A Visit to Merry's Museum; or, Social Values in a Nineteenth-Century American Periodical for Children, by Pat Pflieger (1987-2006)

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Chapter II: Robert Merry's Readers

For more information:

Letters from Nineteenth-Century American Children to Robert Merry's Museum Magazine, ed. Pat Pflieger (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2001)

Pat Pflieger, "An 'Online Community' of the Nineteenth Century." (2001)

"Robert Merry's Chat with His Friends," a monthly letters column that sometimes threatened to engulf the magazine, allowed the readers to tell each other about themselves, and to bicker with and tease one another. In letters addressed to the editor, to "Cousins All," or to "The Twenty Thousand" -- traditionally, the number of subscribers to the Museum -- readers wrote of their daily lives, talked about their families and pets, and pointed out the obvious personal failings of other letter-writers. As the years passed, the readers began to think of themselves as members of one, gigantic "Merry family" -- cousins, with Robert Merry, Hiram Hatchet, Peter Parley, William, and Sue as their uncles and aunt; and all the Cousins eager to talk with one another in the imaginary parlor of the Chat. In their letters, as one reader reminded Robert Merry, "I told you where I lived, and what I did, and who I was." [19 (June 1850): 190] Another reader, 15 years later, saw in the column the link between many lives:

... when 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. Even as I love the scenes of my boyhood and the happy hours spent with those good old books, Parley's Magazine and Merry's Museum -- so in my old age I love the Chat, and my Merry Correspondence.... [W]ith some our cousinly acquaintance has ripened into friendship; think 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. [51 (Feb 1866): 58-59]

The column took several years to develop, for there seems to have been no precedence for a major children's periodical to publish the letters of its readers. Though Parley's Magazine (1833-1844) published puzzles, conundrums, enigmas, and occasional letters by its readers, the Museum seems to have been the first American children's periodical to print letters from subscribers in a regular column.

The first letter to be published in the Museum was almost a tiny advertisement for the periodical:

.... We sounded around some time to find [a periodical] which would blend instruction with delight.... After a while, looking over the Saturday Courier, we came across a notice of Merry's Museum, and, from the hearty recommendations given, we thought we had found the very thing for which we had before sought in vain.... [2 (Oct 1841): 127]

This cautious family sent only enough money to take the Museum for eight months: "... if it proves equal to our expectations we will take it much longer." All the children of the family worked to earn money for the subscription, and Robert Merry hoped "the example here may be followed by many other black-eyed and blue-eyed friends" -- though he left unclear whether he was praising their industry, their discretion, or their payment in advance.

Publication of this letter must have encouraged others; by March 1842, Merry was receiving not only letters from his readers, but original works as well, and he thanked them in the March issue [3 (March 1842): 95]. Two puzzles he had received were printed in the issue, with the letters their creators sent, and it wasn't long before other readers sent answers, and puzzles, and letters of their own.

Works cited in this chapter:

William H. Coleman. "The Children's 'Robert Merry' and the Late John N. Stearns." The New York Evangelist 16 May 1895: 19.

Dorothy Dechert. "The Merry Family: A Study of Merry's Museum, 1841-1872, and of the Various Periodicals that Merged with It." MA thesis. Columbia University, 1942.

Samuel G. Goodrich. Recollections of a Lifetime; or, Men and Things I Have Seen. New York: Miller, Orton and Mulligan, 1856.

James D. Hart. The Popular Book: A History of America's Literary Taste. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1963.

In April, Merry began to publish the letters more regularly, at the back of the magazine, in a column called "To My Correspondents." [3 (April 1842): 127-28] Here he not only published letters, he addressed the readers, reminding them to pay postage on the letters they sent, thanking them for the letters, and occasionally commenting on the contents. If he edited the letters, it was done silently. The length of the column grew rapidly: the April letters column was about 2 pages long; the May and June columns were around 3. Occasionally, the column skipped a month, but by 1843, it was well established, appearing regularly at the end of the issue, in a separate section entitled "Correspondence," or "Our Correspondence." Goodrich probably edited the column himself, for later gaps in its appearance correspond with traveling he was doing at the time. Readers in 1846, looking in vain for the column in the March and April issues, learned in the May column that Robert Merry had been "down South" [11 (May 1846): 158]; so had Goodrich (Goodrich, Recollections, 2: 322). No letters were published in 1847, for Robert Merry was in Europe and could not receive or answer letters from his readers [13 (Feb 1847): 64]; at this time, Goodrich was in Paris (Goodrich, Recollections, 2: 449-50).

After May, 1848, the column was a regular part of the Museum, though its name changed almost monthly. In June, 1848, the column was called "A Chat with our Readers and Correspondents"; in July, it was entitled "Robert Merry's Chat with his Friends"; in September, the heading became "Merry's Monthly Chat with his Friends" -- a name which stayed for 24 years over a column which came to average at least 5 pages a month of tiny print with much less leading than the rest of the magazine. The Cousins had found a place in which to settle.

At first, many of the letters to Robert Merry were a bit diffident: the prose -- probably in keeping with the style of letter-writing considered appropriate at this time -- seems formal and a bit stilted, and the writers occasionally apologized for being so forward as to call Merry their "uncle," or even to write to him at all. Soon, however, the letters in the Chat became more casual, and so seems to have become the attitudes of the letter writers. Some jokes and teasing began to slip in, much of it aimed at Merry himself. In 1849, Merry complained about getting a bad joke in the mail, though his concern seems to have been less with an assault on his own dignity than with the quality of the joke he received; he proclaimed that if his readers were going to "April Fool me again, let it be neatly done. A middling joke is a poor thing." [17 (April 1849): 123] One reader was probably inspired by Merry's announcement that, since he received too many letters each month to print, and since he wished to encourage good letter-writing, he never printed "a letter that comes in bad handwriting; that has bad spelling; or that has bad grammar; or that is badly punctuated." [17 (May 1849): 160]; in August appeared a letter dated June which stated:

I am a blue-eyed, red-headed scriber to Merry's Museum. I have rit you three letters, and sent you seven puzalers; some on 'em as long as my arm; and now you haint insarted none on em. This is tew bad!... According to my way of thinking, to write letters, and pay the postige, and not see 'em in print, passes all pashunts. [18 (Aug 1849): 61]

Robert Merry printed it with nary a comment. Other letters also arrived, some of which teased Merry for leaving unfinished a serialized story. The readers were willing to be patient, but there are limits, and two readers soon reached theirs and sent letters satirizing the serial's "roundabout character" while asking for the end of it. [21 (May 1851): 159] One letter took a column and a half to reach its point after much trailing through the underbrush of personal anecdote and of apology for appearing rude in this request [20 (July 1850): 32]; the other, having looped its way around the subject, sharpened the point by including "Madame Bedott's Table Talk" -- probably from a magazine article by Frances Whitcher (Hart, 142) -- in which a garrulous widow rambles at length through a pointless anecdote about her late spouse [21 (May 1851): 159-60]. Merry admired the latter letter, but the serial remained unfinished. Still other readers -- inspired, perhaps by the sometimes-tall-tale adventures of Gilbert Go-ahead which were being serialized in the Museum at this time, and by a letter from "Peter Parley" in which he explained that it was so cold that "I see by the Canada papers, that they have heard the Aurora Borealis there ..." [17 (Feb 1849): 59] -- sent Merry tales of radishes so large that they would feed a whole family [17 (May 1849): 152-60], of chicken eggs so large that they would hatch kittens [20 (July 1850: 32], and of sturgeons so thick in streams that a man could catch all he wanted with his bare hands [23 (April 1852): 125-8]. Merry seems to have taken all this in stride, saying only of the kitten-hatching eggs that, "I do not believe that any hen lays eggs which will hatch kittens -- though I admit that some folks' hens are doing very queer things." [20 (July 1850): 32] In this way, the Chat became more of what its title implied: rather than merely being a column for letters, it was a place for a certain amount of give and take, and -- as later readers pointed out -- it became the most popular section of the Museum.

