Three letters written by KCB from Paris have survived. But most of the content is about London. The first is dated October 13, 1894.

My dearest brother,
                        We spent eleven days in London and came over to Paris yesterday. The channel was as quick as it could be and none of us were sick. We are comfortable located for about a week at the Chatham Hotel, where everybody seems to speak a little English but nevertheless I find my little french very useful.
                        My first impression of London was very different from any idea I had formed from reading and hearsay. We got to Southhampton about two o’clock at night, and finding the steamer had provided a special train to London, decided to go right on thinking it would be only about two hours. But we were delayed two or more hours by the customs officers for the other passengers so it was daylight before we got to London. The customs officers went through our satchels but did not open our trucks, and we have papers now that will I think prevent their bothering us anymore. One small cab was all we could get at the station in London so early in the morning. The driver did not hesitate to take us all in, including Shep, and then to take all our trucks and hand baggage on top, and one poor horse pulled the load. As we drove to the hotel, the Thames on one side of us, spanned by beautiful bridges, and a wide, prettily kept parking on the other, the sun rose. I never saw a clearer more beautiful sun rise. Banks of red clouds – no fog, no smoke. So you see my first impression of London was very favorable. The sun shone for three or four days.  Then we never saw his face again until we got to sunny France. We had one real London fog, which I was glad of as an experience, but which I would not care to repeat often. It was so dark that all the stores, streets, cabs, etc were lighted as at night and every light was needed. But we were told that once in a while London had even darker fogs than that.
                        We were going every hour, either shopping or sightseeing and I enjoyed it all – although we all took bad colds, and I was tired out always. You never felt anything like the chilliness of London. We were cold all the time. None of the houses are heated except by tiny little open fires and we did not find them lit except in a few American houses. How the people stand the winters I don’t see. We had a good deal of kind attention and except that our time was so limited we saw London I expect under more favorable auspices than travelers usually do see it. We of course had no time for the surrounding country. Although we did take a day for Windsor. We are standing the fatigue pretty well but by the time we reach St. Petersburg I am sure we will need a rest.
                        We have not seen anything of Paris yet.  I have taken today to get our heads washed and write some letters.  A great deal of love to each member of your family. Always my precious brother. Your devoted sister.

And as you can see a lot of this letter is the same as her letter written from London to “my dearest sister” and dated October 11, 1894 (see here). She talks about the delay at customs in Southhampton and the cramped drive from the coast to London. And the weather! Three recurring themes appear in KCB’s letters from Europe and Russia – weather, health, and money. Weather can mean the weather outside or how the homes are heated (or more to the point when they are not heated). I’ve always wondered if it was truly an American thing – How the people stand the winters I don’t see – or if as a Southerner, she just didn’t get used to the cold.


She does mention where they are staying in Paris and a quick Google search produced this image from the 1885 Harpers Handbook for Travelers in Europe. I wonder if KCB used an edition of this handbook or if the hotel was recommended by friends, family or one of CRB’s work colleagues?

In addition to her letter to Lily dated October 15, 1894 (seen here in a previous post), KCB wrote her third and final Paris letter to “My dear friend” dated October 16, 1894. I made a photocopy of this one!

