December 17, 2008

Women's health and the secrecy of illness

Anne Sophia Penn Chew's correspondence represents the first major group of letters between women in the Chew Family Papers. Within this series, there are many discussions about marriage and childbirth; even though Anne herself never married and had children, she served as a confidant for many of her relatives. They wrote to her about their fears and apprehensions prior to their marriages, and they shared their joys and their difficulties after the births (and, often, the deaths) of their children.

Childbirth was an especially precarious time for women, and they often experienced a difficult recovery period. While this is not particularly surprising, especially given the continuously-high infant mortality rate in the United States, women wrote about their bodies with a sense of secrecy and shame that is very different from their male counterparts. Even the fact that pregnancy and childbirth are conceived of as illness is remarkable; in these letters we see an increasing reliance on male doctors to diagnose and treat "female problems." In nearly every letter dealing with gynecological or specifically "female" disorders, there is a warning to Anne that asks her to keep the illness a secret. This is in marked contrast to other types of illness, such as scarlet fever or strokes, which are written about freely throughout the Chew family's correspondence.

In one example, Virginia Mason writes to Anne about her impending travels to attend to her nieces: "I think I have before told you of Lucy's expectations for October, + also of Eliza B's for Sept. Both of them want me to be with them at the time they are sick; So I shall have a busy time. I shall not, however, have any household duties, for Jim + his wife will begin housekeeping the first of October." (Baltimore, July 27) The delicacy of the language she chooses, as well as her characterization of Lucy and Eliza as "sick" create the sense that their pregnancies were not "normal" conditions.

After the birth of her baby, Lucy writes to Anne to report on her condition: "I was so far from being well after Landon's birth that I was advised by my consult one of the specialists here...and I am truly thankful that I came to him, as he assured me that I should have been a confirmed invalid for life had my troubles continued longer. . . .
I hope, dear Aunt, that you will not disclose the contents of this letter to any one but Cousin Mary, but I know you feel interested in my interests, and so I have spoken of it to you...." [n.d.]

It is curious that pregnancy, or complications from birth, would need to be kept a secret, but women's modesty and shame about their bodies seems common in these letters.

In another striking letter, Anne's niece Katherine writes concerning her fears for her sister Ida's health: "I am about to write to you of that which has been on my mind so long I am determined now to relieve it. Possibly you know of a lump that has been in Ida's breast for fully five years. I have been so urged not to say a word of it to any one....I am so anxious lest it may be that, which accounts for the giving way of Ida's health + strength....Dr. Lewis was told about it. I was at Clarens + Ida asked me to tell him of it + he felt it -- but I thought did it in a very careless unsatisfactory manner + made very light of it..." [n.d.] She continues that she spoke to the doctor and he urged her to say nothing to Ida, that perhaps the lump would disappear, but if it didn't, there was nothing they could do to treat it at that stage. Ida's letters never mention the lump, but toward the end of her life, she writes about pain in her lungs and her weak state.

These letters portray women's experiences of their bodies as out of their control. This particular class of women were particularly reliant upon doctors, and seemed content to allow knowledge about their bodies to rest in the hands of "experts." I wonder, as I read this correspondence, what forces convinced women to cede control of this knowledge over their bodies and their reproduction.

November 24, 2008

The Chew Turkies

In the past few months, there have been an extraordinary number of turkey references in the Chew collection. In celebration of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, Leah and I decided to share some of them here.

The first document is selected from a larger group of surveys, agreements, and correspondence regarding a tract of land the Chews owned called "Turkey Nest."

I found this initially interesting because many of the tracts in Delaware and Maryland have "Neck" as part of the name (e.g. "Rich Neck"). I assume that the "neck" refers to the areas where land juts out into a body of water. When I first glanced at this group of documents, I thought this tract was called "Turkey Neck."

A more personal reference to turkeys in the collection comes from Samuel Chew's correspondence. He owned a farm in Maryland that was operated by John Mason. John experienced many upheavals in his work as a farmer--one of the more dramatic situations involved the barn, sheds, house, and hay catching fire. He lost most of his farm, but saved the animals and some of the structures. A relatively minor incident, by comparison, was the death of several turkeys. In his letter to Samuel Chew, he writes, "You may remember my showing you some Turkies I purchased. To my utter dismay, I found. on going out in the morning Two of my pets. dead. Upon investigating I discovered the painters had been here the day before. + had emptied the remains of paint on the ground...the Turkies had eaten too freely of white lead--no other casualties have occurred." (Dec. 1873) A sad tale, indeed.

