From 1841 to 1872, monthly issues of Robert Merry’s Museum brought its young readers pages of fiction and nonfiction, poetry and music, puzzles and advice. And something unique: “Merry’s Monthly Chat with His Friends.” This aptly named column of subscribers’ letters and editors’ comments began with a small section in 1842 and quickly threatened to engulf the magazine. At first just a few pages where the editor could address the readers and subscribers could describe their towns, their families, or themselves, the Chat evolved into a place for discussion, for teasing, and for the occasional bickering. Subscribers came to see themselves as one large family of “Cousins,” with the editors as their uncles and aunt; and the pages of the Chat were a parlor where they met to enjoy each other’s company. Their letters, intended to reveal their thoughts to each other, provide later generations with a sometimes-surprising record of lively individuals in vital years in U. S. history and culture.
The magazine’s founder, Samuel Griswold Goodrich, set the tone in the first issue, as “Robert Merry” directly addressed the public, asking for the support of “all those young people who have black eyes, and all those who have not black eyes.” The figure of “Robert Merry”—a traveler with a wooden leg, who liked to tell stories to children—was an inspired invention, from an author who already had enchanted children with the imaginary Peter Parley. Merry could josh forgetful subscribers into paying for their magazines or could couch editorial announcements in terms that young readers would understand. And readers responded immediately, sending letters of advice and praise—and the occasional gift of chestnuts or of a live squirrel.
When Goodrich began to print subscribers’ letters in the last pages of the magazine in 1842, he did something new and inspiring. Though Goodrich had included letters from readers in Parley’s Magazine as early as 1836, no other children’s magazine published in the U. S. had regularly printed letters from its young readers; almost all that came after the Museum were certain to. “Thirty long years ago this magazine introduced a department for YOUNG CONTRIBUTORS … and has steadily continued it every since,” the Museum’s editor boasted in 1871. “And this feature, always popular, has been copied by about every youth’s magazine started within the last quarter of a century.” (1871.1.246; not included here)
Who “Uncle Robert” was varied from decade to decade, as the Museum passed from owner to owner. The chief editor of the magazine always took on Robert Merry’s identity: Samuel Goodrich, 1841-1852; S. T. Allen, 1853-1854; John N. Stearns, 1855-1866; Louisa May Alcott, 1868-1870. As co-editors joined the staff, each took on a different persona: William C. Cutter’s temporary stint as “Hiram Hatchet” stretched out close to ten years; Susanna Newbould took charge of the puzzles as “Aunt Sue,” from 1857 to 1871; when Francis C. Woodworth’s Woodworth’s Youth’s Cabinet was absorbed by the Museum in 1857, “Uncle Frank” edited his own column until Woodworth’s death in 1859. An “Uncle William” and an “Uncle Miles” joined the staff in the 1860s.
The editors’ personalities, for the most part, made the column. Goodrich’s Robert Merry was a good-natured old man who had made mistakes in his long life; he had been everywhere and seen everything, and he had much to tell young readers about the world. Under his editorship, the Chat was filled with diffident little descriptions of readers’ admiration of the Museum and of their towns, with the occasional puzzle. Stearns’ Uncle Robert was a temperance man involved in good works; all trace of his earlier heritage vanished. Under Stearns’ editorship, the Museum belonged to its readers: the puzzles grew so numerous that they were given a column of their own, the Chat became a gossipy column in which readers joked with and bickered with each other, and the magazine filled with pieces written by subscribers. Under Alcott’s editorship, subscribers lost their hold on the magazine, reflecting a new professionalism in children’s magazines; her Robert Merry had no personality and no past and was as likely to scold as to praise. Readers shifted their allegiance to Aunt Sue, whose puzzle column soon dwarfed the Chat.
