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.

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