- New Orleans Women and the Poydras Home: More Durable Than Marble by Pamela Tyler
Pamela Tyler's subtitle captures the imperfections but resilience of generations of benevolent women, their long-lasting institution, and, ultimately, their city of New Orleans. With unrestricted access to the "voluminous" records of the Poydras Home, originally an orphanage and now a retirement community, Tyler sculpts a fascinating history of an institution's evolution to serve its community (p. ix). As the home celebrates its bicentennial, its women administrators have proved themselves time and again "both tender-hearted philanthropists and hard-headed businesswomen" (p. 64).
Before readers meet the women behind Poydras, Tyler offers a brief overview of orphanages in the 1800s and 1900s, material that will likely surprise the popular audience she welcomes. The "grinding poverty" of the nineteenth century forced families to surrender children to orphanages, often with hopes of withdrawing them later (p. 2). As a result, "orphans" commonly had one surviving parent, if not two. New Orleans's Female Orphan Society thus provided broad forms of social support when it opened in 1817, and it continued to do so until developments such as social work and mothers' pensions in the early twentieth century changed attitudes about orphanages.
The Anglo-American women who operated Poydras were among the city's social and economic elite. Tyler resists provincializing local history and connects their work to female reformers across the nation in the nineteenth century. What distinguished Poydras managers from their counterparts, though, was their institution's enviable financial stability, largely due to early gifts from Louisiana planter Julien Poydras. The able management of his legacies funded the home for decades, and Tyler stresses that business acumen and savvy legal maneuvering "became an essential part of the women's apparatus for success" while also "press[ing] the limits of gender propriety" (p. 28). Poydras's gifts, however, exposed the racism that runs as a tragic thread throughout the [End Page 411] institution's history. Endowed by "one of the largest slaveholders in antebellum America," the institution used enslaved labor and, after transitioning to caring for the aged, accepted only white women until late into the twentieth century (p. 30). Tyler's most substantive chapter concerns tensions between Catholic and Protestant women in the mid-1800s. Most administrators were Protestant, but the home accepted Catholic girls and hosted Sisters of Charity as staff members. In reoccurring episodes, though, religious disputes triggered "a breakdown of discipline" among residents and employees (p. 68). This contentious time in the institution's history, Tyler reminds us, demonstrates the insoluble ties between life in Poydras and the world outside its gates.
Tyler's final chapters concern the period after 1960, when the institution rechristened itself the Poydras Home for Elderly Ladies. She supplements Poydras records with oral histories to carry readers through "the crucible of Hurricane Katrina" in 2005 (p. 172). Throughout the book, she maintains a tricky balance between honoring and critiquing the home, but she could further interrogate race in Poydras's more recent history. For example, Tyler notes that it was not until the 1980s that "the elderly" replaced "white Protestant females" in admissions, a long-overdue revision that warrants greater scrutiny (p. 167).
Tyler introduces her book as "the story of an institution. … [and] the tale of a small coterie of New Orleans women, the unpaid board of managers of Poydras" (p. vii). The former is a success, sure to interest scholars of gender, childhood, reform, religion, and southern cities. Yet one wishes for more on the individual women themselves, akin to what Tyler accomplished in her book Silk Stockings and Ballot Boxes: Women and Politics in New Orleans, 1920–1963 (Athens, Ga., 1996). If the obstacle is a lack of sources, a discussion of these limitations would be of interest to readers and, in fact, affirm her portrayal of Poydras as a monument to women's uncelebrated work over generations. Nevertheless, Tyler successfully engages audiences in many venues.