The Chat's increasing casualness and popularity probably was due in part to the relationship between Robert Merry and his readers. From the beginning, Merry was a fully-realized character whom the readers knew well; it was he who addressed them in the magazine's prospectus in the first issue, and his detailed, picaresque biography was serialized during the first two years. (See Chapter 3 for more about "Robert Merry.") Merry also spoke directly to his readers, usually in the Chat, and often by name: gently and humorously, he cautioned "my little friend, Cornelius W ----, of Newark, New Jersey," who had forgotten to pay the postage on his letter, that

the habit of forgetting to do things as they ought to be done is a very bad habit. 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. [3 (April 1842): 127]

In the same column, he teased J. W. P., whose enigma "is ingenious -- but the name itself is a puzzle. Here it is: 'General Diebitsch Sabalkansky.' Why, this name reminds me of a stick that was so crooked it could never lie still!" In May, 1845, appeared a little poem called "Alfred Poole," published at the request of Alfred's sister, "for the pleasure of her brother Alfred, and of all other children, who, like him, have just learned to read." [9 My 1845: 187] Merry also made it clear -- especially in the Museum's beginning -- that he did not demand his readers' respect, but that he wanted to be their friend; in the prospectus and in the closing editorial for 1841, Merry asks the indulgence of his readers, and hopes that they will think kindly of him. Though he is old and they are young, he hopes they will love him as he loved an old, knotted walnut tree in his youth, for the old are as full of stories as the tree was of nuts; and "I hope that young people, instead of running away from me, as a crusty, crabbed, one-legged old chap, will treat me as I did the old walnut-tree -- give it a shake, and see if the nuts do n't rattle down!" ["To the Black- ey'd and Blue-ey'd Friends of Robert Merry," 2 (Dec 1841): 187] Merry made sure that his young readers knew that he liked them and appreciated their efforts, thanking them for their letters and gifts, as in the closing editorial for 1841:

I shall be very glad to get the bear story, which L. S., of Vermont, offers to tell. The Indiana legend of the Wolf and the Wild-cat, is received, and will appear soon. Jane R --- will accept my thanks for -- she knows what! If she were not so many hundred miles off, I should ask her to let me see whether she is a blue-eyed or black-eyed friend. The basket of chestnuts were duly received from Alice D ---, and were very welcome. Ralph H --- will see that I have done as he requested; I have given a portrait of the fine gray squirrel he sent me, in this number. He is well, and as lively as ever. [2 (Dec 1841): 187]

In later issues, Merry was scrupulous about listing somewhere in the Chat the names of those whose letters were not published -- perhaps with a word or two about their handwriting or about the contents of their letters. And, he credited the letters with keeping him in good cheer and with helping him to forget his troubles:

I feel cheered by these pleasant, lively letters; and sometimes, when my old pate reels with hard work, and my eyes grow dim as I think over the sad fortunes that pursue me, I go to the package of my correspondents, and there find consolation. "No matter -- no matter," say I to myself, "if all the world deserts or abuses me, at least these little friends will be true to me!" So, thereupon, I wipe my eyes, clean my spectacles, whistle some merry tune, and sit down to write something cheerful and pleasant for my Magazine. [3 (April 1842): 127]

Not only did Merry speak personally to his readers, he also allowed them a voice through the medium of imaginary readers who helped him with the letters, advised him on the contents of the magazine, and allowed him to advise them on their conduct. Richard, Henry, James, Jane, Anne, Susan, Bill, Mary, Ben, and Peter first appeared in January, 1845, gathered in Merry's office and advising him of what they wanted him to publish in the coming year. Generic names attached to generic personalities, they represented the general readership and may have made Merry seem even more responsive to the needs of his readers. They also offered the opinions of the Museum's editor in a way that the real readers may have better accepted and understood. These imaginary readers were amazingly candid and offered their opinions with charming ruthlessness; in 1848, they informed Merry that, in their opinion, the Museum had "fallen off" during his travels in Europe. Susan took him to task for not printing letters from readers in 1847; James thought that "the articles are too long. I like trite, short pieces. I always go to sleep over a long story"; and, Henry longed for the days when the Museum had plenty of humor [15 (June 1848): 189]. As in 1845, the imaginary readers were content with Merry's reply that he would take their words to heart and try to provide something to suit every reader. That the opinions of the imaginary readers jibed with Merry's own wasn't as important as the fact that they had expressed them.

Once "Peter Parley" -- and, later, "Hiram Hatchet" and "Aunt Sue" -- "joined the staff" of the Museum, readers were allowed to "hear" some of the discussions they had and "see" editorial decisions being made. In 1848, when the Museum merged with Parley's Playmate, at the end of the announcement of the merger was printed a picture of Peter Parley and Robert Merry, obviously in genial discussion about the future of the Museum. After that, readers were sometimes treated to dialogs between Merry and Parley, who were blunt, but polite with one another, though they did not always agree. Much later, readers had a ringside seat at the punning battles between Hiram Hatchet and Aunt Sue. These glimpses of the editors joshing and jibing with one another, together with the personalized, directed addresses to their readers, combine to give a sense that all of the editors, but especially Robert Merry, were real people who truly loved the readers of their magazine.

Goodrich & pseudonyms: Goodrich ran into some puzzlement about lame Peter Parley during his visit to the South in the 1840s:

I received many a kind welcome under the name of the fictitious hero whom I had made to tell my stories. Sometimes, it is true, I underwent rather sharp cross-questioning, and frequently was made to feel that I held my honors by a rather questionable title .... My innocent young readers ... did not suspect me: they had taken all I had said as positively true, and I was of course Peter Parley himself. (Goodrich, Recollections, 2: 322)

Later, some Southern readers of the Museum remembered Goodrich's trip to the South and remembered also, with chagrin, their confusion of him with Peter Parley. Hattie, writing from Richmond, Virginia, invited Merry to visit, and explained that her whole family knew of Peter Parley: "I did not see him when he was here several years ago; but when brother Tom came running home almost out of breath, and told us he had seen Peter Parley, I very seriously asked him if he was a man, and had a lame foot -- and a heap of other such questions. However, you must remember I was very, very young, then." [21 (April 1851): 128]

The readers seem to have responded quickly and warmly. Subscriptions rose steadily, and so did the number of letters Robert Merry received. In the beginning, more than a few Cousins seem to have been convinced that Merry was a real person. Some knew that Robert Merry and Peter Parley were the same person, or that both were pseudonyms of Samuel Goodrich; "I have found out three of your names, Parley, Merry and Goodrich," one very young reader informed "My Dear Mr. Merry" in 1843 [6 (July 1843): 64], while another was amazed at the number of pseudonyms one man adopted: "How many names you have! Robert Merry, Peter Parley, and did you not at one time call yourself 'Robert Rambler'?" [10 (June 1845): 223] (Though "Robert Rambler" isn't listed as one of Goodrich's pen-names, "Robert Ramble" was a character in Parley's Magazine in 1836.) But other readers weren't so sure. One reader, who evidently had seen Goodrich and been told he was Merry, was unsure of the identification, because the man he saw had two good legs, while Merry, of course, had a wooden leg [8 (Aug 1844): 633]. Another distrusted his father: "My father says that Peter Parley and Robert Merry are all one; but, if so, 'tis a greater puzzle than the Siamese twins. However, I don't think they are the same, for old Parley wrote in a simpler and easier way than you do." [11 (Feb 1846): 633]

