Monday, September 27, 2010

Plus ca change . . .

Today's featured item from the Brooker Collection is a letter written in 1853 by J. Currier, Jr., of Warner, New Hampshire. He writes to a Mr. Hayward that due to a shortage of funds for the school district, "a female would answer their expectations as well as a male teacher; and the amount of school money being less than usual, to pay a male teacher what would be considered any thing of a fair compensation would so shorten the school as to make it advisable to employ a female teacher."

What is particularly appalling is the writer's matter-of-fact tone, though those of us who watch Mad Men have seen plenty of this sort of thing - and worse. Hat tip to my ever vigilant colleague Dorothea Rees for bringing this letter to light!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Insulting the Angels (with a hat tip to Alice Hoffman)

My colleague Dorothea Rees unearthed today's gem from our library's Brooker Collection of Early American Legal and Land Use Documents. Document #1824 is a brief handwritten agreement to arrange a substitute for a (presumably) wealthy man eager to avoid military service.

It states in full: "It is agreed between Amos W. Pike & Peyser Drake & Co. - that the latter furnish the said Pike a substitute either for the Army or Navy for the sum of eight hundred & seventy five dollars (875 D.) Portsmouth August 2 1864 Peyser Drake & Co. by W.M."

Until February 1824, it was perfectly legal to pay a $300 fee to the government to commute one's service, or to hire a substitute. After that time, legislation abolished commutation, so the only way to avoid service was to procure a substitute. The price for substitutes immediately skyrocketed - hence Mr. Pike's steep fee of $875. (This figure amounts to about $12,300 in today's dollars, using the Consumer Price Index.)

In her short story collection Blackbird House, one of my favorite books of all time, Alice Hoffman wrote movingly about this very issue in a story entitled "Insulting the Angels."