Past Times: Stories from the Sheldon's Past

Sylvia and Charity: a Vermont Love Story for the Ages

By Jan Albers

This article appeared in the Addison Independent in April 2009 and is published here with permission.

Tuesday- 3 [July]—31 years since I left my mother’s house and commenced serving in company with Dear Miss B. Sin mars all earthly bliss, and no common sinner have I been, but God has spared my life, given me every thing I would enjoy and now I have a space, if I improve it, to exercise true penitence.
—Sylvia Drake’s Diary, 1838

With these words, a Weybridge woman, Sylvia Drake, celebrated the thirty-first anniversary of her life partnership with Charity Bryant. In 1806, the two women, then in their twenties, met in Bridgewater, Massachusetts and quickly formed a passionate friendship. Charity was open about her feelings, imploring Sylvia, “Do not disappoint my hopes and blast my expectations, for…I long to see you, and enjoy your company and conversation.” Within the year, they decided to move to Weybridge, Vermont, where they could live near Miss Drake’s older brother, Asaph. They built a house, now gone, on the corner of Rte. 23 and Drake Road, where they set themselves up in a successful tailoring business.

Rare double silhouette of Sylvia Drake and Charity Bryant, on pink-edged paper, ramed with locks of their hair, c. 1820

Historical records describing same-sex relationships are often sketchy and difficult to interpret. Wasn’t it conventional for nineteenth century friends of the same gender to write to each other in passionate language? Shouldn’t historians guard against assuming there was anything ‘going on’ between them?

The relationship between Charity Bryant (1777–1851) and Sylvia Drake (1784–1868) is unusual in that it is so clearly documented. Diaries, letters and business papers in the Sheldon Museum Research Center provide a clear window into their lives together.

Yet the key to our understanding comes from a startlingly frank account of them written by Charity’s nephew, William Cullen Bryant, one of 19th Century America’s best-known writers and editors. He came to Weybridge to stay with the pair in the July 1843 and described their relationship in terms that would have been perfectly at home in the recent discussions about gay marriage:

If I were permitted to draw the veil of private life, I would briefly give you the singular, and to me interesting, story of two maiden ladies who dwell in this valley. I would tell you how, in their youthful days, they took each other as companions for life, and how this union, no less sacred to them than the tie of marriage, has subsisted, in uninterrupted harmony, for more than forty years.

His account sounds, indeed, like a marriage:

…they have shared each other’s occupations and pleasures and works of charity while in health, and watched over each other in sickness…I could tell you how they slept on the same pillow and had a common purse, and adopted each other’s relations…

The nephew even discerned a gendered division of responsibilities:

…one of them, more enterprising and spirited than the other, might be said to represent the male head of the family, and took upon herself their transactions with the world without, until at length her health failed, and she was tended by her gentle companion, as a fond wife tends her invalid husband.

We assume that the Victorians were more uptight than we are, so what must their neighbors have thought of such a couple in this bucolic farming country? Bryant has something to say on that interesting subject, too:

I would speak of the friendly relations which their neighbors, people of kind hearts and simple manners, seem to take pleasure in bestowing upon them; but I have already said more than I fear they will forgive me for if this should ever meet their eyes, and I must leave the subject.

Other evidence bears out the image of ‘Aunt Charity’ and ‘Aunt Sylvia’ as well-respected figures in their little world. Ida Washington’s History of Weybridge quotes a story about them that was passed down in the Hagar family, whose neighboring farm on Rte. 23 is now part of Monument Farms Dairy. At the Middlebury Forefathers’ Banquet in 1935, Mrs. H.B. Hagar told how Charity and Sylvia would give young Laura Hagar a pewter bowl and ask her to bring them milk:

Laura would take the pint of milk in the pewter bowl and, going to the back door, rap. Aunt Sylvia would open the door and invite her to come inside. Then she would hand Aunt Sylvia the pint of milk in the pewter bowl and step back and make a little curtsey. If she was invited to sit down, she did so, but if she was not, she stood very quietly by the door while Aunt Sylvia emptied the pint of milk, washed the pewter bowl and returned it to her for the next night.

Good behavior had its rewards:

If she had been a good girl all day and if she had made her entrance into the house and her curtsey all right, there would always be one cookie in the pewter bowl when Aunt Sylvia returned it to her. However, sometimes she was not as ladylike as the ladies thought she should be and those nights the cookie was not forthcoming.

The couple was trusted to instill practical skills as well as good deportment. The seamstresses were well-known for making good, sturdy men’s clothing. Local parents trusted and respected them enough to send many young girls to them as live-in apprentice seamstresses. The business also employed a number of local women. Charity handled the strenuous job of cutter and the others did the sewing. (Sylvia’s diary for April 30, 1822 says, “My dear C[harity] much fatigued with cutting clothes & trying to assist me.”) They were so successful that they were able to add an addition to their small house to provide more space for the apprentice girls to work and sleep.

Their relationship was no barrier to their full participation in their church. They were Christians and very religious in their attendance at Weybridge Congregational. They were both devout, often attending four religious meetings each week. Sylvia frequently wrote of the comfort she took from sermons like that of April 24, 1836, on “Romans 10,17, For whosoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Friends often came over after church for religious discussions.

Both women tended to be sickly, though it is not clear whether their ailments were cured or caused by the great array of ‘remedies’ they kept trying. One week’s medicines included catnip, harrow, castor oil and opium bought over the counter. Charity’s health finally broke down completely. The Sheldon Museum now has a large cradle they had made, big enough to hold an adult, in which Sylvia would rock Charity to sleep when she was unwell.

When Charity died in 1851, Sylvia moved in with her brother, Asaph, in his big brick house next to what is now the Morgan Horse Farm. When she died, in 1868, they opened Charity’s grave in the cemetery at Weybridge Hill and the two were reunited for eternity.

During the recent debate over Vermont’s gay marriage bill, a number of people were heard to wonder, “Why is there so much more of this than in my day?” Is that really so? Gays and lesbians are one of a number of groups who were formerly “hidden from history.” Fear of social ostracism, or even violence, led many homosexual couples to live unassumingly, in hopes of not drawing public attention and condemnation to themselves.

The love story of Charity and Sylvia provides a different narrative. They show us that there were couples of the same sex long before our time, ‘married’ in their love if not in their rights. And by their example we see that it was possible for some such people to live quiet, respectable lives as members of their communities. There is nothing new under the sun.