A Celebration of Women Writers

"The 'Turkish Compassionate Fund.'" by Mlle. Cariclee Zacaroff.
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 618-622.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 618] 



The Turkish Compassionate Fund was established by the Baroness Burdett-Coutts, in the winter of 1877-78, as a relief fund for the Mohammedan victims of the Turko-Russian war, who, driven out of their homes, sought refuge in Constantinople, the capital of their monarch, the sultan.

The unparalleled distress throughout the Turkish provinces in the districts north and south of the Balkans, the burning homes, the thousands of starving and naked refugees in their mad struggle to reach the metropolis, can find no more pitiful example in the history of any war. Hundreds succumbed on the way, unable to withstand the terrors of cold and hunger. Thousands arrived in Constantinople before organized assistance could be given.

In one of his letters Sir Francis de Winton says: "One can give no idea of the painful scenes which have occurred, nor the intensity of suffering which these poor people are undergoing, and they are nearly all women and children. One woman went mad; more than one was confined on the journey; several perished from cold, and little children were thrown from the trucks as they passed the bridge into the river Maritza, their mothers trusting rather to its waters ending the sufferings of their little ones than prolong them and the cruel horror of their dreadful journey."

The sympathy of the British public was aroused, thanks chiefly to the combined efforts of Sir Henry Layard, ambassador in Constantinople at the time, and his wife, Lady Layard. Help poured in from many quarters. The Baroness Burdett-Coutts headed a relief fund, which, commissioned by Mr. Ashmead Bartlett Coutts and Sir Francis de Winton, the African explorer, carried extensive aid into the localities, and in the form most needed. This Turkish Compassionate Fund was a gigantic charity, organized on a large-hearted and judicious plan, and supplying the necessities of life for many months to thousands of perishing human beings. No one concerned then thought that it was one day to develop into the beautiful industry which should continue for years to provide honorable employment and self-respecting support to many hundreds who had been recipients of its bounty only.

To Mrs. Arthur Hanson, an English resident of Constantinople, a lady of high social standing, is entirely due the credit of the development of the Turkish Compassionate Fund into one of the most beautiful and practical industries of Turkey or of any other country She first discovered the wonderful talent of these Mohammedan women for needlework of a phenomenal character. From the first to the last days of their "tribulation," and indeed up to this present moment, this noble woman has worked among them; has devoted her talents, her energies, and her fortune to [Page 619]  them; has learned to know and love the gentle, simple creatures to whom she soon became an object of grateful worship. It was Mr. Hanson who first realized that these strong, able-bodied women of magnificent physique could not long continue paupers on any bounty–that with health and strength must return also the necessity to work and provide for themselves. In time many returned to their former homes, or were scattered in different parts of the country, to join their husbands, brothers, and fathers in following their different callings. But many hundreds still remained who had no homes to return to.

With the last two hundred dollars left from the relief fund Mrs. Hanson bought materials and distributed them among the more eager workers. With the small means at hand it was impossible to satisfy all. They would come on regular days to Mrs. Hanson's country home, and not having a supply for all, their kind and wise friend would place them indiscriminately in a row and give a piece of work to every tenth; the fortunate ones would go away happy; the rest would pray that better luck should fall to their lot next time.

The work grew. Not a large variety of articles was made. Doilies were finished by the hundreds and thousands–the many little things providing work to the largest numbers. Many ladies in England still continued to take an interest in the welfare of these poor exiles, and the work done was sent to them for disposal and sale. Chief among these was Lady Charlotte Schreiber, and for many years she continued an indefatigable co-laborer with Mrs. Hanson. These articles at first produced fancy prices; the money flowed into Mrs. Hanson's eager hands; more combinations and varieties were created; rich materials bought; orders of every description taken, and for several years hundreds of willing women were kept busy. Their condition rapidly changed for the better; the object of the "Turkish Compassionate Fund" seemed to have been attained–work for the able-bodied, alms only for the sick, the aged and infirm. The organization was entirely self-supporting, and had even amassed no small amount of capital.

Particular and grateful mention is here made of the "Liberty" firm in London. At a time when there was but little demand for our work they gave large orders, and paid for them generously.

