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Step 1: Physical analysis of the document

letter

  1. What type of document does this appear to be? Consider the following list:
    • Newspaper
    • Letter
    • Patent
    • Memorandum
    • Telegram
    • Press Release
    • Report
  2. What unique physical qualities does the document have?
    • Interesting letterhead
    • Handwritten
    • Typed
    • Seals
    • Notations
    • “Received” stamp
    • Other?
  3. What is the date of the document?
  4. Who is the author (or creator) of the document?
  5. For what audience was the document written?

Step 2. Description of the document and its context

The Clement Family Papers date from 1798-1968. While there is a lot to be found in this collection, this letter specifically illustrates the courtship of Charles Fish Clement and Helen Baum Finletter. The two were eventually married, but their letters illustrate the struggle to realize that dream. Helen wrote almost daily to Charles before their eventual marriage. The correspondence is a clear historical picture of courtship in Gilded Age Vermont.

From the Vermont Historical Society’s catalog

The Clement Family Papers, 1798-1968, are primarily letters of the family of Charles and Elizabeth Wood Clement. In addition to immediate family and direct descendants the collection includes papers of Elizabeth Wood’s family, and the Pixley family (one of whom married Charles and Elizabeth’s grandson in 1892). The majority of the letters in the collection are between family members whose roots are in Sherburne and Rutland, Vermont, but who lived in various parts of the country including Illinois; Tacoma, Washington; Reno City, Oklahoma; California; Florida; and New York. The letters tell of births, marriages, sickness, and death. They describe occupations, business deals, new homes and climates, education, and travel. The letters not only set forth information but are clearly part of an ongoing communication where questions are asked, plans are coordinated, and opinions solicited and expressed.
The Clements were a prominent family in business and politics in Rutland, Vt. Charles Clement had an early interest in the marble quarries, operating Clement and Sons with his two oldest sons, Wallace and Percival. He was also part owner of the Rutland Railroad and the Clement National Bank. Wallace continued his father’s businesses after his death in 1893, and Percival carried on the family interest in railroads, while publishing the Rutland Herald. He also became active in politics and was elected governor in 1918.

Charles Clement was born in Haverhill, Mass., in 1807. He married Elizabeth Wood (1807-1904) in Sherburne, Vermont, in 1831. They had eight children: Wallace Charles (1835-1921); Frederic Percival (1838-1841); Anna Elizabeth (1840-1876); Melville Wood (1842-1843); Herbert Rogers (January, 1844- June 1844); Percival Wood (1846-1927); Fayette Rogers (1849-1850); Waldo Park (b. 1851). Charles Clement died in New York City, November 24, 1893.

Wallace Charles Clement (1835-1921) married Sarah Salome Fish (1832-1906) in 1858. They had five children: Florence Anna (1860-1870); Charles Fish (b. 1862); Frederic Percival (b. 1864); Charlotte Howard (1864-1923); Henry Wood (1866-1958).

Charles Fish Clement (b. 1862) married Helen Baum Finletter and had three children: Charles (1889-1978), Thomas Finletter (1890-1973), and William Baum (1892-1893). Frederic Percival Clement (b. 1864), married Maud Morrison, and had three children: Maud Morrison (1893-1978); Frederic Percival (1895-1918); and Roger Conant (b. 1896). Henry Wood Clement (1866-1958) married Agnes Josephine O’Neall (d. 1952), and had three children: John Pixley (1893-1968); Sarah Charlotte (1897-1983), Hugh O’Neall (1899-1975).

Step 3. Consider a transcription of the document in its historical context

Letter from Helen Finletter to Charles Clement dated 21 September 1887

…They are all getting tired of this waiting…Mama thinks your father ought to put you in a position to be married. As far as you are concerned, Mama is thoroughly satisfied — she likes you and has no fault to find with you. Mama says — but of course she can’t say positively that Papa will furnish my house — and of course my outfit and give me an allowance of $500 a year. This last was my suggestion. I hope Papa will agree to it. For a poor man that would be very liberal I think — your father will surely do as much and he ought to do a great deal more because compared with Papa he is a rich man. I am going to find out tomorrow if Papa will consent to the allowance, and if he does surely then we can be married in the spring. Oh, I would be so glad if you would only say we will be married then. What is the use dearest of putting it off until another fall — things won’t look any brighter then. Let us be married if we have only the minister and the necessary witnesses. I have with all effort brought myself to think a quiet wedding would be best, but to give up what I have dreamed of and counted on for so many years, ever since I was old enough to think at all, you must acknowledge is a risk…

What story does this letter tell? There are many stories! It is obvious that just one paragraph from the letter is rich in historical information. There are references to preparations for the marriage and expectations of the bride’s family, and as a document, the letter itself lends an eye into the past as the favored form of communication. Each of these aspects helps to create a picture of late nineteenth century Vermont.