My dear friend,
                        I fully intended writing to you before I left New York. But I had countless things to look after, and kinsfolk and friends coming and going all the time.
                        It was a real disappointment to us not to be able to go home. I did not even get to see my brothers. My brother in Knoxville spent ten days with me in New York. I left auntie not feeling very well and depressed at our going away so far. She writes she feels “much older” and “very friendless.” She promises to try and make us a visit, but I have not much hope she will.
                        We all took wretched colds in London and have been sick even since, but we have not had time to stop going. Those barbarous English do live in such cold uncomfortable houses! And then damp climate is the most penetrating cold I ever felt. And they invite you to a dinner, and you must go low neck, and set you in a room without a fire, and you can consider yourself fortunate if they haven’t a window open. We saw one real London fog, although we were told, not the worst London could get up, as we could not smell sulplur (sic), I felt about it as I did about the storm at sea. Glad to have had the experience, but don’t care to repeat it. It was so dark that the houses, streets, stores, cabs, etc were all lighted as at night then nothing looked bright or cheerful. And cold went through and through one.
                        Our stay in London was very interesting. Of course we could not begin to see everything in the brief space at our disposal. But we saw a good deal in a very charming way. One day a Mr. Gwyn undertook to show us “old London.” He is the man who gets up Baedeker’s Guide books, and they say knows every inch of London. He is an Episcopal clergyman as well and has charge of a school among the poor, of a thousand children, and astounded Lees by telling her he had three hundred babies! He is a most interesting man, and made the day very interesting for us. He had a lunch prepared for us, with fourteen guests, in the old Banqueting Hall of Richard III. The hall too where he was declared king. A very quaint and in some respects beautiful old bit of architecture, and all that is left of the old palace. One day a gentleman, whose position corresponds to that of Commissioner of Education at home took us through Westminster. This was perhaps the most interesting day we had. And the gentleman with us was perfectly familiar with everything and much pleasanter than a guide book. We saw the coronation chair in which all the kings and queens for so many hundred years have been crowned with the old coronation stone of Scotland suspended beneath it. I presume the Scotch have ceased to long to have their own kings crowned on their own stone. Of course we looked up the Lowell window and Longfellow bust, and were proud to see our country new honored. Although the Lowell window seemed to me to be in a very out of the way corner. However I suppose it would satisfy most mortels (sic) to be in Westminster at all. We gazed on the tombs of most of the kings from Edward the Confessor down. And saw the stone under which most of the Cromwells had been buried, but all afterwards removed but one young girl. Elizabeth and her rival, Mary, Queen of Scots lay in opposite wings, etc. I could go on all night. We gave up nearly a day to Windsor and vicinity, which was not nearly enough. Visited Gray’s grave, in the village church of which he wrote, and stood under the yew tree, where he wrote his “[single letter illegible] Elegy” as the guide called it. Saw William Penn’s old home, with its beautiful park. The guide said the “Queen wanted to buy it for Princess Beatrice, but wasn’t able. And of course Prince Henry, being a German didn’t have any money, so it had been bought by a man who made matches.”
                        Do tell me all the house news. I am pining for home people and home talk. Direct to the care of United States Legation, St. Petersburg, Russia. It sounds so far off. Love to every body. Your devoted friend.
                        Visited the “Tower” and stood on the spot where Henry VIII had most of his wives heads chopped off. And afterwards stood on the stone that covers him at Windsor. Saw some genuine Queen Ann houses. As different from our Queen Ann as it is possible to conceive. Being extremely plain and simple. A peculiar doorway and style of carving being their characteristics.

My first thoughts in re-reading this letter again – who is “my dear friend” and where is “home”? If home is Louisiana, Memphis or Arkansas, then it could have been Kate Savage? “My brother in Knoxville” is William Waller Carson who taught engineering at the University of Tennessee. And auntie is most definitely Susanna Preston Lees.

In this letter, KCB might answer some of my previous questions. In the fourth paragraph, she gives some clarification to the Richard the Third banquet hall. It seems that they stayed pretty close to London – “we could not begin to see everything in the brief space at our disposal” – and she refers to seeing the hall where Richard was “declared king” at the same time as visiting the banquet hall. Their tour guide was a Episcopal clergyman named Mr. Gwyn whose expertise was London. So I don’t think that they ventured off to Gloucester and Sudeley Castle after all. And according to Wikipedia, Richard III was crowned in Westminster Abbey. But are crowned and declared the same in KCB’s mind or am I putting words in her mouth? And Gwyn, their tour guide for that day, didn’t take them to Westminster Abbey. It was the other guide who took them there.

The Coronation Chair and Stone of Scone.

When they did go to Westminster, she comments on the “coronation chair” and “the old coronation stone of Scotland.” Her statement “I presume the Scotch have ceased to long to have their own kings crowned on their own stone,” made me laugh out loud. Did the Scotch have much choice in the matter? For a great movie on the Stone of Scone and an attempt to get it back to Scotland, watch Stone of Destiny.

