Dear Friend Robert Merry: Letters from nineteenth-century children

How to use this book

1840s: 184118421843184418451846184718481849

1850s: 1850185118521853185418551856185718581859

1860s: 1860186118621863186418651866186718681869

1870s: 187018711872

About the Merry Cousins


Index & gloss


The Cousins’ Greatest Hits

Who is Who & What is What in the Chat

Like any focused group, the Merry Cousins had a specialized vocabulary. As relationships developed and incidents happened, subscribers began to use common words in less-common ways. This list includes phrases, abbreviations, and some concepts; it also includes information about the editors. Most entries link to the entry in the index.

algebra; That Enigma; That Problem: appeared in February 1855. It seems simple enough: x2 + y2 = 8 (x = 2 and y = 2). The difficulty, however, lies in proving the equation; for months the Chat contained proof after proof—all pooh-poohed by the Museum’s readers. By the time “that problem” was solved, the tone of the Chat had changed, and the column had been taken over by its readers. Reprinting the puzzle in Merry’s Book of Puzzles, the editor noted dryly, “If any choose to work this out algebraicially, it will be found to be no trifling puzzle. See Merry’s Museum for 1856.” (Those interested in the solutions should also see the following in copies of the magazine: 1855.2.95-96, 1855.2.124-125, 1855.2.153-155, 1855.2.185, 1856.1.56-58, 1856.1.90, 1856.1.124-125, 1856.1.189) In 2002, Matthew McIrvin pointed out that probably subscribers had difficulty solving the equation because there are at least two solutions.

Aunt Sue: Susanna Newbould (born 1821, near London, England; died 188-); married John A. Newbould; they had at least three children, two girls and a boy. John was a merchant with $25,000 in real estate in 1850; in 1870 he called himself a “hoop skirt dealer”, with $50,000 in personal assets, $45,000 of it in real estate. Susanna contributed to Woodworth’s Youth’s Cabinet and began to edit its puzzle column in 1852; her portrait was sent to subscribers in 1854, when she became assistant editor. By 1855, she also may have been subscribing to the Museum, which printed her chatty letters and answers to puzzles. When the Cabinet was absorbed by the Museum in 1857, Newbould edited the “Puzzle Drawer”; her portrait as Aunt Sue was sent to subscribers in 1862. As “Aunt Sue”, Newbould was a comfortable, motherly presence not above a very bad pun or two. By 1868, she also was contributing pieces to Haney’s Journal. Newbould published at least one collection of puzzles that was reprinted into the 1880s.

• M432 #517, 72.

• M653. 1860 United States Census; reel #764: 632-633.

• M593. 1870 United States Census; reel #946: 250.

• Dorothy B. Dechert. “The Merry Family: A Study of Merry’s Museum, 1841-1872, and of the Various Periodicals that Merged with It.” M. S., Columbia University, 1942; pp. 95-96.

• William Cushing. Initials and Pseudonyms. New York: T. Y. Crowell & Co., 1885; vol 1, part 2.

badge: A pin made available in 1864, which featured an open book with “M” on either page. It was available round or oval, in silver or in gold; engravings appeared in the January 1864 issue. The pins cost between $1.50 and $6; they were also premiums for those finding new subscribers for the Museum. The design was later used for stationery sold by the Museum’s publishers.

basket: The editors wrote of a basket kept under the table for subscribers’s letters that were not published; the letters were used as scrap paper.

Cabinet; Woodworth’s Youth’s Cabinet: magazine edited for a time by Francis C. Woodworth (1846-1857). It printed stories, songs, poems, and articles with an emphasis on morality; “Uncle Frank” had his own letters column, which emphasized his editorials rather than letters from subscribers. When the Cabinet was absorbed by the Museum, the latter was sent to “Cabinet-makers” to fill out their subscriptions; several continued to refer to the magazine they received as the “Cabinet.”

carte; c. de v.: short for “carte de visite”; as photographs became cheaper and easier to copy, the Cousins sent their portraits to each other and to the editors, who kept photograph albums.

the Chat: the monthly letters column of the Museum. Because it was a long-distance means of communication between people who rarely met in person, communications in the Chat often resembled those in today’s online communities.

