An “Online Community” of the Nineteenth Century
by Pat Pflieger
I would like to acknowledge the aid of Dr. Joseph Browne, who explained psychological terms
From 1841 to 1872, monthly issues of Robert Merry’s Museum brought young readers fiction and nonfiction, poetry and puzzles—and sympathy, companionship, and a complex web of relationships both virtual and real. “Merry’s Monthly Chat with His Friends"—at first, only a page or two where the editor could address his readers—evolved into a column where 20,000 virtual cousins bickered, teased each other, and held discussions in an imaginary parlor. While the magazine and the community it fostered clearly pre-date the Internet, the Chat essentially was an “online community.”
It didn’t start that way.
*Robert Merry’s Museum was founded by Samuel Griswold Goodrich, already famous in 1841 as the creator of “Peter Parley,” a garrulous old man who loved to tell stories about all he’d seen and learned in his long life. The Museum wasn’t Goodrich’s first foray into periodicals for children: *Parley’s Magazine had begun publication in 1833, though Goodrich edited it only for a year. Under Goodrich’s editorship, Parley’s Magazine printed the occasional letter from its subscribers: mostly little descriptions of the letter-writer’s home town, or charming queries about Peter Parley, himself. So popular was Peter Parley, that plagiarists borrowed him to prop up their own works (one prime offender was the ancestor of a respected children’s literature scholar), and Goodrich found it expedient to kill off the old gentleman in 1840, in a work on metaphysics entitled Peter Parley’s Farewell.
“Robert Merry” was a new creation and a fresh opportunity, the putative editor of Robert Merry’s Museum, which began publication in February 1841. Soon, Goodrich was receiving letters from young readers; one resembling a small advertisement for the magazine was printed in October (1841.2.127). By April 1842, “Robert Merry” was filling a regular column with letters very much like those Goodrich had printed in Parley’s Magazine: tiny geographical descriptions, little descriptions of a subscriber’s activities, puzzles for subscribers to solve. The column also gave the editor space in which to inform readers of what would appear in future issues, and to gently tease them about some of their letters. In 1848, the column began to be called “Merry’s Monthly Chat with His Friends”—a title it kept until the magazine folded in 1872.
The Chat grew and grew, especially after John N. Stearns took over the Museum in 1855. A new editor, “Hiram Hatchet,” assisted “Robert Merry.” The Chat’s tone shifted dramatically in 1855, when letter-writers argued over how to prove an algebra problem: heaping scorn on each other’s proofs soon led to heaping scorn on each other, and the Chat’s formality dissolved into wordplay and genteel zingers. A merger of the Museum with Woodworth’s Youth’s Cabinet in 1857 added new editors—“Uncle Frank” and “Aunt Sue”—and new letter-writers to a column that threatened to take over the magazine.
Through gossipy letters, relationships developed between subscribers and the editors, and subscribers and each other, culminating in a real meeting in Stearns’s parlor in December 1865. In 1868, with the Museum sold to publisher Horace B. Fuller, the party ended: the new editor, Louisa May Alcott, published only letters “of general interest,” usually with a little moral; the “Puzzle Drawer,” edited by Aunt Sue, expanded as the Chat shrank.
“Merry’s Monthly Chat” = Red
“Puzzle Drawer” = Blue
The Chat (and the Museum) limped along until November 1872, when the Boston Fire apparently killed off both. Through its 32-year history, the Chat moved in a circle: from Robert Merry talking to readers and readers talking back (1841-1856), to readers talking mostly to each other (1857-1867), back to “Uncle Robert” talking (sometimes crisply) to readers who occasionally got a word in edgewise (1868-1872).
The Museum wasn’t the first American children’s magazine to print letters from subscribers: Parley’s Magazine scattered letters throughout its issues from 1833 to 1844. Nor was it the only magazine to print such letters: in 1852, Woodworth’s Youth’s Cabinet acknowledged and commented on letters in “The Editor’s Table Talk,” occasionally quoting from letters received; by 1856, the column had evolved into “Uncle Frank’s Monthly Table-Talk,” with a sprinkling of letters from subscribers and a lot of talk from Uncle Frank. What makes the Museum unique is that this is the only American children’s magazine to develop its own sense of community. In the pages of the Chat, readers and editors encouraged each other to think of themselves as members of a family socializing in an imaginary parlor, a room somewhere beyond the pages of the magazine not subject to the laws of geography or time.
The Space Behind the Print
For its readers, the parlor became the kind of virtual space experienced by many users of computers and of the Internet. “Everyone who works with computers,” William Gibson has noted, “seems to develop an intuitive faith that there’s some kind of actual space behind the screen.” (in Turkle, 265) The Chat developed because of a perceived “space behind the print”: a sense that there was a real “Robert Merry” developed into a sense that there also was a real “parlor” for those who wished to converse.
This space behind the print was created by Samuel Goodrich. He’d done it before in creating “Peter Parley,” the guiding spirit of his most popular books. Pictured *on the covers or *in the frontispieces of the books he purportedly wrote, Parley was a distinctive figure: an old man “in a cocked hat and coat with big lapels, and pockets stuffed with goodies,” who told stories about history and geography, in “a grandfatherly, homely, fireside way.” (*Mitchell, 330, 333) Plagued by gout, he warned the children in the *frontispiece of Peter Parley’s Method of Telling About Geography to Children to “Take care there! take care boys! if you run against my toe, I’ll not tell you another story!” Readers believed implicitly and absolutely in Peter Parley: “It was a great break-down of our young cherished image to learn in after-life that the cocked hat, and staff, and big pockets were only purest, untruthful fancies,” one reader mourned as an adult. (*Mitchell, 333) Augustus Gaylord cherished a “tender sympathy” for the “long-haired, quaker-hatted venerable old man, crutch at his side, bandaged foot extended on a chair,” which lasted until he received the “severe” shock of meeting as an adult “the Parisian dressed and hatted S. G. Goodrich, with his neatly dressed and curly wig.” (in *Derby, 117) And, when Goodrich toured the South in 1846, he was mobbed by excited young fans expecting to see Peter Parley—some of whom were distinctly disappointed in the very real Goodrich; one boy, visiting with his grandfather,
Ironically, while Parley is a very real presence in the books written and edited by Samuel Goodrich, he’s an absence in *Parley’s Magazine, which Goodrich may not have created entirely by himself, and which he edited for only the first few months of its life. A regular column in the magazine in 1833 ostensibly shows Parley with some fascinated children, but the man featured is younger than Peter and doesn’t look like him; Parley wasn’t pictured on the cover until at least *1836. Even issues edited by Goodrich are eclectic collections of articles and poems, without the connecting link of Parley’s personality; the old man’s voice comes through only in a letter to a little girl, reprinted in the June 8, 1833 issue (109-110).
The virtual space in Merry’s Museum began to take shape on the first page of the first issue. Opening *the cover, on which “Robert Merry” is pictured surrounded by children, readers confronted a *larger version of the same vignette. Under it was Merry’s “*Address to the Reader.” “I am about trying my hand at a Magazine,” Merry confided; “and this is my first number.” The chatty “Address” makes clear Merry’s editorial purpose, which was to collect together pieces meant to appeal to “two classes of persons … I mean all those young people who have black eyes, and all those who have not black eyes!” Robert Merry’s presence as a “real” person is reinforced by *his candid autobiography, which began in that issue and concluded after 22 parts. Merry’s dissolute youth, which included bankruptcy and time in prison, is presented forthrightly; and he, himself, is a very real character who speaks directly to young readers. The illustration of Merry surrounded by children appeared on the first page of each issue in 1841; the magazine’s cover featured his picture *for several years, though *by 1844 he had lost his wooden leg.
The figure of “Robert Merry” was an inspired invention. Merry could josh forgetful subscribers into paying for their magazines or could couch editorial announcements in terms that young readers would understand. Because early-19th-century magazine publishers often sent the magazine even if payment hadn’t been received, subscribers could well be in arrears; editors could emphasize that readers of the Museum weren’t sending their money to an anonymous entity, but to Robert Merry, himself: “We know you will not let Robert Merry … go hungry,” the editor wrote in 1855 when too many subscribers hadn’t sent payment.
Readers took Robert Merry to their hearts almost immediately, sending him letters of praise and criticism, and gifts. A. P. M. apologized for not visiting Merry when she was in Boston: “I went to Boston a year ago, and wished to go and see you; for I thought you would be disappointed if any of your subscribers went there without visiting you. But I only staid two days.” (1846.1.190) Merry’s responses were intimate and warm as he spoke directly to his correspondents: “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.” (1841.2.187) Comments on letters, and Robert Merry’s editorials, emphasized his personality and the pleasure he got from receiving the messages. “I am gratified to find,” he wrote in 1842, “although it is now but about a year since I began to be known to the public, that already I have some thousands of black-eyed and blue-eyed acquaintances, in different parts of the country. I receive many letters from young persons, and they give me great pleasure, for they show that poor Bob Merry, though he has a ‘timber toe,’ is not destitute of friends.” (1842.1.95)
Under Goodrich’s editorship, Merry stayed firmly in character as an old man who had done much that he regretted, but who had learned from his experiences. Mindful of his time spent in prison, he responded to Suzy W.’s description of the birds near her house by asking her not to “catch and cage them. We know what it is to be in prison, and wish every creature to enjoy liberty.” (1852.1.95) Having thrown away a chance to get an education, he noted how wonderful it was that readers were “content to hear stories from one who never went to college.” (1842.1.127) Again and again he reminded readers that he wasn’t young and wasn’t able-bodied; and he expressed pleasure and surprise that readers still responded to him. “I know that the young, the happy, and the gay-hearted, are apt to think that we old fellows are sour and sad—disposed to look with an evil eye upon childhood and its sports; and more ready to preach than practise charity,” he admitted in 1841. But he was reminded of an old walnut tree which he shook to make “the fruit rattle down like hail,” and hoped 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!” (1841.2.186-187) Merry often expressed gratitude that readers took “an interest in poor Bob Merry; and I think all the better of young people, who can be kind to an old fellow with a wooden leg”. (1842.1.127) Although the wooden leg disappeared from the *cover illustration of Robert Merry as early as 1844, it stayed with him in the Chat until around 1854, when a change in editors was in the offing as Goodrich turned the magazine over to new owner Stephen T. Allen: “[D]on’t, for any consideration, get mixed up with the War in Europe,” William Hoyt Coleman warned before the editor went to France to consult with Goodrich, “for if a cannon ball should happen to take off your other leg, I don’t know what we should do. … So mind!” The response hinted at the coming change, warning that “we may get a new leg in France, instead of losing the old one, that has stood by us, or, rather, which we have stood by, so long; and you may not recognize us, when we return, as the same old cripple.” (1854.1.192)
Goodrich’s Robert Merry established an intimacy between editor and subscriber that was an important factor in the creation of the virtual world of the Chat. Readers knew that their letters were treasured: “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.” (1842.1.127)
In the Museum’s early years, the letters column was established quickly as 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. Twenty-two-year-old Laura Chapman was flirted with: “Instead of sending us the flower she promises, she may send us her miniature. We have an eye for things of that sort yet.” (1844.1.126) 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) Soon, readers were responding in kind, sending jokes through the mail or teasing Merry about an unfinished story in the magazine with an equally roundabout, unfinished story. Richard P. H. felt he could turn to Merry for “a simple account of the stars, and other heavenly bodies,” and Merry promised to comply when he had time to write and space in the magazine to print it, asking, “Will you be patient, Dick?” (1844.1.125, 124) Fanny and W. A. C. dreamed about him. Missing subscription money gave Robert Merry a chance to joke with his readers, as Edway B. P.’s letter was introduced with a bit of gentle humor anthropomorphizing the dollar Edway had sent: “The dollar spoken of, must have been a sly fellow, for when the letter came to the publishers, behold, it was missing! … If we can catch the fellow, we’ll write his memoirs, and we think it will be a pleasant story. We think the life and adventures of a dollar that crept out of a letter one day, would be equal to *Bill Keeler’s story of the eel in the aqueduct. If, after all, our little friend forgot to put the dollar into the letter, he may send it to the publishers of the Museum. This will be satisfactory to all parties, though it may spoil a good story of a runaway dollar.” (1844.1.125) Edway’s letter was followed by an editorial postscript: “P. S.—We are just informed by Messrs. Bradbury & Soden, that the stray dollar is found. It appears that it was in the letter, but crept on to the floor; it was caught, however, and is safely put in crib.” (1844.1.126) Kate was assured that “If all our readers desert us but Kate, we engage to print one number a month for her especial gratification.” (1850.2.188) Merry was responsive to readers’ requests: for simple works for beginning readers (“*Alfred Poole" and “*Little Leaves for Little Readers”), for the reprinting of a serialized story (“Take Care of No. One!”), for the end to the reprinting of a serialized story (“Take Care of No. One!”). The intimacy of the Chat probably was strengthened when the death of a subscriber, nine-year-old Laban Lewis Meriam, was announced in the column; though Lewis’s ethical sense and devotion to the Museum may have been intended as a model for other readers to follow, the announcement emphasized that Robert Merry was interested in his subscribers and wished to share news of them.
