Arts and Leisure

The Peterkin Papers – (Not So) Shocking Secrets of the Hale Family

In the Peterkin Papers, Lucretia Hale turned taking jibes at the haplessness of over-educated, citified folk into an art form.

Hale was a prolific author of both short stories and novels. She was the daughter of Boston newspaperman Nathan Hale (a nephew of the famous Revolutionary War hero from Connecticut) and Sarah Preston Everett, an editor and writer.

Edward Everett Hale

Born into a literary family, she naturally turned to writing. Her famous siblings included Unitarian Minister Edward Everett Hale, politician Charles Hale and artist and author Susan Hale.

The Peterkin Papers

Lucretia Hale would write devotionals, novels and practical works. But her children’s books – The Peterkin Papers and The Last of the Peterkins (published in 1880 and 1886) won her lasting fame as an author. The goofy Peterkins, a good-hearted, well-to-do Boston family, had amusing adventures that highlighted their uncommon lack of common sense.

lucretia-hale

To children growing up in the late 1800s, the Peterkins were like family. There was Mr. and Mrs. Peterkin, and the children: Agamemnon, Solomon John, Elizabeth Eliza and the three little boys.

Lucretia Hale fashioned the stories from her own experiences, and filled them with playful jibes at her siblings. Each dilemma was often set straight by a character known as the Lady from Philadelphia.

When mother Peterkin accidentally puts salt in her coffee instead of sugar, the Peterkins jump through all sorts of hoops to try to set it straight, including calling a chemist and an herbalist. It is only the Lady from Philadelphia who comes up with the simple solution of making a new cup. Likewise, she explained to Mr. Peterkin that his milk wasn’t sour because a new breed of cows produced sour milk, but rather because the family was storing the milk by the fireplace.

Hale based the wise Lady from Philadelphia on her friend Susan Lyman Lesley.

Illustration from the Peterkin Papers

Illustration from the Peterkin Papers

The over-educated son Agamemnon, who had attended five colleges, parodied Edward Everett, the child prodigy. He entered Harvard College at 13 and then went on to a career as a successful author and chaplain of the U.S. Senate. In most stories, Agamemnon can be found studying books looking for complicated and improbable answers to simple problems.

Solomon John

In one story, Solomon John wears a coal hod as a helmet in an attempt to imitate Christopher Columbus. Another story has the family going to great length to construct a library – with Solomon John’s first book as the centerpiece. In the end, however, Solomon John concludes he hasn’t got anything to say. Charles, a successful politician and statesman, had a similar experience. He launched a literary journal, only to fold it up after its second issue.

Elizabeth Eliza, meanwhile, shared traits of the author herself. Besides providing an inside joke or two for the Hales, the Peterkin Papers were widely read. A new generation of readers then enjoyed the Peterkin Papers after their reissue in the 1960s.

This story was updated in 2020.

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