The Shut-In Society / The Vermont Sunshine Society

The Shut-In Society was an organization formed in 1874 to provide correspondence and comfort for individuals at the time who were isolated from society due to a chronic illness, disability or other circumstance.

As reported in The White River Valley Herald on December 8, 2005, the Shut-In Society changed its name to The Vermont Sunshine Society in 1998.

Author Jennie M. Drinkwater Conklin is often credited as the founder of the Shut-In Society. Not much is available about the history of the organization, but we did find one very helpful article about the origination and works of the organization published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Sunday, April 12, 1891 on Page 28.

Shut-In Society

A Peculiar and Interesting Organization With a Membership of 2,000 Invalids.

THE QUALIFICATIONS FOR JOINING IT AND THE WORK IT DOES.
How It Came to Be What It Is, and the Woman Who Unconsciously Founded It-The Various Inside Departments and How They Are Conducted-The Organizer of the Flower Mission.

Written for the SUNDAY POST-DISPATCH.

How many readers of the SUNDAY POST-DISPATCH have ever heard of the Shut-In Society? Not a very large proportion, it ls safe to say, and yet such a society exists, has a comparatively large membership in America and Europe, is represented in St. Louis, and makes no effort to conceal its existence or its purpose.

Its name might suggest a peculiar exclusiveness-that the members shut themselves in and the rest of the world out. Nothing could be farther from the fact. The Shut-In Society is an organization of invalids-persons afflicted with physical ailments which keep them shut in their homes.

In 1873 Miss Jennie M. Drinkwater, now Mrs. Conklin, began a correspondence with another invalid, personally unknown to her, whom she desired to cheer and comfort. Though she was unconscious of the fact, this act was the germ of an organization which now embraces two hemispheres and numbers 1n its membership more than 2,000 invalids.

The pleasure and profit experienced from this correspondence by these two persons, bound together by the sympathy born of similar afflictions, led to an interchange of letters with a third and a fourth, and thus the germ began to develop. Although founded 1n 1873, the Shut-in Society was not fully organized until 1884, when Mrs. Conklin was made President. It was legally incorporated in 1885 under the laws of the State of New York.

The officers for 1891 are, Honorary President, Mrs. J. M. D. Conklin, Madison, N. J.; President, Mrs. E. Proudfit, Highlands, Monmouth County, N. J.; Secretary and Treasurer, Mrs. H. K. Munroe, Ashland, Mass. There are nine vice-Presidents, representing seven different States and Canada, one of them residing in St. Louis.

It is a unique spectacle to see a class of in dividuals usually considered helpless, taking it into their own bands to Improve their condition and show what needs of theirs have been largely unrecognized. Hospitals, asylums and other similar institutions which take care of the physical needs of invalids are thus supplemented by a society which aims at a mutual interchange of mental and spiritual comfort among them. Many of these invalids who never have seen each others’ faces and never will see them, have become not only intimate acquaintances, but warm personal friends. The term “letter-friend” has become a part of the vernacular of the society.

A signal proof of the comfort and pleasure derived from these letters is found in the fact that many of them are written by Invalids who are unable to assume a sitting posture, but write while lying upon their backs.
It is through these letters that a fact has become known which has surprised alike the invalids themselves and their friends; namely, the large number of people who have been shut in their homes for twenty-five or thirty years.

It is to be hoped that not many suffer longer than that, but one member of the society has recently died who was confined to her bed tor sixty years; a whole lifetime of suffering!

THE MEMBERSHIPS

Only invalids can be bona fide members of the Shut-in-Society. According to the constitution, “o be a sufferer, shut in from the outside would, constitutes one a proper candidate for membership in this society.”

In order that unworthy persons may not foist themselves upon the organization the constitution further provides that applicants “will send with their application, if possible, the name of their pastor, or their physician, or of some associate of the society as an introduction.”

The “‘associates” thus referred to, are members, “‘Who’ says the constitution, “are not themselves invalids, but, being in tender sympathy with the suffering, volunteer in this ministry of love for Jesus’ sake.”

