Love Letters between Emma and Albion Tourgee

Learn how Couples Courted in Antebellum America, before there was telephones, facebook, and ichat ...

This is a school paper written by Claire Bufe, a student at University of Georgia, approx Sept 19, 2006. She describes how important letter writing was as a form of personal, intimate conversation between courting couples in the second half of the 19th century. It is re-published here because the original version in no longer online.

Courtship by Mail in Antebellum America

by Claire Bufe (approx Sept 19. 2006 )
Being in love is an experience unlike any other.
In the early nineteenth-century, loving someone was not about Friday night football games or dinner and a movie like we would imagine it today. In the early 1800s, individuals tried to create an experience that made their love unique and special.
Before you could marry someone, there was a period of courtship. This stage was a time of intense expression where men and women ignored sex-role boundaries and began to understand each other’s perspectives of the world.
Love letters were an important part of this new discovery and the letters became an extremely popular means of communication among the upper-middle class. Through love letters, historians are able to take a look into the romantic lives of courting couples across America in the nineteenth-century.
Research has been done on trends set by the way couples communicated through letters. Courting couples in Georgia went along with the national trends set by other couples across America, but in some areas, the Georgians were unique in their courtship experiences.
Compared to previous decades, the nineteenth-century brought about considerable amounts of freedom to couples. Typically, men and women met at a social gathering such as a holiday ball, bar-b-que, or other party. Women during this time were under strict rules pertaining to how to act, what to say, and what to wear when it came to interaction with men. Once a man showed interest, it was the woman who accepted his request of dancing, exchanging letters, or simply the pleasure of his company.
After two young people met, they began to see each other more often, engaged in more stimulating conversation, and then, if their education allowed it, they began writing each other letters.
It was rare that courting couples resided in the same city because upper-middle class citizens attended college and the men were often away from home. During this time, letter writing grew in importance. This correspondence period was often the primary time during which a relationship grew into an engagement.
When it came to matters of the heart, love letters were placed on a pedestal. They revealed dimensions of power, sex, and love during courtship and expanded verbal activity and communication.
Some young lovers said that writing letters was "my pleasure,” "my only comfort,” and one young woman said it was, "a part of my being.”
When a man or woman put their feelings down on paper it put a sense of concreteness to their love and showed it was real. A very high value was put on being open, sincere, and real in these letters. Lovers encouraged each other to "write freely” and hold nothing back.
Correspondents expressed over and over again how writing and reading letters evoked "powerful feelings of communion” and even insinuated a face-to-face conversation. For example, in a letter from one young man to his lover he said that he was talking to her as though they were cuddled up on the big comfy lounge chair in the corner spending an evening together.
Many other correspondents insisted that their feelings were similar to this when they engaged in letter writing.
As love grew more intense, couples went so far as to imagine the letters were, instead, the people themselves. One man confessed that his loved one’s letters were so much like her, he talked to them! Another admitted that he washed his hands before touching or reading any of his letters from his significant other.
This symbolic equation helps to convey the powerful rush of excitement that took over these lover’s bodies, just from a letter.
One of the strongest and most abundant trends in Antebellum courtship letters was the expression of strong love and a growing bond between two people. In one instance, a man said that he could no longer sustain his feelings. He had just met a rather charming woman who instantly drew his attention. He felt he simply must write her a letter. He referred to the woman as, "the dearest and best of girls,” and said he would never be able to find words to describe his feelings. He said he loved her from the first day he saw her and he always would.
This man was telling his loved one how fabulous she was and how much he meant to her. These were very comforting words to hear and quite common in nineteenth-century courtship letters.
In another example, Albert Janin illustrated his love for his suitor Victoria when he told her she was his "darling” and she was dear and precious to him. He went on to express even more intimate feelings for her.
Both of these examples demonstrate the man’s love for his significant other and reinforce the national trend of strong expression of their feelings. These men realized that through letters, they could reveal their emotions. They took advantage of that opportunity and they opened up their hearts and poured out their thoughts.
