Monday, April 18, 2016

A Budding Scarlett O’Hara in Richmond, Virginia

Richmond, Va. postmark from March 24, 1850.
Collecting old letters is fascinating because they allow a personal glimpse into the past. Moreover, in letters and diaries, people often reveal feelings and aspects of themselves not found in more formal kinds of writing.

Letters are valued for their combination of association and content. Examples of associations are letters by George Washington or about the Civil War. Content implies dramatic information, say a soldier's account of a battle, as well as letters written with flair and style. 

The first page of Nell's letter—excerpts below…
A letter with personality to spare was written in 1850 by sixteen year old Eleanor (Nell) Meade to her sister Charlotte at City Point, Virginia now part of Hopewell, about 20 miles southeast of Richmond. Written home from Nell's boarding school in Richmond, the letter is filled with charm, humor and irony, but at every moment one senses Nell's determined will, the iron fist within the velvet glove. 

Home School was a Young Ladies' boarding school run by a Mrs. Minor in Richmond.
Although no dire events were transpiring, the way Nell reports it, there was never a dull moment. The letter starts out recounting the apparently serious illness of a teacher, Miss Hayman. The problem comes with the substitute, the appropriately named Miss Grubb,

one of these dictatorial persons it is so hard to mind; as Miss Steward said she is a person of very limited education, in hearing us she counts the most insignificant things a miss, faults marks have been very common this week….I just escaped having one, and got seven in deportment, the first time I have had anything but nines since I came here. No mind, I will pay her for it, if I live.

"I will pay her for it if I live---"

"My other dress is going the way of all flesh"

"I have nothing on earth to wear"
The main part of the letter concerns Nell’s new wardrobe. While she states that she is content to make over her old clothes, she then goes on to specify her exact needs (“I want everything pink this summer”), underlining her requests with the sad story of her old bonnet:

…as for my walking bonnet, it got so covered with coal dust, that one evening I saw it, and thought most certainly it was some bodies old mourning bonnet…I thought a little blowing would help it, but at the first puff, the house was so full of clouds of dust, that everybody getting choked, came running to see what was the matter, and found me puffing and blowing at my bonnet. Two or three days after that the crown fell out, and there was an end of my lovely bonnet.

 end The end of the bonnet.

Eleanor softens her tone a bit with a request that her mother instead of Charlotte should come to visit her, as her mother needs a little vacation. However, if we wish to second-guess Nell’s motives, perhaps she was thinking that a shopping spree in Richmond was more likely to take place with Mother in tow than with Sister.

I had rather have Ma, because she stays at home so much, and it is my private opinion, publicly expressed, that after a while it will be impossible to move her, and a trip to Bolling Hall would be very beneficial.
A sharper tone returns to the letter with Nell’s characterization of Garnet, who

sits by me at table; whenever she gets almost enough to eat, she turns to me and says 'I’m almost happy.' It is a pretty hard matter to make her happy I can tell, she can devour more bread than any one I ever saw, it is wonderful how she escapes being choked.

It is wonderful how she escapes being choked.

Even today many boarding schools prescribe a Spartan regime as being good for developing character. At this point we can easily imagine Nell’s feeling on the subject:

I received a letter from Mildred day before yesterday, she is going to school in Staunton to Mr. Philips, who has thirty five boarders, and they make up their own beds, and sweep their floors every evening. I would not have to do it for a heap.

 I would not do it for a heap.

Nell intersperses her commands and tart observations with so much charm and wit that after a short while we feel as if we are part of her circle, enjoying her confidences. Her talent for writing raises her letter far above the ordinary, plodding letter home from school. She obviously added a lively element to the Home School crowd, and her sense of playfulness is nowhere more apparent than in her closing lines: 

“…believe believe me ever your loving, affectionate, attached, devoted, beautiful, lovely, intelligent, economical, tired--- sleepy--- Sister--- Nell.”
The Meades are a well-documented family, the bulk of their papers archived at the University of North Carolina. We can trace what happened to Nell, Charlotte and the others mentioned in this letter, but for now I would like to leave Nell as she was, a nascent Southern Belle on a Spring day in 1850.

