Nellie Painter (Eleanor G. Painter)

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By Mary Witkowski

Eleanor Painter was, according to the Bridgeport Post March 18, 1945, a “Veteran Teacher… [a]Leader in Cultural Activities in the City since 1864.”

When Nellie Painter got to school in June of 1891, she knew she would be posing for a photograph. She had been warned by her principal, Henry D. Simmonds, that the teachers and school children would have their picture taken. “It would be fun,” Nellie thought.Nellie was known for her high style in clothing, so she carefully dressed that day. She wore a plaid satin day dress that she had bought on a trip to New York. Her friend Mrs. Elmer Beardsley had gone with her into New York by train for a shopping trip. The weather had just turned nice.

Eleanor tried on the dress at Lord and Taylor’s, which was a store near the neighborhood in New York where she used to live. She thought the plaid was a bit too bright.

“It looks great on you. Fresh and youthful,” Mrs. Beardsley said, “I myself would buy a new dress, but my husband would kill me.” Her husband was a judge, and his stern demeanor always frightened Nellie.

“Mr. Beardsley would be happy that you dress the part of a judge’s wife.” Eleanor laughed.

Nellie Painter lived a life of good friends, new experiences, and being loved. She came to Bridgeport with an understanding of culture and the companionship of others. Nellie, or Aunt Nellie,” as her students called her, taught at Prospect School in Bridgeport’s South End. Miss Eleanor G. Painter (Nellie) became a much loved resident of the city.

Nellie moved to Bridgeport in 1862 with her father, William, of New York and her mother, Jane Packer Painter, formerly of Mystic, Connecticut. Previously the family had lived in Greenwich Village in New York City, where her father and mother socialized with Giuseppe Garibaldi during his visit to New York promoting Italian history. Nellie also met a young Douglas MacArthur as he began to study at West Point.

Socializing was a large part of Nellie’s life. Nellie was friends with Samuel Sanford, a brilliant pianist. Samuel Sanford and his family lived in a large house on Washington Avenue with a big music room.

It was through Samuel Sanford that Nellie must have met world renowned Polish pianist Ignace Paderewski when he played in Bridgeport. Sanford brought many talented musicians to Bridgeport, including Sir Edward Elgar. Elgar was a composer of music, some of which is familiar to us today. Elgar first played Pomp and Circumstance at a Yale graduation, his own in fact. According to a recent Yale Bulletin, May 20, 2005, “That year, the work’s composer, Edward Elgar, was given an honorary doctorate of music at Yale’s graduation, then held in Woolsey Hall.” In honor of the acclaimed British composer, the chorus from Elgar’s “Light of Life” was performed during the ceremony by the New Haven Symphony Orchestra with accompaniment on the Newberry Organ, and his “Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 in D Major” was performed as the graduates recessed.”

Nellie brought her worldly elegance and knowledge to teach school at Prospect School on Prospect Street in Bridgeport’s South End. Demographically, the School became a mix of ethnicities. Nellie was fondly remembered by her students. Students through the years called her “Miss Nellie,” as one pupil, Henry Paul, warmly remembered her as he showed his certificate signed on February 6, 1874 signed by his teacher, Eleanor G. Painter in Room 19, Prospect School. Henry Paul fondly remembered Miss Painter in 1936 as “chipper and lively as a sparrow on the wing.”

Before the age of our modern “selfies,” Eleanor “Nellie” Painter had professional photographs taken of herself. For the photographs she elegantly dressed in the fashion of the late 19th century. According to the census, she lived in Greenwich Village, New York; New London, Connecticut; and Bridgeport, Connecticut.
The photographers took carte de visite photos, small, usually albumen photographic cards that were produced in 2.5 by 4 inch sizes, mounted on cardboard. Text on the cards produced for Nellie were notations like “red hair” and “green eyes.”
It is evident in the photographs that Nellie had striking beauty. In the photograph of Nellie standing on the stairs with her fellow teachers; her plaid dress is stunning to look at.
A Bridgeport Post article of July 12, 1936 says that Nellie’s apartment “boasts antiques, oil paintings of her mother and father, and a painting of her friend, Professor Samuel Sanford, founder of the Yale School of music.”
Upon Professor Sanford’s death in 1910, he bequeathed money to Nellie and Yale. Nellie invited friends to her house on State Street, where she lived with her friends Mrs. Elmer Beardsley and Mary Bellew. Together they entertained a wide circle of friends, and formed a “salon type of environment filled with the lost art of conversation.”
Nellie never married. She retired from teaching after thirty years. Her life remained active with cultural activities and travelling. Nellie died in 1945 at age 95.

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About Author

Mary K. Witkowski is the former Bridgeport City Historian and the Department Head of the Bridgeport History Center, Emeritus. She is the author of Bridgeport at Work, and the co-author with Bruce Williams of Bridgeport on the Sound. Mary has had a newspaper column in the Bridgeport News, a blog for the Connecticut Post, and a weekly spot on WICC. She continues to be involved in many community based activities and initiatives on local history and historic preservation.

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