Laura’s Kansas and Silver Lake Birthdays

girls

The three oldest Ingalls sisters around the time of the events described in By the Shores of Silver Lake. (From left to right: Carrie, Mary, and Laura.)

In our last post, I talked about how so few of the Little House books actually contain any mention of Laura’s birthdays. We used information from Pioneer Girl and Little House on the Prairie to learn some things about Laura’s birthday on the road. This time, we’re gonna look at Laura’s unmentioned birthdays in Kansas and by the shores of Silver Lake.

A Not-so-happy Sick Day

The chapter that immediately follows the Christmas chapter in Little House on the Prairie is “A Scream in the Night.” This chapter is set in late winter, just around the time of year that Laura would have had her birthday. In this chapter, the whole family hears a scream that turns out to be coming from a panther. Pa ends up trying to hunt down the panther to prevent it from later hurting Mary and Laura, but an Indian that Pa meets in the woods finds it first and kills it instead.

In Pioneer Girl, Laura describes the time immediately following the Ingalls’ Christmas in Kansas as the winter that the whole family had the whooping cough. That is the only detail that we have from her autobiography about this time in her life. So it may just be that poor Laura was sick during her birthday in Indian Territory.

New Friends and Old Friends

In the chapter “Happy Winter Days” from By the Shores of Silver Lake,  the Ingalls family celebrates New Year’s Day with their good friends Mr. and Mrs. Boast. In the days following their festive celebration in the Boasts’ house, Mrs. Boast comes over every day to the Ingalls’ temporary winter home in the surveyors’ house to play in the snow with Laura and Carrie or do her sewing and knitting with Ma and the girls in the house. It’s during this time that Mrs. Boast also gives Laura a stack of old newspapers that she had brought with her from Iowa and that are filled with wonderful stories for Laura and the girls to read. Mrs. Boast also shows the Ingalls family how to make their own whatnot shelf, which was a stylish thing to have in Iowa at the time. The chapter never explicitly mentions Laura’s birthday, but this must have been a happy time for Laura with Mrs. Boast making every day delightful.

Laura also tells about these wintry days with the Boasts in Pioneer Girl, writing that “All our evenings were spent in our big room, listening to Pa play the violin, telling stories, playing chickers, and always, every evening singing” (Pioneer Girl 186). Although the books describe this as happening in March, Laura also recalls that Reverend Alden from their church in Walnut Grove and a missionary friend of his stopped by to visit the Ingalls family one cold, snowy night in February. Reverend Alden and his friend held the first church services of the area there in the surveyors’ house (187). What a wonderful treat for the birthday girl.

A Search for the “Lost” Birthdays

To celebrate our dear Laura’s 150th birthday, we’ve spent the past few posts talking about the different birthday celebrations that Laura took part in. We even took a moment to compare Laura’s birthdays with Almanzo’s ninth birthday talked about in Farmer Boy.

When I first started working on this series of blog posts, I assumed that I would need nine blog posts to talk about the birthdays described in each of the nine Little House books. I wrote the one about Laura’s Big Woods birthday, and then I moved on to Almanzo’s birthday described in Farmer Boy. When I picked up Little House on the Prairie to find Laura’s next birthday celebration, however, there was nothing to be found. It turns out that Laura’s birthday is not even mentioned in that book. That’s when I realized that her birthday celebrations never even come up as major topics in the later books. I thought, perhaps, there was nothing more to say on the topic.

Then I got curious. What was going on in Laura’s life around the time of her unmentioned birthdays each year? Is there any mention of her missing birthdays in her autobiography, Pioneer Girl? I decided to find myself some answers. And so the research continued.

Over the next few posts, I’ll be sharing with you some of the stuff I found.

A Birthday On the Road

wagon

The Society’s “new” 1880-1890 prairie schooner. This wagon looks similar to what the Ingalls family would have used to travel in.

The covered wagon that Laura and her family traveled in likely looked much like the wagon in this picture.

Since we know that Laura’s birthday is in February, locating the time of year for her birthday is actually pretty simple since it generally comes soon after the chapters about Christmas. When there’s no such Christmas context available, you just have to keep your eye out for descriptions of late winter.