In addition to the bust of Longfellow (right), she refers to the Lowell window. I thought I might have mis-transcribed as window instead of widow but sure enough there’s a Lowell window in Westminster as well as a tablet dedicated to the American poet, James Russell Lowell. The tablet reads

“This tablet and the windows above were placed here in memory of James Russell Lowell, United States Minister at the Court of St James from 1880-1885 by his English friends. Born 22 Feb 1819. Died 12 Aug. 1891”.

Their visit to Windsor included a visit to Gray’s grave and the yew tree where he wrote his Elegy. This was particularly interested into me because at one point in time I wrote a comparison paper on Gray’s Elegy and Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Maddening Crowd. And at that point in life I thought I might be a literature professor. So I have a soft spot of Gray, his grave and that yew tree.

I love her comment about “William Penn’s old home” and the Queen wanting to buy it. Nothing on the internet about William Penn’s home in England. Did you know that he only spent 4 years in America? Yep and that’s according to the Pennsbury Manor website and I think they would know! And nothing about Queen Victoria wanting to buy it for Princess Beatrice and her husband (Prince Henry) not having the money.

After Paris, the Breckinridges are off to Berlin. And unfortunately I didn’t transcribed or photocopy either of her Berlin letters. In my inventory of the LOC’s collection, I show two letters postmarked from Berlin – one to a brother dated October 23, 1894 and one to Florence dated October 24, 1894. I’ll add these to the list for the next DC trip!!!!


On their journey to Russia, the Breckinridges stopped in London, Paris, and Berlin. In my thesis the journey took just a paragraph and referenced the Steamer letters from my The trip over post as well as a few of letters postmarked London and Paris. Here’s what I wrote back in 2004/2005.

The family arrived in England and spent two weeks in London before crossing the English Channel.[1]  According to her letters to family and friends in the United States, Breckinridge spent most of her time in London and Paris sightseeing and expanding her wardrobe according to the newest European fashions.  In a letter to her sister-in-law, she stated, “while Clifton went to the Embassy [I] went out to look for . . . real English fashion.”[2]  She acquired several garments in London and searched for a designer in Paris to design a series of outfits including a day dress and an evening gown.  She also purchased clothes for her two daughters, Mary Carson Breckinridge and Susanna Preston Lees Breckinridge.  Before arriving in Saint Petersburg, the Breckinridges stopped in Berlin to inquire after a tutor for their daughters.[3]

[1]Katherine Carson Breckinridge to “My dearest brother,” Steamer “Augusta Victoria,” 30 September 1894, Container 862, Family Papers; Katherine Carson Breckinridge to “My dearest brother,” Paris, 13 October 1894, Container 862, Family Papers.
[2]Katherine Carson Breckinridge to “My dearest sister,” London, 11 October 1894, Container 862, Family Papers.
[3]Katherine Carson Breckinridge to Jane, Saint Petersburg, 5 November 1894, Container 862, Family Papers.

Again I was so focused on getting them to Russia. So a paragraph would do but there is so much more in those letters. At the time KCB’s statement about searching for “real English fashion” was pivotal. The gown she would wear to the coronation would be designed and made by the English designer Redfern. And I imagine they also looked at Charles Frederick Worth’s London salon. I grabbed that one phase, created a paragraph around it, and forgot about the rest of the letter.

But missed so much detail.

October 11th1894

My dearest sister,
                        I have just finished packing and it is bed time. But I can’t move on without sending a few lines. Your letter and mammy’s came last night and filled my heart full with joy and pain. It seemed to open afresh my grief at parting with you. I hope to hear again at Paris. We have stayed here longer than we expected. Leave in the morning. I want to tell you everything but I cant think of it. We have been going all the time. First shopping, afterwards sightseeing. We have been greatly interested but absolutely worn out. My first impression of London was contrary to all my expectations. When we landed at South Hampton we found there was a special train through to London, and Clifton thought it best to come right on. We expected to get here about three or half past in the morning – But there was a delay of two hours or more about the customs, and before we reached London it was daylight. The seats in the car were absolutely straight and there was no heat. We were cold through and through, and did not get any rest or sleep. When we got here we could find but one cab so early, but all six of us (Sheppie too) piled in and all of our trucks and bundles went on top and one poor horse pulled us to the “Savoy” – The morning was as clear and beautiful as it could be. The sun rose in a bank of red clouds, and there was no suggestion of fog or smoke or anything disagreeable. We drove along a wide street with the river on one side of us and a prettily kept parking on the other to the hotel. For three days the sun show(sic) all the time – since then we have seen London as we read of it. The “Savoy” was very comfortable. Mr. Wilson and Mr. Straws had left word for us to go there – It is beautifully situated overlooking the Thames. But by the time we had eaten breakfast Monday, we determined it would not take many days to break us, so I took a cab while Clifton went to the Embassy and went out to look for (illegible), real English fashion. We moved that afternoon and have been very comfortably located, and have not felt we were going beyond our means. We have seen a good deal, and in a very interesting way. One day a Mr. (illegible) (he is the man who gets up Baedeker’s guide books, and they say knows every inch of London) took us to see “old London.” I cant go over the curious and interesting things we saw. We took lunch, a party of fourteen, in the old banqueting hall of Richard Third. A very quaint and in some respects, beautiful old place. One day another gentleman, who holds the position here that corresponds with our Commissioner of Education, took us all over Westminster and its surroundings. He was perfectly familiar with the history of everything and it was most interesting. We spent one day at Windsor, visited Gray’s grave and now I must say good night. My heart is full of love for each one of you.

Your devoted sister.

KCB’s first Europe letter to family back in the States (in the Breckinridge Family Paper at the Library of Congress) is dated October 11, 1894 from London. This is the only London letter I transcribed from the collection and the only one listed in my inventory.

At the time I transcribed this letter, I questioned the greeting “sister.” KCB was the only daughter of Dr. James Green Carson and his wife, Catharine. CRB had two sisters so I thought it could have been addressed to either of them. But now that I’ve seen James Lees and Susanna Preston Lees’ Wills, I know that the Lees considered a number of younger family members as their own children. Including KCB. So now I wonder if this “sister” KCB refers to in the greeting is in fact one of her Lees siblings. Maybe even Lily from Paris October 15, 1894. At this stage I’m assuming that “mammy” is a familiar for Susanna Preston Lees.

As she mentioned in her previous letter written to her brother on the ship, they landed in England in the middle of the night. Reminds me of modern train travel in the United States. Amtrak drops you in Little Rock in the middle of night – going or coming! If you are headed to Chicago, you catch the train about 11pm (if its on time). And if you are coming from Chicago, you’ll arrive about 5:30am or 6am. Again if it is on time. So you really don’t sleep much.


The Savoy

The Breckinridges arrived to a bright and sunny London and she states “my first impression of London was contrary to all my expectations.” But within days, London delivered grey and fog as literature promised. Initially the family check in to the The Savoy. In 1894 the hotel was practically brand new. But apparently it was too rich for KCB’s pocketbook (not surprising as you will discover!). So after one night (maybe two), they moved to another hotel. She says “we moved that afternoon and have been very comfortably located, and have not felt we were going beyond our means.”


Screen Shot 2018-04-12 at 2.56.11 PM

I was so focused on fashion that I missed all the sightseeing in my first read. Old London. Richard the Third’s Banqueting Hall. Westminster. Windsor. Gray’s Grave. I wonder if these were common sightseeing destinations for the 1890s American tourist. I even did a quick Google search for “sightseeing in 1894 London” and “1894 tour of London” and “tourists in 1894 London” to see if any other accounts exist. But no such luck.

I can’t be sure what KCB means by “Old London,” but Westminster (blue star), Windsor (green star) and Gray’s Grave (red star) I’m pretty sure about. Westminster is most certainly Westminster Abbey. Windsor is most likely Windsor Castle. And Gray’s Grave is most definitely poet Thomas Gray’s grave. But Richard the Third’s Banqueting Hall?

