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Letters to Clara Alricks, 1864

Edited by Joyce White, 10/01/2000


The Correspondents

The Letters

Endnotes & Bibliography

The following collection of nine letters is taken from a set that together form part of a larger manuscript group known as the McCormick Family Papers housed by the Historical Society of Dauphin County, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The letters span three months' time and were written to Miss Clara Bull Alricks, a Harrisburg native who was attending the Troy Female Seminary in Troy, New York. The two correspondents, Miss Rachel Pollock, a close friend of Clara's and Herman Alricks, Clara's father, offer through their letters two very different perspectives on upper middle class life in nineteenth-century Harrisburg; one of a school girl entering the world of parties, boys and good times and the other of a father concerned with the well-being of his family.

The letters are arranged chronologically and follow a pattern whereby endnotes contain explanatory information. When a person, place or event is mentioned for the first time it is fully documented; subsequent references are end noted with the directions to see a particular note for full explanation. All addresses are in Harrisburg unless otherwise noted. Original spelling and grammar have been unaltered. Commas and periods were added to separate sentences and ease the flow of reading.

Ironically, the letters to Clara Alricks reveal little about her life. Genealogical records indicate that she was born about 18481 and was sixteen years old when she received the letters. She had nine brothers and sisters, but only four were alive at the time the letters were written: Mary Wilson, born 1834 and married in 1859 to James McCormick, Jr.; Hamilton, born 1842; William Kerr, born 1846; and Martha Orth, born 1850.1 In 1857 Clara's mother, Mary Elder Kerr Alricks, daughter of the Rev. William Kerr, died.3

Little else is known of Clara's family life in 1864. She attended the Troy Female Seminary in Troy, New York where she spent the entire academic year with no vacations or holidays. Before attending the Tory Seminary, Clara probably attended the Harrisburg Female Seminary.

Nineteenth-century female seminaries or academies reflected the belief that education for women was crucial to the proper rearing of sons who would be responsible for promoting and enhancing nascent American republicanism.4 The Troy Female Seminary was established in 1821 by Emma Willard, who trained teachers to emphasize advanced mathematics, chronology and geography. Dubbed the "Vassar College of New York,"5 the school became very well-known, and attracted girls from all over the United States, Canada and the West Indies.

Clara's life at the none-sectarian boarding school would have revolved nonetheless around an overstated Protestant ethic. Additionally, Victorian manners and appropriate forms of behavior for young upper middle class ladies were taught. In accordance with the founder's wish to instill a sense of self-reliance in her pupils, the girls were required to keep their rooms clean with no help from maids. Methods of bread-making were taught to prepare them for the domestic life they would naturally live after graduation.6

Post-graduate life did not lead Clara into the cult of domesticity, however, as it did many of her contemporaries. Instead, she never married and spent her life traveling. She visited Europe four times and lived there for the duration of the first World War. Clara Alricks died a spinster on October 2, 1933 in a Scranton Hospital while recovering from a bad fall at Pocono Manor that left her with a fractured hip.7

Clara's close friend and correspondent, Rachel Pollock, also never married. Rachel was born in 1846 and was the daughter of E.H.M. and Martha Hayes Pollock. Rachel spent her adult life in Harrisburg and was an active charter member of the Pine Street Presbyterian Church and the Bethany Presbyterian Chapel on Cameron Street. Membership in the Pine Street Missionary society involved her directly in the welfare of women prisoners. Her community activities also included volunteer work as a board member of the Florence Crittendon Home and as a vice president for the Harrisburg Civic Club. Rachel died December 3, 1926.8

Clara's most prolific correspondent was undoubtedly her devoted father, Herman Alricks. Herman was born in Juniata County, Pennsylvania in 1803 and was a descendent of Peter Alricks who came to America from Holland in 1657. Herman studied law with the Hon. Thomas Elder and began practicing in the Dauphin County courts. Eventually, he opened his own practice which grew into a large business. In 1840, Herman moved his family into a house on Second Street in Harrisburg, appropriating the front rooms for his office.9 As late as 1860, the Harrisburg city directory lists Herman as a resident of 21 South Second Street;10 at some point before 1863 he moved to Mrs. McClure's Boarding House at 60 Market Street,11 likely to down-size his home and to be closer to his brother, Hamilton Alricks, who lived at 64 Market Street.12

