Notes for “An ‘Online Community’ of the 19th Century

About the paper: Almost 150 years before the Internet, the letters column of Robert Merry’s Museum shaped its subscribers into a virtual community. Flame wars, gender-swapping—you name it, they did it. Illustrated; with links to pieces at this site.

[Robert Merry’s Museum was founded by Samuel Griswold Goodrich,]

Who actually started the magazine is open to conjecture. While Goodrich claimed in 1856 that the Museum “was begun and established by me,” the publishers hinted in 1842 that they had the original idea for the magazine, and hired Goodrich to edit it: “The choice of an editor was a matter involving much responsibility, and in securing the services of the author of the long to be remembered ‘Peter Parley’s Tales,’ in that department, they felt that his well-established reputation, as a writer for youth, would fully satisfy the most fastidious parent, teacher or guardian.” The magazine was, as Dechert puts it, “a composite affair.” (Recollections, vol 2: 543; Museum, Nov 1842, back cover) However, the above statements are complicated by the fact that much of the material in the first issue had appeared in 1840 in a little paper-bound volume titled Robert Merry’s Miscellany—by a completely different publisher. In the world of Goodrich research, nothing is as straight-forward as it looks.

[Goodrich edited it only for a year.]

In good Goodrich fashion, who started Parley’s also is up for grabs: Apparently concerned now that Goodrich’s name was associated with a rival children’s magazine, the owners of Parley’s in 1841 announced in its December issue that “The publication of Parley’s Magazine was commenced by Lilly, Wait & Co. of Boston, in 1833. Mr. [Samuel] Colman, the active agent and proprietor of the work, obtained permission of “Peter Parley” … to use his title to this magazine, who was to be renumerated accordingly. The three or four first numbers, we believe, were supervised by this old gentleman, but it was in the charge of a sub-editor the remainder of the year.” (in Dechert, 146; the quote doesn’t appear in my bound volume of the magazine, and the page on which the quote is supposed to appear has no page number: Parley’s has probably the most tangled reprint history of any 19th-century American children’s magazine, and many bound volumes in a number of libraries aren’t of the magazine as originally issued, but are reprints edited to suit later publishers.) Goodrich replied tartly on the covers of Merry’s Museum in 1841 and 1842: “The aforesaid Magazine was wholly my own device; I planned it, commenced it, even before any publisher was obtained—and, for a time, had the responsible and authoritative charge of the editorial department.” (in Dechert, 148) His point was offered to a wider public through an advertisement in Brother Jonathan in 1842. Goodrich reiterated in 1857 that the magazine “was planned and established by me.” (Recollections, vol 2: 543)

[charming queries about Peter Parley, himself.]

After Goodrich left the magazine, the letters continued, sprinkled through the pages and resembling little articles on geography or science.

[began publication in February 1841.]

The first issue dated February, and the prospectus printed on its back cover indicates that it appeared February 1. Apparently Goodrich had planned for an entire year’s worth of material; the October 1841 issue consists of two issues inside the paper cover. One issue is volume 2 #3; the other is volume 2 #4. The cover for the issue states that it is “Nos. 9 & 10. October. 1841.”

[in 1852]

This important periodical, which began as an anti-slavery paper, is quite difficult to find; unlike many early 19th-century American magazines, it was not microfilmed, and I’ve been able to examine only about half the issues.

[only American children’s magazine to develop its own sense of community.]

I’ve examined most major American children’s magazines from 1789 to 2001, including the Youth’s Companion, Parley’s Magazine, Youth’s Cabinet, The Schoolfellow, The Student, Forrester’s Boys’ and Girls’ Magazine, The Student and Schoolmate, The Little Corporal, Our Young Folks, the Riverside Magazine for Young People, St. Nicholas (founded by a popular Museum author, Mary Mapes Dodge), Highlights for Children, Cricket, and Spider. Almost all included letters from subscribers, as did several dime novels, such as My Queen; only the Woodworth’s came close to developing a sense of community. Communities may have developed in smaller magazines, but sheer numbers make the Museum the most influential.

[written and edited by Samuel Goodrich]

While Goodrich didn’t write all the books ascribed to “Peter Parley,” he edited most, rewriting portions after he’d received the manuscript. Thus, the tone could remain fairly consistent through most of the series. Later generations of readers haven’t been kind to the idea; several times I’ve run across the assertion that one particular writer —Nathaniel Hawthorne, who with his sister wrote exactly one Parley book—wrote “all the books.” He didn’t.


The illustration of Robert Merry talking to young admirers is literally the first thing readers would have seen: the inside covers are blank. Readers would have focused directly on the illustration and the accompanying address. The effect is surprisingly intimate.

[he, himself, is a very real character]

Robert Merry is realistic perhaps because many of his childhood adventures are patterned after Goodrich’s own childhood adventures, as described in Goodrich’s Recollections of a Lifetime.

[learned from his experiences]

In direct contrast was Robert Merry’s response to a reader in the last year of the Museum: asked, “[W]on’t you please tell us some time what kind of a little boy you were?” Merry replied, “Well, probably we were very much like all boys—a mixture of good and bad.” (1872.2.147) By this time, the original had been completely forgotten—symbolically, the owner advertised at least twice for a copy of the first year of the magazine, in which much of Robert Merry’s personality was established—and “Robert Merry” was simply a name to conjure with.

