Passing notes the write way

Workshop uses history to teach children the lost art of penning an old-fashioned letter

April 24, 2005|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

The goal of the children's letter-writing workshop was more than stamps and sealing wax. It was to connect the dots between the post office, literacy and democracy in the early years of the American republic.

Dressed in an early 19th-century housedress was the teacher, Nancy A. Gardner, who supervised the recent Historic Annapolis Foundation weekend event at the William Paca House, a Colonial mansion.

To underscore the importance of letter-writing, Gardner brought along a few authored by Founding Fathers, including Benjamin Franklin.

Franklin penned a cutting 1775 note to a member of the English parliament: "You and I were long friends. You are now my enemy, and I am Yours, B. Franklin."

Franklin, the illustrious Philadelphian, was once a postmaster. Such letters and ideas were key to forming the heart of the American Revolution, Gardner told the children -- thus it was critical to make the postal service circulating between the 13 colonies as far from English eyes as possible.

The second order of the day was to give the dozen or so children seated at a long table some familiarity with using a goose quill pen.

Of all the American fowl to pluck for a pen, Gardner said, goose feathers were best suited for writing in a legible hand. "Goose is the strongest and the longest lasting," she said.

As 11-year-old Alexander Wolfe of Annapolis and several other youngsters held their quills poised over a page, Gardner directed them to start by writing their names. "You'll learn how hard you have to push," she said. "You will make mistakes. It will get messy. We understand that."

Lemon juice was the treatment of the era for ink spills, she said.

Andrea Montgomery, a nurse from Edgewater, watched her 7-year-old daughter, Meghan, painstakingly write the alphabet with just a few smudges.

Living the moment

"Children have a hard time paying attention to history lessons unless they live the moment," Montgomery said. "Letters have something romantic and mysterious about them, and girls especially like that."

Then, as the group practiced their letters, Gardner provided a vivid history lesson, told more like a bedtime tale, of a Quaker family with four children in 1830s Philadelphia.

"Good citizens read, write and communicate," Gardner said. She presented an old bound volume of the Elfreth family correspondence and read some pieces written the children wrote of their daily adventures. As she spoke, her pupils' eyes widened as tales from children their age were told.

One written by Joseph Elfreth to his brother, Caleb, told of a ship sailing into Philadelphia from Calcutta, carrying a rhinoceros, an orangutan and several boa constrictors.

On the same day, Joseph noted, "the Ship of the Line Pennsylvania was launched; this supposed to be one of the biggest ships in the World, and it has been 15 years since the keel was laid." His letter was dated "7 month/26th/1837," ,Quakers did not use names for months. He signed it, "Thy affectionate brother."

Timeless pieces

His sister, Jane, wrote letters to her father, describing in one a trip to a dentist on Arch Street who extracted "two troublesome teeth." In another, dated "1st month 1836," she wrote that President Andrew Jackson was not so "pacific" as was hoped. She concluded, "But little girls like me had better learn to knit stockings than to be talking about politics. Thy daughter, Jane P. Elfreth."

Inspired by the simple clarity of that era's letters, Alexander Wolfe dashed off an old-fashioned letter to his grandparents in Las Vegas.

Meghan also felt up to the challenge of writing one, which Gardner helped her seal.

"I find them all over the house, letters that never get mailed," Meghan's mother said.

Back when there were no envelopes, Gardner told thepupils, sealing wax was a handy thing to have. "It's secret when it's sealed."

There was one last point she wanted to get across to the youngsters: Once a letter reached the intended person in early America, it was bound to be read aloud and passed around to family and friends.

"Letters were meant to be heard as much as read," Gardner said at the end of the session.

As her young audience and their parents dispersed, Gardner said reviving the 18th and early 19th century was her calling. "I spend as much of my life as I can in the 18th century, in the age of individual arts," the Dover, Del., resident said.

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