Random Photos: Going Home Again . . . A Vacation Remembered

My husband and I didn’t take too many summer vacations at my parents’ home when our kids were growing up. We saved our visits for every third Christmas. In addition, my parents visited us once or twice a year in Kansas City, and we sent our kids out to Washington State without us as soon as the airlines would let them fly by themselves.

But I recently pulled out a random envelope of snapshots my father had taken of one summer vacation we did take in Washington State at my parents’ house.

Kids swimming, one with water wings, and the other with attitude

I can’t recall exactly which summer it was. The pictures were taken at the large house my parents had in the Meadow Springs development of Richland, Washington. They owned this home between the summer of 1986 and about 1991. I know this wasn’t our first visit there—we’d visited them at this house over Christmas 1986. My daughter looks to be about three or four in the pictures, with my son about six or seven, so I’m guessing it was the summer of 1988 or 1989, but it could have been 1990.

Nanny Winnie supervising my daughter

The house had a swimming pool, which our kids loved. My daughter couldn’t swim yet, so had to wear water wings. My son could swim, and most likely lorded his wing-less state over his little sister. My mother’s mother, Nanny Winnie, visited that week also, and she loved to swim. She was always happy to supervise afternoons at the pool.

Mitzi doesn’t know whether to bark at my son or the pool skimmer

My parents had a Schnauzer named Mitzi. Mitzi wanted to be a part of the pool parties, particularly when the pool skimmer was operating. The dog could swim, but she couldn’t get herself out of the pool. Later, my younger brother taught Mitzi to paddle to the stairs so she could climb out, but at the time of our visit, she had not yet learned this escape route. One time during our visit that week, I had to dive in after her and pull her to safety. She didn’t seem too grateful, and scrabbled and scratched to get out of my helpful arms.

Husband and son canoeing on the Wenatchee River

On the weekend we were there, when my father wasn’t working, my husband, son, father and I went canoeing on the Wenatchee River. We drove through the lovely mountain town of Leavenworth, Washington, rented canoes from an outfitter, and put in on the river somewhere near Lake Wenatchee. Then we floated downstream through the alpine Wenatchee National Forest for a couple of hours. We stopped for lunch on a gravel bar, then took out where the outfitter had designated and awaited our pick up.

Lunch on the gravel bar

We had two canoes—my husband and son paddled one, and my father and I had the other. This was the first canoe trip I’d been on where I wasn’t in the same boat as my husband. I was used to relying on his skills to get us through any whitewater, but we decided our son needed a strong paddler more than I did. Our son was young enough that his paddling was more for show than power. (As was mine, though I at least had an intellectual understanding of what I should be doing.)

Me with wet shoes, and son

My father was definitely not as competent at paddling as my husband. Still, he and I didn’t have much difficulty until we reached the take-out point. There, even with both Dad and me paddling as hard as we could, we almost didn’t reach shore. I finally had to step out of the boat to pull us out of the current just as we passed the gravel river access road where we were supposed to meet our ride. Dad may have gotten wet also—there is photographic evidence of my wet shoes, but he was taking the pictures, so there’s nothing to verify his actions.

I was happy to find these pictures and to remember that summer vacation back in my birthplace—Washington State, and Richland in particular. In recent years, I’ve only been to Richland for my parents’ funerals in 2014 and 2015. There’s no one left to bury in Richland, and I sometimes wonder if I will ever go home again.

What do you remember of visits to your hometown?

Bloch Galleries at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art

A few weeks ago I did something I’ve been wanting to do since March—I went to the new Bloch Galleries at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Actually, the Bloch Galleries are in an older part of the museum, but they have been newly renovated and new works displayed.

Henry Bloch of H&R Block fame recently donated a number of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works in his private collection to the Nelson-Atkins Museum. Impressionist paintings are among my favorites, and I was thrilled to see an expanded collection in my local art museum.

I started with lunch at Rozelle Court—always a treat. After soup, half a sandwich, and a raspberry peach mousse tart, I headed to the Bloch Galleries.

It was a delight to see old favorites from the Nelson-Atkins Impressionist collection combined with the new works from the Bloch Collection. For example, one panel of Monet’s Water Lilies has been in the Nelson collection ever since I can remember. This grand painting still takes up a whole wall of one gallery.

Water Lilies, by Claude Monet

And I took a moment to wonder at Monet’s brush strokes.

