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.)
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.
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.
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.
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!)