Saturday, December 31, 2016

Looking Back at 1916

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, December 30, 2016.

This year everyone seems glad to be rid of 2016. Too many celebrity deaths, the long grind that was the election, Exeter’s drought, civil unrest and frightening world events seem to have taken a toll on most everyone.

One hundred years ago, in 1916, celebrity deaths weren’t in the news much, but local deaths were. In March, the Exeter News-Letter reported the death of Freeman Wallace, “a highly respected Negro citizen.” Educated in Exeter schools, he was a Union Veteran having served in the Navy during the Civil War. Although he was, according to the News-Letter, “a genial worthy man, highly esteemed by fellow veterans,” his post-war life in Exeter was limited by his race. “Since discharge from the navy he had been a laborer in Exeter, his task of recent years having been to keep the streets and sidewalks free of paper.” Wallace’s family had been residents of Exeter for generations – his mother a descendant of Caesar Paul, who had been enslaved to Major John Gilman during the French and Indian War (and later freed). Black citizens of Exeter found employment difficult to come by. Wallace was 82 at the time of his death.

Dr. Abner Merrill, another Exeter native, died at the age of 90 in December of 1916. Educated at Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard, Merrill trained to be a physician and after attending Harvard Medical School, studied with Exeter physician Dr. William Perry. Once finished his studies, he decided medicine was not to his liking and instead went into the family business with his brother Henry. Their hat manufactory and wool exchange brought enough wealth to allow Merrill to become a town philanthropist. He created the Merrill Institute, which brought educational speakers to town for over 70 years.

1916 was the first year New Hampshire held a presidential primary election, although it was quite different from the primary race of today. The men – it was only men who voted in 1916 – met in March to elect delegates. The News-Letter reported the “vote was light.” A partisan paper, the News-Letter endorsed the candidacy of George Hughes, a Republican, for the presidency. But even in a largely Republican town, the voters (men) were worried over the war in Europe and incumbent Woodrow Wilson promised to keep the United States out of the battle. Going to press just a few days after the election, the vote was too close to call. Wilson won the election in Exeter, in New Hampshire and in the nation. After having run a campaign with the promise, “He Kept Us Out of War,” Wilson would declare war just one month after his second inauguration.

The Democrats and Republicans weren’t the only political parties in 1916. They were challenged by the Progressive and Prohibition parties. The Republicans and Progressives held concurrent conventions in Chicago, both of which were covered by Exeter journalist Myra Richards. Richards had served as Rockingham County deputy register of probate after her husband’s illness prevented him from serving as register of probate. After his death, she was appointed to serve as a special correspondent in Washington for several New England newspapers. For over 10 years she was the only woman in the Senate press pool.

The weather in 1916 wasn’t particularly harsh. The winter was similar to our usual winters and summer had the usual storms and heat. New England can have some crazy extremes, as the March 2nd edition of the News-Letter was able to announce that, “Fred Colcord last week completed the harvesting of his ice crop,” in the same week that crocuses were reported to be in bloom on Elliot Street.

Exeter began the year with two theaters – the Exeter Opera House and the Ioka. By March, it was clear that the Ioka was in trouble. Edward Mayer, the man who built the theater, had left town followed by a trail of debt. The investors held the business together. Silent films played at the Ioka throughout the year, and the Opera House clung to life for a few more years. Most films were light-hearted comedies, although in October the Opera House brought a frightening film called “The Battle Cry of Peace” to town. The film, lost to history today except for a few scenes, depicted a United States unprepared for war – complete with scenes of terrified citizens escaping New York City. Dystopian nightmares, it seems, are not unique to modern times.

The greatest threat most people saw in the modern age was still the scourge of alcohol. Ralph Meras of Exeter ran for governor on the prohibition platform. He was soundly defeated even in Exeter, where the townsmen voted to stay dry. Not all modern things were to be feared. It was in 1916 that the Exeter Fire Department got its first motorized truck.

One shining light in 1916 was the donation, erection and dedication of the Swasey Pavilion – our beloved bandstand. Work on the structure was noted throughout the summer. One hundred years later, we can still appreciate this elegant centerpiece to our town.

Image: This advertisement for "The Battle Cry of Peace" ran in the Exeter News-Letter on October 20, 1916. The silent film was a warning to the United States to prepare for war.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Parcel Post Delivery Comes to Town

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, December 16, 2016.