Little House on the Prairie starts in late winter, when Pa, Ma, and the girls pack up their things into the covered wagon and take off for the west. They leave this time of year so that they can cross Lake Pepin on the ice. This means that Laura’s birthday probably would have come sometime around the beginning of their journey to Indian Territory in Kansas.

In fact, Wilder offers us her memories of her birthday “on the road” in her autobiography Pioneer Girl. The story of crossing the ice actually comes from her memories of traveling to Minnesota in 1874. She describes how she and her cousins all got scarlet fever in the late winter, right before her Pa and Uncle Peter had been planning to cross the lake and head west. Laura was the only one still sick when they finally ventured out on the frozen lake in their covered wagons (Pioneer Girl 55). After crossing the lake, they stayed in a little hotel in Lake City, Minnesota. It was in this hotel that Laura woke up on the morning of her birthday (59). She recalls how Pa had gone to town and bought her a “pretty little book of verses called ‘The Floweret'” (59). She was seven years old at this time.

Country Party

Heartfelt felicitations to our very own Mrs. Wilder on her 150th birthday! As we continue Laura’s birthday celebration with our birthday-themed posts, let’s go back to Plum Creek and talk about the fabulous country party that Ma and the girls throw for their friends.

creek

Modern-day Plum Creek, the body of water in which the Ingalls girls used to play when they lived in the Walnut Grove area. As Laura writes in her books, leeches and crabs hid in this creek.

Last time, we reminisced about the town party that Laura and Mary attended at Nellie and Willie Oleson’s house at the back of the Oleson store. When Laura and Mary get back from the party, they tell their Ma all about it. Ma, in turn, decides that she and the girls should throw a party of their own. “We must not accept hospitality without making some return,” she says. “[Y]ou must ask Nellie Oleson and the others to a party here” (On the Banks of Plum Creek 168). Although the book never says it was supposed to be a birthday party, perhaps Ma considered this party to be a late birthday celebration for her two winter babies.

The party that Ma and the girls end up throwing is a total country party. As with the town party, no such account of the celebration appears in Pioneer Girl. However, the autobiography does talk about the fun time that Laura had scaring Nellie with the crab and the leeches that hid in Plum Creek (Pioneer Girl 92-94). Another account of Laura’s payback to the mean town girl Nellie Oleson also shows up in Laura’s Missouri Ruralist article, “How Laura Got Even,” that she would write later in her life.

Pioneer Girl doesn’t mention any treats that Ma served to Laura, Mary, and their visiting town friends. Near the end of the article, however, Laura talks about a “treat of good things that Ma had made ready.” In the chapter “Country Party” from On the Banks of Plum Creek, Laura describes the preparations that Laura, Mary, and Ma made for the party. While the girls cut stars out from strips of paper to hang on the shelves in the house for decoration, Ma makes a special snack called vanity cakes. When the guests come, they eat these cakes while sipping out of their shiny tin cups full of cold, creamy milk. Even though Nellie doesn’t enjoy the party because of the old crab and the leeches, all of the other girls love Ma’s simple and sweet country party and country treats.

Plum Creek

Pioneergirl.com describes Plum Creek as a “thirty-five mile stream near Walnut Grove, which flows northeasterly into the Cottonwood River, with its waters then flowing to the Minnesota River and eventually the Mississippi River.” This is the creek where Mr. Crab and the scary, blood-sucking leeches would have hid out. You can still visit Plum Creek today and stand on the site where the little dugout in the bank used to be. A sign marks its spot. Although the Ingalls family was living in a frame house near the creek at the time of the party, they would have been living in the dugout only a little while before.

Vanity Cakes

In the book, Laura describes the vanity cakes that Ma makes as “honey-colored.” As she writes, the flavor of the cakes is not sweet, “but they were rich and crisp, and hollow inside. Each one was like a great bubble. The crisp bits of it melted on the tongue” (On the Banks of Plum Creek 175). The description of the cakes sounds quite wonderful, and it would have been a great treat to the young girls at the party. Today, though, these cakes might not be so appealing to modern eaters. Or cooks, for that matter. It turns out that Ma’s famous cakes are hard to make. According to The Little House Cookbook, making vanities requires a knowledge of “the subtleties of dough texture and shape and fat temperature.” These things, the authors write, make a difference between “balloons and bombs, success and failure” (The Little House Cookbook 202). Plus, the recipe is mostly just lard, egg, salt, and flour, so they’re probably not so appealing to today’s sweet-toothed crowd.

