Thursday, December 7, 2017

Baldwin-Reynolds Reflects Shared Dickens Era Past

Christmas Carol Illustration by John Leech
One of John Leech's Original Illustrations for A Christmas Carol 
With the Baldwin-Reynolds House Museum hosting their annual "Fezziwig’s Christmas Dinner" in just a few short days, some readers might be curious “what’s in a name” for this nearly sold out event. Charles Dickens’ famous novella, A Christmas Carol holds special meaning to all of us at the Crawford County Historical Society.

During the fall and winter of 1843, Henry and Sally Baldwin moved into Mount Hope, the original name of the Baldwin-Reynolds House Museum. The sixty-four-year-old United States Supreme Court Justice was well known in social and political circles at home and abroad, where he was not only connected to Andrew Jackson and other national political figures, but event to Napoleon Bonaparte, and his brother Joseph, throughout the early 19th century. By 1843, the Baldwins divided their time between Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and their newly completed home in Meadville. Charles Dickens spent the latter half of the same year penning what would arguably become his most famous work.

Dickens had two primary motivations for writing for A Christmas Carol. By this time, Oliver Twist was common reading throughout Britain and the United States and Dickens was celebrating his role as one of the most famous living authors of the day. He was not, however, without financial difficulties.

By mid-1843, Dickens’ work, Martin Chuzzlewit, was in publication as a monthly serial, however, sales were lagging terribly at the same time he and his wife were expecting their fifth child. It was at this time Dickens became painfully aware of the plight of poor children in England after witnessing child labor in Cornish tin mines.

The growing urge to use his next book as an effort to better expose the suffering of disadvantaged youth was not completely cemented, however, until the fall of 1843. After representing a wealthy friend, Angela Burdett-Coutts, on an exploratory visit to the Field Lane Ragged School in London, Dickens witnessed conditions that he couldn't erase from his mind. “Ragged Schools” were charitable institutions set up to offer at least a basic education (as well as food and shelter) to children otherwise homeless, malnourished, or both. These schools were often in deplorable condition themselves, with little supplies due to the lack of donated funds. Dickens found “a sickening atmosphere…of taint and dirt and pestilence” and begin writing A Christmas Carol within weeks of his visit, finishing the book six weeks later.

Dickens’ major Christmas work was released on December 19th, 1843, selling out the entire first run of 6,000 copies by Christmas Eve- just five days later. Although we have no idea what Henry and Sally were reading on their first, and what was to become the only Christmas celebrated by the Baldwins at Mount Hope, there is a good chance Dickens’ new novella was at least a topic of dinner table conversation on Terrace Street that year!


About the Author

Josh Sherretts is President of the Board of Directors at the Crawford County Historical Society and Executive Director at the Baldwin-Reynolds House Museum. A lifelong resident of the area, Josh is also the author of Around Saegertown and co-author of Oil Boom Architecture: Titusville, Pithole, and Petroleum Center. His other writings can be found in the Meadville Tribune and Erie Times. In addition to his duties at the museum and Historical Society, Josh is the Co-Owner and President of Business Development at Bull Moose Progressive Marketing and Historia Inspired, LLC. He is involved with a number of community organizations dedicated to preserving and improving the local area. He is a graduate of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania where he holds degrees in History and Secondary Education. Josh lives with his wife in Meadville.

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