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