In 1863 Herman Alricks took up arms for the protection of his family and community. During the threat of invasion at Gettysburg, he joined Captain Weidman Forster's militia and marched to the "ford crossing the Susquehanna River where Steelton now stands and remained with the company until they were discharged from service shortly after the battle of Gettysburg."13

Less than ten months and forty miles separated Harrisburg, Pennsylvania from the winter of 1864 and one of the bloodiest and best-remembered battles of the Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg. Significantly, the collection of letters written to Clara Bull Alricks does not deal directly with the effect of the War Between the States on everyday life in Harrisburg. Without ignoring the War totally, the letters meander around it, picturing a largely comfortable society striving to live a normal, uninterrupted life.

Rachel's preparation entry into the nineteenth-century's Cult of True Womanhood-where American republicanism and Victorian ideal of virtue and morality produced a woman who was "judged by her husband, her neighbors and society" according to the attributes of piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity14-is revealed in her letters to Clara. Rachel participated in an apprentice-like system15 whereby an daughter followed her mother into the world of domestic "bliss." In 1864, at eighteen years of age, Rachel was ready to focus on two goals: "mastering new domestic skills and participating in the visiting and social activities necessary to finding a husband."16

Therefore, Rachel Pollock's letters to Clara reveal that she and her circle of friends led a relatively carefree and typically teenage lifestyle. Full-dress parties, card parties, informal dancing parties and skating parties filled the days and nights of Harrisburg's 1864 upper middle class teens. The girls in Rachel's clique, Jennie Boas, Sid Berghaus, Mary Kerr, and Alice Frazer, to name a few, were escorted to these events by a set of boys. Some of the boys mentioned, such as Sam Matlack, Alek Thompson and Russell King, were unidentifiable; therefore, it is possible that they attended boarding school at Harrisburg Academy.

The skating parties were particularly important to Rachel and her friends as she indicated in a letter to Clara dated January 3: "Week before Christmas, we had skating every day." Clara's sister, Mary McCormick, also mentions skating in a letter written to Clara on November 27, 1863 (from a different set of letters in the McCormick Family Papers). Mary wrote that a skating club was being formed following the collection of money to enclose a pond, erect a house "for the accommodation of the skater," to build a dam, and to hire a man. Herman also mentions that the Christmas holidays brought "near 1000" skaters to the pond. Evidently, skating was a new and exciting sport for the Harrisburg residents.

Rachel's carefree days in Harrisburg were tempered by the realities of fatal illnesses and the war. In a poignant letter to Clara dated January 27, she describes the death of one of their mutual friends, Bessie Bird, and attributes it to an ab-cess" around the heart. Additionally, Rachel's letter of March 21 contains her only reference to the horrors of war; in it Rachel confides that her father told her "perfectly dreadful things that they [undecipherable, but presumably a relative and his regiment] had to bear."

Herman's letters to his dear Callie, however, indicate that he wanted neither to frighten his daughter with news of the war nor keep her ignorant of its effects. He described soldiers in Harrisburg, the hopeful avoidance of a draft in Pennsylvania, and Hamilton's activities in Tennessee, informing her of the ways life had been disrupted by the war. Most of his letters, however, describe the activities of Clara's siblings: Mary and her children; Hampy (Hamilton), who was enlisted in the Union Army as a surveyor of railroads in Memphis, Tennessee; William Kerr, a budding businessman; and Martie (Martha), a schoolgirl. In addition, Herman deliberates over Clara's school expenses at Troy, constantly questioning her purchases and "extras" at school, but always acquiescing and sending her money.

