Friday, May 11, 2018

Interrupted Mothers' Letters

Frequent use hones mothers' multitasking skills into an art. Holding a child on her hip while cooking, chatting up a toddler while trying to finish some paperwork, or folding the laundry while persuading an independent-minded youngster to put on their shoes, a mother navigates simultaneously through her own world as well as her children's. This does not always go smoothly. Letters written by mothers of young children help uncover the mingled joy and frustration that childcare yields.

In 1854, Emma Clark Greene of North Bridgewater, Massachusetts, tended to her young infant and her rambunctious toddler. "Eddie has carried on and trained around all day like a witch because 'twas Sunday I suppose, was off to bed before 6 he is all noise and bustle, boy-like," she related with a perceptible level of exasperation. "It was past 1 oclock to day before I got my work done," she continued, astonished at the way time flies when you are occupied with little children. "Got breakfast cleared away, got the young ones clothes together, mended about half a dozen garments, washed and dressed Eddie (rather do half a days work), then the baby, and then at my work. You better believe I get most dreadful tired and discouraged, taking care of babies...but-- then we were babies once. I think of our poor Mother and wonder how she got along with 7." Pulled in many directions, frazzled women stole what time they could to commiserate with friends and family. Thinking of their own mothers, they joined a community of women who shared the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of raising children.

That these letters were written at all was no small feat. The archive teams with flustered asides written by mothers documenting the conditions under which they were trying to pen their correspondence. Our Appleton-Aiken Family Papers include an undated letter that Harriet Lord wrote to her mother, Mary Aiken, explaining why she was so delayed in sending it. "I have intended to write you every eve. for a week, dearest mother, but the children do not go to sleep till nearly nine & then I am so stupid & sleepy that I am in no condition to be entertaining." Fatigue was not the only thing hampering her efforts. "I have no less than four times dropt my pen since I commenced writing today to attend to the little folks & many more I have stopped to put in a word for them," she sighed. "Hatty lies on the floor at my feet with her hands & feet stretched out as tho' she meant to make her own way thro' the world before long." Exhaustion and frequent interruptions made it difficult to pen a sensible letter. 


The page includes an aside in what appears to be a child's hand, "Pese Mama write Mamy," and then a transcribed message that begins, "Master Willy is so unskilled in the use of his pen & so prone to cover his hands & face with ink, that his mama prefers to put down his thots for him." Evidence of children's active (if perhaps unsolicited) participation in writing letters are charming contributions in hindsight. Another example appears at the bottom of a May 1848 letter from our Mary Jane Hale Welles Papers, labelled "Edgars letter."


 Young Edgar's message to his grandmother shows not only what was on his mind (balloons) but also how closely he was engaged in his mother's daily activities. "I am writing with a great noise around me," she explained, with Edgar an unnamed but likely culprit, later adding, "I cannot write there is so much confusion." The busy chaos of childhood made its way into the archive.

The Hill Family Papers, part of the Blandina Diedrich Collection, offer an especially vivid picture of Alice Hill's experiences as a wife and mother in the Civil War-era. She wrote frequently to her husband who had left home for extended business trips to Colorado. She tended to their two children, Crawford, a toddler, and Isabell, an infant. "Just now, he is out for his afternoon walk with Miss A. & Miss Bell is asleep, so I can find a minute for you," she hurriedly wrote shortly after her husband's departure in June 1864. "My heart is full & I could write volumes, but my time is so limited: I am busy from morning till night, with housework, sewing, but principally & above all, taking care of babies." Her letters are peppered with asides about what the children were doing as she wrote. "Crawford stands by my side, shaking the table & shouting 'Charcoal' to a coal man in the street. He is a darling little nuisance at times" (July 12, 1864). Or, "Bell lies on the floor by my side, kicking up her heels in the air & sucking both fists. Crawford is making believe he is a dog & is barking at her" (July 31, 1864). As a mother, she existed right at the heart of the household, and stealing a moment to write could be challenging, finding quiet to focus on what to write even more so.