[an old fellow with a wooden leg]

Readers were cautioned to “[p]lease remember in future that Robert Merry is getting old and his eyes are growing dim,” and to write their letters legibly, in black ink on white paper, since he didn’t wear glasses. (1854.1.62) While this is firmly in character, it has to be admitted that it may also be describing whomever was reading the letters. In 1854, this would have been Stephen T. Allen, though later that year he was described to a reader as “a younger man, … with … a plenty of dark hair and whiskers”—perhaps too young for reading glasses. (1854.2.224)

[the same old cripple]

This exchange hints at how complicated an editorial conceit could become. When the Museum merged with Parley’s Magazine in 1848, the magazine announced that “Peter Parley” had joined “Robert Merry” as editor, and an illustration showed the two in close consultation. (The addition of Parley to the editorial staff ignored the fact that Goodrich had killed him off in 1840, and that the death was announced in the Museum in 1841 and commented on by a subscriber in 1842. Why Parley rose from the dead may have to do with a combination of factors, among them Goodrich’s displeasure with the editors of Parley’s Magazine and admission that Parley would always be his most popular creation.) Though they were probably written by the same person, Parley and Merry were treated as separate individuals, occasionally scolding one another (leaving the reader-in-the-know with the bizarre image of the editor arguing with himself). After a while, Goodrich took on Parley’s persona, while another editor—probably Stephen T. Allen—became Robert Merry. Parley’s commentary in the magazine grew spotty as he took on other responsibilities; it ceased after Goodrich was appointed American consul in Paris in 1851. However, he still contributed to the Museum and had editorial input; and when Allen went to Paris to consult with Goodrich in 1854, it was announced to readers that Robert Merry was going to France to consult with Peter Parley. Thus, we have two imaginary characters, each of whom had in turn represented the same individual—Samuel Goodrich—apparently meeting as that editor prepared to turn over the magazine to someone else.

[clean my spectacles]

Of course, by 1854, Robert Merry didn’t use spectacles at all. Times—and Robert Merrys—change.

[Merry commented directly on individual letters]

And didn’t comment on their letters: Robert Merry also sent “A thousand thanks—Mary, Ann, Lucy, Jane, Elizabeth, Thomas, Peter, Bill, and Ben—for your letters.” (1849.1.94) These generic names probably were recognized by some real readers; if you’re Lucy, and you sent a letter, you’re likely to think that Robert Merry was thanking you personally.

[dreamed about him]

Both readers admitted to dreaming about Robert Merry several times. Fanny E. P.’s dream provided her with a poem to send to the Museum—one which Robert Merry himself had sung: “Excuse me, Mr. Merry, if I say I dream of you; but it is really so, occasionally. In one of my dreams, I was playing with some other playmates, and you was sitting under a shady pine, admiring us, when, all at once, you commenced humming I can hardly say singing.… ” (1846.1.190) W. A. C. may have had a guilty conscience:

I have dreamed about you a number of times, and last night again. You appeared tall, and a little round-shouldered hair combed straight back over your head, a little gray, and very long. I thought you came along near where I was, with little Billy Bump by your side, and I reached out my hand to shake hands, and you laughed, and winked at Billy Bump, and said you would shake hands with me “over the left.” [A gesture of derision.] I felt so bad that I awoke, and behold, it was a dream! I told father my dream this morning, and he said that probably the reason that you would not shake hands was, that I owed you for the Museum for the last year or two, which may be the case, as we have only paid the agent that solicited the first year’s subscription. I am willing to pay, only let the publishers send the bill, and the picture must come, of course. (1850.1.128)

[(“Take Care of No. One!”]

This clever title describes the work, whether it’s read “take care of number one” or “take care of no one”: Jacob Karl is reared to think of himself first—and only —and takes care of “number one” while taking care of no one else.

[(“Take Care of No. One!”]

[S]ome of the sharp eyes that watch all our movements, have hinted that we are publishing an old story which they have read before. They don’t exactly find fault, but in a significant sort of way they give us to understand that they know all the tricks that we are up to, and that if we go to being lazy and putting in old tales instead of new ones, they will find us out. Very well, keep a sharp look out.

In this case you must understand that within a few months we have had about a dozen letters requesting us to republish that story. It appeared nine years ago in the Museum, and that was before some of you were born; but if you don’t like it, just skip over and take the next piece. (1854.1.159)

However, the reprinting soon ended, with the piece unfinished.

[share news of them]

Deaths of subscribers and of editors (Samuel Soden and Francis C. Woodworth) often were announced in the magazine; for a discussion of the responses to death, see Death and the Readers of Robert Merry’s Museum

[[Not exactly.]]

Actually, given that Goodrich had been Robert Merry to begin with, Mary wasn’t that far wrong.

[Behold a friend of children]

He also has no wooden leg. After Goodrich relinquished the character, Robert Merry began to lose his distinctiveness and to take on the physical and/or moral attributes of the editor he represented. While Merry had denounced liquor from the beginning, with John N. Stearns—who relinquished the magazine to focus on temperance work—as editor, Uncle Robert, like Stearns, was active as a temperance man.

[maintained for several months.]

Newbould had written to the Museum already, under the name “Aunt Sue”; her letters were printed in the Chat alongside the subscribers’. (When “The Puzzler’s Drawer” first appeared in the Cabinet is difficult to determine: by 1852 the column is firmly in place, though it probably started earlier. Dorothy Dechert mentions that enigmas were being printed in the magazine in 1848. (87) Newbould may have begun using the pseudonym in 1855, when she first wrote to the Museum.)


These criteria leave a lot of leeway, and occasionally the editors’ choices strike the modern reader as odd, to say the least: the best example is probably Fleta Forrester’s description, in 1857, of how she and her brother shot an abolitionist in effigy. The letter was printed—but with the abolitionist’s name removed. Only one reader—a Southerner—commented on the letter; and he tried again and again to learn whom the effigy represented. (Given the date of the original letter, it may have been John Brown.) Editors dutifully included the Southerner’s queries and Forrester’s responses, perhaps fearing that they would be accused of sectional bias if they cut short the conversation. But one has to wonder why, given the rabid sectionalism shredding the country at that time, the editors printed the original letter at all.

