The Woman Behind the Ludington Library

Ethel Saltus Ludington was passionate about reading—now this library bears her name.

There are worse monuments.

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Ethel Saltus Ludington was born in Litchfield, Conn. Her deeds were those of a rich society woman. She had an outgoing personality, which made an impression on the Main Line’s understated and conformist upper crust. And she was generous (with her husband’s money), so her passing was widely mourned.

“As soon as we began talking, that indescribable something which always accompanies the rare person took place,” wrote a friend, Carl Lindin, describing his first encounter with her. “One enjoyed everything in Mrs. Ludington’s presence. It was like being in mountain air, overlooking a beautiful landscape.”

The daughter of a wealthy lawyer, Ethel Saltus was raised mostly in Brooklyn. Her mother died when she was 3. Her dad quickly remarried, but he passed away when she was 5. Thereafter, she was raised by her stepmother, Katherine Foote Saltus, and extended family.

Summers were spent in Litchfield or at the Foote family mansion in Morrisville, N.J. In Litchfield, “she’d be seen followed by a string of children, who quickly recognized her innate leadership,” wrote childhood friend Frances Hoffman. “She was first in everything.”

When the children staged a performance of Babes in the Wood, Ethel was chief director. During intermission, when the actors presented tableaux of familiar scenes, she stood out as Cherry Ripe, a rosy-cheeked girl seen in popular prints at the time. “Her cap had been improvised from an embroidered handkerchief, her kerchief from a table cover, and the cherries promptly seized from a hat belonging to one of the guests,” wrote Hoffman. “But she brought down the house.”

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At the Foote place, which covered a square mile, there were gardens hidden behind high box hedges, long grape arbors, roaming peacocks, and a lake with swans. Characteristically, Ethel once chose to escape this Eden by jumping from a 7-foot wall and taking off for the barns a half-mile away. It was not a rough childhood, except for the fact that she was an orphan. In 1890, she also lost a beloved older sister

Ethel’s early schooling was at the private Brooklyn Heights Seminary, followed by three years at the prestigious Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Conn. In Litchfield, she also had private lessons in German from an Episcopal rector, who was so impressed that he repeatedly said of her, “That child has a mind.”

In 1891, Ethel left the Porter school and moved in with her unmarried brother, Lloyd, as his housekeeper. In 1895, she married Charles H. Ludington, a New York lawyer and partner in an import-export firm. 

What followed was a decade of travel, often on business trips with her husband, and baby making. Ethel delivered Charles Jr., the first of three sons, in 1896. She also took up genealogy. 

Mabel Jenks knew Ethel Ludington as a young mother in New York. “Our husbands, who had been friends throughout four years at Yale, had tentatively arranged to rent together a tiny cottage at Oyster Bay [for the summer], and we two women had never met!” wrote Jenks in 1922. “However, my fears were laid at rest after Ethel and I had been half an hour together. Here was a ‘real person’—individual, sympathetic and with just enough reserve to pique one’s curiosity. She was handsome in a splendid sort of way, with a clear, warm-tinted skin and extraordinary eyes.”

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After a summer together with infants, the two were good friends. “From that time on, so long as Ethel lived in New York, we were much together,” recalled Jenks. “She was thoroughly companionable. Her tastes and sympathies ranged so widely that one always felt confident of a quick response to anything that interested or touched one.”

“What touched her most was a lack of many of the worthwhile books for children. This she began at once to rectify, picking out herself the books which she thought would appeal most to them.”—Florence Hall

Americans have never admired the idle rich, so there were causes. Ethel was president of the women’s auxiliary of the Union Settlement House, a private social-services agency on New York City’s Upper East Side that’s affiliated with the Union Theological Seminary. She was also involved with Farmington Lodge, a vacation home for working women.

In 1901, Charles Ludington was hired as secretary and treasurer of the Philadelphia-based Curtis Publishing, owner of the Saturday Evening PostLadies’ Home Journal and other publications. The family moved to the Main Line, where  Charles bought a 10-acre estate called Clovelly on Old Gulph Road. Ethel laid out an extensive formal garden next to the squash court. It was her pride and joy.

