Wind the Clock

ClockSchool children and working folk alike often greet Monday with a groan. Monday tears us from bed and hours of leisure. If rain patters the leaves, we can’t curl up with a good book but must navigate slick roads to the office. If we turn on a computer, we need to scan reports or data rather than the latest kitten videos. We have become programmed to abhor Monday.

Let’s change that today, this Monday, with a lovely message of hope from E. B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web, where another often reviled entity — a spider — saves the day.

E. BIn 1973 White answered a letter from Mr. Nadeau, a stranger, perhaps a fan, who worried about a bleak future for humanity. White advised him to take heart and to wind the clock, invest his faith in another week, another day:

“Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.”

I love that implicit understanding with fate that we will still need to tell time tomorrow so we may as well wind the clock today. How often do we all wind the clock, mark dates on our calendars, or book tickets for a future trip?

Taped to the inside of my closet door is a plastic sandwich bag containing a little more than £15 in British bills and coins, a promise to myself that one day I will return to England to spend those few pounds on a ticket on the Tube, a scone with a cup of tea or a stack of postcards and stamps to tell all my friends at home that I returned to my favorite storied land.

So this Monday, embrace your day and wind the clock.

Thank you to the wonderful website Letters of Note for sharing this letter.


30 March 1973

Dear Mr. Nadeau:

As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.

Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society—things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.


(Signed, ‘E. B. White’)

Write Like Jane Austen

640px-Jane_Austen_coloured_versionWhile this blog is about maintaining non-electronic communications in a snail mail-bereft world, that doesn’t mean technology can’t add a little sparkle to the process.

Introducing the Jane Austen font!

I haven’t tried downloading this myself, but what a seductive prospect, to be able to type messages in Jane’s elegant hand — and perhaps channel a modicum of her wit?

Even a dearth of news was no deterrent to Jane when it came to correspondence, as this line from an 1801 letter to her sister Cassandra illustrates:

Expect a most agreeable letter, for not being overburdened with subject (having nothing at all to say), I shall have no check to my genius from beginning to end.”


Amazing Frederick Douglass

Frederick-DouglassI can’t imagine being enslaved. Those elements of life that seemed constraints — parental supervision as a child, school rules and dress codes, perhaps some government or corporate regulations — are nothing compared to the physical and mental shackles suffered when one person owns another.

That makes this letter from famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass to a man he was once forced to call “Master” so remarkable in both its restraint and warmth.

Douglass was not only a passionate advocate for freedom, but also an incredibly astute man whose nuanced view of the world assessed people as individuals, multi-layered, complex, often flawed, but unique individuals that defied simplistic categorization.

“…It is twenty years since I ran away from you, or rather not from you but from Slavery,” wrote Douglass to Hugh Auld, drawing a distinction between the man and the institution that I cannot imagine doing if I had lived his life.


Frederick Douglas letterRochester, N.Y., October 4, 1857
Hugh Auld Esq
My dear Sir.

My heart tells me that you are too noble to treat with indifference the request I am about to make, It is twenty years since I ran away from you, or rather not from you but from Slavery, and since then I have often felt a strong desire to hold a little correspondence with you and to learn something of the position and prospects of your dear children. They were dear to me – and are still – indeed I feel nothing but kindness for you all– I love you, but hate Slavery, Now my dear Sir, will you favor me by dropping me a line, telling me in what year I came to live with you in Aliceanna St. the year the Frigate was built by Mr. Beacham. The information is not for publication – and shall not be published. We are all hastening where all distinctions are ended, kindness to the humblest will not be unrewarded.

Perhaps you have heard that I have seen Miss Amanda that was, Mrs. Sears that is, and was treated kindly such is the fact, Gladly would I see you and Mrs. Auld – or Miss Sopha as I used to call her. I could have lived with you during life in freedom though I ran away from you so unceremoniously, I did not know how soon I might be sold. But I hate to talk about that. A line from you will find me Addressed FredK Douglass Rochester N. York.

