If that headline doesn’t ring immediate bells, it’s because she is somewhat better known as “Dear Abby.”
Although her column continues to be written by her daughter Jeanne, Phillips’ passing severs a link to a golden era in syndicated advice-giving. Phillips and her twin sister Eppie Lederer, better known as Ann Landers, were media superstars, their nationally syndicated columns daily institutions for countless readers. It’s difficult to describe their massive audience, their appeal and authority, to the children of an age in which the answer to just about any problem is “Google it.”
In my childhood, Ann and Abby were a zinger-slinging Greek chorus. They dispensed wisdom to the nation on every imaginable subject and some unimaginable, including love, marriage and the best way to hang the toilet paper. (True fact. Landers, who fielded the toilet-paper question, once said that it generated 15,000 responses, making it one of her most commented-upon letters.)
I can’t be the only voracious reader for whom their work provided an education on many topics — some of which my mother would rather have left alone a while longer. I still remember my nine-year-old self running down to the laundry room, where my mom was folding the latest load, to ask what was the big deal about unwed mothers.
“What?!” Her voice went up several keys. “Where did you hear about THAT?”
“Ann Landers wrote about it,” I said.
“Ann Landers writes about a lot of things,” my mother replied tightly.
So did Abby. Like her twin, she did not shy from the controversial. As the San Francisco Chronicle recalls, Abby “replied to letters about serious social issues such as teen sex, divorce, alcoholism and AIDS, and answered them with a mix of candor, common sense and an occasional wisecrack.”
Personally, I suspect that future family historians seeking context and flavor for describing Americans in the mid-20th century could do a lot worse than Dear Abby and Dear Ann. Yes, the advice column survives today online and in print media, but today’s successors don’t have the breathtaking ease with which the sisters moved between deadly serious issues and day-to-day dilemmas. They could reach out to a domestic-violence victim one minute and the next, weigh in on what to do about a bad case of acne.
Though their styles were very similar, consensus often held that Ann (who died in 2002) tended to be the straight-shooter, while Abby had a matchless flair for witty one-liners. The writing from their heyday still has a startlingly fresh appeal — bright, succinct, with a tough-mindedness behind the humor that lent authenticity to their advice-giving. “The audibly human voice … rising above our collective impersonality, ” was how Cornell University professor David I. Grossvogel described Ann’s appeal, and that could be said of Abby’s as well.
(A compilation of Pauline’s columns, The Best of Dear Abby, appears to still be available, at least in Kindle edition. Grossvogel’s out-of-print study, Dear Ann Landers, is worth seeking out for those interested in the evolution of Eppie’s advice over the years.)
And truly, Abby had a way with a zinger that you just don’t see anymore:
Dear Abby: I have always wanted to have my family history traced, but I can’t afford to spend a lot of money to do it. Have you any suggestions? — M.J.B. in Oakland, Calif.
Dear M.J.B.: Yes. Run for a public office.
RIP, Dear Abby.
It reminds us that in the absence of a birth record, the legal framework in which our ancestors operated can provide important clues about their age. Knowing how old a person had to be to marry (among many things) can help us narrow the range of a search considerably.
Judy G. Russell is providing so much good information here it’s unfair to single out any one paragraph, but since this one involves my home state and really is a very good example, here goes:
In East Jersey, the 1683 Fundamental Constitutions required the ruling Proprietors to be 21 years old in order to vote (section XIII), jurors were required to be age 25 (section XIX), and whenever any names were to be drawn by lot for elections or jury service, the drawing was done by a boy under the age of 10 (sections III and XIX).
Where you find a name, and at what point in a place’s legal history, can point you to some very specific age frames, as Russell’s posts amply illustrate. Great stuff.
Mr. Archaeologist has long been urging me to read Alan Taylor’s majestic 1995 William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic. He keeps saying it is especially interesting from a genealogical perspective.
Indeed yes. William Cooper’s Town is a biography of the man who fathered one of America’s first popular novelists, James Fenimore Cooper. It is also an eagle-eyed look at how America’s social order turned upside down in the years after the Revolutionary War.
Genealogists will find many moments of recognition in the story of how Cooper, the son of a poor Quaker farmer, parlayed early connections among wealthy Friends in Philadelphia and New Jersey to become a land magnate in the early frontier of upstate New York. I’m sure many researchers will be familiar with the post-Revolution migration that Cooper helped foster. (Most of his pioneer tenants were displaced New Englanders hungry for plentiful, fertile land.) Students of Loyalist families will be interested to see how Cooper’s early successes were, in part, the product of Loyalist misfortunes and exiles.
All of that is quite awesome, but where Mr. Taylor earns the Wish I’d Thought of That Research Award™ is in his exploration of William Cooper’s early career among the Quakers of Burlington, New Jersey.
Investigating William’s attempts to better himself, Taylor turns to … the library. Not just any present-day library, but Cooper’s library: the records of the Library Company of Burlington, “the town’s preminent social club and cultural institution,” which still exists, as New Jersey’s oldest library.
Taylor mines the Library Company’s circulation records to show how young Cooper embarked upon an energetic course of self-improvement, checking out an average of 46 books a year between 1783-89. “He must have burned a lot of midnight oil,” Taylor comments. He also points out that as Cooper’s reading material grew increasingly ambitious, so did the frequency of joking comments like “Cooper the Learned” scribbled next to his name in the circulation records. It was an early sign of Cooper’s uneasy fit in the social circles to which he aspired.
It is also a textbook example of the rewards that await when research moves beyond the basics of censuses, vitals and church registers. Not all research efforts will be rewarded with such meticulous and well-preserved records. But this little gem from Taylor’s book is a great example of how the imaginative use of a source can reclaim the lost details of a long-ago life.
Back in high school I ran with a crowd of drama club/chorus geeks, a fringe existence. Today we might have made a splash on Glee. As it was, we huddled together after school, unleashing all the creative energy that couldn’t be contained in class. We worked on musical numbers, comedy skits, even movies. My friend Jeff had a Super-8 camera that could do stop motion — Special Effects!!! We could literally spend sunrise to sunset on a Saturday messing around with trick shots and stop-motion animation, living on Doritos and Cokes.
Fortunately for our nutrition levels, our creative base was often Jeff’s grandma’s house, his mom having banished us in exasperation. Jeff was of Italian heritage and he had a Classic Nonna™. She thought we were beautiful and smart and fretted that the enormous kettle of whatever she was cooking might not be enough to sustain us. She wore neat print aprons over sober dark dresses and I could not get over the matter-of-fact way she piled up quantities of delicious food. I used to worry she would find out my ancestors were Irish and German and cut me off, or worse, think she had to make something that Irish people would like.
I hadn’t thought about Jeff’s grandma and her cooking for years, until I picked up Louise DeSalvo’s memoir, Crazy In The Kitchen (Food, Feuds and Forgiveness in an Italian-American Family). It brought a lot of those memories back while depicting a version of this experience that was tenser, more darkly emotional, but still full of delicious food.
De Salvo’s childhood in 1950s New Jersey unfolded against an intense domestic drama, Italian-American style. Her mother was a second-generation striver whose cuisine was all about canned goods, packaged cakes and TV dinners — a rejection of all she considered old-world and backward.
DeSalvo’s grandmother drove her mother nuts, especially in the kitchen, where she committed such atrocities as homemade pizza and hearty, yeasty bread — “a thick-crusted, coarse-crumbed Italian bread. A peasant bread.” Today it’s called “artisan” and people pay through the nose for it. DeSalvo’s mother rejected it in favor of the puff-white, “real American bread” that DeSalvo and her sister secretly despised. The grandchildren relied upon their grandmother’s bread to offset their mother’s cooking, which, apart from questionable ingredients, was simply awful.
Crazy In The Kitchen doesn’t stay chained to the stove. DeSalvo starts with the food, and writes about it beautifully. But she uses the cooking stories as a clever pathway to considering how immigrants and the families they raised in the United States figured out what “American” meant, and how each of the generations struggled with fitting in while not losing their basic sense of themselves.