[we more happy]

The age of the Cousins certainly was important in their reactions when letters went astray: only by experience do you realize how often that letter doesn’t reach its recipient. But what may also be important here is that it can be difficult to really “believe in” the messages we send through cyberspace. The Merry Cousins had a physical object to hand to the postmaster—and they could pretty much believe that the letter would reach its destination. E-mail, on the other hand, isn’t matter at all; and this immaterial object seems so ready to dissolve into 1s and 0s, that an unreceived message is merely a signal to send it again.

[compress the letters.]

The editors often commented on the cost of graphics and asked readers not to send them puzzles which required illustrations. Evidence is that illustrations could actually take more space than the words they replaced. In 1857, when a reader teased Hiram Hatchet about the “goose question,” Hiram’s reply included a small picture of a goose which took up several lines—not helpful in a column always at a loss for space. (1857.1.60)

[tariff on ideas]

But, really, most of the punning seems to have been for love of the pun. A. N. goes on to revel in pun and patriotism: “[T]ake everything for granted, and then grant everything taken, and may Grant take everything!” (1864.2.24)

[The same is true of the Chat.]

Those uncomfortable writing letters to the magazine, however, did have the option of answering puzzles and receiving recognition that way. A cursory examination of the lists of puzzle-makers and -solvers reveals many readers whose letters weren’t printed in the Chat itself.

[as often as is apparent.]

Perhaps this is because their letters are so memorable: both letter-writers were lively and articulate; and Willie Coleman, especially, wrote little descriptions and cultural vignettes that make for interesting reading.

[who included Willie Coleman]

While the phrase “bright particular star” is from Shakespeare, whom the Cousins often quoted, the word “star” has been used to describe someone with special talent since the 18th century, when it was used to refer to actors. Willie Coleman, at least, noted the pressure that could come with being a star in the Chat: “I beg to protest against being dubbed the ‘bright particular star’—at least during ‘dog-days.’ It is too hot to ‘rage;’ and if anybody can feel ‘particularly bright’ with the mercury in the nineties, I wish he or she would assume the title, and the glory thereof, ‘to once’t.’ ” (1859.2.90)

[their eighth try.]

William Hoyt Coleman was there to greet her: “I admire the ‘try-again’ spirit of ‘Blue-Eyed Lora.’ Seven times unsuccessful, yet persevering, to meet success on the eighth attempt. Uncle Hi, how could you ‘cut her out’ so?” (1860.2.58)

[designate other subscribers.]

Of course, some subscribers were biological cousins, as well: Flora P. Stearns and Abby Marietta Stearns not only were biological cousins, but were the biological nieces of John N. Stearns, aka “Uncle Robert.”

[enjoyed by other readers]

“That little girl’s letter from Paris was very interesting, and I should like her to write again,” Richard Tilghmann Earle commented. (1850.1.63)

[felt little need to respond]

Those who have studied conversation surely have explored the role of “gaps,” into which conversants can insert responses. Writers of fan fiction based on movies and on television shows speak of noticing “gaps” in the film or aired episodes; and stories are written to “fill the gap”: to explain a character’s motives or to “fill in” what could have happened between one scene and the next. If there isn’t a perceived gap, usually there’s little to write about. (Though, happily, writers of fan fiction can always find something to write about.) Lizzie and Willie’s narratives may have struck the other subscribers as having no gap into which their own responses would fit: no question or assertion to be responded to. I’ve observed this phenomenon on some e-mail lists, when someone hoping for a multilogue posts a mini-essay so complete that there’s little to discuss. In fact, on some e-mail lists, I’ve found myself creating a gap as I write what would properly be a monologue, simply so readers will have something to respond to.

[which computer users can enter]

Even before the Internet, Turkle reminds us, it was easy to get a sense of another existence just behind the glass of the computer monitor, as the computer responded to commands; for many of us, programming—even if it was only in BASIC—made the computer into a responsive entity reacting to the programmer’s suggestions: if you were lucky, it did pretty much what you hoped it would. This sense of that other existence is multiplied on Internet, where something always is happening: web pages are appearing and disappearing, and are being revised; people are posting to bulletin boards and in chat rooms; the Web is open 24 hrs a day, and somewhere on the planet someone is interacting with it every second. (And, if you’re writing HTML—and you’re lucky—again, the computer pretty much does what you hope it will.)

[an editorial muddle]

It’s a classic:

It is an old saying, that “accidents will happen in the best regulated families.” I believe it may be added that the best regulated Museum will sometimes get into a muss. Now here am I, Robert Merry, in that awkward state, which, for want of a better word, we must call don’t-know-what-to-do-ishness.

The case is this. Here’s the story of Thorwald wants about two pages to finish the chapter, and I haven’t got two pages for it. Therefore I am obliged to cut the chapter right through the middle, which leaves it very much in the condition of Munchausen’s horse, which, on entering a castle, was cut in twain by the fall of the portcullis, leaving one half in the fort and the other half out of it.

In the next place I’ve got lots of letters from my little friends, saying a great many pleasant things, and praying me to print their puzzles, and I haven’t room for one of them.

In the third place, I find that a strange and mysterious affair is going on between the publishers and subscribers to the Museum. As far as I can understand it, the former, who by the way, are very good, kind, pleasant gentlemen, have been furnishing the latter a portrait of me, or somebody that pretends to be me. Now if this be true, I beg it to be understood that I wash my hands of the whole affair. I remember when I was a boy, to have opened a monstrous folio, which contained the works of a very learned divine, by the name of Wilson. At the beginning was a frontispiece, containing the portrait of the author. Underneath was written as follows:

Good Wilson this—behold his looks,

And now proceed and read his books.

