Asheville Archives: The literal and fictional death of a milliner, 1884

LATEST FASHION: Though her time in Asheville was brief, Cynthia Hill Wolfe helped bring in the latest fashion to city residents from 1880-83. Tragically, she died Feb. 21, 1884, from tuberculosis. She would have been about 41 years old. Photo courtesy of the Thomas Wolfe Memorial

Fans and scholars of Thomas Wolfe’s writing are familiar with his mother, Julia Elizabeth Wolfe. In his 1929 novel, Look Homeward, Angel, the author fictionalized his life growing up in her Asheville boarding home, pulling from her personality and image as inspiration for the character of Eliza Gant.

Within the book, there are dozens of other characters similarly inspired by real life people from the author’s youth, as well as his family’s past. Among them is the character Cynthia Gant, based on Cynthia Hill Wolfe.

Both in life and in fiction, Cynthia is a tragic figure — dying prematurely after a bout with tuberculosis. In the novel, she is briefly noted as the first wife of William Oliver “W.O” Gant — the fictionalized version of Thomas Wolfe’s real father, William Oliver “W.O.” Wolfe.

One of the few scenes that mention Cynthia by name takes place amid the birth of Eugene Gant — the book’s main character and Thomas Wolfe’s fictional stand-in. Drunk and enraged, W.O. pounds on the bedroom door where Eliza is giving birth. Forbidden entry, the story continues:

“‘Cynthia! Cynthia!’ he howled suddenly, invoking the memory of his first wife, the gaunt tubercular spinstress whose life, it was said, his conduct had done nothing to prolong, but whom he was fond of supplicating now, realizing the hurt, the anger he caused to Eliza by doing so. ‘Cynthia! O Cynthia! Look down upon me in my hour of need! Give me succour! Give me aid! Protect me against this fiend out of Hell!’”

Regardless of Cynthia Gant’s minor role within the book, Cynthia Wolfe’s significance to 20th-century American literature should not be overlooked. Had she and W.O. not met and married in Raleigh on March 25, 1879, and had her illness not spurred them to relocate to Asheville — known at the time for its favorable climate, which many believed was beneficial to those with upper respiratory conditions — there’s a good chance Thomas Wolfe would have never been born.

And of course, without Thomas, there’s no Look Homeward, Angel published in 1929, which means there’s no subsequent article published in Xpress’ 2022 Women in Business issue about Cynthia’s contribution to American literature! (I don’t know about you all, but I’m suddenly in the mood to watch Back to the Future.)

Speaking of Women in Business! Despite her failing health, Cynthia owned and operated the Millinery and Notion Store during the final years of her life in Asheville. Similar to her references in Look Homeward, Angel, her business’s mention in the local paper was scarce. But what did run in print offers glimpses into her life and how she seemed to keep the business going even as her health continued to decline.

PAVED PARADISE: The image shows the home W.O. Wolfe and his wife, Cynthia, had built when they moved to Asheville in 1880. The people in this photo are unknown. Today, the home’s location is part of the downtown Asheville YMCA’s parking lot. Photo courtesy of the Buncombe County Special Collections

The first known notification about the shop ran on March 4, 1880, in the town’s then-local paper, North Carolina Citizen. The brief entry informed readers that “Mrs. W.O. Wolfe starts North next week to obtain a new stock of millinery, fancy goods, dress trimmings and notions.”

By summer, the shop’s inventory appeared to have expanded, based on a notification published in the paper’s June 23 edition. In it, Cynthia describes her latest stock, which included “Shade Hats, most novel styles; also a full line of Dress Buttons and Trimming Silks, and a full line of Notions, Handkerchiefs, collars and cuff, Ties, Roushings, Hair Ornaments, Zephrys, Velvets, Embroidery, Silk, Hamburg Edings, and many other goods too numerous to mention.”

Over the next three years, the entrepreneur relocated her business at least two times, ultimately concluding operations inside her and W.O.’s home.

Sadly, there is no known obituary for Cynthia Wolfe. The only notification appears to have run in the March 12, 1884, edition of the Raleigh Register. Under the headline “Died” and accompanied by 20-plus other names, the single line reads, “In Asheville, on the night of the 21st inst., after a long and painful illness of consumption, Mrs. W.O. Wolfe.”

Editor’s note: Peculiarities of spelling and punctuation are preserved from the original documents. 


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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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4 thoughts on “Asheville Archives: The literal and fictional death of a milliner, 1884

    • Thomas Calder

      Well now I’m just blushing. But thank you. And thanks for reading Xpress.

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