“Letters are what history sounds like when it is still part of everyday life.” ~ Lisa Grunwald and Stephen J. Adler, Letters of the Century: America 1900-1999
Once upon a time, in long ago New England, a little girl named Caroline Whittredge was born. She came into the world in 1806 in Hamilton, Massachusetts. How do I know? Because she left behind a little booklet of letters, bound together with a piece of 19th-century wallpaper. The booklet must have been treasured by someone, because it was kept long after Caroline’s death. It eventually found its way into a room at Hamilton’s old town hall, where the Hamilton Historical Society carefully kept it for over a hundred years. No one knows for sure how often anyone looked at it during that time, but by 2011 it had clearly been read by a member of the historical society, who mentioned it in a book about nearby Wenham. In 2013, I read that book, found those letters, and typed a transcription at my computer so that others could meet Caroline too.
The booklet turned out to be a collection of drafts of letters written between 1828 and 1830. It was not uncommon for women to compose first drafts of their letters before sitting down to write a final version in the elegant, precise handwriting taught in schools at that time. In an era before email, phones, or even the telegraph, letters connected families and friends who lived both far and near. A collection of letter drafts served as something comparable to an email “sent” folder, reminding the writer about what she’d told to whom.
This is a photo of one of Caroline’s letters. Good penmanship was such an important skill that school students kept “copybooks” in which they copied a sample of a proverb or saying over and over on a single page. One of Caroline’s copybooks, from her school days in Hamilton, is located in the library of the Peabody Essex Museum.
By the time Caroline wrote her letters in 1828, she was already 22 years old. We first meet her when she is teaching school in Beverly, Massachusetts. Here’s the first letter, to her friend Mary Whipple in Hamilton:
I resume my pen for the delightful purpose of writing a few lines in answer to your kind epistle, which was gladly received. I highly appreciate your friendship and correspondence, and ardently wish their continuance. Should you enquire how I like my new situation of employment, I would inform you that my walk to and from the schoolhouse is delightfully pleasant; the house is handsomely located and commands a good prospect of the surrounding beauties of nature. My employment is very pleasing. The schollars (if I may be allowed to form so hasty an opinion) are for the most part very docile. I shall be in Hamilton at Election when I anticipate a great deal of pleasure. Accept these few hasty lines from your affectionate friend C.W.
Beverly April 26, 1828 to Miss Mary B. Whipple
The poet Lucy Larcom, who was born in Beverly in 1824, wrote a memoir with vivid descriptions of her hometown’s appearance during her childhood, so we have some idea of the environment in which Caroline was living and teaching. Lucy remembered a rural town of farmers and fishermen, hillsides carpeted with wildflowers, the smell of salt wind from the bay, and lanes edged with bayberry, wild roses, and sweet fern. The stagecoach rode through town each day carrying mail and passengers between Boston and Newburyport. Her father, a former sea captain, ran a small dry goods store where Caroline might even have shopped!
Lucy Larcom also mentioned the celebration of Election each May. This was a time of festivities, sometimes lasting two to three days, when the governor and other state and local officials were officially installed. Election might include parades, special sermons, feasting, or even a ball!
What Lucy remembered best about Election was her mother baking “’Lection cake,” really more a sweet bread than a cake, but a special holiday treat all the same. Recipes for Election Cake appear in many 19th-century cookbooks. A version for modern bakers appears below, so you can enjoy a taste of Caroline’s celebration of Election with her friends and family.
What do you think of the language Caroline Whittredge used in her letters? Does it sound like a letter you might send to a friend? Why or why not?
For further reading: A New England Girlhood by Lucy Larcom
- 2/3 cup warm water (105 to 115°F)
- 2 pkgs of active dry yeast (2 oz)
- 4 cups all purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon ground mace
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1 cup unsalted butter, softened
- 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 2 cups firmly packed brown sugar
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 1 tablespoon vanilla
- 1 cup currants
- 1 cup confectioners sugar
- 1 tablespoon milk
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Add warm water to the bowl of a stand mixer. Sprinkle yeast evenly over the surface and set aside for 5 minutes to let dissolve. Grease and flour two 8.5 inch loaf pans. Line the pan bottoms with parchment paper.
In a large bowl mix 3 cups of flour with cinnamon, baking soda, mace, cloves, nutmeg and salt. Set aside.
Check to see that yeast has dissolved and that mixture is bubbling. If so, add one cup of flour, mixing thoroughly. Add butter and mix until well incorporated. Add sugar, buttermilk, and vanilla and mix until thoroughly combined. Add in eggs and mix until just combined. Lastly mix in flour, reserving a couple of tablespoons. Add currants to remaining flour and then stir them into the cake batter. Loosely cover loaf pans with a light hand towel and leave to let rise for an hour and a half.
Preheat oven to 350°F. Bake loaves for 50 minutes to and hour or until a toothpick comes out clean. Place pans on wire racks to cool. Remove cakes from pans after 5 min.
In a medium bowl whisk together confectioners sugar, milk, and vanilla. Spoon over the tops of the fully cooled loaves so that it drizzles down the sides.