I was a boy then, and was inclined to take the matter very literally. I did look at the portrait, but that satisfied me. The man looked so hard, severe, and forbidding, that I shut up the volume, and never read a word of its contents. Ever since, I have had a prejudice against portraits of the authors in books.

This is my taste, but if the publishers think they have caught a likeness of me, and can gain any thing by it, they are welcome to do what they please with it, particularly as I can’t help it. At all events, whatever they promise, they will no doubt faithfully and truly perform. If the Black Eyes and the Blue think it a good joke, and desire to see their old friend quizzed a little, by being daguerreotyped from one end of the country to the other, I shall take it all in good part. But they must not expect to have all the fun to themselves. I never let others put the whole of a laugh into their own pockets, but generally keep a bit of it in my own sleeve.

Under these circumstances, the reader will perceive that this number of the Museum is adjourned at a very inconvenient spot. I want three or four pages more, to offer thanks where they are due, to satisfy the claims of correspondents, and pour out my grievances upon the sensitive ear of the public. But,

"What can’t be cured, must be endured.” (1850.1.96)

[letters were chosen for the Chat]

And a detailed picture it is, too:

When letters come in for this department, they are carefully put away in a drawer until the printer hints to Mr. Merry that it is time to have the Chat; then he takes off all the books and papers from his large study-table, so as to have plenty of room, and lays out the letters, and imagines that the writer of every one is there present. He sits on one side of the table in his large walnut chair with a black leather cushion, while Uncle Hiram sits near him, on the same side of the table, in the yellow arm-chair with a red cushion. It does not require much imagination to see about twenty thousand keen eyes looking on, and to hear as many tongues running like black-birds. Whew! what a clatter. Mr. Merry carefully opens each letter, looks at the writing and spelling, and then at the name, and if he recognizes it as a familiar one, there is a sort of how-do-you-do smile all over his face. If it is a new name he tells Uncle Hiram, and 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.” Each new name is at once entered on the list of the Merry family. All this while Mr. Merry is busy opening and reading letters, and 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.”

Uncle Hiram does not laugh outright. He sits straight up in his chair, and when he is pleased he laughs with his eyes and claps his hands, and when he is going to say something funny, there is a sort of leer in his eye and a comical expression to his mouth that makes you laugh before he speaks. (1855.1.121)

[without experiencing the consequences]

Erikson apparently points to adolescence as a time of psychosocial moratorium; and many of the teenaged girls in the Chat agreed with him. Orianna certainly felt it in 1859: “I have just arrived … at the age described by the poets as ‘sweet sixteen,’ and consequently have the customary amount of silliness and romance appertaining to that age.” (1859.1.60) Fleta Forrester felt that age 20 was time enough to settle down: “I am afraid … I did very little last winter towards making myself ‘useful as well as ornamental.’ What with skating, sleighing, dancing, riding, driving, visiting, traveling, rusticating, etc., etc., ad infinitum, I have had little time and no opportunity to devote myself to [learning housework]. … I’m still in my ‘teens.’ You’ll see how sober I’ll manage to be when I arrive at the dignity of ‘a score.’ ” (1860.2.89)

[about equal with the number of boys]

This is in contrast with cyberspace, where men tend to dominate the discussion groups and where they have become angry if women post more than half the messages. (Morahan-Martin) Whether the equality in the Chat is due to editorial selection or to different socialization is impossible to know.

[quashed by Robert Merry]

Merry wrote:

If you mean to insinuate that woman is not right now—right-minded, right-hearted, in her right place, in her right sphere, and exercising her right influence in society, and, in all respects, just as right as right can be—then—we must quarrel outright, and you may go right back to the nursery, and ask your mother to put you right on this matter.

As to that “call,” Alice, every day and hour calls us to some duty. Answer these, as they come along, and you will have something better than fame for a reward. (1856.1.188)

This is a very different response from the one Alice would have gotten with Samuel Goodrich as Robert Merry, who denounced society’s traditional view of women in Lives of Celebrated Women, and in the “Balloon Travels” serialized in the Museum; speaking of the seclusion in which Turkish women were kept, Merry makes comparisons with American society:

Even in our state of society, we have something of the Turk about us. We deem it best for women to live in a domestic way at home. We consider it improper, indelicate, for women to mix freely in the out-door affairs of life …. Now we men go about freely; we see all that is going on; we mix in the business of the streets; … in the halls of legislation; in political assemblies; … in all the great affairs of life …. And now, consider: when the day’s work is done, we go home from their stirring, active, exciting scenes, and meet our wives and sisters, our female friends, where, according to our somewhat Turkish views of society, we have kept them all day imprisoned. [“Balloon Travels,” 28 (Nov 1854): 328]

[you will hear such sweet things]

In Black-Eyes’ case, the “still, small voice” may have been whispering of marriage: two years later she would drop the bombshell of her matrimonial state.

