Hale, Lucretia Peabody 1820-1900

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Lucretia Peabody Hale


American novelist and author of short stories for children.

The following entry presents an overview of Hale's career through 2003.


A member of one of Boston's most influential and intellectual families of the nineteenth century, Hale become internationally recognized for her amusing and light-hearted stories of the mishaps and misadventures of the fictional Peterkin family. The Peterkin short stories were published individually in Our Young Folks and St. Nicholas, two children's periodicals of the era, and were collected and published in book form as The Peterkin Papers (1880) and The Last of the Peterkins, with Others of Their Kin (1886). Writing during the somber Victorian era, Hale is credited as being one of the first American authors to write silly and inconsequential stories solely for children's entertainment.


Hale was born on September 2, 1820, in Boston, Massachusetts. Her father, Nathan Hale, was the owner and publisher of the Boston Daily Advertiser and nephew and namesake of the Revolutionary War hero. Of the eleven children born to Nathan and his wife Sarah, seven survived, and the children were commonly divided into two groups: "We Four," the eldest, consisted of first-born Sarah, Nathan Jr., Lucretia, and Edward Everett; the younger siblings were referred to as "The Little Ones" and were comprised of Alexander, Charles, and Susan. Journalism and writing were encouraged in the Hale family. Lucretia and her brother Edward Everett each produced daily newspapers for the family to enjoy and assisted their father with the editing and writing for the Boston Daily Advertiser. Lucretia first attended Miss Susan Whitney's Dame School at age four and was later educated at Miss Elizabeth Peabody's innovative school, where she befriended Margaret Harding. She

continued on to Bronson Alcott's Temple School—a school that stressed the importance of intellectual studies for women—and finally attended the George B. Emerson School for Young Ladies in Boston, a like-minded school where she became friends with Susan Inches Lyman. When Harding's young daughter Meggie was ill, Hale told her a story about the misadventures of a family named the Peterkins. This story and subsequent tales about the Peterkin family quickly became popular with the children of the Hale family's friends and relatives. In 1868 Hale's Peterkin stories first became available to the public when a few of Lucretia's tales were published in Our Young Folks. Hale's father died in 1863, and her mother died soon after in 1865. In 1867 Lucretia and her sister Susan undertook a journey to Egypt to visit her brother, Charles, the American consul-general in Alexandria. During the trip, Hale suffered from severe seasickness and resolved never to travel abroad again. Her adventures on this journey became the basis for many of the stories in The Last of the Peterkins, with Others of Their Kin. After returning to Boston, she became the first woman elected to the Boston School Committee, even though her brother Charles fought to keep the Committee an all-male body. Hale never married and was childless, yet was well loved by her numerous nieces and nephews. As she grew older, various relatives cared for her, but after an operation to help her failing sight, Hale became mentally unstable. She died in an institution on June 12, 1900.


Although Hale wrote and co-wrote several novels and religious devotionals, she is best known for her contributions to children's literature. The Peterkin Papers are based on an amalgamation of stories from Hale's childhood and the lives of her siblings and their children. Each Peterkin story focuses on a seemingly mundane activity that spirals out of control to absurd proportions. In "The Lady Who Put Salt in Her Coffee," which was adapted and published as a picture book by Amy Schwartz in 1989, Mrs. Peterkin accidentally pours salt into her coffee instead of sugar, and her family concocts elaborate and ludicrous solutions to her dilemma. Only after a phone call to the wise "Lady from Philadelphia," a character based on Hale's sister Susan, is a sensible solution discovered—brew a new cup of coffee. In "Educational Breakfast," Mrs. Peterkin and the "Lady from Philadelphia" prepare a meal whose menu consists of twenty-four items, one for each letter of the alphabet, with X represented by "X-cellent" and Z by "zest." The Last of the Peterkins, and Others of Their Kin collects further stories about the Peterkin family, five short stories not pertaining to the Peterkins, and a poem. Many of the Peterkin stories in this volume relate to Hale's trip to Egypt in 1867. Like Hale, Mrs. Peterkin becomes extremely seasick on the journey. She refuses to travel by sea again and decides that the only way home from Egypt is to cross the land bridge over the Bering Strait. The Last of the Peterkins was republished in 1965 with a new children's story added to the collection, "The Queen of the Red Chessmen," which originally appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in 1858. In "The Queen of the Red Chessmen," chess pieces become animated every night and relive the day's battles. One evening, the Red Queen, knowing that her side will lose, decides to flee and hide within the human world. She eventually becomes established in the realm of humans and falls in love, only to discover that her love is the chess board's White Prince. The story ends with the two returning to the chess world together.


Hale has been highly praised for her light-hearted authorial voice in both The Peterkin Papers and The Last of the Peterkins, with Others of Their Kin. These two collections have become recognized as classics of American nonsense literature for children, and, in his review of The Complete Peterkin Papers, Evan F. Commager has asserted that it is "the absurdity of the familiar and the commonplace that give these stories their special character." Some commentators have debated whether the Peterkin tales represent a sharp social commentary about the propriety of Victorian society and family life, but most have contended that the stories primarily function as simply good-natured parodies of Victorian manners literature. Critics have applauded Hale's use of simple and direct language throughout her prose as well as her ability to create absurd situations amongst everyday activities. In her assessment of Hale's impact on children's literature, Madelyn C. Wankmiller has commented that, "[o]ne contemporary reviewer said of The Peterkin Papers, 'You declare the book is too silly for anything; you vow that you will not laugh at what is so absurd; yet you stick to the book and shake your sides, and hope dear Miss Hale will live forever.'"


Margaret Percival in America [with Edward Everett Hale] (novel) 1850

The Struggle for Life (novel) 1861

Six of One by Half a Dozen of the Other: An Every Day Novel [with Edward Everett Hale, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and others] (novel) 1872

Wolf at the Door [with Edward Everett Hale] (novel) 1878

*The Peterkin Papers (children's short stories) 1880

The Last of the Peterkins, with Others of Their Kin (children's short stories) 1886; revised edition, 1965

An Uncloseted Skeleton [with Edwin Lassetter Bynner] (novel) 1888

Fagots for the Fireside: A Collection of More Than One Hundred Entertaining Games for Evenings at Home and Social Parties (games) 1889; enlarged edition, 1894

Sunday-School Stories for Little Children on the Golden Texts of the International Lessons of 1869 [with Mrs. Bernard Whitman] (children's short stories) 1889

The New Harry and Lucy: A Story of Boston in the Summer of 1891 [with Edward Everett Hale] (novel) 1892

Stories for Children, Containing Simple Lessons in Morals: A Supplementary Reader for Schools, or for Use at Home (children's short stories) 1892

The Complete Peterkin Papers (children's short stories) 1960

The Lady Who Put Salt in Her Coffee: From the Peterkin Papers [adapted and illustrated by Amy Schwartz] (picture book) 1989

The Peterkins' Christmas [adapted by Elizabeth Spurr; illustrations by Wendy Anderson] (picture book) 2002

*The Peterkin Papers was later republished in 1924 with illustrations by Harold M. Brett. Several subsequent editions of The Peterkin Papers have been illustrated by such artists as Ezra Jack Keats, among others.

†Collects The Peterkin Papers and The Last of the Peterkins, with Others of Their Kin with an introduction by Nancy Hale.


Madelyn C. Wankmiller (essay date April 1958)

SOURCE: Wankmiller, Madelyn C. "Lucretia P. Hale and The Peterkin Papers." Horn Book Magazine 34, no. 2 (April 1958): 95-103, 137-47.

[In the following essay, Wankmiller provides a biographical sketch of Hale and draws parallels between Hale's life and her stories in The Peterkin Papers.]

The war between the States was over and the owners of The Atlantic Monthly, having weathered the war years successfully, in 1865 launched a children's magazine. Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, a frequent contributor to the magazine he had named, suggested that the new one be called The Atlantic Lighter—a nice example of the wit for which he was famous. The owners finally chose the more forthright Our Young Folks. Great perspicacity was shown in the selection of editors: John T. Trowbridge who already had written several adult novels, Lucy Larcom whose simple poetry was popular with young and old, and Mary A. Dodge better known under the pseudonym of Gail Hamilton. It was a happy day for American boys and girls when Trowbridge, tired of the didacticism and moralism which cluttered children's books, decided that this magazine would avoid such stories and articles. Prominent authors were invited to contribute: Harriet Beecher Stowe, Louisa May Alcott, Elizabeth S. Phelps, Dickens, Whittier, Lowell, and Longfellow. Humorous stories were encouraged and in its pages Aldrich's Story of a Bad Boy and Abby M. Diaz's William Henry Letters were first published.