"Crawford just this moment is writing to his papa on a piece of brown paper, much against his will however, as he wishes to write on my sheet," Alice noted, describing the conditions surrounding her writing table. "What he may be doing in another minute, I can't tell: some mischief you may be sure." (June 26, 1864). Distracting a child long enough to accomplish something is a useful talent, but not a foolproof one. On July 1st Crawford was not so readily turned away. Alice's statement, "Crawford is bothering me almost to death," shifts suddenly into an altered hand. "Dear Papa I want to see you. I love you dearly." Alice explained, "He has just written you, the above. I held his hand."


It is easy to imagine the scene-- a mother trying to write a letter while her children are near by, the toddler gaining interest, the inability to shoo him away, the concession of defeat, and finally holding the child and directing his hand to satisfy his desire to participate. This give and take, teaching a child manners and boundaries while still making space to welcome and foster their interest and individuality, is something to celebrate through the centuries. It is not easy, and it never has been. These mothers' interrupted letters stand as a testament to how childrearing is both the ultimate test of patience and the inspiration for boundless love. A mother's days are not defined by getting everything done quickly or perfectly, but rather by sharing your world, your day, your heart, and occasionally even your page with a child.

Jayne Ptolemy
Assistant Curator of Manuscripts

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

John Louis Ligonier Letter Books, 1757-1761

Post by Meghan Brody, Clements Library Volunteer
University of Michigan History Major, Class of 2019

I received my first introduction to the Clements Library during a class visit in the winter semester 2017. I immediately knew that I wanted to become a volunteer.  After contacting the Library, I began working in the Manuscripts Division, where the Curator assigned me the task of updating a finding aid and creating a supplementary recipient index for the letter books of John Louis Ligonier, the British Army's Commander-in-Chief of the Forces, 1757-1759; Master-General of the Ordnance, 1759-1763. 

The Clements Library acquired one letter book of John Ligonier, dating from 1758 to 1760, as a gift from the Clements Library Associates (CLA) in 1968.  Project archivist Philip Heslip wrote a descriptive finding aid for it in 2010, thanks to funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the "We the People" project.  The Library continually adds to its manuscripts holdings and sometimes, good fortune allows them to bring formerly separated materials back together again.  In 2016, Lord Ligonier's second letter book, 1760-1761, from the Torridon House of the Earls of Lovelace, came up for sale in Scotland.  Via intermediaries and again funded by the CLA, Ligonier's letter books are now side-by-side at the William L. Clements Library.

As a student of history, I was ecstatic not only to explore handwritten primary sources from hundreds of years ago, but also to aid other historians and researchers by creating descriptive materials for the manuscripts.  I read every entry in each letter book and documented information such as letter dates, contents, recipients' names, and other details.  The resulting spreadsheet may be consulted at the Clements Library and the data will be used for multiple purposes, including the eventual digitization of the volumes.


As Commander in Chief and as Master General of the Ordnance, Ligonier corresponded regularly with Secretary of War William Barrington, largely about the succession of officers, position vacancies, troop movements, the lack of new recruits, and depleted financial resources.  Ligonier received a flood of letters from aristocrats and others seeking commissions for family or friends.

Most of Ligonier's letters are cut-and-dry administrative orders, with the occasional touch of irritation, as when Nehemiah Donnellan sent a staggering 52 petitions seeking assistance.  Despite Ligonier's having secured him a Lieutenant Colonelcy, Donnellan never joined his regiment at Guadeloupe, instead tendering a resignation to Barrington.  When Ligonier refused to do anything more for him, Donnellan accused Ligonier of injustice.  Ligonier concluded their correspondence:  "So handsome a Behaviour dispenses me certainly from answering your Letters any more . . . His Majesty has never named your name to me, and I am sure I shall not name you to Him, till you take a very different method, than what you are now following." (November 25, 1760)



The Ligonier letter books offer visiting researchers a view of military administration during the Seven Years' War.  I hope that the revised finding aid and recipient index makes these manuscript volumes more accessible.

The finding aid is located at: John Louis Ligonier Letter Books Finding Aid.

The recipient index may be found here: John Louis Ligonier Letter Books Recipient Index.