[a commission now for Hawthorne]

In the Chat, Cornelius Gibbs and Busy Bee came to embody the emotional conflict Northerners were experiencing about the War. Cornelius drew hostility, while Busy Bee was at the heart of hopes for reconciliation. “There’s some one inquiring for C. M. Gibbs,” Black-Eyes groused. “Don’t send for him. Let him march on until he hits something, or something hits him.” (1861.2.156) On the other hand, in her “To Correspondents” column, Aunt Sue asked General George McClellan to “Be kind enough to convey to Busy Bee, under a flag of truce, Harry Whitmore’s love, together with the love and affection of all the rest of the Merrys, including the uncles and aunts.” (1862.1.64) Even after their states seceded, some Southern Cousins were not forgotten: Aunt Sue mentioned Busy Bee so that she would know, when she again saw the magazine, that she was remembered, feeling that “Bless her little heart! She never could make a personal matter out of a nation’s dispute; and I feel certain that a letter from Jasper or Tommy [two Cousins who were Union sailors] would be as welcome to her as ever.” (1865.1.185)

[he withdrew from the Chat]

The exchange seems to pretty much sum up the difficulties of Reconstruction, in miniature, with Jennie insisting on complete surrender, and Tennessean digging in his heels. Jennie fired first: “I read the letter from Tennessean in the April number. It seems the rebels want to come back into the Chat again. For one, I would say, ‘NEVER! while you are acknowledged rebels.’ ” (1865.2.27) Tennessean’s response showed that he wasn’t going to back down, though he could view the situation with humor:

As fast as the mails become reliable, Annie [Drummond], our scattered band [ie, the other Southerners] will gather again to their places in the various corners of the sanctum. Will you stand in front of us to hide us from Cousin Jennie’s eyes, and excuse us if, when the hurrah goes round for the Stars and Stripes, we hang our heads and think sadly of the gray-haired man who in his lonely dungeon is suffering so terribly for our misfortunes or sins, call them which you will? … Cousin Jennie, write out your “Amnesty,” and let us see if we can take it without wry faces. Can’t you receive us with “charity for all and malice toward none?” (1865.2.88)

Uncle Robert’s comments also drew from Lincoln’s second inaugural address and spoke of reconciliation: “We accept the motto; and ‘with firmness in the right, so far as God gives us to see the right,’ let us walk hereafter together in peace and harmony, forgetting the bitterness of the past in our united efforts to do good to all around us, and help to educate and elevate the poor and the oppressed.” But Jennie was having none of it:

Tennessean, my charity shall never be withheld toward those who repent of and forsake their ways of wrong-doing. But I should not be true to my country, or to the kind Father above who receives none of His erring children “except they repent and do works meet for repentance,” if I extended the hand of friendship to those who still uphold the principles which have deluged our fair land in blood. If your heart is so filled with sorrow when the glorious old Stars and Stripes are cheered, I would fain remind you, that had that “gray-haired man” been true to the flag under whose protecting folds he had passed his life, he might to-day be an honored citizen among us, instead of an inmate of a dreary “dungeon.” And while I still say “NEVER! NEVER!” to the proffers of friendship from all who are yet rebels at heart, I would, God helping me, extend a forgiving hand even to that one, were he truly penitent, who sent the fatal ball which has made me brotherless and laid that noble form and bright young head which I loved, to molder beneath the soil of your own sunny Tennessee. A stricken sister can offer no different “amnesty” to those who have deprived her of her heart’s most cherished treasure. (1865.2.120)

Tennessean tried to deflect the conflict with humor, for he was

anxious to convince her that I am not quite as bad as she thinks me. She wishes me to quit my “way of wrong-doing.” I assure her I have. I’ve quit everything for fear it might be “disloyal.” Why, I don’t even make faces at a dog that bites me, if he has a blue ribbon round his neck. And, moreover, I have resolved henceforth and forever to walk as exactly in the footsteps of Massachusetts as the size of my feet will allow. (1865.2.156)

But he couldn’t satisfy everyone, neither the editors nor the other Southerners, for his letter was trimmed, making him appear

so very humble and contrite that I didn’t “know myself.” And this was not by alteration at all, but by omission, a clear case of “suppressio veri,” for which I am guiltless! I take the hint, however. I am not to “ ’spress my ’pinions” so publicly; I submit—I am resigned even to the castigations I have so unmercifully received (privately) for “desertion of my cause,” “treachery to my friends,” etc., etc. (1866.1.90-91)

He retired from the conflict and from the Chat.

[procedures used to produce the Chat]

It also allowed him to comment on letters not yet printed; when one subscriber decided to let the others know that she was married, Willie was the first Cousin to see the letter: “Dropping into the Museum office one fine morning, I received the astounding intelligence that Miss—alas! we shall Miss her no more—Black-Eyes had got—my pen can hardly write the words—a HUSBAND!” (1858.1.56)

[the editors were really in charge.]

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. The Cousins were just as aggressive in trying to establish status as the cybercitizens were; 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 wordplay.

[indulged in flame wars]

Occasionally the metaphor of fire and flame actually did show up in editorial remarks on indignant letters. When a fire in the Museum’s office coincided with reactions to William Forrest Oakley’s admission that he’d written as “Bess,” the editor pointed out that “ ‘Bess’ may rejoice in a happy escape from some scorching letters from indignant cousins, who are now scorched themselves, beyond hope of recovery.” (1861.1.153) Susanna Newbould also used the metaphor in describing a letter from a subscriber who’d been the object of some indignation: “the edges are all burnt, and charred holes right through the centre! What can it mean?” (1857.1.126) That question remains, since the letter wasn’t mentioned again.

[x + xy = 6.]

Actually, it didn’t look that simple when Black-eyed Mary (aka “Black-Eyes”) proposed it:

Will Willie H. Coleman please to solve the following, and give us not only the answer, but the mode of solving it?

Take 2 numbers such that the square of the 1st plus the square of the 2d is equal to 8. And the 1st plus the product of the 1st by the 2nd is equal to 6. (1855.1.61)

[Proving it to the satisfaction of the other Cousins]

[2002:] Matthew McIrvin ( points out that the problem is more complicated than it looks:

… There are TWO real-number solutions to the puzzle! One is x = 2, y = 2. The other is approximately x = 2.393955784, y = 1.506311955. This can be seen by plotting the circle described by x2+y2 = 8 and the hyperbola described by x+xy = 6; they intersect in two nearby places.

