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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Monday, March 30, 2009

“May woud be much plasenter time than April”

In March of 1767, George Washington went to Williamsburg for a legislative session. He wrote back to Mount Vernon that he was going to be there longer than he’d expected, or perhaps that he’d visit the Dismal Swamp before returning.

On 30 March, Martha Washington wrote back, in a postscript to a letter by plantation manager Lund Washington:

My Dearest

It was with very great pleasure I see in your letter that you got safely down. We are all very well at this time but it still is rainney and wett. I am sorry you will not be at home soon as I expected you. I had reather my sister woud not come up so soon as May woud be much plasenter time than April. We wrote you last post as I have nothing new to tell you I must conclude myself

Your most Affectionate
Martha Washington
Fascinating stuff, huh? You might well wonder why Boston 1775 is devoting a whole entry to this letter. That’s because this is the only signed letter from Martha Washington to George that’s known to have survived. (There’s also an unsigned note, now owned by the Virginia Historical Society.)

In 1994, when Joseph E. Fields published a volume of Martha Washington’s papers, he knew the text of this letter but didn’t know where it was. In 2003 the document resurfaced at a Christie’s auction, and Mount Vernon bought it. The image above comes from a report in Antiques and the Arts.


Robert S. Paul said...

When did English become standardized? When did we stop capitalizing every noun?

J. L. Bell said...

Our language is constantly being standardized in little ways. The distance between us and the late 1700s means there are a lot of little ways to add up, making their writing seem more foreign.

One factor was the spread of dictionaries and spelling books in the late 1700s and early 1800s, which meant that spelling a word the standard way became more important.

Initial capital letters for nouns (and italics for proper nouns) faded around 1800—a little earlier in British printing.

It took several more decades before we started putting colons and semicolons immediately after words, instead of inserting a space in front of them. Meanwhile, British and American (and Canadian) styles have diverged on matters of spelling and punctuation.