Each associate has a certain district assigned to him or her consisting of several States and assumes the duty of corresponding with the members of the society In those States.

Occasionally a shut-in is found who is too poor to pay the postage necessary for her correspondence, and the Helping-Hand department has been formed to furnish postage stamps to such members. The associate members also elect the officers of the society. The regular meetings occur on the third Friday of November, February and May in New York City.

Although largely composed of women, the Shut-in Society has also a department devoted to the male members and one for the children. The Men’s Department is conducted successfully by Mr. Will S. Mather of the Chicago Y. M. C. A. Miss G. L. Lewis of Boston, has charge of the Children’s Department, the members of which are called the **Sunshine Makers.” The associate members of this department have formed a band called the ‘Little Cup-Bearers to the King.”

This band Is composed of “boys and girls from 6 to 19 years, who, in the flush of health, are carrying cups of love and sympathy from the God of love to some little sufferer, Each little Cup Bearer corresponds with a little Sunshine-Maker and has a badge of purple ribbon and printed letter of welcome.’ There are also two bands of boys, a “Ten Times One” club and a club of “Willing Hands” which are doing good work in this line.

The conscientious mother will readily see how beautiful such work is to the young. Naturally averse to the sick room, full of health and buoyant spirits, they seldom think of those of their own age who, in the course of nature, should be as free as the air and joyous as the birds, but, instead, are chained to their beds by wasting disease or hobble about on crutches. Sick children as well as those who are well crave the society of those of their own age. But children do not think of that until their attention is called to it. When they begin to engage in such work. however, their enthusiasm puts to shame the coldness of their elders and their own lives are broadened and sweetened to a surprising degree.

THE INVALIDS’ AUXILIARY.

It would hardly be expected that, among a class of people needing SO much to make their own lives endurable, a missionary spirit would be largely developed. It may be, however, that on account of their appreciation of sympathy the woes of others appeal to them the more strongly. Be that as it may, it is certain that there is a desire to help, for there is an Invalids’ Auxiliary in the Shut-in Society, which is supporting a native helper in the Margaret Williamson Hospital at Shanghai, China.

The auxiliary also wishes to support a bed in the same hospital, but its funds are as yet insufficient. That the aid given to the members of the Shut-in Society is not confined to their mental and moral needs is evident from the fact that there is a “Wheelchair” Committee represented in the person of Miss C. O. Ross. who lives at 16 Astor street, Newark, N. J.

The object of this committee is to alleviate as far as possible the physical sufferings of the shut-in members by providing them as far as possible with wheel chairs. When the death of an invalid renders the wheel-chair which he has been using unnecessary, friends fasten a little silver plate to the back of the chair with the inscription: “To the memory of _” and give it in charge of the commit tee to be used by a shut-in who cannot afford to buy such a chair.

When this member is through with it It is passed on to another sufferer. Circles of Kings’ Daughters and bands of little children assist in this work by buying wheel-chairs and sending them to the committee. It is desired, however, that no wheel-chairs be sent to the committee until the intention of the donor is communicated to Miss Ross.

Many times there is an applicant for the chair in the donor’s own vicinity, and when this is known unnecessary expense and trouble are avoided. During the year 1890 twenty-one chairs were sent to members of the society by the committee and twenty-five applicants were left unsupplied on account of lack of chairs.

Invalids who have their eyesight and are strong enough to read have an unfailing resource, provided they are within reach of reading matter. But some Shut-ins are far removed from any literary center or have no friends to provide them with books, and this means of diversion is denied them. To supply this need the Shut-in Society has formed a library and furnishes books and papers to those desiring them.

Miss A. E. Fuller of Hanover, New London, Conn., is the librarian, and to her all books and periodicals intended for the invalids are sent. Much reading matter, which has helped to load the ragman’s sack because the despairing housewife knew of no other way to bring order out of chaos in her overloaded garret, might have served to while away many weary hours if the owner had known where to send them.

