November 2020

The Courting Letters

Letters sent to our grandparents Jake Spiker and Gay Zinn

The ‘Courting’ Letters

By Bobbi Spiker-Conley

Last July I received an unexpected and exciting gift from Mike and Marty Spiker — a shoebox stuffed with letters and cards addressed to our grandparents, Jake Spiker and Gay Zinn. The majority were missives the couple exchanged during their two-year courtship from 1905 until their wedding in 1907.

Mike said, “I found the ‘dating’ letters in a box of items we removed from Mom and Dad’s house in Pennsboro. I had seen the box years ago, but it disappeared. I assume Dad found the box as he cleaned out the Spiker farmhouse after Grandma died. She would have kept them since she was a known saver of documents. I also assume they were stored in the attic at the farmhouse, safe during the 1950 flood when many pictures and other family heirlooms were destroyed. Since the letters were all mixed together, I separated them and organized them” by year.

Marty included a handwritten note with the box. “Mike asked me to mail this collection of letters to you. They were written by Gay and Jacob while they were ‘courting.’ I had a chance to read a few (randomly selected) and they are priceless. If you run across the one where Gay has complained to Jake about folks gossiping and Jake says something to the effect ‘if it happens again, I’ll straten their noses’ (his spelling) you’ll probably laugh out loud like I did.”

    Yes, I did laugh out loud. And often. Apparently, we descend from a long line of witty pranksters. When you read some of these letters, you’ll see what I mean.

It took several months to scan, transcribe, and record the nearly 200 cards and letters, and there is still a lot of research to be done to identify all the characters in their stories (I’ll need your help on that.) But here is what I have uncovered so far. I begin with the basic observations. 

The Mail

  • Postage to mail a one-ounce letter was two cents.
  • Almost all the envelopes measured roughly 3 ½ x 6 inches, but a few were surprisingly small; the tiniest envelope measured a mere 1 ¾ x 4 ½ inches!

  • During their early courtship, the letters were postmarked at HarrisvilleTollgate and Holbrook.

    When Gay took extended trips to visit her sister, they were postmarked at Newberne and Coxs Mill.

    Although she routinely advised Jake of her travel plans, some letters had to be forwarded to her temporary address (image below.)

    Later in their courtship, after Jake moved out of his parents’ Harrisville home, the letters were postmarked at Clarksburg.

  • The writing paper seemed to be anything they had on hand – transparent vellum paper, notepad paper, unlined paper, hand-cut paper of heavy stock, “Harrisville” letterhead (and occasionally Gay borrowed some of her sister’s floral stationery.)

  • The attractive handwriting was neat and (mostly) legible.

  • The letters were written in pencil or pen (sometimes a note added in crayon,) single-sided, double-sided, or “every which way” as shown in this letter Gay sent to Jake on April 24, 1905. It was written on both sides of a single sheet of folded paper. (Partial transcription provided at bottom of this page.)

The Language and the Spelling

As expected, there were a lot of typical writing errors (spelling, punctuation, spacing and grammatical,) but it is interesting to note that some common words and phrases were consistently “misspelled” in the exact same way by more than one author. We prefer to call them “creatively-spelled” words.

How many of these (consistently) “creatively-spelled” words can you decipher?

  • hafto or havt
  • harte
  • offal or offle
  • oyes
  • shure
  • youse or youst

Did you guess correctly?

  • have to
  • heart
  • awful or awfully
  • oh, yes
  • sure
  • used or used to

A lot of their common phrases are not-so-commonly spoken these days:

  • “Quite a good ear”
  • “Fall out”
  • “Cut a swell”
  • “How I was standing times”
  • “I ain’t in clover”
  • “Winning the laurel”
  • “More fun to the square inch than any old farmer just let out of a New England smoke house”

The Games, the Books, and the Events

They identified some of the books and manuscripts they were reading,

  • Bernard Fresenborg’s - Thirty Years in Hell 
  • Thomas William Jackson’s - Through Missouri on a Mule 
  • Frank Mortimer’s - Martyrs 

Mentioned some of the games they played,

  • Flinch – a card game
  • Shinnie – a precursor to ice hockey
  • Squirrely – a kissing game

And talked about some of the events they attended.

  • Fairs, bazaars, opera shows
  • Sunday school, church conventions, protracted meetings
  • Christmas trees, New Year’s watch, July 4 celebrations
  • Ice cream suppers, picnics, box suppers
  • Birthday parties, ball games, log rollings, ice skating socials
  • Wakes, funerals, burials

The Beginning

The oldest letter in the box was addressed to Jake Spiker, dated November 29, 1904. But it wasn’t from Gay. It was signed by one of Jake’s former romantic interests, Lena Ward (pictured with Gay below - more about her in future editions.)

Of course, Gay also had a former beau or two. In one of her first letters she informed Jake that she and Charlie DeBrular had “quit for good.” (Transcribed from above, in part:)

Hollbrook, W.Va.
April 24 [1905]
Mr. Spiker

Kind friend

Rec’d your letter the other eve glad to receive a letter from but sorry to learn of you being sad and lonely Sun week Charlie Debrular and I quit for good Sunday eve week ago. I haven’t seen my other beau yet but hope I will before this time next week. Who is your girl now?

Left: Gay Zinn wearing the necklace she received from Charles Porter DeBrular when she was 16 years old. Date of this photo, unk.

Below: Best friends Lena Ward-Ehret and Gay Zinn-Spiker, 1907

These early letters were written before Jake and Gay became an official couple. Then, over a span of two years, the letters slowly revealed a loving and intriguing courtship, although one not without hardship and tragedies. Their romance was complicated by foul weather, poor health, long distances, community disasters, neighborhood gossip, secrets, and a lot of misunderstandings.

We will tell you all about it as we explore the “Courting Letters” over the next several months. Click here to view the next installment.