Tag Archives: courtship

Cupidistic Affairs

Sir, the letter began:

The receipt of your letter occasioned me some surprise, especially as it treated on a subject to which I had not yet devoted my thoughts; neither did I imagine, from the general tenor of your conduct towards me, that you entertained the sentiment you have thus avowed.

Uh oh.  This foretold heartbreak for the recipient, who had obviously made the decision, sometime early in 1857, to declare his love for 22-year old Marie McCutchen of Logan County, Kentucky.  Her brief but masterfully composed rejection, however, let him down easy in the gentlest of terms:

Trusting you will suffer your natural and good sense to conquer a passion which can never need a due return from me.  I return to you my very grateful thanks for the honor you have done me, and at the same time assuring you that you will ever possess my faithful friendship.

Among the many courtship letters in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections are those chronicling relationships gone wrong, or, like Marie’s, nipped in the bud (perhaps wisely, in her case: her suitor was twenty years older and had already been married twice).  It’s not known if he replied to Marie, but some spurned lovers find that a letter back is the best forum in which to plead their case.  In 1918, a young WKU coed received a reply to what her (now) ex termed her “confidence jarring” break-up letter.  “We shall always remain friends,” he declared, giving himself good grades for his manly conduct.  While he wished her luck in her “Cupidistic affairs,” he laid on a little bit of a guilt trip, hoping that she wouldn’t regret her decision and vowing to fight hard for the hand of the next “Fair Lady” who came along.  Though gainfully employed, he also warned that he would likely be off to serve in World War I soon and . . . please, could she at least send a photograph? 

Similar face-saving appeared in the letter of a young Woodburn man to his sweetheart only a year later.  “I have got some good news for you I am going to leave Ky in September,” he announced.  Another suitor had intruded upon their two-year relationship, leading him to realize “that you don’t care anything about me.”  He admitted, nevertheless, that “I never expect to meet another girl that I could love like I love you.”  In 1882, Robert C. “Coley” Duncan had confronted the same dilemma when he wrote to Nellie Gates of Calhoun, Kentucky.  “You love someone more than you do me I feel sure of it and it would certainly be best for both of us to cancel our engagement.”  Robert, in fact, married someone else only a year later, while Nellie’s rather cryptic reaction was to save his letter – in eight torn-up pieces. 

If some courtships start as well as end with a letter, perhaps no finer specimen can be found in our collections than one lengthy, unsigned, undated appeal, perhaps drafted and then carefully rewritten – or hidden away by an author who lost his nerve.  Dear Miss, it began.  For fear that a conversation with her would arouse gossip, he had resolved to take this approach:

Feeling my situation to be a forlorn lonesome & unhappy one I have seriously considered the propriety of writing myself to some tender hearted female calculated to soothe my sorrows and to enjoy with me the pleasures this uncertain world is able to afford. . . .

And in considering where I could find one in whom I could have that confidence in their good sense and propriety of conduct necessary to a happy Union my mind seems involuntarily to center on you. . . . And I must acknowledge to you that I have existing within my breast feelings of a very tender and inexpressible kind for you that I do not feel for any other person. . . .

And now I would candidly ask you whether you could consent to enter into a matrimonial connexion and whether your affections are disengaged. . . . If you would condescend to answer me by letter it would meet my warmest approbation. . . .  let your answer be plain & candid if you could subscribe the following it is all that is necessary: “I will share your sorrows and you shall share my Joys.”

Let’s hope he got his answer.

Click on the links to access finding aids for these collections.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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“A rich morsel to roll under their tongues”

Like many young couples in the 19th century, they courted through their letters.  After they met early in 1880, Nellie Gates, 24, of Calhoun, Kentucky and Robert Coleman “Coley” Duncan, 26, began a correspondence.  Their face-to-face time was limited, as Coley’s travels selling for a wholesale grocer regularly took him to communities along the Green and Barren rivers between Calhoun and Bowling Green.

Coley’s letters covered the usual topics: gossip about their mutual friends, his reading, his travel accommodations, and plans for their next meeting.  He also expressed some envy of potential rivals for Nellie’s affection, and urged her to ignore warnings from old flames about his suitability as a correspondent.  Nellie’s replies must have been encouraging, for by late 1880 he had declared his love and by early 1881 they were engaged.

The couple tried to keep their plans to themselves, but when Coley boarded the Evansville and Green River packet steamboat to make his sales rounds, he found himself warding off the curiosity of one particular onlooker: the captain, Elmore Bewley, who knew not only Coley but many of the region’s young people through their leisure travel on his craft.  “Capt B. told me as I came up the river,” he wrote Nellie, “that he had seen you that day and went on with the usual compliments he pays you whenever he speaks of you to me.”  A few months later, Coley expressed his annoyance to Nellie after Bewley asked him if their engagement “was not satisfactorily settled. . . . He looked at me like he knew all about it.”  When Coley insisted that Nellie had given him the brush-off, Bewley “didn’t believe it and was going to ask you about it.”

But pointed questioning wasn’t his only device.  Bewley’s sleuthing skills were enhanced by the fact that his boat also carried the area mail.  Coley was reluctant to post too many letters on board “because those steamboat men are such accomplished talkers.  They all see the letters – know just who corresponds and make that the topic for their remarks to the public.”  Visiting the boat’s mail room, Coley himself had spotted a letter addressed to one of his friends “in a lady’s handwriting.”  As far as his own correspondence, he declared that if he were to mail a letter to Nellie “two Saturdays in succession,” he would be handing the boatmen “a rich morsel to roll under their tongues.”