All silliness aside, we hope you have a wonderful holiday. A little Chew-inspired card from Leah:

November 14, 2008

The telegram as directive

Within Anne Sophia Penn Chew's collection of correspondence are a large number of telegrams. This communication tool was widely employed by Samuel and Mary Johnson Brown Chew. Samuel and Mary split their time between Cliveden and Mary's family home in the city, so their belongings were housed in both places. Many of Mary's letters to Anne describe the day's events, give reports about the children, and, inevitably, ask for some article of clothing to be sent or some task to be completed at Cliveden in her absence. The telegrams serve as quick reminders to send this or that, notify Anne that the family will be coming to tea or dinner, or ask her to prepare something. Though Anne was not generally doing these things herself (she likely would have had her servants do them), the letters and telegrams have a tone of direction and expectation. Anne may have been living independently, but her life seems to have been lived in service to her nephews and their families.

In one of the first telegrams I read, Anne's nephew Ben requests that she have a warm bath for him in the afternoon:

An audacious request, in my opinion, but not out of the ordinary.

Other noteworthy telegrams include a request from Mary to send salad "at once" and another from Samuel to send "a quantity of celery and some lettuce."

Another odd request reads "Do not send laundress tomorrow. Send David's gun by Charles tomorrow. Mary J.B. Chew"

And finally, this request: "Please send some linen and underclothing today."

This last request is, it turns out, quite poignant. Samuel Chew was, at this time, taking care of his brother Ben before his death. In one 1885 letter, Samuel writes to Anne that Ben had lost all control of himself, and that he had used up all of the linen and underclothing in the house because of the constant changing that was required. It is unclear what disease finally caused Ben's death, but the symptoms Samuel describes include inability to express himself or understand what was happening around him and the inability to control his bodily functions. These letters (and other series throughout the collection) offer graphic representations of disease and care for the sick in the 18th and 19th centuries.

November 12, 2008

An Old Approach in Conservation

We came across a few interesting documents in the past few weeks. It was not the information provided within the documents necessarily, but the conservation method performed upon the documents.

The first, front and back:

And the second:

This sewing is an intriguing non-adhesive conservation method that has actually held up fairly well in both documents over the years!

November 6, 2008

The Wilson Lands

Two weeks ago, among the Chew papers, I came across stacks of deed polls, each one of which effectively transferred 400 acres of land from its original owner to James Wilson. For those of you unfamiliar with Wilson, he is one of only six framers to have signed both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. In addition, he was also a member of the first Supreme Court appointed by President Washington, and, beyond that, instrumental in the formation of the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1790. Surprisingly, with all these founding credentials, he is still a relative unknown. A large part of that anonymity can be attributed to the documents I found, because they act as a representative sample of the vice that likely cost Wilson his founding reputation – land speculation.

To be sure, Wilson was only one of many leading figures from his generation that speculated in the “undeveloped” lands of the American West. Washington, Patrick Henry, Robert Morris, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Ben Franklin, along with many others, all were heavily involved in the practice that historian Alan Taylor maintains, “consumed the eighteenth-century American elite.” (Writing Early American History, 2005) Like Wilson, but perhaps not to the same degree, most of these speculators experienced the pitfalls of buying land on the early American frontier.

A good deal of their problems stemmed from the quantities of land they attempted to purchase and the way purchases were financed. In simplified terms, speculators typically tried to purchase massive tracts of land on credit – in many ways the same type of risk-taking that has resulted in our present day financial crisis. Using a process known as leverage, speculators bought land with mainly borrowed money. They acted under the assumption that, as land prices rose, they could then sell the land for more than the purchase price, thus being able to repay the original loan and pocket a profit. As with our own financial crisis, this type of risky behavior created an extremely unstable economic environment. When land prices were rising, an immense profit could be made, but when the prices were stagnant or falling, the original investment became a drain as borrowed money came due – essentially the same problem that took down Lehman Bros. and Bear Stearns.