In the April 1868 number there was a story by Lucretia P. Hale, "The Lady Who Put Salt in Her Coffee." This was American boys' and girls' introduction to Mr. and Mrs. Peterkin and their family of six, dividing itself into halves by age groups—Elizabeth Eliza, the only daughter; Agamemnon who had been to college; and Solomon John; then the three little boys in the india-rubber boots who are forever nameless—and their friend, the Lady from Philadelphia who offered a simple, sensible solution to whatever problem was perplexing the Peterkins. Five more Peterkin stories were printed that year.

In 1872 Charles Scribner bought Our Young Folks which was renamed St. Nicholas. Sporadically over a period of nine years the Peterkins enlivened its pages and became a household word.

Who was this Lucretia Hale who had the gift of elaborating everyday incidents and mistakes to hilarious heights, of writing nonsense with its roots in reality? How did she ever invent the Peterkins who were themselves individuals yet each in some way typical of all of us?

Lucretia Peabody Hale, third child and second daughter of Nathan and Sarah (Everett) Hale, was born in Boston on September 2, 1820, and died there on June 12, 1900. She spanned the years when Boston became known as the "Athens of America" and the "Hub of the Universe," and belonged to the period and region of American literary history about which Van Wyck Brooks wrote in The Flowering of New England, 1815-1865 and New England Indian Summer, 1865-1915.

The Peterkins have their roots in the life of the author and her period. Miss Hale was on intimate terms with them for they were based on herself, her family and her friends. Mrs. Peterkin and Elizabeth Eliza share some of Lucretia's own characteristics; Agamemnon was based on her brother, Edward Everett Hale, and the three little boys are his sons. The Lady from Philadelphia was her friend, Susan Lyman Lesley.

On her father's side Lucretia was descended from a family whose name will live in American history for it was her great-uncle, Nathan Hale, who regretted that he had but one life to give for his country. His namesake, Lucretia's father, was born in Westhampton, Massachusetts, and educated at Williams and Dartmouth. For a time he taught mathematics at Exeter Academy but in 1810 went to Boston to study law. His best friend at the Academy was a young instructor, Alexander Hill Everett, whose family lived in Dorchester. Alexander's brother, Edward Everett, was astounding Harvard with his brilliance; his fourteen-year-old sister Sarah was a bright girl, doted upon by her two brothers who had directed her studies and reading.

Law did not appeal to Nathan and when in 1814 an opportunity came to purchase the newspaper The Boston Daily Advertiser, he took advantage of it. Now an established business man, he could settle down and in 1816 he and Sarah Everett were married. Alexander that same year married Lucretia Orne Peabody.

As Mr. Hale was neither Boston born nor Harvard educated, he and his family never could be true Brahmins; his journalistic and other enterprises would not allow him to speak exclusively to the Cabots, Lodges, and God. But he and Sarah followed Boston tradition in religion and politics, faithfully attended the Brattle Street Unitarian Church, and supported the Whig Party of which their kinsman, Edward Everett, and their friend, Daniel Webster, were leading members.

Eleven children were born to Nathan and Sarah over a seventeen-year period but infant mortality being high, death divided them into two groups: Sarah (1817), Nathan, Jr. (1818), Lucretia Peabody (1820), and Edward Everett (1822) made up "we four"; the "three little ones" were Alexander Hill (1829), Charles (1831), and Susan (1833).

Under the editorship of Mr. Hale the Advertiser became one of the leading national newspapers. He had definite ideas that a newspaper should be a moulder of public opinion and a dispenser of international news. It was he who established what is now accepted newspaper practice, that of having unsigned editorial comment and leading articles. But at heart he was an engineer and as the years passed he devoted less time to his newspaper and more to other projects which were of benefit to his city and country. He was considered "touched" when he predicted that with the building of a railroad between Boston and Springfield as many as nine people would come to the City daily. He made the prediction good, however, by organizing a company and in 1834 the Boston and Worcester Railroad, of which he was president, began operation.

That accomplished, he turned his attention to procuring pure water for Boston, and it was with tears in his eyes that he watched the first jet from Cochituate and heard James Russell Lowell read his Ode written for the occasion. It was Mr. Hale's involvement as a trustee for the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal that brought about the reverses in family finances. In his last nine years in spite of increasing feebleness he was interested in the Hoosac Tunnel.

Mr. Hale would have approved of Mr. Peterkin who liked a home with modern improvements: water pipes, gas pipes, bathrooms and a hack-telegraph and fire alarm with a little knob for each, but he would have frowned at Mr. Peterkin's misjudgment in selecting too tall a Christmas tree, and at his ineptness at using tools. Mr. Peterkin would have been delighted with the model railroad which Mr. Hale made and kept in the best parlor to demonstrate to visitors how railroads could operate.

Mrs. Hale was a wise mother with a great deal of common sense. When she was advanced in life, a young mother inquired what were her rules for bringing up children. "Dear child, the rule is to get along as well as you can." She knew instinctively that active children needed to be kept busy. Being an admirer of Maria Edgeworth's Harry and Lucy, she did not encourage ready-made toys, but the means and freedom for the children to provide their own amusements were at hand—raisin boxes to grow flowers on the roof, materials to fashion their own toys, chemical sets, a printing press and books in the attic.

There were only two absolute rules of the household: the children had to report at home before going anywhere to play after school; and after tea, which was between six and seven o'clock, there were to be no noisy games; the children sat down at the table and occupied themselves until bedtime by drawing, doing lessons, reading or playing quiet games. If guests dropped in, the children remained and listened to the conversation, which must have been enlightening as the guests were likely to be Uncle Edward Everett, Daniel Webster, Judge Story, George Bancroft, or some other notable; sometimes Daniel Webster could be persuaded to take part in their games.

Naturally Sunday was church-going day with everyone attending both morning and afternoon services. Before returning home to a cold supper, all enjoyed a walk if weather permitted; during the years the railroad was under construction, its progress had to be checked. The day ended with family sings not limited to hymns but including songs Mrs. Hale knew which went back to the siege of Boston.

Some time each summer was spent with Grandfather Hale in Westhampton, while at home hot days called for boat trips to Nantasket and Nahant or on the Middlesex Canal. And what better playground could there be than Boston Common?

Birthdays and holidays were red-letter days. On Independence and Election Days the Common was transformed into a fair ground and money to spend was given each child. On Independence Day there was the added excitement of evening fireworks. On Thanksgiving, aunts, uncles and cousins gathered at the Hale home for a dinner of chicken pie, roast turkey, mince, squash and Marlborough pies, cranberry tarts, plum pudding and dried fruits. Games and charades ended the day. "Christmas Day, as a holiday of this sort, was absolutely unknown in this Puritan family."1

On all sides we hear today that children need love and security. The Hales heard none of this talk, they had the two. Edward wrote: "… the hands were strong which directed this gay team of youngsters, though there was no stimulus we knew of, and though the touch was velvet."1

Now we understand why the Peterkins were such a do-it-yourself family, making ink from nutgalls and vinegar, why there were so many chemicals on hand to doctor Mrs. Peterkin's coffee, how it was that Solomon John and Agamemnon made their own fireworks for Fourth of July (Agamemnon had found the recipe for his successful "fulminating paste" in the introduction to Sir Walter Scott's Woodstock). The Peterkins, like the Hales, were a hospitable family and invited neighbors and friends to tea parties, to picnics, and in fact, to take part in any occasion that could be celebrated.

No one should imagine that Mrs. Peterkin was modeled on Mrs. Hale for they were as unlike one another as possible. Mrs. Peterkin owned one book, a cookbook; had read only half the books in the family library, and was unable to remember for long what any author had written. However, Mrs. Hale might very well have approved the idea of the "Educational Breakfast" served by Mrs. Peterkin with the help of the Lady from Philadelphia but she might have frowned at the menu:

apple-sauce, bread, butter, coffee, cream, doughnuts, eggs, fishballs, griddles, ham, ice (on butter), jam, krout (sour), lamb-chops, morning newspapers, oatmeal, pepper, quince-marmalade, rolls, salt, tea urn, veal-pie, waffles, yeast-biscuit.

Mr. Peterkin was proud and astonished. "Excellent!" he cried. "Every letter represented except Z." Mrs. Peterkin drew from her pocket a letter from the lady from Philadelphia. "She thought you would call it X-cellent for X, and she tells us," she read, "that if you come with a zest, you will bring the Z."2

Zest—that's what the Hales had an abundance of—a zest and joy in living. Lucretia and Edward, in addition to zest, had energy.

But people with energy are not always the first to jump out of bed and morning was the time of day when Lucretia was not inclined for conversation and it was true all through her life.

"Miss Hale's literary work was never by any means done in any well-regulated early morning hours. 'I am absolutely useless till ten o'clock, at least,' she used to say, 'but I have observed that if I survive that hour I usually live through the day!'"3

As Mr. Peterkin observed on that snowy morning, when they were up too early for their own good, "It is a good thing to learn not to get up any earlier than is necessary."

