"Charlestown 6." The road sign came as a surprise, and stirred a memory. I had ventured into New Hampshire in order to pick up a child at camp; unexpectedly, the route now offered a collateral opportunity. There was time to spare, and I turned off the state highway and headed into town. The detour was only for about a hundred years.
Charlestown was familiar because of a scrapbook that came into my hands one afternoon three decades ago, when I worked a summer job at a sprawling flea market in Connecticut. Some boxes of books had just been taken off a truck—the residue of an estate sale. They contained mostly a collection of bound volumes of The Harvard Crimson from 1893 through 1912, which for some reason I needed to have. The owner of the flea market didn't really deal in books, and he sold the boxes to me for $12.
The most important volume in them was one I hadn't seen and discovered only later, buried at the bottom. It was a scrapbook, as big as an old Bible, compiled in 1898 by a man mourning the death during childbirth of his wife and newborn son. The scrapbook opens with an inscription in pencil on the flyleaf:
Words kindly meant, sweet in thought, softening the sorrow if they could not remove it.
They were and are gratefully appreciated by me.
And then, on page after page, carefully pasted down and sometimes annotated, come all the telegrams and letters and calling cards and newspaper clippings that accumulated in the days after his loss.
Charles H. Hoyt was the proprietor of the Madison Square Theater and a writer of farces—one of the most successful playwrights of Gilded Age New York. Hoyt's wife, Caroline Miskel Hoyt, was a rising young star of the stage, renowned for her beauty and charm. Charles Hoyt's name means nothing to most people now, but two songs from one of his shows, A Trip to Chinatown, are still widely familiar—"The Bowery" and "After the Ball." Charles and Caroline lived on Thirtieth Street, near Madison Avenue, and moved in the highest theatrical and artistic circles. When Caroline died, on October 2, 1898, at the age of twenty-five, the event was given prominent coverage in all the New York newspapers—the Times, the Daily News, the Journal, the Sun, the Tribune, the Herald, the Press, the World, the Telegram, the Telegraph: "END CAME SUDDENLY." "SHE WON GREAT SUCCESS IN 'A CONTENTED WOMAN.'" "WAS ONE OF MOST BEAUTIFUL OF YOUNGER ACTRESSES." "MADE A SENSATION IN 'A TEMPERANCE TOWN.'" "WAS SOON TO REAPPEAR IN A NEW HOYT FARCE." "HER CHILD ALSO DEAD."
Hoyt saved everything. He received scores of telegrams—beige rectangles of cheap paper bearing the classic logo and promotional apparatus of The Western Union Telegraph Company ("21,000 Offices in America. Cable Service to All the World"). Most of the messages are printed in blue or purple teletype; some of them are handwritten, displaying the varied but fluid penmanship of the clerks who rendered dots and dashes into English. Florenz Ziegfeld, the theatrical manager and producer of the Ziegfeld Follies, sent a telegram, and so did his wife, Anna Held, the diminutive, hourglass-waisted French comedienne who was famous for bathing in milk. (Her message was transcribed, "Receiver mes condoleances les plus sympatigues.") Sam Shubert, one third of the theatrical Shubert Brothers, who would die in a train wreck a few years later, sent a telegram, as did the theatrical manager Charles Frohman, who would go down with the Lusitania. There is a cable from James J. "Gentleman Jim" Corbett, who wrested the heavyweight boxing title from John L. Sullivan, and one from Charles G. Dawes, who would win a Nobel Peace Prize (for the economic reconstruction of Germany after World War I) and serve as Calvin Coolidge's Vice President.
"The Stationery Self" (May 2001)
There is no substitute for engraved writing paper. By Corby Kummer
When he had finished mounting the telegrams, Hoyt moved on to the personal letters, affixing one to a page, sometimes using the envelopes as pockets. He received condolences from the great Broadway impresario David Belasco and from the distinguished actress Minnie Maddern Fiske. ("My dear sir," she wrote, "It was not my good fortune to know your lovely wife but even so I have been sorely grieved at her death and wished deeply to tell you so.") The notepaper and envelopes are often thickly edged in black, a form of stationery once standard in the repertoire of bereavement. Personal calling cards were once standard too—left on a tray after a sympathy call, or sent along with flowers. Hoyt pasted them into the book when he was finished with the letters, several to a page. The cartoonist Thomas Nast left his card.