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PASTIMES: Pictou County native Helen Graves was a pioneer in women’s worker equality rights

Steam launch machines that were used in the 1890s.
Steam launch machines that were used in the 1890s. - Contributed

Helen Graves of Pictou County was a 19th- and early 20th-century pioneer in the women’s worker equality rights in the United Stated.

This remarkable person was also listed in a 1904 publication called Representative Women of New England, where she was described as “a successful business woman of Boston.”

Ellen (Helen) Margaret MacKenzie was born in Rogers Hill (Scotsburn) in 1863 to parents David MacKenzie and Christina (Sutherland). Helen would receive her early education at the Roger’s Hill one-room school and continued there as a school mistress, or teacher, assisting her older educator brother David. At the age of 16, Helen made her way to Boston, Mass., where she entered “upon active duties of life on her own account.”

After various discouraging experiences in attempting to find a position for which she was fitted, she secured employment in the office of a laundry machinery company, beginning there at the lowest round of the latter. Helen felt this was the opportunity she had been looking for and with determined eagerness made the most of it “by doing her job well.” This unwavering and faithful effort attracted the attention of the officers of the company. Of which, a daring decision was made by the firm, placing Helen in charge of a department that had only previously been “conducted entirely by men engaged as traveling agents.” 

The mere mention of employing a woman in this capacity was regarded as preposterous. Helen would meet the challenge and prove herself capable of doing the work assigned to her in a satisfactory manner. She would travel throughout the United States for the company and install steam laundry plants. This was not an easy undertaking, Helen would instruct the new owners of the laundry plants in the running and maintaining of the machines. She gained a reputation as an authority in this branch of the business. The work and travel “were hard, exacting and fatiguing.” After several years Helen decided she wanted something of a permanent location and job, especially with her husband, Oliver B Graves, whom she had married on January 16, 1893. Oliver Buel Graves was a Boston printer/publisher operating the firm Graves & Henry of Harvard Square, Cambridge, Mass., since the early 1890s. 

With Helen permanently moving back to the Boston area, an offer was made for her to become the superintendent and manager of one of the largest steam laundry facilities in New England. This position she held for 18 years. Never one to turn down a challenge, in the early 1900s she left her administrative role and opened her own steam laundry business in the Allston district in Boston. The business was called Mayflower Laundry and “it was conducted with usual energy, industry and honesty, and with such ability it is a pronounced success, ranking a first-class establishment of its kind and a credit to its proprietor.

Helen’s teacher brother, David MacKenzie, became a doctor after a principalship at Pictou Academy studying at Dalhousie and Columbia Medical University. He practised in the community of Millbrook, New York where he married, settled and raised a family. David’s descendants still live in the Millbrook area. A phone contact was made with David’s 93-year-old grandson and Helen’s grandnephew, Gordon MacKenzie and he stated he “remembers the family always talking about Aunt Helen in Boston, she was in the laundry business.”

Helen (MacKenzie) and Oliver B Graves would live out their lives in the Boston area, with Helen operating a boarding house well into her 70s. 

Special thanks to

Marren Fassnacht, Heritage Clerk, New Glasgow Library

Thersa MacKenzie Genealogy & Research, MacCulloch Heritage Centre

Tim MacKenzie of Pictou

Gordie and Gordon MacKenzie of Millbrook, New York

Alan Fraser, A Walk-Through Time Museum, Scotsburn

Historical Research 

Representative Women of New England 

Graves Family Association 

Pictou Antigonish Regional Library

Canada & United States Census Returns

Brighton-Allston Historical Society

City of Boston Historical Newspapers

John Ashton is a 33 year self-employed historical author 

and visual/graphic artist and lives in Bridgeville, Pictou County. He 

may be reached at

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