Encrypted Letters to a Hoosier Fiancée (1895)

A century and a quarter ago, a young man whose business drew him from place to place around the Midwest mailed some painstakingly enciphered letters to his fiancée (and later wife) back home in Nappanee, Indiana.  Maybe his goal really was to keep the correspondence safe from prying eyes, or maybe he just thought of the cipher as an enjoyable pastime he and she could share together during their times apart.  Probably it was a bit of both.

It’s not unusual to find enciphered postcards in this spirit on the collectors’ market or elsewhere (a number of interesting examples may be found on the blog of Klaus Schmeh).  Longer enciphered letters turn up less often, and since these are more generous about repaying the effort it takes to crack a cipher—because there’s more text to enjoy reading afterwards—I find them that much more attractive.  But in the particular case I’ll be covering here, the enciphered correspondence spans dozens of pages: it’s a veritable cornucopia of content.  It may not be unique in terms of size, but I doubt many people of the time would have had the patience to communicate so extensively in cipher, which lends it special interest.  What—you might wonder—could an engaged couple have wanted to correspond about in such secrecy, and at such length, back in the 1890s?

The correspondents themselves both passed away over seventy years ago, and they presumably took the secret of the cipher (such as it was) to their graves.  But with a little effort, the letters aren’t difficult to decrypt.  You can try it below yourself if you like, but if that’s not your cup of tea (or if it just seems like too much work), you’ll also find the deciphered plaintexts presented a little further along in this post.  Don’t expect anything scurrilous in them—they aren’t that kind of letter—but they do deal with some interesting topics and display a fair amount of humor.  And even if they were dry as dust, there would still be a certain licentious appeal in reading anything someone had made such a conspicuous effort to conceal so long ago.

My investigation started with a single letter that came into my hands a couple years back: eight pages filled with enciphered writing addressed to Miss Osa Truex of Nappanee, Indiana, and postmarked Charlotte, Michigan at 8 A. M. on August 8, 1895 (the “AUG” isn’t legible, but since the date 8/7/’95 is written in the plain at the start of the letter, I don’t think supplying the month is too much of a spoiler).

I’ll present the whole letter in facsimile first, so that if you’d like to try your hand at researching and deciphering it yourself, you can do so with no more clues in hand than I had when I first received it, except for whatever you may have picked up from what you’ve read here so far.  Without more ado, here it is (click on any image to enlarge).


The name “Osa Truex” isn’t a particularly common one, and it didn’t take me long to identify the addressee via Findagrave.com.  She was Osa (Truex) Swartz (1875-1949), who married Luther Endsley Swartz (1871-1950) on August 17, 1895, just ten days after the date of the encrypted letter.  I took this to be a promising hint as to what the letter itself might be about, even before I’d begun seriously trying to read it.

Osa had been born near Nappanee, the daughter of Clark Truex, a farmer, and Jerusha (Iler) Truex; while Luther was the son of Charles W. Swartz, an itinerant minister, and Louisa (Winder) Swartz.  They had four children: Daphne, Thane, Keith, and Venona.  Obituaries (see here and here) give the impression that they both worked mainly as teachers, although federal census records for 1900 through 1930 consistently list Luther as a mail carrier in Chicago.

Since neither Luther nor Osa seems to have had any background in diplomacy or espionage, I wasn’t surprised to find the letter written in a simple substitution cipher, one helpful crib being the first two words at the top of the first page: CHARLOTTE, MICH., matching the postmark.

Here’s a reconstructed cipher key.

The strategy of using similar forms for consonants next to each other in alphabetical order is pretty obvious here, including the representation of N, P, Q, R, and S by a circle and its subsections (top, bottom, left, right).  Meanwhile, the character forms used for vowels are smaller than those for consonants, easily confused, and often found written ambiguously or even wrongly—although I’ve always been able to work out from context how the text was supposed to read, at least to my own satisfaction.


Otherwise, my own transcription of it will follow shortly below.

In my transcriptions for this blog post, I’ve aimed to preserve definite mistakes in spelling whenever I’ve noticed them, although I’ve often given the benefit of the doubt to characters that look more like other, “wrong” ones as long as they could pass by any stretch of the imagination for the “right” ones.  Spacing isn’t always clear in the original either, and while I’ve preserved many choices that struck me as anomalous (e.g., “afew” for “a few”; “hope ful” for “hopeful”), I haven’t been entirely consistent about this (e.g., ignoring cases where the pronoun “I” appears suspiciously close to the start of the next word).  In general, I’ve found that the cipher gets easier to read with practice, but fluency in reading brings its own risks of carelessness.  So please let me know if you spot any mistakes on my part.