From the beginning, the Chat was a place where subscribers talked to their editor, and where he talked back. Many early columns had personal messages from editor to reader, as Merry commented directly on individual letters. Cornelius, who’d forgotten to pay the postage on his letter, was gently teased for “forgetting to do things as they ought to be done …. Suppose, for instance, that a person should get into the habit of eating carelessly; why, at last, instead of eating the meat, and rejecting the bones, he might swallow the bones, and reject the meat! Think of that, Master Cornelius.” (1842.1.127; not included here) Soon, readers were responding in kind, sending jokes through the mail or teasing Uncle Robert about an unfinished story in the magazine with an equally roundabout, unfinished story.
In the mid-1850s, the image of the “Merry family” made up of “Merry Cousins” who met in the “parlor” developed, after Hiram Hatchet greeted readers in 1854 as if they were all in one room, waiting to speak; “Come in, come in, there’s room enough—/ Draw up your chairs around the table,” the editor coaxed later (1857.1.89; not included here). Cousins “offered chairs” to each other and wondered that the walls of the parlor could stretch to accomodate everybody: “I am a sick boy,” Willie wrote skeptically. “I should like to see all my cousins in their snug parlor … ; but as I would have to take my bed with me, I fear there would not be room; so I must postpone the visit.”
Publication of an algebra problem in 1855 sparked a monumental change in the tone of the Chat. “That Problem,” as it came to be known, was simple enough, but proving the equation to the satisfaction of the Cousins proved perilous. Readers heaped scorn on each other’s proofs, each other’s math skills, and, finally, on each other. Editors stepped in and ended this war of wit, but, Willie Coleman pointed out in his history of the letters column, “The character of the Chat was entirely changed. Every one essayed to wield the keen blades of wit and repartee, and fearful was the discharge of puns, jokes, and jests ….” (“Retrospectum; The Chat in By-Gone Days.” Robert Merry’s Museum; December 1858: 185) Letters grew casual, and letter-writers became friends, inside and outside the pages of the magazine: in 1865 they gathered in John N. Stearns’ very real parlor for the “Merry Convention.” The Chat was a place where Cousins talked to each other.
As sectionalism grew in the 1850s U. S., it grew also in the pages of the Chat, especially after Tennessean sent “Love, to my Southern cousins; respects to my Northern ones.” A year later, sectionalism combined with the age-old battle between adolescent girls and boys, with the male Southerners arrayed against the female Northerners. “I’d as soon mate with a hornet or a snapping-bug as one of these Yankee girls!” Tennessean declared; while Fleta Forrester responded that all a Southern man wanted was “a wife who would obediently wipe the dust from his feet with her hair, when commanded—instead of giving him a good, vigorous ‘shaking,’ as he would deserve ….” Once secession began, the Northern readers begged the Southerners not to secede—at least from the Chat; and when they did secede, Northern readers suggested a raid on the Confederacy to fetch out their Southern Cousins.
By the time Alcott took over in 1868, the Chat was entirely personal, its letters mostly greetings from Cousin to Cousin. “We would like all the Merrys to send less private messages in their letters, and more stories, descriptions, and matters of general interest,” the editor hinted in 1867, but most readers ignored him. With a new owner and new editor in 1868, the Museum took on a new professionalism; and what letters were printed were usually by adults. At the end, editorials took the place of letters. The Chat became essentially a place for the editor to make pronouncements—usually moral—to the reader.
Whatever the year, and whoever the Uncle Robert, letters were edited: sometimes on purpose, sometimes accidentally. Length was a major consideration; and editors were creative in their methods of keeping the Chat from taking over the magazine. Less leading was used in the column than elsewhere in the issues; and signatures were compressed to one line. “Be short” was the editors’ creed: Hiram Hatchet appropriately wielded an imaginary hatchet to trim letters; in the 1860s a mechanical “manipulator” was used. Sometimes, however, letters were trimmed simply to keep the peace. C. W. Johnson was interrupted by Uncle Hiram while commenting on “a very saucy [letter] from ——”: “Just as we reached that word ‘from,’ Uncle Hiram brought down his hatchet, with such force as quite annihilated the name that followed, declaring that it was his prerogative to cut up the ‘saucy’ young fellows. He is afraid of quarreling among the young folks, and don’t believe in dueling.” (1859.1.157; not included here) When “Sigma” and her brother shot an abolitionist in effigy in 1857, the victim’s name was transformed into hyphens: “When the original epistle departed this city … the name stood bravely at its post,” she explained, “but I half suspect when it arrived at its journey’s end, it fell through.” Growing sectionalism also motivated some snipping at the height of the battle between the Northern girls and the Southern boys: “Our friend Hawthorne seems rather ‘put out’ at the ‘Yankee girls,’ and says some things not very complimentary about them; so we must use the scissors rather freely,” the editor confessed—for which Hawthorn thanked him.