By the 1850s, the editors were attempting to clarify the situation. A confused reader in 1854 got capsule descriptions of Merry, Peter Parley, Hiram Hatchet, and Samuel Goodrich -- the editor making sure to keep the personalities separate and real [28 (July 1854): 224]. Goodrich, by this time, had ceased to edit the magazine, and S.T. Allen had stepped into the persona of Robert Merry; Hiram Hatchet seems to have been a pseudonym adopted by yet another editor; the detailed descriptions given of these three probably were taken from life. Parley, however, was described physically in much vaguer terms. In 1855, the fictional natures of Peter Parley and Robert Merry were made clear for all time:

... we take this opportunity to say that Peter Parley was the name originally assumed by Mr. Goodrich when he began to write for the amusement and instruction of children. After some years he sold out his Parley's Magazine, and, changing his name to Robert Merry, gave out that Parley was no more, but that his papers were all left in his hands. [29 (March 1855): 88]

Many of Merry's early readers seem to have been familiar with Peter Parley and his works, and extended their allegiance to Robert Merry almost as if it were a given. Franklin B., wondering if Merry and Parley were related and making clear his allegiance to Parley, informed Merry that "I doubt not, that I shall soon begin to think as much of you, particularly if you happen to be related to him." [9 (May 1845): 190]

Whether they "knew" Peter Parley or not, readers soon seemed to regard Merry as an old friend. "Pray excuse me, Mr. Merry, for being so free with you; but you seem so free and sociable yourself, that, although I have never seen you, it appears to me you are like an old and familiar acquaintance," one wrote in 1845 [9 (May 1845): 190]. Other readers seem to have felt the same way, including Rosannah, who sent Merry an enigma to print and who assured him that

I have read "Merry's Museum" so long, and studied Peter Parley's books so much, that I feel quite well acquainted with you, though I know you never heard of Rosannah before.

I am persuaded by the familiar manner in which you talk to Anne, and Susan, and Mary [imaginary Cousins in the Chat], that you will not be offended at me for introducing myself to your acquaintance ... [16 (Oct 1848): 127],

and eleven-year-old Sarah, who invited Merry and "'My uncle Peter'" to her Long Island home for Blue Point oysters [17 (April 1849): 125]. Several readers wrote the first letters of their lives to Robert Merry. Five-year-old Ellen wrote at the instigation of her mother, to thank Merry, who had "taught me to love to go to school and learn to read"; her mother held her hand to help her form the words [22 (Nov 1851): 160]. To other writers, the letter they sent was viewed as some sort of reward: one young boy "spoke at school last week, 'You'd scarce expect one of my age,' &c.; and now pa says I may write you a letter, and punctuate it myself, so you must forgive mistakes" [19 (April 1850): 127-8]; the mother of another "told me I might write this letter when I was nine years old. To- day is my birthday, and I was in such a hurry that I began it before breakfast." [11 (June 1846): 190] Some readers even dreamed about Robert Merry; though Fannie's dreams merely provided her with a poem sung by the "dream" Robert Merry, which she sent to the "real" Robert Merry [11 (June 1846): 189-90], one of W. A. C.'s dream had a little lesson in it: after being snubbed in his dream by Merry and by Billy Bump, a popular character in one of the Museum's serials,

I felt so bad that I awoke, and behold, it was a dream! I told my father my dream this morning, and he said that probably the reason that you would not shake hands was, that I owed you for the Museum for the last year or two, which may be the case, as we have only paid the agent that solicited the first year's subscription. I am willing to pay, only let the publishers send the bill ... [19 (April 1850): 128]

One reader apologized for not visiting Merry when he was in Boston: "... I thought you would be disappointed if any of your subscribers went there without visiting you But I only staid two days." [11 (June 1846): 190] Yet other readers wrote asking for advice: Merry noted somewhat wryly in 1850 that one reader had asked for advice about marriage, though no mention is made of what advice the reader got [19 (May 1850): 160]. Other readers -- apparently thinking, as one boy did, that Robert Merry was the best person to help him understand his schoolwork -- asked specific questions about things they did not understand: James got an explanation of why climates are different in different parts of the world [20 (Nov 1850): 158-60], while J. N. T. received a detailed description of how nutmegs were grown [24 (July 1852): 31-32]. As the years passed, Merry's relationship with his readers remained close, though readers also felt close to some of the other editors, especially Hiram Hatchet and Aunt Sue.

Nowhere in the Museum was it revealed who "Hiram Hatchet" really was; but William H. Coleman -- a reader who "grew up" with the magazine and was acquainted with John N. Stearns when he was editing the Museum -- revealed in 1895 that it was William C. Cutter (Coleman), a minister whose poor health forced him to turn to literature (Dechert, 161-20). Born in 1801, in the 1840s he wrote two children's biographies of Generals Putnam and Lafayette, and in May, 1854, he stepped into the Chat, presumably while Robert Merry went to Europe to "consult with Peter Parley" about the Museum. (The trip probably coincides with a trip which publisher S. T. Allen took to France, to consult with Goodrich, who was no longer editing the magazine, but who was still in charge of it.) Hiram gleefully wielded an imaginary hatchet to cut the ever-longer letters from the Cousins and to "chop out work for" Merry and the readers [28 (July 1854): 222]. He was a master of the subtle art of the pun, and the Cousins quickly matched him pun for pun; in September, with Merry presumably returned, Hiram tried to bow out, but he was back the next month, and he remained popular among the Cousins for many years to come.

"Aunt Sue" seems to have been the pen-name of Susanna Newbould, a London-born Brooklyn matron whose wealthy husband was a wholesale hardware importer (Dechert, 95-6). She was very fond of enigmas, conundrums, and puzzles, and in 1848 she began to send solutions to the puzzles printed in Woodworth's Youth's Cabinet (Dechert, 87); in 1852, she took over that magazine's enigma department while the editor went to Europe to recover his health (Dechert, 93-4). In 1854, she became the Cabinet's assistant editor (Dechert, 95). By this time, she also was contributing letters, puzzles, and solutions to the Museum: two letters from "Aunt Susey," postmarked Brooklyn, NY, appeared in 1851; in 1854, bouncy, irreverent letters from "Aunt Sue" began to appear almost monthly. When the Cabinet merged with the Museum in 1857, "Aunt Sue's Puzzle Drawer" became part of the Museum, where it remained a popular column almost to the last issue of the magazine. In this column, after 1860, she began to print answers to letters she had received, as well as the puzzles and solutions sent to her by the readers. Though Fleta Forrester, a long-time reader of the Museum, took over the Puzzle Drawer for a time in 1864, Aunt Sue edited the column -- and, sometimes, the Chat -- without pay [53 (Feb 1867): 58] until she resigned from the magazine in January, 1871 [59 (Jan 1871): 51], perhaps to run the family business (Dechert, 194-5).

By the 1850s and 1860s, the image of the "Merry family" and the "Merry parlor" had come to the fore, as the Chat became an imaginary gathering of "Cousins" in an imaginary parlor. Hiram Hatchet first used the image, when he took over the Chat during Merry's trip to Europe; in August, 1854, he greeted the readers with:

Our friends are growing very chatty .... A whole evening is not long enough for our chat. Last month we were compelled to break off in the middle, while several persons were watching their opportunity to speak. Some, who had their speeches all ready, were obliged to hold in, for want of time and room. This time we have resolved to give every one a chance, and have invited the company two hours earlier than usual. If this will not do we shall sit it out till midnight ... [28 (Aug 1854): 252]

When Merry returned, he was graciously offered his old easy-chair by Hiram, and made Hiram a definite part of the Chat by offering him "a peg for your hat, and ... a seat by the table ..." [28 (Oct 1854): 310] The Cousins readily took up the image, asking to "sit" beside certain other Cousins in the "parlor," and offering chairs to each other: "Commodore, there is an empty chair on this side of the room, if you are not too bashful to sit among the girls. Sailors are not generally troubled with timidity," Sallie offered in 1858 [35 (April 1858): 127]. Despite Robert Merry's repeated assurances that the walls of the "parlor" could stretch to receive all comers, one boy wasn't sure he would fit: "I am a sick boy. I should like to see all my cousins in their snug parlor, and have an introduction; but as I would have to take my bed with me, I fear there would not be room; so I must postpone the visit ..." [35 (April 1858): 126] The image of the parlor refined itself until, in 1860, a reader could present so detailed a description that it almost took on physical reality; Variable-Eyed Josie's long, overripe description so cowed Hiram that he printed it in full, with a veiled warning about the next time:

Heavens! what a glare from chandeliers; I am almost blinded. How strangely dissonant that rich peal of silvery laughter sounds to my ear! Mr. Hatchet, where are you? Yes! I see him now. I'll approach him and, with my most graceful curtsy, make known my business.

