November 8, 2018

Curator’s Log, November, 2018: The 1870 Love Letters of John Brown Herreshoff

An important part of the museum’s collection related to the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company and Herreshoff family are the original business and private correspondence, and other manuscript materials, originating with, or relating to, John Brown Herreshoff.

Curator’s Log November 2018
The 1870 Love Letters of John Brown Herreshoff

An important part of the museum’s collection related to the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company and Herreshoff family are the original business and private correspondence, and other manuscript materials, originating with, or relating to, John Brown Herreshoff.

These materials can be divided into four elements:

  1. The largest collection of personal materials, and the subject of this Log, are the 41 envelopes each containing a letter or telegram John sent to his fiancée Sarah (Sadie) Kilton over the five months (May 5, 1870 to Oct. 3, 1870) immediately preceding their Oct. 7, 1870 wedding. The correspondence envelopes were individually numbered by Sadie in ink from 1 to 41. (Envelope #11 is empty.) John dictated the letters to a secretary while traveling or to a family member when at home in Bristol. The scribe’s initials are recorded. (Figures 1&2 pictures John and Sadie at the time of their wedding.) Many letters are difficult to read, and this Log is based on transcripts made by archivist Norene Rickson. These materials and those listed below are part of a large collection of correspondence and additional manuscript materials donated/bequeathed to the museum in 1986 by John’s grand-daughter Louise Herreshoff DeWolf. [1]
  2. Newspaper scrapbooks of news clippings covering John’s business and sailboat racing activities over the years 1853 to 1890.
  3. Nineteen letters between John and his daughter Katherine Kilton Herreshoff over the six months from April- September 1885.
  4. In addition, the museum has a collection of miscellaneous business letters of John Brown Herreshoff received from various donors; this is being cataloged.

Now for the “Love Letters” of 1870.

John and Sadie met in the winter 1869-1870. John’s 1870 letters tell us something of their courting as well as the great energy he applies to his business activities. Sadie is living with her parents in Boston where her father is a prominent merchant. For the time it was a “long distance” courtship. Much of the correspondence, especially the telegrams are about the details of transiting between Boston and Bristol.

On May 13, John, recently returned from a trip to Boston, provides Sadie with travel instructions for her first visit to Bristol, “I hope to make your visit here as pleasant as you have made mine in Boston.” As is only proper when a single woman is to visit, John includes a note from his mother Julia, “Dear Sadie, It will give me pleasure to see you in Bristol next week and should the weather prove favorable I think you may enjoy the visit very much.”. John signs his letter, “your sincere friend John B. Herreshoff.” As Sadie’s visit is delayed, John is getting anxious; he signs his next letter on the 15th “your affectionate friend, John”.

For much of May and June John is engaged in selling the 1867 Herreshoff designed and built 47-foot waterline sloop SADIE. (Figure 3)   He had advertised her in New York that March, receiving a number of inquiries. He sails with R. Franklin Burgess who is “perfectly delighted” with her and potential buyers throughout southern New England waters. He writes Sadie of one offer of two house lots in Brooklyn for the boat as not worth a trip to New York, “Of course I will not accept. He does not seem aware of the worth…” On June 22 while getting SADIE ready for another trip he thinks of her and wishes “our forefathers of the MAYFLOWER” had come to Narraganset Bay rather than Plymouth; the implication is that her family would have settled closer to Bristol. [2]

On July 7 he telegraphs Sadie to meet him at the early train arrival in Boston and there is apparently a later unrecorded trip to Boston when they become engaged. On the 26th he writes from Bristol, “Mother very much delighted at the news”. She is anxious to assist the couple rather than placing obstacles in their way. “I have been congratulated right and left.” Julia sends a note on the 28th; “John is now in a much happier frame of mind since the engagement between you has been decided- and we all feel that you are calculated to make him happy. I feel sure that he will do all to render your life comfortable that is in his power.”

There are other boats that summer. On June 1 he is, “off in IOLANTHE this PM & am pleased with her performance”.[3] John mentions launching a “new boat” and sailing her to Fall River on July 2nd. There is one boat for which we have found no other Herreshoff connection. On July 17 he launches and rigs CAMILLA. On August 15th there is a regatta in Newport with New York Yacht Club boats including the America’s Cup contender CAMBRIA. CAMILLA goes “down the next day with all from the house who wish to go.” On Sept 2 there is to be a “pow wow” in Newport and John advertises CAMILLA “to take excursions.” Obviously, CAMILLA is a sailing vessel of some size.

On Aug. 18 they return from Newport late. Early the next morning they get steam up in the new 38-foot launch ANEMONE (HMCo 4) while on the building ways, launch her at 3 AM and are off to New Bedford by 4 AM.

From Aug. 22- 31 John sends a flurry of telegrams. He is contending with a neglected fiancée. He implores her to come to Bristol, then wisely relents and travels quickly to Boston. He then visits Boston regularly every two weeks, but with his hectic business schedule does rather meekly opine on Sept. 15, “I am at home today attending to business about here- the first whole day at home for over three months.”

John and Sadie marry on Oct. 7 in Boston. Following a honeymoon to Niagara Falls and Chicago they settle into a room Julia has fixed up for them, until moving to the home and office on 20 Burnside Street in 1874. John and Sadie separate in 1885 and divorce a few years later.

John Palmieri

[1] There is additional 1870 correspondence written while on their honeymoon in October 1870.

[2] SADIE originally built as a schooner and later converted to a sloop by Herreshoff, is advertised in the New York Herald March 11, 1870.

[3] “IOLANTHE” must be the 49-foot waterline Schooner IANTHE. L. Francis Herreshoff cites the vessel under two names IANTHE and LANTHE as being delivered to Charles L. Davenport in 1870. (LFH, Captain Nat: Wizard of Bristol pp 57, 330, 332.)