Puns were—especially in the 1860s—the Cousins’ primary stock in trade—to the extent that some letters are so dense as to be unintelligible. After one subscriber complained, another explained that the editorial requirement to “be short” was partly to blame: A. N. vowed that, were longer letters allowed, she would “eschew puns forever. But it is because one word is made to carry double the meaning that puns are so popular among us. It is a species of smuggling that must be very common where there is such a high tariff on ideas.” (1864.2.24; not included here) The primary reason behind the puns, however, was the joy of wordplay; in the same letter, A. N. revels in pun and patriotism: “[T]ake everything for granted, and then grant everything taken, and may Grant take everything!”
The letters appeal to later readers on several levels. Edited though they are, they offer us a glimpse of nineteenth-century life more or less unrefined. Here are snapshots of family life and family relationships; here are details of the lives of the authors themselves, from the “big brass thimble” that punished five-year-old Ellen when she misspoke her lessons to a Virginia family’s nightly reading of the Iliad. And here are larger events, filtered through young lives and minds. James Norton is shocked at John Quincy Adams’ excitement on the House floor—almost as offended as he is to see the Congressmen wearing their hats indoors; the issue of state’s rights becomes inextricably tangled with the skirmishing between boys and girls. As the Secession progressed, the column recorded confusion and a reluctance to even imagine the inevitable. The reaction of Northern readers to the absence of two Southern readers in particular represent ambivalence: Cornelius M. Gibbs took the brunt of their anger at all Confederates and Confederate cousins at beginning of war; while Busy Bee garnered their hopes of reconciliation. The drawn-out tension of the War itself is attested to by the quick falling-off of martial letters and some attempts to forget the war in the pages of the Chat. The occasional letter from the front—whether Charley Speck’s surprisingly-cheery discussion of the Confederate advance through his Pennsylvania farm or Oliver Onley’s one-sentence sketch of Fredericksburg as seen from Union positions across the Rappahannock—was usually printed in full. Though one or two Southern cousins were quick to return to the imaginary parlor in 1865, sectional tensions did not ease quickly, and at least one seems to have decided on silence as the better part of valor.
The letters also record the meaning of community. The subscribers may have been strangers to each other in real life, but in the pages of the Museum they were a family whose members mourned with each other, joshed each other, and scolded each other. “[A]lthough unknown to us in body,” Willie Hoyt Coleman wrote, on hearing of Bennie Tompkins’ death, “yet in spirit we were friends.” Realizing that a deceased subscriber had been her neighbor for years and that his sisters “were among my most intimate friends,” A. N. asked, “Do any of them belong to our family? If so, I should like to renew the acquaintance.” The bond, some Cousins felt, could not be dissolved even by civil war: “[A]lthough I belong to the Confederacy of the Seven Stars, I hope I am not yet lost,” Hawthorne wrote in 1861 from Mississippi. “Although my State has withdrawn from the United States, I have not the slightest idea of seceding from the Merry Union.” (1861.1.154; not included here) In many respects, the Chat had much in common with twenty-first century online communities, especially in the complexities of communicating only through writing—in this case, compounded because typographical errors abound in the Chat—and in the use of aliases, which fostered a boldness and a liveliness that would have been otherwise unthinkable; the donnybrook surrounding the Algebra Problem thus achieves historical status as perhaps the very first recorded flame war in American culture.