During the last year Miss Fuller sent out 1,000 papers and magazines, 250 books and 200 leaflets. Every State in the Union and Canada shared in the distribution, thus showing the great demand for reading matter.

THE “OPEN WINDOW”

In addition to the books and periodicals sent out by the librarian, the Shut-in Society publishes a magazine of its own which any Shut-in may have for 50 cents a year. If any members cannot pay even that small sum the magazine is sent to them free.

In order to be able to do this the publishers charge the associate members $1 a year to make up the deficiency.

The magazine is a monthly and is called the Open Window. Mrs. H. E. Brown of New York City is the editor. The title page of the monthly illustrates Its name and object by a picture of a window open to the sun and revealing a pretty landscape. Underneath are flowers and the legend, “The windows of my soul I throw wide open to the sun.” Over the window is the text, “‘There shall be no more pain.’

The Open Window often discloses romantic scenery amidst which some associate is traveling. A letter from Dresden, Germany, brings vividly before the shut-ins, other windows beautiful and famous, quaint streets, picturesque houses and ancient castles. Another letter from Switzerland brings into view the grand mountains and beautiful valleys of that marvelous land. Pictures of our own land also find their way through the Open Window, and the brilliant sunshine and soft atmosphere of the Pacific Coast come through the casement upon invalids shut in by dreary winter in harsher climates.

Other views of more lasting benefit come to the weary sufferers through their little monthly. Those who chafe against confinement and weary the patience of devoted relatives by their complaints are made more contented by the contrast between their condition and that of some homeless, penniless shut-in, living on the charity of distant relatives.

The following pictures, drawn by herself, of an invalid living in Canton, Ill., must have made the lot of many shut-ins more endurable and silenced their complainings. The sufferer writes: “‘Six years ago my jaws became locked and have never unlocked. I have not taken a step, stood alone or sat up since that time. I cannot even whisper; I have to do my talking by writing. I suffer much all the time, still have so much to be thankful for! How much worse is the condition of many others.”

Still, while such letters teach contentment and gratitude many times they also draw on the sympathies of the invalids to a harmful degree and the editor does not encourage them.

The aim of the society is to distract the minds of the invalids from suffering and in later numbers of the Open Window there is a noticeable lack of letters descriptive of pain and ailments. Each shut-in is encouraged to search for the bits of sunshine in his own life and share it with the other shut-ins.

NOT A CHARITABLE ORGANIZATION.

The Shut-in Society is not a charitable organization and members are not allowed to ask pecuniary aid from each other or the associates: but requests for bits of silk and velvet for fancy work and odds and ends of embroidery materials often appear in the columns of the Open Window.

The requests are not all preferred by women either, for men who are invalids, sometimes weary of reading and writing and then have recourse to fancy work or painting. The amount of work accomplished by some of the Shut-ins whom well people would consider entirely helpless, is surprising.

One young woman, who never changes from a reclining position, has knitted sixteen warm quilts to give away. But the most remarkable case revealed, one that proves that few people demand of their faculties a fourth part of what they might, Is that of Miss Fannie Tunison of Sag Harbor, L. I.

This remarkable woman has never walked or used her hands and yet does fancy work, How? With her mouth.

By such examples it is sought to encourage invalids who have given up helping themselves to attempt some employment which will distract their minds and make their sufferings less poignant.

Those who derive the most benefit from the Shut-in Society are not the ones who live in a prosperous city in the midst of a large circle of devoted friends, but those are left alone all day in a cheerless room in a most unattractive part of a great city, or the shut-in living in the quiet country or sleepy village. The country-bred are sometimes the happiest of people. To those who love nature she sometimes brings compensation for lack of friends and human sympathy. But there are many who have lived all their lives in view of pictures worthy or an artist’s brush, and yet the eye may be entirely blind to its beauty. The exquisite harmonies of earth and air may fall upon ears which have never been trained to catch the sounds. But even if the eye and ear are cultivated and the artist’s soul can appreciate the glory of earth and sky and the daily martins of the birds, there will be days when the clouds shut out the sun and the whole landscape is dreary. There is nothing to see and nothing to do.