But so extensive a work as this had become was too much for a few women, no matter how devoted, to carry on to a lengthened success. In Constantinople, after the first few months, Mrs. Hanson was almost unassisted in her labors. In a few years (there being no organized system of renewal), those mostly interested in England commenced to drop off; purchasers wearied of the same designs and combinations, and wanted change and variety; much expensive stock remained unsold in the hands of benevolent ladies in various parts of the world. Work continued to be given out, but as the sales were slow, it was simply a drain on the capital, which diminished rapidly; and finally, in 1888, it was decided to wind up the affairs of the Turkish Compassionate Fund, reserving the small remaining capital for assistance in cases of extreme emergency among the women, rather than spend it on materials for work.

In June, 1888, Mrs. Arthur Hanson, whom I had known and admired when in Constantinople, asked me to interest myself in the work, and see what I could do in France.

I showed our embroideries to the heads of various large firms in Paris. They marveled at the execution and coloring, but would have none of our materials and combinations. For a year or more Mrs. Hanson labored hard, at great expense, to carry out the ideas, designs and coloring suggested by the French artists. Money was not made–on the contrary, a great deal was expended–but at the end of twelve months the production of the Turkish Compassionate Fund had undergone a great change. Marvelous effects of color and design were obtained on the beautiful French materials, which added to the wonderful technique of our women, and made of their embroideries "dreams of beauty" indeed. The French pointed out to us the boundless capacity of such skill, and showed us that nothing was impossible to eyes [Page 620]  that could "count threads in a cobweb," and fingers that could "work gold into a butterfly's wing." For one firm ball-dresses on crepe-de-chine and mousseline soie were made that were the wonders of that year's fashions. Alas! they were soon copied and imitated by machinery. These imitations were not to be compared with the originals, but they were produced at considerably less cost, and at first sight appeared similar. Numerous other combinations and effects were obtained, with the same results. We have embroidered bonnet crowns for the first millinery houses in Paris–entire velvet cloaks and mantles, trimmings for dresses, etc., but in turn each branch was imitated and forced to pass out of our hands. The ideas for some of the most beautiful French creations of late years have been borrowed from originals executed by the Turkish Compassionate Fund.

This explains why no pecuniary profits remained to the Fund from the work made for Paris, though its introduction there was of great benefit in increasing the beauty of the embroideries, and proving what could be done with such skill as was at our disposal.


During the first few years of its existence the Turkish Compassionate Fund had obtained friends and well-wishers in most European countries, as also in America. Benevolent ladies sold our embroideries and sent the money to Mrs. Hanson almost entirely through the bankers of the Fund, Messrs. Coutts & Co., London. Mrs. Josephine Heap, wife of the former American consul at Constantinople, sold largely among her friends in Washington, D. C., and elsewhere. Still the stock accumulated, and when, in 1889, it was gathered together from all parts of the world and sent to Paris to be sold, the total amount realized was not one-twentieth part of its cost of production.

That same year I was persuaded by an American gentleman, Mr. William H. Brown, a brother of Mrs. John Wanamaker, who had seen and admired our work in Paris, to try the fortunes of the Turkish Compassionate Fund in America, that land of promise for all beautiful things, the encouragement of all noble charities.

After a trial visit of inspection, the reports of which were favorably received by our authorities, an agency was established November 24, 1890. For the past two years we have had a pleasant little apartment at No. 20 East Thirty-third Street, New York, on a second floor, charming and comfortable, but too secluded to admit of a hope that the general public will ever find out our existence. Our rooms in New York are open all the year round, but once each year I visit several of the large cities of the United States. Our most beautiful creations have been sold in New York, Boston and Philadelphia. I have visited California and Florida. By the kind courtesy of Mr. H. M. Flagler, our embroideries are the only articles admitted into the magnificent "Ponce de Leon" Hotel. From the spring of 1890, when commenced the first preparation for American markets, up to the present time, from eighteen hundred to two thousand of our poor women have been kept in constant employment. They have been paid in ready money for every article of needlework which has passed through their hands, and they call down blessings upon the American people among whom such a field has been opened for them.

Mrs. Hanson relates many touching anecdotes of their surprise and joy at seeing the work pour in upon them after the comparatively dull season of unremunerative labor, in the years between 1886 and 1889; how the American letters were eagerly expected; how the women and children would kiss her skirts with gratitude as she announced new orders; how they would turn sadly away when there were none and pray "Allah" for better news next mail.

And here I would like to give a short account of the character, life and habits of these Mohammedan women, in whose behalf I am trying to interest you.