A quick interest search of “Richard 3rd banquet hall” lead me to Sudeley Castle (orange star). It is still a popular tourists attraction but it seems to have been in ruins since the mid-1600s. But it’s all the way over near Gloucester. Would an American tourists with only 2 weeks in London with her two young daughters have ventured that far to see some ruins? That’s a little over 2 hours and 112 miles by car today. What would it have been in 1894? And by train or carriage?

And she says “we took lunch, a party of fourteen, in the old banqueting hall of Richard Third. A very quaint and in some respects, beautiful old place.” She refers to this excursion in almost the same breath as the man from Baedeker’s and Old London. So did Richard the Third have another banquet hall closer to London where tourists in the 1890s would have lunch?


The trip over…

SS Augusta Victoria

The Breckinridges departed New York for Europe on September 20, 1894. KCB writes to her brother (no idea which one) on September 19, 1894 giving him details of the impending journey. Unfortunately I didn’t photocopy these letters so you will have to content yourself with my transcription.

Hazelwood. September 19th 1894

My darling brother,
                        I can only send a hire this morning to say goodbye.  We sail early tomorrow morning on the Augusta Victoria, Hamburg American Line and go into the city tonight.  That hire offered the most reasonable rates – but if it continues so stormy, I think I will feel sorry we did not go on a Cunarder!  I just have your letter. We have not engaged Adam Boggs but I think we will.  I have given up the idea of the school altogether.  Our address will be United States Legation
                  St. Petersburg
                 Russia. (underlined)
You know we expect to be a week each in London, Paris, and Berlin allowing for the trip, you can tell about where we will be in each place.  A letter to the care of the U. S. Legation in either city would reach us.
                        I did not have a chance to get the presents for the boys after all.  There was so much to look after and so many in [illegible].  So I have them the money last night. You will be sorry to hear that poor Susie Marshal is in a very serious condition mentally.  Her health is poor which may have something to do with it.  Auntie has sent for some of her family to come on. It is something like religious mania, but symptous (sic) of violence at times. She will have to be put in an institution I think.
                        I have still several things to do.  And goodbye must be said. God be with you and yours. My dearest love to all.
                        I will write to you from each city.
Your devoted sister
Katherine C. Breckinridge

About 10 days later, KCB writes another letter to her brother – might be the same brother or it might be a different brother – from the steamer.

Steamer “Augusta Victoria”
September 30th, 1894

My dearest brother,
                        We expect to reach South Hampton to-night about 2 o’clock and I want to have some letters ready to mail there.  This vessel goes right on to Hamburg, so they land us in [illegible], which I fancy will not be a pleasant performance in the middle of the night. Fortunately the weather is clear.
                        We were delayed two days before starting – the vessel being repaired.  I indended (sic) to write you but I didn’t.
                        Cousin Minnie got to Hazelwood the day we left.  She was very much overcome and did not look at all equal to the task before her. Susie however was quieter that day and I trust continues to improve.  Susie had been very violent, and needed to be watched every instant. They have a professional nurse. The speciallist (sic) who was sent for to see her thinks she will never be entirely well.  She may be well temporarily, but always [illegible] to a return of the disorder and each time probably in a more violent form.
                        We have had what would be called I suppose a pretty fair trip: But enough of a storm to show us what the ocean can do.  I was glad to see it in its majesty.  The little girls have suffered greatly with sea sickness specially Lees – I tried Dr. [illegible] prescriptions, but I don’t believe any thing does any good.  I have felt it less than any of the party, and don’t believe I would have felt it at all if I had not had the little girls to look after.  But I have lost much rest and sleep and feel tired out.  We expect to spend tomorrow quietly in Southhampton and go to London Monday.
                        This ship is said to be one of the steadiest on the water as we probably would have suffered much more than we have.  Our cabins are very comfortable and roomy, everything is clean.  The service and fare first class.  I will [illegible] letters to my other brothers at the same time. I mail this. 
Love to all. Your devoted sister.