However, an example from a courting couple in Georgia did not follow the large-scale national theme of intense expression of self and love. This couple in Georgia had been corresponding for nearly a year and a half, and after perusing their letters, one discovers that they hardly ever expressed strong feelings for one another.
Jennie Akehurst, a schoolteacher in Covington, Georgia, was being courted by Sylvanous Lines of Fayetteville, Georgia. In a letter to Jennie from Sylvanous, he wrote how he was so lucky to have permission to be corresponding with such a lovely girl. Through all the courtship letters between this couple, which led up to an engagement, this was the most in depth they were to evoking their true feelings for one another.
The majority of love letters at this time centered around the idea of self-expression, and despite Jennie and Sylvanous’ extensive correspondence and courtship, they never ventured into the realm of personal or intimate descriptions of one another. They never revealed their true self to each other, which was a principle characteristic of nineteenth-century courtship. It is unknown why there was only this mild expression of feelings between them. It is possibly a result of southern upbringing, but it is hard to identify just based on their letters. This shows one way Georgia couples communicate uniquely when compared to a national trend.
During any courtship it was often necessary for lovers to be separated from one another. During these times apart, the only means of communication courting couples had was through letters. They communed with each other in letters that expressed their affection. Separations were very hard to deal with and created a large amount of strain between couples that otherwise held a very strong love.
One example that helped set the national trend of the difficulty of being apart was a relationship that started in Ohio. Emma Kilborn and Albion Tourgee grew up in rural Ohio and met at a coed institution called Kingsville Academy. After Kingsville, Albion moved to the North for college while Emma stayed at home on her family farm in northern Ohio. Letters between them expressed the sadness they felt during these separations. Hearing of Albion’s studies and social activities made Emma wish she were with him at school rather than doing difficult work on the farm. She knew she should be happy for him, but she could not help but be saddened by their distance.
In another example of this national trend, Salome Merrill and Alexander Bartlett’s New York relationship blossomed into an engagement through letter writing. However, very long distances separated them during their courtship when Bartlett took a job in Kentucky and the loneliness was hard to bear. Salome wrote to Bartlett and said she had felt her own heart "writhe with extreme pain” at such separations.
As time went by and the arrival of Bartlett’s letters became less frequent, Salome expressed her sadness by asking him, where were his precious tokens of love that she longed for so much? Salome became overwhelmed with an endless loneliness that sank into depression. Only after Bartlett assured Salome of his devotion did she gain confidence in herself again.
Similarly, in Georgia, Jennie and Sylvanous were separated during their courtship, even though only by 60 miles or so. Because Jennie taught school, it was difficult for her to get away from Covington, and Sylvanous rarely knew if he was going to have a day off work until that day arrived. Because of these separations, the exchange of letters became their primary means of communication.
In a letter written on December 8th, 1857, Jennie expressed her regret that they were not together. Covington and Fayetteville were not that far apart, but when money was hard to come by, travel was difficult. She told Sylvanous that she always responded to him with frankness and openness and she told him to write as often as he felt the need because she loved hearing from him. Likewise, Sylvanous needed her letters during their time apart. He said that receiving her letters was like "a spring in the desert.”
Here, Jennie and Sylvanous do follow the national trend. They, too, expressed anxiety on account of being apart. Physical separation of two lovers brought along other obstacles, mainly possessiveness or jealousy. This was considered one of the least attractive emotional consequences of romantic love and the theme of jealousy ran tried and true through almost all antebellum courtships.
After one woman accused her suitor of relations with another woman, he responded by saying that he had not spoken to the woman in years and had not so much as "nodded [his] head at her.” Yet the accusation alone was enough to drive a wedge between two people.