They are of good, strong physique, and rare beauty is by no means an exception among them; their bearing is gentle and dignified–in fact, vulgarity is a term that [Page 621]  could never be applied to the lowest of them. They lead a simple, domestic life, and their habits are unusually frugal. They are timid by nature, or rather, by training; are very sensitive of, and grateful for, the smallest favor. Naturally indolent, they can still apply themselves steadily to work when there is any incentive of love or a promise of reward. For love of Mrs. Hanson they will accomplish what neither threats nor gain could make them do. What is still more astonishing, in a race to whom exactitude and punctuality are qualities unknown (time being of no count with them), they will, as a rule, keep their promises to her, as regards date of returning their finished work. Their cleanliness would put to shame many cultivated Christians. "With a Turk cleanliness is not next to Godliness, but part and parcel thereof." It is difficult to conceive that these exquisite embroideries, on the most delicate materials and colors, covered with fine embroidery requiring weeks and months to complete, should be worked in a small room, where the members of a family are born, live and die. Their work is stretched on a low frame, before which they sit cross-legged on the floor; and this frame, containing the embroidery they are working upon, is an object of reverent care. In cases of fire, which is by no means unfrequent among their poorly built frame dwellings, it has often happened that when not a thing besides has been saved, the work attached to the frames has been found spotless and having been removed to a place of safety before anything else was thought of.

Age makes but little difference in their deftness. A small child of seven or eight years makes as perfect work as a grown woman, and there are great numbers among them, seventy and seventy-five years of age, who still do the finest drawn-thread work–in fact, there are some kinds of the old Persian work in which the old ladies are the greater adepts. They do not take as kindly to innovations as the younger ones, and they despise all work which is not exactly the same on both sides. The test of perfection is, that none shall be able tell on which side the eyes gazed when the piece was being embroidered.

Many of you may some day go to Constantinople. I would ask you to find out Mrs. Arthur Hanson, living in the village of Candilli, on the Asiatic coast of the Bosphorus, and be present on her reception days when the work is given out, the silk and gold weighed, the design and coloring of each piece explained, words of encouragement and advice given, medicine for a sick child, a reward for a specially good piece of work, a gentle reprimand for carelessness, inexactitude, or an unfortunate stain; the language carried on between Mrs. Hanson, her lovely daughters, her assistants and these women, being a mixture of English, French, Turkish and Greek. A veritable Volapuk, unintelligible to the outsider.

I can only touch briefly on our preparation, to exhibit at the World's Columbian Exposition. For many months we were in doubt as to the possibility or practicability of doing this. It was certain that we could not exhibit for "glory" only. The Baroness Burdett-Coutts graciously allowed us to use the "reserve" fund, on condition that we should return it as soon as possible. Finally, after an interview with Mrs. Potter Palmer, at the Holland House, New York, the last days of November, 1892, word was cabled "start–" weeks before our material had been chosen in Paris, our designs, colors and combinations prepared by Mrs. Hanson. An adequate description can never be given of the difficulties to be surmounted in so short a space of time (but four months remained, if we were to have the work in America by April, and be ready in Chicago by May 1st).

Everything arrived in time, and our beautiful exhibit was ready in the north wing on the main floor of the Woman's Building, in the first days of May.

The "Turkish Compassionate Fund" had risked its existence on this effort. Everything it possessed was in the stock. But for nearly the first four months our hopes of pecuniary success seemed doomed to disappointment. From first to last little was done in the Exposition proper, but regular sales were conducted in some of the principal hotels in Chicago. Our embroideries were the wonder and admiration of wealthy visitors from all parts of the country, and during the last ten weeks of the [Page 622]  Exposition our sales were very large. We can not say that we have achieved a brilliant success, because we had hoped and were prepared to sell extensively from first to last. The "reserve" has been returned to the baroness, and good things may yet be in store.

We ask for no subscriptions. From the time the "Turkish Compassionate Fund" became an industry, every cent that has passed into Mrs. Hanson's hands has been given as an equivalent for value received. Our motto is: "Not alms, but work."

Many forlorn hopes, many institutions, many charities, have turned to America for salvation. May the eager, longing desire of our poor women for work, for work only, not remain unfulfilled! And we pray you to give it to them. The exchange they will give will be art and beauty beyond words to describe.

[Page 618] 

Mlle. Cariclee Zacaroff was born in Constantinople, Turkey, of Greek nationality, and educated in England. She is a resident of Paris, France. and belongs to the Greek Church. She has devoted her services principally to the interests of the Turkish Compassionate Fund. Her home is at No. 3 Rue Treilhard, Paris. Her present American and permanent address is No. 20 East Thirty-third Street, New York, N. Y.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Mary Mark Ockerbloom.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom