The Strange and Lovely Paper Trail of Florence of South Orange

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Odd pieces of flotsam and jetsam drift in when you set up a Google alert for, say, South Orange. Yesterday, on a Slovakian blog dedicated to the late 19th/early 20th century custom of writing mourning letters,  I discovered a letter written in South Orange in 1890.

“Dear Aunt Tina,” it begins. “Aunt Jennie wished to write and tell you that she, mamma and I send you some flowers that were arranged about the room. Papa looked very peaceful, much more so than when he was in pain.”

Blogger Maros Rovnak, who gave us permission both to use the image and text on his blog, didn’t know anything more about the letter than what appears on its face. He bought it from Paper Collectibles, a dealer of paper ephemera based in Mechanicsburg, PA. When I wrote to Paper Collectibles, I got this response.

“I remember that letter very well as it was so descriptive,” said Cindy Stone. “However, I can’t tell you much more about it than received it from a supplier. What is more ironic about this letter is that my maiden name was Hutchinson, but I could not find any ‘Florence’ or ‘Tina’ in my family tree, so I offered it for sale. It is amazing that it went from Pennsylvania to the Slovak Republic and now has ‘arrived’ in South Orange, New Jersey!”

Here is the full text of Florence Hutchinson’s 1890 mourning letter, poignant even without any additional context.

South Orange, N. J.
June 28, 1890

Dear Aunt Tina,

Aunt Jennie wished to write and tell you that she, mamma and I send you some flowers that were arranged about the room.
Papa looked very peaceful, much more so than when he was in pain.
There were passion flowers and for-get-me-nots arranged around the plate on the casket. Mrs. Mayhew arranged the flowers. There were lillies at the foot and under the casket. The piano was decorated with roses and a honeysuckle. There were beautiful roses in both rooms. The casket was between the doors.
Lately I had been practising “Nearer my God to Thee“ with variations and several other pieces that Papa liked very much. The last time I touched the piano I played that and the “Nun’s Prayer” for papa because he liked them so much. That was Monday night an it was the last thing I did for him. Oh, I am so thankful that I did!
Aunt Abba, Uncle John and Uncle Ludlow sang at both house and grave.
Aunt Abba looked angelic at the grave while singing. They sang “On Jordan’s stormy bank I stand.” It was very touching. Even the grave diggers cried.
Some of us dropped sweet peas in the grave on the coffin. I dropped lillies too. Every one was very kind, mamma got along as well as could be expected.
It all seems very strange.
I am going away Monday with Aunt Annie, mamma’s sister.
We all send much love and know that you are with us in spirit.

Your loving niece
Florence Hutchinson

PS: The uncles are going to be with Uncle David over Sunday. They have gone now.
F. H.

But wait! Overnight, while I was sleeping, back in Slovakia, Maros Rovnak was inspired enough by my inquiry to find this little snippet from the database of The New York Times.

It appears that 10 years after the death of Papa, our Florence struck out for San Francisco for a career as a teacher. She had another teacher — a stranger — meet her, presumably at the train station, and sent her a hat so they would recognize each other.

I already loved Florence Hutchinson for her sentence, “Even the grave diggers cried.” But the hats and pins she sent to San Francisco endear her to me even more. And what, pray tell, was The New York Times doing publishing such a small and obscure little story? Is this very early suggestion of The Times’s Local experiment a century later?

Are there other pieces to this tale? Please, dear reader, let us know.

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6 COMMENTS

  1. It would be interesting to find out where ‘papa” is buried. He has to be near by. Love the names Aunt Abba and Uncle Ludlow.

  2. “Mrs. Mayhew arranged the flowers”. My years of watching Mannix and Cannon lead me to believe Mrs. Mayhew has something to do with Mayhew Drive in South Orange. Hummm, might be time for a trip to the library to check some records.

    This isn’t good, quiet at work and this comes up. I might be at this for days.

  3. Mourning letters..Interesting…I have a small collection of open casket photos which I started after finding photos from my families in Poland & Lithuania….Nice piece, Deb.
    Paz in MCO

  4. What a lovely story. Possible the deceased father was interred at South Orange Cemetery (now a park) which has no records from 1861-1897 (shocking to me! https://www.interment.net/data/us/nj/essex/southorange/southorange.htm

    The personal and devoted attention paid to the deceased in the home was truly something that set Victorian funerals apart. While there were undertakers, it was common for the body to be “laid out” at home, and for the family to decorate with flowers which held special meaning. https://www.victoriana.com/VictorianPeriod/mourning.htm

    The Passion flower refers to the Passion of Christ, and the forget-me-nots are self explanatory. Honeysuckle represents bonds of love. More on the language of flowers here: https://www.joellessacredgrove.com/language.html

    Death and its social customs were much more deeply integrated and present in society, and the idea of people being “in mourning” and therefore excused by wider society from continuing to attend parties and amusements is one that continues in traditional Judaism today (shiva (7 Days), shloshim (30 days) and a year of mourning in which the mourner is in a special status) but seems to have been lost to Christian custom. Does anyone know when these customs ceased, and do others feel that perhaps they should be revived as they allow the mourner to abstain from joyous gatherings that are not suitable for his/her emotional state?

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