The Ludingtons seem to have thrown themselves wholeheartedly into the area’s social life. Charles became active in Philadelphia educational institutions and served as treasurer for Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church. He’d become vice president of the Philadelphia Congress of Arts and a trustee of the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art (now the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the University of the Arts). He was also a member of the Mayflower Society, the New England Society of Pennsylvania, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the American Academy of Political and Social Science, and the Academy of Natural Sciences.

All of these affiliations would have involved meetings and events, often at the Ludington mansion. In the tradition of the day, Ethel supervised much of this activity. “Few women, not of a Philadelphia family or upbringing, have slipped so easily and naturally into the best that this town has to offer as Mrs. Ludington did, almost from the day of her arrival,” wrote another friend, Sarah D. Lowrie.

Ethel was active in the Philadelphia Ladies’ Depository, a social-services agency for indigent women, the Orphan Society of Philadelphia and, especially, the school gardens committee of the Main Line Citizens’ Association. “A trait that especially characterized her for me … was the bigness of the scale on which she did things and her remarkable energy which seemed a part of it,” wrote one friend. “There was something thrilling about her abilities and methods for accomplishing all of the various things that engaged her attention.”

In art circles, she made the acquaintance of artist Violet Oakley, who taught at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. In 1914, Oakley gave her students the problem of how to decorate Philadelphia’s Little Theater. One student’s mural design was chosen, but how to pay for it? Ethel Ludington wrote a check. “As one of the valuable ‘Friends of the Little Theater,’ she helped to make that project the success it proved to be,” wrote Oakley.

To Ethel, obstacles were things to be overcome, said her friends. One told of her crossing Boston in a cab to catch a train only to be stopped by a horse-drawn truck blocking the street. The driver refused to move. “After watching this situation for a moment or two,” reported the friend, “Ethel stepped quickly out of the cab, went to the horses’ heads, and deliberately turned them at right angles to the truck, motioned the taxi man to come through the opening, climbed in again and went on to make her train.”

Ethel had never been robust, but except for a bout of typhoid in 1895, she had never been seriously ill. In 1917, however, her endurance for travel, meetings and activities began to wane. She developed a chronic cough, and physicians diagnosed her with tuberculosis.

An infectious disease targeting the lungs and once called “consumption,” TB is caused by bacteria and spreads mostly when those who have it speak, cough or sneeze near others. With her penchant for travel and social interaction, Ethel could have contracted the disease anywhere.

Today, TB is treated with antibiotics. A century ago, the preferred treatment was a sanatorium—a location, usually remote, where sufferers could rest and breathe the clean country air. Ethel began to make periodic tours of sanatoria in Saranac Lake, N.Y., and Silver City, N.M.

In Saranac Lake, she joined the free-library committee, ordering dozens of books on her own dime to supplement the small collection. “What touched her most was a lack of many of the worthwhile books for children,” wrote a friend, Florence Hall. “This she began at once to rectify, picking out herself the books which she thought would appeal most to them.”

In New Mexico, Ethel made it her business to rearrange the sanatorium library and to distribute books to those unable to fetch their own. Elizabeth Packard, who visited in 1918, described a woman who could not sit still. “By the time I reached there in February, she was acquainted with every patient well enough to be visited and knew much of their histories, their tastes and their hopes,” wrote Packard. 

At Christmas, Ethel and her sons installed a tree in the dining room and placed a gift at every place. Lonesome for her garden, she had hundreds of bulbs planted in the town.

After her death at 51 in Saranac Lake, Charles Ludington donated $50,000 to build a home for the Bryn Mawr library. A smaller donation funded an addition to the Ardmore library. Another created a children’s wing for Saranac Lake’s library.

Ethel certainly could’ve picked worse things to love.

Ethel Saltus Ludington,

as painted by Cecilia Beaux in 1903

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