"Why do you not commence a circular & send it on to me. I have been wanting one and it is now past the middle of the month - do begin one immediately."
- Mary Beecher, in a letter to her sister Isabella in 1841
Long before the invention of the telephone, 19th-century Americans depended on letters to stay in touch. When Harriet Beecher and several other members of her prominent family emigrated to Ohio from Connecticut in the1830s, they kept in touch through a series of "circular" or "round-robin" letters forwarded from one sibling to the next.
Written on oversized sheets of paper, the circular letters typically traveled from east to west and west to east, with each sibling adding one or two paragraphs and sending the entire letter on to the next, until the letter had circulated among everyone.
Eagerly awaited, the letters provided literary sustenance to the close-knit family of the famous minister Lyman Beecher, known as "father to more brains than anyone in America" because of the accomplishments of his 11 children, who helped shape the culture of the emerging nation.
Serious, witty, loving, chastising, the circular letters provide insight into the family that shaped the writer Harriet Beecher Stowe - whose book "Uncle Tom's Cabin," published in 1851, challenged and changed the nation's blase acceptance of slavery.
The Rev. Beecher, who emigrated to Ohio with Harriet and several of her siblings, also contributed to the family letters, which on occasion had to be rescued from the pile of paperwork on his desk. Harriet reported one such close call in a circular sent to her siblings - she had rescued the letter from Lyman Beecher's desk, where it was "in danger of sinking to oblivion in the vortex of father's sermons."
Sickness, new babies, new books, slavery, abolition - all were fodder for the letters, 18 of which are preserved at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, where one is on display in the visitor's center.
Written in quill pen dipped in ink, the penmanship of family members changes from flowing elegance to illegible scrawls. The Beecher family's verbosity can be seen in the way every inch of each letter is covered. For this family, reaching the end of a page did not mean a letter had to end - they often continued by writing crossways over earlier entries, a 19th-century technique to save stationery that makes portions of the letters almost impossible to read today.
"George I hear you have bot [sic] a $100 horse - how could you be so extravagant?" William Beecher ribbed his younger brother in one letter. In the same letter, Harriet wrote a wry passage about her impending marriage to Calvin Stowe - and the apparent confusion in Cincinnati over which Beecher sister Stowe was actually planning to wed, Harriet or older sister Catharine." I suppose you have all heard that Kate and I have been pitted against each other in the newspapers as to who should have Mr Stowe to husband - but I desire to do all people to wit that he married me. Whether he married her too or not is no concern of mine - he doesn't seem to remember whether he did or not."
Catharine followed in the same manner with news that she was "flourishing in more respects that one - for besides flourishing with a new book and flourishing with Harriet's husband, I am flourishing in health and spirits."
There was also serious news in that letter - smallpox was ravaging the tiny town of Putnam, Ohio, where William Beecher and his wife, Katherine, struggled with constant illness. From there, the letter made its way eastward, eventually arriving in Hartford, at the home of Mary Beecher Perkins, who would read it aloud to her family, then start a new letter on a fresh sheet of paper and send it westward again.
In another circular, Harriet described her newborn twins, writing that "one is fat - the other poor one pretty well the other feeble & sickly," before hastily signing off with the words "one of my babes has awakened and crieth there I must go." These letters also tackled the issues of the day. Abolition was the topic of a circular letter started in 1838 by Isabella, who was then living in Jacksonville, Ill.: "Dear sister Catherine - you must become an abolitionist, or you will be left in the background." (Different family members often spelled Catharine's name differently.)
Edward, also living in Jacksonville, was next: "I think nothing but abolitionism will save the country & wish it had begun twenty years ago."
Catharine, upon receiving the letter in Walnut Hills, Ohio, added her own views: "This seems to be sort of an Abolition document & so I take up my parable & say I cannot judge the wisdom of the conduct of our brother above because I do not know enough about it - but I have yet to want for light before I can see that Abolitionism & all that help it along are not doing more harm than good - extending the prospect of a speedy ending of it."
The letters were not without their critics, on the male side of the family especially, as Isabella good-naturedly noted in a letter dated before 1840:
"William you deserve to be castigated for speaking against these circulars. If it were not for your good wife we would crop you out of the line but we could not dispense with her witty productions, we must put up with your "cold and heartless" remarks about these circulars. Why man, you might have 40 children & bury them all & we be none the wiser were it not for these big sheets which we lately have kept up with so much spirit."