The Pratt family papers present a chronicle of middle-class women's lives between the 1850's and 1890's. The writers are uniformly literate and attentive, and the majority of the letters are of a strongly personal nature. While some letters stand on their own, the collection should be seen as one large, continuous document presenting a nineteenth century "woman's" life in many of its aspects, from cleaning and cooking to marriage, childbirth, child rearing, sewing, gardening, travel, music, reading, teaching, religion, death, and friendships. The composite portrait that emerges is stronger than the portraits of any single woman, though the personalities of several of the correspondents are very strongly expressed. As a result, the Pratt Papers is a valuable resource for the study of women's work, as teachers, employees, and home makers, as well as their emotional and personal lives.
The primary focus of the Pratt papers is Emma Louise Pratt (b. 1864 April 8) of Revere, Mass. The collection includes several hundred letters addressed to her, as well as some of her diaries, the diaries of her only brother, Willie (d. 1888), 1881, 1883, and 1886, and notes between Emma and her mother, Emeline. Most of the letters were written by Emma's intimate friends and family members, including several of her aunts and cousins, and these provide the main dialogue of the collection and construct a fascinating image of the development of one young woman's personal relationships during the post-Civil War period. There are four women with whom Emma most consistently corresponded: Claribel M. Tilton Crane, Emma Lois Proctor, Mabel H. Drew Croudis, and Lola V. Jefferds.
Claribel (or Clara) M. Tilton Crane was a school chum of Emma's who moved from Revere to Malden, Mass., in 1873, and a few years later to Quincy. Their correspondence began when the girls were still teenagers, with Claribel describing her new home, her school, friends, pets, clothes, and fancy work, and she and Emma occasionally exchanged riddles and conundrums. The two developed a private code, words that had special meaning to each other, and Claribel often included words at the top of her letters that have no obvious relationship to the text. Over the Christmas holidays, which coincided with her birthday, Claribel always described her presents for that year, a practice that continued even after she and Emma became adults. The subject matter of Claribel's letters changed as she grew and began working in a dry goods store in Quincy owned by her brother, Charlie. Her letters include descriptions of her work, sewing, clothes, and her married life with a man named Crane. Claribel's health was never very good and a great many of the later letters describe her various convalescences. In some of these, Claribel includes floor plans of her home as well as written descriptions.
Emma's cousin, Emma Lois Proctor, moved to LaCrosse, Wisc., when very young to live with her father, Alfred, and new stepmother. The collection includes a few letters from Mary Ann Proctor dating from the 1860's, which refer to Emma Proctor and other family members, and it appears that when Mary Ann Proctor's mother died, Emma returned east to live with the Pratt's until she grew up. Emma Proctor's early letters describe her trip to Wisconsin, her father's farm and family, her work there, her sewing and fancy work, and her efforts to become a teacher. Other members of the Proctor family had also gone west to live, some in Wisconsin, others in Chicago, or as far west as Montana and Washington Territory, and Emma Proctor kept in close contact with all. She eventually became a teacher, and considered moving to Kallispell, Mont., to join a brother and his wife and teach school. The letters she wrote during an 1890 trip to Kallispell include some fine descriptions of the state and of the Flathead Indians. She decided that she would return to Wisconsin, though five years later she returned to Montana.
Mabel H. (Drew) Croudis from Medford, Mass., was another of Emma Pratt's cousins, though from which side of the family she is related is not clear. Mabel and Emma began corresponding in 1881 and their letters continue throughout the entire collection. The two women were exceptionally close and wrote to each other with great regularity, almost every week, and visited each other often. Mabel usually addressed Emma as "Susan" and signed her letters "Betsy". Her letters are filled with family news, discussions of her work as a bookkeeper in her brother's store, and with inside jokes and stories that she and Emma shared. Because of their closeness and the regularity with which they wrote and visited, Mabel's letters tend not to provide a very complete picture of their relationship, though their intimacy comes through very clearly. It appears that neither Emma nor Mabel planned on getting married, even when they reached their early twenties, and Mabel often commented on their plans to grow old together and live in their own "snuggery." Mabel eventually married George Croudis, and this event appears to have put a strain on the friendship. Soon after Mabel's marriage, Mabel complained to Emma about never hearing from her anymore, and implored her to understand that their friendship need not change simply because she has gotten married.
Lola V. Jefferds was another friend of Emma Pratt's who, like Claribel, moved from Revere to Livermore Falls, Me. She and Emma corresponded regularly, though not quite as frequently as Claribel or Mabel. Lola was a spirited person who wrote interesting, usually very descriptive letters. Like Emma, she did not plan on marrying, occasionally expressing a disdain for the men she met, stating that she would prefer to remain single if these men were her only options. Lola's father owned a furniture store in Livermore Falls where Lola worked along with her parents. The family took charge of the local post office at some point, probably through political patronage, and Lola soon began to work there.
Emma Pratt spent a month's holiday with Lola in August, 1891. During this time, she wrote an average of two letters per day to her parents, representing some of the few extant letters written by Emma. These include descriptions of her vacation, the landscape, Lola and her family, and, above all, her homesickness and feelings of guilt at being away from her home and mother. Emma worried constantly that she should not be on vacation, but nevertheless appeared to have a good time. It is unfortunate that Emma's letters to her friends and cousins are not present, for these would be particularly helpful in rounding out the picture. From the letters written to Emma it is known that she was a very descriptive and lively letter writer. Her friends often comment on the pleasure, comfort and amusement they derive from Emma's letters. The collection includes one letter, or rather story, that Emma sent to her cousin Mabel (Betsy) describing a lawn-party at Lola's, that offers a good glimpse into the wit and powers of observation that made Emma such a popular correspondent.