And certainly the letters may be read for entertainment: despite Robert Merry’s often-silent editing, the voices of their authors are clear. Sometimes those voices are filled with deep pain: her family broken by death and illness, Anna Elsie D. mourns that, though she has pets, “they all die.” More often, the voices are lively and excited, eager to tell “Robert Merry” about themselves, their families, and their lives. P. A. P.’s excitement over having her very own rosewood piano is palpable over 150 years later; Franklin B.’s charming headlong rush carries the reader through Latin, a discussion of Midwestern winters, Charles Stetson’s charity on New Year’s Day, two very bad puns, a description of Galena, Illinois, a discussion of the Mississippi River, a bit of tall-talking, some heartfelt admiration of Peter Parley, some heartfelt admiration of the Museum, and a disarmingly blunt record of Mr. and Mrs. B.’s reactions to a recent article in the magazine—which, one suspects, they had no idea would be made available to posterity. Willie Hoyt Coleman gives a vivid picture of boys caught by a thunderstorm while swimming and a rendition of the sounds of a nineteenth-century celebration of American independence.
Who were the Merry Cousins?
Though a handful of Native Americans attending mission schools sent an occasional letter to the Chat, almost all the letter-writers were white. The geographical range was wide: Heber and Hobart T. were from Canada; Lizzie G., a transplanted American, subscribed from Paris, France. Most readers, however, lived in the United States, many in New York and Massachusetts. Before the Civil War, there were many subscribers in the South, especially in Georgia, Lousiana, and Tennessee. Other readers lived in California, Oregon Territory, Wisconsin Territory, the Choctaw Nation; Robert H. Loughridge, jr, wrote from his father’s mission in the Creek Nation.
Many subscribers came from middle-class or upper-middle-class families. Wilforley’s father was a bank president. P. A. P.’s father co-founded the Virginia Military Institute. Pansy was the daughter of a U. S. Senator who became Secretary of State. Many readers in the South were the children of planters: M. W. F. wrote from Asphodel Plantation; Willie K—r’s father owned Pasture Plantation, on which he eventually founded a town. A number of readers were the children of Presbyterian ministers, perhaps because the Museum was for a time published by the firm responsible for the Mother’s Magazine, which was aimed at Presbyterians. A handful of readers worked, themselves: George B. Higbee, age 16, kept books in his brother’s general store; Operator, age 15, was a “poor telegraph operator”; William W. worked in a mill, which meant he “never had any time to get out the puzzles and enigmas, as I … have to keep busy from morning till night.” (1857.2.59; not included here)
A number of Cousins were relatives in real life. As readers grew too old for the magazine, they passed it on to their younger siblings. Thus, Memo was embarrassed in 1865 to realize that ten years earlier her older brother and sister had described her antics as a one-year-old. Some were cousins in life as well as in the Chat. S. M. W., of Georgia, had the magazine sent to her cousin, Julia Ann W., in Massachusetts; D. G. M., in Vermont, enjoyed reading the letter his cousin, Louisa H. B., wrote from Georgia. Two Cousins in the 1850s were “Uncle Robert’s” actual nieces.
Readers ranged in age from 5 to 74, with the bulk between 8 and 13—at least early in the Museum’s history. Many read the magazine for years: William Hoyt Coleman subscribed from 1847, when he was 7, to at least 1863. At age 16, Pinckney Latham wore “a stiff stand-up collar and tights,” and passed on his subscription to his childhood magazine to his younger sister; but by age 21 he was back to writing to Uncle Robert. As they grew older and married, a number of readers were reluctant to give up their magazine or their connection with the other Cousins: “I thought the Convention last year had ended my career,” one wrote; “but there is a charm (not to say Magnet) about the Merry circle which held fast to me and whirled me ’round month by month” (1867.1.27; not included here); R. F. K. “changed from the state of single blessedness to that of matrimony,” but found himself “still unwilling to give up a book that has pleasantly beguiled so many of my boyhood hours, and which I hope I may never forget” and so resubscribed. (1857.2.25-26; not included here) Some took the magazine for their own children; and, Robert Merry pointed out in 1872, “we have the names of quite a number of subscribers, far beyond their teens, who keep up their acquaintance with our periodical to remind them of one of their sources of happiness in childhood.” (1872.1.100; not included here)
On the surface, the numbers of boys and girls appears about equal. However, looks are deceiving: in 1861 it was revealed that Bess, a popular letter-writer, was in fact a 24-year-old man; and at least one female reader masqueraded as a boy. “Don’t you think if we could get a photograph of the Uncles, aunts, and cousins, as they really are, it would make a ‘diverting scene,’ as my good grandmother says,” asked Stumbler. “ … Now, here is quite a middle-aged gentleman passing himself off as a gay youth; then there is a little girl and her mother—the Merry cousin they represent is about eighteen.”