Again looking at the Ohio courtship of Albion Torgee and Emma, while Albion was off at college, he wrote to Emma about many friendly relationships he had with other women. He gave explicit details to Emma about hugging and kissing other girls, but assured her that he knew the difference between friendly kisses and romantic kisses. Infuriated with pain and jealousy, Emma wrote to Albion but held her tongue. She calmly explained to him that her lips were for his only and she had not let anyone touch them since his departure. Emma was feeling mixed emotions of jealousy, anger and sadness that was typical for couples during this time. Courtship was plagued by anxiety, doubt, and pain and Emma experienced this first hand. Like most women who were courting someone, she was exuberant to be receiving letters from Albion while off at school, but the contents of the letters brought harsh feelings. His actions did not please Emma at all, but she took it all in stride. Her role as the women did not allow her to show disapproval. She could not control what Albion did while she was not around.
In one letter from Salome to Bartlett, she divulged some information on her evening plans. One can imagine Bartlett’s face turn green with envy when he heard that Salome was going out with a "fine young gallant for a ride and a sing.” Reading this most certainly put a damper in his mood, as it would to any suitor who read something similar to this. Shown here, Salome and Bartlett also exemplified the national trend of jealousy in antebellum courtship. In Georgia, Jennie and Sylvanous never mentioned jealousy at all. Sylvanous was probably most jealous of the men in Covington that were able to engage in Jennie’s company on a regular basis while he was busy with work in Fayetteville. But there was never any mention of relations with other men or women during their one and a half year communication by mail.
On the other hand, a relationship in Macon experienced its bouts of jealousy. There was a budding courtship between Joseph Jones, mayor of Pineville, Georgia, and Miss Mary Stallins, a student at the Women’s college in Macon. Joseph told many of his intimate feelings and other details of his courtship to a friend, William Thompson. After all the information was given to Thompson, he published a book about Jones’ experiences in courtship and travel. In his recounts of his interactions with Mary, Joseph described a slithery conniving man named Mr. Crochet. Several times when Joseph went to Mary’s house in Macon to call on her, he encountered Mr. Crochet who was at the Stallins’ residence for the same purpose. Joseph gave Thompson detailed information on his dislike for the man. It was clear that jealousy had engulfed Joseph’s feelings for Mary and he felt that if she were to choose Mr. Crotchet over himself, she would be making a horrible mistake.
Therefore in Georgia, looking at the two different relationships, couples treated jealousy differently. Jennie and Sylvanous never encountered jealousy problems, but Joseph seemed to be plagued by them. He never got out from under the shadow of Mr. Crotchet.
A more emotional theme that was evident in antebellum courtships was something that was very important to men and women during this time period. Life revolved around your reputation in the nineteenth-century and character was placed very highly. Coming from a solid, well-known family helped young men and women find and secure a courtship. Also personally, character was seen as your self-control to suppress self-expression. This became a battle in the romantic world because America’s concept of intimacy was the fullest, most natural self-expression. Therefore, one began to see a struggle between character and intimacy. The letters between Salome and Bartlett exemplified this idea of an internal struggle between character and intimacy.
Salome attempted to give Bartlett an insight into her life without disclosing too much. She described her daily routine and she loved to talk about the latest book she read. She told him how often she went to church and what political figures she liked and disliked. But in one letter, Salome pulled back the veil of secrecy and threw out the rules of upholding character. In closing of a poetic and thoughtful letter, Salome said her heart, which was worthless without love, was Bartlett’s. Then she asked, "Call me your 'affianced bride.'" Here it was very obvious that in the struggle between character and intimacy, Salome chose intimacy, and it turn, revealed her true inner nature to Bartlett.
In Georgia, the story was much different. Neither in the letters between Jennie and Sylvanous or the ones between Major Jones and Mary do they engage in intimate correspondence. These couples ignore this trend all together. Obviously, by looking at these two relationships in Georgia, they stuck to upholding their character rather than opening their hearts to reveal their own intimacy.