In the rosy terms of the true romantic, Josie speculated about the physical attributes of some of the more popular members of the Chat:

What magnificent creature, I wonder, is that? "She is straight and slender as hazel twigs, and (I'm certain) sweeter than their kernels." I am quite sure that must be Sybil Grey. And then that little fairy near, whose eyes are "deeply, darkly," beautifully blue, with magnolia bloom, and wealth of sunny curls. Who can she be? Daisy Wildwood? [40 (July 1860): 26]

On a less florid note, in 1862, Jennie B. D. found that she could come home from school on a "dreary, rainy afternoon" when she had a cold, find the Museum waiting for her and, opening it, immediately find herself "in the Chat, listening to the voices of old and new Merrys." [43 (June 1862): 188]

Like cousins everywhere, the Cousins of the Chat bickered with and teased each other. In 1852, a Latin fight began between G. of Keene and D. G. M., with each sending to the Museum a phrase or poem in Latin, to be translated by the other. However, it was later "Merrys" who fought the boisterous, hard-won "Merry wars". The first revolved around what came to be known as "That Problem," an algebra problem sent by Black-Eyed Mary and printed in the February, 1855, issue. Hidden among the other puzzles sent by readers of the Museum, the problem looked innocent enough: Mary asked Willie Coleman -- then 15 -- to solve the equation x2 + y2 = 8, where x + xy = 6; and, he was to show his proof. Willie tried. But, though he came up with the answer (x = 2; y = 2), his proof was scorned not only by Mary but by other Cousins as well. By November, many solutions had been offered up and demolished by Willie and the other Cousins; the November issue alone contained 5 proofs, none of which were considered adequate. In January, 1856, 6 more proofs were published, and even more proofs in February; in March, Uncle Hiram declared an end to the algebra question, but the Cousins insisted on sending more proofs, which were published in the June issue. By this time, personalities had become part of the algebra problem, with Cousins heaping scorn on each other and on each other's algebra skills, and winging each other with well-aimed puns and wit. Finally, Aunt Sue declared peace, backed up by Uncle Hiram, and the first Merry war was over. Other wars were to follow -- such as the "p. g. war" of 1862-1863, in which the Cousins exchanged cartes de visites in an attempt to discover which part of the nation had the most "pretty girls" -- but they were not nearly as fierce. That Problem changed forever the tone of the Chat, as Willie Coleman pointed out later in his retrospective series on the Chat:

Every one essayed to wield the keen blades of wit and repartee, and fearful was the discharge of puns, jokes, and jests .... The "elders" at last became thoroughly frightened at the uproarious state of things in the Merry family .... [I]t was concluded to have peace .... But it did not last long; 1857 was about as bad as the preceding years, and as yet no signs of improvement appear. Mr. Merry has lately made another attempt to cool us down, with what success, remains to be seen. I much fear that the Merrys are incorrigible. ["Retrospectum," 36 (Dec 1858): 185]

After this, the Chat was livelier, brisker, and longer, with the Cousins exchanging personal messages, jokes, and puns.

The Cousins saw the Chat as a place to form friendships -- in and out of the magazine, and the readers themselves echoed Merry and the other editors in their politeness to one another. Readers whose letters were being published in the Chat for the first time almost always mentioned by name Willie Coleman, who was a great favorite; he, in turn, was careful always to answer them by name in his next letters. Some of the Cousins may have known each other socially outside the confines of the Chat; several times over the years, readers mentioned that their friends or classmates also took the Museum. However, other Cousins seem to have exchanged letters directly with one another, as well as sending messages to each other in the Chat; in 1862, Aunt Sue offered to publish in the Puzzle Drawer the addresses of those who wanted other readers to correspond with them [43 (March 1862): 96]. The editors also offered to forward letters to other Cousins, if the letter-writers enclosed enough postage. In the late 1850s and early 1860s, as cheap photographic portraits became available in the form of tintypes and cartes de visite photographs, the Cousins began to send their likenesses to each other and to Uncle Merry and Aunt Sue, both of whom soon had full photograph albums. The exchanges of letters and photos became especially brisk during the Civil War, when male Cousins who joined the army asked for letters and photographs "to cheer my lonely hours," as one wrote [43 (April 1862): 123]; and one concern of a Union sailor in the squadron blockading the harbors of the South was to find a place to have his picture taken so he could send it to the readers at home [45 (Jan 1863): 27]. Some of the female readers asked Aunt Sue's advice about the propriety of writing letters to the male readers in the Army; Aunt Sue replied that she approved:

There is a sanctifying influence about the correspondence of pure-minded females that may be of inestimable value to those subjected to all the evil influences of camp life. It is for you, dear girls, to see that it remains "proper." So write to the poor fellows, cheer and comfort them, and prove to them that they are not forgotten. [44 (Dec 1862): 188]

In at least one instance, Cousins who had met through the Chat visited each other in real life: on New Year's Day of 1863, Josie was visited by three male Cousins on leave from the Union army, and she suspected that Merry had given them her address [45 (Feb 1863): 59-60]. The culmination of this fraternizing seems to have been the marriage of Eugene Fales -- a veteran who had been a clerk in the Museum's offices -- to Hattie Lee, a subscriber to the magazine, in 1865 ["Adventures of a Merry Boy," 49 (Feb 1865): 53].

Death also came to the Cousins -- their own, and those of members of their families. In both cases, the Chat was a place for comforting words, as Merry and the other Cousins reminded the bereaved that the dead were merely waiting for their friends in another place. In the case of readers who had died, the details of their deaths were sent by relatives because the subscriber had so loved the Museum, as in the case of Bennie Tompkins, whose aunt wrote to the Museum because Bennie had always thought of Merry as his friend [30 (Sept 1855): 94]; among the last words of another reader was a request that Robert Merry be told of her death [50 (July 1865): 23]. Relatives hearing from other subscribers also realized that other Cousins wanted to know what had happened, as in the case of Lizzie Tipton; her father wrote in response to a query in the Chat the month after she died [52 (Dec 1866): 192]. Both the readers and Merry were quick to take lessons from the deaths: that one should be ready for death, and that those who died were waiting for their friends in another, better place. In a way, the "parlor" seemed to extend itself to Heaven; in the first issue of 1866, Robert Merry reminded his readers that

... though some who met with us last New Year's meet and greet each other face to face in a brighter world, yet we know that the cloud is not without its silver lining, and the "Merry" group "on the other side" wait to welcome home the loved ones left behind .... [51 (Jan 1866): 27]

The Cousins, too, verbalized this lesson, and told each other not to mourn. Having learned of the deaths of two popular readers in 1864 -- Wilforley, from illness, and Henry Danker, when his ship was sunk -- Pontiac took a lesson beyond his immediate grief:

While God in his providence has seen fit to remove those from our Merry circle whom we loved, and whom we miss, he in his merciful kindness has seen fit to spare our lives to see the dawning of the new year. Who, how many of us, will live to see the close? All, I hope, but I am afraid not. Are we all prepared? Let us each ask ourselves this question. If not, haven't we a lesson to learn from the last year? See how many of our friends have been suddenly taken away! to that better land, I trust .... Haven't we reason to be happy? and should we not be happy when we feel prepared to meet our God, when he may call us from our duties on earth? [49 (Jan 1865): 25- 26]

Kruna echoed this in her lines on Wilforley and Henry Danker: "We mourn them; they rejoice; our tears may fall,/ Yet shall we not look up and seek their rest?" [49 (Jan 1865): 25] The deaths of other readers seem to have struck the Cousins especially hard, and the Chat received several letters each time a death was announced; this was especially true during the Civil War, when three of the most popular letter-writers died When readers wrote about deaths in their own families, it usually was Uncle Merry who comforted them, reminding them to think of Christ, and that those they mourned were awaiting them in heaven. Tina Tompkins, Bennie's sister, visited the Museum's offices and felt free to write to Hiram Hatchet about the desolate Christmas following the deaths of several family members: "My little cousin Florence and I had a nice doll's party, with eighteen dolls, on Christmas day; but it was not like last Christmas, when my other cousins, Freddy and Clementine, were here; nor like Christmas before last, when my brother was with us all." [33 (Feb 1847): 62] The image of the "Merry family" was important in the editors' efforts to comfort the bereaved readers, as they reminded them that they were not alone -- that they had a large family in the Chat, as in Aunt Sue's answer to Winifred, who despaired over her mother's death:

Welcome, Winifred, not only to the Chat -- but to the warmest corner in the warmest, cosiest room of the homestead. Don't say you have no one to love, with so many uncles, aunts, and cousins. They can not give you a mother's love -- but such as they have, they give unto you freely, cordially, always. [43 (Jan 1862): 24-25]

When a relative of another reader died on the battlefield, she knew that she would find sympathy in the Chat:

Oh! it is so hard for me, who never had a sorrow till now, and to you, dear auntie, uncles, and cousins, I turn for sympathy -- most of all, to you, dear, sweet cousin Daisy. Come, sit by me, and let me tell you of him .... [43 (May 1862): 155-6]

This long-distance intimacy led to the Cousins devising ways to identify each other in real life, as when one reader asked those visiting White Mountain to write "M. M." after their names in the hotel register, so that they could meet [46 (Aug 1862): 61]. This led to the creation of the Merry badge, in 1865, which the Cousins could wear and thereby identify each other. The design of the badge came from a reader, and showed an open book with a capital "M" on each exposed page; the circumference of the badge was decorated with an ivy wreath. The boys' pin was circular, and smaller than the girls' pin, which was oval; the boys' badge, in gold, was $6, while the girls', also in gold, was $9. They also could be earned as premiums, for 8 new subscribers, and 12 new subscribers, respectively [49 (Jan 1865): 28]. How many badges were actually sent out is impossible to discover; in later years, occasionally, readers complained that, though they wore their own badges in public, they never saw another being worn. The design of the badge also was used on notepaper, which the publisher of the Museum made available to the readers; it was imprinted with either the boys' round design or the girls' oval design [52 (Oct 1866): 126].

Dozens of photographs had been exchanged between readers, and Uncle Merry had filled almost two photograph albums when Jasper suggested, at the end of 1865, that the readers of the Museum should meet together in a real parlor. The "Merry Convention" was held in Brooklyn, NY, on the evening of December 27, 1865, at John N. Stearns' home. Cousins and editors gathered for an evening of song, conversation, and very bad jokes -- all reported in the February, 1866, Chat. Many of those unable to attend sent letters; those who did attend agreed that it was memorable:

Echo and memory bring again the merry bonmots of Uncles Robert and Will [an editor introduced in the 1860s, whose true identity is unknown]; again in my ear ring the songs of Aunt Sue, the hum and buzz of conversation, the rippling laughter, and the waves of melody which bore us so happily on. The years will come and go, the forms and faces then seen in the blush of youth grow bowed and furrowed with age, yet will our hearts be ever young with this Merry remembrance. [51 (Feb 1866): 61]

Variable-Eyed Josie's vision of the Merry parlor in 1860 had become reality.

By 1867, the letters in the Chat had become so full of messages from Cousin to Cousin, that there was some concern that the letters should contain more of general interest; one reader suggested that correspondents should write about their daily lives [53 (April 1867): 121]. A handful of readers complied, but most letters still contained little but messages from one reader to another. In 1868, however, Horace B. Fuller, having purchased the Museum, appointed Louisa May Alcott editor, and the Chat virtually disappeared. A new professionalism seems to have entered the magazine, one which determined that "a magazine is not the place for trivial gossip or personal communications" [55 (May 1868): 164], so the old-style letters were no longer printed; Merry announced briskly in the January issue that

[t]he letters of Eula Lee, Metacom, Sans Souci, Cousin Jennie, and others are received; but it has been decided that it is best not to publish any but communications of general interest. The circulation of the Magazine has increased; and to strangers the chat is neither intelligible nor interesting. Messages can be sent, and questions and answers given; but there is not room for letters unless peculiarly attractive. [55 (Feb 1868): 78]

Such letters as were deemed "peculiarly attractive" usually were those written by Alcott herself, under the name "Cousin Tribulation," or reminiscences by the older readers of the Museum -- who praised the magazine and spoke of what it had meant to them as children -- most of which letters had "a little moral" [55 (June 1868): 247]. These may have been considered as being published in the "Chatter-Box," an untitled section of the Chat set apart by the editor in response to the "good deal of disappointment ... felt by some of our readers at the discontinuance of the correspondence"; these letters were to be "not only lively, but sensible," for "such correspondences may be both instructive and agreeable" [55 (May 1868): 164]. The Chat, which had become the property of its readers, so to speak, was reclaimed by Merry himself, to be filled with little sermons and editorial announcements. In return, the Cousins seem to have shifted their allegiances to Aunt Sue, whose Puzzle Drawer had remained intact; she had always printed "Notices to Correspondents" in a special section behind the puzzles and answers to previous puzzles, and, in September, 1868, this section of notices began to grow noticeably longer. In earlier years, the Puzzle Drawer had averaged about 3 pages, where the Chat had averaged 5 pages; from September, 1868, to January, 1871, the proportions were reversed, with the Puzzle Drawer averaging between 3 and 5 pages, and the Chat -- when it appeared -- only once longer than 2 pages.

By this time, the Chat had also become an advertising medium. Merry had begun in the 1850s to add a few paragraphs after the letters, as if announcing some newsworthy item; these items ranged from the routes of steamship lines to the publication of new books and new music sheets -- which publishers seem to have sent to the magazine. P. T. Barnum also seems to have known a good thing when he saw it; "Commodore Nutt," an attraction at Barnum's Museum, apparently sent his photo to Merry in 1862 -- which Merry duly put into his album "by the side of the rest of the great little folks" and announced in the Chat that, "We shall have to accept the Commodore as one of our Merry family, and commend him to the friendship of all the Merrys. Go and shake hands with him at Barnum's." [43 (May 1862): 157] Barnum also made sure that Merry had tickets to both Tom Thumb's wedding and the reception afterward, in 1863 -- for he "knows that we love to be where the 'little folks' have a good time" -- and Merry announced this in the Chat and recommended that his readers visit the Museum [45 (March 1863): 95). Under Horace B. Fuller, more advertisements for books than for anything else appeared in the Chat -- especially if these books were published by him. In 1869, advantage was taken of Merry's absence in the Chat one month to reprint part of Alcott's Hospital Sketches, making sure that the readers knew who published the work.

