Butler-Laing Family papers
Language of Materials
The Butler-Laing Family Papers come from three generations of an American family from the northeast. These Papers chiefly shed light on the daily lives of women of the Butler Family. The Papers extend from 1818 to 1892. The bulk, from 1865 through 1871, encompasses Mrs. Laing's detailed diaries and letters from Rome and all of her grown daughter Mary's letters to her. Also included in the collection are a shipboard diary of Mrs. Laing's voyage to and from China in 1836-1837 and a diary of her husband on one of his many voyages, 1846-1847.
The Butler-Laing Family Papers come from three generations of an American family from the northeast.
The centerpiece of the family, and of the collection, is Caroline Hyde Butler Laing, from the second generation that is represented in the Papers. Born in 1804 to Thomas and Sarah Denison Butler, she spent the first part of her childhood in New York City followed by years in Plainfield, Connecticut where her father had moved in an attempt to suppress his consumption. In 1822, Caroline married Edward Butler. He was not considered a relative, although years later Caroline surmised that they might indeed have had ancestry in common. The couple settled in Edward's hometown of Northampton, Massachusetts. Edward Butler was in the mercantile business, employed largely in trading tea and silks with China. In the years that followed, he was frequently away from Northampton on business in Boston or New York or en route to or from China. Between 1822 and 1834 the couple had five children: Sarah Caroline, Thomas Edward --who died at age two --, Edward, Theodore Hunt, and Hunt Mills.
In 1836, showing symptoms of consumption, Caroline Butler was advised to join her husband on his next sea journey. In October of 1836, they set off together on the ship "Roman" for China. The voyage to and from China's port of Macao was one of almost eight months. Mrs. Butler kept a diary on the voyage. Less than two months after her return to Northampton, she gave birth to her sixth child, Harriet Denison. Four more children followed in the next years: Robert Morris, Mary Hunt, Caroline Hyde, and Franklin Delano. During these years, Edward Butler was obliged to spend long amounts of time in New York City. Husband and wife kept in touch by letter.
During the decade of the 1840s, Caroline Butler began writing stories for magazines such as Sartain's to help support her large family. It was in New York City in July of 1849 that Edward Butler was stricken with cholera and passed away, all within the space of two or three days. A widow with nine children, Mrs. Butler increased her output of short fiction for Graham's and other magazines. In addition, she published some books, such as The Little Messenger Birds, or The Chime of the Silver Bells (1850), and The Ice King, And The Sweet South Wind (1851), with Boston and Philadelphia firms.
In April of 1851, Caroline Butler married Hugh Laing, an old family friend. The couple and the six children still at home moved to 16 Clinton Street in Brooklyn. Hugh Laing died in January of 1869. Mrs. Laing's children were by then all grown and dispersed, many of them married and with their own children. She made extended visits to some of them. For example, her eldest daughter Sarah, now Mrs. Caldwell, lived in Germantown, Pennsylvania, not far from Norristown, where her son Theodore lived with his wife. Her daughter Mary, now Mrs. Reeves, lived in Bridgeton, New Jersey and wrote often to her mother.
Late in 1869, Mrs. Laing traveled to Rome for an extended stay with her daughter Harriet, married to the then renowned poet and painter Thomas Buchanan Read. Mrs. Laing kept extensive diaries of her time in Italy and wrote detailed letters home to her children. She returned to the United States in 1871 and began A Child's History of Rome, published in three separately titled volumes over the four succeeding years. She lived in Brooklyn, but remained in close touch with many of her children, visiting them frequently. She died at age 88 in 1892.
The materials are intellectually arranged in six main series, each representing a member of Caroline H. Butler Laing's family. Each series includes all the material relating to that particular family member throughout the collection. The arrangement is as follows: Caroline H. Butler Laing: Correspondence; Diaries; Genealogy; Recipes; Writings; Edward Butler: Letters Sent; Diary; Mary Hunt Butler Reeves: Correspondence; James J. Reeves: Letters Sent; Harriet Denison Butler Read: Letters Sent; Thomas Butler: Correspondence; Robert Morris Butler: Letters Sent. One small series of printed material is also included.
Unlike the series which are arranged according to family member, the materials are physically arranged by format. All the correspondence, writings, and diaries are kept together. See Container List for details.
Scope and Contents
The Butler-Laing Family Papers shed light on the daily lives of the 19th century generations of a northeastern American family. The lives of the women are particularly clarified.
The Papers consist of letters, diaries and writings of Caroline H. Butler Laing, letters and a diary of her first husband, Edward Butler, and letters sent and received by some of her children and her father.
The collection is arranged into six main sections, each representing a member of Mrs. Laing's family. Within these sections the series chiefly include letters and diaries. Letters exchanged between family members are filed with the papers of the writer rather than by recipient. A seventh section is a small one of four discreet printed items found among the Papers.
