Cotton Sisters

Charles Nelson Cotton, house painter, Civil War veteran, and minstrel, had two children - girls. When they got older, with children of their own, they corresponded. Jennie lived on Nantucket Island, MA. Her older sister, Emma (Cotton) Blake, lived in Pawtucket, R.I., where the two of them had grown up. Nearly all of the letters they sent back and forth between the Island and the mainland disappeared. However, between 1906 and 1917 Jennie (Cotton) Dunham collected postcards, a wildly popular visual medium. 

Although the cards were originally saved for their imagery, inadvertantly an unusual family record was preserved, albeit a terse, one-sided narrative. The bulk of that narrative was Emma's hurried messages. The collection displays the everyday uses of the postcard, the social functions of travel, and the visual record keeping of Pawtucket's growing urbanization. The messages themselves highlight the advent of a telegraphic grammar and style that had to conform to rigid limits of space.

Emma's circumstances were a stark contrast to Jennie's. Emma had married a blacksmith who manufactured horse drawn carriages. In his later years Emma's husband, Franklin Blake, served in the city government of Pawtucket.  He was a well respected member of the community, with membership in many fraternal orgaizations, and service on a committee of New England businessmen advocating the construction of a Cape Cod Canal.  

Jennie's husband, Elbert Dunham, had eked out a living on remote Tuckernuck Island. The handful of families that lived on Tuckernuck farmed and fished. Elbert died at the age of 27, in the same year that his only child was born. There are indirect glimpses of his wife's poverty in this collection of postcards; oblique views of her struggle to raise her son, Olney, and to take care of her elderly father, Charles. At the age of 35, Jennie's life ran aground.  

During the years that these postcards were collected, Jennie's father was irregularly housed in a veteran's facility in Togus, Maine.  Some of the cards picture the National Home at Togus

There are also occasional cards from her cousin "Lizzie," Ben Cotton's oldest daughter." Sarah Elizabeth (Cotton) Rounds lived in Bristol, RI. When she came to visit Nantucket she brought news of her own family and her sisters, Dora and Retta.  


Eric Metcalf