The art of writing a letter is quickly fading into obscurity, but in the late 19th century, it was the predominant form of communication. The museum collection contains thousands of letters written to the Glessners, including many written to each other during times of separation. In this article, we will examine one of the most fascinating – a letter written by John Glessner to his children George and Fanny in 1881.
What sets this letter apart from others in the collection is John Glessner’s clever use of illustrations to depict words or phrases. In some cases the substitution is literal – a picture of a bottle of medicine in place of the actual word. But often, the illustration is more creative – a picture of a lion representing the words “lie in.” Other illustrations depict what Glessner is writing about – a picture of a boy feeding a duck – as he imagines what his children are doing in his absence.
The letter sent to Glessner’s children in August 1881 is 36 pages long and is set within a leather bound journal stamped “A LETTER TO GEORGE AND FANNY.” on the cover. It clearly took up a full Sunday afternoon to create the contents including selecting and pasting all of the illustrations from newspapers and periodicals. A few illustrations are hand drawn, and two photographs of family members are included as well.
John Glessner penned the letter to George (age 9) and Fanny (age 3) shortly after they left to spend the summer at the Twin Mountain House in New Hampshire with their mother and two female servants, Katy and Lizzie. (Their own summer home, The Rocks, was not built until 1883).
The letter begins “My dear children” and continues:
“I have intended writing you a letter but so many people have called to see me about so many things in the evenings and on Sundays that I couldn’t write before, and now I send my letter in a book.
“When I come home there is no little boy and no little girl to meet me, and I miss you very much; but I think of you both very often – first of George and then of fanny, and then of Fanny and then of George, and cannot tell which one I love the best, and so conclude I love you both the best.
“After you have read this far you must do what this boy is trying to do – "
(referring to a hand drawn illustration of a boy doing a hand stand).
He then goes on to recount their departure and the reason for their trip:
“First I’ll show you how you looked to me when I last saw you. And then how I looked as I walked away from the station. The reason why I look so much the largest is because I was so near and you were so far away.
“Why did I send you from home when I couldn’t go too?
“THE WISE ENJOY GOOD HEALTH – That is why!
“And that you might not be compelled to take MEDICINE.”
Health and medicine are references to George’s severe allergies and the relief he experienced when spending time in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
A few pages later, Glessner pondered what his children might be doing:
“I thought of you both fishing and I wondered what else you would do.
“Perhaps – George might sail a boat, perhaps Fanny might scrape up acquaintance with somebody’s nice little dog.”
A bit later on, Glessner writes:
“And when I go to bed I sometimes dream of you. And one night I dreamed that I saw you leaving Boston for the Twin Mountain House; and if you will turn over the page you will see . . .
“How you looked. First was Mother at the head of the procession, and George holding on to her, and Fanny holding on to George, and Katy holding on to Fanny, and Lizzie holding on to Katy, and a whole string of bundles and baskets and band-boxes and satchels and trunks holding on to Lizzie.
“Bear in mind this was only a dream, but perhaps you really did look a good deal like that picture.”
A reminder to be well-behaved follows:
“You see I think of you in every way, but love most to think of George as a good big boy who is kind to and takes good care of his little sister, and of Fanny as a sweet, well-behaved little girl, and of both as loving Mother and doing as she says, and of all of you eager to see me, and then I imagine you look just like this.
“I can’t make a picture of Mother alone; if I could she should be at a table, writing to me.
“She must lie in (lion) the bed and rest all she can, and you must not disturb her, for she must get strong and well, too.”
He spends a good deal of time describing what he is observing at their Chicago home:
“Georgie’s farm or at least some of its products.
“And some of our flowers, but these are not as pretty as ours. There were eight of these large lilies on one stalk at one time. The pansies are beautiful. And nearly every evening five or six humming-bird moths come to the phlox bed.”
Glessner was well aware of his son’s interest in fire engines, so included the following:
“Last night I heard a fire alarm and began counting as I knew George would do, and pretty soon I heard a steam fire engine go by on Randolph street, and thought if George were here wouldn’t he run to look at this!
He also includes illustrations of the servants left at home:
“You like to think of your friends at home I know.
“Here’s Alice when she sets the table (not often).
“And here’s Mary when she clears it off.
“You must look very closely or you’ll not be able to distinguish one from the other.”
(The two illustrations are identical).
Glessner remembered to include illustrations of the pets and animals at home as well:
“Here are some of your friends whom you will be glad to see when you come home – Tom, Ned, Jim, Glen.”
The letter draws to a close with a long story about their cat, Mrs. Kitty, and later a bit about their horses Glen and Jim. In closing, Glessner writes:
“Now my dear George and Fanny I hope you will like my letter. It has given me so much pleasure to write it this Sunday afternoon that I am sure you will enjoy reading and looking at it. And so after sending many kisses to each of you, I put my picture last of all, and am with great love, Your Father, J. J. Glessner. Chicago, Sunday Aug. 14, 1881.”
The letter is a charming relic of an era when the written word was cherished as the main mode of communication. Although written 135 years ago, it still clearly conveys the love a father had for his children, and the delight it must have given them upon receipt.