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Our Letters to Those We Love Have Changed Greatly from Correspondence of 100 Years Ago

Some Observations on the Transition from Ship's Correspondence of the 1800s to Our Texting Times

I have begun reading Donald F. Mortland's Dear Ones At Home and at Sea. This book from the Penobscot Marine Museum is filled with papers of the Park and Pendleton seafarers and their families. These are my ancestors on my mother's side of the family.

I became fascinated with the way my ancestors' writing of letters is so different from our letters or email of today. Give us a few more decades and people will probably smile about our writing now because many abbreviations of texting are likely to infiltrate so much of our English language.

The way letters were started in the 1800s was different. The salutation by the sea captain might be a simple Dear Wife, whereas today I would likely just say Dear Patrick. Sisters would write to siblings as Dear Sister or Dear Brother.

While at sea, Captain J. P. Pendleton wrote to "My Dear Son" from Sagua la Grade on June 4, 1847. In his letter he tells his son that they have taken on board 97 hogs heads of sugar. What on Earth! Hogs Heads? Wait a minute, I do know what that is from Huckleberry Finn literature. A hogs head is a barrel which in this case is filled with sugar, but in Huckleberry Finn's adventures it was used as a bed when hiding out. In the Pendleton letter, the ship had already taken on 97 such barrels as cargo. He wrote of preferring to sit down to a meal of "victuals" cooked by his wife than by his dirty and lazy ship's cook. He told his son that the cook got drunk and he, the captain, acted as physician, giving "him two doses of Castor Oil, one large portion of Salts, and three portions of Calomel and Jalap, besides camphor…directly he (the cook) gave signs of having the horrors, he saw, or thought he saw, evil spirits all around him." Glad the captain is not my physician; I do not want any horrors or intense terrors of the mind!

James Hervey Pendleton is my 4th great grandfather and is the uncle of the lad being written to. Captain J. P. Pendleton urges his dear son to help Uncle James drop potatoes and corn; to make himself of some service to his uncle. I could not find a definition for drop but assume it means to either plant them or harvest them. Do you know?

While mentioning treating the cook with various salts and oils, etc., other references to health are in letters of the 1800s and include the visit of affliction (death), a bad cold that holds on, some great sadness has befallen, ingestion of the stomach, and many more.

The Maine Sea Captains and their families were frugal people. An ending to a letter by John Park Pendleton speaks volumes of how valuable items were, "Paper grows scarce and so we must bundle up a budget of love and put it in this letter for you and your Martin. Let us know of your welfare and oblige your brother."

Endings included full names; your affectionate sister; and the lovely, you are high in the affections of your husband.

As a young letter writer, my sister and I would add xoxoxoxoxo for hugs and kisses galore for those we loved. Still do on occasion, but from texting I find I usually just key "l u" for love you. I am a grandmother and how quickly I too am absorbed with texting.

These ship's letters fit into the quaint category for me. For my grandchildren likely my letters, email, and web writings will be at least somewhat quaint to them. Times does move on. Our drive to communicate is never ending. Good.

Published by Donna Cator

Donna Cator has been a researcher and business writer for two decades as a human resources manager and as a genealogist who writes the catorfamily.com website containing several hundred related surnames. Sh...  View profile