(I think that there are two other solutions in complex numbers, but I haven’t bothered to find them, as I suspect that they fall outside the spirit of the original problem.)

It’s no wonder that “proving the answer” was so difficult and caused so much controversy, since presumably the “proof” sought after would involve proving that x = y = 2 was the unique solution, which is incorrect; and because the problem is actually equivalent to the quartic equation

x4-7x2-12x+36 = 0.

There is a general algebraic formula for solving quartic equations, discovered in the 1500s, but it’s quite an involved process and would probably have been beyond Robert Merry’s readership:

(Since the equation is a “depressed quartic,” it would actually be possible to skip the first part in this case, but the rest is still kind of involved. I haven’t bothered to figure out whether the equation is factorizable or admits some other shortcut. But, in any case, I’m sure that it’s possible to write my second solution as an algebraic expression using this method.)

Personally, I found the other root by numerical methods with a computer, but it would not have been hard to approximate to a few decimal places with Newton’s method by hand, once one had the quartic form—that’s how I probably would have done it had I been limited to 19th century technology and my own limited ingenuity.

[proof after proof]

Those curious about the solutions should see the following in copies of the magazine: 1855.2.60, 1855.2.95-96, 1855.2.124-125, 1855.2.125, 1855.2.153-155, 1855.2.157-158, 1855.2.185, 1856.1.29, 1856.1.56-58, 1856.1.90, 1856.1.124-125, 1856.1.187-188, 1856.1.189, 1856.1.189-190.

[obliged to make up]

Reprinting the puzzle in Merry’s Book of Puzzles, the editor noted dryly, “If any choose to work this out algebraicially, it will be found to be no trifling puzzle. See Merry’s Museum for 1856.”

[wrote the last!!]

The “love and respects” war was fought mostly indirectly, with outraged Cousins amusing themselves by sending love or respects in various combinations.

[the name was a blank.]

Sigma wrote:

Uncle Merry, do grant me just one favor more…. [I]t is permission to tell Alice B. Corner how my brother and I served up ------ this afternoon. In the first place, we painted a “splendid photographic likeness” of the “identical gentleman himself,” making him as “black” as the niggers he loves so well, and then, having elevated him to a convenient height, with rifle and pistol (for it is a fact, Uncle Merry, that, although I am a girl—I should say a young miss—yet I am a pretty good shot with a pistol) we peppered him without mercy, and by the time our “good intentions” were satisfied, and the poor fellow had come out of the “mill,” his countenance much resembled “a pepper-box without a top,” or, what is much the same thing, “a sieve without a bottom.” (1857.1.29-30)

[last letter to the Museum]

Part of the reason Tennessean left the Chat may have been that he was drawing fire from both sides: Northerners in the magazine, and Southerners in private; “I submit I am resigned even to the castigations I have so unmercifully received (privately) for ‘desertion of my cause,’ ‘treachery to my friends,’ etc., etc.” (1866.1.90-91)

[subscribers usually were listed by name]

When known, of course; “Bess” ’s first letter was published in the Cabinet.

[name she dropped after only a few letters]

In favor, of course, of another pen-name, which may have been taken from Fleda, the main character in Susan Warner’s popular Queechy, and a last name shared by “Mark Forrester” and “Francis Forrester,” who wrote and edited books and magazines for children.

[one humorous exception]

J. R—d parodied Robert Merry’s prim assertion that “our letter-writing friends will … 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) with a letter that broke most of the rules:

I have rit you three lettors, and sent you seven puzzlers; some on ’em as long as my arm; and now you haint insarted none on em. This is tew bad! … And what makes it wus, is, that you insart other people’s letters, and take no notice of mine. I’m for equil rites, Mr. Merry, and hate ojus distinkshuns and privelledges. (1849.2.61)

Merry printed it with nary a comment.

[the best written]

Letters too difficult to read or to print were filtered out first: “If it is written with pale ink or on blue paper, we don’t read it. If it is written on both sides of the paper, we usually throw it into the waste-basket. Printers won’t use paper written on both sides, and we can’t copy letters.” (1855.1.121) One exception to the “written on both sides” rule was a letter from a Chickasaw subscriber in Texas, whose letter apparently was too interesting to throw into the basket; Robert Merry summed up the first half, since “his sentiments … unfortunately … were expressed on both sides of the paper, so we can only give the public the benefit of the last half.” (1859.2.60)

[The same was true in the Chat]

“[M]any more men adopt a female persona than vice versa,” Turkle points out (314, note 11); in this, the Chat seems to differ from online communities, since the gender-swappers were evenly divided—or, maybe, other boys masquerading as girls simply didn’t confess or get caught.

[employ amanuenses?]

Newbould and the Oakley family lived in Brooklyn, and Newbould may have learned something that never came out in the Chat; also, she was privy not only to the letters, as they came in in their envelopes, but to the ledger books listing subscribers and may have indulged in a little unreproduceable detecting. One of her “hints” was so enigmatic that it remains undecipherable decades later, even after being posted to various puzzle and cipher groups on Usenet:

Bess.-- ! - - --; - - - .? (-- !)--,. .!! .. ?!!! 137.!!!

It’s not Morse code. The number “137” may refer to the Oakleys’ post office box number or to the number of the family’s house on Washington Avenue; those records have vanished. (Anybody got a translation?)

[if only to punish it.]