Merry convention: In 1865, at the suggestion of subscriber Jasper the Cousins met (appropriately enough) in the parlor of editor John N. Stearns. The meeting was announced in the December 1865 issue of the Museum.

Cousins; Merry Cousins: the subscribers. This made the editors the “uncles” and “aunt” of the Merry family.

The enigma: a puzzle actually designed to be impossible to solve. Originally appearing in Woodworth’s Youth’s Cabinet (February 1857; p. 66), it was reprinted in the Museum (1857.1.188) at the time Edward Winslow Paige solved it; he earned a complete set of Woodworth’s Youth’s Cabinet. His answer (1857.1.189) included factual information about each term.

hatchet: As letters from subscribers grew longer, the editors joked about wielding an imaginary hatchet (belonging, of course, to Hiram Hatchet) to trim letters to a manageable length. Many Cousins took their chance to pun on and joke about the hatchet and Uncle Hiram.

Love, to my Southern cousins; respects, to my Northern ones: a closing in a letter from Tennessean that caused more than a little comment; see 1858.1.123 and 1858.1.126a. It also spawned its share of parodies: “Give my love to all, without any distinction,” Oscar Bradford wrote from Illinois (1858.1.127)

the manipulator, imaginary object which cut letters to the Merry Chat. Early in the Museum’s history, an imaginary hatchet shortened letters printed in the Chat; in 1862 the editors spoke of using the hatchet, some shears, and “a pruning-hook and a hydraulic press”, the latter producing synopses of letters, called “Extracted Essences.” In 1863, the “double-back-action-high-pressure-condensatory-manipulator” was introduced; it was quite noisy, going, “Kerr-clickety-crunch—kerr-clickety-crunch.” (1863.1.120).

Eugene Merry; Cousin Eugene: Eugene H. Fales (born 1840/1843, Thomaston, Maine; died 12 July 1868, St. Paul, Minnesota); married 23 January 1865, Harriet M. Lee; one son, apparently died as an infant. Eugene was the clerk in the Museum’s offices before going to war and enduring adventures that would have done justice to the hero of a romantic novel. Joining Co. E, 84th New York Infantry on 18 April 1861, he ended up in Co. C., 131st New York Infantry as a lieutenant. John N. Stearns kept the Cousins up-to-date on his activities, telling them in June 1863 that “[Eugene] was in the first battle of Bull Run, and received several bullet-holes in his clothes; he … is now with our favorite general, N. P. Banks, in his triumphant march through Louisiana.” (185) Eugene was one of several hundred who volunteered on 15 June 1863 for a storming party on Port Hudson, Louisiana, but was wounded and taken prisoner. He was confined at Richmond from 14 July 1863 until 7 May 1864, when he was sent to Macon, Georgia; later he was sent to Charleston, South Carolina. Stearns did more than just update the Cousins: he sent boxes to Eugene and worked to have him freed. Eugene escaped on 4 October 1864, by donning a Confederate uniform provided by a rebel deserter and walking out of the Charleston prison. He was hidden by sympathetic South Carolinians, finally making his way to Savannah, where he reported on 21 December 1864 to the Union forces who had just taken the city. In true romantic style, on his return to New York he married before returning to his unit for the duration of the War. His adventures were detailed in the Museum as “Adventures of a ‘Merry’ Boy” (February 1865). In 1867 the former office boy bought the magazine. During his escape, however, Eugene was stricken with yellow fever, from which he never recovered; he developed tuberculosis and died on a trip to regain his health.

• compiled military record.

• RG 15. Records of the Veterans Administration, pension certificate #160591.

• United States War Department. The War of the Rebellion. DC: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901; series 1, vol 26, pt 1: 64, 57.

• St. Paul, Minnesota. “Mortuary Register, 1866-1884.” Public Health Center, St. Paul; vol 1: 15, 119.

Robert Merry: the guiding spirit of the Museum. The magazine’s editors traditionally took on his persona and made their announcements in his name. As created by Samuel Goodrich, Robert Merry was a distinct personality with a checkered past: having led an undisciplined youth, he spent time in prison and fought in the War of 1812 before going to sea and, finally, retiring to New England to live the quiet life of an old bachelor. In the process, he lost one leg. When John N. Stearns took over, he gave the old man his own children and his own personality, enrolling him as a Son of Temperance. The one-legged Merry pictured on the magazine’s cover now had two legs, and when readers received a picture of the editor in 1863, Robert Merry had John Stearns’ face. When Louisa May Alcott took over in 1868, however, Merry became a nonentity: crisp, but loving, as likely to scold as to praise, with no discernible history or personality, a name on the cover of the Museum.