Detail from Monet's Water Lilies (click on this image to enlarge it and see the brush strokes better)

Then I marveled at collections of old and new works filling other corners of the new galleries, like little gems gathered into a net. A new treasure in every room, around every corner.

A corner in the Bloch Galleries

And another corner.


I could have stood for hours in each of these lovely corners. But a couple of small exquisite pieces from Mr. Bloch’s collection in particular caught my attention.

Georges Seurat, The Channel at Gravelines, Petit-Fort-Phillippe, oil on panel, 1890, gift from the Bloch Collection


Paul Signac, Portrieux, The Bathing Cabins, Opus 185 (Beach of the Countess), oil on canvas, 1888, gift from the Bloch Collection


As well as a painting that resembled one my grandmother had for many years (though the painting she owed was no Monet).

Claude Monet, Boulevard de Capucines, oil on canvas, 1873-74

After spending an hour or so wandering the Bloch Galleries, I went in search of other treasures. When I go to a museum, even one I’ve been to often, I usually try to go through a room or two at random to see what I might find. This time, I wandered through the American Galleries at the Nelson, hoping I might find some inspiration for my next book cover. I didn’t find anything that sparked my interest.

So I wandered into the Chinese Galleries by happenstance. I haven’t been through the Asian Galleries at the Nelson in several years, though the Nelson is renowned for its Asian art collection.

This time, I was struck by similarities between the Chinese art and the Impressionist works I’d just seen. I walked past two formal displays of furniture and paintings. I’m sure I’ve seen them in the past, but this time I noticed the fine details in a silk panel and in a small painting of a mountain, each of which brought to mind the delicate elegance of the Impressionist paintings in the Bloch Galleries.

After Lan Ying, born 1585, Mountain Landscape, set of twelve hanging scrolls, ink and color on silk. Displayed with furniture.


Detail from one of the Mountain Landscape scrolls

The Four Seasons, Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), 18th-19th Century, Dali marble from Yunnan Province (thin marble sliced into thin sheets and framed as stone pictures). Displayed with furniture.


One of the Four Seasons marble pictures

 Art spans the centuries and the continents. It is specific and yet it is universal.

Realizations like this are what keep me going back to the Nelson-Atkins Museum time and time again. Such realizations and the desserts in Rozelle Court. I’m already looking forward to my next visit.

What do you enjoy most about at art museums?

Great-Grandma Lillie: A Midwestern Pioneer

I was thinking recently about my great-grandmothers. It dawned on me that they all probably had very interesting lives—or at least interesting from the perspective of the 21st Century.

I never met any of the four women, and only one was alive during my childhood. That great-grandmother was Lillie Evelena Smith Claudson. She’s the great-grandmother I heard the most stories about, and yet I don’t feel I know much about her.

Lillie was born in Assumption, Illinois, on January 22, 1884. Her parents were Andrew Jackson Smith (an Ohio-born man who was the son of German immigrants, Jacob and Mary Schmidt) and Elizabeth Gertrude Ernst Smith (whose parents were George Jacob & Eva Elizabeth Ernst, probably also of German extraction).

This might be a picture of Lillie’s family when she was a child. But I have no idea which child might be her.

When Lillie was very young, her family moved to Nebraska. Other family obituaries state that the Smiths moved in June 1884, when Lillie would have been just a few months old. That’s consistent with the family stories I was told. The Smiths were one of the first families to settle on the Garfield Table in Nebraska. They farmed there for many years.

On October 3, 1901, Lillie married Luther Monroe Claudson, the son of a Danish immigrant Charles N. Claudson and his wife Elvira Sophronia Vaught Claudson (I know nothing about her background). My father always told me that Lillie and Luther were married in 1900 when Lillie was fifteen, but if the dates I found online are correct, the marriage was in 1901, and she was seventeen at the time.

Family lore also has it that Lillie and Luther moved into a sod hut when they started their married life on their farm and that the first two of her four children were born in that hut. (My grandfather Laverne Ernst Claudson was her second child.) But I can’t substantiate how long she lived in the sod hut, so I can’t verify where they lived when my grandfather was born.

As a child, when I read the Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, I thought of Grandma Claudson’s life story. Wilder wrote about covered wagon trips from one Midwestern locale to another, and I pictured Lillie and her family traveling from Illinois to Nebraska. When I read Wilder’s accounts of moving into a sod hut on the banks of Plum Creek in Minnesota, I imagined Lillie as a new bride moving into a similar soddie on the Garfield Plain.