[1] Charlotte, Mich.
Wed. night, 8/7/’95

Sweet Osa mine:—

Just a week from tonight I finish up all the work I will do next week, and start—slowly at first—for my loving, waiting wife.  I think I wrote you that the Flint institute next week was—seemingly—planned just for our accomodation [sic], as it continues only three days, closing a week from tonight.  I then expect to go to Howell, and likely spend most of Thursday there, making the preliminary arrangements for the institute; the arrangements that I usually make on Saturday, with the all-important exception that I will try to find a pleasant place [2] to board not just for part of myself but for all of me.  I will try to arrange for space at the institute and make my display just as I usually do on Saturday, and then when we get to Howell Sat. night or Sunday we can be just as leisurely as anybody and won’t need to get to the institute Monday morning until the rest of the teachers get there.

After getting everything “fixed up” at Howell I will come another notch nearer to where I am in spirit just now, and will like reach Goshen—d. v. [deo volente, “God willing”]—Friday P. M. after attending to a little very important business there I will retire to one of the palatial rooms in the “Hazel House” and trust to Providence—and an alarm clock, if I can borrow one—to waken me in the morning so that I can be at your place in time for the [3] ceremony; for I’d hate awfully to have the fun all over before I get there.

I don’t know yet just what train we had better take from Goshen, but however we go—and I think likely it will be north on the “Big Four” to Granger, and from there on the Grand Trunk—we will have to leave Goshen not much after noon, and it may be even earlier.  So I suppose it will be best, if it suits you all right, to say eight o’clock for the ceremony, and then we will have just time enough to say goodby [sic] and start.

I know you will be glad to learn that my work here has been fairly successful; enough so that if my business continues tomorrow and Frodoy [sic] as good as it has been so far, my profits for the week would easily pay my expenses if I were all here, as I wish I were. [4] And I know that when I am completed by your presence, that I can do much better than I can in my present incomplete condition.

We will have some work in Indiana, the institutes of Noble County and of Kosciusko County New York and Chicago finall [sic] got the matter arranged ; so you see after we get away from this state our travelling expenses will be very light.  Maybe you will think that doesn’t leave much time for us in this state, and to be sure it dont [sic], but what of it?  Uag. [sic, Aug.] 17 is the proper time, and the only proper time, for us to get married, and I am glad that our first work is way up here instead of closer home.  I know we will [5] meet many acquintances [sic] at Warsaw, and likely some at Albion, but up here there is not the least likelihood of there being a single soul who ever even heard of us, so I guess we and our actions will not be commented on and talked over by a lot of people who haven’t got brains enough not to gossip.  I don’t mean that we are going to conduct ourselves in such a way that we will have any reason to be ashamed, but you know how a you very newly-married couple are always made objects of comment, wise and otherwise, and while I am in almost every thing [sic] perfectly independent of what remarks folks have to make concerning myself, somehow as [6] this the event—in the eyes of the dear public—of our lives draws near, I feel more and more a shrinking from the vulgar public gaze, and up here at Howell we will not need to publish the fact that we are newly-married, and nobody will pay the least attention to us.

One of the book-men here who expects to be at Howell, and to throw him off the track, that is, for the future, I casually remarked that after next week I would be better able to attend to business; as I was am going to have my wife with me to attend to the book table part of the time, while I hustle for subscriptions; and two or three times, when I had a good chance, I made some remark about “my wife,” and once told him the truth that we have been married nearly two years; so I have no fear he will think us newly married, as he might otherwise.  The place where I am baording [sic] [7] also has as boarders two young married couples, and you may judge I have been making a careful study of their conduct, so that I might get from them some ideas of “how to act,” along with very, very many of how not to act.  Something quite funny happened in connection with one of these couples last Sunday.  But I can’t write it as well as I could tell it, so will wait until I can see you face to face.  Don’t forget to remind me of it, and then, as it is a naughty story, it will be just as much your fault if I tell it as it will be mine.

Now, Aso [sic, Osa] dear, one word as to Aug. 17.  I do hope you and your folks won’t try to make a spread of any kind, for if you do you will have to carry on the ceremony with me in the shade as much as possible.  I will have just my common Sunday and everyday clothes, and couldn’t put on any style if I wanted to; and I would [8] hate to have my plain uglinees [sic] made any more noticeable than necessary by contrast.  Besides, if you get everything fixed up “just the way you want it” I know you will overwork yourself, and you ought not do that.  Just re-read that part of this letter telling how leisurely I expect to spend next Thursday and Froday [sic], and then please make up your mind that you are not going to work a bit harder next week than I am.

