Across the Generations: Exploring U.S. History Through Family Papers
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Family Life

Within the intimate details of one family’s life are the pieces of historical evidence that can speak to the experiences of many people within a particular time and place. Each of the documents shown here, while specific to one family, provide glimpses of common life experiences. Courtship and marriage, a father worried about his young adult daughter, a young husband mourning the death of his wife--these are the very private yet shared experiences which can shed light on gender roles, class expectations, and social values within a certain historical moment.

Courtship letters

The letters shown here provide ample evidence of the emotions that men openly expressed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Dunham and Bodman letters mark the beginnings of what were to be long-lasting marriages, while the letter from author George Washington Cable to Clara Bodman is quite a different matter. In 1904, the sixty-year-old Cable was a widower; his wife of thirty-five years had only recently died. His letter to the forty-five year old Clara is filled with the tentativeness of a man for whom the ways of courtship were a distant memory. In any case, for reasons unknown, a relationship between them did not develop. In 1906 he married another woman and Clara Bodman remained unmarried until her death in 1951.

Edward Dunham to Mary Dows, 1893 "My Darling & precious
Polly -- Here is a little
blossom from your Boy E
-- a sweet P_  we know
what the letter "P" stands
    I give you a good night [kiss]
Your own Boy E"

Edward Dunham, Sr., to Mary
("Polly") Dows, circa 1893

Edward and Mary Dunham, circa 1910

Edward and Mary Dows Dunham, circa 1910
(print made in 1993 from original negative)

Herbert Bodman letter to Theodora Dunham, 1917

"My dear Theo,
I liked the time best of all when we sat by the boat with your dog and friend dog about us and listened to the wind in the trees and the little waves on the beach. You gave me a glimpse my darling of a love which I have read about and of which other people have spoken but which it never occurred to me I should be lucky enough to receive. Other people have pretended to like me but there have been none of whom I suspected of such generosity. It doesn't seem as if it could have ever have come to the great majority of men or they would never behave as so many men do."

Herbert Bodman to Theodora Dunham (Bodman), while both were in France during World War I, 20 November 1917


George Washington Cable to Clara Bodman, 1904

"Deeply as I should delight in the blessed work (and play) of keeping you happy, my impulse is to look to you for happiness as I cannot look to any other soul on earth. Whether I say this utterly in vain or not you need not tell me now; I know only, now, that it is a crumb of comfort just to tell you.... [Y]ou can make joy easy and spontaneous in me and you can touch with a gilding of sunlight every joy and every care, alike, that is mine."

George Washington Cable to Clara Bodman, October 2, 1904


Married life

Once married and living together, men and women tended not to have the opportunity to exchange letters as they did during their courtship. But on those occasions when they were separated because a wife was away visiting distant family or a husband was away on business, letters might then be sent. While such letters are generally filled with the details of everyday family life which highlight typical gender roles, here too can be found expressions of love and longing. As Philena Bodman wrote to her husband Luther, away on business:

Philena Bodman to husband, Luther, 1856

"I have felt so sad and lonely today that I hardly know what to do with myself; What is it that has kept you from home today? [I]t seems to me that I could put up with almost any inconvenience if I could only be with you. I do not believe it is right for us to be seperated [sic] so much as we have been for a year past, I cannot feel reconciled to it."

Philena Hawks Bodman to her husband, Luther, October 1, 1856


Luther Bodman to his wife, Philena, 1856

"I notice you are rather lonely and almost impatient to see me once more at home, but never mind take the word for the deed, I shall get home by & by…."

Luther Bodman, Jr. to his wife, Philena, June 23, 1856


Perhaps an even more poignant expression of a husband’s devotion can be found in the letter Elam Bodman wrote to his family and friends upon the death of his first wife, Jerusha Hitchcock Bodman, who died at the age of twenty-five. The early death of a spouse was a common occurrence in the nineteenth century and like most young widowers, Elam Bodman married again within a few years. But in 1840, far from his family and friends back in Massachusetts, Elam Bodman expressed his grief quite openly:

Elam Bodman to parents, 1849

"I feel considerably the earthly
loss which I have met with...."

Elam Bodman to his family and friends
on the death of his wife, Jerusha, 1840


Theodora Dunham, 1897 Theodora Dunham, 1897
(print made in 1989 from original plate glass negative; photograph probably by Mary Dows Dunham)

"This morning I saw our Theo bathed & weighed and then wired you her gain was so fine. I musn't stop nursing her while she thrives so on her mama--and I begin to feel stronger and less good-for-nothing."

Mary Dows Dunham to Edward Kellogg Dunham, Sr., circa 1895

During the nineteenth century, middle-class perceptions regarding childhood changed. As family size declined, more emphasis was placed on childhood as a special time of development in which mothers played an increasingly critical role. Yet, fathers continued to be an important part of their children’s lives as is evidenced in the following letter from Philip Leslie Hale, who maintained a loving relationship with his adult daughter, Nancy Hale. He wrote to her daily when she was living in New York City after her marriage. In this letter he both reminisces about her childhood and expresses a father’s concerns about his then twenty year old daughter in the modern world. Was his daughter a "vamp"? he asks:

Philip Leslie Hale to his daughter, Nancy, circa 1929

"I always meant to paint you sitting at a table with breakfast things...."
Philip Leslie Hale to his daughter, Nancy, circa 1929



Everyday chores, family relations and sleigh rides--these are the details of family life which tell us much about the social history of white, middle-class Americans in the mid-nineteenth century. Growing literacy rates and increased leisure time meant that much of this would be recorded as in the following two examples, both from the Dunham Family Papers:

Our Home, a family newspaper by Harriet and Amelia Kellogg, 1848

"Housekeeper's Journal--
   ...Two innocent inhabitants of the poultry coop after residing there for about a week were submitted to Biddy's destructive mercies. All mention of eggs is carefully avoided by the Colony. It being a subject particularly exciting to the feelings of the Master as well as of all engaged in the mysteries of cooking."

Our Home, a family newspaper written by sisters Harriet Kellogg (Dunham) and Amelia Kellogg containing news of the family farm, 1848

Commonplace book of Gertrude Parker, 1847

"Our home! What images are brought before us by this one word! The meeting of cordial smiles, and the gathering round the evening hearth, and the interchange of thoughts in kindly words, and the glance of eyes to which our hearts lie open as the day--there is the true city of refuge!"

Passage from the commonplace book of Gertrude Ann Parker (sister of Maria Smyth Parker Dunham), 28 November 1847

Across the generations

As America expanded both economically and geographically in the nineteenth century, family relationships might grow distant as so many people left the place of their birth and traveled west or moved to one of the nation’s growing cities in search of opportunities. But many families consciously maintained their ties, as evidenced by the following letter from Samuel Bodman to his brother, Lewis:

Samuel Bodman to his brother, Lewis, 1875

"In your letter you speak of coming across one of my old letters written 40 years ago.... [W]e were then just commencing the activities of life and now standing near its brink. How few of the familiar faces we then left behind are still remaining. Another generation has taken the places we then occupied, and soon our places will be filled by another generation."

Samuel Bodman to his brother, Lewis, 1 March 1875
(typed copy of original)


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