Because Wilson’s land speculation rose to the point of obsession, he was particularly hard hit during the economic depression of 1796-97. Both he and Robert Morris, to name just two, spent time in prison because of massive land debts; in the process staining their reputation for posterity.

As for the multiple deed polls contained within the Chew papers, two questions arise: How did Wilson acquire all this land; and how did the Chew family end up with these documents? I am not certain of the answers to these questions at this time, but some clues are available within the documents themselves. First, the lands fell within Allegheny and Luzerne counties of Pennsylvania. Also relevant, the deed polls date from only two years,1794 and 1796. Additionally, the original warrant dates for when the land was first claimed by a private owner, all fall within the year 1792. It is important to note that this was just after the Pennsylvania legislature passed an act regulating the sale of land by limiting the number of acres an individual could buy; this, in an effort to keep lands newly open for sale out of the hands of speculators which could have effectively denied Wilson access.

However, if Elizabeth K. Henderson is correct, Wilson may have turned to underhanded means. According to her 1936 article on "The Northwestern Lands of Pennsylvania, 1790-1812," (PMHB, Vol. 60) she claims that Wilson got around the intent of the law by taking out land warrants under "fictitious names" and then transferring the land to his own name by way of the deed polls. That claim is difficult to confirm from the documents available. Another possibility is that Wilson, or his agent, may have obtained the lands from Revolutionary war soldiers who first obtained them as payment for their military service in lieu of monetary remuneration. In any case, Wilson ended up with these lands.

How the Chew family obtained the documents is, once again, uncertain, but likely has its roots in the massive borrowing Wilson did to finance his land ventures. It seems at least possible that Wilson borrowed money from Benjamin Chew and when he or his executors (Wilson passed in 1798) could not repay the debt, land title was transferred instead. Other evidence within the collection, such as account books and personal correspondence, may hold the key to solving this mystery. The answer to these questions, and many others await the interested researcher.

Posted by Dean Williams, Chew Papers volunteer

October 27, 2008

Home remedies for cold and flu season

In the days before pharmaceuticals, remedies involving food and herbs were often used to augment medical treatments like bleeding and cupping. Many common ailments were treated with prescriptions of lager and port.

In a letter from Elizabeth Johnson Brown to Anne Sophia Penn Chew, she includes her recipe for Onion Syrup, which appears to have been used for respiratory illnesses:

"Tell Mary in making the Onion Syrup to take 4 or 5 onions, pare & slice them, place them between two deep soup plates, alternately a layer of onions, & a light layer of Brown Sugar, and place it on the end of the range; the syrup will gradually ooze out, it is to be taken from the plate by the teaspoonful, and a couple of tea-spoonfuls given about every hour or two....and bathe the breast with Goose grease that has a few drops of Turpentine in it...." [n.d.]

This is just one of a few home remedies used by the Chews. Others include rhubarb tincture (for digestion), rabbit fat (for swelling), and molasses (for sore nipples).

October 15, 2008

Union and Secession

Just as the Civil War was beginning, Samuel Chew and Mary Johnson Brown were planning their wedding. In the following letter to Eliza M. Mason (married to VA Senator James Murray Mason), Samuel Chew laments that the Masons will not be able to attend his marriage. "I expect to be married on the 20th of June. The mails between you and us, I fear, close tomorrow, and I cannot let the last opportunity of asking you to my wedding pass...though I cannot hope to see you on that occasion. Would to God that our unhappy Country could by that time be in such Peace and tranquility as to allow be with me."

Later in the letter, his focus shifts to the national events that separated their family: "The whole country is full of military ardor. The genius of our People changed in four days from a plodding--moneymaking race to warriors.... Would...that we could hope for 'a more perfect Union.' ... It were good for neither section that one should be victorious and the other broken. The Power of the one must be as fatal to itself as would its misfortunes be to the vanquished....God forbid our Nation this Great Calamity." (Samuel Chew to Eliza M. Mason, May 30, 1861)

In a letter earlier in May of 1861, Henry B. Chew recounts the effects of regional conflicts in Maryland:
"I hardly need tell you of the utter impossibility every where existing in the collection of money Either in way of rent or of other debts owing--Such a financial crisis never before existed, and God only knows when it will terminate." This line rings eerily familiar in 2008, as the stock market dips lower and the Great Depression is invoked almost daily.