(All photos and original documents property of the author.) 


  1. Hello Jim - I do worry about the art of letter writing today particularly when I read a piece of work that is full of abbreviations and internet slang, most of which I do not have a clue as to their meaning.
    This letter provides an interesting insight into the concerns of the young writer, which illustrates a little of society at that time. Many teachers then were not qualified academically which explains her condescension of Miss.Grubb - Miss Grubb may also have been lower in the social order.
    However, many of Nell's observations are those of young girls today - shopping - fashion, and eating concerns.

    1. Hello Rosemary, You have summarized very well the motivation of Nell in relating these stories. As you suggest, one of the main differences between 1850 and today is that now with the constant trend toward brevity, few would have the wherewithal to spin out these stories and make them so interesting.

      Substitute teachers have apparently always had a hard time, but in another part of the letter Nell does unbend a little toward Miss Grubb, and credits her with helping to obtain a special piece of sheet music. --Jim

  2. This is delightful! Her letter is so rich--such wit and charm...

    1. Hello Jennifer, Rosemary above mentioned the current use of slang and abbreviations, but it goes further than that--people used to cultivate letter-writing as an art, with results such as the above. Still, one has to read through a lot of old letters to find one as good as Nell's. --Jim

  3. Dearest Jim,
    WOW, what a joy to read such a post!
    Her handwriting was very elegant and yes, she was witty and intelligent; no doubt and with a will of another Scarlett O'Hara.
    Exactly such sincere writing, explaining the emotions and feelings of that moment in time, is of great value. Young people have no clue about that art of expressing. As for me, till my last breath I will not comply to the brevity world!
    Scanning old photos, with our hand written diaries on the side, it is such a valuable thing to see and the moment really does come to life with some well chosen words.
    Even my youngest sister has taken to scanning all of Dad's old photo albums and she's shared many treasures, found written on the back of certain photos. That gives us such a unique, pure and valuable insight into life back than, priceless.
    I told her instead of re-typing those words, she also had to scan the handwritten presence as that is so much more.
    Many treasures uncovered and here at home I have the feeling that by the end of April I will be done. A dusty home, as I neglected other things but oh so worth it. Pieter is very pleased with it too as old memories do come to life once again.
    My Dad has enjoyed his first DVD with old memories, on the big screen of his TV which is far better than the tiny photos they in reality are.
    Let's hope and pray that the younger generation will not completely lose the art of handwritten letter writing. No text message can ever make up for that!
    Our box with fountain pens is another treasure and for being able to write on an all cotton stationery like Crane's or Pineider or Lalo.
    In a quiz about such paper quality or fountain pen brands, most youth would not manage to score...
    Sending you hugs and blessings and thanks for your visits and comments!

    1. Hello Mariette, You are right about the handwriting--I guess that was one of the accomplishments they taught at such schools. Believe me, not all old letters are this easy to decipher.

      We are also trying to scan old photos and documents in my family, and the saddest part is when nobody any longer knows who the people are in some of the pictures. You bring up an important point that the actual handwriting and phrasing of old notes is valuable, so that they should be scanned--it is not enough just to record the information.

      The best part of scanning the photos is all the pausing we do in recalling various relatives and situations. It is a real trip back in time.

      I was lucky when I was in college because I did letterpress printing and through that had access to all kinds of special papers, some of them of beautiful quality and custom-made for the university, so available nowhere else. --Jim

    2. Dearest Jim,
      You indeed have been very lucky with having access to special papers.
      Indeed, if nobody is able to recognize people in old photos, the value is more or less gone. I've worked first on Pieter's side of the family, he's the only survivor of a family of three male. His nieces ought to know about the history of his ancestry so it's important to make notes and to mention who's in old photos. It is a tedious, job and very much labor of love!
      Both, Pieter and I have always loved writing, in any form. By that I do not mean, without any manners... If that is lacking, the writing is of no value to me!
      Also quite interesting is the analysis of handwriting, it reveals a lot about a person's character.
      For all those qualities, Nell's letter was a gem!

