By Sue Kerr
Pittsburgh Current Columnist
One of the sweetest moments in my family tree exploration was the discovery of a Letter to Santa published in the Pittsburgh Press on 18 December 1896. The author was a 6-year-old girl named Jennie Rice. She lived at 70 Poplar Alley in the Lower Hill District.
Jennie was my great-grandmother whom we knew as Grandma Jane. She was born around 1890, the daughter of two first generation Irish-American parents, Sarah Anne Campbell and John Arthur Rice. The Rice family settled along Heron Avenue and the Campbells bounced between Poplar Alley and Allegheny City. They were very much a lower working class families, working in the glass blowing industry and living riotous lives filled with alcohol, violence, and frequent court appearances.
Jennie has an interesting array of present preferences, including a bank filled with money and a set of teeth. Researching “Dear Santa” features in historical papers, I discovered that teeth and other body were not an infrequent request. Children of the late 19th century were a pretty practical lot.
The Smithsonian explains that the very first letters were FROM Santa, admonishing children about their behavior. Dear Santa letters to St. Nick began to catch on in the mid-1800’s as children addressed the practical need to inform Santa of their wishes and their whereabouts when they moved. The letters are described as “Notes sent to Santa are an unlikely lens through which to understand the past, offering a peek into the worries, desires and quirks of the times in which they were written.”
This coincided with the expansion of the U.S. Postal Service to offer home delivery rather than requiring people to pick up their mail. Publishing this endearing (and humorous) content in newspapers was a seemingly calculated move to ‘curate’ content and document the new holiday tradition. The first known letter to Santa was published on December 24, 1874 in the Stark County Democrat, a paper in Dayton, Ohio.
Eventually, the tradition grew so overwhelming that the Postal Service teamed up with charitable organizations to stamp out the practice of destroying letters and start writing back to the children. And that’s what saved Kris Kringle from prosecution in the movie Miracle on 34th Street.
My Jennie has another letter published in 1897
Jennie got a little wiser in 1897, throwing in her brother’s wishes for good measure.
Letters were apparently a family tradition. Jennie’s cousin Mary Campbell also penned a request in 1897. Her family lived on nearby Basin Alley, another street in the Lower Hill District. Using my newspapers.com subscription to read about Basin Alley and Poplar Alley helped me understand the realities my great-grandmother and her family lived through.
Life in these neighborhoods was traumatic. Most of the buildings were derelict, lacking any amenity, and offered as rental housing to each new wave of immigrants to the region. Jennie’s parents disappear from the ‘formal record’ completely after their wedding in 1887, with no mention of where they lived or how. By 1900, the family was comprised of at least 4 children who were scattered to the wind and distant relatives. In 1907, Sarah died by apparent suicide by drinking rat poison after reportedly hallucinating about her mother (who lived nearby with custody of little Jennie.) John remarried, worked for a local brothel until relocating to Cleveland for his final years. Those details were not handed down; I only found them using newspaper archives.
Jennie married my great-grandfather in 1913. Her family moved from East Allegheny on the Northside to Allentown and then Brentwood. She died in a house fire in 1971, six months after I was born.
She knew me for a brief while, but I’ve only met her through a few family stories and the legacy in the newspapers and public documents. Finding a Christmas letter she wrote as a child 122 years ago would be impossible without a newspaper archive.
There are many threads to this story – the legacy of alcoholism and violence among Irish-Americans, the miserable living conditions of the lower working class, the traumas fueling the wave of white flight from the Hill to the outer city neighborhoods and eventually the suburbs. The stories of those left behind. The realities that those who owned the housing were other white folks, including Irish Americans whose own immigration stories did not deter them from profiting on the misery of new generations of hopeful arrivals from Turkey, Russia, Western and Eastern Europe and even Ireland.
What resonates with me all these years later is that the children were still children with their hopes and wishes and demands. And that there must have been some adult in their lives who cared enough to transcribe their wishes and send the to the newspaper. That tender gesture of affection was part of the resiliency that helped little Jennie grow up to become my Grandma Jane.