But how good it seems to say “Nextweek!” [sic]  So soon as that!  And yet how awfully long these 9 days seem now, and how terribly long they will prove before coming to an end!  I sent Ms. Walters [top of page, lines written vertically:] our first month’s rent—from Sept. 7. To Oct. 7—yesterday.  So if anybody should tell you that I have rented a house, I presume it will be n.. no good to deny it.

But I didn’t tell Ms. W. that we are going to take a pleasure trip of three weeks before we will begin to occupy the house.

Have your folks made any remarks about our trip?

What do they think of it, anyhow?

I guess “the girls” are home by this time.  I wrote to the “home folks” and to father before commencing this, so it is now quite late, and I must say good night.  Address me Flint.

Lovingly, your Luther

But wait, there’s more!

Shortly after deciphering the above message, I was pleasantly surprised to discover three more letters written in the same cipher—two others dated 1895, and another dated 1897—available digitally online in the Swartz Family Letters, a special collection in the University of Kentucky Libraries which “comprises letters sent to Luther and Osa Swartz that document life in the Midwestern United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century” and is part of the larger Wade Hall Collection of American Letters.  (To view all the Swartz Family Letters—including the encrypted ones—click on the above link, scroll down to “Contents of the Collection,” click “More” at the bottom, and then click “All.”)

The envelopes for the three enciphered letters have individual prices penciled on them, so it looks like they must once have been offered for sale singly—say, in a box at an antique store somewhere.  That suggests there could be others out there still in private hands, and if so, I’d appreciate learning about them.

As of this writing, the University of Kentucky Libraries finding aid misidentifies the three enciphered letters as written in shorthand, as does a note in pencil at the top of one of the letters, which may have deterred or derailed past efforts to read them.  (Despite any superficial resemblance of the cipher to contemporaneous shorthand, the only form it originally paired with a common shorthand value was the one for W: the “way hook” found in many flavors of Pitman phonography, Takigrafy, etc.  The final letter, from 1897, also borrowed shorthand-inspired forms for periods and other punctuation marks, substituting a tiny × for the usual longhand dot.)

I was on a roll after working my way through the first letter—by now, I suspect I can read the cipher as fluently as Osa herself ever could—so I went ahead and deciphered the three additional letters as well.  The first, chronologically, was written on July 4, 1895, a little over a month before the letter in my own collection; the second, on July 11, 1895, a week later but still before that other letter (and before the wedding); and the third on May 26, 1897, a good while later, and well into Luther and Osa’s second year of married life.  You can read below what these other letters have turned out to say.

July 4, 1895

[1] Muncie, Ind.,
“The Glorious,”

My ever-precious Osa:—

I wonder how you are celebrating, and I hope you will enjoy yourself, but I am sure you will not have a bit better time than I will, for I am going to have the very best time possible for me to have when away from you, by spending several hours writing to you.  Though I haven’t anything especial to write, I somehow feel as if I might scribble a dozen or so pages, and if I should send you more than you have time to read, just save it until next 4th and I will read it for you,—if I can.

[2] Of course one can’t do much business today, as every body [sic] is celebrating in one way or another.  Father told me, before he left, that to the best of his recollection, he never took an order for a book on the fourth of July; and in my youthful arrogance I thought I’d see if I couldn’t beat his record; so I made some few appointments for today, while the folks said they’d be at home and have no company.  Accordingly I made three calls this morning, but took no order, and I suppose the two or three calls that I have planned for this P. M. will likely result about as successfully.  At the only one of my morning calls where I had reason to be really hope ful [sic] of an order, I had just opened up in fine shape showing the cyclopedia, when the bell rang, and the maid showed in a brother [3] of the lady whom I was canvassing.—A brother she had not seen for years, and whose coming was wholly unexpected; and of course it didn’t take me long to clear out.

I am sure you don’t blame me for not spending the Fourth with you, for you know from your own feelings how happy I would be to be with you, and while I could come, yet my finances are in a very low condition, so just for the present I have to watch every dollar.  I have not made a single “immediate delivery” sale this week, so the nine dollars profit in these I made last week is all the ready cash I have got out of my work here.  I have one in view which I hope to close up tomorrow, but it is very uncertain.

