Julia Sparke Rule: Nineteenth Century Media Maven and Mother
March is Women’s history month and it’s always a delight to find women from local history who challenged conventions, achieved something out-of-the-ordinary, or used whatever gifts and opportunities they had for the good of their community. It never ceases to amaze me the women like this that you can find when you look. One such woman is Mrs. Julia Rule, who became nationally famous for driving the golden spike in Bossier City, La. to mark the completion of the Shreveport and Arkansas Railroad on April 6, 1888 (later known as the Cotton Belt), and was well-known locally for her role working in the male domain of journalism, especially as the society columnist known as “Pansy.”.
On the surface, Julia Rule’s life may have looked rather glamourous. Perhaps it was, but she was also fulfilling the never-ending demands on a working mother of very young children, and soon, as a widowed and bereaved mother of young children. She was doing so in the days before Social Security, life or disability insurance. Much of this behind-the-scenes story didn’t get widely told. Julia, of course, wrote mostly about other people’s lives.
Julia Sparke was born in Kentucky around 1852. The 1870 census shows her living in Shreveport at the age of 18 with her 27-year-old husband Charlie Rule, listed as a bookkeeper. Living right next door are her parents and younger siblings, ranging in age from 8 months to 15. She had just gotten married in 1869 in Louisville.
According the Census 10 years later, much in Julia’s life had changed. She is listed with the occupation of “Boarding,” apparently helping to run a boarding house, and has three children ages 1, 5 and 6, Ida, Louise and Glenn. Her husband is no longer employed, and has not been employed for the entire census year.
Not shown in the census records is that between 1870 and 1880 there was an older child born, named Lucy Stewart Rule who passed away in Shreveport on Oct. 11, 1877 at the age of 6 years and 9 months. Lucy Stewart’s life is evidenced only by a very brief notice in the Shreveport Times and a stone with her name on it near her parents’ headstones in Shreveport’s Oakland Cemetery. Then Charlie Rule passed away in 1881. That same year, Julia began teaching calisthenics (physical education – and later also penmanship) for head Kate Nelson at the Shreveport Seminary for Girls and Children not long after Charlie passed.
Mrs. Rule began a newspaper career within a decade, writing for several local papers. Venturing even further into unfamiliar territory for women, she became Secretary of the Louisiana State Press Asociation, and was always in attendance at their state conferences, sometimes as a featured speaker. She even attended the National Press Association conference in July, 1891.
Mrs. Rule also took a job as the secretary for the mayor of Shreveport, a position which set her up to be the first woman to drive the golden spike, in the mayor’s absence, along with R. N. McKellar who was the president of the Cotton Exchange. She gained national media attention for this honor, since she was considered to be the first woman to drive a golden spike to mark the completion of a railroad. The New York Evening Post even had a little fun at her expense, dubbing her “the Golden Rule.”
Perhaps most remarkably, Mrs. Rule was also an entrepreneur. By 1890 local and regional newspapers show that she decided to put her connections and fashion observations made while covering society to
her financial benefit. She put a notice announcing her own “purchasing agency,” later called the Mrs. Julia Rule Millinery and Dressmaker supply:
“My extensive acquaintance with business houses in the city and experience gives me unrivaled facilities for filling orders that may be sent me…Parties residing out of the city who desire goods can save the expense of a trip and obtain better prices by ordering what they want through me than by purchasing themselves…In ordering, state specifically what is wanted and the limit of your investment and send money with the order. My charges are 2 and ½ percent for purchasing. She noted as references the Shreveport Times and “the merchants of Shreveport.”
In fact, Mrs. Rule put her column itself to use in advertising this business, interspersing her society notes in the “Shreveport Times” with entries such as, “For the Reunion. Just received at Mrs. Julia Rule’s millinery store on Market Street, a full line of black and white leghorn flats, with or without flowers, for the picnics.” Or “Read This. A large lot of beautiful hats, baby caps and bonnets are offered to the public at a reasonable price at Mrs. Julia Rule’s fashionable millinery store, No. 210 Milam Street.”
She was perhaps, just ahead of her time. By January 1895, her inventory was listed in a bankruptcy sale, then not advertised any further. However, imagine her today as a “personal shopper” or “influencer” with the help of e-commerce infrastructure and social media! In fact, she did end up going to work for the Louisiana State Fair in what was comparable to the more modern “public relations” position.
Julia herself lived well into old age, living with her daughter and family in the end. She passed away in April, 1931. The local Typographical Union included a tribute to her in their Memorial Day exercises held on the printers’ lot in Greenwood Cemetery. The union president said, “I could not let this occasion pass without paying special tribute to the memory of a woman who, throughout her 40 or more years as a newspaper woman of this city, was one of the best friends the printers ever had. Her character was as spotless and her soul as clean and white as this lily, which I now place in the vase as a loving tribute to her memory.” A committee from the union then went to Oakland to lay a floral tribute on her grave.
If you have stories or photographs of some of the area’s strong and trail-blazing women, we’d love to see them, and perhaps make copies for our collection, with your permission. If you would like to have our “Women Who Made a Difference in Bossier Parish” program, which includes Julia Rule (in Part 2) or any of our other programs presented to your group, please contact us, as well. We are located at 2206 Beckett St, Bossier City, LA and are open M-Th 9-8, Fri 9-6, and Sat 9-5. Our phone number is (318) 746-7717 and our email is email@example.com
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Portrait: The Times, 23 Jan 1966
Newspaper Clipping: Springfield News-Sun, Springfield, Ohio · Saturday, April 07, 1888
Article by: Pam Carlisle