07/09/01
Lucretia Hale Peterkin Papers
    by Rita Smith

Lucretia Hale's claim to fame in the world of children's literature is her stories of the Peterkin family, originally told to entertain a sick child. Later they were repeated to other children and were greeted with laughter and applause. Hale published the stories in several juvenile magazines before they came out in book form in 1880 and 1886.

"The Lady Who Put Salt in Her Coffee," was American boys' and girls' introduction to the Peterkin family, who spend their days doing stupid and silly things. This story is about mother Peterkin, who accidently puts salt in her coffee instead of sugar, making it undrinkable. The entire family attempts to solve this problem, first by all trooping to the pharmacist and bringing him back to the house where he adds various chemical compounds, such as bichlorate of magnesia and cyanic acid, to the coffee, to no avail. The salt can still be tasted.

Next the family brings the herb-woman to the house. She mixes dill, rose- mary, and basil, among other things, into the coffee, but it only tastes worse. By now it is late afternoon. The family despairs of ever solving this dilemma and the mother still hasn't had her cup of coffee. Finally, one of the daughters says, "They say that the lady from Philadelphia, who is staying in town, is very wise. Suppose I go and ask her what is best to be done." She pays a visit to the Lady from Philadelphia who listens to her very attentively and then suggests that mother make herself a new cup of coffee. "Why didn't we think of that?" they all ask each other, amazed at the ease with which the Lady from Philadelphia solved their problem.1 This is the general formula for many of the stories. The Peterkins do stupid things, get themselves into all kinds of hilarious trouble and then the Lady from Philadelphia coolly comes to the rescue with common sense advice.

A book reviewer recommending these books to children in 1915, notes that they are "amusing, and good for dreamy and unpractical children."2 1n 1880, those dreamy and impractical American children could enjoy the absurdities of England's Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, but Lucretia Hale, with her sense of humor, her witty writing and creative imagination, brought those American children the silly bumbling Peterkin family and gave them some nonsense of their very own.

1 Hale, Lucretia P., "The Lady Who Put Salt in Her Coffee," in The Complete Peterkin Papers, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960, p. 6-12.

2 Hornbook, p. 146.

Copyright 2001 by Rita Smith

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Wednesday, 04-Sep-2002 22:24:21 EDT


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