Richmond Story: Belle Bryan Day Nursery

All mothers work. But the title of “working mother” is now associated with contemporary history, tied to women’s employment. But mothers have always worked outside the home, especially mothers from poor households. Here in Richmond, major industries thrived on the exploitation of largely women workforces, both Black and white. Textile mills and some large operations within tobacco factories relied almost exclusively on women, who were paid very low wages to perform brutal jobs. Often, before child labor laws, children worked beside their mothers. If a child was too young to work, many factory-employed mothers left small children under poor supervision—sometimes by older children. Sometimes they had no choice but to leave their children unattended all day.

Female Tobacco Workers, Early 20th Century, Cook Collection 1138, The Valentine

A Richmond woman named Isobel “Belle” Lamont Stewart Bryan was well-aware of the struggles of working mothers. In 1887, Bryan helped to found the Richmond Woman’s Christian Association (later the YWCA), which provided women factory workers with hard-to-find safe, clean and affordable housing.  The RWCA also offered medical care, sewing classes, a library and religious instruction. As the daughter of a wealthy tobacco merchant, Belle Bryan did not have first-hand experience of economic hardship, so her concern for the plight of wage-earning women might seem surprising. She lived on a large estate on the North Side, called Brook Hill, and frequently traveled to Europe. And she undoubtedly had help raising her own six children. Perhaps her activism stemmed from what she witnessed at her father’s tobacco warehouse. Whatever the source, she quickly discerned that safe housing was not enough to help Richmond’s working women. In 1890, as chairman of the RWCA, she founded and chaired a free kindergarten and day nursery in the factory district for white children.


Belle Bryan Day Nursery opened at 6:30 a.m. and accepted babies as young as one month old. As the children arrived, they immediately received a bath and clean clothes. Their days included nourishing meals, nap time, play time, education and even medical exams by a nurse. For all this, mothers paid the small sum of 15 cents per week. And they could proceed to their long, exhausting workday with peace of mind, knowing that their children were safe and fed. The kindergarten was free. Of course, operating costs far exceeded 15 cents per week, per child, so Bryan became a tireless fundraiser. She received grants from City Council and larger charities, solicited churches and organized fundraisers to keep the charity afloat. Fancy dress balls at The Jefferson Hotel made charitable giving to the nursery a highly anticipated fashion event for Richmond’s elite families.

Belle Bryan Day Nursery, Circa 1919, Cook Collection 1207, The Valentine

In 1898, the nursery moved to rented quarters 201 N. 19th Street, where it remained for 45 years. By the 1950s, the nursery moved to a larger rented space downtown and charged on a sliding scale, according to need: from ten cents to two dollars a day. In 1961, the nursery erected its own building at 610 N. 9th Street to accommodate the 75 children in its care.

A rapidly changing downtown, however, began to cut the nursery off from its mission. Urban renewal throughout the 1960s had pushed many poor residents out. “Slum clearance” programs, highway construction and newly constructed superblocks of government buildings and parking lots turned a bustling city center into a white-collar business district. Factories moved to isolated suburban locations. Citing these changes, the Belle Bryan Day Nursery ceased operations in 1971. The progressive charity had been ahead of its time for 80 years and it closed just as Women’s Liberation Movement began to take off and the term “working mother” took on a whole new meaning.

Richmond Story: Smallpox Vaccine

Today, all Virginians 16 and older will be eligible to receive a COVID vaccine! Are you hesitant, skeptical or afraid? Maybe a little vaccine history will put your mind at ease.

The world’s first vaccine was developed to combat smallpox. Highly contagious and one of the deadliest diseases in human history, it killed three out of every ten of its victims. And it was widespread. Smallpox affected all classes—royalty, soldiers, enslaved people—but was particularly devastating to Indigenous people.  In Virginia, smallpox was introduced by Jamestown settlers, and by 1700, the disease had already killed 75% of the Indigenous population, nearly wiping out the once powerful Powhatan Nation.

Regular smallpox outbreaks swept through Richmond from the 18th to the first part of the 20th century. Before 1796, doctors used a crude precursor to inoculation, called variolation, to try to control the spread. With variolation in the United States and Europe, a scab from someone infected with smallpox would be inserted under the skin of a healthy individual. During the American Revolutionary War, George Washington made sure his soldiers were treated with variolation. The procedure, in addition to being disgusting, could backfire. Variolation could lead to a deadly case. But soldiers so feared smallpox that if no medical supervision was available, it was not unheard of to simply lance a scab from an infected comrade and self-variolate.

This was the state of things before 1796, when an English scientist named Edward Jenner noticed that milkmaids who caught cowpox seemed immune from smallpox.  From there, he developed an effective smallpox vaccine from the slightly less disgusting, much less deadly sores of infected cows.