The bona fide female readers were no meek, simpering Victorian maidens: they gave as good as they got, and then some. Fleta Forrester shot an abolitionist in effigy; Mar caught her father’s horses in the pasture and rode them bareback. They brooked no condescension from the boys. Lillie publicly skewered a male Cousin who wondered why “a girl” would ever study Latin: “I wish I could send his DOGYtype, just to show you how he turned up his nose at the word, GIRL!” The girls especially shuddered at the thought of growing up and getting married, which they equated with lost freedom and vanished vivacity. The news that Black-Eyes was married was greeted with alarm: “Who would have thought that she, the light of our Museum … should be thus put out by that great extinguisher, ‘matrimony,’ ” one girl mourned. Black-Eyes was reassuring: “[P]eople can get married and be just as free, just as easy, just as saucy, and just as wild as they were before, especially if they are sure to get husbands who like just such wives.” Several girls wanted more, however. “[T]he hackneyed and much abused subject of ‘Woman’s Rights,’ is a darling hobby of mine,” Alice B. Corner explained in 1856; “that I shall have a ‘call’ for something, I no more doubt than I do my own identity.” The editor attempted to quash her ambitions; but Alice wasn’t alone.
Alice did marry, though she may not have had the career she’d hoped for. Many of the female letter-writers married. Those who didn’t had careers. Susan H. J. taught school and eventually became principal of the Oswego College for Young Ladies. Elizabeth Cogley became a telegraph operator. Laura Elmer wrote poetry; Tina Tompkins became a successful painter. The male writers had more varied careers. Many were farmers. One went into the Massachusetts State Senate; Charles E. M. became president of Stanley Rule and Level Company. William Hoyt Coleman took his journalistic skills to the Albany Argus and The Country Gentleman. W. F. Draper had a successful textile company, represented Massachusetts in the U. S. House of Representatives, and was for three years the U. S. ambassador to Italy. Chester Holcomb became a Presbyterian minister like his father, but also was Secretary of the U. S. Legation in Beijing, China. The most famous letter-writer probably was Daniel H. Burnham, who became one of the most influential architects of his time.
The influence of the magazine on the Cousins’ lives is, in general, impossible to estimate. B. C. S., who took the magazine in the 1840s, found as an adult that, “Nothing I have ever read since has clung so fast in my memory.” William Oliver Stevens remembered in 1925 stories he’d read in the Museum 70 years earlier. [“ ‘Uncle’ Peter Parley,” St. Nicholas, November 1925: 78-81.] In 1886, Mary Weatherbee pointed out that her readings in Merry’s Museum nourished a yearning to travel to Europe. [“Europe on Nothing-Certain a Year,” The Century, October 1886: 937.] One parent credited the magazine’s puzzles and articles with strengthening the bond with a child. The Chat’s influence, however, is clearer. “[W]e know of thousands who first learned to write letters and formed friendships which are pure and lasting through the medium of the Chat,” Robert Merry pointed out modestly. (1867.1.121; not included here) For the Cousins, the column meant more than just the letters; it was a unique community. “[W]hen the time shall come for us to lay aside our pens, and bid each other farewell,” Willie Coleman declared, “may our children, yeah, and our children’s children, rise up to fill our places; may new Uncle Merrys succeed the present beloved occupant of the great arm-chair; and may the monthly Chat be a perennial fountain of mirth and good-fellowship to Young America, down to the remotest posterity. Amen!” (1860.1.59; not included here) “[W]hen I became a Merry Coz, … I had no idea of the pleasure and wealth of friendship to be derived from it—it is one of those bright spots in my life that can never grow dim,” W. A. R. realized. “[T]hink of this, all ye people! old and young, from all parts of our country, connected in the bonds of friendship, for only one dollar and a half per year, postage stamps extra.”
