Nellie Bly: Social Champion, Journalist & World Traveler

Nellie Bly (c. 1890), courtesy Wikipedia and Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division

In honor of Women’s History Month, we celebrate Nellie Bly (the pen name of Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, 1864-1922) with this fascinating American pressed-glass bread dish from the Winterthur collection. It portrays a social champion, journalist, and world traveler, who is one of the most famous American women of the 1800s. During that period, famous heroes (and villains!) increasingly were celebrated and illustrated not only in publications such as newspapers but also were portrayed on affordable glass and ceramics.

Nellie Bly (Elizabeth Jane Cochran) glass bread dish
Pittsburgh Glass Manufactory, Pittsburgh, PA; c. 1890
Gift of Linda Cassady in memory of Margaret Grossman 2011.0039.003

Best known today as Nellie Bly, Cochrane was born in Cochran’s Mills, Pennsylvania, and her family relocated to Pittsburgh in 1880. Her very first literary effort was a response to a Pittsburgh Dispatch article titled “What Girls are Good For.” Though that response was not actually published, she did receive a letter from the editor requesting she write an article on the subject of girls and their spheres of life.

Next, she wrote on the theme of divorce, using her now-famous pen name, Nellie Bly, for the first time. She assumed the name on the advice of the managing editor of the Pittsburgh Dispatch, George A. Madden, who got it from Stephen Foster’s popular song “Nelly Bly.” (You might note that the name in the song was spelled differently than the pen name. Apparently Madden, when sharing the name with Cochrane, misspelled “Nelly” as “Nellie.”).

Today, one wonders how Bly and Madden felt about the unfortunate and insensitive wording of Foster’s pre-Civil War (1850) song, which inappropriately stereotypes a Black woman from the South (See lyrics to Stephen Foster’s “Nelly Bly”). In the 1880s, did Bly—as a champion of women—feel the insensitivity reflected in the song lyrics and, as a privileged, well-educated white woman, take on the name in support of the fictitious Black character? Though this author is hopeful, we may never know, for sure.

Bly’s journalistic efforts for the Pittsburgh Dispatch often included investigative reporting regarding women’s issues, and her work is celebrated in the 1893 publication A Woman of the Century: Fourteen Hundred-Seventy Biographical Sketches (pp. 187-88).

Bly is perhaps best known for having herself committed to and writing an exposé on the dire conditions at the asylum on Blackwell’s Island (now known as Roosevelt Island) for the newspaper New York World in 1887. In response to her reporting, which was later published into a book titled Ten Days in a Mad-House, public outrage resulted in closure of the asylum, and in 2021, a monument by artist Amanda Matthews, titled The Girl Puzzle, in honor of Bly is set to be installed on Roosevelt Island. Bly’s hands-on approach to journalism is considered by many as a precursor to today’s investigative reporting (See Hyperallergic).

Bly was also an intrepid traveler and while still working for the Dispatch traveled to Mexico for six months to report on people and customs of that country. Her published criticism of injustices by the Mexican government, however, led to her speedy return to the U.S.

By 1888, she had relocated to New York. Her fascination with Jules Verne’s book Around the World in Eighty Days led her in 1889 to recreate the fictional voyage. She reported via cable, telegraph and post throughout her 72-day trip and set a new world record for circumnavigation. This momentous voyage is celebrated on the Winterthur glass bread dish.Many of the cities visited during the trip are recorded in raised letters around Bly’s portrait on that object. (“NEW YORK NOV.14 89. SOUTHAMPTON NOV. 22. BRINDISI NOV. 24. SUEZ NOV. 27. COLOMBO DEC. 8. SINGAPORE DEC. 18. HONG KONG DEC. 23. YOKOHAMA DEC. 28. SAN FRANCISCO JAN. 21 90. CHICAGO JAN. 24. PITTSBURG JAN. 25. NEW YORK JAN. 25.”)

An 1890 publicity photograph from the New York World newspaper celebrates the voyage and appears to be the inspiration for the portrait on the dish. The original caption of the image reads “Nellie Bly, The New York WORLD’S correspondent who place a girdle round the earth in 72 days, 6 hours, and 11 minutes.” On the bread plate, the description regarding this momentous voyage is reduced to “AROUND THE WORLD IN 72 D’S. 6 H’S. 11 M’S…NELLIE BLY.”

Courtesy Wikipedia and New York Public Library Archives.

Post by by Leslie B. Grigsby, Senior Curator of Ceramics & Glass, Winterthur Museum

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