Town Party

Happy 150th birthday, Laura Ingalls Wilder! As we continue our year-long celebration of Laura’s birthday with our series of birthday-themed blog posts, I’d like to take a look at one of the more memorable parties attended by the Ingalls girls. This party appears in the fourth book of the series, On the Banks of Plum Creek.

Laura’s Plum Creek birthday is never mentioned in the book itself, and no description of her equivalent birthday appears in Pioneer Girl either. However, for those of you who have watched the Little House on the Prairie TV show, you will remember from the episode “Town Party, Country Party” that Laura and Mary do have a birthday party of sorts at their house in the country near Walnut Grove after Nellie Oleson has her own birthday party in town. Unlike many of the episodes from that show, this episode is actually based on events from the books itself. Laura and Mary do attend a party at Nellie Oleson’s house, and Laura and Mary do throw one at their own house soon after. (Although Nellie’s party is not described as a birthday party in the books, an autobiographical article entitled “How Laura Got Even” that Laura wrote for The Missouri Ruralist much later in her life describes the event as a birthday party for the bratty Nellie.)

stack

A stack of antique books on display in the Ingalls home in De Smet.

The parties are not mentioned in Pioneer Girl, but the autobiography does include a description of Laura and Mary’s visits to Nellie and Willie Owens’ house. (Wilder gave these characters the last name Oleson in her books.) She describes the “wonderful toys, tops and jumping jacks and beautiful picture books” that they had in their house behind their father’s store. She also mentions Nellie’s “wonderful doll” (Pioneer Girl 87).

In the “Town Party” chapter from On the Banks of Plum Creek, we get more details about the toys that the Olesons had at their party. Willie exclaims the he doesn’t want the kids riding on his “velocipede,” and Laura and the other children spend time playing with Willie’s toy soldiers and Noah’s ark set. They also get to play with a jumping-jack, and Nellie even shows them her two dolls: one made out of china and the other out of wax. The wax doll even has eyes that close when she lies down, and she says “Mamma” when her stomach is squeezed. After Nellie yells at Laura for touching her doll, Laura sits to the side of the room and looks at two wonderful books, one of which is entitled “Mother Goose.” For a treat, Mrs. Oleson feeds the children a “sugar-white cake” and tall glasses of lemonade. At this town birthday party, everything is really fancy and expensive to Laura and Mary, including the sweet cake and sugary lemonade, but the party is actually quite sour because Nellie and Willie are so spoiled.

Velocipede

As pioneergirl.com explains, this nifty contraption that Willie owned was a forerunner for the modern bicycle. The main difference between this and a bicycle was that this thing wouldn’t have had any pedals. Rather, “the rider moved forward by ‘walking’ with the tips of the toes while sitting on the seat between two wheels. It was steered by a handlebar attached to the front wheel.” Velocipedes didn’t have breaks either. To stop, riders would have had to “plant [their] feet firmly” on the ground or let it slow down on its own.

Mother Goose

The pictures and rhymes that Laura read in this book were a collection of ancient nursery rhymes compiled and published by Thomas Fleet. The “Mother Goose” entry on pioneergirl.com cites a definition from the 1882 Webster’s Dictionary. According to this entry, Fleet actually collected the songs from his mother-in-law, Mrs. Goose, and ill-naturedly entitled the anthology “Mother Goose’s Melodies for Children” in derision of the mother-in-law, whose singing of these songs he found to be so annoying.

Town Treats

While Laura only got five little cakes from her Ma for her birthday in the Big Woods, Mrs. Oleson served a big cake at Nellie and Willie’s party, and all of the children got to eat a piece. Laura and Mary even got their first taste of lemonade. Considering the size of the cake and the expense of white sugar and lemons, the fact that the Olesons could serve these treats shows the wealth of the Oleson family compared to the Ingalls family. (The book The World of Little House has a recipe of this lemonade. Try and make it yourself and see if you find it as amazing as Laura did!)

