8-Year-Old Louisa’s Letter (1885)
8-YEAR-OLD LOUISA’S LETTER (1885)
This is a new year letter I acquired late last year, written by a little girl from Camello Massachusetts on January 18th 1885. I was initially intrigued by the ink, as I hadn’t seen a letter written in pink that was this old before. Once I began to read I saw it was so much more than just some interesting ink, it was an incredibly rare insight into a child’s life and early writing development from the late 19th century. Having studied ‘Child Language Accusation’ as part of my A-level in English Language this happily combined two of my passions, English language study and vintage ephemera. After some initial research by my Dad, he found out the child writer was a Louisa May Leonard, born in 1877. She was 8 when she wrote this letter to her second cousin Ada Louisa Benson, born in 1876.
Here is a transcribed copy of the letter…
I received your letter all right. You asked me what the name of my teacher was her name is Miss Bernankhe is a very good teacher. I will tell you about my Christmas presents the first one a work tablet from mama a pair of gloves from grandma a box of writing paper and envelopes this is the paper and envelopes the box of paper from Stuie Akerman a doll from a girl that works in mamas shop her name is Annie Beard. Aunt Mary gave mama and me a handsome dress. We gave mama a handsome pocket book and a silk handkerchief. I had a box of toy money from Emma. A puzzle map from Aunt Helen, Gramdma a hood from mama she had a cornbloom(?) cake from Aunt Sarah. I had a needlebook from Aunt Sarah.
The letter is wonderful, yet due to the childhood manor in which it is written, it doesn’t feel old or ‘of its time’. The way children develop phrasing style of writing hasn’t changed. The text feels like a classic 21st century child’s response to being asked to write a thank you style letter after Christmas. This involves writing all the interesting things you can think of at the beginning and when you soon run out of ideas, just list all the things you received and then what other people gave each other, until the page is full and you can stop. I am guilty of doing something similar when I wrote thank you letters after Birthdays and Christmas’ until I was about 15. Although it makes it hard to read at times, the basic grammar, wobbly handwriting and little to no punctuation, make for a delightfully charming read, and you can tell she tried to do her very best writing.
The envelope address, written in a pristine cursive script, leads me to believe her mother addressed it just to make sure it got to its destination. I am unsure however, why the envelope has a date stamp that seems to read “Aug 23 1888”. This makes no sense in context with the letter, except if it got lost in the post and was only stamped and delivered several years late.
Strangely Louisa mentions gifts from and to her mother Martha, but not her father Lucius. This was quickly resolved by looking more into the family history. Her father sadly died young, aged just 36 when Louisa was only 4 years old. Her father owned a shoe shop and when he died, his wife Martha took over and ran the business herself. It was incredibly rare for a woman to be running her own business in the late 1800s and here her mother was, raising 3 kids and a shoe business, pretty awesome. We even hear Louisa talking about getting “a doll from a girl that works in mamas shop.” which helps solidify our research.
It was all very well having names and dates, but I’m one who loved to visualise and when I have names and dates, try my hardest to find images of the people in question. I spent months looking for photographs and just a few weeks ago came across a photo of Ada on an ancestry website. I was overjoyed to finally see one of the people involved in this letter’s journey. I believe Ada would have been about 17 in this photo.
This is one of my most treasured pieces of vintage ephemera. From the bright pink ink to the childish lack of punctuation, it’s just magic. The text feels like it could have been written yesterday, but this single letter opened up a whole family’s story that took me back well over 100 years, and it was lovely to delve into the lives of both Louisa and Ada. I know have lots of information about their families and lives, but will continue to search for a photo of Louisa until I find one! If you have any vintage letters from non-family members sitting in your loft perhaps, take some time to dig and you never know where it might lead you.