Remembering the Days: Write me a letter

Remembering the Days podcast — episode 43

Long before texting, Facetime and email were a thing, university students sat down with pen and paper to ask their parents for money, beg forgiveness when they got in trouble and ask someone special for a date. This quaint assortment of letters from University of South Carolina students of yesteryear covers all of those topics and more.


“Tell father that the food in the stewards hall has been so very bad that I have been forced by hunger to go outside to get something to eat elsewhere. I have got an account of about 5 or 6 dollars for eating, now it will be 10 or 12 before I leave here, and that I would be very glad that when he sends for me he would send the money to pay for it. I shall also have some washing to pay for.”

Cornelius Ayer wrote that letter to his brother on May 15, 1819, when he was a student at South Carolina College, the precursor of today’s University of South Carolina. In those few short lines, he conveyed two sentiments that college students everywhere and in almost every generation can identify with — the food here stinks and I need more money.

I’m Chris Horn, your host for “Remembering the Days,” and today we’re eavesdropping on a handful of letters that Carolina students wrote during the 19th and early 20th centuries. I found an assortment of  these letters in a book that you might enjoy called Carolina Voices. It was edited by former university professors Carolyn Matalene and Katherine Reynolds and published in 2001 by the University of South Carolina Press.

Let’s continue listening in on these letters, including one more from Cornelius Ayer asking his father for — you guessed it — more money. This one was written March 3, 1819.

“The principal reason of my writing at this time is, that I am out of money and I shall have to pay for my tuition shortly and I have not the money. I was forced to draw the money you left, little sooner than you told me. I had to get some books which I could not do without, I have paid the steward and for my washing, and that took all the money that was left. I expect when I come home you will say that I have been very extravagant, but I have got me a book and I have sat down every article for which I have spent my money for. It is well for every man to take care of what he has, therefore, I have nothing to say against your stinting me, but when you know that the money is not spent foolishly nor carelessly I think you might afford me a little more, than you would if I had spent it foolishly. I am not of the opinion that a man should allow his son as much as he thinks proper to spend, for it just ruins them at once. There are some here whose fathers do it and they will never learn anything as long as they stay here. They get into all kinds of vice and folly. They think of nothing else but drinking and eating, whereas if they had not this priviledge allowed them they would make smart men. All I want is enough to appear decent and if I should want any little thing, I can get it. I am in hopes that when I receive an answer that I will get some. You will have to send the money for my tuition by the 2nd of April.”

You’ve got to admire how Cornelius lays out his case for more dough and attempts to make himself look virtuous by pointing out some of his classmates who spend their father’s money on "vice and folly." There’s no indication if Cornelius’ letter writing campaign reaped a return or fell on deaf ears.

Asking for money is a hardy perennial when it comes to student-parent communication. But homesickness is also a source of many a plaintive epistle from students. Eugene Whitefield Dabbs hailed from a farm near Darlington, S.C., and his first letters home in the fall of 1880 betrayed his often bleak outlook as a young freshman.

Oct. 7, 1880

While dressing this morning I saw a bed-bug on the sheet. I am sick of ‘grub.’ Maj. Sloan will not teach arithmetic. I am to commence in algebra. I am to study rhetoric and English history, chemistry and geology or botany. I am very backward in everything. I am afraid and too young to master the studies. I should go another year to school at home. I shall have to go to boarding tomorrow. I do not feel like eating though and afraid I am going to be sick. I am in a room by myself so have no one but God to see me break down every now and then. You and Pa must pray for me often and write a long and encouraging letter to me.

Oct. 11, 1880

I came here a year too soon and so will have to study very hard to keep up. I wonder if you all miss me so much as I miss you… Oh! That I had not been in such a hurry to leave home and had stayed that I might help you all and get further advanced before coming to college. College studies are not school boy play. Forgive me, forgive me for ever saying I wanted to leave my dear darling family. I pray that when I go back to you all I shall be a changed, better boy.

Eugene Dabbs’ situation did improve. If you read several more of his letters home that first semester, you get the sense that Dabbs had begun to get the hang of college life. Sadly, though, his father died that December and Dabbs’ college days came to an end not long after they had begun. He later married Alice Maude McBride, who lived near Mayesville, S.C., and they had a son, James McBride Dabbs, who would graduate from the university in 1916. When James wrote home from college, there was scarcely any mention of homesickness. His letters touched on more mundane topics like — the need for more money.

May 3, 1913

What is the matter at home that everyone has quit writing? But I am not writing tonight to get after you but to ask about some money. It is time to buy the May meal ticket now, and I have only $1 in the Bank of Sumter. It will $20 to do me. If it is all right you can send me a check for this amount. Please write me a once for I must get the ticket before May 10.

Feb. 27, 1914

This letter tonight, I’ll not deny it, is primarily to ask you to send me some money. We will have to buy meal tickets in a few days. And I owe some money for coal. Besides this, I have been absolutely broke since Feb. 10 or 11. I wouldn’t get any money from you the other day because I had made up my mind to go till the end of the month on what I had, or rather didn’t have … If you can do so, I wish you would let me have about $30. There are so many things which have to be gotten here, and really I don’t think I waste my money in any way.