Ultimately, the stress of controlling public perceptions of their relationship, combined with a host of other insecurities and misunderstandings, were too much for Coley, and he broke it off with Nellie a little more than a year later.  How Captain Bewley took the news is unknown, but it’s possible he figured out – even before the principals did – that the affair had “sunk.”

Robert Coleman Duncan’s letters to Nellie Gates are part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid.  For more courtship letters, search TopScholar and KenCat.

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Love’s Telegraph

William H. Gough’s diary entry

In the pocket notebook of William Henry Gough (1826-1910) were many of the things that occupied the mind of a young man: money matters, his lessons at Mt. Merino Seminary in Breckinridge County, Kentucky, and later his duties as a surveyor and sheriff of Meade County.  But given its intricacies, he also devoted two pages to the workings of “Love’s Telegraph,” the rules regarding transmission of one’s intentions in matters of courtship and romance.  Most valuable was the way one could avoid any need to explain oneself in words–those awkward stammerings, repeated entreaties, apologies, and other messy emotional declarations that go with the business of finding (or avoiding) a potential mate.  Here was the tutorial:  

If a gentleman wants a wife he wears a ring on the first finger of the left hand, if he be engaged he wears it on the second finger, if married on the third and on the fourth if he never intends to be married.

When a lady is not engaged she wears a hoop or diamond on her first finger; if engaged on her second, if married on the third and on the fourth if she intends to die a maid.

When a gentleman presents a fan a flower or a trinket to a lady with the left hand on his part and overtures of regard should she receive it with the left hand it is considered as an acceptance of his esteem but if with the right it is considered as a refusal of the offer.

Thus by a few simple tokens explained by rule the passions of love are expressed and through the medium of the Telegraph the most timid and diffident man may without difficulty communicate his sentiments of regard for a lady and in case his offer should be refused avoid expressing the mortification of explicit refusal.

William H. Gough’s notebook is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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“In Reply to Your Ad”

So many replies.....

So many replies…..

In the internet age, those looking for matrimony have many venues in which to market their charms, but at the turn of the 20th century, answering a personal ad in a newspaper or magazine was the principal way to cast a wide net into the sea of eligible bachelors and spinsters.

In January 1907, 21-year-old Lillie Rasdall of Bowling Green, Kentucky replied to 28-year-old Seldon Mantz’s ad for a suitable companion to share his home in Webster, Iowa.  Predictably, her letter touched on those traits that might interest her correspondent.  “I am very tall weight 125 have Blue eyes fair complexion and dark hair,” she wrote. She had moved from the country to Bowling Green three years previously, but hinted that city life had not spoiled her.  “I am a Kentucky girl can do [any] kind of house work.”

A few years later, 52-year-old “John” replied from his Missouri home to Lucy Boucher of Settle, Kentucky.  After reading her ad, he had concluded that “you are all I should be looking for.”  Like Lillie Rasdall, he inventoried the qualities he thought might interest his 50-something correspondent.  A five-foot-ten-inch widower with salt-and-pepper hair, no children, a moderate lover of tobacco but not of strong drink, he described his pleasant home, which needed only “a good loving wife” to complete it.  He did “not want a cent of the money my future wife shall have” but at the same time seemed interested in an honest accounting of what he would forgo: “I do not want one that will misrepresent anything.”

In each case, the letter-writers then broached the next step in the encounter: the exchange of photographs.  You go first, they both seemed to say, then I will send you mine.  Perhaps there was follow-up, but these exchanges did not succeed in lighting the flame of matrimony.  Lillie, sadly, died the following year, Seldon was still a bachelor at 61, and Lucy remained single all her life.

These letters are part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click on the links to access finding aids.  For more courtship letters from generations of Kentuckians, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Leap Year 2016

WKU Library Special Collections often commemorates leap year with an exhibit. This year, our efforts to educate our viewers about the legend of the 5th century agreement between St. Brigid and St. Patrick that allowed women the right to propose for 366 days every four years and subsequent beliefs about laws, have broadened.
Sue Lynn McDaniel published an article “Leap Year: Chance, Chase or Curse?” in the January 2016 issue of The Ephemera Journal. See http://works.bepress.com/sue_lynn_mcdaniel/ Last week, she was the “Talk of the Town” in our local Bowling Green Daily News for her research on leap year and has curated an exhibit that closes March 31st in Library Special Collections entitled: “Time to Leap!” displays a portion of our collection.

A case exhibit provides a hint of all the sources now in the Selected Works Gallery.

A case exhibit provides a hint of all the sources now in the Selected Works Gallery.

But most  exciting  for  us this  year is  our  new opportunity to go beyond our doors by opening  the Library Special Collections’ Worth A Thousand Words gallery “Leap Year Postcards and  Ephemera.”  This  site functions as searchable permanent sources for  users not  necessarily OPAC friendly. Enjoying exhibit cases are limited by schedules and  the viewers’ ability to travel to the destination.   Nancy Richey will continue to add  all our postcards to KenCat, while Sue Lynn McDaniel adds ephemera to this online catalog, but  we anticipate wider usage and visibility of our primary sources through this  TopScholar  gateway.  Please  explore the Leap Year Postcards and  Ephemera, via http://digitalcommons.wku.edu/ly_pe/  Once you have reviewed the materials, come hear Sue Lynn McDaniel’s presentation:  “Time to Leap” on Leap Day, February 29, 2016 at 4 p.m. in the Western Room of  the Kentucky Building.  For students, this  is  a swipeable event.



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