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 daughter of Boston newspaperman Nathan Hale (a nephew of the famous Revolutionary War hero from Connecticut) and Sarah Preston Everett, an editor and writer.

Born into a literary family, it was natural enough that she should take to writing. Her famous siblings included Unitarian Minister Edward Everett Hale, politician Charles Hale, and artist and author Susan Hale.

Illustration from the Peterkin Papers

Illustration from the Peterkin Papers

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

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, and 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. Peterkins 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.

The wise Lady from Philadelphia was based on her friend Susan Lyman Lesley.

The over-educated son Agamemnon, who had attended five colleges, was a reflection of Edward Everett, the child prodigy who entered Harvard College at 13 and went on to become 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.

In one story, Solomon John wears a cole hod as a helmet in an attempt to imitate Christopher Columbus. In another, the family goes to great length to construct a library – the centerpiece of which is to be Solomon John’s first book. In the end, however, Solomon John concludes he hasn’t got anything to say. Charles, a successful politician and statesman, had a similar experience when 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, being republished in the 1960s for a new generation of readers.

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