In a particularly powerful chapter, “Hunger,” DeSalvo hits the history books to better understand the Italy her grandparents left — Puglia, in the oppressed South. Behind her parents’ simple phrase, “It was hard for them,” DeSalvo discovers a landscape where periodic peasant slaughtering and mindboggling deprivation were pretty much business as usual. “I didn’t know any of these things,” she writes.
One of my favorite food bloggers recently posted about a trip to Puglia, today renowned for its intense food and distinctive, conical-roofed buildings. In her book, DeSalvo, too, makes a pilgrimage to Puglia, reveling in the food and wrestling with her concept of her family’s history. “Without a history, there can be no present,” she writes. “Without a past, there can be no future.”
By that standard, Crazy In The Kitchen is a captivating journey of discovery.
The Famine Clearance in Toomevara, County Tipperary, by Helen O’Brien. FourCourts Press, 2010.
This is a slim, nonglitzy volume that looks like the kind of graduate thesis you’d find tucked away in a university library. It reads a bit that way too: concise and clear, but distinctly academic in tone. The author isn’t aiming for a potboiler and she does not even appear to be auditioning for a spot as an expert on Who Do You Think You Are? Although I’d watch an episode with her in it, for sure.
I ordered the book upon a recommendation from a member of the Troy Irish Genealogy Society email list, and because Toomevara is a village in the part of Tipperary my ancestor Martin Haigney might have left in the early 1850s. I was curious to read a Famine-era study specific to this region.
I was not expecting anything overtly genealogical, and O’Brien’s book does not deliver that (although she certainly mentions many local surnames). Her mission is to analyze what this one little village of Toomevara was like going into the crisis of 1845-52, how the famine shook it to its foundations, and what effects and memories lingered afterward.
It’s revelatory background for anyone (like me) who has always been vaguely aware their Irish immigrant ancestors “came over during the Famine” without considering the suffering and dislocation behind that decision. The “clearance” in O’Brien’s title refers to the forced eviction of 500 villagers on 28 May 1849, an incident brutal enough that it rated indignant articles in local newspapers, and even a discussion in the British House of Commons. As one resident recalled years later:
About 5 p.m. the work was over, the place in ruins and the only roof for souls was the vault of heaven. The people gathered their fragments of furniture, doors, dressers, old boxes and built sheds along the channel of chapel wall and school house, a few in the school house yard and the gardens at the rear of the two houses in Chapel street …
Ultimately even these pathetic digs were unacceptable to the authorities, and in February 1850 a work gang of local recruits — the “hut tumblers” — pulled down the makeshift shelters of about 20 evicted families who had refused to disappear to neighboring villages or into the workhouse.
However upsetting contemporaries may have found all of this, there was little recourse for the villagers. As O’Brien illustrates in painstaking detail, the Famine was not an era chock-full of options. There’s no shortage of bad guys in the narrative, but some of them might surprise. O’Brien’s analysis certainly shows inactivity on the part of the great landowners, but the system that subdivided and subleased huge holdings into tinier and tinier parcels meant that a confusing web of agents and subagents made the more direct decisions about who could stay and who must go.
Disturbingly, these hard times often pitted villager against villager. Local folk were part of the gangs who tumbled the huts in 1850 and in the initial eviction in 1849. For some it may have been a way of ensuring protection from being evicted themselves; in other cases workers were promised lumber from the cottages they pulled down.
Ultimately Toomevara, like most of Ireland, was transformed by the crisis. O’Brien notes that 187 surnames recorded in parish baptism registers between 1831 and 1852 disappear from the records after the Famine, reflecting the degree to which deaths and emigrations changed the village forever. Long and angry memories remained, not only toward the British and Anglo-Irish power class, but toward fellow Irish who took advantage of the upheaval and dispersals to enlarge their own land holdings.
In her introduction, Ms. O’Brien says that while the Famine has been extensively studied in a general way, “ample room exists for more local studies on the topic.” To judge from the way this concise book brings these horrible years into a vivid and personal focus, she’s absolutely right.