Presenting the letters—and understanding them—is … challenging. Challenging enough that a separate page discusses how the project is set up, including the numbering system, which is designed to lead readers back to the magazine.
Research has taken me physically into twelve libraries in eight states in three time zones. It was my good fortune that the Internet was developing as I worked on the original version of this project; otherwise, many annotations would have been skimpy, and not a few Cousins would have had truncated biographies.
Among the many who helped me were the following: the staff of the New York Public Library; Nancy J. Fike, McHenry County Historical Society, Union, Illinois; Cecelia H. Chin, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC; Linda Hughes, Capitol Guide Service, Washington, DC; David J. King, the Legal Information Center, Widener University School of Law, Wilmington, Delaware; Persis E. Boyesen, Ogdensburg Public Library, Ogdensburg, New York; Jeffrey Barr, North Baker Library, California Historical Society, San Francisco, California; Stanley Bry, The Society of California Pioneers, San Francisco, California; and the staff of the Presbyterian Office of History, Presbyterian Church (U. S. A.), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania—especially Boyd Reese and Nancy J. Taylor, Records Archivist.
Special thanks go to the staffs of the Library of the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities, Minneapolis, Minnesota; the Children’s Literature Research Collections, University of Minnesota—Twin Cities; the Morris Library, University of Delaware, Newark, Delaware; Ellis Library, University of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri; the Missouri State Historical Society, Columbia, Missouri; the Valley Forge Family History Center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Broomall, Pennsylvania; the National Archives—Mid-Atlantic Region, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; the National Archives, Washington, DC; the Easton Area Public Library and District Center, Easton, Pennsylvania; the Orange County Genealogical Society, Goshen, New York; Paul Emmons, Music Library, West Chester University, West Chester, Pennsylvania; Special Collections, Francis Green Library, West Chester University; and Interlibrary Loan, Francis Green Library—especially Mary Sweeney and Kimberly Klaus. Bernard Robert Crystal, Curator, Rare Books and Manuscripts, East Butler Library, Columbia University, New York, New York, found the last letter to appear in the magazine. Trudy Kisher pointed out the identity of ‘Pansy.’
The staff of the Family History Center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah, deserve a separate paragraph; none of the Merry Cousins’ biographies could have been compiled without their expertise.
Among the many individuals who helped me to collect information are the following: Laura Catalano; Harold S. Beecher, Jr.; Terry Foenander; William Sommers Quistorf; Roger J. Brown, West Chester University; and Anne Collins Smith, Susquehanna University, Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania.
The generosity of family historians has been invaluable to this project; I’d especially like to acknowledge Fritz Miller; James Ewell; Bess W. Patton; Charles Woods; Helen P. Stevenson; Nancy Groves; Charlene Kolterman; Amy McMillan Arnold; Thelma E. Hartman; Sue Iles; G. Barrett Rich; Marta Metcalf; Sonja Svensson Kellogg; Ann Link; Lee Squire; Joyce Clark Foster; Frank P. Snow; John A. Gage; Robert W. King; Harlow Chandler; Patricia Thayer Muno; Mary North Cull; Jim Jewett; Rosa Lee Kelley; and Oran Franklin Logan.
I’d like to thank my family for putting me up and for putting up with me; and the College of Arts and Sciences, West Chester University, for travel grants.
And especially I’d like to acknowledge the help of two good friends and wonderful scholars who gave me thoughtful advice: J. Randolph Cox and Deidre Johnson. Deidre’s fortitude during a decade when she seemed never more than a sentence away from hearing about the Merry Cousins is particularly admirable.
Any errors are not theirs, but are my own creative effort.
Copyright 2000-2016, Pat Pflieger