In a unique case, Henry Mitchell of Athens met and began courting a girl, Hattie Hart, from Colebrook Connecticut. They wrote letters to one another across 1,500 miles for two years before they were engaged and married. In these letters, Henry and Hattie strongly expressed their feelings for one another. Hattie wrote that Henry could be assured that he possessed everything that was hers including her heart, mind, and spirit. She also told him not to feel selfish, for after their extensive correspondence, she felt he had gained the right to her love. This couple freely writes their feelings and puts character aside to disclose their innermost feelings. This is a special case, not fitting in with the other Georgia examples, because one lives in Athens while the other in Connecticut.
Upper- middle class courtships by the 1830s or 1840s embraced this ideal of intimacy. In a strong relationship, courting couples pressured themselves to fully express their inner feeling so they could know someone else just as much as they knew themselves. In doing this, couples discussed a wide variety of topics from religion to character flaws to economic matters. All this was focused on the idea that disclosing your thoughts and ideas was becoming more intimate. The goal was to learn everything you could about the prospective mate.
Self-expression did, however, have its drawbacks. When becoming intimate, men and women discovered each other’s strengths and along with their faults, weaknesses, and flaws. The question was often asked, "Will you still love me even with all my faults and shortcomings?” If a courting couple was serious about each other, almost always the answer was yes.
It is almost ironic that the art of letter writing has become the primary way that historians today can study the ways of love and romance in the past, because at the time the letters were written, it was a secretive way of communicating and being open to one another.
Though it lasted for over 150 years, the practice of letter writing has become one of the dying arts of the past. Replaced by long distance phone calls and electronic mail, people just do not take the time anymore to sit down and express themselves by means of pen and paper.
Through examining the specific couples like Salome and Bartlett in New York and Emma and Albion in Ohio, the national trend of courting couples in Antebellum America was strongly reinforced. Like most other couples, in their letters these couples expressed strong feelings for one another, experienced jealousy, felt pain from being separated by large distances, and often placed intimacy above character. In Georgia, however, Jennie and Sylvanous did not follow along with the national trends at all. They experienced no jealousy, expressed no strong feelings for one another, and put character above intimacy in every situation. The only theme they reinforced was the hardships endured while being apart. Major Jones and Mary Stallin’s relationship in Macon did follow the national trends of jealousy and experiencing pain from being apart, but they did not express strong feelings for one another or put intimacy above character.
In summary, Georgia couples did follow the national trends in courting in Antebellum America in some areas, while in other areas they had their own unique experiences. It just depended on who was holding the pen.
Southern Women's Papers and Diaries Marriage in the 19th Century Courtship in Elsie's World
  1. Lystra, Karen, Searching the Heart (New York: Oxford Press, 1989), 12.
  2. Lystra 21-22
  3. Lystra 23
  4. Hicken, Victor, "A Congressional Romance or Victorian Love by Mail,” Old Northwest 8, No. 1 (1982): 36
  5. Lystra 47
  6. Akehurst\Lines Family Papers, Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Athens, GA.
  7. McDaniel, Ruth Curry, "Courtship and Marriage in the Nineteenth Century: Albion and Emma Tourgee, A Case Study,” The North Carolina Historical Review 61, no. 3 (1984): 289.
  8. Hicken 45
  9. Hicken 43
  10. Akehurst/Lines Papers
  11. Akehurst/Lines Family Papers, Feb. 1859
  12. Lystra 47
  13. McDaniel, Albion and Emma Tourgee 290
  14. Hicken 43
  15. Akehurst\Lines Family Papers
  16. Thompson, William Tappan, Major Jones’s Courtship and Travels (Philadelphia: T.P. Peterson and Brothers, 1948), 77.
  17. Hicken 43
  18. Hicken 42
  19. Henry Mitchell Family Papers
  20. Lystra 38
  21. Lystra 40
  22. Love letters between Emma and Albion Tourgee: McDaniel, Ruth Curry, "Courtship and Marriage in the Nineteenth Century: Albion and Emma Tourgee, A Case Study," The North Carolina Historical Review 61, no. 3 (1984): 289,
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Published: Mon Nov 30, -0001, 12:00 am
Updated: Thu Oct 24, 2013, 2:01 pm
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