Although I have worked harder this week than last, the outcome has not been nearly [4] so satisfactory.  I believe I wrote you on Monday that I had taken one order that day.  Since then I have taken only two, and it seems difficult to get people to pay much attention to books this week.  I suppose it is because of its being the week of the 4th but if I shouldn’t take another order before I leave Saturday morning, I ought not to be sorry that I came her [sic], as the commission on my sales already is a trifle over $40.00.  I can not rightfully call this all mine, however, as Father’s work in advertising in the schools is what made my work possible.  I offered [5] him that if he would let me have all the commission on “immediate delivery” sales, I would be willing to divide equally with him the commission on all time orders I took, although he didn’t ash [sic] that I should do anything of the kind.  But I think it is no more than right, as he worked here I think at least two weeks before he took his first order.  All my orders have been turned in to the company in his name, so they will not be mixed up in any way in our settlement.

I haven’t heard from Father since he reached home, but he wrote me a card a little [6] over 24 hours after he left here.  He was then at Syracuse, waiting for the morning train to Nappanee.  He had reached Milford Junction Monday evening, and found there is now no night train on which he could go to Nappanee, so as he couldn’t go west he concluded to go east, and accordingly took an evening train to Syracuse, and visited some relatives of ours there until Tuesday morning.  I do hope to hear that he is feeling better when next I get word from home.  I haven’t said anything to him or the “home folks” yet about Aut. [sic, Aug.] 17, as I thought it would be time enough when I get home week after next, but I wrote to the girls that it might be best for them to arrange their plans to be here about the middle of next month, and said I would explain why when I see them next week on my way to Waukegan, Ills.—The clock has just struck one, and I must stop for the present or miss my dinner.

[7] 5:00 P. M.

Oh, no, I haven’t been eating all this time.  Immediately after dinner I went out to make a few calls according to appointment, but I was punished for my lack of patriotism and for my desecration of our national birthday by my failure to do any business.  I found the people (my intended victims) at home according to agreement, but at two of the places they had company, and at the other I provoked them by wakening them from afternoon naps, so I didn’t have half-a-chance anywhere.  As the day is quite warm, and my trip was pretty well out into the suburbs, I didn’t hurry much, and have just got back.  On my return I stopped afew [sic] minutes in a cathedral which [8] is just in the process of erection, or rather of completion, as the building itself is complete, and the painters are at work frescoing the walls and ceiling.  They were at work today, as careless of honoring it as was I, and as the interior of the cathedral was very pleasantly cool in contrast to the heated streets, and as I had never before seen any frescoing done, and as I wanted to, and as they didn’t “fire” me, I sat and watched the painters at work far overhead until my neck grew tired, and my head dizzy with gazing.  [9] The painters seemed perfectly at home on the slender, shaking trestle-work; but if one directly above me had fallen, I think my natural courtesy would have impelled me to step politely to one side, so as not to be in his way.  The cathedral is, or rather will be, one of the finest I have ever seen; though of course it does not compare with Notre Dame.  I fear you will not give me full credit for writing to you so much of the time today, unless you know the great attractions in the shape of a magnificent celebration here which I might be attending, but am not.  So I send you a description [10] of the great sports which I suppose are even now in progress, and which I am missing entirely.  You see Nappanee’s celebration last year “wasn’t a circumstance” in comparison with the marvelous sights which I might witness here, if I chose.  But the attraction of all attractions for me is not at Muncie, but far, far away.  How happy we were with each other last Fourth!  And how very happy we have been many, many times since!  But the happiness we will have is best of all.  In thinking of what a pleasant time we will have together when we can be together all the time, please do not think that my anticipation of our great happiness blinds me to the fact that there will have to be lots of good, honest, hard work if we are to have a pleasant home together.  I know this, and think of it not as something [11] to regret, but rather as really a good thing for us, in spite of its seeming harshness, for I honestly believe that we will be all the more happy in our home because of the fact that we have it by our own efforts, and are perfectly independent and self-reliant.