The Papers extend from 1804-1892. Some of the earliest are letters to Caroline from her father Thomas Butler, letters that demonstrate his interest in the well-grounded education of his daughter. Caroline's letters extend for almost seventy years from the months after her first marriage in 1822 until her death in 1892, the closing date of the collection.
The bulk of the Butler-Laing Family Papers is from 1865 through 1871, encompassing all of Mary Butler Reeves' letters to her mother, all of Mrs. Laing's European diaries, and a significant portion of her letters to Mary, largely written from her daughter Harriet's house in Rome.
While in Rome, Mrs. Laing kept a diary, extending to ten volumes. A preceding volume starts in her last days in the United States, as she visits members of her family to take her leave, and continues on shipboard to France. The Rome diaries detail her excursions around and outside the city and her observations of Roman rituals, both civic and religious. Included are her accounts of the events of 1870 that culminated in the annexation of Rome to Italy, with Pope Pius IX not recognizing the loss of his temporal sovereignty. Her letters from Rome naturally include such description, while dwelling on family matters as well. Mrs. Laing's last diary in the collection describes her travels after leaving Rome in 1871: from Florence to Venice, then over the Alps and through Austria to Germany over to London and Liverpool and then homeward bound on the ship "Scotia."
But Mrs. Laing's European diaries are not her earliest in these Papers. On her sea voyage with her husband Edward Butler in 1836-1837, she kept a shipboard diary, daily on the outward journey, and intermittently on the return. In entries of varying length, she details the number of miles traveled, the weather, her relative sea-sickness, and the daily activities on the ship. There are few personal revelations, in keeping with the scruples of the era. For example, although she gave birth to her sixth child a few weeks after her return from China, the diary makes no mention of her pregnancy.
Another diary in the Butler-Laing Family Papers is that of Edward Butler returning from the Java Sea to New York City in 1846-1847. In short entries, in somewhat inaccessible handwriting, Mr. Butler describes the weather and his relations, apparently strained, with the ship's captain.
Of the five letters from Edward Butler in this collection, three are to his wife and two are to his daughter Mary.
The letters of Caroline H. Butler Laing are all to family members, with the exception of one to the editor of the New York Daily Times in September 1865. The approximately thirty-five letters up to 1849 are almost all to her husband, away on long-term business in New York City. They tell him of his family's daily life in Northampton. The majority of the approximately seventy later letters are to her grown daughter Mary, with several to her daughter Harriet.
Letters from Mary, largely to her mother, and letters from Harriet, chiefly to her mother or to Mary, are in their own discreet series. As a whole, these letters between the women etch in close detail their daily lives, both the extraordinary moments (a death in the family; a wedding; reaction to President Lincoln's assassination) and the commonplace ones (shopping; traveling). The women's affectionate regard for each other is palpable.
Given the time-span of this collection, it should be noted that the Civil War makes only a tangential appearance in these Papers. The series of Mary Butler Reeves' correspondence includes five letters written to her in 1864-1865 by a cousin, Frank Butler, a soldier in the Army of the Confederacy. He appears to have been courting Mary. Letters from her to him naturally are not in the collection. That Mary resolved to disassociate herself from him after Lincoln's assassination is explicit in one of her letters to her mother. Frank Butler's letters speak little about his military involvement. The specific delineations of the Butler-Laing family's attitudes toward the Civil War are not evident in these papers. The exceptions are detailed and observant reactions to Lincoln's death by Mary and her mother, and a degree of racial bigotry displayed by Harriet in a few of her post-War letters.
From Caroline H. Butler Laing, the collection contains four additional manuscript volumes in addition to her diaries. One of these is a book of "receipts," or recipes, garnered from family and friends (so attributed). There are about one hundred recipes entered into the undated volume by Mrs. Laing and later by her daughter Mary.
Another volume from Mrs. Laing is entitled "Genealogy of Thomas Butler and of his descendants from the year 1739." This contains both lists and narratives in Mrs. Laing's handwriting. The coverage extends from her paternal great-grandfather to incomplete lists of her grandchildren, with records of some of the deaths in each generation. Leaving a few blank pages, Mrs. Laing then begins the "Genealogy of Richard Butler, and of his descendants," that is, the Butlers of her first husband's family. This begins in 1631 and ends with only one generation listed. An inserted letter gives more information on her husband's family.
Mrs. Laing's other two manuscript volumes contain some of her stories. Whether these are late drafts or fair copies is not clear. There are also disbound, as well as unbound, manuscripts of her stories and of some poetry.
The Butler-Laing Family Papers are rich in their very simplicity. They tell the story of ordinary life for a family able to live and travel comfortably as part of the 19th century northeastern American mainstream.
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This collection should be cited as the Butler-Laing Papers, MS 94, the New-York Historical Society.
Location of Materials
Immediate Source of Acquisition
Donated by Amy Ward Bier, circa 1985.