I am dear sir very truly yours.
Fred: Douglass

Channeling Jane

Pride & PrejRaise your hand if you’ve watched a Jane Austen film and wanted to step into the story to attend a ball (and not just to meet the dishy Mr. Darcy). Jane herself loved to dance and mentioned neighborhood balls in letters to her sister Cassandra. Her own enjoyment of lively country dances was echoed by many of her characters. After all, as she wrote in Pride and Prejudice, “To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love.”

I recently attended a Victorian Tea Dance and stumbled my way through a Quadrille and a few other numbers. Although set in an era several decades after Jane’s, many dances included steps similar to those she twirled through at local assemblies and private parties. I discovered other similarities when I read Jane’s vivacious account of a ball she attended in November, 1800 — 214 years before my own.

Meryton AssemblyIt was a pleasant ball, and still more good than pleasant, for there were nearly sixty people, and sometimes we had seventeen couple. The Portsmouths, Dorchesters, Boltons, Portals, and Clerks were there, and all the meaner and more usual &c., &c.’s. There was a scarcity of men in general, and a still greater scarcity of any that were good for much. I danced nine dances out of ten — five with Stephen Terry, T. Chute, and James Digweed, and four with Catherine. There was commonly a couple of ladies standing up together, but not often any so amiable as ourselves.

Two centuries later, women outnumbered men at my dance, too. In fact, I danced the gentleman’s part more than once myself. Alas, no one looked like Mr. Darcy. But then, I’m no Elizabeth Bennet…

You can enjoy Jane’s entire letter to her sister below, including more about her ball.

Dancing line

[Sections about the ball are all in blue]

Steventon: Saturday, November 1800


You have written, I am sure, though I have received no letter from you since your leaving London; the post, and not yourself, must have been unpunctual.

We have at last heard from Frank; a letter from him to you came yesterday, and I mean to send it on as soon as I can get a ditto (that means a frank), which I hope to do in a day or two. En attendant, you must rest satisfied with knowing that on the 8th of July the “Petterel,” with the rest of the Egyptian squadron, was off the Isle of Cyprus, whither they went from Jaffa for provisions, &c., and whence they were to sail in a day or two for Alexandria, there to wait the result of the English proposals for the evacuation of Egypt. The rest of the letter, according to the present fashionable style of composition, is chiefly descriptive. Of his promotion he knows nothing; of prizes he is guiltless.

Your letter is come; it came, indeed, twelve lines ago, but I could not stop to acknowledge it before, and I am glad it did not arrive till I had completed my first sentence, because the sentence had been made ever since yesterday, and I think forms a very good beginning.

Your abuse of our gowns amuses but does not discourage me; I shall take mine to be made up next week, and the more I look at it the better it pleases me. My cloak came on Tuesday, and, though I expected a good deal, the beauty of the lace astonished me. It is too handsome to be worn — almost too handsome to be looked at. The glass is all safely arrived also, and gives great satisfaction. The wine-glasses are much smaller than I expected, but I suppose it is the proper size. We find no fault with your manner of performing any of our commissions, but if you like to think yourself remiss in any of them, pray do.

My mother was rather vexed that you could not go to Penlington’s, but she has since written to him, which does just as well. Mary is disappointed, of course, about her locket, and of course delighted about the mangle, which is safe at Basingstoke. You will thank Edward for it on their behalf, &c., &c., and, as you know how much it was wished for, will not feel that you are inventing gratitude.

Did you think of our ball on Thursday evening, and did you suppose me at it? You might very safely, for there I was. On Wednesday morning it was settled that Mrs. Harwood, Mary, and I should go together, and shortly afterwards a very civil note of invitation for me came from Mrs. Bramston, who wrote I believe as soon as as she knew of the ball. I might likewise have gone with Mrs. Lefroy, and therefore, with three methods of going, I must have been more at the ball than anyone else. I dined and slept at Deane; Charlotte and I did my hair, which I fancy looked very indifferent, nobody abused it, however, and I retired delighted with my success.

It was a pleasant ball, and still more good than pleasant, for there were nearly sixty people, and sometimes we had seventeen couple. The Portsmouths, Dorchesters, Boltons, Portals, and Clerks were there, and all the meaner and more usual &c., &c.’s. There was a scarcity of men in general, and a still greater scarcity of any that were good for much. I danced nine dances out of ten — five with Stephen Terry, T. Chute, and James Digweed, and four with Catherine. There was commonly a couple of ladies standing up together, but not often any so amiable as ourselves.