“P. G. question”/ “p. g. war,”: a facetious contest inadvertently launched by Daniel H. Burnham to discover the “prettiest girl” among the subscribers, using photographs the Cousins were sending to each other. In a way, it helped to alleviate the tensions caused by the Civil War.

Peter Parley: the extremely-popular character created by Samuel Goodrich; beginning in 1827, Peter Parley directly addressed young readers in books calculated to educate them about the world and its inhabitants. Children reacted immediately, loving the old man with the gouty foot so much that unscrupulous publishers appropriated Parley for their own works. Frustrated by the flood of counterfeit Parleys, Goodrich actually “killed off” his creation in Peter Parley’s Farewell, a study of metaphysics published in 1840, and announced his death in the Museum in 1841—to the surprise of several readers. Parley was “resurrected” in 1845, when Parley’s Magazine was absorbed by the Museum. He joined “Robert Merry” as a putative editor of the magazine.

the parlor, the imaginary room in which the Merry Cousins “met” each month. Hiram Hatchet first used the image in 1854, when he took over the Chat and greeted readers as if they were all together in a room, each waiting to speak; in later columns, references were made to furnishings and Cousins began to offer each other seats: “Commodore, there is an empty chair on this side of the room, if you are not too bashful to sit among the girls,” Sallie offered in 1858. (1858.1.127)

“prize trial”: puzzle announced by Aunt Sue in April 1860: “I propose … to offer a gold pen (to subscribers) for the greatest number of words made out of any word of one syllable ….” (1860.1.126)

“Queens”: candidates for the “pretty girl” contest inadvertently sparked when subscriber Daniel H. Burnham asked, “Will the best-looking cousin in the Chat favor me with his or her carte?” (1862.2.28) The candidates included Fleta Forrester and Winifred.

Uncle Frank: Francis Chandler Woodworth (born 12 February 1818, Colchester, Connecticut; died 1859) Son of Vanaiah/Veniah (born 14 October 1776, Bozrah, Connecticut; died 14 February 1848, Lebanon, Connecticut) and Lavinia Phelps (born Lebanon, Connecticut); middle of three children. Woodworth often had trouble with his lungs; becoming ill during a lecture tour in Michigan in 1858, he spent months recovering.

Robert Merry’s Museum ; 1858.1.190-192.

• Jeanette Woodworth Behan. The Woodworth Family of America. Np: Jeanette Woodworth Behan, 1988; p. 369.

“Uncle Frank’s Monthly Table-Talk”, Francis Woodworth’s editorial column, carried over from Woodworth’s Youth’s Cabinet. As in the Chat, letters from subscribers were printed, though Uncle Frank gave less space to letters than to his own editorials.

Uncle Hiram Hatchet: W. C. Cutter, probably William Cutter (born 15 May 1801, North Yarmouth, Maine; died 8 February 1867, Brooklyn, New York); married 29 May 1828, Margaret W. Dicks; they had three boys and three girls. A graduate of Bowdoin College, Cutter attended Andover Theological Seminary before weak eyes forced him out. He became a writer for periodicals; in 1831 he edited The Juvenile Reformer and Sabbath-School Instructor and, later, the Monthly Miscellany (1839). Cutter wrote books for children and published poems anonymously, among them “Who is My Neighbor?” In 1854 he became associated with the Museum, when “Hiram Hatchet” temporarily took Robert Merry’s place in the Chat; Cutter bought an interest in the magazine in Jan 1857. “Uncle Hiram” was a master of the subtle art of the pun and gleefully wielded his imaginary hatchet to cut the Cousins’ ever-longer letters. Cutter’s portrait—as Uncle Hiram—was sent to subscribers in 1864.

• William H. Coleman. “The Children’s ‘Robert Merry’ and the Late John N. Stearns.” The New York Evangelist 16 May 1895: 19.