Don’t you really think, my dear wife, that we will actually enjoy ourselves more than we would if we had wealthy parents who would give us a beautiful home, and supply us with everything we needed without any effort on our part?  And I am sure, dear, that if we have our health—and why shouldn’t we—that a few years will find us with a pleasant little home all our own, free of any incumbrance [sic].  I am not afraid of hard work of any kind; the only question with me is, from what line of work will we get the best returns?  Maybe it seems [12] to you with reference to the work I am just now at, that if I can make, as I have done, about as much as in two weeks as a month’s salary in the school-room, I ought not go back to school-work at all; but some how [sic], just for the present, I feel that “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” and we are sure of a reasonable comfortable living if I teach, with privilege of drawing my salary when ever [sic] we need it, just so I don’t draw too far ahead; and it will not be too late for me to take up this line of work next spring, unless I have something else in view then.  This [13] is more pleasant in most ways than school-teaching, and in this work you could be right with me and we could make a very pleasant home every place I would work, if the company would give me towns of this size, as one could well stay in a place of this size about three or four months, and we could rent us a nice little house, and fit it up with a little cheap furniture, and live as happy as happy could be.  While I like the work in teachers’ institutes better than this, so far as the work itself is concerned, yet that means only a week at a place, so that [14] a home would be possible only in the sense that wherever you and I can be together, alone, that is home; and besides the travelling expenses would be so much more, and we would soon get tired of skipping from place to place, while a change every few months would be just about variety enough to suit me, though I don’t know just how well It would suit you.  To show you that we could afford to stay three or four months at a place, if we worked fair-sized towns, Father was here alittle [sic] over two months, and I have worked here two weeks, and yet the work in this place, including suburbs, is but very little over half done.  (I think I wrote you that the reason it is “playing out” for the present is that Father did not get here in time to “advertise” in near all of the schools before their close)  Well, to [15] resume,—in that two months Father did work that will pay him (most of it sometime in the distant future) a little over $70 per month, after deducting 10% for shrinkage by bad orders.  The above does not include his share of commissions om [sic] my sales, about $15 more, and this is all the better when you remember that this is the first successful work he has been able to do for along [sic] time.  I have explained, haven’t I, in some of my other letters, that the reason the commission is such a long time coming is that most of our purchasers will pay in installments, and that the paymenst  [sic] extend over five months from date of delivery, which in this case is not to come until the opening of the schools in Sept.  The company, however, is perfectly willing to advance a part of the commission, but do not want to [16] advance more than about 1/3, and want to do that in the shape of books instead of cash, which of course is all right in case the agent can find cash buyers.  As I have written you about half a dozen times, you see I am proud of it, I made three such sales, and the commission in them is what I was after, and I did not remit anything to the company, but by their permission I turned over the net price of these sets to Father, and the co. charged the books to him, so that it was the same to him as that much cash advanced by the company to his undelivered orders.  I hope you find this all interesting, [17] for when I go to work for this co. at the close of school next spring, I’ll make a book-agent of you, see if I don’t, and then you’ll need to know all the “tricks of the trade.”  Seriously, I believe you would find it ever so much pleasanter than you did school-teaching, for in showing this work we meet with very courteous treatment, as a rule, and the exceptions are usually funny ones.

It is almost 6:30, at which hour the P. O. will be opened for a few minutes, so I will stop this section of this long-drawn-out letter.  Suppose I should get a letter from a certain woman I know—but wait and see!

[18] 7:30 P. M.

Well, I didn’t really expect a letter anyhow, but I thought maybe you had had a chance to mail me one, still I wasn’t very badly disappointed.  When I got to the office I found the “general delivery” window in possession of a gang of men who formed a line extending out of the office and somewhat less than a block up the street.  (You see this was the first chance for anyone to gather mail since early morning.)  I hastened to make myself one of the gang, but after that I didn’t hasten much.  Although when I finally did reach the window I was not rewarded by getting what I wanted most of all, yet I was glad to receive word from home telling me of Father’s safe arrival, and that he is no worse, at any rate, than when here.  He had quite a trip, leaving [19] here a little after nine Monday morning, and not reaching home until about one P. M. Tuesday.  He finally went from Syracuse to Nappanee on the “Local.”

It is now just about the time of evening when we got in our buggy a year ago tonight.  What a delightful time we had!  How happy we were!  But a thousand times better, how happy we are and ever will be!  Oh, my darling, I am sure the time will never come, while we are both alive, that we will look back to anything in the past, no matter how pleasant, and say, “We were happier then than now.”  No, my precious, our love is constantly growing, we are ever dearer and still dearer to each other, and our delight in each other’s love will constantly increase, until Earth will not be large enough to contain it, when let us hope we may go to a fairer, better land where [20] love is God, and God is love.