I heard no news, except that Mr. Peters, who was not there, is supposed to be particularly attentive to Miss Lyford. You were inquired after very prettily, and I hope the whole assembly now understands that you are gone into Kent, which the families in general seemed to meet in ignorance of. Lord Portsmouth surpassed the rest in his attentive recollection of you, inquired more into the length of your absence, and concluded by desiring to be “remembered to you when I wrote next.”

Lady Portsmouth had got a different dress on, and Lady Bolton is much improved by a wig. The three Miss Terries were there, but no Annie; which was a great disappointment to me. I hope the poor girl had not set her heart on her appearance that evening so much as I had. Mr. Terry is ill, in a very low way. I said civil things to Edward for Mr. Chute, who amply returned them by declaring that, had he known of my brother’s being at Steventon, he should have made a point of calling upon him to thank him for his civility about the Hunt.

I have heard from Charles, and am to send his shirts by half-dozens as they are finished; one set will go next week. The “Endymion” is now waiting only for orders, but may wait for them perhaps a month. Mr. Coulthard [1] was unlucky in very narrowly missing another unexpected guest at Chawton, for Charles had actually set out and got half way thither in order to spend one day with Edward, but turned back on discovering the distance to be considerably more than he had fancied, and finding himself and his horse to be very much tired. I should regret it the more if his friend Shipley had been of the party, for Mr. Coulthard might not have been so well pleased to see only one come at a time.

Miss Harwood is still at Bath, and writes word that she never was in better health, and never more happy. Joshua Wakeford died last Saturday, and my father buried him on Thursday. A deaf Miss Fonnereau is at Ashe, which has prevented Mrs. Lefroy’s going to Worting or Basingstoke during the absence of Mr. Lefroy.

My mother is very happy in the prospect of dressing a new doll which Molly has given Anna. My father’s feelings are not so enviable, as it appears that the farm cleared 300l. last year. James and Mary went to Ibthorp for one night last Monday, and found Mrs. Lloyd not in very good looks. Martha has been lately at Kintbury, but is probably at home by this time. Mary’s promised maid has jilted her, and hired herself elsewhere. The Debaries persist in being afflicted at the death of their uncle, of whom they now say they saw a great deal in London. Love to all. I am glad George remembers me.

Yours very affectionately, J. A.

585px-Jane_Austen_signature_from_her_will.svgI am very unhappy. In re-reading your letter I find I might have spared myself any intelligence of Charles. To have written only what you knew before! You may guess how much I feel. I wore at the ball your favourite gown, a bit of muslin of the same round my head, bordered with Mrs. Cooper’s band, and one little comb.

Miss Austen, Godmersham Park.

Bury Me in Sleepy Hollow

Headless HorsemanJust in time for Halloween, here’s a letter from Washington Irving — author of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” — about the founding of a cemetery in Tarrytown, New York. Organizers planned to build the new resting place near the Old Dutch Church because its small burial ground was too full (even if its most famous denizen, the legendary headless horseman who pursued Ichabod Crane, was so often up and about).

Washington IrvingWhile Irving approved of creating a new, nondenominational cemetery, he lobbied the organizers to name it Sleepy Hollow rather than their more more prosaic choice, the Tarrytown Cemetery.

Alas, it was still called Tarrytown when Irving was buried there, but six years after his death, the town renamed it the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.

In 1996, the small village of North Tarrytown actually changed their town name to Sleepy Hollow.

Here’s what Irving wrote to Gaylord Clark, editor of the Knickerbocker Magazine:

My Dear Clark:

I send you herewith a plan of a rural cemetery projected by some of the worthies of Tarrytown, on the woody hills adjacent to the Sleepy Hollow Church. I have no pecuniary interest in it, yet I hope it may succeed, as it will keep that beautiful and umbrageous neighborhood sacred from the anti-poetical and all-leveling axe. Besides, I trust that I shall one day lay my bones there. The projectors are plain matter-of-fact men, but are already, I believe, aware of the blunder which they have committed in naming it the “Tarrytown,” instead of the “Sleepy Hollow” Cemetery. The latter name would have been enough of itself to secure the patronage of all desirous of sleeping quietly in their graves.