Robert Merry also made readers privy to editorial decision-making: “ …as to printing all your epistles, you must consider that I have Bill Keeler’s stories to put in, and the Old Man’s in the Corner, and a great many other things. I have, indeed, so many matters crowding into my columns, that I am this month obliged to leave out Dick Boldhero altogether!” (1844.2.63) The readers’ place in the Chat was strengthened by the introduction of imaginary subscribers with whom Robert Merry often consulted after 1845. Richard, James, Annie, Jane, Robert, and John advised Merry on the contents of the magazine (1845.1.1-7), “ratified” the merger with Parley’s Magazine (1848.2.33), and opened and read to him subscribers’ letters (1850.1.126-127). Other imaginary readers accompanied Robert Merry on his imaginary balloon travels in 1851-1856. Seeing themselves reflected in these characters no doubt helped real subscribers feel a connection with the editor and the magazine.
Under John N. Stearns’ editorship, the virtual family, the virtual parlor, and the virtual chatting were fully developed; and the Chat became a virtual online community. In these years, especially, the bond between editor and readers was strong, cemented by exchanges of portraits and by visits in real life.
The virtual community got a good start in 1854, when the Chat began to develop as a “real space” where readers met. Robert Merry—at that time Stephen T. Allen—helped to define the letters column as a “private” place, separate from “the world outside”: “Now that we are all here together,” Robert Merry wrote, “let us have a little talk about our own personal affairs. We don’t like to hear people talking of themselves among strangers, but in one’s own family and among his select friends it is a very different thing.” (1854.1.157) William C. Cutter, writing as “Hiram Hatchet,” extended the metaphor when he temporarily took charge of the Chat, encouraging readers not to be “abashed … at seeing a stranger in Mr. Merry’s chair” and calling the column “a sociable” where all should “feel quite at home, and speak out plainly just what you think.” (1854.1.190) Two months later, Hiram was refining the metaphor, in a letters column two pages longer than it had been the month before (and three pages fewer than it was the next month):
What Cutter had in mind when he invited everyone to stay late for a “chat” is unknown; but by the time S. T. Allen returned to the offices that fall, the readers apparently had begun to think in terms of a parlor, where they sat in conversation.
Readers asked for descriptions of the editors and were obliged: “I think you [Hiram Hatchet] and Robert Merry, and Peter Parley, and S. G. Goodrich, are all one person,” Mary declared in 1854. “Have I guessed right? [Not exactly.]”:
We say “not exactly,” dear Mary. We mean not at all. S. G. Goodrich—everybody knows him, and we need not describe him. Peter Parley, everybody knows him by reputation, but not by sight. He is an exceedingly well-to-do looking sort of a man, having all the experience, observation, and practical wisdom of a man of sixty, but looking, for all the world, like a fresh blown youth, whom any of our sweet Marys, or Annies, or Charlies, would call brother, or cousin, at first sight. …
Robert Merry is a younger man, always cheerful, sometimes even gay, but having withal what a good old writer calls “a commendable gravity, well becoming one who would benefit the young, as well as please them.” He is of medium size, with fair rotundity of proportions, a plenty of dark hair and whiskers, and a smile always lurking about his mouth, which seems to say—Behold a friend of children.
Hiram Hatchet is a boy—past fifty—but a boy yet; tall, lean, gaunt, sharp built, like a hatchet, or a clipper ship. He looks as if the wind would blow him away, if it could only get hold of him, but he is so sharp he cuts through it, whichever way it comes. He is bald, gray, and grisly, and children instinctively call him grandpa. (1854.2.224)
The merger with Woodworth’s Youth’s Cabinet in 1857 had a major impact on the development of the Chat as a cosy community. Most notably, it extended the metaphor of the “Merry Cousins” under the guidance of their “uncles” and “aunt.” Hiram Hatchet had been referred to as “Uncle Hiram” from his appearance in the Museum in 1854, and subscribers began to refer to each other as “cousin” in 1856; but to readers, Robert Merry remained “Mr. Merry.” Francis C. Woodworth and Susanna Newbould were addressed as “Uncle Frank” and “Aunt Sue,” in their columns in the Cabinet; after the magazines merged, these columns were maintained for several months. Meanwhile, the image of the “Merry family” strengthened and deepened; and Robert Merry joined the family as “Uncle Robert.”
Now readers began to explore the parlor metaphor in earnest, offering chairs to each other and asking to sit beside other readers. “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. (1858.1.127) Though Uncle Hiram asserted that “there’s room enough” (1857.1.89), Willie feared that there would be no space for him: “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, hoping to be acknowledged as one of you. I will try to acquit myself creditably when I can stand on my own footing again.” (1858.1.126) Fleta Forrester played with the idea of actually conversing: “O. O.—(Wait a minute, I’m not hurt. I was merely calling friend Oliver Onley’s attention.)” (1859.2.59) The parlor image was refined, until Josie could speak of the “glare from chandeliers,” the “hum of a hundred voices,” and “music’s witching strains” as she entered. (1860.2.26) 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, open the Museum, and immediately find herself “in the Chat, listening to the voices of old and new Merrys.” (1862.1.188)
To a large extent, the success of the Chat as an online community depended on subscribers’ belief in the reality of Robert Merry, the Chat, and each other. The Cousins appeared to experience, not so much a suspension of disbelief, as an unwavering belief in Robert Merry and in the world of the Chat. Especially for younger readers, Merry was a real presence simply because he said he existed: they seem not to have thought to question either his existence or what he said. They saw his picture in the magazine, read his autobiography, enjoyed his joshing editorials. And, they believed in him. “When you were here the other day,” J—s L—n wrote, “I got a peep at a man they told me was you; but as he had n’t a wooden leg, I have some doubts whether it was really you.” (1844.2.63) If readers wondered about him at all, it was to be puzzled that he and Peter Parley and Samuel Goodrich could be one and the same: “Father says that Peter Parley and Robert Merry are all one,” Thomas L—e admitted in 1846;
Believing in the Cousins was more difficult, perhaps because subscribers (and their parents) were hard put to imagine that letters from children would be published, even in a children’s magazine, as the editor confessed in 1844:
Readers still weren’t convinced. A sure test, apparently, was the printing of their own letters, as Blue-Eyed Mary pointed out in 1851:
Who wrote the letters was given a different spin during the Chat’s busiest years: not whether they were written by subscribers, but whether subscribers were misrepresenting who they really were. The revelation that a popular female subscribers was actually a young man made the Cousins suddenly aware that the letters could be written by anyone:
Finally, in late 1860s, the question came full circle, as letters were so chatty and alike that to some the Chat took on the air of a “secret society.” Herman hesitated to write his first letter, because he “feared—in fact, often believed—that all the little “Chats” were made up, in other words, written by one person. … All the correspondence bear such a similarity to each other—in fact, the same words and general expressions are used in nearly all the letters, that I could hardly believe that twenty or forty different correspondents should adopt almost the same style.” (1867.1.122) Others just venturing to write letters weren’t sure of their welcome, since the Chat appeared to be some secret club. Eula Lee entered the “charmed circle” with “some fear and trembling,” but a “young Western friend writes to know something about this Merry circle—‘if it’s a secret society, what the rules and regulations are, etc.’ Now, as I am not one of the initiated, I must e’en come to headquarters for information. Won’t some one enlighten us?” (1865.1.89) Sid described the imaginary Parlor as a “lodge-room”: “Visions of a mysterious room—purple velvet hangings—cabalistic signs—goats—sheets, etc.—all the paraphernalia of a well-conducted lodge-room of the Sons of Malta style cross my mind’s eye—ugh, and a big, grim sentinel with a two-edged sword.” (1865.1.91) Toward the end of its life, the Merry Cousins were so chummy and clubby that the virtual community felt virtually closed to outsiders.
The Chat as Cyber List
Essentially, the Chat was a “moderated list”; letters sent to the offices of the Museum were skimmed by editors, who decided what did and didn’t get printed: “We like to encourage improvement of every kind; our letter-writing friends will therefore recollect, that we never insert a letter that comes in bad handwriting; that has bad spelling; or that has bad grammar; or that is badly punctuated.” (1849.1.160) But this moderated list also operated as a MUD: its ultimate aim was community and conversation. “The members of the Chat and Puzzle departments,” the editors reminded readers in 1865, “form a social and Merry circle for mutual improvement, to hold familiar chats, and cement friendships.” (1865.2.120) As in MUDs, participants in the Chat carried on several “conversations” at once and “created a persona,” via their pennames and what they revealed about themselves. The Chat was in a different medium, but it had many of the characteristics and problems we find in online discussion.
Both groups must deal with “lost” messages. In cyberspace, the letter-writer mutters about computers and computer programs, and resends, having plenty of experience in what can go wrong in e-mail. But knowing that their letters were chosen by the editors meant that the Cousins took the loss personally: “If H. H. puts me in a basket again, I shall certainly do something desperate,” Nippinifidget growled. (1858.1.26) “The fact is,” Uncle Hiram responded, “Uncle Sam likes your letters so much, he won’t let Uncle Hiram see them.” (1858.1.26) Paranoia apparently was endemic. “All the letters written to us do not reach us,” the editors admitted. “ … Now, if a letter which you send us does not appear in its place in the Chat, would it not be quite as kind and just to suppose it had not reached us, as that we had wilfully slighted you? Try it, and see. It will make you more comfortable, and we more happy.” (1858.2.186)
Misinterpretation of messages occurs in cyberspace as often as it occurred in the Chat, as will be discussed later. But, in the case of the Museum, misinterpretation was multiplied by typographical errors, as Nellie Van pointed out in 1864:
Uncle Hiram, did you know that you had misrepresented me in one of the old Chats? [April 1862] According to the gospel of Mr. Hatchet, I come out in this style:
“Fleta, I am glad you didn’t see those ‘languishing gray eyes,’ etc., for I like you better than Sybil Grey.”