Meanwhile, In New York…

Last time, we talked about the things that Laura and her family did to make her fifth birthday a special day. That birthday in the Big Woods was the first birthday that Laura describes in her Little House stories. The next birthday that Laura writes about in her books is the ninth birthday of Almanzo Wilder. Almanzo was born almost exactly ten years before Laura on February 13, 1857. Even though we’re specifically celebrating Laura’s 150th birthday this year, I guess Almanzo deserves some attention. In fact, taking a look at his birthday will give us a fresh perspective on Laura’s own birthday celebrations.

almanzo & alice

Young Almanzo Wilder with one of his older sisters, Alice.

Out west in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, Laura’s family helps her celebrate her fifth birthday by making her little cakes, giving her dolls and doll clothes, and playing some tunes on the fiddle. Meanwhile, back east in New York, Almanzo is practically sitting in the lap of luxury when it comes to his birthday celebrations. The first indication in the books that Laura and Almanzo have very different sorts of birthday experiences is the fact that Almanzo’s birthday gets a whole chapter of its own while Laura’s is only stuck at the end of the chapter about Sundays.

While Laura’s gifts are all on a small scale, Almanzo gets some bigger gifts for his birthday. The first gift he gets is his very own yoke made out of red cedar for his young calves, Star and Bright (Farmer Boy 50). He also gets a hickory sled, all for his own (56). His Father made both items especially for his birthday. On top of that, he gets to stay home from school so that he can use his yoke, train the oxen, and make a few trips down the snowy hill on his sled. The book describes how Almanzo would pop into the house to grab more apples, doughnuts, and cookies to eat for a break (58). Laura only gets five cakes for her birthday in the Big Woods, but the treats that Almanzo gets to eat seem unlimited.

Almanzo’s Yoke

According to pioneergirl.com, a wooden yoke or oxbow would rest “on the shoulders of a pair of oxen.” To keep the yoke in place, a curved piece of wood would have been bent around the neck of each ox and kept in place “with a wooden or metal pin that went through the bow.” The purpose of the yoke was to keep the oxen side by side so that they could work as a team. Working as a team would make it easier for them to pull things such as Almanzo’s bobsled that he uses to haul wood later in the book. This may seem like a strange gift to give to a nine-year-old, but it was perfect for Almanzo since he wanted to be a farmer someday.

Mother’s Doughnuts

Laura describes the type of doughnuts Almanzo’s mother would have made for the Wilder family to snack on in the chapter of Farmer Boy called “Saturday Night.” Laura describes the doughnuts as being made out of “golden dough” that Mother twists and plops into a “big copper kettle of swirling hot fat.” In the book, Almanzo specifically notices how the doughnuts are able to roll themselves over in the fat because of their twisted shape. In The Little House Cookbook, Barbara M. Walker includes a recipe for twisted doughnuts that she got straight from a 1898 Malone Cook Book. This recipe is likely much like the doughnut recipe that Almanzo’s mother would have used. Looking at it, I’d like to think that any recipe that includes two pounds of lard and a shaker full of powdered sugar has to be good. I think all of us (and Laura especially) have a right to be jealous of Almanzo’s birthday snacks.

A Big Woods Birthday

cabin copy

This is the replica of the little log cabin that Laura would have lived in during her Big Woods birthday. You can visit this replica today. It stands on the location of the Ingalls family’s original cabin in Pepin, Wisconsin.

Today is Laura Ingalls Wilder’s 150th birthday! In celebration of that, we’re going to spend the next several blog posts digging in to each of the birthdays that Laura experiences in her Little House series.

In Little House in the Big Woods and in Wilder’s autobiography, Pioneer Girl, Wilder writes about her fifth birthday. Wilder only briefly talks about that birthday in the Big Woods in her autobiography, mentioning that “Pa played spank me” and gave her “one [spank] for each year.” She also mentions the little wooden doll that Pa whittled for her and the rag doll Ma and Mary made for her (Pioneer Girl 41). Even though these were only small and simple gifts, that day’s celebration was special to her. It filled Laura with pride to think she was a whole year older.

Little House in the Big Woods offers a fictionalized perspective of her birthday experience. In this account, Laura gets six spanks: one for each year and “the last one big spank to grow on” (Little House in the Big Woods 97). Just like in Pioneer Girl, Laura gets a little wooden doll from her Pa. But, in this account, she also gets five little cakes from her Ma. Since this book describes Laura as receiving her beloved rag doll, Charlotte, during Christmastime only one chapter earlier, Mary’s gift to Laura is a new dress for the doll (97). Laura may not get the happy birthday song sung to her, but, “for a special birthday treat” at the end of the day, Pa plays one of Mary and Laura’s favorite songs, “Pop Goes the Weasel” (98).

