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!

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3 comments on “A Big Woods Birthday

  1. chellsheart says:

    Well, my birthday is coming up on Feb 19th and I sure did enjoy reading this! Thank you so very much for sharing it, I appreciated it. I think back in Laura’s time, that doll must have been pretty special. I can imagine, maybe the cloth..”the old rags” might have been scraps of materials that Ma had left over from sewing their clothes. Or maybe some of the material that made up the doll, including her dress that Mary made for Laura’s doll could have been from material from older clothes that the girls had outgrown when they were younger. I think that would have made the ragdoll even that much more special! I wonder if Roxy or Charlotte survived and maybe Laura gave it to her only daughter, Rose when she was about the same age. Do you know, Leah?

  2. Happy Birthday dear Laura

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