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My Research Adventures

Wait, What's that Word?

Image courtesy of the Powell Family Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library, College of William and Mary

Does that word say what I think it says? Surely not - but it's certainly suspicious. The letter is from Lloyd Powell in Henry, IL to his sister Hattie in Winchester, VA (dated December 1, 1857). Lloyd's handwriting is very easy to read, but in this case the obvious reading of the word seems a bit suspect. When a word is difficult to transcribe, the context of the sentence usually helps. However, in this paragraph Lloyd was describing a party he attended and the flirtatious activities that occurred, which makes the word seem even more dubious. I've included the context below and have noted the mystery word with [?].

"the beauty & chivalry of Henry were assembled, & where the feast of reason & flow of intellectual conversation was delightfully varied, by the young ladies & gentlemen engaging occasionally in the innocent occupation of picking any number of cherries together, or measuring tape ad libitum, or some other equally pleasing & profitable amusement, savouring of [?] as you know it some few years since."

It's interesting that he said "measuring tape." I transcribed this before I had any idea what that meant! It's much more fun to understand their slang, and that particular context makes the word even more intriguing (see my previous post on measuring tape). I tried all my hacks to decipher the word and came up empty. Ultimately, I took a photo with my phone and traveled home for Christmas. It was fun to entertain family and friends with it, and many had interesting theories on what the word could be. But no one had an answer.

I tenaciously searched for 2 months and finally caught a break. The word turns out to be "Suckerdom." In this case Lloyd's capital "S" is written inconsistently from his usual handwriting and looks more like an "F." And thankfully the word "Suckerdom" is innocent. At the time of the letter, a common nickname for the people of Illinois was "sucker." The origin of the nickname is unclear, although there are several theories published online. One of the theories is that the nickname came from fish called suckers that would migrate north up the Illinois River in the Spring. When migrants to Illinois migrated up the same river in the Spring, the nickname was born. Lloyd began to use "Sucker" regularly to refer to himself, aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews. He saw it as a term of endearment. He then delightfully adapted it to refer to the state of Illinois as Suckerdom (although the formal nickname for Illinois was "the Sucker State"). It's easy to see why the nickname didn't endure much beyond the 19th century - despite all its charms.



Beauty and Chivalry: Lloyd is quoting Lord Byron's poem "The Eve of Waterloo."

"There was a sound of revelry by night,

And Belgium's capital had gathered then

Her beauty and her chivalry, and bright

The lamps shone o'er fair women and brave men.

A thousand hearts beat happily; and when

Music arose with its voluptuous swell,

Soft eyes looked love to eyes which spake again,

And all went merry as a marriage bell;

But hush! hark! a deep sound strikes like a rising knell!"

Feast of reason and flow of intellectual conversation: Lloyd is quoting Alexander Pope from his work, "The First Satire of the Second Book of Horace, Imitated."

"...Know, all the distant din that world can keep Rolls o'er my Grotto, and but sooths my sleep. There, my retreat the best companions grace, Chiefs out of war, and Statesmen out of place. There St. John mingles with my friendly bowl, The Feast of Reason and the Flow of soul..."

The image is courtesy of the Powell Family Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library, William and Mary.

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