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About these letters


 Elizabeth Jane Phillips letter     Crystal box with engraved EJP initials    

I can remember as a child hearing exotic stories about great-great grandparents who acted. These had much more to do with the irony of Yankee (as we thought of the Canadian) John Nickinson playing in Uncle Tom's Cabin (in a family with then five, now six generations of Florida born folk, including both editors and annotators.) I had only the haziest of ideas about him and great-great grandmother EJ Phillips, until I started reading some of these letters (stored in a styrofoam ice chest in the attic) in Sewanee Tennessee in December 1991, on the morning I planned to leave.  I didn't get away until 5 pm. Thinking about the letters in the spring of 1992, I asked Mother and Daddy to photocopy them when they stopped by Sewanee in the summer.

Mother and Daddy showed up in Boston that summer (1992) with two boxes of letters (more than I had seen), a little daunted at the prospect of dealing with this quantity of letters. I urged simply plunging in and began transcribing at random, word- processing about five pages. Later they found another trunkful of letters and papers in a garage in Pensacola Florida.  The total fills a photocopy paper carton, not counting other artifacts and photographs. It is not just the current generations who harbor packrat tendencies. A few more letters surfaced in January 1999, and I now think we've seen all that we are going to find -- but I'm learning new things since these letters have been on the web since Feb. 2003.  Thanks to all the correspondents who have e-mailed me and provided new insights and some great questions..

Mother sent me computer disks of her transcriptions for some years. We produced a first edition in December 1992, as Christmas presents. E-mail further aided our collaboration,  consultations with, and encouragement from others. Over 1,000 letters have been transcribed. Edited versions of just over 400 were represented in the second (1996) edition.

The major plot lines were already apparent in the first edition. The second edition though contained Sarah Bernhardt's remedy for preventing colds, a surprising number of baseball games, and a first hand account of EJ Phillips being called out of retirement in Philadelphia, as she was washing dishes at Hattie's.

At an early stage of envisioning this project, I despaired of the letters being interesting enough to be worth spending much time with to Em Turner, who offered encouragement with the model of A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard based on her diary 1785-1812, a midwife of Hallowell Maine. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, who edited the diary, and added considerable commentary and context, also laments the lack of personal detail and laconic nature of so many entries.

A Nov. 1978 letter from Barbie Dolman Spencer of Swarthmore PA to Toronto theatre historian Mary Shortt reports "As to letters and written memoirs, I am afraid there is nothing.  EJ Phillips' letters to her daughter were kept for years, but contained only family matters, nothing on the theatre. That sad fact disappointed my father John Dolman Jr. very much. He was for 40 years a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of four books in his field -- The Art of Public Speaking, The Art of Play Production, The Art of Acting and The Art of Reading Aloud. I met Barbie in the early 1970s when I was living in Swarthmore, but didn't get to know her daughter Sue Spencer until 1998, when we met in Boston to see the quilt EJ Phillips has started in the 1870s and which was finished for her mother's high school graduation in 1930. Sue made it possible for me to explore Toronto in 2005 and we had tea with theater historians Mary Shortt and Paula Sperdakos.

I poked around a little in the Research collection of Boston Public Library and found American Theatre Companies 1749-1887 which mentions John Nickinson (and daughter Charlotte Nickinson) as "lesser known guest stars" in the section on the "Providence Museum Company", organized in 1848 in Rhode Island "Better known performers" included Junius Brutus Booth  (and son Edwin) and Lola Montez).  However EJ Phillips was noted as a valued member of two outstanding stock companies of her day -- the Union Square Theatre Stock Company and Madison Square Theatre Stock Company, both organized and managed by AM Palmer

While EJ Phillips may have been a minor actress, she acted in distinguished company, in some of the most popular plays of her day, and seems to have "come into her own as a mature character actress" according to theatre historian Mary Shortt. I don't think any of her contemporaries escaped the Victorian melodramas, which now seem dated, but were enormously popular at the time.

I've been wanting to research and write a biography, or edit someone's letters for a long time and after publishing Federal Information Sources in Health and Medicine (Greenwood Press, 1988) I was also eager to take on a topic which did not cause eyes to glaze over when I mentioned the subject matter.  The more I work with the material, the more convinced I am that it is publishable in some form. This is very much a work in progress. I welcome comments, criticisms (really!) and am grateful to my sister Beth Nelson who made it possible for me to get this on the web in Jan 2003.