Now, Cousin Sybil, I am sure I never said any such thing, and although I dislike to lay the blame on the shoulders of others, yet I won’t take it myself, myself not being guilty.
Uncle Hiram—poor Uncle Hiram—who bears our reproaches so patiently, must receive the burden. How hateful I am to blame you, am I not?
Uncle, if I knew of anybody else upon whom to “visit my wratch,” I would surely do it. (1864.1.90)
Hawthorn, a Southerner having a tiff with some Northern girls, complained when a typographical error didn’t help. His letter as printed began by addressing one of his opponents: “You doubt the bravery of the Southerners, then. Well, I’ll forgive you for your extreme ignorance, my Older cousin,” he went on, apparently addressing Adelbert Older, an innocent bystander. (1860.1.123) “Uncle Hiram,” Hawthorn complained in the next issue, “I must take you to task for the way my letter was ‘used up’ …. What is the matter with your typos? It should be as follows: ‘You doubt the bravery of the Southerners, then. Well, I’ll forgive you for your extreme ignorance. My Older cousin, I was truly grateful,’ etc.” (1860.1.186) The tiff continued.
“Bandwidth” was as much of a problem for the Chat as it is in cyberspace. Uncle Robert found as early as 1844 that not all the letters received would fit into the pages of the magazine: “ … as to printing all your epistles, you must consider that I have Bill Keeler’s stories to put in, and the Old Man’s in the Corner, and a great many other things. I have, indeed, so many matters crowding into my columns, that I am this month obliged to leave out Dick Boldhero altogether! However, I find that our subscribers like Our Correspondence very well, and therefore I shall put in as much of it as my space will allow.” (1844.2.63) The font size in the letters column decreased; leading grew lighter, to leave more space for words. The column expanded between months: “Last month [when the Chat was 3 pages long] we were compelled to break off in the middle, while several persons were watching their opportunity to speak,” Uncle Hiram wrote at the beginning of a 5-page column of letters. “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 therefore invited the company two hours earlier than usual.” (1854.2.252) Sorting out those letters too difficult to read or written in such a way that the type setter would have difficulty didn’t filter out enough letters to keep the Chat manageable: “Last month we had ten pages of Chat, and this month—if we printed all that we want to—we should have twenty.” (1855.1.121) The editor tried printing only extracts, but soon realized that “If I fill our space with extracts, I shall omit hundreds of letters as good as those that are noticed.” (1854.1.60) Instead, Hiram Hatchet wielded an imaginary ax to cut letters to a manageable size; and when this ax “burned up” in the fire that destroyed the Museum’s offices in 1861, a mechanical “double-back-action-high-pressure-condensatory-manipulator” went “Kerr-clickety-crunch-kerr-clickety-crunch” as it chopped the messages. (1863.1.120) Still, the Chat threatened to take over the magazine until the editor reshaped the focus of the Chat in 1868.
Compared with online communication, the Chat had a disadvantage which is in keeping with the disadvantage online communication has compared with face-to-face discussion—and which some will find no disadvantage at all. Communication by written word, many point out, lacks the emotional cues we depend on when speaking with others. But participants in MUDs have avatars, and online chatters have emoticons, which the Cousins didn’t—and probably couldn’t—develop. Thus, even those slight cues were missing from their letters. If writers attempted such personalization, the transition from letter to print would have erased it, given the expense of producing such typographical cues and the editorial need to compress the letters. But writers to the Chat may not have attempted to express themselves via visual cues, perhaps because their method of communication lent itself to wizardry with words, perhaps because the Merry Cousins enjoyed wordplay and the game of writing a letter so tight that editors couldn’t or wouldn’t cut it. Puns became the Cousins’ stock in trade: “[A]re not puns rather too prevalent?” Annie Drummond asked. “Puns, puns! Puns painfully persistent, puns purgatorial, puns puerile, puns puzzling, puns pungent, puns possibly probable and probably passable. Have pity, oh, ye punster! Must ye forever prevail, preponderate, and predominate?” (1864.1.153) In reply, A. N., blamed the editorial requirement to “be short”: if letters could be longer, 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)
Like online communities, the community of the Chat was essentially democratic. It’s been pointed out that online communities will weed out those who don’t feel comfortable communicating via the written word. (Suler, “E-Mail Communication and Relationships”) The same is true of the Chat. Managing the implements of communication might seem to weed out even more. But, just as few people in cyberspace can’t manage a keyboard or its equivalent, few among the Merry Cousins, couldn’t manage to write. Letter-writers included the youngest readers of the magazine, who couldn’t yet manage a pen, but who could dictate their letters to siblings or to parents. “Mother says she will write what I dictate,” one boy wrote (1850.2.159); “My mother is holding my hand,” five-year-old Ellen explained, “so that I can write you my first letter.” (1851.2.160) The Chat had its share of lurkers, some by choice, some by destiny. Certainly not all the 20,000 subscribers wrote letters; definitely not all letters were printed. Some subscribers, like Bertina, read the magazine for years before writing in:
Long ago, when I was a little wee thing, a messenger entered our home, bearing the title of “Parley’s Magazine.” Years have rolled away since then, and under another name it has ever been welcomed at our fire-side, and all through childhood’s days the beloved Museum has been my dearest companion, and as we grew up together, nothing gave me more happiness than to spend hours over its magic pages. All these years I have been with you, till your names and faces are become as familiar as those of my friends. I have been with you unseen, when the circle re-echoed with joy and gladness; and when the shadow of the “dark-winged angel” has fallen heavily upon you, I, too, a sincere mourner, have been with you in your grief.
And now, dear Uncle, I come timidly seeking admittance to the hallowed circle, and if there are found none among my Cousins willing to add me to their number, it will give me pleasure only to linger quietly in the charm of their presence. (1865.2.123)
Lizzie N. F. had never planned to write in, herself: “Heretofore I have been content to sit by and watch the rest as they sought introductions to one and another of the cousins, without a thought of doing the same thing myself. But I have come to the conclusion that it will be a decided benefit to me to take a part myself.” (1871.1.151-152)
But the Chat was essentially democratic. All, the editors pointed out, had a chance to join in. “All subscribers to the Museum,” the editor pointed out in 1865, “are members [of the Chat], with equal rights and privileges and corresponding duties.” (1865.2.120) He might have added “and non-subscribers,” for several letter-writers admitted that they didn’t take the magazine themselves, but borrowed it from friends or read it at school. Regardless, each had a chance to see his or her letter printed in the Museum—much to the apparent surprise of the readers. Other readers weren’t so sure, however, that all were equal in the Chat, since each issue seemed to contain a letter from certain Cousins, while their own were ignored. “I have sent you three correct readings,” Frank Kellogg scolded in 1856, “ … but there has been no notice taken of them, and some dozen riddles, &c. I have sometimes thought, if I should sign my name Black-eyed Mary, or Willie Coleman, I should have a hearing.” Robert Merry remonstrated:
And, in fact, when one reads the Chat, some subscribers—such as Black-eyed Mary (aka “Black-Eyes”) and William Hoyt Coleman—do seem to have had letters in every issue; but a look at the numbers reveals that their letters appeared just about every two or three months—still above the average, but not nearly as often as is apparent. Later writers joked about the “bright particular stars” in the column—who included Willie Coleman. (1859.1.123-124) But writers could find their letters printed in the Chat, even if, like Blue-Eyed Lora, it was on their eighth try.
As in cyberspace, in the Chat geography was irrelevant—at least, in whether or not one could join in. Geography could be a problem during puzzle contests, since the letters of some subscribers arrived later than those of others. Lucy, who moved to Oregon Territory in 1857, had perhaps the worst difficulty: her letters regularly took a month to reach New York—though one needed 71 days—and the magazine often took a month to reach her. (1858.1.92) Pinckney Latham, of Tennessee, solved a contest puzzle within three hours, but his answer was late arriving; he humorously tied his problem to the growing sectionalism in the country and called on Robert Merry for help:
Sectionalism—and civil war—did turn geography into an issue. But when the mails ran, where readers lived was, as Roland pointed out, irrelevant when it came to who could “converse” in the Chat:
As seen in online discussions, the Merry Cousins could and did choose to “connect with” certain others: for several months in 1852 and 1853, Darius G. Maynard and a New Hampshire subscriber named “G.” each sent Latin puzzles for the other to translate—and added some polite belligerance: “I would like to see if G. of the Old Granite State will get this out quite as easy as he did my other,” Darius wrote. “If he does, he will please to let me know it.” (1852.2.186) The algebra problem which radically shifted the tone of the letters column originally was sent for William Hoyt Coleman to solve. (1855.1.61) Other subscribers tended to respect the connection, submitting neither translations nor puzzles to the “Latin fight.” Only after Willie Coleman made hash of his proof of the algebra problem, did others jump in and make equal hash of their own.
What the Merry Cousins had to say to each other was preserved in a permanent record, in much the way online discussions are preserved—though the Cousins’ messages may be more permanent than those in cyberspace, since the letters are on paper, and not subject to the vagaries of electronics and of overextended archives. The Cousins could quote one another and defend misread messages—and return to earlier discussions for present battles. The permanent record also could be used to unify the Chat; it made possible William Hoyt Coleman’s “Retrospectum,” the history of the Chat which eased subscribers to Woodworth’s Youth’s Cabinet into the world of the Museum when the magazines merged in 1857.
“Cyberspace,” John Suler has noted, “creates a unique temporal space where the ongoing, interactive time together stretches out.” (“Basic Psychological Features of Cyberspace”) The asynchronous nature of communicating means that a message may have been written days before, but as it is read and responded to, the discussion seems to exist in its own “now.” Writers on e-lists can reread a message until they feel they fully understand it; they can carefully plan their responses; they can revise and polish, until the response presents not only what its writer wishes to say, but also presents the writer in the best light. Online discussion, Suler points out, “may reflect a distinct cognitive style that enables some people to be more expressive, subtle, organized, or creative in how they communicate. Some people feel that they can express themselves better in the written word.” (“The Final Showdown Between In-Person and Cyberspace Relationships,” in “Psychology”) Lag-time is the advantage that online discussion has over real life. It was an advantage the Merry Cousins understood. The Chat was the product of leisure: subscribers needed time to read the letters and to compose their sometimes-complex answers, especially since a premium was put on “spiciness” and on an ability with words. “I like your Cabinet and Museum very much indeed,” William W. wrote in his only letter printed in the Chat, “but have never had any time to get out the puzzles and enigmas, as I work in the mill, and have to keep busy from morning till night.” (1857.2.59) Some readers dropped out as they took on new roles in life: Winifred married; Puss began a new life in California; William Forrest Oakley took a break from writing while he adjusted to being head of the household after his father’s death; William Hoyt Coleman quit writing after he began a career.
The Chat had its own primitive lingo. “X” or “ex” referred to the exchange of photographs between Cousins. In the Chat, the word “cousin” or “coz”—sometimes capitalized—was used to designate other subscribers. After 1855, the word “algebra” had connotations not found elsewhere; and “That Problem”—capitalized—meant only the algebra problem that changed the tone of the Chat.