Reading is scarce and the conversational powers of the few visitors have painful limitations. Into such narrow life comes a letter from some one far away in a land of sunshine. Cheery words, suggestive of flowers, birds and spring-thine, bring brightness into the dreary room and into the sad heart of the weary Invalid. There is sunshine in the world for she has had a glimpse of It. and there is some one who cares for her. It is for such people more than any other that the Shut-in Society is intended, but those who are contributors as well as beneficiaries are welcome and necessary.

Miss Jennie Casseday of Louisville, Ky., Is one of the most prominent of the shut-ins. Although contained to her room for twenty-five years Miss Casseday has a national reputation on account of her connection with the Flower Mission of which she is the founder and national President.

Passionately fond of flowers she always wears a cluster of them on her bosom, and the lessons of faith, hope and endurance, which they have taught her, have borne fruit in the beautiful idea of giving to other suffering and unfortunate ones the same pleasure which the blossoms have given her.

As the idea took shape Miss Casseday developed rare talent as an organizer, and women went from her bedside to the various hospitals, Jails and sick-rooms distributing flowers systematically. The good work soon spread throughout Kentucky and then assumed national proportions with Miss Casseday at its head.

The letters which she has received from prisoners whom the flowers have influenced to lead a better life have convinced her that she made no error when she sent the flowers on their mission, and that an invalid is not necessarily debarred from assuming a part of the burden which philanthropy has assumed in trying to elevate mankind.

Gifts of food and other necessaries are often sent with the flowers, and to raise money for this purpose Remenyi once gave a concert under Miss Casseday’s direction, which yielded $800. A nurses’ training school is one of this noble woman’s latest schemes, and is as successful as the others.

But, while thus engaged in planning for the welfare of others, friends prepared for her a pleasure which is being constantly renewed. It is now her great desire that many more invalids may know what It is to attend concerts although unable to leave their rooms, and to join with church goers in divine worship, although imprisoned in bed by pain.

Visitors at Miss Casseday’s bedside are sometimes invited to come again the next day and go to church with her. Surprised at such an invitation, the visitor looks at her again as if to surprise some latent strength in the invalid and, seeing only the white face and fragile body she wonders if she is about to witness a miracle.

Curiosity combinee with interest to induce the visitor to accept the invitation. On the following day upon entering the sick-room she sees the invalid dressed in her customary white and with a look of eager anticipation upon her face. Inviting her visitor to take a seat near a telephone, she adjusted the transmitter of another one to her own ear, and, assisted by Bible and hymnbook, she follows the service closely and remains as silent as if she were really in church.

“Reflectors” placed in the pulpit and organ loft bring to her the words of the preacher and the music of the choir and organ so perfectly that she does not miss a sound. In the same way, by means of “reflectors” placed in the opera-house she has heard the voices of many noted singers and the exquisite harmony of piano and violin.

On more than one occasion gifted musicians have noticed the telephone connections on the stage and have asked permission to sing or play in the invalid’s own room. Thus, while her body Is confined to a small space Miss Casseday’s life is much broader than that of many women who have their liberty. Her sick-room is the resort of those who need comfort and those who bring It of world-renowned men and little children who eagerly seek an excuse to linger at her bedside.

Composed of such material and with such a noble aim the Shut-in Society cannot help but increase in size and influence. Its origInator could not foresee such a grand result from her humble effort to bring a little sunshine into a darkened sick-room, but her success proves anew the truth so hard to learn, that there is really no such thing as a trifle. – A. M., St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Sunday, April 12, 1891, Page 28.


Sources, References and Additional Information

  1. “Shut in Society”, A.M., St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Sunday, April 12, 1891, Page 28
  2. December 08, | and 2005. “Sunshine Society Welcomes Gifts – The White River Valley Herald.” The White River Valley Herald – Serving the Communities of Vermont’s White River Valley Since 1874, December 8, 2005. https://www.ourherald.com/articles/sunshine-society-welcomes-gifts/.

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