Sleepy Hollow CemeteryI beg you to correct this oversight, should you, as I trust you will, notice this sepulchral enterprise.

I hope as the spring opens you will accompany me in one of my brief visits to Sunnyside, when we will make another trip to Sleepy Hollow, and (thunder and lightning permitting) have a colloquy among the tombs.

Yours, very truly,

Washington Irving
New York, April 27, 1849″

And a Happy Halloween to one and all.

What’s in a Code Name?

Jefferson Coded Letter to Madison

Coded letter from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison.

Long before computers or Enigma machines, diplomats and spies sent coded messages to colleagues. Just as some people are far better working crossword puzzles than others, some historic figures embraced code more readily than their compatriots.

As a diplomat in France and Holland during and after the Revolutionary War, John Adams was urged to encode letters, even private letters to his wife.

Abigail_AdamsHowever, Abigail Adams declared to code-maker James Lovell, “Thank you for your alphabetacall cipher tho I believe I shall never make use of it. I hate a cipher of any kind and have been so much more used to deal in realities with those I love, that I should make a miserable proficiency in modes and figures.” She also felt that her husband John was not much of a code-cracker either. ” Besides my Friend is no adept in investigating ciphers and hates to be puzzled for a meaning.”

Below is a list of coded names that Adams, Francis Dana, and James Searle used in correspondence during their diplomatic missions in Europe.

Note that Benjamin Franklin is referred to as D.D. and his grandson D.D.J. (for junior), while John Adams is Steady.

D.D.J—Franklin Junr.
Joseph YorkeAngelica—Vergenes
De Novo—De Castres
Grex—States General
Steady—Mr. Adams
Funn—J. Searle
Dortje—Regency of Ams.
Knobb—Van Berkle
Swivel Eye J. D. Neufville
V—Arthur Lee
Brux—Mr. Izard
Fornicatio—Sr. Jos. Yorke

I love some of those names. The British minister to The Hague, Sir Joseph Yorke, must have been quite a character to inspire the moniker Fornicatio. And I have to wonder why Amsterdam merchant, Jean de Neufville, was known as Swivel Eye. I just wish the chap tagged Indiana had been named Jones…

james searleJames Searle, known in the list as Funn, was indeed a fun guy. He once engaged in a cane fight at the Continental Congress with Charles Thomson, the Secretary of Congress. Searle claimed that Thomson misquoted him, and the fight resulted in slashed faces for both men. 

I took a course on the history of espionage in high school where we had to choose code names. A classmate and I split Mata Hari between us, with me taking one half and her the other. I can’t remember now whether I was Mata or Hari, but I think I prefer either to the choices on that list.  However, if I have to go with one, I’ll take Snapo!

Read the text of a letter from Francis Dana to John Adams (dated 1781) that includes code names from the list.

Listen Up!

lord chesterfield ovalLord Chesterfield was a master of the pithy.

Take this: “A light supper, a good night’s sleep, and a fine morning have often made a hero of the same man who, by indigestion, a restless night, and a rainy morning would have proved a coward.”

Or this: “Advice is seldom welcome, and those who need it the most, like it the least.”

Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, was a member of the House of Lords, a Secretary of State and a Viceroy for Ireland, but he is best remembered for the letters he wrote to his illegitimate son, Philip. Chesterfield’s son predeceased him by a few years, and after Chesterfield himself died, his son’s widow published a collection of more than 400 letters from Lord Chesterfield entitled, Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman. While some of the advice, such as how to wear a hat and to never laugh out loud, may seem outmoded, much is still useful today, especially on job interviews!

Rangers House

Rangers House, Lord Chesterfield’s residence in Greenwich

“I here subjoin a list of all those necessary, ornamental accomplishments (without which, no man living can either please, or rise in the world) which hitherto I fear you want, and which only require your care and attention to possess.