Details of EJ Phillip's career before 1883 are still emerging from clues in the letters, various books, contemporary newspapers, and possibly from as yet unexplored archives in New York, Princeton and Philadelphia.  Web publication has already yielded a number of interesting insights and information from e-mail correspondents, and as I plan a transcontinental train trip retracing her journeys from Chicago to San Francisco-Portland-Seattle-Vancouver and Los Angeles I am learning even more. 

Linda and Bob Osborne have been valued colleagues throughout this project, dating from the days when Linda and I worked together at the Franklin Mint, as picture researchers and fact checkers in a library with complete runs of American Heritage, the National Geographic and Look and Life magazines.  I learned more American history in one year than at any point until I started working on this project.  Sara Day, who heard about this project in 1992 when I had just discovered the letters and Linda, Sara and I had tea at the Willard Hotel in Washington DC has also been a valued collaborator as we've shared observations on 19th century history projects.

The Osbornes and I and then lived in England for several years and traveled on weekends.  Bob Osborne uncovered the Dr. Nagle- Jacob Riis connection in the late 1990s. Linda and Sara Day's work in the Publications Dept of the Library of Congress (and Sara Day's magnificent book on American Women: A Library of Congress Guide) have all been useful and inspiring.  Linda, Sara and I had tea at the Willard Hotel in Jan. 1992 as I was returning to Boston from Tennessee, the trip where I first read a few of these letters.  MG, Bob and Linda Osborne in John Nickinson's New York March 2005  I have learned much about the challenges -- and delights of  researching and editing letters and biographies 

My primary experience with web publication has been with my Biopharmaceutical glossaries & taxonomies http://www.genomicglossaries.com, on the web since 2000. The 19th century "Gilded Age" provides an illuminating and instructive perspective on the 21st century and my work in biotechnology as I read the newspapers of the 1880's and 1890's (much thinner than now, but often with two editions per day).  Comparing medicine today with that of the 19th century is also enlightening and humbling.   Realizing how important good public water supplies were to improving public health (even before the advent of antibiotics) is important to remember these days in light of current debates about healthcare financing.   

Working with Mother (1928-2000) on the transcriptions was a wonderful experience. The work bogged down several times (computer mishaps and life distractions accounted for several years' inactivity) and snowstorms in New England have been occasions of wonderful productivity for me. Much of our collaboration was long distance, though we spent a terrific weekend in July 1996 editing and merging computer files, going to morning prayer at Boston's Trinity Church and touring Longfellow's house in Cambridge, truly following in EJP's footsteps. Sojourns on Lake Messalonskee in Maine and in Florida have also been productive.

I want to thank my father, Donald Glen Kuhl for his technical counsel in acquiring Mother's laptop that got this project started, and trouble-shooting when computer problems arose. I'm also grateful to my sister Elizabeth Nelson who tactfully asked if I needed help "organizing my hard disk" when that was exactly what I needed in the 1990's. She also provided both advice and moral support when I needed to upgrade my aged computer. Her expertise and webspace make this latest web publication possible.  I'm also very grateful for the advice and counsel of her neighbors Bob and Tate Conlon, who have offered valuable counsel on computers, scanning images and page layout and organization.  

What you see on this website has been edited, but (more or less, after an unfortunate computer accident) complete transcripts also exist. We are still putting together pieces of the puzzle. I am grateful for my sister storyteller Marjorie Turner Hollman's advice upon seeing the first big printout to "ruthlessly edit" if I wanted anyone but the most devoted to read it and for her help in editing and revising the latest edition.  We are trying to figure out how best to make an audio recording of her reading some of the letters (and ultimately a storytelling performance based on them).

I have excised most acknowledgements of previous letters, routine weather observations, repetitions, and inquiries as to health and general regards to all family and friends, as well as some news of people who are unidentifiable or whose activities were unremarkable. The major difference is that the text is more direct (somewhat more egocentric) and I think more coherent, shorn of its Victorian boilerplate. (I have added commas and paragraphing to help readability.)  The shift to web publication has prompted some useful reorganization.  

I count myself lucky to have grown up with so many fine examples of "terrific old ladies", starting of course with my maternal grandmother the Poor Old Lady. What I hadn't realized was that the prototype went back so far. I never expected to know a relative so well who died 46 years before I was born. As I write this at my desk I see her crystal heart-shaped box with a silver lid, and am grateful for the insights she has given me into life, aging, work, and family.

Mary Glen Kuhl Chitty mgchitty@gmail.com   Boston, Massachusetts    

Mother with her laptop (wearing a John A Merritt Pensacola Beachnuts T-shirt)   


 

Last revised June 8 2011

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