Document information (There are many possible ways to answer 1-5)

  1. List three things the author said that you think are important.
  2. Why do you think the document was written?
  3. What evidence in the document helps you know why it was written? Quote from the document.
  4. List two things the document tells you about life in Vermont in the Gilded Age.
  5. Write a question to the author that is left unanswered in the document.

Love letters in the context of the Gilded Age

Considering both the document and your knowledge of the time period, answer the following questions:

Marriage: Expectations and preparation

It is apparent, from this letter as well as others in the Clement Family Papers collection, that Helen Finletter was very much looking forward to her marriage to Charles Clement. There was much discussion on her part about the timing of the wedding, and it becomes clear that choosing a date is tied to finances. Youth’s Educator for Home and Society, written by Mrs. Anna R. White and published in 1896, outlined social etiquette of the time. Using it as a guideline is helpful in looking at this section of the letter from Miss Finletter to Mr. Clement. The following excerpt, from Chapter XII: Wedding Customs, addresses the financial burden of hosting a wedding:

OUTLAY OFTEN TOO GREAT.

Sometimes, in that natural anxiety which parents feel to do their loved ones all honor possible, they exceed their means and incur expenses which they can ill afford. And yet, who would like to censure them, when it is remembered that the great event marks the turning point in the life of a fair young daughter who is so soon to leave the home which has sheltered her all her life. She will now become the mistress of a new home — its guiding star. To a couple 'who look their new duties squarely in the face, with a correct and conscientious idea of them, marriage is a solemn step, which is never taken in a light and unthinking manner. Therefore, it is not strange that parents and friends look forward eagerly to this joyous festive occasion. Every one looks on approvingly, and were but a small portion of the kindly wishes uttered in behalf of the young couple fulfilled, the marriage state would be perpetual sunshine. But clouds will arise — dark days will come. With sincere love at the helm, and an earnest mutual determination to do right, and to live for each other, the newly married pair can smile at any fate.

Interestingly, White seems to suggest that whatever the expense, the money spent is well worth it. In light of this idea, it is important to note that Miss Finletter and Mr. Clement were perhaps a little more pragmatic than most. Vermonters have long been stereotyped as pragmatists, and here lies some credence to that idea.

Looking back at the letter, we can also see that there were certain expectations of the bride’s family. It is clear that the parents ought to have been happy with the match before the wedding took place, as demonstrated in Miss Finletter’s mention of the following: “Mama is thoroughly satisfied — she likes you and has no fault to find with you.…" In addition, the financial burden of the wedding fell, for the most part, upon the bride’s family. Again, using Ms. White’s Youth’s Educator for Home and Society, we can see what was expected of the groom:

WHAT A BRIDEGROOM MAY PAY FOR.

"Most bridegrooms would from the fullness of their hearts, pay for everything connected with the coming event, but this would offend the delicacy of the bride and her friends. There is a law of etiquette concerning this, as all other matters. We therefore append a brief summing up of what he may pay for without trespassing upon those customs which have been observed from earliest times, and which fall within the province of the parents of the bride."

THE WEDDING BOUQUET.

"He should not fail to send the wedding bouquet to the bride, on the morning of the ceremony. He also should present the bride with some article of jewelry. "All wedding cards should be paid for by the family of the bride, and all other expenses of the wedding, with the following exceptions: The clergyman's fee (this is handed to the clergyman by 'the best man after the ceremony'). This may consist of any amount which he thinks proper; but never less than $5.00. The wedding-ring, the bride's bouquet and present, and presents or bouquets to the brides-maids; to the ushers he may give scarf pins. To the latter he can also present canes, sleeve buttons, or any other little remembrance which his ingenuity may suggest. To the brides-maids fans, bangles, lockets, or some other souvenir may be presented. "The groom should on no account pay for the card's, the carriages, nor the entertainment, nor anything connected with the wedding. "The reason for this is, that an engagement may be broken even after the cards are out, and it would then remain for the parents of the bride to either repay the outlay, or stand in the position of being indebted to the discarded son-in-law. "In the event of the engagement being broken, the bride should immediately return all presents. "In addition to other details, the parents of the bride should pay for the cards sent out after marriage. These are generally ordered with the announcement cards."

