Saturday, February 2, 2013

An "Off the Cuff" Letter Home

In yesterday's post, I told you about my granddad's various jobs as a young pharmacist, one of which was a brief stint at Setchel Drugs Store in La Jolla, California.  When he and my grandmother decided to return home to Kentucky, Granddad sent a rather unique letter home to his father, Gilbert Lee, in La Grange.

Address and Postmark on Disposable Shirt Cuff
From Frank Lewis Lee to His Father, Gilbert Oliver Lee
Postmarked La Jolla, CA, 1908

The letter, you see, was written on a disposable men's shirt cuff.  Wait--a disposable cuff?  Yes, it seems this was sort of a fad during the late nineteenth and very early twentieth centuries.  According to Giles Slade in Made to Break:  Technology and Obsolescence in America, because doing laundry at this time was so labor intensive, clothes were often washed only once a week--sometimes less than that.  Shirt fronts, collars, and cuffs were the parts of the garment that were most visible and most likely to become stained or dirty.  Thus, detachable and sometimes disposable paper shirt parts were an easy, practical way for a gentleman to present a clean, proper appearance.

OK, so it's understandable that my grandfather would use these paper cuffs, but to write a letter on one and send it through the mail?  While this seemed to me a very unusual way to pen a letter, evidently this, too,  was a somewhat common practice back in Granddad's day.  Mark Liberman, in an article titled "The 'off the cuff' Mystery," says that the practice of writing quick, informal notes on paper cuffs was also a fad at the turn of the twentieth century.  This is where we get the phrase "off the cuff."

Letter Written on Disposable Shirt Cuff
From Frank Lewis Lee to His Father, Gilbert Oliver Lee
La Jolla, CA, 1908

The "letter" written on the back of the cuff is really a series of brief notes and jokes from my grandfather to his father.  The upper right corner notes the date and place the letter was written:

La Jolla Calif
Aug 21--1908

The body of the letter is written haphazardly across the cuff in four brief notes:

Dear Dad:
"Bill Baily" is coming home.  ha! ha!

Keep your shirt on until we arrive.

Shy of paper & have not worn a cuff in two years.

Leave here Sat. 29th
via Salt Lake & Chicago.
Due in La Grange about
Sept 3rd or 4th.  Will try
to phone you from Louisville
or write you later & will
possibly wire if we go by

The letter reads to me as if it was written by a young man who's happy and excited about coming home.  It is signed simply--F. Lee

One final, fun detail is Granddad's reference to Bill Baily coming home.  Most of you will probably know this is a reference to the old song, "Bill Bailey, Won't You Please Come Home."  A little research helped me find out that the song was written in 1902 by ragtime composer Hughie Cannon, and it became popular very quickly.  I remember my mom and my aunt singing this song to me when I was a little girl, and I also remember seeing Pearl Bailey perform it on television many years ago.  You might enjoy listening to this old, scratchy version as it was sung and recorded by Dan W. Quinn on April 23, 1902, in Philadelphia, PA.  Here's the link:  "Bill Bailey, Won't You Please Come Home," 1902


Giles Slade, Made to Break:  Technology and Obsolescence in America (ebook), Amazon, 2007

Mark Liberman, "The 'off the cuff' Mystery," Idioms, Language and Culture, August 16, 2012

"Bill Bailey, Won't You Please Come Home," Hughie Cannon, 1902; recorded by Dan W. Quinn, April 23, 1902, Philadelphia, PA;  Library of Congress, Jukebox Collection

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