Emma Pratt corresponded regularly with several other women, including her cousins Nettie Maria Fellows (47), Edith Dann (43), Georgie Renton (23), Anna Linn Renton (15), and her aunt, C. Augusta Renton (27). The collection also includes other correspondence of Augusta's, mostly with her sisters, Emeline Pratt and Olive M. Homans (29). The letters from Nettie and Edith are not very illuminating, consisting primarily of brief discussions of family and the weather. The letters from Augusta and her daughters, Georgie and Anna Linn, however, are interesting when placed together. The Rentons owned a boarding house in East Gloucester, Mass., in which all three women worked, and Augusta's letters include interesting discussions of her life as a mother, boarding house keeper, and friend. Augusta also described the health problems of her son, Freddie, who suffered from a diseased leg. Georgie and Anna Linn began to write to Emma when they were very, through the period in which Georgie entered Wellesley College as a student in the late 1880s. Augusta Renton died in 1890, leaving Georgie, Anna Linn, and a cousin(?) Edith Dann, grief stricken and doing their best to cope with Augusta's death.
The 29 letters from Emeline Pratt's sister, Olive M. Homans, are especially interesting. Olive was a lively writer with a good sense of humor and a strong sense of what she felt was right and wrong. Her correspondence with Emeline began in 1867 after she has moved to Hannibal, Mo., with her husband, Willie Homans. She describes her new home in Missouri, her friends, and vacations to Minnesota, Ohio and Michigan. Olive taught Sunday school to freedmen in Missouri.
Emma's diaries, written in 1883-1887 and 1889-1892, consist only of one page entries, and are not particularly introspective. However, there are a few instances in which Emma manages to express her feelings within this space. It is in here that Emma's relationship with her father and mother becomes clearer, as well as Emma's frustration at feeling that she is a financial burden to her father because, at the age of 19 and unmarried, she still lives at home and is not contributing to the family's income. This frustration influenced her feelings toward both her parents, though in very different ways. Emma grew very protective of her mother, and assumed the role of the dutiful daughter trying to ease her mother's burden. At the same time, she seemed to grow angrier and angrier with her father, though her basic love for him always remained. Emma expressed an interest in becoming a dressmaker, but complained that she never had the time to learn, as she was so busy with housework, church activities, and (apparently) letter writing. At the end of each entry in her diary, she kept track of the Bible verse she had read for the day.
In August, 1888, Emma's brother, Willie, died in a drowning accident. Her diary from this year is absent, however in 1889, almost every entry mentions Willie, Willie's death, and Emma's grief and disbelief that her brother was taken from her. The collection includes a substantial number of letters of condolence as well. At about this time, both Emma and Emeline began a correspondence with a woman, Emma Aldrich, whose daughter had recently died. The daughter and Willie were buried in the same cemetery, and the letters from Emma Aldrich deal mainly with the cemetery plots and the death of her daughter and Willie.
Parallel to the letters of the Pratt and Proctor family is a very significant series of correspondence relating to the Stebbins family. This series forms a self-contained body of approximately 75 letters dating between 1854 and 1869, which may have been collected by Emma or written by relatives, but connections to either the Pratt or Proctor families is unclear. The focus of these letters is a woman, Laura Stebbins, from Springfield, Mass., whose teaching career took her into positions in the Deep South in the 1850s, and to Washington, D.C., to teach freedmen in the 1860s, and also includes a number of letters from a man, Eugene, probably her brother. Laura appears to have suffered from poor health, experiencing a great deal of trouble with her eyes. It is also apparent that her family and friends admired her greatly. She was considered to be an unselfish friend and teacher, selfless, and always thinking of others. From their perspective, Stebbins was the "perfect" woman who represented the "angel in the house," so to speak.
The Stebbins correspondence includes some excellent descriptions of the life of a woman teacher during the late ante-bellum period, her attitudes toward teaching, her students, and the south, and there are several letters that concern the education of freedmen and the end of the war and early Reconstruction period in Virginia. Like Laura, Eugene worked with freedmen in Norfolk, Va., both for an unidentified employer and the Freedmen's Bureau, and his letters are packed with interesting description and thoughts about his work, his home, Laura's teaching and health, and the aftermath of the Civil War. The collection also includes several letters written to Laura from family members and friends, including two women teachers with whom Laura seems to have been particularly close, Martha E. Swan and "Jennie."
Among other items, the Stebbins letters include two particularly interesting letters from a woman, Marcia A. Gleaner, that describe her experiences as an employee in a wholesale cloak store on Broadway in New York City in 1862. In the first letter, Marcia expressed her disgust with New York City and with her working and living conditions. In the second, she described an accident at work in which a women fell down the stairs while she and the other 150 others were leaving for the day.
Finally, there is a sequence of letters that is difficult to trace to the Pratt, Proctor or Stebbins families. These are a group of letters from the French, West, and Richardson families in Oberlin and Pittsfield, Ohio, Potsdam, N.Y., Jaffrey and Rindge, N.H., Cornish, Me., and Fitchburg, Mass.. There are several interesting letters from Abijah French from California where he has gone to see his brother Levi. Levi has "gone mad" and was unable to recognize Abijah as his brother, though he was able to remember all of his brothers and sisters' names -- Abijah, Alvira, Augusta, and Maria -- as well as his parents', Richard and Percilia. Abijah also describes California and his trip westward. It is possible that these families are related to the Pratts and Proctors; there is a letter from Carrie L. Richardson from Cornish, Me. (1893 January 26) to Emma which makes a reference to Grandma Pratt and to Emma's mother's health. An expense account book and miscellaneous receipts and notes belonging to Oscar W. Grover may represent items relating to Emma Pratt's would-be, or actual, husband.