  • To speak elegantly, whatever language you speak in; without which nobody will hear you with pleasure, and consequently you will speak to very little purpose.
  • An agreeable and distinct elocution; without which nobody will hear you with patience: this everybody may acquire, who is not born with some imperfection in the organs of speech. You are not; and therefore it is wholly in your power. You need take much less pains for it than Demosthenes did.
  • A distinguished politeness of manners and address; which common sense, obser-vation, good company, and imitation, will infallibly give you if you will accept it.
  • A genteel carriage and graceful motions, with the air of a man of fashion: a good dancing-master, with some care on your part, and some imitation of those who excel, will soon bring this about.
  • To be extremely clean in your person, and perfectly well dressed, according to the fashion, be that what it will: Your negligence of your dress while you were a schoolboy was pardonable, but would not be so now.
  • Upon the whole, take it for granted, that without these accomplishments, all you know, and all you can do, will avail you very little.”

Read more about Lord Chesterfield’s Advice to His Son here.

With Love, Louisa May Alcott

Orchard HouseAs a girl, I wanted to live next door to the March family of Little Women. Who wouldn’t want to romp through Concord with Jo and her sisters and be served warm gingerbread by Marmee? As a next best thing, I recently visited Orchard House, the home of Louisa May Alcott and her family for 20 years. There, her sister May drew pictures on her bedroom walls, Anna was married in a simple gray silk gown and Louisa penned her beloved novel.

While I sent a postcard of Orchard House to my daughter, Louisa wrote home to Orchard House from her travels abroad. Written nearly 150 years ago, her letters still crackle with life and are as warm, vibrant and funny as any I could have received from the March girls if I had been lucky enough to have them as neighbors:

54108-large“Morlaix, April 14, 1870

Dearest Marmee,

…Tomorrow we go on to Lamballe, where we take the diligence to Dinan, fourteen miles farther, and there settle for some weeks. I wish the boys could see the funny children here in little wooden shoes like boats, the girls in blue cloth caps, aprons, and shawls, just like the women, and the boys in funny hats and sheepskin jackets. Now I must go and get May, who can’t speak a word of French, and has a panic if any one speaks to her. The beggars afflict her, and she wants to give them money on all occasions. This p.m. we go for a drive to see all there is, as neither A. nor I are good walkers; “adoo” till by and by. I wish I could send you this balmy day.”

Dinan-Postcard-1“Dinan, May 25, 1870

To Anna,

…We went to a ruin one day, and were about to explore the castle, when a sow, with her family of twelve, charged through the gateway at us so fiercely that we fled in dismay; for pigs are not nice when they attack, as we don’t know where to bone ’em, and I saw a woman one day whose nose had been bitten off by an angry pig. I flew over a hedge; May tried to follow. I pulled her over head first, and we tumbled into the tower like a routed garrison. It wasn’t a nice ruin, but we were bound to see it, having suffered so much. And we did see it, in spite of the pigs, who waylaid us on all sides, and squealed in triumph when we left,–dirty, torn, and tired. The ugly things wander at their own sweet will, and are tall, round-backed, thin wretches, who run like race horses, and are no respecters of persons…”

Lake co“Lago di Como, Oct. 8, 1870.

Dearest Marmee,–A happy birthday, and many of ’em! Here we actually are in the long-desired Italy, and find it as lovely as we hoped. Our journey was a perfect success,–sunlight, moonlight, magnificent scenery, pleasant company, no mishaps, and one long series of beautiful pictures all the way…

After supper in a vaulted, frescoed hall, with marble floors, pillars, and galleries, we went to a room which had green doors, red carpet, blue walls, and yellow bed-covers,–all so gay! It was like sleeping in a rainbow.

As if a heavenly lake under our windows with moonlight ad libitum wasn’t enough, we had music next door; and on leaning out of a little back window, we made the splendid discovery that we could look on to the stage of the opera-house across a little alley. My Nan can imagine with what rapture I stared at the scenes going on below me, and how I longed for her as I stood there wrapped in my yellow bed-quilt, and saw gallant knights in armor warble sweetly to plump ladies in masks, or pretty peasants fly wildly from ardent lovers in red tights; also a dishevelled maid who tore her hair in a forest, while a man aloft made thunder and lightning,–and I saw him do it!

It was the climax to a splendid day; for few travellers can go to the opera luxuriously in their night-gowns, and take naps between the acts as I did…