It was to a dame school run by seventeen-year-old Susan Whitney that "we four" first went; Lucretia was four, Edward two. This was no kindergarten with sand boxes and games; there was sand but as a covering for the floor. Miss Whitney's pupils were expected to learn writing and spelling from Mahlon Day's New York Spelling Book and reading from Mrs. Barbauld's First Lessons and Miss Robbins' Popular Lessons. Lucretia was the only one of the four who failed to receive some special award—Sarah's was for being the most amiable. Elizabeth Eliza Peterkin did not get on in school because she was always asked the questions she did not know, but in Lucretia's case I am inclined to think she asked questions the teacher did not know.

At Lucretia's second school she was a favorite, for Elizabeth Peabody, still only in her twenties, was lively and independent enough to appreciate these qualities in a pupil. Mr. and Mrs. Hale had advanced ideas about education and no doubt were attracted by Miss Peabody's unconventional theories, particularly as she stressed the early study of foreign languages.

Lucretia's third and last school was the well-known and fashionable George B. Emerson School for Young Ladies. It was more than fashion which prompted Mr. and Mrs. Hale to send Lucretia there. George B. Emerson believed that girls were as capable of learning as boys and, since as mothers they would be responsible for the formation of the character and the education of their children, it was essential that they be educated on the highest principles. Mr. Emerson combined scholarship with excellent teaching methods and when a young lady graduated from his school she had the equivalent of a Bachelor of Arts degree. At this school, too, Lucretia was a favorite pupil.

The polish of dancing school was acquired from Lorenzo Papanti who, in evening dress, dignified and graceful, fiddled as he taught while keeping everyone in good order.

The Lyceum series were attended as much for the social life that followed as for the content of the lectures. Because Mr. Hale was a newspaper man there was no lack of tickets in the house and the children were encouraged to go to all such meetings. It was a proud day when in 1839 Uncle Edward Everett delivered the initial lectures for the Lowell Institute established by John Lowell, Jr.

The Peterkins, too, were interested in education but had great difficulties with it. Their hopes rested on the little boys for, as Elizabeth Eliza said:

They ought to take advantage from the family mistakes. Every new method that came up was tried upon the little boys. They had been taught spelling by all the different systems, and were just able to read, when Mr. Peterkin learned that it was now considered best that children should not be taught to read till they were ten years old.

Mrs. Peterkin was in despair. Perhaps, if their books were taken from them even then, they might forget what they had learned. But no, the evil was done; the brain had received certain impressions that could not be blurred over.2

Anyone who knew Lucretia personally and who has written about her invariably uses the word gentle. To it I would add steadfast, for there are few people who have maintained two lifelong friendships.

When Lucretia was nine and attending Miss Peabody's school, a new pupil of six came accompanied by her mother. She was Margaret Harding, daughter of the portrait painter Chester Harding, and one day to become the mother of Eliza Orne White. While Mrs. Harding and the schoolmistress talked, Margaret watched the children perched on high stools around a table. "There was one little girl that she singled out from the rest, because she was so charming."4

The schoolmistress gave the new girl a Latin grammar to learn and put her on the woodbox where it was very uncomfortable. Once the older pupil smiled at her "in a charming way which lighted up her whole face." After a time Lucretia took her high stool, put it on the table, climbed up, perched herself aloft very gravely, and began to study her Latin grammar. At recess the new girl, being shy, remained on the woodbox. Lucretia, "a most graceful and winning little person, as light as a fairy and as free from care," came to her with two large buns. "Will you have a bun?" she asked. "Thank you," the other replied gratefully. On the way to school she had spotted her white stockings. Now she remembered it and tried to cover them with her dress, but Lucretia consoled her: "Never mind…. White stockings have to get muddy sometimes. When I grow up I'm going to put all my children into black ones." Such was the beginning of a delightful friendship.

During the year that the Harding family lived in Boston the two girls spent much time together. Lucretia was the leader; "all the interesting plans originated with her." Their favorite playground was Beacon Street mall as there were too many cows on the rest of the Common. The base of the elm tree was a grand playhouse as its roots on the ground could be used for room dividers.

Lucretia's imagination and varied knowledge made her a delightful companion to the more practical Margaret. There was the day of the sail to Nantasket when a piece of seaweed called devil's apron inspired Lucretia to tell a story about a happy family of sea devils who lived at the bottom of the ocean, and you would have thought she had an intimate acquaintance with the entire family. It was Lucretia's knowledge of botany which made her almost certain that if a broken teacup were planted, a tree with cups and saucers would grow, as they go together just as acorn-cups have saucers.

After the Hardings moved to Springfield there was much visiting back and forth, first by stagecoach, then on the Boston and Worcester Railway line. On one visit to Springfield, Lucretia took eleven dresses and in ten of them tore "barn-doors" which were mended by Mrs. Harding. Lucretia commented thoughtfully: "I am evidently a very rich farmer with an immense barn, for I have so many doors to it."4 Margaret enjoyed Lucretia's wit and wondered who would make her laugh when Lucretia was gone.

Then came the overflowing years when Margaret attended the Emerson School with Lucretia and lived for two years with the Hales. Margaret's happiness was perfect for her other intimate friend, Susan Inches Lyman of Northampton, came to the Emerson School, too, and she and Lucretia liked each other in the same way that Margaret and Lucretia liked each other. These three with two more Emerson girls formed a group dubbed the Pentad which maintained a Round Robin correspondence for years.

How the rooms in the Hale home rang with laughter! Nathan, Jr., and Edward were students at Harvard. Nathan was part of "The Band" also known as the "Brothers and Sisters": Nathan and his sister, Sarah; William A. White and his sister, Anna Maria, who later married another member, James Russell Lowell; William Story, the future sculptor and his sister, Mary, who also married a member, George Ticknor Curtis; and John Gallison King and his two sisters, Augusta and Caroline. Charades, games, good food, and discussion abounded; to the young people Abolitionism was a live issue although it was still not wholly endorsed by Bostonians.

Of the Pentad Lucretia was the only one to remain a spinster. In 1848 Margaret Harding married a young minister, William Orne White, who three years later accepted the pastorate of the Unitarian Church in Keene, New Hampshire. After a short courtship in February 1849, Susan Lyman married a Congregational minister, Peter Lesley. Geology was his genuine interest and when his congregation demurred at his marrying a Unitarian, he left the ministry and went to Philadelphia as a professor. That's how Susan came to be called the wise Lady from Philadelphia.

Once the Peterkins tried to become wise. Concluding that wisdom came from books, Agamemnon offered to make a library. Elizabeth Eliza asked, "Where are the books?" Solomon John decided to write one, and the family wholeheartedly helped him; Mrs. Peterkin and the little boys gathered nutgalls which were mixed with vinegar for ink; Agamemnon bought a quill; Mr. Peterkin looked for paper.

So Solomon John sat down, and the family all sat round the table looking at him. He had his pen, his ink, and his paper. He dipped his pen into the ink and held it over the paper, and thought a minute, and then said, "But I haven't got anything to say."2

The Hales never found themselves in Solomon John's predicament; they could always find something to say. When Mr. Hale became a publisher, everyone was drawn into the project. As "We four" grew up, they saw Mrs. Hale editing copy and translating foreign news items for the Advertiser. Edward was eleven when he was enlisted. Mr. Hale rushed in with a copy of Le Journal de Debats and asked that an article on French discoveries in the Euphrates be translated. Edward had not studied French but thirteen-year-old Peabody-trained Lucretia had, so Mama put them in a corner with a dictionary to make out as best they could. Two family newspapers were printed regularly and alternately: The New England Herald edited by Nathan, Jr., and Sarah, and The Public Informer by Lucretia and Edward.

Journalism was in the blood. In 1851 Charles, a recent Harvard graduate, proposed a weekly literary journal Today. It lived one year and one thousand dollars was lost in the project. In 1870 Edward enthusiastically launched a new magazine Old and New. Nathan, Jr., served as subeditor and adviser; Lucretia, always ready to second Edward, edited, proofread, and wrote articles when there was not enough copy for an issue.

Lucretia was now being called aunt by many children: by Edward's daughter and his three boys; by Margaret Harding White's Eliza; and by Susan Lyman Lesley's Mary and Meggie.

Every June Lucretia spent a fortnight in Keene with the Whites and every summer the Lesleys came from Philadelphia to New England where all the friends managed to see each other. About 1861 Lucretia was spending a vacation with Susan Lesley and her daughters in Princeton, a summer resort town in the shadow of Mt. Wachusett. Meggie was ailing and had been kept in bed. I can conceive that in the midst of lively table talk someone inadvertently put salt in her coffee and immediately Lucretia's fertile imagination had thought of antidotes. To entertain Meggie she made the incident into an amusing story of a family called "Peterkin" after Meggie's father, Peter, plus the "kin" as they were kin to him.

