J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

“My Valentine Was an Old Country Plow-Joger”

On 14 Feb 1772, Boston schoolgirl Anna Green Winslow wrote this report in her daily letter to her mother:

Valentine day. — My cousin Sally reeled off a 10 knot skane of yarn today. My valentine was an old country plow-joger. The yarn was of my spinning. Aunt says it will do for filling. Aunt also says niece is a whimsical child.
There are three themes twisted together here. One is Valentine’s Day. The antiquarian and author who published Winslow’s letters, Alice Morse Earle, explained:
In England at that date, and for a century previous, the first person of the opposite sex seen in the morning was the observer’s valentine. We find Madam Pepys lying in bed for a long time one St. Valentine’s morning with eyes tightly closed, lest she see one of the painters who was gilding her new mantelpiece, and be forced to have him for her valentine.
So the first man Anna saw was an old farmer.

The second theme is Anna and her cousin’s spinning, which had taken on a political dimension as Boston’s Whigs urged people to increase local production instead of importing goods from Britain. Girls of Sally and Anna’s age, even upper-class ones, were encouraged to learn how to spin for the cause.

The third theme is the wit of the women in this family: Anna’s aunt, Elizabeth Storer; Anna’s mother; and Anna herself. She could appreciate a good line even at her own expense. Thus, all three women could chuckle over what it meant for Anna’s beginner-level yarn to be good for “filling”—it was too lumpy or thick to work as anything else. And Anna didn’t seem to mind telling her mother that Aunt Storer had said she was “whimsical.”

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