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Crowdsourcing the Letters of Frederick Stuart Church

Images of Mollie and Church

Left: Mary Leland Bloomer (known affectionately as "Mollie"), age 4. Center: Portrait of Mollie by Church, 1889. Right: Photograph of Church with Mollie in the background

In a recent post on Frederick Stuart Church for the Highlights from the Digital Collections blog, I asked readers to help me decipher what was written in a few of Church's letters. Within weeks I had responses from two different readers—one of whom has published a book on Church, and the other who is currently working on a book about the artist. The former is Dale Horst, co-author of Frederick Stuart Church: A Brush with Imagination, which can be found in Watson Library's stacks. In my original post on Church, I had written the following about one of Church's letters: "Church writes, 'Proceeds of the sale go to making womans vacation [indecipherable] – NY.' Unfortunately, I cannot make out that one crucial word, so again, if anyone out there would like to take a shot at deciphering this it would be much appreciated."

F.S. Church's bear decipher

Frederick S. Church letter to Mr. Chambers, 1899

Well, as it turns out, I had gotten pretty much the entire thing wrong. Fortunately Horst was able to set me straight. What it actually says is: "The proceeds go to Working Woman's Vacation Society - N.Y." He further clarified that "Church was a supporter of women's rights, and a number of his illustrations deal with this issue." I am extremely grateful to Horst not only for helping me decipher what Church had actually written, but also for helping to contextualize the letter.

The other reader who responded was Deborah V. Hobler. She is currently writing a book on Church's letters, My Lettered Love Affair with F. S. Church (which is alluded to in this New York Times article from 2011, as is Dale Horst), which will include over 800 of Church's letters, 150 of which were written to Hobler's grandmother who regularly modeled for Church. Not only did Hobler help clarify what Church had written in several different letters, but she also sent along a number of beautifully illustrated letters from Church as well as photographs of her grandmother Mary Leland Bloomer (known affectionately as "Mollie"), two of which feature Church himself. The three images at the top of the post were provided by Hobler: the first is of her grandmother Mollie, age 4; the second is a portrait of Mollie done by Church in 1889; and the third is of Church with Hobler's great aunt on his lap and Mollie in the background.

She also included an illustrated letter from Church to Mollie in which he depicts the young Mollie and himself devouring a long line of buckwheat cakes; he signed it "Buckwheat Cake Church." The "buckwheat pancake eaters" became a long-running inside joke between Church and Mollie, and in another letter Church signs off as "Buckwheat Pancake Church."

F.S. Church's buckwheat letters

Left: A letter from "Buckwheat Cake Church." Right: "Buckwheat Pancake Church"

In the following postcard, Church grandiosely signs off as "G.B.W.C.E." (that is, Great BuckWheat Cake Eater).

F.S. Church

"G.B.W.C.E," or Great BuckWheat Cake Eater

Another letter to Mollie, dated February 14, 1921, was also shared with me. This Valentine's Day card depicts a small black bear struggling mightily to uphold a blazing heart with the simple inscription, "To Mollie." Hobler also sent an apology letter from Church to Mollie in which he cast himself as a slithering snake, begging forgiveness. A flamingo also makes an appearance further on in the letter, which appears to be a recurring figure.

F.S. Church's letters

Left: Letter from Church to Mollie, Valentine's Day, 1921. Right: Church asking Mollie's forgiveness in this letter of apology

One of the letters Hobler helped me decipher—written to fellow artist William H. Lippincott—features a polar bear and a flamingo. I knew it was a thank you letter, but I couldn't figure out much more than that. Fortunately Hobler came to the rescue and let me know exactly what it said: "Thanks Lippincott for the tickets. I will send them to my friends and will drop in myself. Church."

F.S. Church's flamingo and bear

Frederick Stuart Church letter to William H. Lippincott, 1910

Hobler was kind enough to send over two other similarly charming letters, both of which feature the polar bear, and one that reunites both polar bear and flamingo.

F.S. Church's bears

Left: Return of the polar bear and flamingo. Right: Polar bear on a leash

I would like to extend my deepest gratitude to both Horst and Hobler—not only for helping me decipher what Church wrote in these letters, but also for the enriching context and back-story they provided for many of these letters (not to mention the scans of both the photographs and letters featured above). Church's work is engrossing, and it is because of the extraordinary work of researchers and enthusiasts like Horst and Hobler that the "other Church's" reputation is gradually being resuscitated. (In case people are interested, there is a Highlights blog post on the other famous Church, American artist Frederic Edwin Church, as well.) I for one am very much looking forward to the publication of Hobler's book on Church in the not-too-distant future.

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