The Chat was important to its young readers because it was a way for them to "communicate" with each other in a time when instant communication was just a dream. But, these lively letters also provide a peek into the minds of their writers, even 100 years after they were written. The letters published had to conform to certain standards which may have tended to limit the letters which were published to those by the more literate readers. Also, letters of a handful of readers were published quite often. As a few other readers were quick to point out, this meant that letters from the less popular were less likely to be published, though Merry tried to make clear that all the letters received from the "stars" were not printed [31 (Feb 1856): 54-64]. Despite these limitations, the letters which were published come the closest anything ever may come to informing us about who read the Museum.

The actual number of subscribers is difficult to discover: the few statistics we have are from a mishmash of sources which include directories of periodicals, the covers of the Museum, and hints gleaned from the Chat and from editorials printed in the magazine; as such they may be exaggerated. The increase in the number of subscribers seems to have been fairly steady. By the Museum's fourth issue in 1841, the number of copies sold was 7,000 (Dechert, 140): by 1843, it seems to have been about 12,000 (Dechert, 141). The number of subscribers seems to have been mentioned first in 1850, when Merry announced that 3,000 subscribers had been added in that year, making the total 13,000 [20 (Dec 1850): 186]. The number of actual readers was estimated in 1854 at 25,000, in Merry's New Year's Address; probably this estimate included not only the number of subscribers, but the number of readers who borrowed copies of the magazine, and the number of children in any given family who might have read the magazine ["A New Year's Address," 27 (Jan 1854): 3]. In 1854 appears the first mention that the Museum was sent to schools, where bound volumes became part of the school library and were read by many more children [27 Ap 1854): 127]. The traditional number of subscribers -- 20,000 -- began to be used after the Museum merged with Woodworth's Youth's Cabinet and The Schoolfellow, in 1857, but, as another has pointed out, a number of subscribers to the Cabinet or the Schoolfellow may not have resubscribed to the Museum (Dechert, 141). 20,000 was the number used for several years more, though in 1857, Merry's address mentions "every separate Merry of the forty thousand band" -- again, perhaps an estimate of the number of actual readers [51 (Jan 1866): 1]. Where this number came from is impossible to determine. However, in 1869, the number of subscribers had dropped to 10,000, where it stayed until the magazine's demise in 1872 (Dechert, figure 29).

Readers wrote to the Chat under a variety of pen-names. In the 1840s, letters printed were usually signed with initials, or with first names followed by last initial; whether this reflected an editorial decision, journalistic tradition, or requests by readers is unknown. By the 1850s, those readers who were not writing under their real names, such as Willie H. Coleman or Henry A. Danker, or initials, such as W.A.R. or C.F.W., used pen-names that fell into several categories. Some readers using "real names" turned out to be using pseudonyms, as in the case of "Bess," a long-time reader of Woodworth's Youth's Cabinet who, Aunt Sue finally learned after many years, was really "Wilforley" (William Forrest Oakley), an unrepentant teenaged boy. Other readers took "family" names, such as Cousin Sally, Cousin Kate, Aunt Clara, Uncle Joe, and Auntie. Some readers took "typographical" names: !---! and †*†; 1/20000 obviously represented one of Merry's 20,000 readers. Other readers took their names from the geographical region in which they lived, either from the state -- as in the case of Bay State, Buckeye Boy, Keystone, and Tennesseean -- or from the part of the nation from which they came -- as in Southerner, Southern Girl, or Southron. Northern readers were more likely to take pen-names from the state in which they lived than Southern readers, who seem more likely to mention the part of the country in which they lived; one Southern reader who noticed this in 1856 was told by Uncle Merry that he had many Northern correspondents, "but they consider themselves as belonging to the country, and not to any part of it. Therefore they assume no sectional names." [32 (July 1856): 28] Because the Museum originally was addressed to Robert Merry's "black-ey'd and blue- ey'd friends" in 1841, some readers took descriptive names, such as Black-Eyes, Blue-Eyed Sid, Gray- Eyes, Gooseberry-Eyed James, Hazel-Eyed Annie, Golden-Haired Effie, and Black-Eyed, Curly-Haired Lucy. "Personalities" constituted some names: Minx, Flibbertigibbet, Nippinifidget, Knippeniphidgette #2, Roguish Kate, and Saucy Nell may have described their characters - - or what they would have like their characters to be -- in their names; Mustard may have considered himself or herself "sharp." Female readers may have been more likely to take flowery names like Pansy, Moss Rosebud, Daisy Wildwood, Wild Rose, Hyacinth, and Anemone; they also may have taken "literary" pen-names such as Minnehaha and Fanny Fern Marble -- the latter probably referring to the popular writer, Fanny Fern. During the Civil War, a handful of writers took military names: Monitor and Merrimac took their names in 1863 from the two ironclad ships which had dueled in 1862; Union Boy made his allegiance public knowledge. A child-like love of word-play was revealed in such names as Uno Hoo, Double-you-see, and Bob White. Once a reader took a name, it was used by no other, but occasionally readers changed their names; for example, Homely Face changed her name to Ma Hitub; Lillie Linden was forced to change her name to Rubie Linden in the 1860s after a newspaper columnist began writing under the former name.

Ages of the readers ran from age 5 to age 74, with the bulk of the readers between 8 and 13. Readers took the Museum for years: Willie H. Coleman began to read it in 1847, when he was 7 years old, and the magazine followed him to boarding school, when he was 15, and back home, until he became a nurse in the Patent Office hospital during the Civil War and mustered out in 1864, at age 24. Some readers were aware that one day they would be too old for the magazine -- most seem to have put this hoary age at about their teens -- but some took the Museum even after they were married -- for themselves and for their own children: Black-Eyes took the magazine in 1846, before she got married, and still enjoyed it afterward; when her two daughters were born, she still took the magazine, this time, for them. Many readers seem to have been parents, who may have looked on the Museum as a family magazine, or who took it for their children and became fascinated with it themselves. In the magazine's prospectus in 1841, Goodrich made it clear that the Museum was intended for the whole family, not just for the children, and evidence shows that readers took him at his word. Carolus and his siblings read the Museum to their mother while she sewed [11 (Jan 1846): 30]; the family of Robert A. Parker, Jr., read the magazine aloud in the parlor at night:

This is a wintry night .... Father is lying down with his gown and slippers on, and mother is lying upon the couch, reading the December number of the Museum, and has just commanded us little ones to be silent, while she reads Billy Bump's letter from California. [19 (Feb 1850): 64]

In 1872, one man and his wife spent an evening perplexed by the puzzles in the magazine [61 (June 1872): 64]. Other parents took the magazine while their children were growing up, so it would have been available to such children as were interested: Eight-Year- Old's father had begun to take the Museum when it first came out in 1841, and the family was still taking it in 1859. Many readers mentioned that their younger siblings read the magazine which they themselves subscribed to, and a few were delighted to report that their older brothers and sisters deigned to sneak a read as well.

It is difficult to tell what proportion of the readers were male and what proportion female, since many pen-names are fairly neuter. Also, one remembers the irrepressible Wilforley, who masqueraded as "Bess" for several years. As one reader wrote after Wilforley was "unmasked," other Cousins may not have been what they seemed:

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 .... 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. [43 (Jan 1862): 26]

However, there appears to have been an equal mix of male and female readers.

Most of the readers seem to have been white; at least, no race is mentioned. But the Museum also had a handful of Native American readers as well -- many of them connected with missionary schools in some way. Merry began to hear from his Native American readers in 1852, when a Choctaw girl sent him a gift; he then began to receive occasional letters from others. Some made a point of being "a straight, black-haired Indian, ... yes, a real copper-colored boy of the woods." [23 (May 1852): 159] The boys bragged about their athletic skills, as any boy would: "I can ride a mustang, throw a lasso, shoot a gun, bow, or anything else that will go off," one boasted [18 (Aug 1849): 60], while another wrote that he was "a hunter, and shoot well with the bow and blow-gun, play ball, climb trees, and shoot the deer, bear, wolf, elk, or buffalo, with the long rifle." [23 (May 1852): 159] Though some white readers claimed to be interested in Native Americans, they were not particularly responsive to the real thing, never mentioning them in their letters; the Native Americans did not contribute regularly to the Chat.

