Hello again! The latest draft of my novel has gone through beta readers, and is back in the hands of my agent. Finally! Editing always takes longer than planned. With that done, I can at long last, dive into the Letters to Charlie project.
Initially I’d planned to post as I read, but then I fell down the rabbit hole of research trying to learn more about the people. Some of what I found is surprising. More on that in a bit.
When I first saw the letters posted on Instagram, I—like many—found them intriguing but didn’t think to buy, until my oh-so-wise husband mentioned their usefulness as a writer of historical fiction. What a great resource for “hearing” voices through time! Sure am glad I married that guy. He’s pretty smart.
The main thing I’ve learned from reading the letters is that regardless of era, little has changed when it comes to young love–other than the means used to communicate: Snapchat and texting–versus–letters.
In my research, I found evidence of living family members, so I’ll not reveal Charlie’s last name or use his actual photo. Instead, I’ll illustrate the letters with period correct photos I’ve been gathering.
So who is Charlie?
Charlie was born in 1892, in a small Vermont town. The letters begin in 1907, when Charlie is fifteen. At this point, Charlie is still a student at the local Academy. He must have been a good student because in 1905, he was valedictorian of his grammar school graduating class.
We’ll use this photo to illustrate young Charlie.
The bulk of the early letters come from Dora, a woman from New Hampshire. Cars were rare and few, so they would have used horse and buggy or train to see one another.
Dora sometimes signs the letters with just her first name, sometimes with her initials DMP, but there is no mention of her last name or a return address, which made searching for her difficult. I refused to be deterred, though. In one of the letters, Dora makes mention of a man with an unusual first name, so I thought what the heck, let’s enter that name and town into newspaper archives, and see what I get, figuring nothing would come up. But I struck gold. The man was her brother, which led me to her identity.
Dora was born in 1884. YEP. She was eight years older than Charlie, twenty-three to Charlie’s fifteen when the letters begin.
To be honest, the age revelation creeped me out and certainly changed my impression of the letters. It’s one thing to read communications between two smitten teens–with the insecurities, the drama, the pain of young love–but twenty-three and fifteen is a pretty broad age difference, especially since women mature so much faster than boys. Granted, times were different, but… I’ll let you be the judge.
We’ll use this photo to illustrate Dora.
THE CONNECTION BETWEEN DORA AND CHARLIE
The letters are postmarked from New Hampshire–sometimes from Lisbon where Dora lived, sometimes from Woodsville where she worked–and delivered to Bradford Vermont. There is often mention of “the office” which seems to be in Woodsville N.H., and frequent mentions of Dr. and Mrs. Eastman and their five sons. The Eastman’s lived in Woodsville and may have run a boarding house as well since there is mention of boarders. While reading, I began to speculate that Dora might have been a telephone operator, perhaps boarding with the Eastmans. The Bell networks began in the New England states, and telephones are mentioned a lot in the letters. Plus, Dora uses the word operator in one letter, referring to someone who was filling in for Charlie. AND THEN…
I found this newspaper clipping from July 22, 1910:
So here’s what I’m thinking. Dora was an operator in Woodsville, and Charlie was an operator in Bradford, (and yes, there were male telephone operators), and that’s how they got to know each other–over the telephone lines. Therefore, they likely didn’t know each other’s ages in the beginning, so maybe less creepy?
Their correspondence begins in 1907 and goes through 1911.
Let’s set the era up, shall we?
- Theodore Roosevelt was President.
- Women could not vote.
- The number of millionaires had been growing exponentially.
- Albert Einstein, while working at the US Patent office, began to apply laws of gravity to the Theory of Relativity.
- Lots of cool people were born in 1907: Frida Kahlo, John Wayne, Katharine Hepburn, Laurence Olivier
- The fifteen-minute silent film BEN HUR hit the screens. Oh, and the term “movie” hadn’t been invented yet.
- The “Indian Territories” became our 46th state, Oklahoma.
- Ford introduced the Model R.
- Because telephones are prominent here, an interesting fact. By 1910, there were over 5 million phones in the Bell system. Crazy, right?? I truly expected that number to be lower.
1907 fell into “The Progressive Era” when every aspect of American life came under scrutiny. Things that happened during that time: Anti-trust laws, income tax, mass media with “muckrakers” working to expose corruption in politics and government, a belief that science and technology would solve the social ills of the world…
And now what you’ve come here for: The first LETTER.
The D.K. mentioned in this letter is Dr. and Mrs. Eastman’s oldest son, who was the same age as Dora, 23 (born in 1884, graduated from Cornell, and became a veterinarian). I’m not sure who Clara is. Perhaps D.K.’s girlfriend? Or a boarder? There is one mention in a newspaper clipping from 1906, noting a visit from Dora and Clara to their friend Carrie in Bradford. Carrie is mentioned in later letters. Carrie also worked for Bradford Telephone, same as Charlie.
Here we go…
I don’t know about you, but I’m awfully curious what she promised to tell him in this letter, but chickened out. Is she feeling awkward about their age gap? Trying to stuff her feelings away? And what about Charlie? Are his feelings reciprocal?
We’ll have to read on and find out.
Until next time…
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