Eliza Orne White recalled that about this same time Aunt Lucretia was visiting them.

My mother and Aunt Lucretia and I were going for a drive with a carry-all and horse from the livery stable across the way, but the animal refused to move. No urging on the part of the driver was of any avail. Finally my mother applied the whip. The horse still did not start. At last some one said, "Why, he is still fastened to the post!"

I can see now that iron post ending in a horse's head, where horses were chained by our door. This was the foundation of the story "Mrs. Peterkin Wishes to Go to Drive." 5

With the increasing feebleness of Mr. Hale, Lucretia and Susan opened a school in their home, and Lucretia began to write. The Atlantic accepted her fanciful short stories, "The Four Seasons" was written for Our Young Folks, and her first novel was published. After the death of her father in 1863, the Advertiser was sold and an allowance arranged for "the girls" and Mrs. Hale, who died in 1866.

The following year "The Lady Who Put Salt in Her Coffee" and five more Peterkin stories were submitted to Howard Ticknor for Our Young Folks prior to Lucretia's and Susan's leaving for a prolonged visit with Charles, now American Consul General in Egypt.

The voyage was a miserable affair for Lucretia suffered from seasickness the entire trip. However, the gay life in Alexandria made up for it; Charles was entertained by people of importance; sumptuous dinners were followed by fantasias of music and dancing which lasted until the early hours of morning. As it was not considered proper for the ladies to remain for the entertainment, they were escorted home by Charles who returned to enjoy the fun.

The Viceroy loaned his yacht to Charles, and the Lesleys joined the Hales for a trip up the Nile. It was a leisurely voyage and many stops were made for shore visits and official dinners at which the ladies enjoyed champagne, sherbet and Turkish coffee. Lucretia, not to offend one host, even pretended to smoke a long pipe which was brought to her.

Several Peterkin stories were based on the Egyptian experiences. Mrs. Peterkin said she would not cross the ocean until a bridge was built but the family persuaded her to go to Egypt. Seasickness troubled her so much that when it came time for the return voyage, she and Mr. Peterkin planned to go by land through Asia and across Bering Strait!

The calmness of the Nile made Lucretia forget the rolling of the sea and, being deeply religious, she planned a pilgrimage to the Holy Land only to find that the Mediterranean was as much an enemy as the Atlantic. She never ventured abroad again.

She was fifty years old when she returned to Boston in 1870 to lead an independent life. Brought up in the genteel tradition in a family of comfortable circumstances, untrained for any occupation or business, she could not have found it easy to contemplate the future. However, endowed with a cheerful nature, having great trust in God's goodness, and recalling her mother's "to get along as well as you can," Miss Hale proceeded to do just that. Fortunately, writing was second nature to her and she now used her pen to good advantage. These first years were the ones when she wrote the majority of the Peterkin stories for St. Nicholas but she did hack work, too. She contributed to newspapers and magazines, wrote Sunday school and supplementary textbooks, and edited books of games and needlework.

Her independence came at the time when Boston was in ferment over the woman's rights issue. In 1868 Julia Ward Howe organized the New England Women's Club which devoted its time and energy to putting women on the Boston School Committee. By 1870 Massachusetts women under her leadership and that of Abby May were militant. In 1872 the women succeeded in gaining recognition from the Republicans who made their cause part of the party platform.

In the 1873 Boston election four women, members of the Women's Club, were elected to the School Committee but when they reported at the organization meeting, they were rejected as being there illegally. Lucretia Crocker carried the fight to the Higher Courts of the State. The judges ruled the Charter of the City gave the School Committee power to decide on the qualifications of its members. As soon as this decision was known, the Legislature passed an act to declare women eligible to serve on the Committee. Charles Hale, now back from Egypt and serving in the Legislature, voted against the bill. Edward, too, was against it. However, in December 1874 the Republicans of Ward 4 announced their nomination for the School Committee, Lucretia P. Hale, and she won by a substantial majority, although I could find no record of her having run for the office or even of having been interested in women's rights.

In the organization meeting, Miss Hale was appointed chairman of the Kindergarten Committee and to the Textbooks and Sewing committees.

The next year a bill was passed reducing the Boston School Committee membership by one-fourth. Again Lucretia Hale was Ward 4's candidate and was reelected. This was the year the Committee recommended the establishment of vacation schools for children who, for want of means, could not leave the city during the summer. Lucretia never lost her interest in these vacation schools. When she and Edward wrote The New Harry and Lucy she made the heroine a teacher in such a school.

Meanwhile Miss Hale must have been working on more short stories because in September 1874 the Peterkins bobbed up again. The St. Nicholas editor, recognizing the genuineness of this family and of the author, had evidently urged her to return to what was the most successful and enduring of her writings, and with the exception of one year the Peterkins were to be regular inhabitants of that famous magazine up to May 1883 when the family was dispersed in "The Last of the Peterkins."

In 1880 Lucretia sent to Benjamin Ticknor, of James R. Osgood & Co., the Peterkin stories which had been published to date with an entirely new one, suggesting that these would make about 280 pages of a book. They were accepted and published later that year.

In 1885, dissatisfied with her latest six months' royalty of $6.60, Miss Hale inquired if something could not be done to quicken sales. A new edition with new illustrations was proposed by the publishers. Steering Miss Hale through this edition must have taken patience for she was constantly having new ideas and changing her mind about what stories she wanted included, and she would not sign her contract until she had consulted Edward.

Mr. Ticknor must have indicated an interest in a second Peterkin book, for early in 1886 she wrote him that she could not promise one because she had heard from her brother that Mr. Niles of Roberts Bros. had requested a volume. It seems that he had originally made an offer for the first book before Miss Hale sold the stories to Osgood, and Edward felt that Lucretia was now bound to Mr. Niles. Accordingly, she gathered together the remaining Peterkin papers which Roberts Bros. published under the title The Last of the Peterkins.

And that's how it is that the Peterkins have two publishers—Houghton Mifflin, successor to James Osgood & Co., and Little, Brown & Co., successor to Roberts Bros.

Restlessness is the word one would apply to the remainder of Miss Hale's life. Just as she was unable to remain long in one place, she was unable to concentrate her energy and interest on any one thing for a long period. Her writing was done hurriedly and mailed as she left for one of her visits. She retained an interest in educational causes: vacation schools, kindergartens, cooking schools, settlement houses; but here too her activity was scattered. Because of her wit, her study groups were popular and she was a sparkling member of the Sunday night club which met at the Edwin Whipple Home for discussion and conversation.

Gradually blindness caused her restless feet to stay at home. Following an operation to help the blindness, her mind failed. Edward and his wife kept her until a doctor advised that care in an institution was necessary. Fortunately the time there was not long.

"He deserves Paradise who makes his companions laugh" is said in the Koran, and in the Bible it is written that unless you become as little children you shall not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven; so he who makes children laugh must doubly deserve a heavenly reward.

Only a few are granted the gift of remaining childlike: to take pleasure in simple things, to laugh at what seems silly to adults, and to sense the magic in everyday life.

Lucretia Hale kept this childlike quality throughout her life and in none of her writings is it so evident as in The Peterkin Papers. In them we find the child Lucretia who in the winking of an eye was inspired by a piece of seaweed to envision a family of sea devils and by the fragments of a teacup to imagine a cup-and-saucer tree growing which she could describe in such a logical manner that the listener could accept it as being true. In this lies great art, for the test of good fancy is that it seems real and possible to the listener or reader.

The Peterkin episodes very much resemble folklore. They are short, based on truth and life, and are pithily and wittily written. Their words create humorous mental pictures, and they reach a climax using just enough detail to provide actuality for the reader. The Peterkins are related to the characters found in such folk tales as "The Three Sillies," "Clever Elsa," and "Gone Is Gone." Any storyteller knows how children laugh at those adults who are unable to handle everyday situations in a sensible way. What a turning of tables to meet grownups behaving in a way no intelligent child would!

Caroline M. Hewins considered the Peterkins worthy of inclusion in her Books for the Young which she compiled in 1882, and when its third edition was published in 1915, she added the annotation, "Amusing, and good for dreamy and unpractical children."

Up to the appearance of the Peterkin family in Our Young Folks in 1868 "dreamy and unpractical children" had subsisted on a pitifully small ration of humor. There were some funny rhymes in Mother Goose; in 1848 Edward Lear published his nonsense verses and limericks; and Alice had gone down the rabbit hole into Wonderland in 1865. The Peterkins were the first American nonsense stories, the forerunners of Mr. Popper's Penguins and Homer Price, and they are significant, worthy of more than a passing nod in any history of American children's literature and should certainly be listed in any index to the subject.