Now my dear wife, as to the ceremony which will make us in name what we have so long been in fact, husband and wife, it still seems to me as if it will be in every way best to have it take place at the time we have been thinking of.  My success or lack of it at the institute work I don’t think we ought to consider in deciding the question of our marriage at that time, though it will of necessity determine some of the incidents of the wedding, for if I do not make asuccess [sic] of the work—and I may not—we would not think of going on with it, as that [21] would make just that much needless expense.  But it will be only a very few weeks (not more than four, possibly only two) until the commencement of my work in the school, and while we would not need that much time to get settled, we could manage to keep ourselves busy, I am sure.  But if I am making enough of a success that it will warrant us in continuing the institute work, I believe you will find it a very pleasant trip (for poor folks like us, who can’t afford any other “honeymoon”) and I know we would enjoy ourselves more being clear away from everybody but just ourselves, and when [22] we come back in two or three weeks we will be “old married folks” and won’t care one bit what people say or what silly questions they ask.  So far, I have only the two institutes assigned me to work after the time of our marriage, but if I find that the Nappanee schools do not commence until the middle of September, and if the co. should wish to give me one more, do you think best for us to take it?  (With the thought always, between us, that we won’t work any of these later institutes unless I shall have made a success of the earlier ones).  You see, if I take one more, and the schools should begin Sept. 16, that would give us just one week to make all our house-keeping arrangements.  Do you think we could manage in that length of time, if we were to “hustle”?  As to the wedding itself, [23] we won’t have many hours to stand around and to receive “congratulations” and “best wishes” after the ceremony, unless we want to do a lot of Sunday traveling, and somehow I would like to avoid that as much as possible.

The last train that goes from Goshen to where our work will be (Howell, Mich.) before Sunday, that is, that starts before Sunday, leaves at 11:35 A. M. Saturday. We would have to go via Toledo, Ohio.  What do you think of that?  It means, I suppose, that if we go on that train we will have to be married rather early in the morning, unless the train would wait a few hours for us, and I’d hate like everything to take any chances on that.  Of course we would have to drive to Goshen, and it will be avery [sic] easy thing for me to just come that morning from Goshen, capture my bride, and away, without ever saying “how d’ye do” to any of the Nappanee [24] people, except our own folks, and they’d have to be at your house early if they wanted to see the fun.  Of course I know it is rather premature to be planning in this way when it is still an open question as to whether we will go on with the institute work at all or not, but I just wanted you to know that so far as concerns trains, etc., there is not going to be any “hitch.”

If we should not decide to go on with the work, (and just as likely as not we won’t) I feel that we must make sure of our house-keeping arrangements before the wedding, that we may have a place at once [25] of our own.  We would not need to have everything “fixed up,” or even all our furniture bought, but if we had a bedroom and the kitchen ready for occupancy, I guess we could get along all right while furnishing the rest of the house. (But there wouldn’t be much “rest,” would there?  Or if there should be, we wouldn’t furnish it mery [sic] much.)

I certainly hope that my work at the institutes will prove reasonably profitable; and I will make every effort possible to make it turn out that way, not only for the sake of more money to start with (or [26] rather, less debts) but also because I do think we will both enjoy ourselves more in that way than we would if we were to settle in Nappanee right off.  We will be, oh, so very happy either way, but there’s no harm in choosing the way in which we would likely be happiest, is there?  I haven’t the least doubt that if things should so turn that it will be best for us to settle down at once, we will both be so happy that we can be together without having to think it about time for me to go home and leave you, as we have to now, and so happy in many, many other ways, that we will think it impossible that we could have enjoyed ourselves more making a trip; so it will be all right either way.

I do hope that Mary will be well enough by that time that she can come home to [27] stay; but if not, and if she feels able to stand the trip, I am almost sure she will come home just to attend the wedding.  I’m sure I hope she can.  Sometimes I still hope that our dear sister will be well and strong again, but it does seem very discouraging at times.  The worst part about her sickness is, that when she is not suffering physically, she is mentally torturing herself thinking of herself as a burden to the family.  But I don’t honestly think that she feels or thinks that one of the rest of us feels that way, for I am sure we do not, but if she herself broods over it, that is almost worse than if we were constantly taunting her with it.  But she seems rather more hopeful of late, and that is better for the present, at least.

I would like to write 20 or 30 pages more, [28] but as the flickering gas-light hurts my eyes, I must ask you to excuse this short letter, and I’ll try to do better next time.

I don’t doubt that this letter will take double postage, but I’m going to put on only one stamp.  For why?  Well, my dear, you are such a hand to “get your your money’s worth” that I am sure you wish us to get all we can for four cents, and if I were to pay it all you wouldn’t see those nice words “postage due, 2¢” on the envelope, so you see we are just that much ahead of “Uncle Sam,” besides making some mail clerk extra trouble.  No, I didn’t do it just to make you pay the 2¢ extra, any such thing!  And to prove it, I’ll tell you how to get (top) [top of page, lines written vertically:] it back on me.  You just write me a letter so heavy that it will cost extra, send it with only one stamp, and see if I don’t pay the “postage due.”  Of course I might have to let it stay in the office a few days, until I could borrow the money, but if I have to pawn my watch, I’ll get the letter!

