November 7, 1852


Anne Marsh-Caldwell

(1791 – 1874)

Sunday Nov 7th  It was unpleasant this morning

and I did not feel like going to church

All the rest of the family went  Oakes A

& Oliver came home at noon & did not return

I have been wicking most of the time

Evelina played truant today and skipped church. How quiet the house must have been with everyone away. She wrote that she was “wicking most of the time,” although we might imagine that she read a little as well.

Wicking is a term for placing a wick into a candle mold and pouring wax around it to make a candle. No doubt the Ameses used some candles around the house – we know, for instance, that Evelina had bought wax candles the previous month. It’s unlikely, however, that Evelina was actually making candles. The task would have been too big a production, especially on the Sabbath. She may have been using the term wicking in a different sense; perhaps she was placing fresh wicks into some of the oil lamps around the house. Although kerosene was not yet available, other sources of oil were. Knowing how up-to-date Evelina’s parlor was, we can imagine that she had furnished it with relatively modern oil lamps. She may have been trimming those wicks.

Given the “unpleasant” weather outside, Evelina spent the day indoors. Once the wicking was completed, she may have settled down to read, as she so often did on a Sunday after church. Last week she had mentioned reading a novel called Ravenscliffe, a novel published in 1851 and written by Anne Marsh-Caldwell, an Englishwoman.  Mrs. Marsh was known for her stories of the upper-middle class and second-tier aristocracy; her books were quite popular from the 1830’s through the 1850’s, occasionally rivaling books by authors with whom we are more familiar: Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, to name two. A contemporary described Mrs. Marsh’s novels as “thoroughly feminine,”* which suggests that they fell into the category that Old Oliver described as “love trash.” Evelina seemed to enjoy the book, regardless of her father-in-law’s contempt. It was probably good escapist fare from wicking and rain.

*Sara Coleridge, Memoirs and Letters of Sara Coleridge, 1873


October 31, 1852

Abbott H. Thayer, Angel, 1887, oil Smithsonian American Art Museum Gift of John Gellatly

Abbott H. Thayer, Angel, 1887, oil
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Gift of John Gellatly


Sunday Oct 31st  Mr Swains child died at 20 minutes

past five this morning  Mrs Witherell

and self passed the night there & laid

him out  Mrs Witherell came home & I 

staid untill about four  Mrs S Ames

& Helen were here awhile this evening

and the rest of the time I read Ravenscliffe

John Howland Swain, Jr., aged one year and 14 days, died at dawn this morning. Cause of death was listed as Teething. What did that mean? He was dehydrated? He had a fever? An infection? Whatever it was, it was too much for the little boy – and for the medical treatments of the day.

In the 19th century, infant death was common, but its ubiquity made it no less easy for parents to bear. Sylvia D. Hoffert, a 20th century historian, has studied the subject. She writes:

“The number of children that couples were likely to bear was beginning to decline in the early nineteenth century. This factor combined with the cult of motherhood, which demanded that women invest considerable time, effort, and affection in their children and measured their contribution to society by their success in fulfilling their maternal obligations, made the death of an infant a particularly tragic occurrence. […] Although […parents] placed great value on their babies’ lives and did what they could to protect them, they were well aware that children commonly died in infancy and that there was little they could really do to ensure the survival of infants. They used the loss of infants as an occasion for demonstrating their willingness to submit to the will of God and found comfort in the belief that their children had gone to join him in heaven. For them, the death of an infant was a private, family matter.”*

The Ames women supported Ann and John Swain as they dealt with the loss of their firstborn son. Both Evelina and Sarah Witherell had themselves buried children of their own, and could comprehend the sorrow inflicted. While Evelina deals with the little boy’s death matter-of-factly, even escaping into her reading later in the day, she had to have been sad for the young Swain couple. She knew.

*Sylvia D. Hoffert, Private Matters, 1989, University of Illinois,  pp. 169-170