The “spank me” tone of much of the letter does take the modern (or perhaps just the adult) reader aback, especially since Woodworth picks up on it and works the metaphor even harder: “Now, Bess, I ’m sorry to disappoint any reasonable expectations of yours. But 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. Now, surely, you are not so much in want of a whipping that you would be willing to be whipped out of pure curiosity just to see what kind of blows I should administer, and precisely how you would feel under the infliction, would you?” (1856.1.198) A lot of things probably lie behind Willie’s prank—including the heart condition he died from at age 27 in 1864, two years after his father died of heart failure.

[giddiness of the letter to the Cabinet]

In Turkle, it’s noted that men may adopt a female identity as a way to “assert domination over female bodies.” (311, ft 11) To some extent, Willie may have been doing that; certainly he was asserting domination over a female personality (and garnering attention).

[spicy letters as girls]

Nippinifidget spent two years dodging accusations of gender-swapping. Her first complaint appeared in Woodworth’s Youth’s Cabinet in 1857; and at least one Cousin a year hinted that she was male: “C. H. I. … is not the first who has mistaken me for one of the ‘genus homo.’ ” (1857.2.184) Arthur T—s played with pronouns: “It seems that that fidgety Nip is going to fidget herself over to Europe (I wonder how long he is going to stay). But never mind. I guess we can do without her awhile, if he will promise to give us a sketch of her adventures.” (1858.2.28) William Hoyt Coleman welcomed “Nippy” back from a tour of Europe: “I give you a hearty shake of the hand, and would send a kiss, too, if I was certain of your being a ‘noun feminine.’ ” (1859.2.90) It’s difficult to determine why there were so many accusations.

[they were or would like to be]

The bona fide female readers were no meek, simpering Victorian maidens: they gave as good as they got, and then some. Fleta Forrester shot an abolitionist in effigy; Mar caught her father’s horses in the pasture and rode them bareback. And they brooked no condescension from the boys. Lillie publicly skewered a male Cousin who wondered why “a girl” would ever study Latin: “I wish I could send his DOGYtype, just to show you how he turned up his nose at the word, girl!” (1857.2.57) The girls especially shuddered at the thought of growing up: “I am not a young lady yet,” Nannie Nightingale admitted. “Mamma sighs, and says I never will be. But I don’t, by any means, consider myself a child, nor can I repress my indignation when any one treats me as such. I am a girl, Uncle, a happy, fun-loving girl, and I wish I could always be one. I hope I am not un-ladylike, but I dread the thought of becoming a ‘young lady.’ ” (1861.2.23-24) Several were interested in equal rights for women; Roguish Kate and Oddity attended a women’s rights convention in 1867. “[T]he hackneyed and much abused subject of ‘Woman’s Rights,’ is a darling hobby of mine,” Alice B. Corner explained in 1856; “that I shall have a ‘call’ for something, I no more doubt than I do my own identity.” The editor attempted to quash her ambitions; but Alice wasn’t alone.

[who Robert Merry “really was"]

“I think you [Hiram Hatchet] and Robert Merry, and Peter Parley, and S. G. Goodrich, are all one person,” Mary wrote. “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, obsrvation, 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. His sun is like that which Joshua hailed over the plain of Gibeon, it hastens not to go down. Mary it long continue to shine on the youth of all lands, for it has a generous love for the young.

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. So much for Editorial daguerreotypes, by way of making ourselves better acquainted with the distant members of our large family. (1854.2.224)

["Aunt Sue’s" identity]

Arthur T—s: “My mother sends her love to Aunt Sue, and says she guesses that her name is ----. Has she guessed right?” Aunt Sue’s reply: “3. Give Aunt Sue’s love to ‘mother.’ 4. She did ‘guess right.’ ” (1858.2.28) Actually, it wasn’t much of a challenge for subscribers to Woodworth’s Youth’s Cabinet: Susanna Newbould’s portrait appeared in the magazine in 1854, complete with her name.

[accusations died down fairly quickly.]

The accusations probably died down because there was a limit to the entertainment value of the discussions. After all, there weren’t many cases of gender-swapping in the Chat. But it’s interesting to note the way that gender-swapping in cyberspace can, as Sherry Turkle points out, allow us to think about “social construction of gender” (213)—at a time when constructions of gender are being rethought and the rethinking is being acted upon. The Cousins probably weren’t having exactly the same learning experience, but one could speculate that accusations died down so quickly because even if the swapping did cause readers to think about the way that society defined gender, gender roles were so firmly entrenched that this thinking didn’t get very far.

Black-Eyes’ revelation that she was married didn’t evoke the same amount of speculation; only William Hoyt Coleman was teased that perhaps he, too, was married. What her revelation evoked was discussion of the social construction of marriage, as the Cousins marvelled that a married woman could be so “free” and “saucy.” The girls especially equated marriage with lost freedom and vanished vivacity: “Who would have thought that she, the light of our Museum … should be thus put out by that great extinguisher, ‘matrimony,’ ” one girl mourned. (1858.1.154) Black-Eyes was sympathetic and reassuring: “I would never have married if I couldn’t have smiled afterward, and had to draw out my words, and talk about the weather and the fashions. No, dear, people can get married and be just as free, just as easy, just as saucy, and just as wild as they were before, especially if they are sure to get husbands who like just such wives.” (1859.2.127) Many of the Merry Cousins at this time were teenagers who probably were comparing Black-Eyes with the other married people they knew—namely, their parents.

[gender-neutral “Sigma"]

So gender-neutral that the signature was adopted by Charles Eames (a member of the Sigma Pi fraternity) a few years later.