By 1800, Henrico County granted the first license for a smallpox inoculation clinic, at the estate of John Tabb near Richmond. During the 19th century, Richmond offered free vaccinations for its citizens. Doctors would receive dried cow scabs, along with instructions on how to administer them. This 1861 instruction sheet from Virginia’s vaccine agent, Dr. A.E. Peticolas, shows that the early vaccine was not administered by needle, but by rubbing the powdered scabs into a section of skin scratched raw by the doctor. Ouch!

Despite the pain and the ick factor, the vaccine was widely administered. After years of vigorous public health campaigns, smallpox was eliminated from the U.S. in 1949. It was eradicated from the world by 1980. It is the only disease to have been completely eliminated through vaccination, though hopefully not the last.

With modern advances, it is easier than ever to distribute vaccines quickly and on a mass scale. The more people who receive the COVID vaccine, the more chance we have to one day eradicate this new disease. And in 2021, we don’t have to deal with scabs as part of the inoculation process.

A sterile needle and some mRNA doesn’t seem so daunting now, does it?

Breathing Places Tells the Story of Richmond’s Carefully Crafted Greenspaces

April 7, 2021

Contact: Eric Steigleder
Communications Director

Breathing Places Tells the Story of Richmond’s Carefully Crafted Greenspaces

Just in time for spring, Breathing Places: Parks & Recreation in Richmond explores the past, present and future of the city’s greenspaces


Entrance to Hollywood Cemetery postcard, ca. 1905, Valentine Museum Collection, V.2019.04.621

RICHMOND — The Valentine’s newest exhibition Breathing Places: Park & Recreation in Richmond opens at the museum on May 5 and explores the design, use and evolution of Richmond’s many parks, recreation areas and natural spaces. Over the last 170 years, the region has developed and maintained these greenspaces for some residents while limiting and denying access to others. The new exhibition will explore this complex story while providing a window into the ongoing effects on residents today.

Breathing Places both celebrates and critically examines a central part of community life,” said Christina K. Vida, the Elise H. Wright Curator of General Collections. “As spring approaches and Richmonders with access take to their local parks, fields and yards, it’s the perfect time to explore the histories of those important spaces.”

The exhibition’s title comes from an 1851 recommendation by Richmond’s Committee on Public Squares, which advised “securing breathing places in the midst of the city or convenient to it.” This recommendation would have dramatic (and disproportionate) impacts on Richmonders.

The debut of Breathing Places comes on the heels of the Valentine welcoming visitors back to the museum with new outdoor programming, spring and summer events and more.

“As residents and visitors alike begin to return downtown to enjoy many of the greenspaces they’ve missed for over a year, now is the ideal time to open this exhibition,” said Valentine Director Bill Martin.Breathing Places is not only an opportunity to fully explore the history of parks and recreation, but to inspire visitors to experience these spaces for themselves while considering how we can improve community access going forward.”

Breathing Places will also include a slideshow of rotating images featuring community-submitted photos. Richmonders (both individuals and organizations) can submit images of themselves, their families or their friends enjoying greenspaces across the region.

Breathing Places: Parks & Recreation in Richmond will be on display on the Lower Level of the Valentine from May 5, 2021 through January 30, 2022.


About the Valentine
The Valentine has been collecting, preserving and interpreting Richmond’s 400-year history for over a century. Located in the heart of historic downtown, the Valentine is a place for residents and tourists to discover the diverse stories that tell the broader history of this important region.

Richmond Story: Easter Styles

History is change. Traditions, values, awareness, power dynamics, fashion and social norms all change as time passes. This past year, so much history has been made and so many things have changed before our eyes.

On this Easter Sunday, however, there is one thing we can say we hope never changes. And that is the tradition of stepping up and stepping out for Easter. From the time of this city’s founding, Richmonders from varying backgrounds have donned their best on this holiday. With that in mind, here are some of our favorite historic photos of Easter styles on display in Richmond—from Lakeside to Jackson Ward to Southside to Oregon Hill to the Fan.

Easter Greetings from “Kitty”, 1892, FIC.037880, The Valentine


Easter at 100 W. Orange St., 1954, V.79.120.1660, Edith K. Shelton Collection, The Valentine


Mrs. Bowis and Girls on Easter, Circa 1950, V.89.293.86, Tyree Family Collection, The Valentine


Easter Sunday at 1200 St. John St., Corner Coutts St., 1954, V.79.120.1005.01, Edith K. Shelton Collection, The Valentine


Easter, 1955, Terry Hoffman, V.2017.15.14, Hoffmann Family Photograph Collection, The Valentine


Easter Morning at Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church, 1956, V.91.42.669, Edith K. Shelton Collection, The Valentine


Easter Sunday at Maymont Park, April 10, 1966, Carl Lynn, V.67.32.26, Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection, The Valentine


The Woolard Family on Easter, 1967, V.2015.90.116, The Valentine


Easter on Parade, 1983, V.85.37.3036, Bob Brown, Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection, The Valentine


Easter on Parade, 1994, V.2007.61.1755, The Valentine


We hope these archival gems inspire you to shed your pandemic sweatpants, put on your best outfit and (safely) venture outside!