In keeping with other virtual communities, the subscribers to Merry’s Museum indulged in most of the forms of conversation described by Gary Shank. Monologue, as he describes it, consists of one “sender” and “one or multiple receivers who listen passively to the message of the sender.” Lizzie G. sent richly detailed descriptions of her life in Paris from 1849 to 1851; William Hoyt Coleman wrote a description of the boarding school he was attending (1855.1.29) and recorded the antics of the family kitten. (1855.1.186-187) These letters were enjoyed by other readers, but there were few other responses to the descriptions; they are “seamless” and complete, and other readers may have felt little need to respond. Dialogue, “the basic model of all dyadic oral communication” consists of a sender and receiver “taking turns.” Darius G. Maynard and a New Hampshire subscriber certainly indulged in this form of conversation during their “Latin fight” in 1852; each politely sneered at the other, and the rest of the Cousins stayed out. Multilogues, however, were the specialty of the Chat. Shank describes the way that a sender will start a thread of conversation which, since “the mechanics of Net response do not require turn taking,” immediately leaves the sender’s control:
The Merry Cousins would have known exactly what he was talking about; they were well-versed in the art of the multi-thread discussion.
“Threads” became part of the Chat soon after the virtual parlor was established. In 1855, Robert Merry debated with “Mary, of Pleasant Retreat,” the benefits and drawbacks of city living and country living. And the algebra war is basically a long, unwieldy thread. Unlike citizens of cyberspace, the Merry Cousins seem not to have expected that the threads they introduced would be followed; certainly there were few, if any, complaints when their subjects weren’t pursued. While there was a real pleasure when someone commented on what someone had written, there was more a sense of subscribers being clever, having a say, commenting on the comments of others. The Cousins were particularly deft at carrying on “multi-thread” conversations as complex as those found in online chat rooms—complete with puns and with references to comments made months earlier—letters that pulled in just about everyone in earshot. “Here I am again,” Emmie M. Johnson wrote in 1859,
As readers took the Chat away from the editors in the 1850s, many letters became threaded paragraphs of greetings to other subscribers.
The Psychology of the Chat
Especially, however, online communities and the Chat shared psychology. “Online is its own place,” one computer user asserts. (in Turkle, 231) So was the parlor.
This virtual space developed almost entirely without any visual cues beyond the *cover illustration of a man talking with children; there wasn’t even an illustration at the top of the column until 1868 (mostly because there wasn’t space for one). Sherry Turkle speaks of “step[ping] through the screen into virtual communities” (177); to some extent, the Cousins appear to have had same reaction; Jennie B. D., in 1862, lost herself in the Chat on a dreary day, “listening to the voices of old and new Merrys” (1862.1.188) In Turkle, there is a sense that something is going on on the other side of the monitor, some other consciousness is at work there, some other life is taking place there, which computer users can enter. The Merry Cousins may have been having a similar experience, as the editors showed them a world behind the print on the page. In 1848, on the merger of Merry’s Museum and Parley’s Playmate, Samuel Goodrich showed Robert Merry and Peter Parley “putting their heads together,” in print and in an illustration. (1848.2.4) He also gave real subscribers a glimpse of Merry consulting with imaginary readers and a detailed—and humorous—look at an editorial muddle. In 1855 Stephen T. Allen gave a look at how letters were chosen for the Chat. These behind-the-scenes glimpses no doubt led to a sense that just beyond the cover of the magazine, just behind the text on the page, lay another world which readers could enter. The fact that the letters were put into their own column also must had added to the development of a sense of community. Though the editors were in charge, at heart the Chat was the subscribers’ section of the magazine, and seeing the letters printed one after another adds to a sense of a lot of very chatty people in a room.
To some extent, the parlor where readers could chat with editors and with each other seems to have sprung from the office where subscribers were welcomed and where business was transacted. Almost from the beginning, the office was a place where subscribers were welcome to visit, and some took advantage of trips to Boston or New York to call on the editors: Merry was “highly gratified to have a call from [Clementina Tompkins], as she passed through New York, last summer. And we hope none of the Merrys will ever pass, without calling.” (1845.2.187) The transition from office to parlor was almost instantaneous. The editorial chair from which Hiram Hatchet admonished readers not to be “abashed, young friends, at seeing a stranger in Mr. Merry’s chair” (1854.1.190) was an “easy-chair” a few months later, as Uncle Hiram welcomed Robert Merry back to his place at “the table, around which the young Merrys are gathered for the monthly chat.” By now, the image of the parlor had taken hold in the column. “Bless me! how cheerful and pleasant everything looks here, and how glad I am to get back again,” Merry exclaimed. (1854.2.310)
The Cousins cooperated in creating this virtual place, offering seats to one another and writing in terms of the metaphor. Josie and Nannie Nightingale described the other Cousins as if at a gathering; Juno complained that she had been “sitting in the corner since the first of February [six months earlier], and not one of the cousins has spoken a word to me” (1864.2.62); Jolly Jingle planned to gather with other subscribers and “read in that cosy corner by the fire. Yes, we will, Uncle Merry, don’t you say ‘no!’ ” (1865.1.91)
For the Cousins, the parlor was its own place, a place where they could play. Sherry Turkle develops the idea of the “psychosocial moratorium” originally explored by Erik Erikson: the idea that there is a period when one can experiment with new interactions and modes of thinking without experiencing the consequences. Turkle argues that this moratorium is no longer just a phase, but a “mode of experience” bolstered by virtual communities, which “offer permission to play, to try things out.” (203-204) There is a sense that the Cousins felt the same way about the parlor, that it was a place where they could play and experience no real consequences. William Oakley’s revelation of his true gender had no real consequences and was handled with humor, not shock. In the Southerners’ letters to the Chat, slaves became “servants,” if they were mentioned at all; and the coming war between North and South was the subject of joshing and gender battle. Real life receded into the background. The Chat also was a place where some Cousins experimented with new modes of adulthood. Several who saw themselves as budding writers tried their skills in the Chat. Lizzie G. was inspired by seeing her letter in print:
Laura Elmer honed her skills as a poet. William Hoyt Coleman practiced journalism by sending Uncle Robert a description of New York City under a blanket of snow, of boys swimming in the Hudson River, and of Indepence Day celebrations.
Online communities, Turkle points out, allow some users to “reconstruct a sense of middle-class community” which, for economic reasons, they lack in real life. (243) Over-qualified for their ill-paying jobs, they find satisfaction in using their skills to create a virtual world where they can have what real life has thus far failed to offer them. To some extent, the same thing was happening in the Museum. In a nation going through a period of social and political upheaval, the Merry Cousins shaped a place where the upheaval either wasn’t taking place, or where it could be discussed safely.
The issue of women’s rights was discussed in the pages of the Chat, as it was in real life; and in the letters column, at least, the girls found a place to assert themselves against the boys and to express their hopes for something they weren’t yet able to articulate. It’s impossible to say with any certainty (one popular female subscriber turned out to be a prankish teenaged boy), but the number of girls in the Chat appears to be about equal with the number of boys. The girls held their own in the flame war that broke out over an algebra problem in 1855; and they brooked no condescension from the boys. “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,’ ” Alice B. Corner warned. (1856.1.187) She wasn’t alone. Alice’s support of “the hackneyed and much abused subject of ‘Woman’s Rights,’ ” and her sense that she could use her talents to win “future fame and glorious renown” once she understood what her “ ‘call’ ” would be for were quashed by Robert Merry; but other female readers understood. Bella Bassett had “a ‘still small voice’ way down in the deepest recess of my heart, which has seemed to cry for knowledge, and I have so wished that I could write something beautiful and good!” (1856.1.188); it was Black-Eyes who—though no supporter of women’s rights—sympathized and redefined the voice for her: “I have heard that ‘still, small voice,’ too, Bella, and it was but very lately that I could distinguish what it said. I can a little now. Listen attentively, and you will hear such sweet things.” (1856.2.27)
The spreading of the population across the continent broke up families and communities in real life—but not in the Chat. While Cousins who lived far from the magazine’s offices pointed out that they were too far away to take part in the magazine’s puzzle contests, geography was no barrier to their participation in the letters column. Even Lucy, whose letters from the Oregon Territory could take over a month to arrive at the Museum’s offices, was for a time a steady participant.
Even the growing sectionalism as civil war became likely was mitigated in the parlor. No specific reasons for the sectionalism were ever expressed. Instead, the Cousins joshed about it: facetiously grousing about the pet-names she was called in the Chat, Southerner Busy Bee asked Uncle Hiram to look into the matter. “I feel that my grievances are very great,” she claimed, “and I shall most certainly ‘secede’ unless you give me proper ‘guarantees’ of better treatment in future.” (1861.1.156) The Chat provided a safe place for the Cousins to express their anxieties, as Southern boys and Northern girls engaged in a gender battle. Once the War came, the Cousins—several of whom had biological relatives on the opposing side—vowed that their bond wouldn’t yield: “[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) As secession progressed, some Northern Cousins suggested a raid on the Confederacy to bring the others back to the parlor. “Send me after [Cornelius Gibbs], Uncle!” Ellian offered. “How can I penetrate into Secessia? Will King Cotton’s pickets allow me to pass their lines? I’ll tell you, I’ll go down just behind General McClellan, and bring him back in triumph. Give somebody a commission now for Hawthorne.” (1862.1.58) Reconstruction was a different matter. Aunt Sue and some of the Cousins were welcoming: “Some of my Southern correspondents come back a little shyly, as though uncertain as to how they would be received,” Aunt Sue wrote. “Bless your dear hearts! Only come back and shake hands, and the hearty grip you will receive shall convince the most sensitive that we feel nothing but love and affection for you all.” (1866.1.27) Annie Drummond’s welcome was equally warm: “Tennessean! is it possible? I’m delighted to see you, and here’s my warmest welcome. You may lay the flattering unction to your soul that this Merry has not forgotten you—never!” (1865.1.157) But Tennessean’s refusal to repudiate the South and Jefferson Davis drew fire from Jennie, whose brother was killed in the War; and their exchanges grew so heated that one of Tennessean’s letters, at least, was edited, and he withdrew from the Chat.
But, for the most part, the Chat was a place where the Cousins were safe to express their real selves.