Consequently, the following series of letters reveal a northern community where the Civil War disrupted but did not seriously alter the course of life for most of its citizens. The battle at Gettysburg must have alarmed Harrisburg residents; however, the threat it posed passed, and life on Harrisburg's homefront returned to a normal pace where teenagers occupied themselves with finding a spouse and parents prided themselves on the accomplishments and health of their children.

The Letters:

Rachel Pollock to Clara, 3-January-1864 ("Alek. and Ed got a carriage and took us there. Was not that kind? One or two of the other boys took their girls in carriages too. We had a glorious time")

Herman Alricks to Clara, 5-January-1864 ("Martie wrote you a letter on last Wednesday, but she overeat herself at a couple of parties & was sick one night trying to throw up...She was well enough on Sunday to go to Church.")

Rachel Pollock to Clara, 27-January-1864 ("The last words Bessie said were to the little servant: she said, Mary, go nearer to the light, you can see better.")

Herman Alricks to Clara, 28-January-1864 ("This town is full of drunken soldiers.")

Herman Alricks to Clara, 15-February-1864 ("I thought I would send you a draft now for $180.32. This will pay off the old bill, and pay $100. on the new. You may ask Mr. Willard if that will do until April, & if not, I will send you another draft, but I have no more cash at present")

Herman Alricks to Clara, 16-March-1864 ("She has not much prudence and I think will give her parents trouble. I saw 3 boys last night.")

Rachel Pollock to Clara, 21-March-1864 ("I have a great deal to tell you that would take so much time and paper to write, somethings that you will be very much surprised and sorry to hear. ")

Herman Alricks to Clara, 21-March 1864 ("Three regiments of soldiers went off yesterday. They went to Annapolis to embark for some secret expedition.")

Herman Alricks to Clara, 30-March-1864 ("We have had-Hamilton, soldier John, staying with us for 2 days. He went off again this afternoon to Lewistown to recruit.")


1. William H. Alrich, Uncle Levi and the Alrich (Alricks) Family Geneology, (Harrisburg, PA: Historical Society of Dauphin County, April, 1985. (Hereafter cited as Levi Geneology).

2. Ibid. The information has been culled from references Herman made to these four siblings.

3. James T. Edwards, ed., The History of Dauphin County, Vol. 3., (Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Pres, 1907), 672. (Hereafter cited as History of Dauphin County).

4. Mary Beth Norton and others, A People and a Nation: A History of the United States, Vol. 1, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1986), 158. (Hereafter cited as Norton).

5. Thomas Woody, A History of Women's Education in the United States, Vol. 1, (New York: Octagon Books, 1974), 344-347. (Hereafter cited as Woody).

6. Edward T. James, ed. Notable American Women, 1607-1950 (Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1971), s.v. "Willard, Emma Hart," by Frederick Rudolph, 612.

7. Obituary, Scrapbook Collection of Newspaper Clippings, Historical Society of Dauphin County, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, scrapbook #3, page 104 and scrapbook #4, page 22.

8. Obituary, Scrapbook Collection of Newspaper Clippings, Historical Society of Dauphin County, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

9. History of Dauphin County, 661, 671.

10. Boyd's Harrisburg Directory, 1860.

11. Letter to Clara from Herman, 9-December-1863, McCormick Family Papers, Historical Society of Dauphin County, Harrisburg, PA.

12. Boyd's Harrisburg Directory, 1860.

13. History of Dauphin County, 671-72.

14. Barbara Welter, "The Cult of True Womanhood, 1820-1860," in Major Problems in Women's History, ed. Mary Beth Norton (Massachusetts: D. C. Heath and Company, 1989), 122.

15. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, "The Female World of Love and Ritual," in Major Problems in American Women's History, ed. Mary Beth Norton (Massachusetts: D. C. Heath and Company, 1989), 133.

16. Ibid., 133.

This online project is a joint venture between Penn State University and The Historical Society of Dauphin County, where the McCormick Family Papers are kept.

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