Good night and goodby [sic] for this time, dear.

Write soon, often, and much.

Ever lovingly,


Note: the envelope for this gargantuan letter doesn’t seem to have been marked “postage due” after all, so it looks like Luther and Osa both got away without paying that extra two cents.  The “description of the great sports” was an enclosed newspaper clipping entitled “RATHER SARCASTIC Grows the Anderson Bulletin in Speaking of Muncie.”

July 11, 1895

[1] [Vertically at top:] Address, Waukegan, Ills.
[Horizontally:] Hillsdale, Mich.,
Thurs. eve,

My darling sweet-heart-wife:

Was “happyfied” again today by receiving a dear, dear letter from my waiting wife; and I will try to write a little answer tonight, so that I may mail it in the morning, that it may reach you by Saturday.

I know you are ever so anxious to hear what success I am having, and I wish I could report ever so much more than I can.  In fact, my work has not paid at all, but still much better than I thought possible Monday, as there are just 22 agents working [2] at this institute 10 of whom have stocks of school supplies and teacher’s periodicals, such as I have.  The others are working for cyclopedias, histories, the standard dictionary, etc.  While these latter do not come into such direct competition with my work as the others, they still keep the teachers worried and pestered so that they are not so ready to listen to one of us show what we have.  There is fully 1/8 of the entire crowd agents, as the total enrollment is less than 200.

I think most of the other institutes are will not be so thronged with agents, as this is the first institute of the season in the state, and there is only one other in the entire state this week, whereas some weeks this summer there will be 8 or 10 institutes the one week.

[3] As it is, I will have made (the work is almost done, as we close at 12:30 tomorrow) about $5 or $6 above my fare and board for the week; but in leaving here I will have to pay my fare to Chicago, (which is $5 exactly) instead of getting a free ticket (or a pass) as the co. promised.

They throw the blame onto the R. R. co., but I foot the bill, unless I can convince them to the contrary when at the office Saturday.

If I could feel sure that this is my poorest institute, I would not feel discouraged; but the fear that I may find some of the others still worse, is what I don’t like.  But I’ll soon know.

I am sure, darling, that you have done very, very well in getting for us as much fruit as you have already canned; I doubt [4] if we will have as much at one time again until we have an orchard of our own, and when, oh when, will that be?

With regard to that $25 which your (our) Father has, while I know whatever you will decide to do will be right, yet I would feel ever so much better if you would not need to ask him for it, not take it if he would offer to pay, if you know he can’t well spare it.  You say you have already planned how to spend it.  I am afraid, my Osa, that you are trying to “get smart” m by buying some of the things that belong to my “side of the house.”  If that’s what you want the $25 for, please, please don’t. (top) [top of page, lines written vertically:] Not that I’m going to be able to get us even the things we need, but I don’t want any of our folks to be inconvenienced in any way, even in the return of a loan, by our house-keeping arrangements.  It’s us that will get the pleasure and enjoyment from it; so it is but fair that whatever inconvenience and trouble there may be (and there will likely be enough) should fall upon us and not on some one else.  But you know that if you do as you think best Ill [sic] not complain.

Well, we’ll talk this all over, and many other things, just a week from next Sat. night.  Please excuse this “weenty” letter, as I’m just a little bit tired tonight.

Your home-sick husband.  L.

Note: “weenty” is a less common variant of “weeny,” “weensy,” or “weentsy,” sometimes found in a combined form as “teenty-weenty.”  Of course, this letter was “weenty” only in contrast to the one Luther had spent most of his Fourth of July in Muncie writing.

May 26, 1897

[1] 2010 Sherman Ave,
Evanston, Ills.,
Wed. eve, 5/26/’97

My precious sweetheart-wife:—

Dearest, are you a young woman yet, and is this really 1897?  Sometimes I am almost afraid to look into the looking-glass, for fear I’ll see that I am old and wrinkled and bald-head.  (I am gray-headed, so I don’t fear that any more.)  Surely the time has been long enough since I last saw you for almost anything to happen.  We haven’t any grandchildren yet, have we?  But, darling wife, I don’t dare let myself keep on thinking this way, but sometimes, lots of times, I just can’t help it, for a little while.

The $250 I enclose is half of the last $5— for our cyclopedias.  I got it from Father just this forenoon.  I didn’t work today, for the following good and sufficient reason.  If we work to hold our jobs, we are required to report at the office not less than four days each week, of which one day must be Thursday, as they have a general “round-up” of all the salesmen each Thursday morning.  Well, when I got in last night, I had just 32¢ left, enough for one day’s carfare, but not enough for two, so I decided to lay off today, and work tomorrow, as that is the one day of the week when a salesman must report, if possible.