Status and Community in the Chat
Such online chat environments as the Palace—studied by John Suler—count on “superusers” for “hosting, advising, and socializing new users” and “controlling deviant behavor in the community,” as well as “acting as consultants” to the corporation running the site. These “wizards” are drawn from the ranks of members, selected for their value to the community. It is a job with high status and with responsibility commensurate with the power involved. Wizards can “discipline” an unruly user by temporarily freezing the user’s avatar; they can even disconnect a user or ban him or her from the site. They also know the identities behind the avatars. Because it’s a job with a lot of power, it’s a job with a lot of status and authority, and ordinary users of the environments react accordingly, rebelling against or pandering to them. (Suler, “Wizards”) Some users even masquerade as wizards, “one of the more common types of impostoring.” (Suler, “Bad Boys”)
The Museum also had its wizards, primarily, of course, the editors of the magazine, who chose which letters—and which parts of those letters—were printed. Occasionally, however, subscribers to the magazine became wizards in their own right. Several subscribers wrote stories, articles, or poems for the magazine; William Hoyt Coleman was selected to sum up the history of the letters column in his “Retrospectum; or, The Chat in Bygone Days.” Jasper, In the Corner, Leslie, Tommy, and Loyalty planned the “Merry Convention” held in John N. Stearns’ parlor. Fleta Forrester took over the Puzzle Drawer in 1865 and 1866, in Susanna Newbould’s absence. Geographical proximity to the Museum’s offices probably was key in the fact that these subscribers became “supersubscribers”: Jasper and the other members of the committee lived in or near New York City; Willie Coleman occasionally dropped into the Museum’s office. Interestingly, though, the subscribers accorded this status—especially Willie Coleman—had much in common with those chosen to be wizards in the online Palace. Users nominated for wizard status, Suler has pointed out, tend to be “friendly, mature, helpful or generically ‘great,’ … good at handling snerts [unruly users] and/or helping new users, … knowledgeable about Palace technology and culture, and … online a lot.” (“Wizards”) Willie was probably the most popular Cousin in the column, the one mentioned most often by new letter writers. His often-humorous letters have a disarming and friendly tone that invites response even 150 years later; he was careful each time that a new subscriber mentioned his name to greet that subscriber in a subsequent letter. Other than the algebra war, he took part in no other flame wars in the Chat. Dropping into the office made him privy to the procedures used to produce the Chat; that, combined with his years as a subscriber (at the time he wrote the “Retrospectum,” he’d taken the magazine for 11 years), made him an expert in the Chat’s culture. And, amusingly, he was “online a lot,” sending in letters, puzzles, and puzzle answers to at least 60 out of 108 issues from 1853 to 1861. Being online has a practical benefit for wizards in the Palace, who must be available to help when needed; it probably didn’t have that kind of benefit in the Museum, though when a popular subscriber revealed that she was married, Willie’s comments—in the very next letter on the page—may have helped to ease the shock for the other subscribers.
Though some subscribers expressed discontent that other subscribers were published more often than they were (see, for example, Frank Kellogg’s complaint), there’s no sense that other Cousins attempted to usurp these “wizards’ ” roles, probably because they knew that the editors were really in charge. Perhaps Willie Coleman, whose common name made for some confusion with other members of the Chat, came the closest to the kind of identity theft Suler describes. The one person whose role was usurped was editor Hiram Hatchet, who received a dose of morphine from 11-year-old Jeannie Parker, so he wouldn’t “be awake” to cut her letter short: “Now I’m going to speak, and what’s more, I want to be heard. And first, here’s a little morphine for Uncle Hiram; it won’t hurt him; and now he’s out of the way, I will proceed without fear of molestation.” Uncle Hiram, of course, was complicit in this act, since he could completely censor the letter; the proceedings must have amused him. Jeannie had her say; and the letter ends only when she “notices” that “Uncle Hiram is recovering from the effects of that morphine. Had a good nap, Uncle?” (1861.2.59)
Suler’s history of the Palace, especially the section on “Coping with the Masses,” shows an online community with a surprising amount in common with the Merry Cousins, including attempts to establish status. People, Suler reminds us, “want to acquire some measure of status, position, and power … not necessarily to control or dominate others, but rather to feel a sense of personal value and importance. They want to BE SOMEbody, and not just anybody.” The players at the Palace found creative ways to establish status, most notably “placing a variety of unusual keyboard characters next to their name, as if wearing ‘badges’ to signify some kind of imaginary status or position [the Palace wizards could put an asterisk beside their names], or as a way to identify their membership to a particular clique.” Stealing the identity of a wizard was a sure way to high status. The Merry Cousins were just as aggressive in trying to establish status; it’s simply that the aggression showed up in a different way. In the Chat, status depended on power over words, rather than on power over others; instead of wresting power from other players, by taking over their avatars or masquerading as Palace wizards, the Cousins wrested attention from other subscribers, by indulging in elaborate feats of cleverness—like Jeannie Parker’s—or wordplay.
Like any self-respecting online community, the Cousins indulged in flame wars; though in the Chat flaming often had unexpected consequences: instead of splitting the group, in the Chat it tended to bring readers together. The first flame war, begun in 1855, was central in the development of the column as a virtual community. “That Problem,” as it came to be called, looked simple: x2 + y2 = 8; x + xy = 6. To the mathematically inclined, the answer is easy: x = 2; y = 2. To the Cousins, however, the difficulty lay in proving the equation. Proving it to the satisfaction of the other Cousins, that is. Such exacting mathematicians were the subscribers that each proof offered was pooh-poohed by the audience; month after month the Chat contained proof after proof. Subscribers heaped scorn on each attempt: “I presume [William Hoyt Coleman] will have no objection to telling us what kind of stump puller he employed to extract so remarkable a root,” X. demanded after Willie offered his first proof, which argued that x + y was the square root of x2 + y2. (1855.2.154) Others sprang to Willie’s defense; some sprang to the defense of his attackers; and the fight was on. Not content with scorning each other’s proofs, the Cousins scorned each other’s mathematical skills and, finally, scorned each other. Describing the algebra war in mock epic style, Willie Coleman gives a flavor of the proceedings:
At first, the editors could only look on in horror:
Mary, black-eyed Mary, do you think Merry’s Museum a Sebastopol, or do you want uncles Robert and Hiram to have “black eyes” too, that you have projected into our quiet camp, that terribly mischievous missile, which you call a problem? It has exploded—it has, and blown up Willie Coleman, X., G. H. B., and lots of others, and we don’t know when they will come down again. They are all by the ears, and you are the cause of it. We do not suppose you intended any harm—but pray look about you, and see what you have done. We should like to see those black eyes, when they catch the first glance of this page, and peruse the report of “slaughter and confusion dire” which we are obliged to make up. (1855.2.153)
Finally, Susanna Newbould (“Aunt Sue”) proposed a “bill of peace,” and the editors clamped down on discussion of either proof or Problem.
Strangely for those who’ve experienced a flame war in cyberspace, the algebra war didn’t divide the subscribers, but united them; and it changed the tone of the Chat from genteel quiet to genteel rowdyism. The puns and wordplay that characterized the Cousins’ assaults on each other became the standard; and the casual tone that emerged in the heat of battle remained a characteristic of the Chat in peacetime. “The character of the Chat was entirely changed,” Willie Coleman noted. “Every one essayed to wield the keen blades of wit and repartee, and fearful was the discharge of puns, jokes, and jests .… ” (1858.2.185)
Editors, of course, were ultimately in charge of what went on in the Chat—and what went on in the flame wars as well. “I tell you what, boys,” the editors cautioned during the hottest part of the battle, “we must have no fighting, or calling hard names at our table. Leave that to members of Congress, many of whom are below being disgraced by any amount of blackguardism. The Merry boys must never forget that they are gentlemen.” (1856.1.156) For the most part, they tried to ensure that the Chat was a place where readers could express themselves. “Free discussion is the best,” Robert Merry said in answer to a subscriber who felt that another should just “keep his thoughts to himself, if he wishes to fare well with the Merry family”:
Thus, when Tennessean closed a letter in 1858 by wishing “Love, to my Southern cousins; respects, to my Northern ones,” Robert Merry let it stand, wondering only that, while the letter’s first sentence was “worthy of a philosopher…. How could it have been written by the same pen which wrote the last!!” (1858.1.57)
Occasionally, though, the letters were edited to keep the peace. In 1857, Sigma (actually, Fleta Forrester) described shooting an abolitionist in effigy; in the letter as printed, the name was a blank. Sigma suspected why: “When the original epistle departed this city (not this world, as I feared), the name stood bravely at its post, but I half suspect when it arrived at its journey’s end, it fell through.” (1857.1.92) The editors remained silent on the subject as one Southern reader speculated over and over on the identity of the “gentleman.” It wasn’t the only letter snipped; the editors usually stepped in when things got too personal: “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” (1859.2.60); “Jasper calls somebody names, and so gets crushed by the manipulator.” (1864.1.29) C. W. Johnson went after “a very saucy [letter] from ----” and Hiram Hatchet admitted, “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)
Usually the editors’ practice kept the peace—and the subscribers. Cousins seem to have taken the hints inherent in the non-silent editing. It was silent editing that caused at least one subscriber to bow out of the Chat. After the Civil War, one returning Southerner—Tennessean, who seemed to have a genius for such things—drew the wrath of a Northerner and found one of his letters so edited that it didn’t reflect what he’d actually said:
Community was the central focus of the Chat; subscribers were operating in a way that one Internet user equates with MUDs: they were “making a world together. You got no prestige from being abusive.” Bulletin boards, he points out, tend to privilege flaming: “There was a premium on saying something new, which is typically something that disagrees to some extent with what somebody else has said. And that in itself provides an atmosphere that’s ripe for conflict.” (in Turkle, 218) Like bulletin boards, the Chat privileged liveliness, wordplay, and “spiciness,” often at the expense of other readers. However, the moderating practices of the editors were a moderating influence on the subscribers, and community was maintained.
Gender and Identity in the Chat
Identity was as fluid in the Chat as it is in cyberspace. Sherry Turkle has pointed out that the Internet encourages “models of psychological well-being” that “admit multiplicity and flexibility.” In cyberspace, there is no rigid sense of gender, of identity; we can explore the “different aspects” of our personality. (263) The same occurred in the Chat, with subscribers creating personae through pen-names and through what they chose to reveal about themselves. “In [the Internet’s] virtual reality,” Turkle asserts, “we self-fashion and self-create.” (180) It’s impossible to know to what extent the Cousins were having a similar experience. Some didn’t “play”: most who didn’t were fairly young; most who did were at least in their teens. Black-Eyes didn’t reveal that she was married; William Forrest Oakley didn’t reveal that he was male when he wrote his first letter as “Bess” at age 19; he didn’t reveal his real identity when he blurred his full name into “Wilforley” after Bess was forcibly retired. William Hoyt Coleman was 11 when his first letter was printed; he chose then not to adopt a penname. However, at age 13 he wrote as “Jack Thump,” the imaginary friend of a fictional character popular in the Museum—which he revealed several years later.
In contrast with Woodworth’s Youth’s Cabinet, where subscribers usually were listed by name, the Museum allowed—or, perhaps, encouraged—subscribers to adopt pen-names. Here, subscribers seem to take the chance to express creativity and joy in wordplay; or to express their “true identity.” Love of word-play was expressed by such names as Uno Hoo, Double-you-see, and Bob White. Readers played with typographical symbols: !—-! and *; 1/20000 obviously represented one of Merry’s 20,000 readers. Female readers often named themselves after flowers: Pansy, Moss Rosebud, Daisy Wildwood, Wild Rose, Hyacinth, and Anemone. Readers named themselves for a favorite piece of literature—as Minnehaha did—or for a favorite writer—as Fanny Fern Marble referred to “*Fanny Fern.” Some subscribers appear to have tried to created a personality through their name: 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.” Once a reader took a name, it was used by no other; “Comet No. 2,” the editor warned, “you will have to find another name, as there is another of your species somewhere in the Merry heaven, and in Merry Astronomy does not predict when it will reappear.” (1867.1.157) But occasionally readers changed their names, and then the old name was up for grabs; “Minnehaha wants to change her name,” the editor wrote in 1864. “Who speaks first?” (1864.1.29) At least one subscriber (Lillie Linden) had to change her name (to Rubie Linden) after a newspaper columnist began writing under the former name.