Given the financial situation, Henry advises his son that the planned wedding should be modest, and their expenditures minimal.

"My mind is relieved by what you say of the time of your wedding + that my suggestions are likely to be carried out, to avoid expenditure of every dollar that can be this time of such financial embarrassment. We shall with pleasure welcome dear Mary to Epsom and do the best we can under existing circumstances to render her visit a happy one, although I cannot now have the house so re-furbished as I intended....[I]t cannot be expected that we can have any large festive entertainment at Epsom." (May 16, 1861)

In another letter, closer to the wedding date, Henry B. Chew writes again to Samuel about the financial crisis and his thoughts about the upcoming wedding:
"I am confident that Mr. Brown has good sence enough to understand our true position + to appreciate the correctness of my strenuous advice as to our endeavoring to avoid the expenditure of every dollar that can in any decent manner be saved, on account of the universal distress in the pecuniary relations of all...and considering the uncertainty of the period when peace + prosperity will be restored to our land + nation....I also think Mr. Brown will concur with me in saying you + Mary should not have your happiness interfered with or diminished by any possible thought of postponement of your marriage...nor by your being advised to forego the display + expense of such a fashionable + festive marriage as might have been anticipated at any other time." (June 6, 1861)

As I read through these letters, especially in the context of our current financial situation in this country and throughout the world, I am reminded that people have weathered these fears and uncertainties before. While we may need to pare down to the basics, history shows that we can rebound from these difficulties if we remain flexible.

September 25, 2008


Samuel Chew Jr. (1871-1919) wrote quite a number of letters to his father, primarily from boarding school, but also from locations abroad and during times when Samuel Chew Sr. was traveling. His letters reflect a genuine love and respect for his father and the rest of their family, while also providing an amusing perspective on the mind and occupations of a pre-teen boy of the 1880s. This letter contains one of the best post-scripts I have ever read: "P.S. I have had one misfortune in playing with fire crackers so far and that is setting a tree on fire, trying to make an opossum get out of it's hole." (July 4 [1882])

In a letter from August 23, 1881, Samuel writes very sweetly: "Dearest, I wish you lovely Roses --ect. I do not think they ever get picked ecept when Harry or Mr. Carr picks them--sometimes my eye catches on some roses and then I think how you would pick them or have them picked and then I pick some and wish you were there to help me." He then laments the condition of President Garfield: "I am sorry to say that on Saturday the President was doing quite well and yesterday he went down to gloomy, and today the case is still critticall." His post-script reads "P.S. I hope you will be careful in assending and desending mountains." His father was, at the time, traveling in Europe, and was perhaps taking in some mountain air to improve his health. Samuel Sr. was often on trips to various springs taking the healing waters.

In another letter, Samuel Jr. discusses being scolded at dinner, which caused him to leave the dinner table early. He sends his father love and signs off with the post-script "P.S. Charles shot Tim last night." No further comment.

His sense of humor makes these letters a joy to read. There are many more gems in this series of correspondence.

September 12, 2008

Let them eat cake

A different monarch, a different century, but this letter to Anne Sophia Penn Chew (1805-1892) includes not only an interesting reference to a remarkable cake, but fragments of the cake itself! Anna Maria Rush wrote to Anne on March 13, 1840, including crumbs from Queen Victoria of England's wedding cake. Rush had received some crumbs from another woman, Mrs. Stevenson, who attended the February 10 wedding, and sent on to Anne a few of them, "as a curiosity at least."

(click on images to enlarge them)

The crumbs are encapsulated to prevent them from harming the letters they are filed amongst. The envelope that the encapsulated crumbs are stored in dates from earlier processing of parts of the collection, in the early 1980s.

I am beginning to sort Anne's correspondence this week and my first impression of this Chew is that she was a strong and independently-minded woman. I wonder if her friend Anna's opening comment in this letter provides a clue to a less-than-orthodox range of womanly interests: "I do not know that you will value any thing so trifling as Queen Victoria's wedding cake..."

August 27, 2008

"His hypocritical balderdash of self-defence + pretended injuries"

William White Chew was a prolific writer. He wrote notes to himself on scraps of paper, in journals, and in the form of memos. He wrote to family and friends in voluminous letters that he drafted repeatedly, as well as letters to the editor, newspaper articles, and other public communications. His journals contain detailed descriptions of his day to day life, records of family strife, and his deep despair about his life situation.