• Dorothy B. Dechert. “The Merry Family: A Study of Merry’s Museum, 1841-1872, and of the Various Periodicals that Merged with It.” M. S., Columbia University, 1942; pp. 161-162, 166.

• Evert A. and George L. Duyckinck. Cyclopaedia of American Literature. Np: np, 1875; vol 2: 850.

Uncle Robert Merry; Uncle Peter Parley: Samuel G. Goodrich (born 19 August 1793; died 9 May 1860); married 1818, Adeline Gratia Bradley (died 1822), with whom he had a daughter; married 1826, Mary Boott; he and Mary had six children. Goodrich was the sixth of ten children. After working as a clerk for several years, he went into business with George Sheldon, publishing American authors. A visit with Hannah More during a trip to Europe inspired him to write works for children that would educate and entertain them without the violence and nonsense he had despised as a child. His most popular character was Peter Parley, who first appeared in 1827. Goodrich’s talent lay in mixing clear explanations with interesting incidents, and adding illustrations and a dollop of charm; though later generations find the books too didactic, early readers adored them—so much so that he was mobbed by excited fans during a tour of the South in 1846. Goodrich founded Parley’s Magazine in 1833 and Robert Merry’s Museum in 1841; he was responsible for creating the memorable figure of Robert Merry. Goodrich’s portrait was sent to subscribers who paid their subscriptions in advance in 1850 and to all subscribers in 1853. From 1851 to 1853, he was U. S. consul at Paris, where he may have met subscriber Lizzie G., who lived at the same hotel.

• Emily Goodrich Smith. “ ‘Peter Parley’—As Known to His Daughter.” Connecticut Quarterly: pp. 304-315; 399-407.

• Samuel Griswold Goodrich. Recollections of a Lifetime. New York: Miller, Orton and Mulligan, 1856.

Uncle Robert Merry: John N[ewton] Stearns (born 24 May 1829, New Ipswich, New Hampshire; died 21 April 1896, Greenpoint, New York); married 1854, Matilda C. Loring. Son of Jesse Stearns (born 29 August 1784, Ashburnham, Massachusetts; died 18 November 1866, New Ipswich, Massachusetts) and Lucinda Davis (born 13 February 1791, New Ipswich, Massachusetts; died 9 October 1868); youngest of seven children, three of them girls. He had a daughter. He was the biological uncle of subscribers Abby Marietta Stearns and Flora P. Stearns. Until age 21, John worked on his father’s farm; he then taught school for a time before becoming a magazine agent for Forrester’s Boys’ and Girls’ Magazine. He moved to Brooklyn, New York, in 1851. Around 1855, he became editor of the Museum, first with his brother, then with William C. Cutter. His portrait—as Robert Merry—was sent to the magazine’s subscribers in 1863. Stearns also was a Sunday-school superintendent and was County Clerk of Kings County (1862-1865); it was as County Clerk that he petitioned for a prisoner exchange to release the Museum’s office boy, Eugene H. Fales. Stearns joined the temperance movement as a child, and his interest in the movement can be seen in the temperance pieces published in the Museum under his editorship. Under his editorship, too, the Chat came into its own. In 1866, Stearns sold the Museum and focused on temperance work, editing several temperance publications; at his death, he was a member of the national bodies of the world’s three major temperance organizations.

• Willard E. Stearns. Memoranda of the Stearns Family. Fitchburg: Sentinel Printing Co., 1901; vol 1: 46-47, 543.

• “Noble Life, A: John N. Stearns.” New York: National Temperance Society and Publications House, nd.

• compiled military record—Eugene Fales.

• William H. Coleman. “The Children’s ‘Robert Merry’ and the Late John N. Stearns.” The New York Evangelist 16 May 1895: 19.

Uncle William: apparently, William A. Fitch. “Uncle William” was a bit of a nonentity, though his portrait was sent to subscribers.

X: verb abbreviated from “exchange” and usually referring to the exchanging of photographs between Cousins.

a flourish

How to use this book

1840s: 184118421843184418451846184718481849

1850s: 1850185118521853185418551856185718581859

1860s: 1860186118621863186418651866186718681869

1870s: 187018711872

About the Merry Cousins


Index & gloss


The Cousins’ Greatest Hits

Copyright 2000-2024, Pat Pflieger

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