Still waiting to mail your packages in time for the holidays? Even if you don’t quite make it, rest assured that the mail is much more efficient today than it was in the 19th century. Before 1900, mail wasn’t delivered to your door – it had to be picked up at the post office. Nearly every month the post office would publish a list of letters that hadn’t been claimed. Packages sent by US Postal Service had to weigh less than 4 pounds and even this was somewhat expensive – averaging 1 cent per ounce. But great changes would come as the nation’s railroad system sped up the system.

On January 1st, 1900, the US Postal Service introduced free carrier delivery to most towns. This took some getting used to by most postal customers, particularly in the way a letter was addressed. “Upon the institution of free delivery mail matter delivered by carrier must bear the street and number as a most essential part of the address, and patrons of the office are requested so far as practicable to give the necessary information to their regular correspondents. By postal regulations, the householder must, for his own convenience and advantage, and at his own expense, supply a suitable box for the reception of his mail,” reminded the Exeter News-Letter. When the big day finally arrived, a snowstorm slowed down door to door delivery considerably. “It was unfortunate that a snow storm of such severity should accompany the institution of free delivery. The carriers, Messrs. Scott, Sanborn and Gilmore, have worked zealously, but they are human, and there is a limit to their powers.”

Home delivery was certainly a convenience for people, but letters and small packages weren’t the only things traveling across country. The two powerhouse mail-order businesses from Chicago – Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck & Company – had been doing a bang-up job of supplying goods all across the country for decades. By 1900, both companies were still struggling with the problem of shipping goods to the public. There were several options available to customers. A private express service, like American Express or Wells Fargo, would ship directly from Chicago to your hometown. These were efficient if there was an express office in your town. If there wasn’t, you might have to travel several towns away to pick up your goods. Sears advised, “If you live at a great distance from the express office, it might be more convenient to send an order by mail in two or more packages, each weighing four pounds.” At least your smaller packages would reach your local post office. This, of course, was impractical if you ordered anything over four pounds. If the order weighed more than 20 pounds it could be sent as freight by rail. To really play the shipping system, Sears reminded, “Railroad companies usually charge no more for 100 pounds than they do for 20 pounds. It would be a considerable saving of money if you could make up a larger order, either of your own wants or club together with your neighbors, as the freight charges will amount to comparatively very little more.” That way, if you only wanted to order a B flat alto ocarina for 29 cents, you could save on shipping if you combined it with your neighbor’s order of 25 pounds of flour. Clever.

But most people wanted their orders shipped directly to their own homes. The success of free carrier delivery convinced postal authorities that expanding the service might increase revenue. Farmers' cooperatives and the Grange, along with the mail-order houses, wanted the postal service to offer parcel post. It went into effect in 1913 – again on January 1st – this time without a snowstorm. “The parcels post system went into effect Wednesday and should prove a great convenience to the public,” reported the Exeter News-Letter. “Inez Josephine, the eleven-year-old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Warren E. Peltier, was the first person in Exeter to make use of the parcel post on January 1. She sent a package containing a dressed chicken to her aunt in Cambridge, Mass.”

The U.S. Postal Service website tells us, “The year Parcel Post began, Sears handled five times as many orders as it did the year before. Five years later, Sears doubled its revenues.” The original weight limit of 11 pounds was quickly raised. Parcels from the Exeter office included, a can of milk, pumpkins, an umbrella and a “chine of pork” – a tasty dish of stuffed salt pork.

An interesting loop hole in the parcel post regulations was the lack of any limits on what could be shipped. Thus, there are several accounts of parents who shipped their babies and children by parcel post because it was cheaper than buying a railroad ticket. As funny as these stories are, it wasn’t a widespread practice. These were often stunts and the children were usually entrusted to friendly railroad conductors or were accompanied by a fare-paying adult. Local postmasters frequently reminded the public that, in spite of what they may have heard, they do not ship children via Parcel Post.

Barbara Rimkunas is curator of the Exeter Historical Society. Her column appears every other Friday and she may be reached at

Photo: “It took so much time to read Post Cards and now we must find out what is inside of all Parcel Post packages in Exeter, NH” mutter the exasperated postal clerks on this novelty post card produced by the Frank Swallow Post Card Company in Exeter, NH.