would meet the chal­lenge and prove her­self ca­pa­ble of do­ing the work as­signed to her in a sat­is­fac­tory man­ner. She would travel through­out the United States for the com­pany and in­stall steam laun­dry plants. This was not an easy un­der­tak­ing, He­len would in­struct the new own­ers of the laun­dry plants in the run­ning and main­tain­ing of the ma­chines. She gained a rep­u­ta­tion as an authority in this branch of the busi­ness. The work and travel “were hard, ex­act­ing and fa­tigu­ing.” Af­ter sev­eral years He­len de­cided she wanted some­thing of a per­ma­nent lo­ca­tion and job, es­pe­cially with her hus­band, Oliver B Graves, whom she had mar­ried on Jan. 16, 1893. Oliver Buel Graves was a Bos­ton printer/pub­lisher op­er­at­ing the firm Graves & Henry of Har­vard Square, Cam­bridge, Mass., since the early 1890s.

With He­len per­ma­nently mov­ing back to the Bos­ton area, an of­fer was made for her to be­come the su­per­in­ten­dent and man­ager of one of the largest steam laun­dry fa­cil­i­ties in New Eng­land. This po­si­tion she held for 18 years. Never one to turn down a chal­lenge, in the early 1900s she left her ad­min­is­tra­tive role and opened her own steam laun­dry busi­ness in the All­ston dis­trict in Bos­ton. The busi­ness was called Mayflower Laun­dry and “it was con­ducted with usual en­ergy, in­dus­try and hon­esty, and with such abil­ity it is a pro­nounced success, rank­ing a first­class es­tab­lish­ment of its kind and a credit to its pro­pri­etor.

He­len’s teacher brother, David MacKen­zie, be­came a doc­tor af­ter a prin­ci­pal­ship at Pic­tou Academy study­ing at Dal­housie and Columbia Med­i­cal Univer­sity. He prac­tised in the com­mu­nity of Mill­brook, New York where he mar­ried, set­tled and raised

a fam­ily. David’s de­scen­dants still live in the Mill­brook area. A phone con­tact was made with David’s 93-year-old grand­son and He­len’s grand­nephew, Gor­don MacKen­zie and he stated he “re­mem­bers the fam­ily al­ways talk­ing about Aunt He­len in Bos­ton, she was in the laun­dry busi­ness.”

He­len (MacKen­zie) and Oliver B Graves would live out their lives in the Bos­ton area, with He­len op­er­at­ing a board­ing house well into her 70s.


Steam launch ma­chines that were used in the 1890s.


An early com­mer­cial steam laun­dry ma­chine

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