[anti-North Senator who’d just died]

Preston Smith Brooks took issue with remarks by Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner and physically attacked him with a cane on the floor of the Senate. During a later heated debate with another Northern senator, Brooks challenged him to a duel in Canada, but failed to show up, as he would in his words have had to “pass through the enemy’s country” to get to the duel. He probably would have viewed the shooting of an abolitionist in effigy as a proper tribute.

[to be trampled upon]

Tennessean’s letter makes for weird reading, given that he’s discussing one person: his scorn is reserved for “Sigma” (“And my friend Sigma? What’s become of her? Ugh! She’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!”); but his respect is offered to Fleta (“Now don’t you say the Northern girls are “sour grapes” to me, for they aren’t. … Give my love to Fleta Forester, if she is a Northerner.”). They were, of course, the same person, as had been announced a few issues earlier. (1859.1.93) Why Tennessean rethought his earlier respect of “Sigma” is impossible to know. But the incident does make some interesting points about how differently someone can be perceived when they use two identities.

[I think so.” (1861.1.89)]

The same occurred with regard to the editors, of course: the real identity of both “Aunt Sue” and “Hiram Hatchet” became a guessing game for some subscribers; several times, subscribers requested—and got—descriptions of the uncles and the aunt. Portraits of the editors were sent to subscribers in the 1860s, but editors also exchanged photographs directly with some subscribers.

[a veritable he, with boots]

Oddly, the exchange of photos sparked another flame war: the “p. g. war,” which began when Daniel Hudson Burnham asked what part of the country had the largest number of “pretty girls.” After the photo exchange began in 1861, William Hoyt Coleman noted a discrepancy in who was sending them:

The good-looking folks, so far as I know them, seem delighted with the idea, and are ready to give and take. But there are some others who squirm. I do, for one. Never gave me “photo” to any one, even my “most intimate;” don’t like to have my phiz criticised any more than can be helped; think the original is enough of a cuss, without multiplying it; but I do want the cartes of some of my beloved cousins, and therefore, after much thought and consideration, I have concluded to exchange portraits with such of the Merries as desire it, on one condition only—that I receive their photographs first. (1861.2.92)

[it was made up for the Merry Cousins in 1864]

Cousins could buy the pin outright or earn it by finding subscribers, which would, Robert Merry noted, “keep up the [Merry] circle”: “We will present a badge of the boys’ size, worth $1 50, to every one who sends four new subscribers to the Museum, with the money, $4; or a gold badge worth $3 50, for eight new subscribers and $8; or one of the girls’ size, worth $6, to every one who sends twelve new subscribers, and $12 to pay for them.” (1863.2.182) In 1866, note paper with the badge printed on it was made available. Alas, no example of either badge or paper has been found; but the search continues.

[and how much]

In fact, though two subscribers were the biological nieces of John N. Stearns, there’s no hint that they were anything more than ordinary, “dues-paying” subscribers; like many others, their letters were signed with initials, and neither Flora P. Stearns nor Abby Marietta Stearns revealed anything of the relationship in their letters. That subscriber Hattie Lee was being courted by office boy Eugene H. Fales went unmentioned until Eugene—having escaped from a Confederate prison—married Hattie while on leave, in true romantic fashion.

[three letters columns]

“The Puzzle Drawer” was primarily concerned with puzzles, but Susanna Newbould printed and commented on letters from subscribers.

[Most of the Cousins ignored him.]

Jolly Jingle approved of the suggestion “heartily and wholly”—and did not take it immediately. (1867.1.155) A. N. agreed with Herman, noting that “for the past two or three years the chat has been more like a photograph saloon,—an ancient hand-organ grinding o’er a few old tunes, or a boarding-school ‘hash,’ than the pleasant interchange of idea, sentiments, opinions, personal experiences, ‘quips and cranks,’ &c., that it ought to be.” (1867.2.126) But Jennie Enwood disagreed: “Let Herman tell all about himself, then perhaps some other Cousin will ditto.” (1867.1.156) And, she did have a point: Herman complained, but never sent in the kind of letter he requested.

[ties to the magazine or the subscribers.]

This repurposing may have helped to lead to the failure of the magazine. The Chat was the most popular part of the Museum, though, in fact, the magazine didn’t publish much worth remembering; the letters column may have been what made the magazine unique. Circulation-wise, the Museum was at its peak during the glory days of the letters column in 1866, when there were 40,000 subscribers. (Circulation in the 1840s appears to have been 10,000 to 13,000; in the 1850s circulation ranged between 20,000 and 25,000. In 1863, there were 20,000, though this began to rise to just under 40,000 in 1864.) Circulation figures are erratic and perhaps inaccurate, but by 1869 —a year after Horace B. Fuller took over the magazine and the Chat was basically eliminated—there were 10,000 subscribers. (Dechert, 141) That number didn’t change, despite the editor’s pleas for help raising the number of subscribers to 100,000—which was many more than most other American children’s periodicals had at the time. However, 10,000 is half what magazines like Oliver Optic’s Magazine, Our Young Folks, and The Nursery had. (Dechert, chart XXIX) Why the magazine ultimately failed is unknown, since apparently no records exist. The Boston Fire that occurred the month the magazine folded certainly didn’t help.

[this great city]

Samuel Goodrich invited readers to visit him at home: “You may rest assured, Mary S. D—, if I ever come near Binghamton, I shall come and see you, and tell you one of my best stories. If you ever come this way, call at my hut, Jamaica Plain, and you shall get a smacking welcome.” (1846.2.128)

Copyright 1999-2017, Pat Pflieger
To “Nineteenth-Century American Children & What They Read
Some of the children | Some of their books | Some of their magazines
To “Voices from 19th-Century America
Some works for adults, 1800-1872
To Titles at this site | Subjects at this site | Works by date | Map of the site

Talk to me.