These expenses were incurred for a traditional wedding, and Miss Finletter makes mention of foregoing this in an effort to save money and be able to marry sooner:

"Let us be married if we have only the minister and the necessary witnesses. I have with all effort brought myself to think a quiet wedding would be best, but to give up what I have dreamed of and counted on for so many years, ever since I was old enough to think at all… "

Again, she was a pragmatist, although in reading this, one can’t help but feel a little sorry for the loss of a childhood dream.

Letter writing

Writing letters was an important manner of communication in the Gilded Age. Although the telephone was invented in 1876, letter writing was still widely practiced. It is obvious at first glance that writing then was more an art form than it is today, as evidenced by the beautiful script laid in ink on the page. It can be difficult to read at times, though deciphering the letters becomes a challenge and a delight when they begin to form words, and the words start to form a story.

Miss Finletter wrote many letters to Mr. Clement, nearly every day. Compared to the standards of the 21st century, with “idk” and “bff” commonplace among communication, these letters are very formal. Ms. White, in Chapter XIX: Letter Writing, puts forth some guidelines for composing letters. While she addresses everything from ink to French phrases, she includes some hints that are indicative of the times, some of which can even be heeded today:

A FEW HINTS.

Do not attempt a letter unless you have something to say.

Never write an anonymous letter. It is cowardly; The recipient of such a letter should quietly burn it. The man or woman who dares not sign his or her name is unworthy of notice.

Do not write a letter while in anger. You will surely say too much, which you will regret. Written words stand as living witnesses against you and cannot be recalled.

Address your superiors with respect. Do not write flippantly to any one. Even with friends you should maintain a certain reserve.

Do not commit a secret to paper. You can never tell what use may be made of it, or into whose hands it may fall.

In writing to another, making an inquiry, or on any business of your own, inclose a stamp for reply. See that any letter you write is fully prepaid. It is humiliating to one's pride to learn that another was compelled to make up his, deficiency.

Miss Finletter was writing a friendly letter to her fiancé, so some of the more formal guidelines of the day did not apply. However, we can see that she used paper that was monogrammed; Ms. White had this to say about monogrammed paper: “A paper with your monogram is allowable, and in England, where they do many things sensibly, it is the custom to have one's address printed at the head of the sheet.” The letter also shows Miss Finletter’s salutation: “Lovingly yours, Helen”, which was standard for the times. Overall, it is clear that Miss Finletter was well schooled at letter writing, which tells us something about her social status — that is, a well-educated woman of the times.

As historical documents, letters are incredible sources of information about their time periods. In this collection, Helen Finletter writes to her fiancé, and in so doing, commits to paper a small snapshot of history. For the Finletter family, affording to marry their daughter into a wealthier family was a struggle. How Miss Finletter writes about it tells us that it weighed heavily upon her, though she felt helpless in being able to change it. The very paper and ink she uses also tells us something about her — she may have been unable to change her financial circumstances, but she certainly upheld the important values of the day for women.

Sources

Helen Baum Finletter to Charles Fish Clement, 21 September 1887, Clement Family Papers, Doc 188:34, Vermont Historical Society, Barre, Vermont.

Jones, Jessica A. The Gilded Cage: An Online Role-playing Game. http://www.jessicajonesonline.com/thegildedcage/history.html, Accessed October 7, 2007.

Magazine of History: “Sex, Courtship, and Dating”. July 2004: 3-27.

White, Anna R. Youth’s Educator for Home and Society. Chicago: Union Publishing House, 1896. Electronic Historical Publications, 1996. http://www.history.rochester.edu/ehp-book/yefhas/toc-m.htm, Accessed October 7, 2007.

Lesson plan and commentary by

Lori Lisai
Lamoille Union Middle School
Hyde Park, Vermont