Carole Owens: Nasty letters go way back



I begin my day reading the online Berkshire Eagle. Fun because it affords the reader the opportunity to respond, in real time, to what they are reading. We can all read what the reporter has to say and what our fellow citizens think about it. Usually comments are prompted when readers disagree with the writer. Under the heading: the more things change the more they remain the same, here is a reader/writer exchange 1863 style.

Starting at Park Square, driving down North Street, Caroline Whitmarsh, Berkshire correspondent for the Springfield Republican, described Pittsfield in 1863.

"September 30: The first drive through the village reveals all -- broken off spires, low warehouses, [train] stations in cellars and a bald old elm holding out one green branch." Her article was a lengthy one. It started with a sneer and only got worse.


"It is strange that there are no public buildings of any pretension. Dr. Todd's church is handsome but low and inconspicuous. The Baptist church was handsome once but the wind took the steeple and it now looks like a pencil with the point lost. . . there is no good hotel or public hall."

Burbank Hall was built and in use in 1863, but it did not appeal to Whitmarsh. She went on with a fresh insult. "The streets are not lighted except here and there by private enterprise; and if you would know what is ‘the blackness of darkness' spoken of by the prophet, grope your way home on a cloudy night beneath the double rows of maples that shade the sidewalks."

She moved on to an invidious comparison between the town center and the areas west and south of town. "Some fine areas are scattered about the borders of Pittsfield, commanding views of mountain, woodland and lakes better than all the landscape oil paintings."

Those complimentary words were not enough to overshadow the final insult. Caroline Whitmarsh insulted the women of Pittsfield as "makers of sweet pickles." (No idea why being called a maker of sweet pickles is an insult? Read on. They certainly knew in 1863.)

Just as no self-respecting blogger would take a misguided or unfair characterization lying down; the good people of Pittsfield took pen in hand and rose to vanquish Miss Whitmarsh. Unlike a blogger, it took two weeks for the letter to reach the paper and be printed.

"October 15, 1863: There appeared in a recent number of the Springfield Republican a letter from a correspondent of that paper in Pittsfield which has attracted remark in town from its manifest unfairness and vinegary tone."

Take that! Amazing how much more gentle we were in 1863 even when incensed.

The Pittsfield letter writer, who does not sign the missive, goes on to defend Pittsfield citizens, businesses, buildings, and "the grand old elm before which every true and loyal child of Berkshire is ready to bow with reverent head."

However, he saves his sharpest arrow to defend the ladies -- the "sweet pickle makers."

"Finally this amiable correspondent indicts the ladies of Pittsfield upon the charge of being ‘engaged in making sweet pickles.' Well we presume that the ladies are ready to plead guilty to the impeachment. By engaging in this pursuit, hundreds of our poor soldiers have blessed their ministering so why should they not be allowed the privilege of making sweet pickles? The practice is understood to be remunerative and therefore would satisfy New York; it is a study and therefore the pursuit is a scientific one worthy of Boston; the article [pickles] is known to the best families and therefore would not degrade Philadelphia."


There is the answer to why calling ladies pickle makers is as insult.

Whitmarsh, queen of the invidious comparison, wrote that New York is interested in business; Boston in knowledge; Philadelphia in lineage, and Pittsfield in sweet pickles.

To refute Whitmarsh, the Pittsfield defender turns pickle making into a business with a scientific base resulting in a product the best families like, and therefore, an acceptable pursuit.

"Here we are satisfied to rest the question asking if we are not right in asserting that nowhere are to be found ladies more skilled in housewifery and hospitality or in the more polished accomplishment of polite society than amid the hills and dales of old Berkshire."

Well all right then; I trust you are all nodding your heads, and I will find no comments posted because clearly every word about Berkshire women (except for knowing how to make sweet pickles) is true.

Carole Owens is a Berkshire writer and historian.


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