Not all subscribers took their naming seriously; Malta, for example, confessed that “I have been in the most deplorable state of ignorance as to the prettiest nom-de-plume. I at last concluded to name myself after the first living creature which entered the room. Just as I had decided so to do, in came old puss.… ” (1858.1.90) The editors took naming more seriously. “There is no place in the Chat for ‘Sorry’ Cousin,” the editor chided in 1864. “Take a look in through the open door, and if then you are still ‘sorry,’ please do not come again. ‘A rose by any other name,’ etc.” (1864.1.124) The Cousin reconsidered: “As you are all for a change, and have done much for my change, I shall submit to have Sorry Cousin changed, and wish you to EX-change with Better Cousin.” (1864.2.185)
There can be an illicit thrill in using a pen-name; under an assumed name, we can explore facets of ourselves which might shock others. The Cousins may have had the same experience. When she described shooting an abolitionist in effigy, Fleta Forrester signed herself “Sigma,” a name she dropped after only a few letters. She had written as Fleta to Woodworth’s Youth’s Cabinet, before it merged with the Museum. Perhaps her first letter to the Museum, which her family had taken for over ten years, represented a fresh beginning and needed a new personality which she then decided to shed; perhaps the subject matter of the letter made it seem appropriate to take on another identity. She wasn’t the only subscriber to adopt multiple pen-names; Sybil Grey confessed that she’d once written to the Chat as a boy. Uncle Robert noted the enticement of adopting a pen-name, but preferred an optimistic interpretation that acted as hint or as self-fulfilling prophecy: “One can scarcely be selfish here, for do we not professedly leave ourselves behind, and under chosen nommes de plume appear as we will? And when selfishness is laid aside, and one is what he would be, then we learn what beauty human nature is capable of.” (1865.1.56) In the virtual parlor, hiding identity may have given the Cousins latitude to explore less worthy facets of their personalities; but also it allowed them to show their best side.
And they did. Revising allowed the subscribers to be their wittiest; editorial compressing probably sharpened that wit even more. In the Chat, identity was established mostly through the pen-name chosen and through a talent with wordplay and quips. Many subscribers who wrote to the magazine probably did have a certain talent for wordplay, since it often formed the basis for the Museum’s puzzles and contests. To some extent, the personae in the Chat were what Robin Hamman calls a “collaborative effort” between the letter-writers and the letter-readers. “Others,” Hamman points out, “will re-create us in their own imagination.” The Cousins did re-create each other in imagination, sometimes sending glamorous descriptions of the imagined other. But there was other input as well: the editors, who selected those letters which were considered most printable. With one humorous exception, the letters chosen were the liveliest and the best written. “We like to encourage improvement of every kind,” Robert Merry reminded readers in 1849; “our letter-writing friends will therefore recollect, that we never insert a letter that comes in bad handwriting; that has bad spelling; or that has bad grammar; or that is badly punctuated. Those who wish to appear in print will please remember all this.” (1849.1.160) Describing in 1855 “How It’s Done,” Robert Merry focused on lively letters from articulate readers: “if the letter is well written, you perhaps might hear some such comment as this: ‘That boy will make music for us;’ or, ‘That girl has the ring of the true metal.’ ”; as Robert Merry reads, “at every good hit you will see him rolling back and forth in his great chair, shaking all over with laughter, usually closing up with some such remark as, ‘I believe all the brightest boys and girls in the country are on our list.’ ” (1855.1.121) The “coinage” of the Chat was vivacity and a memorable way with words; the editors helped “raise the value” of subscribers by printing only their best work.
Where there’s identity and anonymity, there also can be “identity theft,” as John Suler points out. (“Bad Boys”) And identity theft of a sort occurred in the Chat. Or perhaps it should be called “identity sharing.” “Willie H. Coleman,” it turned out, was the name of several readers of the Museum. There was William Hoyt Coleman, of New York, who wrote to the Chat for 14 years. But there were others. “[M]y name is not ‘Will H. Coleman,’ ” one girl wrote,
The third “Willie H. Coleman” wasn’t, technically, even a “Willie”; his name was Hayden Level Coleman, though he was called “Willie.” “Tell Willie H. Coleman that I have a great mind to have him hung for forgery,” he wrote from Texas in 1857. “ … Ask him what H. stands for, that I may tell my neighbors, who have come to me, and asked who Black-Eyes was, that I should be arguing with her so much. I told them I was not the author of the letters, and they would not believe me.” (1857.2.184-185) Though Hiram Hatchet suggested that “Texana signs himself W. H. C. South, and New York W. H. C. North,” so that “in the Museum, at least, if not in Congress, the North and South are harmonious and brotherly” (1857.2.185), Willie Hoyt Coleman rejected the suggestion as being too sectional. He did, however, see advantage in the confusion: “I fear there will be some confusion in knowing which is which, and I don’t exactly see how it will be remedied; though there will have one advantage, namely, if you say a bright thing, I shall share the credit, and vice versa; ditto in relation to stupid things.” (1858.1.25) That there should be so many Willie Colemans in the Chat is logical, given a plethora of Willie Colemans in real life. But it’s also significant that the identity sharing should be centered around William Hoyt Coleman, one of the “stars” of the Chat. His high profile attracted attention; Wilhelmena’s sister called him “that crazy-brained [fellow] who seems to be so important in the Chat”. (1861.2.58) But, just as online avatars in the Palace tended to impersonate the powerful Palace “wizards,” suscribers who shared identity in the Chat shared it with the most popular and articulate subscriber there.
As in cyberspace, the fact that the Merry Cousins could remain anonymous allowed them to switch not only identities, but gender. It’s easier to cross-dress in cyberspace, Sherry Turkle has pointed out, because no props are involved. (212) The same was true in the Chat. At least two subscribers indulged in a little gender-swapping. Sybil Grey may have written as a boy because she was more comfortable around boys than she was girls:
And, in fact, her first letters to the Chat may have been under a boy’s name; “once Sybil Grey was known in the ‘Chat’ under another name, and that you [William Hoyt Coleman] then gave her your hand, as belonging to the brotherhood; but concluding that, after all, the girls have the best of it, she quietly dropped her disguise, and none of you ever knew that Sybil Grey was an old friend under her proper name.” (1861.2.58)
“Bess” was another matter. The first letter over her signature appeared in 1856 in Woodworth’s Youth’s Cabinet. It was a chatty piece of impertinence that seems to have amused Francis Woodworth with its self-described “sauciness”:
I suppose, well I know, that you will think, if you do not say so, that I have abundance of sauciness. I ’ll admit it. A girl must have a spice of that now-a-days to elbow her way through the world. It ’s absolutely indispensable. Don’t you really think so, Uncle Frank?
I hope you won’t fail to give me a good “blowing up” or a good “setting down,” no matter which, for talking so naughtily. I ’m sure I deserve it; and let it be in your wonted style of fatherly admonition, just as when you chuck the little ones under the chin for saying, “I won’t,” or “I don’t love you.” But it ’s all meant in good part, Uncle Frank, and merely to counteract the necessary influence of so much flattery as is continually poured on your head by your numerous “constituents” (as the papers call it), who are interested to keep you in good humor, so that their “enigmys” and “nannygrams,” and the rest of ’em, shall “go in.” …
Uncle Frank, I hope you will take what I have said, just as it has been meant, all “in good part,” and in reply (if you condescend to reply), talk at me just as plain as I have at you.
“Now, Bess,” Woodworth demurred, “really I can’t find it in my heart to give you what you seem to invite. … I never indulge in castigating a correspondent, unless my heart is in the thing. … The truth is, Bess, I like you. I am saucy myself, and I like a little spice of sauciness in others.” (Woodworth’s, 1856.1.198) Bess’s letters to the Museum were equally light-hearted and light-headed—though no more so than many other letters, by boys and by girls. She soon became one of the most popular letter-writers in the Chat. What tipped off Susanna Newbould that there was an imposter under those crinolines is impossible to know, but in 1860 she began to make a series of “darkly miss-terious hints” (1860.2.123): “Bess.—Did you ever hear the story of the little girl who was christened “Moses?” Well, I can’t tell it here—but I do not miss-trust thee, Bess, else dost thou employ amanuenses?” (1860.2.96) Finally, in 1861, all was made clear, and an unrepentant William Forrest Oakley uncross-dressed in the virtual parlor (after the girls had been sent out, of course):
And now, cousins, the time has arrove. I can refrain myself no longer. Cause every girl to go out from me. Are they gone? Ain’t they listening at the key-hole? Now, look at me carefully; d’ye see? that’s a mask, this is false hair, this is cotton. This dress, you see, covers a coat; this circular expansive arrangement only impedes the free action of my nether limbs, encased in cassimere continuations. To sum up, I have been an imposter, a gay deceiver, a cheat, a great big “humbug,” as Aunt Sue will persist in calling me. I’ve confessed to her, and she has (thus far) let me off pretty easy; so don’t you be too hard on me. Come in, girls; I meant to have called you before. Don’t look so shy at me; I am Bess that was, and now am Will. Yes, yes! I expected all that. Merci, Mesdemoiselles! * * * Don’t look at me with ill-concealed contempt, kind cousins. Don’t curl the lip, don’t elevate the nose, don’t perk up the chin. You don’t look well that way, and besides, I only did it for fun, and haven’t we had some good fun, and shan’t we have yet? Did not the great Achilles, * * * did not Pelopidas? * * * I think they did. And if they did all this in earnest, why may not I do a little of it in fun?
With regard to all the “love and kisses,” and other like commodities which I may have come unfairly by, I could not, if I would, give back the first, “bein’ as it’s” intangible; but the second I shall keep on hand in bulk, and engage to deliver up when called for. None but original owners [who tended to be female] need apply. (1861.1.88)
Willie’s gender-swapping was a prank; but one has to wonder how long he had planned to keep it up. His original letter has an exhibitionist tone, as Francis Woodworth is called on to note Bess’s “naughtiness”—if only to punish it. The tone certainly got the letter printed and noticed, but Bess’s “sauciness” is definitely overblown. It was her only appearance in the Cabinet. While the letters appearing in the Museum were lively, there wasn’t the overdone giddiness of the letter to the Cabinet.
Gender-swapping may be easy to start, Turkle points out, but it’s difficult to maintain: “To pass as a woman for any length of time requires understanding how gender inflects speech, manner, the interpretation of experience. Women attempting to pass as men face the same kind of challenge.” (212) When Nippinifidget complained that others thought she was a boy, Annie Drummond claimed that her “speech inflections” proved otherwise: “I know you are a girl; boys do not generally write such spicy letters as girls.” (1858.1.126) Sybil Grey had the correct “speech inflections” to pass successfully as a boy; in 1861, no “young lady of refinement” used slang, but she did, quite unconsciously: “Having more than one young gentleman cousin, of whom I am very fond, and who like to tell me of some ‘gay old time’ they have had, or of some ‘gay old girl’ they know, can you wonder that notwithstanding my constant efforts to the contrary, I have for once forgotten myself so far as to use [that very] slang expression?” (1861.2.58) That William Oakley maintained Bess’s identity in the Chat for five years isn’t as much of a feat as it would have been in cyberspace, where he wouldn’t have had weeks to write his messages. He was about 19 when Bess’s first letter was written, and had a 14-year-old sister who may have helped him to get it right.
“Right inflections” or not, Robin Hamman notes that men may be “successful at gender swapping because those online want to believe.” At first glance, this doesn’t seem to be true for the Chat; unlike Internet communities, the Chat wasn’t brimming with men looking for online sex. However, in the pages of the Chat, the other did probably “want to believe: subscribers who responded most often to Bess were girls (well, probably they were girls) who may have wanted to believe that another girl could be as “saucy” as they were or would like to be.