We’re all familiar with people who get in trouble for something they’ve said or done and then make a sort of halfway apology — you know: “I’m sorry you were offended by my actions. This is not who I am.” These next letters were penned by a student and his father, and they seem much more like the genuine article when it comes to making amends.

We don’t know what Robert E. Johnston of Winnsboro, S.C., did to get expelled as a sophomore in 1848 but it seems it was some sort of youthful hijinks. His short letter of apology to South Carolina College president William C. Preston is sincere and earnest.

“As it is my own wish and that of my father that I should return to college, I deem an apology due the faculty and yourself as president. My misconduct was the result of thoughtlessness rather than disrespect of the laws of the college and I hereby show my regret for it and a promise that should I be again received as a student to be circumspect in my conduct and to abide strictly by the regulations of the college.”

About a month later, Robert’s father, Sam Johnston, also wrote to the college president on behalf of his son.

“Your kind favour of the 19th bringing three charges against my son Robert came duly to hand. I was then so ill and confined to bed that I did not read your letter for some days afterward. As to Robert’s youth, I claim no indulgence for him on that score. If he was prepared to enter college he must be bound to conform to the bye laws and regulations of the college as much as those of riper years, or not be there. I think, and I do hope, that if yourself and the faculty of the college think proper to receive him and reinstate him in his class, that he will see the error of his ways and in future give you no troubles."

Despite the pleas of father and son, Robert Johnston seems not to have been reinstated to the college.

So we’ve heard students begging for more money, complaining of homesickness and pleaing for forgiveness. Let’s turn to a more lighthearted topic — writing letters to get a date. In 1883 a young debutante named Lil Butler came to live in Columbia, not far from the South Carolina College campus. Miss Lil, as she was sometimes called, was the daughter of William Butler, a librarian in the U.S. House of Representatives, and she was also the niece of Matthew Butler, a Confederate war hero and U.S. Senator.

For more than 10 years, Lil was the recipient of quite of number of letters and invitations from eager young men at South Carolina College who desired her company at dances, parties, the circus, church picnics and so on. Lil Butler carefully saved all of those missives, a few of which follow. Take note that the “German” a couple of students refer to is shorthand for a German Cotillion, a type of dance popular back then that involved four couples.

Oct. 17, 1885

Miss Lillie,

If you care to take the buggy ride we were speaking of sometime ago, I would recommend this afternoon to be a very good time for it. If agreeable, please say at what time I may call.

Very truly,

E. Brooks Sligh

Nov. 23, 1885

Dear Miss Lillie,

Our club (The Capital) will give a “German” at Stanley’s Hall on Wednesday evening, and if you have entirely recovered from your dissipation of “Fair Week,” I would be pleased to have you go with me.

Very truly,

E. Brooks Sligh

Another young man was looking forward to walking her to a dance the next evening, but apparently couldn’t wait until then to see her.

June 24, 1886

Dear Miss Lil,

I’m going to trouble you once more. The L’Arioso Club meets tonight at Mrs. Barnwell’s and if I’m not too late in asking can’t I come up and go with you?

The walk to the German tomorrow night will be so short that I don’t count it at all. Of course after we get there I’ll not see but very little of you!

Very truly yours,

A.T. McCants

I’m not sure how entertaining it would have been but Miss Lil also received at least one invitation to attend a Moot Court exercise for debaters and budding young lawyers.

April 22, 1888

Dear Miss Lil,

If you can get the consent of your conscience to visit such a place, and in such company, it would give me great pleasure to escort you to our “Moot Court” tomorrow night. I am going to hold forth with all the eloquence of a Webster. I merely throw that out as an additional inducement. Hope you are entirely recovered and that you will allow the above request to prevail.

Very truly yours,

W.W. Johnson

This last letter could win the prize for melodrama. It seems that Mr. G.W. Patterson had been turned down at least twice by Miss Lil but had screwed up the courage to ask her out once more.

March 11, 1888

Dear Miss Butler,

I am dead: I committed ‘hari-kari' last Tuesday night immediately on receiving your note. I have been galvanized into a semblance of life and am going to make another break for liberty. There is said to be luck in odd numbers, and this is my third attempt. Can I see you tonight? Think well before replying, for another such a shock as I received last Tuesday would not only kill one again but make me a raving lunatic.

Truly yours,

G.W. Patterson.

I did a little research but couldn’t find any record of what happened to Miss Lil. Did she marry one of her many admirers from South Carolina College? Or did she leave behind a trail of broken hearts? We might never know. For Mr. Patterson’s sake, I hope that Miss Lil at least said in response to that last letter, ‘OK, you can come see me.' ”

And for your sake, I hope you’ve enjoyed this walk down memory lane, listening in on student letters from yesteryear. If you’d like to read more old letters from Carolina students, check out the book I mentioned earlier — Carolina Voices, Two Hundred Years of Student Experiences.

On the next episode of Remembering the Days, we’re going back nearly 60 years to when the university’s Concert Choir was launched by a Hungarian immigrant named Arpad Darazs. If you appreciate beautiful music and especially enjoy the sound of many voices in harmony, you’re in for a treate.

Remembering the Days is produced by the Office of Communications and Public Affairs. I’m Chris Horn, thanks for listening and forever to thee.

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