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Elizabeth Jane Phillips 

Mrs. E.J. Phillips [Elizabeth Jane] was born September 7, 1830 in Chatham (Ontario) Canada, made her stage debut in 1852 in Hamilton, Ontario, half-way between Toronto and Buffalo) in John Nickinson's company, and eventually became a member of AM Palmer's noted Stock Companies at the Union Square and Madison Square Theaters during what is described as the "golden age of American theatre". She was almost 53 when these letters begin in 1883, and had been in New York and with Palmer for 6 years.

Photos and playbills

With EJP's career, single parenthood (after she was widowed, and possibly before she married John Nickinson -- assuming she did), and addresses in  funky parts of Manhattan, I've been revising stereotypes I'd held about Victorian women. It was also a surprise to realize that her San Francisco was before the earthquake, her Boston pre-Fenway Park and her Madison Square preceded the Flatiron Building.

EJ Phillips, undated

Gilbert & Bacon, 40 N. Eighth St., Philadelphia 
Photographs as publicity

These letters reveal an enterprising working woman who went to California six times (but was dubious about touring Australia and boat travel in general), a devoted mother and grandmother, who expresses regrets about missing family birthdays and holidays and wearies of long train rides, but chafes when roles are not forthcoming and writes with equanimity of train wrecks and climbing Pike's Peak at 53.

I had hoped to find more descriptions of activities, people, and in these letters, and slightly fewer declarations of maternal devotion and remarks on the weather, but gradually a social history of the Gilded Age and the Victorian theater, house-keeping and childrearing, medical concerns and advice,  boardinghouse life, and long distance travel are emerging. The travel and acting schedules (when work was available) were incredibly hectic, and make clear why she didn't have too much to report about many of the cities she visited. What is surprising is that she does so much and complains so little!

The more I read her letters, the more interested I became in putting them into context. I am still filling in contemporary magazine and newspaper accounts and reviews to get a clearer sense of what was happening over one hundred years ago -- in a era marked by rapid changes in technology, great volatility and uncertainty in the theatrical profession (and elsewhere during what has been called The Gilded Age) and trying economic times.

An EJ Phillips obituary describes the Phillips family as "in no way concerned with the theatre, and she passed her girlhood in an environment that would seem to offer small opportunity for the development of dramatic talent."

She made her professional stage debut in Hamilton [Ontario] Canada, on Easter Monday in 1852 as Grace Harkaway in Dion Boucicault's London Assurance, [Charlotte Nickinson playing the showier role of Lady Gay Spanker]  although at the end of her life she writes about several earlier amateur roles. [see below]  Her reviews of this time were "never enthusiastic, but were kind and encouraging". [Mary Shortt

The following was written in the last years of her life.

Elizabeth Jane Phillips, born Sept 7th 1830 in Chatham, Province of Quebec, Canada, daughter of Thomas Phillips, by his wife Elizabeth (Williams) Phillips

Growing up in Canada

In my 18th or 19th year, I am not sure of the date, I was invited to join in an amateur performance for the benefit of a lady, who with her husband belonged to an amateur association of Hamilton and they were [illegible] of a lady for the cast of “Pride of the Market”.  They wanted me for “Louisa De Bolange”. I said “No” and then they appealed to Mother, and after a good deal of coaxing they prevailed on her to let me play “for this time only”. And I did, making a very successful 1st appearance on any stage; so much that whenever the amateur company wanted to cast another play I was always sent for and given a prominent part. Costumes were furnished by the manager of the association and I was not under any expense.  I loved study and became enthusiastic over my work and continued to join in these occasional performances for about three years.

In the meantime I had received several offers of employment from professional companies and at last accepted one from Messrs [Thomas Pope] Besnard & Nickinson to open the season in Toronto, Ont on Easter Monday 1852 at the Royal Lyceum Theatre. And here, and at that date I began my career on the stage, which lasted forty-five years, through the United States and Canada.

John Nickinson had made his first stage appearance in Toronto at the Royal Lyceum Easter Monday 1851. EJ Phillips was engaged for Nickinson's Utica, NY company and remained with the company until 1858.  [Shortt]  

Cincinnati, Ohio

Ben DeBar, Lawrence Barrett and Chestnut St. Theater, Philadelphia, Charlotte Cushman

Union Square Theater Co.

Madison Square Theatre Co.  

Death of EJ Phillips 1904                                   

Virtual Library: History United States The Gilded Age 1876-1900 http://vlib.iue.it/history/USA/ERAS/gilded.html

Last revised Jan. 16, 2005 

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