In his journals from 1843-1844, William White Chew recounts, on a daily basis, his brother Anthony's deteriorating behavior, which was fueled by alcoholism and his family's enabling. William is clearly outraged at the disgrace Anthony is bringing to the family, and more particularly, the effect he has on his parents in their old age. In this entry from 1843, he describes an especially difficult evening when Anthony returns from town drunk with a friend:

" violent resentment against me for being better than he, for his being a disgrace to the family + I otherwise, he let out a volley of foul abuse of me before his if the utter corruption the brandy has filled him with, mind + body + feelings, and the iniquitous career he has led for years from bad to worse, the sins of various kinds + degrees he has committed + continually perpetrates, the indecency + criminality of his presumption tonight in bringing thro'...some vagabond to sleep in his bed with him--as if all these matters were peccadillies!" (p. 92)

(Images enlarge if you click on them.)

More than any other series in this collection, William White Chew's papers create a clear sketch of his character, his political and moral opinions, and his passions.
In this poem, he laments the love he has for his cousin Mary Bayard, who is already married.

It begins "And dost thou ask, and wilt thou hear / The common story I can tell, / Of early--lasting--gnawing care, / Which sometimes makes this world a hell?"

A later stanza laments, "From round my heart, the wreath of snow, / With which I've made it seem so cold, / The flame thou'lt see within, is meant / Alone to prove to thee the truth / Of feelings doubled, which were sent / To mildew (God knows why) my youth."

His life was lived with passion and drama, and his writings provide us a glimpse into the world he inhabited.

August 20, 2008

Conserving the Chew Family Papers

A large portion of the yet untouched Chew Family Papers are maps, which have been collecting dust in rolls for years and years. Although bagged and labeled, the rolled documents need to be individually evaluated for conservation purposes. Cathleen and I spent hours last week carefully unrolling and looking at a variety of documents: printed maps, hand-drawn maps, blueprints, advertisments... All are oversized (i.e. too large for the preferred storage location of flat files), as seen in the following photographic documentation:

Look forward to posts on the conservation of these large maps, which will prove to be interesting, I'm sure!

August 14, 2008

Trigonometry Notes

I am and Intern here at HSP currently working on the Chew papers, specifically Anthony B. Chew's papers.

While going through Anthony B. Chew's school notes I came across this interesting diagram of a Horizontal Dial for Latitude 40 degrees. Instead of a simple drawing, this diagram has an attached piece for the dial. (shown below and above)


August 13, 2008

Notes of discontent

Benjamin Chew III, like several of his family members, kept many notes that are difficult to decipher and categorize. It's hard to know where the two notes below fit into the rest of "Bad Ben's" papers or if they may be related in some way. They do share a tone of discontent. Benjamin III seems to have spent much of his time dissatisfied with one (if not many) issues. Often, his discontent was related to family matters, particularly the protracted arguments he had with his brothers and other family over the settlement of his father's estate.

The first note appears to refer to Chew v. Chew, the suit between Benjamin III, Katherine (Banning) Chew, and the other executors of Benjamin Chew, Jr. over the settlement of Benjamin Jr.'s estate. It reads, in part:

8 July 1860

B Chew is before the Court again; the opposite parties let him have no rest. They grasp at every thing - not content with endeavoring to seize all his property they try to get what belongs to the estate of his dead brother... they attempt to pillage the living and plunder the dead.

The second note appears to refer to Civil War tensions. It is unclear whether Benjamin III penned the information contained in this note himself, or if he may have copied it from some other source. The quoted lines at the top come from a passage near the end of Sir Walter Scott's poem The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), with a slight discprepancy in the first line. A list of "Leaders in Treason" follows, including several politicians who supported secession and the Confederacy. Among them are Benjamin III's brother-in-law James Murray Mason, who was one of Benjamin Jr.'s executors and who worked with his brothers Henry Banning Chew and William White Chew to have him removed as an executor. James Murray Mason served in the United States House of Representative and Senate before the Civil War and in the Confederate government during the war. Others listed are John Slidell, a politician who served in the Louisiana legislature and U.S. House of Representatives and William Yancey, who served in the Alabama and U.S. legislatures. Both men also worked for the Confederate government after secession and Slidell was involved in the Trent Affair with Mason in November 1861.

