By Diane DeBlois
Two 1884 letters from a Utica, New York traveling salesman to a "Miss Lola" are evidence of epistolary "dating" via some sort of 'personals' advertising.
Apparently, Lola of Cooperstown, New York, had responded to a notice that indicated he was a single young man living at 323 Genesee St. And her education has him somewhat intimidated: "your good grammar in your letter was so far ahead of any other letter I received." He responds to one of her questions: "I am not a German, I am and I am proud of it, an American born of English parents, I all ways wished to speak and write in German; but if my sister could take my place she could for she knows more in one week than I do in one year, as she is a graduate of Vassar."
He is reluctant to give her his name, and signs with "Marie Stuart" - the brand of face powder he sells (an 1885 advertisement declared it to be free of mineral tint). He is coy, too, about sending a photograph of himself, afraid that Lola might show it to others and "some of your lady friend may have the laugh on me and that I could not stand." He asks, though, for her photograph, promising to show it to no one, and to return one of himself.
He tries to give some good, if dramatic, account of himself: "I am poor but try to be honest...you wished to get some dude on a string and in place you have got a hard working young man who could tell you as much about Chicago, as Cooperstown or in fact any 26 states in the Union, in fact I am a drummer, but remember give me a drummer on honor than the word of any other class of men on earth, let a lady place herself under the care of one of them in the cars or any where after being introduced by a friend and he would lose his life in her cause."
Lola did send her photo and, in a second letter, the drummer pretends that it couldn't be her, it must be Margaret Mather (the famous Shakespearean actress who was touring in 1884 as Juliet). He begins the letter with a heavy-handed pun: "Dear Wife" - crossed out with the explanation that her salutation to him of "Dear Marie" meant spouse in French. He continues the self-deprecation in saying that she must be "too good for a drummer like my humble self to be fast friends." But he puts off the exchange of a photograph one more time, asking that she corroborate that the one she sent is, indeed, herself and not the actress - holding out the carrot of his true name: W.R.B. Hackett, and asking that she address him c/o Wm. Coulson, Druggist, Buffalo, N.Y.
I was able to find out some back-story. William R. B. Hackett was, at this time, a thirty-one year old living at home with his parents (which is perhaps why he wished to continue the correspondence through Coulson's drugstore). In the 1880 census his profession was listed as druggist. He probably sold a whole line of products and visited drugstores throughout upstate New York perhaps twice a year (he wrote in January that the last time he had been in Cooperstown was to Shumway's drugstore about July 25th).
The two letters were found among the files of the First National Bank of Cooperstown. It is possible that they were mixed in with the bank's business by the person who rescued the files. And it is also possible that Lola was a bank employee, and just slipped the letters into the 1884 correspondence file when it was docketed and put into deep storage. I find it quite likely that William's silliness put her off sufficiently to stop the correspondence.
Although the joking, and the self-conscious writing on fancy stationery, would not seem foreign to anyone in the throes of today's internet dating.
(This article first appeared in the newsletter of The Manuscript Society.)
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