Lille and Luther moved into “town”—the tiny community of Arnold, Nebraska—in 1923. She would have been thirty-nine at the time—still young.

My father talked about his childhood trips to visit his grandparents in Arnold. He played with cousins and helped Grandma Claudson—as Lillie was known by then—in the kitchen, including watching her wring a chicken’s neck for Sunday supper. I got the clear sense from him that she took no nonsense from anyone—including a young grandson—but that he loved her and knew she loved him. I think he needed some discipline in his early life, and she provided it in healthy doses.

Luther died in 1947, and Grandma Claudson lived alone in her little house in Arnold until her death on November 21, 1973, at age 89. I’m told she mowed her own lawn until she died.

My father rarely visited Arnold after my parents were married, and my mother never met Grandma Claudson. Not meeting my dad’s grandmother was one of my mother’s regrets, since she hadn’t known her own grandmothers. Some of my father’s cousins told me that Grandma Claudson always appreciated my mother’s letters. My mother did write numerous newsy letters to relatives and friends. I was glad to learn Grandma Claudson was one of her correspondents.

My father and several of his cousins were Grandma Claudson’s pallbearers at her funeral in 1973. I remember my father going to her funeral, though no one else in our family went with him. At the time, I had just started college, and I didn’t think twice about missing the funeral of a great-grandmother I had never met. But now, like my mother, I wish I’d had the opportunity to meet her at some point while she was alive.

Lillie and Luther Claudson’s tombstone, Arnold, Nebraska

I couldn’t even find a picture of Lille to post, though I bet there’s one somewhere in my father’s papers. My siblings and I kept some older photos with no identification of who is depicted—perhaps one of them is of Lillie.

The reason I find Lillie’s story so compelling now is that she was a pioneer. She connects me to settlers in the Midwest. I consider myself a Westerner, though I have now lived in the Midwest for two-thirds of my life. Remembering Lillie—Grandma Claudson, as I think of her, even if I never knew her—reminds me that I have roots in this part of the country as well.

And I can picture her as I write about pioneers to the West in my novels about the settlement of Oregon almost forty years before Lillie and her family moved to Nebraska. It’s still a surprise that the West Coast was settled before some of the Midwest.

What connections does your family have to pioneer days?

Seeking My Roots in Copenhagen

Ten years ago, in the summer of 2007, my daughter and I went to Copenhagen to visit my niece who was studying there. I can trace one branch of my ancestry back to Denmark, so the prospect of visiting that nation appealed to me. I wondered if I would feel a connection there, as I did when I visited Ireland a few years earlier.

My niece and her roommate were busy most of the time, so my daughter and I toured Copenhagen on our own. We took a boat tour of the city. I loved the brightly colored buildings that lined the canals. They reminded me of the row house doors in Dublin.

From the boat tour

We saw The Little Mermaid statue, which was beautiful albeit underwhelming (I’d been warned it was quite small). I remembered reading Hans Christian Andersen’s famous story as a child. I’d never liked Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, which seemed dark and horrific to me. I preferred the Grimms Brothers—as if those were a whole lot merrier.

The Little Mermaid

We climbed a church steeple for a panoramic view of the city. Gorgeous, though we then faced a long walk back to the apartment on tired legs. The view reminded me of Florence, Italy.

Copenhagen from the steeple

We went to museums, where all the signs were in English and German as well as Danish. I learned Danish history, including the very early Viking Danes who were the first Europeans to reach North America (unless the Irish Saint Brendan beat them by a few centuries).

And on one cloudy day, my niece took us to tour Kronberg Castle, supposedly the model for Shakespeare’s Elsinore in Hamlet. I’ve always had a thing for castles—probably because I grew up in a decidedly unromantic town built in the 1940s, which contained nothing remotely resembling a castle.

Kronberg Castle

We ate well. The Scandinavian penchant for fish at breakfast did not appeal to me, but everything else tasted great.

It was a wonderful trip. I loved Copenhagen and felt very comfortable there. What I saw brought to mind many memories, though none of them ancestral. I guess my Danish genes are too diluted (it was my great-great-grandfather who immigrated from Denmark to the United States). My other ancestors were mostly English, Irish, and Scotch, with a little German thrown in.