Paris October 15, 1894

And here is what you’ve been waiting for… well at least I think this is what you have been waiting for! THE LETTERS!!!!

The historian in me wanted to start posting the letters in chronological order according to when KCB wrote them but we’d have to start with the early stuff. And although that’s all very interesting, it’s the Europe and Russia letters that I really love. So let’s start there.

Here is the letter that I showed you in The Letters, Part 2 post.

Paris October 15, 1894 1

Paris October 15, 1894 2

Letter to Lily from KCB dated October 15th 1894 from Paris (photocopy)

My dear Lily,

Your nice steamer letter should have been answered before. But I know you would understand my writing to auntie first and I have not had a great deal of time to write to any one. We have not seen much of Paris yet. We took a drive yesterday, but as it was raining it was not very satisfactory.

This morning the sun was shining but he has hid his face again. We haven’t seen much of him since we left home. It was very sweet to have your letter in mid ocean. And very sweet of you to think of writing it. A message from those we love is always welcome doubly so when one is homesick, and seasick as most of the “Penitentiary’s” family as Lees calls us, were at that time. I hope you won’t feel that you have done so well, you won’t need to write any more.

We have all had wretched colds and indeed still have. I put winter flannels on the whole family in London, I found it so cold. Isn’t it amazing that people live in such a climate and have no way of heating their houses but the smallest of small open fires. We did not find those lighted except in a few American homes. At one place where we took dinner there was no fire at all, and at another place very little. [appears to have missing pages] banqueting hall of Richard III. Love to all. Your loving sister. Katherine C. Breckinridge.

When I was writing my thesis, I had no idea who Lily was. KCB’s reference to auntie in the first paragraph made me think they were cousins but I never took the time to figure it out (or I don’t remember). Then when this reboot started, I came across Susanna Preston Lees’ Last Will and Testament. She refers to a Lily and a Lillian in her Will. I think this letter is addressed to Lily Waller, KCB’s cousin. She is the daughter of William Waller, KCB’s maternal uncle.

I didn’t use this letter at all in my thesis because at the time it didn’t appear to further the story of KCB’s adventures in Europe. But looking back it is full of little bits that can be interesting in and out of context. Her reference to Lees (her youngest daughter who was about 12 years of age at the time) calling the family the Penitentiary’s is amusing. Can you image? I must have felt like a prison to the pre-teen.

One of the fascinating aspects of KCB’s letters is her truly American observations of the European way of life and how different the culture is. At times (you will see in later letters) she sounds just like most Americans on the House Hunters International show on HGTV. “The rooms are too small.” “The bathroom is too cold.” “The kitchen has a washer and dryer in it.” “And everything to way too expensive.”

In this letter she is complaining about one of her favorite topics – lack of heat in cold climates. I have always thought that despite the fact that she spent a number of years living with her aunt, Susanna Preston Lees, in Highbridgeville, New York, KCB is a northeast Louisiana girl at heart. Hot weather and high humidity is easier to complain about than cold weather and no heat.

My personal goal is to post one letter or group of letters every week in addition to my regular post. Fingers crossed.

The Letters, Part 2

Handwritten letters are beautiful and they are a lost art. But they can also be challenging. Lucky for me KCB had good penmanship. (Clifton is a different story for a later post!) But even with the best penmanship, you have to get acclimated to the author’s pen as well as their voice. I had to get used to KCB’s handwriting. How she made her Ss and Ds and the difference between the two. Same with L, F, and T. I had to become familiar with her way of speaking. The way she structured her sentences. Her lack of punctuation. Her word choice. Context helps with transcribing but context comes with assumptions and those assumptions can make the context wrong.

Peterburg, Russia September 3rd 1895
KCB’s letter to My darling auntie dated Petersburg, Russia, September 3rd 1895, page 1. Breckinridge Family Papers, Container 862. Courtesy of the Manuscript Reading Room, Library of Congress.

