Rachel Eltinge’s collection of letters to her parents, sisters, and friends, offers clarifying insight into life in the Hudson Valley during the mid-19th century. In her regular correspondence between the Poughkeepsie Female Academy and the Eltinge family in New Paltz, Rachel concerns herself with matters that could be easily contextualized in a modern setting: she requests money for food and clothes, asks her parents to pick up her laundry and to take her home on weekends, and argues with her father over the pettiness and stern policies of a school administrator. In this sense, she is not unlike any other scared student experiencing homesickness for the first time. In a broader scope, however, Rachel’s letters paint a schematic of the socio-political life of a small town and family in the midst of a period of turbulent change in American history. The Civil War, issues of draft payments and military fundraising, the status and expectations of women’s education, and the ever-present morbid reality of seasonal sickness are frequent topics of discussion and consideration.
The aspect of the collection which makes it most worthwhile to read through in depth is precisely that which makes it dated in relation to modern society. The Eltinge family, lacking telephones, radios, cars, or even a bridge between Highland and Poughkeepsie, has no choice but to condense their thoughts and experiences into the medium of written letters. The resulting discourse offers invaluable illumination into the complexities of daily life in mid 19th century American society.
Through this consolidation of small-talk and serious discussion we find a common emotional linkage between the era of Rachel Eltinge and our own. These personal accounts allow us to easily separate and identify the similarities and differences in lifestyle between two increasingly remote historical periods, and are invaluable to the evolving study of history.