The geographical range of readers was wide. In early years, some readers lived in Canada, though there were not many. One other reader, a transplanted American, subscribed from Paris, France. But most lived in the United States, mostly in New England; most of these came from New York or Massachusetts. Before the Civil War, there were many subscribers in the South, particularly in Georgia and Tennessee; after the War, only a few of the pre-War Southerners returned, though there were a handful of new subscribers. Merry also had readers who lived on the frontier -- in Wisconsin Territory, in California, in Oregon. Early readers on the frontier depended on the magazine, for there were few books to read: "Now, Mr. Merry, you know we cannot get as many books to read as the children who live east, so we depend upon the Museum, for both pleasure and profit, more than many of your black-eyed and blue-eyed readers," two children wrote from Illinois in 1844 [7 (Jan 1844): 30]. Frontier readers experienced problems other readers did not: Lucy, in Santiam, Oregon, received her copy of the magazine two months after it was mailed; one boy in Michigan had to barter for his subscription, for "we live in a new country, and father has so many ways to use all the money he can get, that I cannot have it yet," [17 (May 1849): 153] so he sent some poems his mother had written. Readers living in undeveloped areas were proud of themselves and where they lived, and of the "improvements" they were making in the land, as Kate was of her Wisconsin home:

My father came here six years ago, when there was scarcely a clearing. The lofty trees stood close by the door, and the thick underwood hid the surrounding forest from view. Then the graceful deer bounded where now grows the grain. The Indian paddled his canoe where now is heard the noisy mill. But though there have been great improvements, the forests are still numerous and large. [23 (June 1852): 191]

Some readers bought their Museum at bookstores. Most, however, had subscriptions, which they got in different ways. The subscription may have been a gift, usually from relatives -- parents, grandparents, uncles, or aunts -- or from their teachers. Some children bought their subscriptions with money they were given as gifts for Christmas or New Year's Day; after the Civil War, one child used money she was given by a Union officer after the Union army had retaken her town [55 (April 1868): 166]. As has already been stated, parents subscribed for their children and the rest of the family -- sometimes for years. Readers also earned money themselves to get their subscriptions. Some earned it by doing chores -- such as washing dishes, overseeing a servant's work, or picking up chips for their mother. Others had parents who used the promise of money for a subscription to teach their children good personal habits or as a reward for an accomplishment: three readers earned their subscription money by giving up tea and coffee; others earned it by writing a letter to Merry, by being dressed and ready for breakfast every morning for six months, by studying the Bible, or by getting the highest mark in Latin for two months. Still other readers earned their money by selling things -- usually things they had raised themselves. These included everything from a pet lamb to chickens and eggs, to dahlia bulbs, chestnuts, waste cotton, and "what we call Pop or Snap corn" [21 (March 1851): 94].

Readers also borrowed copies of the Museum -- a practice which Merry encouraged. School library copies were regularly read by some readers too poor to take the magazine themselves, though one reader, having seen a copy of the Museum at school, decided to get a subscription. One teacher read the magazine aloud to her class [26 (July 1853): 31-32]. Some new subscribers had borrowed the magazine from friends or relatives and liked it so well that they got subscriptions of their own; one reader exchanged her copy of Our Young Folks with a friend for copies of the Museum [53 (March 1867): 91-4]. Another subscriber found out about the magazine after a fight: the friend of one subscriber was taking a rival, unnamed, magazine and bragged about it until the subscriber had had enough and fought him; the subscriber's father made him send the other boy one of his own issues of the Museum, and, out of spite, he sent one with an exciting chapter of a serial in it, which the other boy liked so well that he decided to get his own subscription [23 (Feb 1852): 63]. The merger with Woodworth's Youth's Cabinet and The Schoolfellow brought even more subscribers. As has been shown, readers depended on the Museum to get them through long winter evenings -- and their parents depended on it to keep their children from driving them insane during long winter evenings, as one child wrote:

We have taken your Magazine two or three years, but I never tried to find out any of the puzzles until this evening. Mother said, "George, why don't you find out some of these enigmas, instead of teasing the dog? Here is an easy one -- get a slate and pencil." I got my slate, and found it out all alone .... I am sure my mother will thank you for furnishing quiet employment to a boy eleven years of age, and Frank bow-wows his best thanks. [28 (Dec 1854): 376]

Income levels of readers are almost impossible to gauge, but they probably were wide-spread. Some readers mention having governesses or tutors, or going to boarding school. Some readers mention that their fathers were farmers, others, that their fathers were ministers -- usually, these were given the adjective "poor." A handful of readers worked, themselves -- in the general store of an older brother, as a telegraph operator, or in a mill -- though it is impossible to discover whether these were adults or children.

Merry's readers were very much aware of public events; they went to hear Jenny Lind, or wrote of the events after the death of the Charter Oak in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1856 [32 (Oct 1856): 122]. Several of Merry's female readers were avid believers in women's rights. A few, in fact, break the twentieth-century's stereotype of the prissy Victorian maiden; they caught the horses in their fathers' pastures and rode them bareback, and one was a good shot. "I am not a young lady yet," wrote one. "Mamma sighs, and says I never will be .... I hope I am not un-ladylike, but I dread the thought of becoming a 'young lady.'" [42 (July 1861): 23- 24] When it was revealed that Black-Eyes, one of the most popular female readers, was married, several other female readers expressed concern that her husband would curtail her activities in the Chat and make her act the proper matron; she counseled them otherwise:

I would never have married if I couldn't have smiled afterward, and had to draw out my words, and talk about the weather and the fashions. No, dear, people 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. [38 (Oct 1859): 127]

A handful of other female readers were more vocal on the subject, and they made it clear that they would back down to the boys on nothing -- especially after the algebra war; as one girl wrote,

... Willie Coleman, "Bay State,["] R. W. R., and all the rest of the conceited (it is a habit Young America unconsciously adopts) male Algebraists of the Merry family, must learn not to sneer at the weak efforts of the feminines to compete with them, and finally quietly submit to being totally eclipsed by the superior brilliancy of "female genius." [31 (June 1856): 187]

Another girl, whose attempts at Latin had been sneered down by one of the boys, defended herself with a little anecdote of how she had misinterpreted a conversation because one of the speakers used a word with a Latin root which she did not understand; it was a calm and reasoned answer to which she added a sting by referring to the "DOGYtype" he had evidently sent her [34 (Aug 1857): 57-8]. Yet another refused to lionize one of the most popular male Cousins:

Women are a great deal smarter than men, and girls a great deal smarter than boys. The lords of creation are getting so spoiled now-a-days, that they demand as a right what we bestow upon them as a favor. Now, I move we stop flattering their vanity by injudicious praise, and if they want anything to do, let them discuss the theme of woman's rights. [40 (July 1860): 25]

These readers came in for a fair amount of squelching by Robert Merry, who often reminded them that, if a woman "should ... do just as she pleases," as one girl wrote, that this was good, "provided she pleases to do just what -- is right. That is the true theory of 'Woman's Rights,' and man's too." [33 (March 1857): 90] To a reader who in flowery terms spoke of her desire for "future fame and glorious renown" and of her "'call' for something," Merry responded that

... we are completely cornered. "Woman's Rights?" -- what shall we say? ... If you mean to insinuate that woman is not right now -- right-minded, right-hearted, in her right place, in her right sphere, and exercising her right influence in society, and, in all respects, just as right right can be -- then -- we must quarrel outright, and you may go right back to the nursery, and ask your mother to put you right on this matter. [31 (June 1856): 187-8]