Although the stories are rooted in their period, they are no more dated than are Jane Austen's novels. Instinctively Miss Hale chose to elaborate situations that will be true for years. People still put salt in their coffee by mistake; the automobile has supplanted the horse and carry-all but an unreleased brake can produce the same result as an unhitched horse; tea parties will always worry an ordinary family; large families will always have to cope with those who like meat lean and those who like it fat; moving will always bring confusion; and the writing of a paper is still not easy.

There are no physical descriptions of the Peterkins in the stories so we do not know if they are long, short, fat, thin, dark or light, but distinct impressions are gained of each one so that if we met them there would be instant recognition.

One contemporary reviewer said of The Peterkin Papers , "You declare the book is too silly for anything; you vow that you will not laugh at what is so absurd; yet you stick to the book and shake your sides, and hope dear Miss Hale will live forever."

To miss the opportunity of becoming acquainted with the world of Lucretia Hale and the Peterkins is unthinkable.


  1. Hale, Edward Everett. A New England Boyhood. Little, Brown & Co.
  2. Hale, Lucretia P. The Peterkin Papers. Houghton Mifflin Co.
  3. Whiting, Lilian. Boston Days. Little, Brown & Co.
  4. All the quotations about Margaret and Lucretia on pages 138 and 139 are from White, Eliza Orne, A Little Girl of Long Ago. Houghton Mifflin Co. In Miss White's book Margaret is Marietta, Lucretia is Leonora.
  5. White, Eliza Orne. "Lucretia P. Hale," The Horn Book, September-October, 1940.

Nancy Hale (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: Hale, Nancy. "Introduction." In The Complete Peterkin Papers, pp. i-v. Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1960.

[In the following essay, Hale—Lucretia Peabody Hale's great-niece—discusses Lucretia's family life and illustrates the parody of Victorian sensibilities in The Peterkin Papers and The Last of the Peterkins, with Others of Their Kind.]

Lucretia Peabody Hale, who wrote The Peterkin Papers , was born in Boston in 1820 and died there in 1900—a lifespan less than Queen Victoria's by a year at either end. She was the daughter of Nathan Hale, owner and editor of the Boston Daily Advertiser, and of Sarah Preston Everett Hale, sister of Edward Everett. Her seven brothers and sisters included Edward Everett Hale, Unitarian divine and author of a score of books including A Man without a Country; Charles Hale, Consul General to Egypt at the time of the opening of the Suez Canal; and Susan Hale, who, like Lucretia, remained a spinster, was one of the first lone American females to embark on extensive traveling, and was the author of the diverting Letters. It was a family with much to attract loyalty and affection, and little to repel.

From the days when the Hale children between them edited and printed two morning newspapers for domestic consumption, Lucretia grew up doing what her brother Edward used to call "holding a light pen." Her life was passed during the period Brooks calls the flowering of New England, and like the rest of her family she took writing for granted as a natural mode of communication, enlightenment, and entertainment.

At the three schools where she was educated, concluding with the George B. Emerson School for Young Ladies whose graduates are said to have possessed the equivalent of a B.A. degree, Lucretia formed two enduring friendships. One was with Margaret Harding, daughter of the painter Chester Harding. Margaret Harding's daughter, Eliza Orne White, in A Little Girl of Long Ago, enchantingly describes the play—on the Common, sailing to Nantasket—of the Little Boston girls; Lucretia is described as "a most graceful and winning little person, as light as a fairy and as free from care." The other friendship was with Susan Inches Lyman, who grew up to marry Peter Lesley and move to Philadelphia. All accounts show that, to this triad, Margaret and Susan supplied the practical element; Lucretia is described as the fanciful one, who could playfully imagine that if a broken teacup were planted a teacup tree would grow, and that a family of sea-devils living at the bottom of the Atlantic had lost one of their working aprons in the devil's-apron seaweed that the children found.

But the real boundaries of Lucretia's life continued to be the family circle. Lucretia was already thirty-one when Charles Hale founded a short-lived weekly literary journal, Today, which she helped to edit and proofread. At the launching of Edward's more successful magazine, Old and New, to which Lucretia was to contribute fillers as well as editorial services, she was fifty. During these years she and her sister Susan, like so many Boston maidens, had opened a dame school at home. In addition, Lucretia had had fanciful stories accepted by the Atlantic Monthly; had written "The Four Seasons" for Our Young Folks, a magazine for children owned by the Atlantic; and had published a novel. None of these efforts attracted any unusual interest from the public.

In 1866, following her husband by three years, Lucretia's mother, Mrs. Nathan Hale, died. The year after that, when Lucretia was forty-six, the first of the Peterkin Papers, "The Lady Who Put Salt in Her Coffee," appeared in Our Young Folks. Five more Peterkin stories were published there, until in 1872 the magazine was bought by Scribner and renamed St. Nicholas. In these pages, over a period of nine years, the Peterkins—Mr. and Mrs. Peterkin, Agamemnon, Solomon John, Elizabeth Eliza, and the three little boys in their rubber boots—continued to struggle helplessly with their insoluble family dilemmas, and the Lady from Philadelphia to come to their aid with her unique touch of common sense.

The Peterkins became a household word. They were funny—it is probable that their saga constituted the first nonsense writing done for children in America—and they seemed, in some odd way, universal. In laughing at them, America was somehow laughing at itself.

The note they struck was gentle, perhaps, but its overtones were sufficiently vibrant to make the present edition of the Peterkin Papers , eighty years after the first one, a publishing practicality. Lucretia sent the first collection of the stories to James R. Osgood & Co., who brought them out in book form in 1880. This publisher expressed an interest in a second volume; but Lucretia's brother Edward told her that she was morally obligated to Roberts Bros., a firm which had originally offered for the first book; and so, with sisterly obedience, she sent The Last of the Peterkins to the latter publisher. Because of these divided commitments, the present edition is the first in which it has been possible to assemble the totality of the Peterkins' adventures.

Perhaps emboldened by her first unexpected success, in 1867 Lucretia ventured on a journey to Egypt to visit Charles, in the company of her indefatigably peripatetic sister Susan. She was wretchedly seasick throughout the entire voyage, and never traveled again. The Egyptian trip did, however, result in further adventures of the Peterkins, Mrs. Peterkin remarking somewhere that she would never cross the ocean until a bridge was built across it. Through the sales of these stories, together with other contributions to newspapers and magazines, Sunday school and supplementary textbooks, and the editing of books on games and needlework, Lucretia Hale achieved a sort of independence. But she remained—except for the summer visits the fanciful member of the old triad paid to her more practical friends Margaret White and Susan Lesley—surrounded, first by the members of her own family, and later of the family of her brother Edward, with whom she lived for long periods of time.

Madelyn C. Wankmiller, in her study "Lucretia P. Hale and The Peterkin Papers ," suggests that the characters of the Peterkins were founded on the Nathan Hale family. My father, a son of Edward and nephew of Lucretia, used to say, on the contrary, that his father's household was most often named by those who insisted on finding originals for the Peterkins. But he denied that his father could ever possibly have been the Mr. Peterkin who was so impressed on learning that the newest theory in education held that children should not be taught to read till they were ten; or his mother the Mrs. Peterkin who, on hearing this news, was so cast into despair as to hope that if the children's books were forthwith taken away from them, they might by good fortune forget what they had learned; or he and his younger brothers the little boys in their rubber boots. Of course, such refusals on the part of the living to be pinned down to characters in fiction are quite as much to be expected as the insistence on pinning them down. But if they were not the Nathan Hales, nor the Edward Hales, who, in fact, were the Peterkins, that they struck such a note in American hearts?

The Peterkins took off to a T the ludicrous side of Victorian family life. That august institution, carrying such enormous moral weight, had its stifling and destructive side as well. There were those even in good Victoria's golden days who felt their talents being dissolved and their individuality foundering in the swamp of nineteenth century togetherness. Cecil Woodham-Smith, in an essay called "They Went to Bed," analyzes the solution found by the inner, discrete organisms of certain Victorian geniuses to a situation in which every possession—letters, friendships, problems, even thoughts—was expected to be shared with the family. The original contributions that Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, felt stirring within them, could never have been carried out under downstairs conditions of Victorian family life; so, being geniuses, in all unpremeditated innocence they fell ill and went to bed, where they could pursue their vocations in peace.