People online often try to “get a ‘fix’ on people through ‘fixing’ their gender,” since in real life “we use gender to shape our relationships.” (Turkle, 211) “Fixing identity” was definitely a preoccupation in the Chat: subscribers wondered who Robert Merry “really was”; they guessed at “Aunt Sue’s” identity; they often wondered who really was writing the letters in the Chat, suspecting that it was really adults. William Oakley’s confession sparked a flurry of letters accusing other readers of “sailing under false colors.” (1861.2.58) “It reminds me of the days of witchcraft,” Pennsylvania Dick claimed, “when the only way to escape being accused was to become an accuser.” (1861.1.183) But the accusations died down fairly quickly.
The realization that something as basic as gender could be hidden made the Cousins realize that fixing identity in the Chat could very well be impossible, as Stumbler noted:
This lack of information sometimes allowed the Cousins to project themselves onto the others in the same way MUDs encourage projection: “the lack of information about the real person to whom one is talking, the silence into which one types, the absence of visual cues, all these encourage projection. This situation leads to exaggerated likes and dislikes, to idealization and demonization.” (Turkle, 207) Occasionally, the Cousins did project themselves onto each other, most notably when sectionalism—and, to some extent, gender—was involved. In 1857, Fleta Forrester—writing as gender-neutral “Sigma”—wrote of shooting an abolitionist in effigy. The abolitionist’s name was left a blank when the letter was printed in the Chat—much to the curiosity of Tennessean, who tried again and again to learn the name of the abolitionist. Not, perhaps, the best reader in the Chat (he missed Fleta’s announcement that she was “Sigma”), he quickly seems to have decided that the object of the shooting was a personal hero, probably Preston Brooks, a rabidly anti-North Senator who’d just died:
Tennessean may have meant that shooting the abolitionist was a “present” to Brooks, but it’s unclear from the printed letter; and if he corrected the letter, that correction didn’t appear, though it likely would have. Fleta’s answer—one of the “Extracted Essences” through which the editors kept down the volume of the Chat—was printed; and she, too, assumed that he was confused: “Tennessean will please take notice that the ‘real victim of our exploit, unfortunately for the effect of his touching tribute, does not “sleep his last sleep.” ’ ” (1857.1.186)
Certainly Cousins sometimes idealized other Cousins, most notably Josie, whose description of the Cousins in her imagined parlor smacks more of romance than reality:
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?
I guess I can steal a few furtive glances at the boys without Uncle Hi’s seeing me? My! I was not aware that he had so many “children of a larger growth[”] among his nephews. That young gentleman by the door has what I would call a striking face—gray eyes, large mouth, great breadth and airiness about the forehead. See! what earnestness and grace he displayed in flinging that “tumbledown lock” back—he’s a lawyer, take my word for it; aren’t you, Hawthorn? (1860.2.26)
“Demonization” had a sectional and gender element. After Tennessean closed a letter by sending “Love, to my Southern cousins; respects, to my Northern ones” (1858.1.57), a gender battle broke out between two Southern boys (Hawthorn and Tennessean) and several Northern girls. “Ugh! [Sigma’s] got spirit enough for a dozen! I pity the man that gets her for a wife. The fact is, I’d as soon mate with a hornet or a snapping-bug as one of these Yankee girls! I pity Black-Eyes’ husband sincerely,” Tennessean proclaimed. (1859.1.93) Hawthorn send a letter so inflammatory that Robert Merry was forced to trim it: “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.” However, the editor did let stand Hawthorn’s assertion that Black-Eyes “surely must have a weak, quiet sort of a husband.” (1859.2.60-61) “ ‘Hawthorne,’ ” Black-Eyes replied, “I aint got a weak husband. You just come over and see.” (1859.2.127) Other Northern females got more heated. Fleta made mincemeat out of Tennessean’s attempt to make her the exception to his rule about Northern girls by sending his love to her: “If said ‘Tennessean’ prefers 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—so be it. I think, in that case, no ‘Yankee girl’ would care to ‘waste breath’ on him. Their indignation would be solely directed against the pusillanimous being who could thus tamely submit to be trampled upon.” (1859.1.124) At a time when women’s rights were being argued in the country, both sides—heated not only by the sectional conflict in the Chat, but the growing sectionalism in the country—appear to have projected their worst fears about the opposite gender onto their opposite in gender and geography.
Not surprisingly, the Merry Cousins began to try to “fix” each other’s real identities. Maggie requested a description of William Hoyt Coleman which remained unfulfilled. (1857.1.153) Ethel R., of Mississippi, tried to guess another subscriber’s name, though her guess remained unverified: “I think Miss Lizzie G. writes her name Miss Lizzie G—n, of C—n, Miss.; and furthermore, did I not hear her sing and play at a concert, at the ‘afore-mentioned’ town, ‘not a hundred years agone?’ I think so.” (1861.1.89) Cousins imagined one another. Nannie Nightingale visualized the Cousins in terms of their personalities: “Oh! here’s a group of Chatters just to my liking. Loving Sybil Grey looking toward Willie, and talking of the vanity of men. Bright Fleta Forrester, with her lively sallies on various subjects. Sweet Annie Drummond and gallant Sir Oliver Onley appear to be making themselves mutually agreeable.” (1861.2.24) Josie described the physical:
Improvements in technology allowed the Cousins to exchange cartes de visite with each other and with the editors, in the early 1860s, and some identities were thereby cemented, among them Wilforley’s. Charles M. Eames informed William Hoyt Coleman that there should be “no more talk about Aunt Sue and Wilforley being identical. The problem is solved—I’ve seen their “picture,” and as to the last, it is a veritable he, with boots.” (1861.2.156)
This desire to identify each other led to other methods of recognizing members of the community of the Chat in real life. In 1859, Annie suggested that “the Merry family should wear a badge; if we meet while journeying during the summer months, it would be pleasant to recognize each other.” (1859.2.93) Four years later, May Clayton made the same suggestion; and after W. A. R. suggested a design of a capital M on either page of an open book, it was made up for the Merry Cousins in 1864. Until the badges were ready, Aunt Sue suggested, impatient Cousins could “pin a large capital M to his coat when he is in car or steamboat, and if he sees any lady or gentleman pinning an M on to her or his shoulder, in response, it shall be as a sign that a Merry is present, ready to enter the right hand of fellowship.” (1863.2.120) Charles F. Warren also suggested that “any of the Merrys who may be at the White Mountains this summer write ‘M. M.’ after their names when recording them on the hotel book, as he desires to see some of the cousins there.” (1863.2.62) The desire to identify each other led inevitably to meeting in a real-life version of the virtual parlor in 1865.
Though Sherry Turkle points out that “it is natural for people to feel let down or confused when they meet their virtual lovers in person” (207), there is no sense that the Cousins were disappointed when they finally met—whether through photographs, through friends, or through the Merry Convention. Of course, such disappointments might not have shown up in the Chat. But a subscriber’s relationship was with several other subscribers, not just the one “virtual lovers” enjoy, so the relationships may have been less intense; also, if you didn’t get along with one subscriber, chances were that there were others you could get along with. While subscribers did become friends in real life —Oliver Onley, Henry A. Danker, William Forrest Oakley, Sam Slick, and Tommy knew each other—the individual friendships weren’t highlighted in the Chat, and it’s almost impossible to know from the letters alone just who knew each other in real life, and how much. The “Merry Convention” in John N. Stearns’ parlor in December 1865 reflected the virtual meetings in the Chat, with the adults in control; the emphasis of the evening was on conversing, just as it was in the virtual parlor. “It was really agreeable,” wrote In the Corner, “to see the many pleasant surprises, to shake by the hand those with whom one was acquainted but had never met, to see so many ‘strange familiar faces.’ ” (1866.1.57) There is a sense that the only Cousins disappointed about the meeting were those who couldn’t go.
Why the Chat worked
The Chat worked as an online community because those who put it together unconsciously did many things “right.” John Suler and Amy Jo Kim, among others, have pointed out various ways in which online communities work better. Among these are keeping an intimate feel, conveying the history of the group, giving the group a structure and purpose, making clear the standards of conduct, and integrating life “online” and life “offline.” The Chat could keep an “intimate feel” because it had to: In spite of the fact that the column occasionally stretched its limits (in 1855 and 1856, the Chat occasionally reached 11 pages; other years it sometimes achieved 8), there were only so many pages in the magazine, so only a certain number of letters could be printed in the Chat. John Suler points out that, in order to maintain well-being, a group should have a way to convey its history (“Maximizing”); and, in fact, a number of online groups include a history in their FAQs. The Chat had William Hoyt Coleman’s “Retrospectum; or, The Chat in Bygone Days,” which appeared at a critical point in the Museum’s life: when it absorbed a rival magazine that had its own version of the Chat. For several months after the merger, the columns from the other magazine were carried on by their editors, making three letters columns in one magazine. Highlighting as it did important or interesting events in the Chat’s history, the “Retrospectum” no doubt helped to blend the two groups by allowing them to share the history of their new letters column.
The structure and purpose of the Chat were redefined several times over its 32-years. In the name of saving space, the editors moved from printing letters in full, to boiling them down to “Extracted Essences,” and then to printing a trimmed version. Though the purpose of the Chat was essentially defined by the subscribers working in cooperation with the editors, it, too, changed. In the 1840s, the column was full of diffident little descriptions of readers’ admiration of the Museum and of their towns, with the occasional puzzle. The 1850s saw the explosion of the Chat as a gossipy column in which readers joked with and bickered with each other; some letters were little more than a series of greetings and puns. While in the 1840s letters often referred to the stories in the rest of the magazine, after the 1850s there’s little sense from the letters column that the rest of the magazine existed. Attempts to repurpose the column generally failed. Robert Merry was quick to agree when Cousin I. suggested in 1864 that “all cousins … take the trouble to note down every interesting, instructive, or amusing little incident that comes under their notice, and … put it in readable form and send to the M.” (1864.2.185); but the other Merry Cousins didn’t respond. Herman’s words on the subject three years later were sharper; he implied that the letters sounded so much alike that he was convinced that they were all written by one person:
Now, Cousins of all ages, the reason why I believed that all the Chat originated from one person was simply this: All the correspondence bear such a similarity to each other—in fact, the same words and general expressions are used in nearly all the letters, that I could hardly believe that twenty or forty different correspondents should adopt almost the same style.
True, there have been a few exceptions; the Chat for the month of March contains a good deal of original, spicy matter, which I am pleased to see.
… I would suggest that some of the Cousins … would write for the May number on some little different subject—as, for instance, thus: Tell us, Cousins, how do you spend your Sabbath day? What is your work, occupation during the week? name every day. I do truly believe it would be of general interest to all the readers of the Chat if the Merry Cousins would give us a true insight of their life, as far as occupation is concerned; some other time it might be pleasant to hear what amusements you prefer, what books you read or like most, etc. (1867.1.122)
Most of the Cousins ignored him. W. A. R. waxed nostalgic and suggested that the Cousins relate “ ‘yarns’—some of our adventures, or some occurrences with which we are familiar”: “What say you, Merrys, shall we yarn it, or continue this twiddle-twaddle? Many of my correspondents express themselves as tired of the nonsense.… ” (1867.2.59) The repurposing occurred only with a new owner and a new editor—neither with emotional ties to the magazine or the subscribers.