And transcription is a tedious task. I don’t know anyone who can sit in front of a computer for hours upon hours transcribing handwritten letters into typed format. Your eyes get sore and tired. Your back starts to hurt (even with the best desk chair). And I’m a good typist but I’m not super fast and I have to look at the keys every once in a while!

Oddly enough I didn’t do any research on letter or diary transcription projects when I was working on and writing my thesis. It’s not for lack of published material available in most local libraries. Mary Boykin Chestnut’s A Diary from Dixie is probably the most famous. Or Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl (although it’s not without controversy). Nicholas and Alexandra’s letters were transcribed and published in the late 1990s and I even own a copy of that one. I do remember looking at biographies’ of other Southern women. But that was because I was writing a biography. Writing a biography is a completely different animal than just transcribing a lot of letters. I mean, yes, some of the biographies I looked at relied heavily on the subject’s personal correspondence and/or diaries but not just one transcribed letter after another for the reader to enjoy outside of historic context. I don’t know that I would know how to or even want to present the letters outside of their broader historical context. I mean it’s not like history happened in a vacuum or anything!!!

And you need the whole conversation to do a letter transcription project. KCB’s letters at the Library of Congress are one sided. Most of the letters in the collection are her letters to other people. Not the other people’s response to her letters. And again in writing my thesis I was constrained by time. The other side of the correspondence might exist in other libraries or collections. I’m always on the outlook for those. For example some correspondence between KCB and her daughter, Mary, are part of Mary’s papers at the University of Kentucky. I just haven’t made it there yet.

Woman writing in the garden, Daniel F. Gerhartz

And now that I look back on it, I not only didn’t look at transcription project but I didn’t look at how people wrote letters in the nineteenth century or what tools they used. Odd because I love material culture. Why the crazy thin paper? Was it for economy of postage? Or economy of material in general? I know paper was expensive – Jane Austen tells us that in Mansfield Park. What type of pen would KCB have used? Are we still talking quill and ink well? Or had we entered fountain pen territory? And yes, I know Google could answer all these questions for me in a manner of seconds but that defeats the purpose!

Paris October 15, 1894 1
KCB’s letter to My Dear Lily written from Paris and dated October 15 1894, page 1. Breckinridge Family Papers, Container 862. Courtesy of the Manuscript Reading Room, Library of Congress.

What I do know about KCB’s writing habits is that she wasn’t going to start a new sheet of paper if she only had a little bit left to write! Take this letter example – Paris October 15 1894. The original letter (I really wish I had a picture for you of an actual letter) is written on onion skin thin paper. The paper is folded in half. KCB started her letter on the left side, filled that half page, turned it over and filled the other half page (right side).


Paris October 15, 1894 2
The rest of KCB’s letter to My Dear Lily dated Paris October 15, 1894, page 2. Breckinridge Family Papers, Container 862. Courtesy of the Manuscript Reading Room, Library of Congress.

Then she opened the folded page, turned it over and continued her letter, filling the whole page from top to bottom. When she ran out of space on the back side, she returned to the front, turned the page so that the left side was at the top (would that be clockwise?) and finished her thought. In this example, it was just the end of the sentence, her closing and her signature. I don’t know what this turning the page and writing over existing text is called, and I’m sure there is some official name or term for it… But I’m forever amazed at how I can still read the original text and the text written at a 90 degree angle. I’ve been referring to it as cross-writing.

The Letters, Part 1

The binders of letters.

It may have started with a dress but it’s really all about the letters! And the letters are truly incredible! And I promise I’m working up to actually posting the letters! All in good time!

Katherine Carson Breckinridge wrote thousands of letters to friends and family during her life time. And fortunately for us, she saved them and some how they got included in the Breckinridge Family Papers collection at the Library of Congress – Manuscript Reading Room. The Breckinridge Family Papers is a huge collection with 206,000 items in 875 containers plus 37 microfilm reels. All total is 265 linear feet. If you want to take a look at the outline of the collection, here’s the finding aid. KCB’s Containers are 861 through 864 totaling 23 folders.