Still, I’m glad I went to Copenhagen, and I would happily go back. I may not have found my roots, but I enjoyed the trip.

Where are your roots, and when have you sought them out?

Libraries Out Loud

I’ve written before about the wonderful libraries in the Kansas City area, including the Kansas City Public Library, the Mid-Continent Public Library, and the Johnson County Library. I am proud to say I have library cards with all three systems. And I am prouder to say that Kansas City ranks as one of the most literate cities in the United States, according to a study by Jack Miller, president emeritus of Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Connecticut (though we are only #16 in 2017, falling slightly from 2015 when we were #14).

On July 18, 2017, I attended a program at the Kansas City Public Library called “Libraries Out Loud.” The program featured the leaders of four Kansas City library systems—Johnson County Library’s Sean Casserley, Kansas City, Kansas Public Library’s Carol Levers, Mid-Continent Public Library’s Steven V. Potter, and Kansas City Public Library’s Crosby Kemper III. These four knowledgeable professionals discussed the current state of our libraries, as well as their assessment of what the future will bring for public libraries. The program was moderated by Nick Haynes, who moderates the KCPT Channel 19 program Kansas City Week in Review.

The July 18 session also featured four short documentary films by Michael Price about the state of libraries in Kansas City. The film segments explored four areas of practice in libraries today. They were titled “Building Communities,” “A Literacy Beyond Words,” “Bridging the Great Digital Divide,” and “For the Planners and Dreamers.” All four shorts are available online here.

A major theme of the evening and of the film shorts is that libraries serve the unique needs of the public in their communities, whether those needs be for education, information, or communication. As Sean Casserley said, libraries are “places of the mind” where we can discover “what it means to be human in the 21st Century.”

Kansas City Public Library parking garage

Another theme these librarians emphasized was that literacy is more than about words. It involves knowledge about anything from the environment to fitness to food. Crosby Kemper stated “libraries are about turning information into knowledge . . . about organizing information.”

And libraries are places where anyone can get access to knowledge, as well as help in sifting good information from inaccurate. They are the great equalizers in our unequal society. They are refuges for all.

With these broad missions in mind, the public libraries in Kansas City and its surrounding communities provide the following in one or more locations:

  • Yoga classes
  • Classes on English as a second language
  • A seed library (where patrons take seeds, grow them, and return seeds after their harvest)
  • 3-D printers, which, among other uses, help entrepreneurs create product prototypes
  • Consulting and research for small businesses
  • Hands-on nature programs for children.

They provide ebooks to patrons who never enter their doors, and they mail hand-selected books to homebound patrons who get to the library (Yes, via snail mail—wouldn’t it be wonderful to receive a book picked just for you by a professional librarian on a regular basis to feed and develop your reading habit?). They provide digital connections to those who do not have internet access at home, and meeting rooms for a variety of community programs.

And they even show people how to butcher pigs. (Yes, the Johnson County Library once had a program on how to butcher pigs. Not the actual slaughtering, but to demonstrate where various cuts of meat come from on the animal—knowledge our urban and suburban community otherwise would lose.)

Despite the rapidly changing publishing and digital environment, the four librarians who spoke on July 18 were all enthusiastic about the future of libraries. They see their missions as developing with the times, but remaining relevant.

In the future, libraries might

  • Provide second and third chances for people to receive an education through GED programs, links with online university classes, and continuing education. As Steve Potter said, libraries can provide “remediation wherever you are in life.”
  • Become data hubs to help the public access information and answer a variety of questions
  • Serve as links between the public and their health care providers to transmit health data
  • Collect stories from people and serve as a repository of local history

Woodneath Branch of the Mid-Continent Public LIbrary

Some of these possibilities are already happening, and others are certainly within sight. The Mid-Continent Public Library has purchased all past editions of the Kansas City newspapers, which they will make available to the public. MCPL also has a genealogy center and The Story Center which fosters written and oral storytelling.

I came away from this program marveling at what a great resource we have in the public libraries in our community. And hopeful that they will remain great resources in the future.

Whether you live in the Kansas City area or not, I encourage you to watch the four short documentary films. And local residents can tune-in to watch a special Kansas City Week in Review at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, August 4, on KCPT that will discuss these films and our great library systems. (This broadcast was publicized at the July 18 event, but I haven’t been able to confirm it. You might want to check your TV schedule.)