Ma’s Cakes

Although Laura didn’t get an actual birthday cake for her special day, the little cakes that Ma made her would have been considered to be a fine treat for her birthday. Laura doesn’t describe the type of cake that Ma might have made, but we can imagine that perhaps she used her valuable store-bought white sugar. The book The World of Little House offers a recipe for heart-shaped cakes made out of white sugar, butter, flour, and vanilla. I like to imagine that these are like the cakes that Laura got for her birthday.

Charlotte the Rag Doll

In Little House in the Big Woods, we get to see Laura’s excitement when she first holds her very own rag doll, Charlotte. She describes this beautiful rag doll in her autobiography, writing, “I thought her beautiful, with her curled black yarn hair, her red mouth and her black bead eyes” (Pioneer Girl 76). In Pioneer Girl, Wilder mentions that the real-life doll’s name was actually Roxy, not Charlotte. Even though this doll would have been made out of old rags and spare buttons and pieces of yarns, the only other doll that Laura owned before this special doll was a doll made out of corncobs. This homemade rag doll, then, would have been an extra special gift for Laura.

“Pop Goes the Weasel”

According to pioneergirl.com, “‘Pop! Goes the Weasel’ is considered a traditional American song, and sheet music for it was published a number of times in the 1850s. The song dates back to the 1700s, with lyrics in Cockney slang.” This song was one of Laura and Mary’s favorites to have Pa play for them because they enjoyed the “pop” sound that Pa would make by plucking one of the strings on his fiddle. He would have done this by hooking one of the fingers on his left hand on a string and pulling it up sharply to make the string vibrate. The sound would have contrasted a lot with the rest of the song because normally Pa would play the strings on his fiddle using his horsehair bow, not his fingers. Apparently he would pluck it very quickly, though, because neither Mary nor Laura could ever see his finger making the sound. It may not have been the Happy Birthday song, but the girls sure loved it!

Let’s Have A Good Old-Fashioned Birthday Party

birthday girl

Laura Ingalls Wilder at the dedication of the Wilder Library in Mansfield.

 

One hundred and fifty years ago this February, something very special happened to the world. At the time of its occurrence, however, only a few friends and family members knew about it. The two people in the world that were the most excited about this special event were 31-year-old Charles Ingalls and his 27-year-old wife, Caroline Ingalls. Two-year-old Mary Amelia Ingalls may have also been a bit excited too, because the special thing that had happened was the birth of her baby sister, Laura Elizabeth Ingalls.

Beloved author of the Little House books, Laura Ingalls Wilder, was born in a little log house near the town of Pepin, Wisconsin, on February 7, 1867. This year, in celebration of her 150th birthday, our blog will be featuring a number of posts about Laura’s birthdaysthe ones she writes about in the Little House series as well as the ones she doesn’t write about. These posts will give you a taste of what birthdays and celebrations were like for kids growing up on the prairie the good old Pioneer Days.

To start us off, let’s take a look at some basic facts about birthday parties in the 1800s.

According to an article entitled “A Brief History of Birthday Parties,” birthday parties in the Victorian era were often “large and extravagant” events thrown by the parents on behalf of the birthday kid. These sorts of birthday parties required enough room for a ball and the help of plenty of servants. It wasn’t exactly your average “pin the tale on the donkey” sort of party. (Check out this article for more information about the history of birthday parties.)

Of course, Laura and her family wouldn’t have been able to pull off birthday parties like these extravagant Victorian parties. But how about birthday cakes and the birthday song? Would Laura at least have had those? Well, according to a Huffington Post article, although the birthday song wouldn’t become a thing until the 1920s, birthday cakes were around by the time of Laura’s childhood. In fact, late 18th century Germany was the originator of the whole contemporary birthday-cake-with-candles tradition. (Take a look at this article for more birthday trivia.) But birthday cakes in the Little House books just doesn’t seem to be much of a thing. If that’s the case, then, what exactly did Laura do for her birthdays?

In order to find that out, we’ll just have to look and see what Laura said herself. Come back next time and join us as we take a look at Laura’s birthday in Little House in the Big Woods.