KCB’s stuff is mainly in two sections of the collection: Other Family Papers 1779-1965 and Addition I, 1816-1980. Other items related to KCB are in Clifton’s stuff and as well as folders marked with her maternal aunt, Susanna Preston Lees’ name, and her daughter Mary Carson Breckinridge (of Frontier Nursing Service fame) and her other children. And even though KCB married into the Breckinridge family, some of her mother’s, father’s, and brothers’ papers are in the collection as well.

And it’s just not letters home from Russia but letters between KCB and Clifton during their courtship and early marriage. And early writing from her childhood. And her Daughters of the American Revolution membership application. I was looking for details about the wedding and coronation of Nicholas and Alexandra. And that’s there but there is so much more.

Between 2001 and 2011, I took 6 trips to do research on KCB’s papers. On my first trip, I was so naive about researching in a big archive. I had done research at the Arkansas History Commission and local university archives. But the Library of Congress is the real deal! I arrived armed with my dad’s laptop and a lot of determination. I was going to start by looking at the Russia letters and getting an inventory. My plan was to transcribe as many letters as I could during that trip. But spending 8 hours in a quiet reading room reading (and deciphering) old letters written on thin paper is exhausting – physically and mentally. But it’s exhilarating as well. That first trip was a full week. And I got a lot done but also realized how much more there was to do.

A photocopy of one of KCB’s letter in its sheet protector. Note the Reproduced from the Collection of the Manuscript Division, Library of Congress along the side of the page. This is taped to the glass of the copy machine in the Reading Room so you have make sure you don’t lose anything under it when copying.

My next trip was a game changer! Hello copy machine!!!! During this research trip I noticed that a lot of researchers were taking files, one at a time, over to the copy machines which lined one wall of the room.  It took me about an hour to get up the courage to go up to the desk with my folder (why do you always feel like a kid when you have to ask for permission to do something like that!) But what could it hurt, right? All they can say is no! So I walked up to the desk with a folder and asked. And they said YES!!!! I just needed to ask about each folder and keep everything in its original order. YES!!!!!

How I’ve managed to keep up with my reader card and copy card, I have no idea. It is much easier to renew your reader card when you have the old one with you.

Problem! It’s $.15 per page to make a copies on their fancy digital copy machines!!! Only $.10 per page for the regular machine! But it had to be digital or nothing! And I had hundreds of letters, double sided!!! Well you only live once right?!?!?! So I did something I’ve never done before. I marched across the street and made a CASH withdrawal from my credit card at the ATM! With cash in hand I returned to LOC, purchased a copy card and loaded it! Let the photocopying begin!

When it comes to research, I definitely use the scoop and run approach! Because my time is often limited in the archive, I want to get as much done and I can “process” what I found later. The key to this method (and I’m not always successful) is to make sure you process soon – like that night or that week. Because if you let time lapse you often think “why did I think this was important???”

So photocopying was great for me! I could get a lot done and “process” it later! It is important to keep the letters together during the photocopying process. As I mentioned earlier, KCB’s letters are multi-pages, doubled sided. In some cases one letter could be 10 photocopied pages. And of course she didn’t number her pages. I had to be EXTREMELY careful to keep one letter together and the pages in order! And for citation purposes, I need to know what container and folder each letter came from!

During my last trip in 2011, I scooped, ran and didn’t process right away. In fact I found the above group of letters neatly held together with a binder clip when I was unpacking my boxes from storage last month. Just sitting there all nice and neat as they were when I unpacked them from my suitcase. Thankfully I made my folder/container notation!

When I returned home from each trip, it was time to get everything organized for safe keeping. Enter binders and sheet protectors! Because the photocopies were precious to me (maybe as precious as the originals), I didn’t want to hole punch them. Plus I didn’t want to risk losing anything important. So each letter got it’s own sheet protector. I know I could have done front to back and make them like a book but I didn’t want to risk getting anything out of order. Keeping everything in order was paramount. I think I even had nightmares that two letters would get mixed up and pages would inter-mingle with each other. Can you imagine?