The world has borne few geniuses, but everyone bears within himself, somewhere, the rebel. Everyone has had his moment of railing against a collective existence; in Victoria's day such a moment of rebellion against what seemed the very embodiment of love and duty, would have been repressed at its inception. The Bard of Wimpole Street was not, perhaps, the only Victorian woman to get sick in order to free herself, but there were other ways in which other spirits could circumvent the censor. Lucretia Hale's way was to write a book of nonsensical tales for children, that laughed at a patently ridiculous family life.

One reason the Peterkins, in their saga, have such a fearful time with their problems—getting the piano into the house with difficulty and then finding it is in a position where it can be played only from outside on the porch; trying to make potable, by the addition of every conceivable corrective, coffee that has salt in it—is that all the Peterkins together work on all the problems, each adding his own contribution to utter confusion, each building preposterously upon the preposterous structure that all the others are at work upon as well. Too many Peterkins spoil every broth. Lucretia Hale's special insight into the ludicrous side of Victorian family unity was her creation of the Lady from Philadelphia, a cool, practical voice from outside, which can and does bring to the fevered conclaves of father, mother, brothers, sister, a breath of fresh air and good sense, as if it were she indeed who were their truer mother and their brethren.

Mrs. Wankmiller points out that "although the stories are rooted in their period, they are no more dated than are Jane Austen's novels. Instinctively Miss Hale chose to elaborate situations that will be true for years," which is so. Yet I doubt that the stories' appeal could have been achieved merely by the selection of familiar situations in which to set their repeated formula. I think it more likely that readers were given a sense of emotional identification with an approach or point of view that "rang a bell."

Lucretia Hale spent her life to all intents and purposes enclosed within the circle of a family whose enlightened standards placed it, on the whole, above the more depressing morasses of Victorianism. Yet Lucretia was unable to leave for long sea voyages like the strong-minded Susan, or to engage in active public life like Charles and Edward—if we except the possibility that she served on the Boston School Committee, of which there is no documentary record. In any case she stayed too close to home. Any sense of over-propinquity felt on either side remained unexpressed, overtly, except for certain pranks of the little boys. In Lucretia Hale, whose only weapon was her fancy, exasperation with the family confines coupled with genuine affection issued forth in a burst of laughter—in the Peterkins. Generations of readers who were equally committed to expressing only what they ought to feel for their dear ones—equally chafing, if unconsciously—were moved to laughter also.

True universality results when the bell that is rung, the note that is struck, goes on reverberating down into the caves of subjectivity. It seems to me that in their tiny way the Peterkins so echo. For what could more epitomize the frustrated circlings of one's inner fancies and their blessed release by objective reality, than the story of how the combined brains of all the Peterkins proved inadequate to deal with the problem of getting their horse to move off with the carriage, until the Lady from Philadelphia suggested that they untie him from the hitching-post?

Paul Heins (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Heins, Paul. "Lucretia P. Hale, 1820-1900." In Writers for Children: Critical Studies of Major Authors since the Seventeenth Century, edited by Jane M. Bingham, pp. 265-68. New York, N.Y.: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1988.

[In the following essay, Heins examines Hale's lighthearted narrative and uncomplicated writing style in The Peterkin Papers and The Last of the Peterkins, with Others of Their Kin.]

Lucretia Peabody Hale, chiefly remembered as the author of The Peterkin Papers (1880), was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1820 and died there in 1900. Her father, Nathan Hale, a nephew of the Revolutionary patriot, was a journalist; he purchased the Boston Daily Advertiser and was instrumental in establishing editorial commentaries in newspapers. Along with a sister and two brothers, Lucretia was one of the older Hale children, who called themselves "we four" to distinguish themselves from the younger children, dubbed "the little ones." One of the four older children, Edward Everett Hale, became a Unitarian clergyman and is remembered as the author of The Man without a Country. Journalism, writing, and editing became part of the home activities of the older Hale children, and they produced two family newspapers, the New England Herald and the Public Informer, the latter published by Lucretia and Edward Everett Hale.

After attending a dame school, Lucretia was taught by Elizabeth Peabody, who held advanced ideas about education, and finally went to George B. Emerson's School for Young Ladies. It was a fashionable school, yet George Emerson believed that girls were as capable of learning as boys, and the graduates of his school were said to have attained the equivalent of a Bachelor of Arts degree. At Miss Peabody's school Lucretia met Margaret Harding, who later became the mother of Eliza Orne White, a writer of stories for children. The two girls played frequently on the Beacon Street Mall of the Boston Common in order to avoid the cows grazing lower down. At Emerson's School for Young Ladies, Lucretia became friendly with Susan Lyman of Northampton, who later married Peter Lesley and went to live in Philadelphia. Lucretia, Margaret, and Susan remained lifelong friends.

Like Alice in Wonderland, Treasure Island, and The Tale of Peter Rabbit, the Peterkin stories owed their genesis to a particular relationship between author and child. In 1861, while Lucretia was visiting the Lesleys in Princeton, Massachusetts, she entertained young Maggie Lesley, who was ill at the time, with the story of a lady who put salt in her coffee. Meggie's mother was obviously the Lady from Philadelphia, and the Peterkins got their name from the first name of Meggie's father, Peter.

Except for a voyage to Egypt, where her younger brother Charles was American consul general, Hale spent most of her life in Boston and New England, writing for newspapers and magazines, preparing Sunday school and supplementary school textbooks, and editing books of games and needlework. In 1874 she became a member of the School Committee of the City of Boston, on which she served as chairman of the Kindergarten Committee and as a member of the Textbook and Sewing Committee.

Never marrying, Hale remained closely associated with her family for the rest of her life, especially with her brother Edward Everett, and she retained an interest in such educational ventures as vacation schools, kindergartens, cooking schools, and settlement houses. Because of her wit, her contributions to the discussions and conversations of popular study groups and a Sunday-night club were highly prized.

From the time Hale invented her first story to entertain a sick little girl, The Peterkin Papers grew by accretion over a number of years. In 1868 "The Lady Who Put Salt in Her Coffee" and five other Peterkin stories were published in Our Young Folks; after 1872, when the magazine was sold to Scribners and transformed into St. Nicholas, Hale contributed Peterkin narratives sporadically over the following nine years. In 1880 she sent her earlier stories to the James R. Osgood Company for publication as The Peterkin Papers , and thus they later became the property of the Houghton Mifflin Company, which succeeded Osgood. In 1883 she completed another collection, The Last of the Peterkins , which was published in 1886 by Roberts Brothers. Mr. Niles of that company had originally asked for the first series of Peterkin stories and had been refused, but following her brother's advice Lucretia sent the later collection to Roberts Brothers, which was later absorbed by Little, Brown and Company. As if to accomplish an act of literary integration, in 1960 Houghton Mifflin was able to publish The Complete Peterkin Papers with the original illustrations and with an introduction by Nancy Hale, the granddaughter of Edward Everett Hale.

Despite the occasional nature of the production of these stories, seen in the aggregate they are remarkably unified. First, their tone is consistent. For they were tossed off as nonsense stories—to entertain old and young—and they are in fact a series of preposterous episodic adventures. The Peterkins at home and the Peterkins abroad can never cope in a practical or sensible way with the daily mishaps of life. What to do when snowed in, what to do when the dumbwaiter gets stuck, how to cope with moving or with securing enough china for a tea party—these problems are always beyond their power. On this level, the stories capture the Victorian love of nonsense—of reductio ad absurdum—and recall the comparable literary excursions of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll.

But the stories are also held together by structural unity—one might say by a series of structural unities. Despite the fact that they were produced during different periods of Hale's life, they hang together as the experiences of one family: father, mother, older children, and younger ones, each with his or her own idiosyncrasies. Agamemnon had gone to college at one time and continues throughout his life to rely on such academic paraphernalia as encyclopedias and stray information, while Mrs. Peterkin and Elizabeth Eliza are always indecisive and apprehensive about the least possibility of a domestic mishap. Virtually all we see of the little boys is their ebullient spirit and the fact that they constantly wear rubber boots. The wise Lady from Philadelphia always supplies simple and sane solutions for the agonies of a family that is quietly refined and zany at the same time. She is the dea ex machina who untangles the unbelievable snarls, domestic and otherwise, caused by their ineptitude.

Moreover, for each Peterkin volume Lucretia wrote a preface revealing her command of the material that had accrued through the years. In the preface to the first edition she wrote "How the Peterkins Came to Publish Their Adventures," in which the family discusses how to explain to the world what happened to them. At first, "Mrs. Peterkin shrank from this; it would make the whole matter more public than ever." Then the family remembers some of the events that could become subjects for chapters, such as the Fourth of July explosion or the day "when there was no fire, but the engines insisted on coming." In the end they consult the Lady from Philadelphia, who answers, "Yes, of course; publish them."

Similarly, in the preface to The Last of the Peterkins , Lucretia effectively disposes of the whole family, very much as Cervantes put an end to the adventures of Don Quixote:

It is feared that Mr. and Mrs. Peterkin lost their lives after leaving Tobolsk, perhaps in some vast conflagration.

