Author, social reformer and feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) wrote her most famous short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” while living in a small cottage near the corner of Orange Grove Boulevard and Arroyo Terrace in Pasadena.
Southern California was experiencing a record heat wave, when Gilman, who was 29 at the time, sat down at her desk on June 6th, 1890, and began the story. For two days, the temperature fluctuated between 102 and 105 degrees, but by the end of June 7th, she had finished the first draft. It would take more than a year to get the story published, but it was a turning point in Gilman’s career. Catching the attention of the writer William Dean Howells, an early admirer of Gilman’s work, it was eventually published in New England Magazine in January, 1892.
Though she is best remembered today for ‘Wallpaper,’ a staple of American literature classes, Gilman was extremely prolific—writing 186 short stories, hundreds of poems, nonfiction articles and novels, including the utopian science fiction tale Herland (1915).
Gilman’s time in Pasadena was brief, but in later years, she would credit it as the place where her writing career began. “Before that there was no assurance of serious work,” she wrote in her autobiography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. “To California, in its natural features, I owe much.”
Gilman moved to the city in 1888 from Providence, Rhode Island, after separating from her husband, artist Charles Walter Stetson. She had written a little before that, including several unpublished short stories and poems, as well as a suffrage column for a labor-oriented newspaper called The People, but she found it difficult to balance the responsibilities of a marriage with her literary ambitions. She struggled for several years with depression following the birth of her daughter, Katherine, in 1885, and a disastrous trip to a Philadelphia doctor who infamously advised her, “Live as domestic a life as possible. Have your child with you all the time… and never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live.” (The visit inspired much of the plot of “The Yellow Wallpaper.”)
With Gilman’s move to Pasadena came a sense of freedom and autonomy. Renting a “little wood-and-paper four-room house,” for ten dollars a month, she gave painting lessons to support herself while writing as much as she could. “In that first year of freedom,” she recalled, “I wrote some thirty-three short articles, and twenty-three poems, besides ten more child-verses.”
Having contributed several articles on women’s rights while she was living in Providence, such as “Why Women Do Not Reform Their Dress” and “A Protest Against Petticoats,” Gilman was soon asked to lecture for the Nationalist Club of Pasadena, a socialist-leaning organization. Nationalism was to influence much of her later writings, as well as her view of the economic imbalances between men and women. She was paid a mere $3 to $6 per appearance, but her charisma and the force of her writing would ensure a profitable future as a public speaker.
Gilman’s closest companions during her Pasadena years were the Channings, who lived at the corner of Orange Grove and Walnut Street. Their daughter, Grace, was a childhood friend and also an aspiring writer, and she and Gilman would often write and act in plays together. “There was an admirable group of amateur actors in Pasadena,” Gilman later remembered. “Somewhat to my surprise I was usually cast in comic parts—being always willing to make a fool of myself.” One of their plays was performed as a charity benefit at the Pasadena Opera House, a comedy in which Gilman portrayed a “too-affectionate old maid.”
Grace’s father, Dr. William Channing, had a great influence on Gilman. A former abolitionist, social reformer and inventor, he was also supporter of women’s rights, and, unlike the doctor Gilman had been sent to in Philadelphia, had more enlightened views on the treatment of depression. Gilman wrote much about him in her diaries, and he even inspired a character, “Dr. Willy Clair,” in Gilman’s 1915 short story, “Dr. Clair’s Place” (though Gilman changed the character to a woman).
Gilman wrote other well-regarded stories while in Pasadena, including “That Rare Jewel,” “The Unexpected,” and “Circumstances Alter Cases,” and lectures and articles on such wide-ranging topics as “How Much Must We Read?” and “Social, Domestic, and Human Life.”
Grace Channing left Pasadena in 1890, and Gilman soon began to feel lonely without a close female companion. In September 1891, she moved to Oakland, California to live with another friend, Adeline Knapp, whom she had met on the lecture circuit. In Oakland, she published her first book of poetry, In This Our World, and became more politically involved, joining the State Council of Women.
Though Gilman lived in Pasadena less than three years, it was a pivotal time. Later, she recalled in her autobiography, “In two years of work in Pasadena something had been accomplished. Verses widely quoted, not ‘poetry’ in an exalted sense, but living words.” The night before she left for Oakland, she jotted in her diary, “I have lived much here. I love the place—Pasadena, and mean earnestly to return, build, and live.”
Gilman did return to Pasadena periodically, to lecture and visit friends—and to write her well-regarded book Human Work during an 1899-1900 visit—but she spent most of the following decades on the East Coast, where she eventually married her first cousin, Houghton Gilman. Her reputation is slightly tarnished today by the many anti-immigration lectures she gave during this period, including one at Caltech in 1926.
In 1932, Gilman was diagnosed with inoperable breast cancer, and after Houghton died in 1934, she decided to return to Pasadena where her daughter and grandchildren were living. On August 17, 1935, she took a lethal dose of chloroform in her house at 239 South Catalina Avenue. She left a brief suicide note, in which she wrote, “Human life consists in mutual service.”
The house was designated a Pasadena Cultural Heritage Landmark in 1980, and in 1993, it was moved to the corner of Cypress Avenue and Villa Street, not far from where Gilman first lived in Pasadena.