Especially important, however, the Cousins integrated their “online” and “offline” lives. “[P]eople tend to separate their online lives from their offline lives,” Suler notes. “You may have online companions, groups, and activities that are quite distinct from those you have in the face-to-face world. For some people, the two worlds are worlds apart.” Exacerbating this separation is the fact that because there are so many, highly specialized online groups, people often split themselves between several lists dedicated to their interests: “Cyberspace provides places for you to perch all of your identifications—places all separate from each other, each containing people who may know little or nothing about your other perches.” Pulling together the separate facets is important to achieving a full sense of self: “If the goal of life is to know thyself, … then it must entail knowing how the various elements of thyself fit together to make that Big Self that is you. Reaching that goal also means understanding and taking down the barriers between the sectors of self.” (“Integrating”) Besides, overemphasizing online relationships can make offline life damned lonely.
The Merry Cousins didn’t have the possibility of becoming addicted to the Chat in the same way some computer users become addicted to the Internet—though they did note the pull the letters column had on them. “I thought the Convention last year had ended my career,” Jasper admitted; “but there is a charm … about the Merry circle, which held fast to me and whirled me ’round month by month… ” (1867.1.27); “the Chat has charms for me that I can not resist,” May wrote (1866.1.61); Jennie agreed that “your happy circle … has such an irresistible attraction for so many of us.” (1866.1.155) The Museum, however, didn’t tend to isolate the Cousins from family and friends. Subscribers discussed the magazine, its articles, and the Chat with their friends (Harry C.’s discussion became so heated, he ended up in a fistfight over the Museum’s honor [1852.1.63]) and their families (Carolus and his siblings read the magazine aloud to their mother [1846.1.29-30]). They got parents and siblings to act as their amanuenses. Louisa J. Neal and Henry R. S. “earned” their magazine subscriptions from their parents by writing a letter to the Chat. (1850.1.127; 1850.2.186) Subscribers met each other in real life: “Oliver Onley did call on me New Year’s day in company with Tommy and Osceola,” Josie wrote to Robert Merry in 1863. “Did you acquaint them with my whereabouts? if so, please receive my most hearty thanks and carte de visite as a slight expression of them.” (1863.1.59) They also visited the editors: “We … were highly gratified to have a call from [Clementina Tompkins], as she passed through New York, last summer” (1845.2.187); “During the last month the sanctum has been invaded by quite a group of Merry boys. Oliver Onley, H. A. Danker, Wilforley, Sam Slick, and Tommy surrounded Uncle Merry, who surrendered at discretion. They at once made themselves at home, inspecting drawers and pigeon-holes, examining the mutilated remains of letters, feeling the temper of the hatchet, sounding the depth of the basket, and exploring the other mysteries of the sanctum. The interview was exceedingly pleasant. Aunt Sue and Uncle Hiram were also visited, and we were all glad to take them by the hand, and hope many more of the members of our numerous family will call whenever they are in this great city.” (1861.2.56) And the editors visited them right back: Oliver Onley accompanied editor John N. Stearns and others to Nova Scotia; on a trip in 1867, Robert Merry “enjoyed a chat with ‘Mamie’ and other Merrys very much … ” (1867.2.89)
Such visiting couldn’t help but cement the relationship the subscribers had with their magazine. For online groups, Suler points out, “it is extremely helpful when there is a critical mass of people who have solidified their relationships offline. These people often become the stable, enduring core that hold the community together.” (“Integrating”) In the case of the Chat, the “core” consisted primarily of the editors, and the Cousins who lived near enough to visit the Museum’s office: the “wizards” of the Museum. Fleta Forrester edited the puzzle column in place of Susanna Newbould; Willie Coleman wrote the Chat’s history; Jasper, Leslie, Tommy, In the Corner, and Loyalty planned the “Merry Convention” in John N. Stearns’ house.
The Convention was the climax of the Chat’s history: the virtual group in the virtual parlor met face to face in the very real parlor of the Museum’s editor. Suggested by the Cousins, it was also planned by the Cousins, for the benefit of the community: “The object of this Convention is to strengthen the bands of love and friendship which have so long held together the Cousins in the Chat columns, and to bring about a personal social intercourse between all those who though not personally acquainted have always felt a lively interest in each other, thereby promoting general good feeling and perfect harmony among the subscribers of the Museum.” (1865.2.183-184) Symbolically, the magazine’s offices were the starting point, the place at which arriving Cousins registered: “At the Museum office will be found a book in which we would like to have all Merrys register their names and addresses when they arrive in the city.” (1865.2.184) As described two months later, the gathering operated very much like a real-time version of the virtual parlor, with editors quipping with Cousins; the usual premium was on wordplay:
Jasper called the meeting to order, and Uncle Merry nominated Uncle William as chairman, who was unanimously elected. This gentleman appeared rather bashful, so a committee of six ladies was appointed, who escorted him to the chair. …
Aunt Sue was then elected chairwoman, to keep the chairman straight.
Jasper was elected secretary; and as this gentleman also seemed rather weak in the knees, a committee of eight ladies was appointed, who didn’t escort him. (1866.1.57-58)
Timing-wise, the Convention was certainly the climax: two years later, the Chat would be gone as another editor took over the magazine. Some Cousins, however, also seemed to see the Convention as their own climax; some stopped writing after the Convention. Jasper, who’d helped plan the meeting and who was now an adult, seemed to see the gathering as a natural stopping point: “I thought the Convention … had ended my career.” (1867.1.27)
Why the Chat became an online community
Why the similarities between the Chat and online communities developed probably are due to factors beyond the exigencies of communicating via the written word—and currently beyond the scope of my research. Race may have been a factor: in 1998, researchers found that an overwhelming majority of Internet users were white. (Suler, “Demographics”) The same was true in the Chat: while a handful of Cousins were Native Americans attending mission schools, most were white.
Certainly the ages of the Cousins was important. While the Cousins ranged in age from 5 to 74, the bulk were in their teens—the age at which we begin to expore ourselves and the world around us, learning who we are and what it is to be an adult. Over the 32-year history, the median age at which Cousins sent their first letter to the magazine was 11. During the Chat’s liveliest years, the median age of participating Cousins rose seven years: from age 11 in 1856, to a high of 18.5 in 1864.
In 2001, adolescents send each other instant messages, subscribe to e-lists to discuss interests and celebrity heartthrobs, or gather in chat rooms to—well, to chat; the parlor was the Cousins’ chat room.
Other similarities may include economic class: most of those surveyed in 1998 were fairly well off, earning from $25,000 to $75,000 per year. The Cousins participating in the Chat may have been at a similar economic level; figures aren’t available for the general population in the 19th-century U. S., but the Cousins tended to be from middle or upper-middle class families. Not al the readers were well-off; Operator was, at age 15, a “poor telegraph operator”; William W. worked in a mill. (1865.1.94; 1857.2.59) In the early years, at least two subscribers “paid” for their subscriptions without money: H. P. I.’s payment was in poems written by his mother, because, he explained, “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.” (1849.1.152-153) Susan H. Johnson’s father was a Presbyterian minister who couldn’t afford the magazine; her letter paid for six issues. (1848.2.93) Many people in 19th-century America were farmers; many of the Cousins had parents who weren’t. William Oakley’s father was a bank president. Phebe A. Preston’s father co-founded the Virginia Military Institute. Many readers in the South were the children of planters: Mary W. Fluker wrote from Asphodel Plantation; Willie Kenner’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.
One thing the Cousins certainly had in common with many who frequent cyberspace was a love of puzzles and games. “Those who frequent MUDs tend also to be interested in games and puzzles,” according to Pavel Curtis. The Merry Cousins loved puzzles; and many—like Daniel Hudson Burnham and Adelbert Older—who sent letters to the Chat were also avid puzzlers.
A sense of community
For the Cousins, the Chat was more than just letters; it was a unique community. For Bertina,
W. A. R.—though he quipped that some of the Cousins “like the grave-digger who said he’d bury his best friend for a dollar, would sell me at the first opportunity”—echoed her:
In fact, the greatest inheritance some Cousins could think of to bestow on later generations was their own version of the magazine and of Robert Merry. When the Cousins were “grandpops and grandmarms,” W. A. R. hoped that “the remembrance of these Merry days will cause a continual sunshine of good-nature, that will make us forget the ills of our existence, and make generations to come wish they, too, had an Uncle Merry.” (1865.2.24) “[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)
And, of course, we have our own version of the Chat—rowdier, more ephemeral, often cruder. The Merry Cousins couldn’t have imagined the online communities of today; but they would understand how they operate. Especially, they would understand the sense of community that can evolve even while one sits solitary at the keyboard. Dreaming of the Chat, Softsoap saw the Cousins—and wished for the dream to come true:
Do you ever have dreams, my cousins?
And when they are pleasing to you,
Do you ask, as the little maiden did,
That your “dreams might all come true?”
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. (1868.1.165)
(Most letters referred to in this paper appear in “Dear Friend Robert Merry”: Letters from 19th-century children.)
Pavel Curtis. “Mudding: Social Phenomena in Text-Based Virtual Realities.” ftp://ftp.lambda.moo.mud.org/pub/MOO/papers/DIAC92.txt
Dorothy B. 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.
J. C. Derby. “S. G. Goodrich,” in Fifty Years Among Authors, Books and Publishers. Hartford, CT: M. A. Winter & Hatch, Publishers, 1884.
Robin B. Hamman. “The Role of Fantasy in the Construction of the On-Line Other: a selection of interviews and participant observations from cyberspace.” http://www.socio.demon.uk/fantasy.xhtmll
Amy Jo Kim. in John Suler. “The Psychology of Cyberspace.” (see below)
Donald G. Mitchell. “Peter Parley,” in American Lands & Letters. NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1897. vol 1: 330-335.
Janet Morahan-Martin. “Women and Girls Last: Females and the Internet.” 1998. http://sosig.ac.uk/iriss/papers/paper55.xhtml
Parley’s Magazine. 1833-1837, 1839, 1841, 1843.
Pat Pflieger. “Death and the Readers of Robert Merry’s Museum.” Paper presented at the American Culture Association conference, 1994. text online
Pat Pflieger, ed. Letters from Nineteenth-Century American Children to Robert Merry’s Museum Magazine. Lewiston, NY: Mellen Press, 2001. Revised version online as “Dear Friend Robert Merry”: Letters from 19th-century children
Pat Pflieger. “A Visit to Merry’s Museum; or, Social Values in a Nineteenth-Century American Periodical for Children.” PhD diss. University of Minnesota, 1987. text online
Robert Merry’s Museum. 1841-1872.
Gary Shank. “Abductive Multiloguing: The Semiotic Dynamics of Navigating the Net.” 1993. http://www.ibiblio.org/pub/academic/communications/papers/ejvc/SHANK.VIN1
John Suler. “The Psychology of Cyberspace.” Aug 2000. http://www.rider.edu/users/suler/psycyber/psycyber.xhtmll
Sherry Turkle. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. Touchstone, Simon & Schuster: 1995, 1997.
Wired Women: Gender and New Realities in Cyberspace, ed. Lynn Cherny and Elizabeth Reba Weise. Seattle, WA: Seal Press, 1996.
Woodworth’s Youth’s Cabinet. 1847-1848, 1849-1851 (scattered), 1852, 1854 (scattered), 1856-1857.
About the text
References to items in Robert Merry’s Museum are designed to send the reader to the Museum itself. For most of its life, each issue of the magazine was 32 pages; there were two volumes (six issues each) per year. References to items in the magazine give the year, the volume number in that year, and the page number; thus, a letter appearing on page 127 of the October 1841 issue is referred to as 1841.2.127.