Agamemnon and Solomon John were probably sacrificed in some effort to join in or control the disturbances which arose in the distant places where they had established themselves,—Agamemnon in Madagascar, Solomon John in Rustchuk.

The little boys have merged into men in some German university, while Elizabeth Eliza must have been lost in the mazes of the Russian language.

Thus, to the end, Lucretia Hale wrote about the Peterkins tongue in cheek and at the same time retained control of her narrative.

It is interesting to compare her extended narrative control in both sets of Peterkin Papers with the narrative devices in some of her other stories. The Last of the Peterkins is accompanied by the subtitle With Others of Their Kin, and five unrelated stories and a poem fill out the volume. Consider only three of these narratives. "Lucilla's Diary" is about a wife who keeps a diary while awaiting her husband's return from Texas instead of writing him frequent letters; thus it is only on his return home that he learns that their house has burned down. "Jedidiah's Noah's Ark" tells of a set of toys coming to life, and "Carrie's Three Wishes" is a version of the famous folktale of the old couple who wish—with unfortunate consequences—for a black pudding. The poem—"The First Needle" —explains how a male invention led to female enslavement. Clever, humorous selections suggesting a kind of family kinship with Edward Everett Hale's short story "My Double and How He Undid Me," these narratives demonstrate the kind of anecdotal storytelling material that appealed to Lucretia Hale.

Ultimately, Hale's narrative art was rendered effective by her simple, unassuming, but uncannily witty style. Besides the bizarre adventures and the collection of characters reminiscent of the simpletons and noodleheads of folktales, she could turn out neat, unassuming phrases to convey the absurdly illogical humor engendered by a particular situation. Consider this sample of nonsensical dialogue from "The Peterkins' Journey Again Postponed" (like any other activity the Peterkins undertake, a proposed journey always leads them to further heart-searchings and indecisions):

"Benjamin Franklin came from Philadelphia, or else he went to it," said Agamemnon.

"Oh, yes, I know all about him," said Solomon John; "he made paint-brushes of his cat's tail!"

"Oh, no, that was another Benjamin, I am pretty sure," said Agamemnon.

"I don't know about that," said Solomon John; "but he became a famous artist, and painted the king and queen of England."

"You must have mixed up the Benjamins," said Agamemnon. "I will go and borrow an encyclopedia, and look them out."

"And we will make paint-brushes out of Elizabeth Eliza's cat," exclaimed the little boys; "and we will become famous, and paint the king and queen of England."

"You must not use the whole cat," said Solomon John; "and there is no king of England now."

"And I cannot spare her tail," cried Elizabeth Eliza, starting up in agony for her cat.

"It is only Philadelphia cats that are used for paint-brushes," said Mr. Peterkin.

Except for Mrs. Peterkin, the whole family becomes involved in a farfetched conversation in which the simplicity of the language is used both to hide and to reveal the Peterkins' comical combination of pedantry and naiveté.

Attempts have been made to attribute a serious, albeit satirical, purpose to The Peterkin Papers. In her excellent introduction to The Complete Peterkin Papers , Nancy Hale says that she detects in them a presentation of the "ludicrous side of Victorian family life," but she admits that "exasperation with the family confines … issued forth in a burst of laughter—in the Peterkins." Van Wyck Brooks went further in finding an ideological basis for The Peterkin Papers. In New England Indian Summer, 1865-1915, he wrote:

This book was an amicable satire on the well-known culture that was everywhere associated with the name of Boston, and the Peterkins suggested the literary families that also abounded in Boston and its learned suburbs. They might have been drawn from the Alcotts, the Howes, or the Hales.

He further comments that the activities and concepts of the Peterkins "could only have been possible in a world that had known Elizabeth Peabody and the candours of transcendental Concord."

Such commentaries make clear the pragmatic world in which the Peterkins actually lived—a world of horse-drawn vehicles and trips to Boston. At the same time, the telegraph, telephone, locomotive, and fire engine are not ignored, and one is also made conscious of the Centennial celebration in Philadelphia. Interwoven in the stories are strands of such realistic detail, and there are occasional touches of satire as well. For example, "The Educational Breakfast," an alphabetical bill of fare starting with applesauce and ending with zest, touches slyly on the didactic idealism of nineteenth-century New Englanders. The story meanders away from its first theme to recount how Elizabeth Eliza is rendered immobile when the edge of her dress is caught in a locked trunk. By and large, the narratives subsist as extravaganzas intended to elicit laughter.

Selected Bibliography

Works of Lucretia P. Hale

The Peterkin Papers. Boston: J. R. Osgood, 1880. Republished with illustrations by Harold Brett. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1924.

The Last of the Peterkins: With Others of Their Kin. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1886; Boston: Little, Brown, 1929.

The Complete Peterkin Papers. With an introduction by Nancy Hale and with the original illustrations. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960.

Critical and Biographical Studies

Brooks, Van Wyck. New England Indian Summer, 1865-1915. New York: Dutton, 1940.

Hale, Edward Everett. A New England Boyhood. With a new introduction by Nancy Hale. Boston: Little, Brown, 1964.

Hale, Edward Everett, Jr. The Life and Letters of Edward Everett Hale. 2 vols. Boston: Little, Brown, 1917.

Wankmiller, Madelyn Clush. "Lucretia P. Hale and The Peterkin Papers." Horn Book 34: 95-103, 139-147 (April 1958).

White, Eliza Orne. "Lucretia P. Hale: The Author of The Peterkin Papers." Horn Book 16: 311-322 (Sept.-Oct. 1940).

Francisca Goldsmith (essay date 2003)

SOURCE: Goldsmith, Francisca. "Lucretia Peabody Hale." In Continuum Encyclopedia of Children's Literature, edited by Bernice E. Cullinan and Diane Person, pp. 342-43. New York, N.Y.: Continuum, 2003.

[In the following essay, Goldsmith offers a brief description of Hale's contributions to late nineteenth-century children's literature.]

[Lucretia Hale] exemplified many of the creative traits of her literary and patriotic family. Daughter of a publisher, sister to several other writers and publishers, including short story writer Edward Everett Hale, [Lucretia Hale] began writing reviews and editorials, as well as providing translations, while still a schoolgirl. For the era, she received an excellent education, becoming close lifelong friends with several of her schoolmates. [Hale's] humorous stories about the Peterkin family developed during her years of entertaining first her friends and then their children, by whom she was recognized as an honorary aunt.

[Hale] published stories in The Atlantic Monthly and Our Young Folks (which later became St. Nicholas). The Peterkin Papers (1880), brought together several Peterkin family stories in book form that had first appeared in these magazines. These nonsense stories about a bumblingly incompetent family, and their wise friend, the Lady from Philadelphia, are recognized as the first nonsense stories written and published for American children. The humorous book enjoyed national success and the fun provided by the characters' foolishness has kept it popular for more than a century. In 1989 a picture book version of a single Peterkin story, The Lady Who Put Salt in Her Coffee was adapted and illustrated by Amy Schwartz.

In addition to writing, storytelling and traveling, [Hale] also was the first woman to serve on the Boston School Committee and was an early promoter of kindergarten education. She ran a dame school and wrote religious novels and domestic arts books for adults.



Van Wyck Brooks (review date 1940)

SOURCE: Brooks, Van Wyck. "Indian Summer." In New England: Indian Summer 1865-1915, p. 332. New York, N.Y.: E. P. Dutton & Company, Inc., 1940.

[In the following review, Brooks describes The Peterkin Papers as an "amicable satire" on late nineteenth-century Boston society.]

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Evan F. Commager (review date 4 December 1960)

SOURCE: Commager, Evan F. "Good Family Fun." New York Times Book Review (4 December 1960): 67.

[In the following review, Commager lauds the collection of stories in The Complete Peterkin Papers, asserting that Hale's fiction has the "special quality of child-like simplicity which is the quality of the greatest of all storytellers, Hans Christian Andersen."]

A girl writes home from college, "my room is covered from end to end with red splendor—the rug fits as if it had been cut to fit the room—or vice versa, see Peterkin Papers. " What a lucky girl she is. Most people of her age haven't read The Peterkin Papers and therefore haven't a ready reference for almost any domestic situation. How sorry we have felt for those who knew not Lucretia Hale and the Peterkins, and how comforting to come across people—mostly elderly, to be sure—who, when confronted with a Christmas tree too tall for the room, would instantly say "cut a hole in the ceiling," or who cannot help marveling a little when they see a piano and its bench in the same room.

