Laura Elizabeth Howe Richards papers, 1884-1969
Collection Scope and Content
This collection holds a sampling of material related to the author: news articles and reviews of her writings, letters and postcards, 1929 ephemera from Camp Merryweather, photographs, a 1932 poem and a copy of an 1934 address by Charlotte R. Moore. The Maine Historical Society holds the complete Laura E. Richards collection which is extensive and provides an opportunity for in-depth research of the lives of the Howe and Richards families.
Laura Elizabeth Howe Richards was a prolific writer of fiction and poetry for children and for adults. She wrote over ninety books, and one of her works for children, Tirra Lirra: Rhymes Old and New, remained in print for forty-eight years. Richards has the distinction of being the first prominent American writer of nonsense verse for children. Writing through the 1930s, she was the first woman awarded the first Pulitzer Prize in the biography category for her biography of her mother, Julia Ward Howe. Richards’s father, Samuel Gridley Howe, was principally an educator who worked with the blind, deaf, and mute. He was the main founder of the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind and the first person to teach a completely blind and deaf mute, Laura Bridgman, to communicate successfully with others. Laura Richards would eventually tell the story in her juvenile biography of Laura Bridgman (for whom Richards was named). Richards’s mother, Julia Ward Howe, a poet and philosopher, is best remembered as the author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Richards married Henry Richards, an architect, on 17 June 1871. The couple had five daughters and two sons; they lived in Boston until 1876, when the moved to Gardiner, Maine, where Henry Richards entered the family paper mill business. The Richardses remained in Gardiner for the rest of their lives. In her autobiography, Stepping Westward (1931), Laura Richards suggests that their lives were pleasant, almost enviably so, but there were challenges, though Richards played them down. Among their greatest difficulties, aside from the deaths of two of the children, was the burning of the pulp mill in 1893. Although they rebuilt the facility, it closed permanently in 1900. They then opened Camp Merryweather, a summer camp for boys on Great Pond in Belgrade, Maine, which ran for more than thirty years. Richards does not mention any of the philanthropic work she and her husband did for the town of Gardiner, such as helping to establish a public high school, working to bring public health nurses to the area, or striving to stop abusive child labor practices.
Richards’s first published work appeared in 1880, Five Mice in a Mouse-Trap, the first of about forty-five works of fiction she would write for children. The most popular book she wrote for children was Captain January, published in 1891, and according to her autobiography, it was still her best-selling book in 1931 even though it had been one of the most difficult for which to find a publisher. Tirra Lirra is one of the best books of nonsense verse for children because of several qualities, including absurd incongruities, exaggerated rhythms, and Richards’s use of sound. Readers are surprised to find a shark singing blithely and merrily from a housetop in “The Shark” and a woman falling in love with a man because she likes the back of his head in “Nonsense Verses.” In “The Uncle of Cato Theophilus Jones,” Richards uses rhythm as well as exaggerated alliteration, consonance, and assonance to advantage. Laura Eizabeth Howe Richards died in Gardiner in 1943.