[2] You naturally ask, what was I going to do after tomorrow.  Well, by that time the folks here could have let me have 50¢ or so, and I was going to write to my wife, to the one whom I should support and protect, to borrow some money for me.  But I’m glad that’s not necessary just yet, at any rate, unless Hartman’s are so very unreasonable as to think they ought to be paid for some of the things they have let us have.

The folks borrowed a spade this morning, and I finished spading the little strip of garden.  They got some seeds of various kinds, and I have it nearly all planted.  They paid just as much for one doyen [sic] tomato plants as we paid for one hundred.  Did you have any frost yet heavy enough to kill the tender plants?  There has been enough here to be plainly seen several nights lately, but I haven’t seen any plants that looked the worse for it.  I guess it’s so cold all the time that a little frost doesn’t make much difference.

Now, my dearest, what do you think about my work?  If I meet with no encouragement had I best throw up the job and look for something else in two or three days, or had I best stick to this for say a week yet?  There are salesmen doing some business.  Gross must have about 500 or 600 salesmen, and among us all we sell from 75 [3] to 100 lots each week, at at [sic] average commission of probaly [sic] $16 or $18, so you see there are alot [sic] of us who have “pretty poor picking.”  Did I tell you that the man who engaged me told me that only about one in twenty of their salesmen made a success of the business?  Is it at all possible that I belong among the 19?

I’ll tell you sometime all about our way of trying to do business, but I haven’t time to write much more tonight, as it is getting late.  But just this much will give you an idea of it:—we are sent to make a house to house canvass of certain streets, inviting everybody to attend our excursions to West Grossdale.  When we find anyone that seems at all interested, or in other words, that doesn’t fire us before we have a chance to get started, we are expected to gladly set forth, in regular book-agent style, the almost innumerable advantages of West Groosdale [sic] property (or any of the rest of the property of S. E. Gross.) either as a home or as an investment.  We are expected to catch an occasional victim to take out during the week, if possible.  Well, when Sunday comes (I have seen but the one Sunday excursion, of course.) and some 1200 or 1500 men, women, and children go out to have a time, and 500 or 600 hungry salesmen mingle with them to sell them land, whether [4] they want it or not, you can hardly imagine the scene.

The next excursion I expect to try to meet some one at their home, take them to the train, and stay with them, and woe to any other salesman that comes within talking distance.

But is [sic] getting very late, and I must stop for this time.  I hope to get a good long letter from you soon, pet mine.

Ever your loving husband,


Note: In this letter, Luther describes working for Samuel Eberly Gross selling lots in West Grossdale, a subdivision founded in 1895 in what would later become Brookfield, Illinois, home of the Brookfield Zoo.  From Luther’s account, it sounds like it was already something of a zoo in 1897.  Hartman’s was a dry goods store in Nappanee.  To put the remark about grandchildren in context, Luther and Osa’s firstborn child was Daphne, born on October 5, 1897, a little over four months after the date of this letter.

The letters I’ve shared above were all written by Luther to Osa.  But in one of those letters, he mentions receiving a letter from her as well.  Inquiring minds would like to know: did she use the same cipher when writing to him?  Unfortunately, there don’t appear to be any letters—enciphered or otherwise—from Osa to Luther in the Swartz Family Papers at the University of Kentucky.  So for now at least, we don’t know whether or not the encrypted aspect of their correspondence was originally as one-sided as our evidence for it is.

The content of these letters isn’t particularly remarkable, in the end, and if they hadn’t been encrypted as they were, I probably wouldn’t have paid them nearly as much attention, and neither, I suspect, would you.  (Case in point: will you bother to read the other Swartz Family Letters online that weren’t encrypted?  And if not, isn’t there at least a little irony in that?)

Still, I hope you’ve enjoyed the window these letters open onto the life of Luther Swartz in the Midwest of the 1890s as he did what he could to earn a living, trying his best to sell magazines and school supplies at local teachers’ institutes, or cyclopedias door-to-door in Muncie, or properties in a prospective Chicago suburb.  Apparently he eventually settled down to life in Chicago as a mail carrier, even if obituaries glossed over that career path, preferring instead to represent him as having been a teacher.  Did he and Osa ultimately ever have cause to look back on the past and think: “we were happier then than now”?  I’d hate to think so: I hope they found themselves perpetually “happy as happy could be,” just as Luther promised, while he was busy carrying other people’s letters—maybe including another generation of encrypted ones?—to and fro about the Windy City.

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