Now, for the benefit of a new generation, comes a handsome new edition of Miss Hale's masterpieces—the first complete edition. It contains certain stories that appeared in the first edition (1880) of The Peterkin Papers but which were dropped from the edition of 1886; and included in the new edition is The Last of the Peterkins (1886). So here are all that gaiety and absurdity—the absurdity of the familiar and the commonplace that give these stories their special character. Almost anyone, we feel, might find himself in predicaments similar to the Peterkins'.

And what do you do, after all, if the piano is too big, or if you haven't enough cups to go around at the tea party, or if you start a game of charades without thinking of the word first? If you belong to the right kind of family, you call in your own Lady from Philadelphia who, like that logical, ever-resourceful friend of the Peterkins, always solves apparently insoluble problems.

Lucretia Peabody Hale, who created this admirable woman, was one of the great writing families of Boston. Her father, Nathan Hale (nephew of the patriot), was owner and editor of The Boston Daily Advertiser, her uncle, Edward Everett, clergyman, orator, statesman, had been president of Harvard College; her brother, Edward Everett Hale, was the author of The Man without a Country. But poor Lucretia—she was really nothing much. She was the maiden aunt, just like her contemporary, Louisa May Alcott, whose Little Women made their bow just as the Peterkins were disporting themselves across the pages of Our Young Folks and, later the old St. Nicholas. It was then that cheerfulness broke through—and it was these invincible maiden ladies who rescued children from the dreadful morality stories that had so long afflicted them.

Louisa Alcott was, of course, the more serious writer—you can see how serious anyone is who disapproves of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Miss Hale could be serious enough, too, when she wanted to—which was most of the time. Like Louisa she was an indefatigable scribbler, she wrote devotional books and books on how-to-sew or how-to-knit and all sorts of sober little stories. But somewhere in her was a wonderful strain of nonsense and it was the nonsense that has survived. It had that special quality of childlike simplicity which is the quality of the greatest of all storytellers, Hans Christian Andersen.

Nancy Hale, Lucretia's grand-niece, who has written a charming introduction to this lovely edition, tells us that the stories are a satire on Victorian family life or at least a safety valve for it. Perhaps so. The cast of characters is certainly Victorian enough: the somewhat dim Mr. Peterkin who had to have his Quiet Hour; the flustered, incompetent but somehow indomitable Mrs. Peterkin who was always getting everything wrong; Agamemnon, who was always going to write a book but could never think of anything to write about. And Solomon John and Elizabeth Eliza and the three little boys with their India-rubber boots, triumphantly real though forever anonymous.

Yes, it is all very Victorian—the tea parties, the visit to the Centennial Exposition, the pre-occupation with proper meals, the endless family discussions about nothing much, the dependence on friends and neighbors and particularly on the Lady from Philadelphia. (She was, of course, a very real person, no other than Susan Lesley, who gave us that enchanting picture of New England life, Recollections of My Mother) But it is not so clear that the stories are satire. They are perhaps too affectionate for that.

In any case, the important fact is that they are all here—the first series and the somewhat miscellaneous additions in The Last of the Peterkins , (something of a let-down these). Now you can begin with the great crisis of salt in the coffee and proceed all the way from crisis to disaster, from disaster to catastrophe—but really nothing very serious. The original illustrations decorate the pages; the print and binding are just what they should be for such a nostalgia-provoking book. Every American family should have a Lady from Philadelphia who will know just what to put in the Christmas box this year.


Publishers Weekly (review date 28 July 1989)

SOURCE: Review of The Lady Who Put Salt in Her Coffee, by Lucretia Peabody Hale, illustrated by Amy Schwartz. Publishers Weekly 236, no. 4 (28 July 1989): 219-20.

Victoriana reigns in Schwartz's illustrated excerpt from the 1867 classic, The Peterkin Papers. In this story [The Lady Who Put Salt in Her Coffee ], Mrs. Peterkin unthinkingly puts salt into her coffee, instead of sugar. Mr. Peterkin and the children call in a chemist to correct the flavor, and then a herb woman, but both of them fail to alleviate the coffee's terrible taste. Of course, "the lady from Philadelphia" saves the day when she suggests they simply brew a fresh cup of coffee. Raucous 19th-century-style furnishings, fabrics and costume outfit this tale, which is beautifully suited to the picture book format. The art expresses the comic personalities of each adult with a remarkable use of posture and form; the children mostly look on the proceedings with adoring bewilderment.

Susan Scheps (review date October 1989)

SOURCE: Scheps, Susan. Review of The Lady Who Put Salt in Her Coffee, by Lucretia Peabody Hale, illustrated by Amy Schwartz. School Library Journal 35, no. 14 (October 1989): 85-6.

K-Gr. 3—When Mrs. Peterkin finds that she has put salt in her coffee instead of sugar [in The Lady Who Put Salt in Her Coffee ], the whole family searches for a remedy … but neither the chemist nor the herb woman can restore the taste. Not until the family consults the sensible lady from Philadelphia (who suggests brewing a fresh cup) can Mrs. Peterkin enjoy her morning coffee. In this adaptation of the first—and perhaps funniest—chapter of Hale's Peterkin Papers (Sharon, 1981), Schwartz has removed some of the wordiness without changing Hale's style or the droll flavor of the original, better suiting the story to the picture-book format and making this classic more accessible to today's children. Full-page watercolor and pen-and-ink illustrations are filled with the abundant patterns and clutter associated with Victorian decor—fringed lamp shades, ornate furniture, and swarming patterns on wallpaper, carpets, and clothing. Using only tiny lines to denote facial features, Schwartz has endowed her whimsical characters with wonderfully expressive faces. Full pages of text on white background are sometimes embellished with smaller illustrations, adding to the pleasing format. A charming spoof of Victorian family life and an example of nonsense in early American writing revived by a gifted illustrator of today.

M. M. B. (review date January-February 1990)

SOURCE: M. M. B. Review of The Lady Who Put Salt in Her Coffee, by Lucretia Peabody Hale, illustrated by Amy Schwartz. Horn Book Magazine 66, no. 1 (January-February 1990): 51.

Adapting a classic is a challenging process. Fortunately, Amy Schwartz has succeeded brilliantly, showing respect for her material and appreciation for the time and place in which it is set [in The Lady Who Put Salt in Her Coffee ]. Textual changes are minimal: a few judicious omissions of material that slowed the pace and the rearrangement of paragraphs into sequences better suited to the picture book format. Lucretia Hale's words and wry humor remain as brisk and appealing as always, brightly burnished for a contemporary audience. Always a favorite with storytellers, "The Lady Who Put Salt in Her Coffee" is one of the original "noodlehead" tales about the Peterkin family—long on charm but short on commonsense—who are rescued from their self-induced dilemmas by the practical wisdom of the lady from Philadelphia. In this episode, Mrs. Peterkin mistakenly puts salt instead of sugar in her coffee. Immediately her devoted spouse and children, including son Agamemnon, "who had been to college," try to solve the problem through an elaborate series of schemes involving visits to such local notables as the chemist and the herb woman. All add substances to counteract the taste, but with no success. The solution—to brew a new cup of coffee—will certainly charm today's listeners and readers as much as it did those in 1867, when the story was first published. The animated, finely detailed, colorful illustrations capture both the absurdity of the tale and the wonderfully fussy Victorian atmosphere. Like a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, the story not only stands the test of time but benefits greatly from a new and thoughtful production.



White, Eliza Orne. "Lucretia P. Hale: The Author of The Peterkin Papers." Horn Book Magazine 16, no. 5 (September-October 1940): 317-22.

Discusses her family connection with Hale, shares personal impressions and recollections of the author, sheds light on the creation of The Peterkin Papers, and examines how factual events became the basis for the Peterkin's adventures.


Adams, John R. "Longer Fiction: Novels and Tracts." In Edward Everett Hale, pp. 57-9. Boston, Mass.: Twayne Publishers, 1977.

Documents Hale's collaboration with her brother Edward Everett on Margaret Percival in America.

Arbuthnot, May Hill, and Zena Sutherland. Review of The Peterkin Papers, by Lucretia Peabody Hale. In Children and Books: Fourth Edition, p. 241. Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1972.

Offers a positive assessment of The Peterkin Papers.

Carpenter, Humphrey, and Mari Prichard. Review of The Peterkin Papers, by Lucretia Peabody Hale. In Oxford Companion to Children's Literature, p. 404. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Highlights the inane situations experienced by the protagonists in The Peterkin Papers.

Review of The Complete Peterkin Papers, by Lucretia Peabody Hale. New York Herald Tribune 37, no. 22 (1 January 1960): 32.

Assesses the strengths and weaknesses of The Complete Peterkin Papers.

Additional coverage of Hale's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 122, 136; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 42; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; Something about the Author, Vol. 26; and Writers for Children.

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Hale, Lucretia Peabody 1820-1900

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