How to use this book
Over 32 years, the Museum printed several thousand letters from readers, so selection was imperative. Extracting from a combination of microfilm, photocopies, and original issues and bound volumes, I’ve focused on letters with something to reveal about the times, or with something to reveal about the community of the Chat. Almost all the letters are by children—though that definition has had to include readers in their twenties. The letters of a few adults have been included when the adult—for example, Josiah Cary—presented himself as one of the Cousins, instead of writing an improving editorial. All but a handful of the letters originally appeared in the Chat itself: sometimes a letter was printed as a separate article, with a title, which is indicated in this text. When an editor’s announcement elsewhere is important—for example, an explanation that fire destroyed the magazine—the relevant section has been placed in context.
For the most part, letters appear here as they appear in the magazine, complete with misspellings and typographical errors; I have eschewed the use of “[sic ].” Proofreading in the Chat was famously poor, and I’ve indicated where errors were corrected later, but have not tried to correct most others myself. I have, however, standardized presentation of the Museum ’s title, italicizing it throughout this text; I’ve also dropped the capitalized words used in openings and closings. Since many letters printed in the late 1850s and 1860s consist of a few sentences of interest buried in paragraphs of banter or of greetings to other Cousins, usually I’ve transcribed only the relevant material, indicating missing sections with ellipses inside square brackets: [ … ].
Above all, I’ve tried to steer readers of this book to the Museum itself. Most
issues are available as part of the American Periodical Series: only
issues for 1862-1865 and 1872 were missing when the magazine was microfilmed.
Every year of the Museum consisted of two volumes, each with continuous
pagination; until 1868, each issue contained 32 pages. To make it easier for readers
to find the original letter in the magazine, I’ve given each an index number consisting
of the year, the volume number for that year, and the page number in the magazine.
Thus, the very first letter, printed on page 127 of the October 1841 issue, is numbered
1841.2.127. The only exception is the very last letter to appear, which was printed
on the inside cover of the November 1872 issue and has “November cover” instead
of a page number. If two or more letters in this collection are from the same page,
a lower-case letter follows the page number (for ex., 1858.1.92a and 1858.1.92b).
The index numbers of letters which originally spanned two or more pages show this
information, as in 1849.1.123-124; the page break is indicated in the text of the letter:
[p. 124 ].
Page numbers in issues, 1841-1867:
For ease in reading, except for the issues not available on microfilm or online, if the page break also breaks up a word, I’ve put the page number after the word. Those wishing to quote accurately should see copies of the magazine; since issues for 1862-1865 and 1872 aren’t readily available, the words are broken as in the original.
Letters in this collection were kept in chronological order for two reasons: it was simplest; and it helps to preserve the experience of reading the letters in the column.
A special gloss—“The Merry Cousins”—indexes references to subscribers, lists the letters from each which are included here, and gives brief biographies of those letter-writers I’ve been able to identify. Biographies of the editors appear under their entries in the index. Because the Cousins developed their own jargon, a gloss of phrases, objects, and people is included.
Reading the letters takes some getting used to. The Chat was the most popular section of the Museum, and the Cousins were exuberant writers. The letters are brimming with puns and allusions.
This makes for a dense thicket that later readers can get lost in. I’ve annotated the letters as well as I can, including links and references to other letters where necessary. But readers need to be careful.
Some advice: Read chronologically: especially in the 1850s and 1860s, looking at a single letter by itself can make you miss or misunderstand words and allusions that are obvious if you’ve read earlier letters. Look up words that imply surprising things: words change meaning; words have a meaning in the Chat that they didn’t have in nineteenth-century America. Remember that the world of the Merry Cousins wasn’t the world of today: the Cousins used racial slurs, but weren’t considered racist at the time; they had attitudes we now consider sexist; and they were never the prim, prissy Victorians of our stereotype. Take them on their terms, not ours.
A project like this is fraught with more danger than any editor can plan for. While I’ve tried to include the most interesting letters, many lively and informative letters remain unselected. Annotations may be more detailed than some readers need; but my goal audience has been my own students, college undergraduates just beginning to study history. As subscribers often pointed out, the letters are rich in typographical errors, not all of which were caught by the readers or by me.
Volumes could be written on the difficulties of researching close to 100 individuals, most of whom didn’t become famous. In almost all cases, my primary means of identification was the United States census, which has inherent pitfalls, among them careless census-takers and forgetful or deceitful citizens. But the census remains the most accessible source listing family groups (usually), with first names (for the most part), ages (most of the time), professions (generally), and birth places (almost always). There is an unfortunate built-in bias in the identifications: the smaller the town a letter-writer was from, the more likely I am to have identified her. Even in 1850 the census for New York City and Boston were so large that the chances of correctly identifying some writers is almost nil. However, an astonishing number of pseudonymous Cousins have been identified—though an equally astonishing number who gave their full names haven’t. While I’ve been unable to trace every Cousin through adulthood, I have documented the childhoods of those I’ve identified and added information from unselected letters to the rest.
This project was published in book form in 2001. I’m now presenting it on the Web. This allows me to format and present material unhindered by the necessities of print. I’ve included the sources used for every piece of information found outside basic reference books. I can link pieces to transcriptions at merrycoz.org, surrounding the letters with context. I also can fix typographical errors and inaccuracies and add new information.
Like everything at merrycoz.org, this project is a work in progress.
Copyright 2000-2016, Pat Pflieger