This note reminds me how directly the Chew family was involved with many of the "movers and shakers" of their time.

August 11, 2008

When "scraps of paper" seems like a useful archival category

I have been sorting through a box of William White Chew's papers that was labeled "Chew Family Papers--Not Processed." Indeed, they are in a total state of disarray.
Here is the box before I started sorting (I started with the one on the right. I can't wait to get to the second box!):

What I'm finding is interesting, and sometimes puzzling. This pile is a collection of notes and lists and random scrawls that were scattered throughout writings on various subjects--from capital punishment to drunkenness.

Some of the more interesting pieces in this pile are:
*a thin strip of paper that simply says "13 Dec. '41. Drowned"
*a list that begins with "Piano; Cow; 2 large mattresses in state room..."
*a strip that reads "I care not to be remembered when I am dead: Those by whom I wd. have wished to be remembd. do not know me--others can not"
*a small folded sheet that reads "In some cases drunkenness is the origin of wickedness: in others, wickedness is the cause of drunkenness along with other vices: --they of the latter [?] the most depraved + incorrigible + hopeless."
next to a sheet with a list of arguments for and against capital punishment (along with several other similar sheets, some with notes about both drunkenness and capital punishment).

It seems that William White Chew was writing both articles and letters to the editor of newspapers, and some of his topics were political (i.e., capital punishment and tariffs) and some were social (i.e., drunkenness).

The notebook at the bottom of the first picture is filled with drafts of poems, essays, and letters. I will be interested to see what emerges from that collection of materials. Until then, I sort through the scraps.

July 23, 2008

Of Vice and Men

This letter, from an anonymous "young lady," warns William White Chew about the danger of his vice and offers out the hope of redemption if he becomes more watchful.

"Tell me did you ever think of the dreadful consequences which will accrue if you continue in your folly? At this early period of your existence persons predict your early death. How would you appear at the throne of God after abusing the glorious advantages he has given you, think you ever of this? If you have not, think now...."
She goes on to talk about how her own death might be near, and then resumes pleading with Colonel Chew to change his ways. After all of the talk of finality in this letter, his correspondent closed the letter with this seal, which reads "I Trouble you with a line" and shows one person tying a noose around another's neck.

There are references throughout William White Chew's correspondence to "incidents" that he was clearly trying to conceal, and even hints that he was forced to withdraw from his diplomatic career because of some improprieties. I have just begun processing his papers, and feel myself drawn in to Mr. Chew's mysterious story. I am sure there will be much more intrigue to report.

July 11, 2008

the subtle beauty of surveys

This project has introduced me to many types of materials and aspects of history that I was previously unfamiliar with. It has also been teaching me a lot about balance and letting go of rigid ideas of perfection. Some days, it is easy to get lost in the enormity of the task that is processing a 400 linear foot collection. I panic about deadlines and not meeting all of my goals.

Yesterday, as we were putting Benjamin Chew Jr.'s papers to rest, I found a number of folders of oversize material that still needed to be integrated. It would have been easy for me to become frustrated that I had forgotten where every piece of paper was, but then I opened one of the folders and found this:

Survey of Chewton, Beaver County, Pennsylvania, [n.d.]

I don't know why I am so affected by surveys. I have fallen in love with their subtle, sweet beauty. I am always moved by the depictions of trees and houses, the meticulous detail with which the surveyors rendered their subjects. It could be that I've developed this interest because of the sheer number of surveys in the collection, but I think it is more that they offer such a simple view of boundaries and the space between place and place.

July 2, 2008

Where's Waldo?

Have fun searching for Waldo on the cover of this book: Journal or Diary of Henry B. Chew at the Epsom Farm in 1831.1832.1833. He's there - really.

June 27, 2008

For all of the knitters

I started to work on this little green notebook. It must have been beautiful in its day. I think it is made from grass green vellum with a beautiful clasp and very nice paper. The dates on the entries range from 1760 - 1785. In the notebook is a loose note from Joy to a Mrs. Frisby (or Hrisby). My favorite part of this letter is the "nittin needles" which Joy is asking to use a bit longer because they are in a stocking - something every knitter can relate to.