What do you like best about public libraries? And what do you hope they become in the future?

A Story for Mutts Day: Meeting of the Minds

Today, July 31, is Mutts Day. I saw this reference on one of the many “national day” sites, and decided to believe it, even though there is no reference to how the day originated.

My husband and I have only owned mutts since we’ve been married. First there was Rickover, whose mother was a Brittany Spaniel, and his father was unknown. The Brittany’s Black Labrador neighbor was the most likely suspect. Half of Rickover’s litter mates were black, and the other half were reddish-brown—as he was.

Rickover and me, in his post-puppy years

A friend of ours found Rickover’s mother wandering the streets and gave her to another friend, not suspecting the Brittany was pregnant. After the Brittany gave birth, our friend agreed to find homes for the puppies. We weren’t planning on getting a dog at the time, but those puppies were just so cute. So we took the last one. He lived to be fourteen, and died in 1995.

We were happily dogless for two years. Or at least, I was happy. Our kids were not. And so we got more mutts. Here’s the story of how we got them and how we named them: (NOTE: This story is included in my Family Recipe collection.)

Meeting of the Minds

During one of my attempts to be a better parent, I decided we should have family meetings. My kids were at or near their teenage years, and the parenting books said they should have a voice in family decisions. Meetings at work seemed to make things happen; why not at home?

I scheduled the first session with husband and kids and prepared my agenda—chore assignments, school events, and vacation plans.

“Can I put something on the agenda?” my fifteen-year-old son Jamie asked when we gathered in the family room at the appointed time one spring evening.

That wasn’t in the plan. But I supposed his request was reasonable; at least I couldn’t think of a reason to object. The point, after all, was to give the kids a voice. “Okay,” I said.

“I want to talk about getting a dog.”

My heart sank. Already the meeting had derailed.

Our dog Rickover had died two years earlier at the ripe old age of fourteen. The past two years had been blissful, in my opinion. No more arguments over whose turn it was to clean up the backyard. We could leave for the weekend without worrying about who would feed the dog. We had just redecorated the house with new white carpet.

But Jamie was firm. He wanted another dog. It was the first thing I had seen him enthusiastic about since he turned thirteen, other than the Kansas City Chiefs.

“I think getting a new dog is a good idea,” my husband said.

“Two dogs,” twelve-year-old Marcy piped up. “Aunt Nancy has two dogs, and she says they play with each other and don’t need as much attention. Besides, that way Jamie and I each get to pick one. He shouldn’t get to choose.”

I was outvoted. If all three of them were lined up against me, we would get a dog. Maybe two.

A couple of Saturdays later found us at the animal shelter. I was silent, but inwardly fuming. The rest of the family was excited.

All the puppies were adorable. Of course. That’s what puppies do – eat, poop, and act adorable.

One kennel held three litter mates labeled as “Lab mixes.” Their paws were huge.

“How big are these puppies going to get?” I asked the woman who showed us the dogs.

“Not too big,” she said, shrugging. “Maybe forty pounds.”

Rickover—a Lab mix—had been sixty pounds; seventy pounds in his heavy years, before the vet told us to put him on a diet. My husband Al, a Navy man, had complied with orders as if his pension depended on it. Rickover soon took to licking the floor for sustenance.

I could handle forty pounds.

We took the puppies into the yard so the kids could look at the three litter mates. It would be hard to take two of the dogs and leave one. Then one puppy licked Jamie’s hand. “I want this one,” he said.

One stepped on another. Marcy wanted the dog that had been squished by its sibling. She felt sorry for it.

The kids’ decisions were final. We would be the proud owners of two female puppies. We paid the adoption and medical fees for the chosen two ($100 each) and arranged to return Tuesday evening after the dogs had been spayed to pick them up.

From the animal shelter, we went straight to the pet store to purchase food, dishes, leashes, toys and other basic dog needs. I think the tab was close to $500. One dog is expensive; two are an annual 401(k) contribution.

“We need names,” I said, as we drove home from the pet store. That’s when the real family discussion began.

“I want girl names,” Marcy declared.

“I want nautical names,” my husband said. “We had Rickover, and we should have Navy names again.” (Admiral Hyman Rickover had started the Navy’s nuclear submarine program, and my husband had named our first dog after the admiral he admired. As a result of the strange looks we got when people heard this story, I insisted on naming our kids when they came along.)