    3. Hello again, Perhaps there is a value to unidentified photographs. Sometimes it is like a family get-together; we might not know who everyone is, but there is a nice feeling of being connected.

      Also, as a collector of old photos, even if the human subjects are unidentified, there is much other iconic information in old photos, telling us about architecture, landscape, decor, values, fashions, manners, fads, history, and so forth. Also, sometimes, as with Eleanor above, the personality shines through even if we don't know much about the person him or herself. --Jim

  4. Such a treasure, Jim! First of all, Nell's penmanship is exquisite. Perfect, actually! And for a sixteen year old, she sure was witty and expressive. I can vividly picture the clouds of dust from her bonnet filling the room.
    Thanks so much for sharing.

    1. Hello Loi, I wish I could say the same about my own handwriting--it certainly would not pass Nell's standards! Although I have obtained a few letters for their associations, my favorites are usually the ones with fascinating content, and this one is a gem; reading her long-ago letter is like being there in person. --Jim

  5. I find it on a lateral note to say that when writing by hand I am very good with punctuation and grammar but on emails less so - making emails written years ago an intelligible experience even the ones I have written!

    I don't collect letters but I do have old books and I love the inscriptions and scribbles on the sides of the books!

    1. Hello CSW, I agree with you that the inscriptions in books can be fascinating. You are especially lucky if the dedication or inscription is written by the author.

      I also find it easy to make mistakes when typing--I do try to proofread, but a few oddities still get through! --Jim

  6. The joy of a letter from an ordinary citizen is twofold. Firstly letters written by royalty, the military or the church etc are formal, not spontaneous and have to toe the party line. Secondly letters written by ordinary citizens are not permanent.. they usually do not go into historical archives. So they can be more honest, more emotional.

    Nell Meade may never have become an important person, but her honesty was refreshing.

    1. Hello Hels, Your point is well taken about the non-official status of private letter writers, allowing for a more effervescent scope and style. I think that we also have to add in the youth of the writer, which adds and extra element of lightness. --Jim

  7. We can have empathy with those who wrote letters in old days.

    1. Hello roughterrain crane, I think that often letters, which have both a sender and recipient, provide a more direct empathy then even diaries, which are meant to be private. --Jim

  8. ahh ,letters were the part of my life for many years and i still have them in my little box i want them to bury with me as they have the fragrance of true LOVE of my mom and dad MY hubby and my sister ,
    nothing can replace their BEAUTY though

    1. Hello Baili, Yes, personal letters are the most valuable of all. Still, this letter from 166 years ago still speaks to us eloquently, so these people and their memories and relationships have never been forgotten. --Jim

  9. Test comment for Richmond post.

  10. Happy new year, Jim! Chinese new year's day 2017 is 28th Jan.

    1. Hello Roughterrain Crane, Thank you for both New Year wishes. I am hoping to get enough energy to write a Chinese New Year post, as I have for several years. Anyway let me wish you an early Happy Year of the Chicken! --Jim

  11. Thanks for your comment to my latest post. You know a lot about China and its culture. 15th of Jan in lunar is Yuanxiao jie, and people eat Tang Yuan sweet ball. Can you taste it in your city?

    1. Hello Roughterrain Crane, Living in Taiwan for a number of years has familiarized me with much Chinese culture. The tang yuan are easy to make or buy on the street, and are also available frozen in any supermarket. I even live near an historic tang yuan snack bar which has been in Taipei for around 75 years. --Jim

    2. Hello Jim, I have not visited Taiwan yet. I want to visit National Museum. Did you? In Tokyo, we can taste good dishes of Ding Tai Feng (鼎泰豊).

    3. Hi RC, I have been to the National Museum many times, and it is fantastic. One can go often because the displays keep changing. I still live in Taipei, so your note is a reminder that I need to go again soon! --Jim


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