All aspects of the Civil War seem to be reflected in the Chat. As the 1850s progressed, the growing tension in the United States was reflected in the Chat, though in ways that only a child would voice it: "I hope the Union never will be dissolved, but if it should be, I have got my piano any how," P. A. P. wrote in 1851 [21 (April 1851): 127]. In 1856, a Northern girl -- later identified as Fleta Forrester -- shot in effigy an abolitionist whose name Merry censored [33 (Jan 1857): 30]. The Southern Cousins applauded her efforts, though they demanded -- and did not receive -- the name of the "gentleman." Sectionalism began to grow in the Chat, with the Southern readers beginning to greet one another to the exclusion of the Northern readers. This sectionalism combined with that age-old battle between adolescent boys and girls, with the male Southerners arrayed against the female Northerners; Hawthorne and Tennesseean constantly made hash of the Northern girls, declaring them boisterous and proclaiming their pity on the Northern males who eventually had to marry them. The girls responded just as hotly, declaring 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 ..." [37 (April 1859): 124] Tennesseean seems to have had that pleasant ability to put his foot directly into it; he precipitated much of the furor in 1858 by sending "Love, to my Southern cousins; respects, to my Northern ones." [35 (Feb 1858): 57] He it was who insisted that "I'd as soon mate with a hornet or a snapping-bug as one of these Yankee girls!" [37 (March 1859): 93] Hawthorne sprang to his defense and, in 1859, wrote a letter that had to be cut because he, Merry wrote, "seems rather 'put out' at the 'Yankee girls,' and says some things not very complimentary about them" [38 (Aug 1859): 60]; Hawthorne later thanked him, having visited some friends in the North and changed his mind about "the 'Yankee Girls"' [38 (Dec 1859): 185].

Once secession began, the Northern readers begged the Southern readers not to secede, and the Southerners loyally swore that they never would, even if their own states seceded from the nation: "... although I belong to the Confederacy of the Seven Stars, I hope I am not yet lost," Hawthorne wrote. "... Although my State [Mississippi] has withdrawn from the United States, I have not the slightest idea of seceding from the Merry Union." [41 (May 1861): 154] Events, however, proved otherwise, and when war was declared, the Southern Cousins were gone. The reaction of the Northern Cousins seems to have been that the Civil War could go on, as long as the Southern Cousins remained in the Merry family; several readers suggested a raid on the Confederacy to bring back the Southern readers.

During and after the War, the Cousins seem to have been embroiled in almost all aspects of the conflagration. Several male readers enlisted in the Union forces almost immediately, and their letters provided the others with fleeting but graphic descriptions of war. Tommy and Jasper -- brothers -- enlisted in the Union navy and became part of the squadron blockading Southern ports; "I can not say that I love to be fighting, as the sights are too horrible to look at," Tommy wrote, "... I can never forget the sight of our vessel after the engagements; the decks were one mass of blood and brains, while here and there lay the dead and wounded, with any quantity of splinters strewn around the decks; may I never witness such a scene again!" [44 (Aug 1862): 59] Oliver Onley, in the army, sent images of slogging through Virginia mud, and of the camps along the Rappahonock just before the Second Battle of Fredericksburg:

A welcome visitor looked in upon me this evening -- the April Museum. It could get no farther south this route, for three hundred yards from me, across the Rappahonock, the camp fires of the rebel pickets are brightly burning, and there, over the ill-fated city of Fredericksburg, the moon sheds a pale, ghostly light on "Rebellion." [45 (May 1863): 154]

Adelbert Older and Eugene Fales -- the latter a clerk in the Museum's offices -- were both captured and spent time in Confederate prisons -- Eugene, for a time, in the infamous Libby prison. Eugene escaped with the aid of Southerners loyal to the Union; Adelbert died in prison. Another cousin -- myopic Wilforley -- bought a substitute, while Willie H. Coleman became a nurse in the Patent Office hospital. Charley F. Speck experienced the Confederate advance into Pennsylvania and wrote of it with surprising humor:

I ... made my escape after seeing them all, horses, cattle, clothes, and everything else in their line, including a demand for myself, when I thought it proper to take leave of absence, which I did, traveling over hills and mountains to get out of their dominions. Now, girls, don't call me a skedaddler! I'm only a deserter from the Southern Confederacy .... [L]et me tell you, as the rebs have pulled me up, dug me up, and threw me over the fence, there is still a "spec" left. And now, Uncle, ... send me another Museum, for the other I suppose the rebels have captured, if it ever came so far as Franklin County ... [46 (Aug 1863): 39]

Like the population at large, the Cousins began the war with bravado and excitement, using military metaphors in their letters and picking lint to send to hospitals; but soon they turned to other concerns. The "p. g. war" of 1863 may have been a reaction to the stresses the war entailed. However, the soldier Cousins often were mentioned in their letters

In the Chat, the end of the War seems to have come as an awakening from a bad dream. Tennesseean, the first Southerner to write after the War, was eager to learn what had happened in the Chat in his absence and spoke of the years of his absence as his "Rip Van Winkle Nap" [49 (April 1865): 121]; Aunt Sue longed "to have our Southern cousins wake out of their unpleasant nightmare and come back to our sheltering arms." [49 (June 1865): 185] This image seems to have been used outside the Chat as well; Clara sent a "pleasant good-morning" to the readers of the Chat and echoed her brother, who received the news of the end of the war while he was in North Carolina: "'Hip, hip, hurrah! War is done, and I am going home to see how rebs look by daylight, for the night is past, and the morn doth appear.'" [49 (June 1865): 187] The Southern readers seem to have returned bloody but unbowed, though timid; Tennesseean represented "a large circle of cousins" who wanted to resubscribe, "But they are rebels .... Can you make room for a band of 'rebs' if they will get into a quiet corner and behave themselves, and 'not touch nothing?'" [49 (April 1865): 121] The other Southern readers stayed away from politics in their letters, so their sentiments are not known, but Tennesseean stayed rebellious; his sentiments were not appreciated by the Northern readers. Once again, he started a furor, this time by asking if the Cousins would "excuse us if, when the hurrah goes round for the Stars and Stripes, we hang our heads and think sadly of the gray-haired man who in his lonely dungeon is suffering so terribly for our misfortunes or sins, call them which you will?" [50 (Sept 1865): 87-92] Cousin Jennie, whose beloved brother had died in battle, viciously attacked this statement and declared that she still said, "'Never! never!' to the proffers of friendship from all who are yet rebels at heart." [50 (Oct 1865): 120] The apology he sent, which was printed in the November issue of the Chat, was more humble than he had intended, having been cut by the editors; "I take the hint .... I am not to ''spress my 'pinions' so publicly," he wrote in the next issue [51 (March 1866): 90]; it was the last letter of his printed in the Chat.

By the Museum's demise in 1872, a generation of readers had spoken through the Chat to its editors, to each other, and to readers a hundred years later. Most important to these letter-writers was the sense of belonging the Chat gave them: they belonged to the magazine, and thus they belonged to a "family" several thousand strong. For the price of a subscription -- postage stamps extra -- Robert Merry's readers found entertainment and friendship in the pages of the Chat, as "Softsoap" expressed in 1868:

     If wishing could bring but a kind thought
     From the depths of your hearts for me,
So I knew you welcomed the stranger
     In truth and sincerity;
And Aunt Sue was my aunt, and "Merry"
     Was my Uncle Merry, too, -- 
     I would sign myself "Yours, merrily,"
         And ever be true to you.  [55 (April 1868):  165]

Chapter Three: Robert Merry & S. G. Goodrich

Copyright 1999-2006, Pat Pflieger