“Well, I think the names should match,” I said. “Like twins, because that’s what the puppies are.” If we were going to have the dogs, we might as well name them something cute, I thought. “What do you want?” I asked Jamie.

“Nothing stupid.” Now that he was about to get his dogs, Jamie was back to teenage indifference.

All weekend long we argued. No names suited everyone. The kids and I threw out all the nautical words we could think of (a list quickly exhausted). None of the Navy terms seemed like a good dog’s name, and coming up with two was impossible. Marcy proposed all the girl names she liked. Jamie thought most of them were dumb.

Sara (left) and Lexi (right) in their early days with us

On Monday night, Al declared, “We’ll name them Lexington and Saratoga.”

“Why?” I asked. Where was the naval significance in those names? Sounded like landlocked battlefields to me.

“They’re aircraft carriers. Lexington class. The Saratoga was her sister ship. There was a third carrier in the class, too. Like the puppy we didn’t take.”

“And we can call them Lexi and Sara,” Marcy said, excitement in her eyes.

“What do you think?” I asked Jamie.

He shrugged. “Okay.” Must not be too stupid.

So we agreed, and Lexi and Sara were named.

Though our family was able to come to a meeting of the minds on the dogs’ names, we hadn’t had as good of luck in what we were told by the animal shelter. The woman at the shelter was wrong about how big they’d get. Lexi—the puppy who had been trampled—grew to sixty-five pounds and was the undisputed alpha dog. That Saturday when Marcy picked her out was the only time Lexi ever let her sibling get the best of her. Sara was fifty-five pounds and as sneaky as they came at avoiding anything she disliked, from pills to cameras to thunder.


What mutt stories does your family have?

Postage Costs in the 1840s

I wrote a post last year about the difficulties of mail service during the California Gold Rush years. I was thinking about this issue again recently when I bought first-class stamps at our local Post Office. I typically wait until I’m almost out of stamps (which I was last week), then I buy 100 stamps. I paid $49.00 for my five sheets of twenty stamps, or 49 cents per stamp. These stamps will last me until Christmas time, when I’ll have to stock up again with Christmas stamps.

1850s letter showing 40 cents paid for postage

In 1847, it cost five cents to send a letter less than 300 miles within the United States, ten cents to mail it over 300 miles (but still within the States), and 40 cents to mail it from Oregon or California to the States.

So in the past 170 years, the cost of mailing a letter from the West Coast to the East Coast has increased nine cents. Just think about that the next time you complain about postage costs.

Of course, because of inflation, one dollar in 1847 would be worth $28.14 in 2017. So the forty-cent cost of mailing the letter in 1847 would be equivalent to $11.26 today. In other words, our forty-nine cent price of a first-class stamp is a real bargain.

The fact that we can transport letters in mere days—using airplanes and automated sorting machines—at a price far below the cost our ancestors paid shows the miracle of technology.

Another 1850s letter showing postage paid

And the fact that our pioneer ancestors could transport letters at any cost from a frontier that didn’t even have roads shows the miracle of human tenacity and desire to maintain relationships and communications.

In my novel Lead Me Home, I had one character send a letter from a campsite in what is now Nebraska (Ash Hollow) to his parents in Boston. According to David Dary, author of The Oregon Trail: An American Saga (2004), in 1846 someone constructed small log cabin at the Ash Hollow spring, and the cabin served as an informal post office until 1850. So I had my character leave his letter in this cabin for someone headed back East to pick up and carry back to the States.

But as I wrote the scene, I was curious about how the emigrants paid postage on the letters. I didn’t think they would leave their letters with coins for postage attached, so I wondered how their correspondence actually reached their loved ones back home.

Then I learned that letters could be mailed “collect,” meaning that postage was due from the recipient when delivered. In some years during our nation’s history, collect letters cost more than those with prepaid postage, but a letter could be mailed with postage due. Prepayment of postage did not become mandatory until 1855.

So now I picture some kind-hearted mountain man on his way back East picking up a packet of letters at Ash Hollow and dropping them at the Post Office in Independence or St. Louis. From an official Post Office, the letters would make their way—just as ours do today—to the appropriate location. But the postman would only deliver the letter to my character’s parents in Boston if they paid the ten cents for delivery from Missouri. Of course, my character came from a wealthy family, so the ten cent cost would not have been a problem for them to pay.

What technological advances in the last 200 years do you think are the most important?