Despite the prominence of the Biddle men in Philadelphia history, the Biddle family papers are dominated by the Biddle women, and in particular, Biddle mothers. In typical mother fashion, these mamas kept track of their families, had enough clout that their teenage sons (and grown-up sons) wrote daily letters, and demanded ever more news! What was extremely fun about this collection was glimpsing the relationships between mothers, their children, their own mothers, and their in-laws.
This collections seems to be anchored by the marriage of Julia Biddle and Arthur Biddle–yes, two Biddles–in 1880. The resulting family tree is a sight to behold. Arthur and Julia shared great-grandparents (Clement (1740-1814) and Rebekah Cornell (1755-1831) Biddle) and their grandfathers were brothers. As with many old families, there were lots more discoveries of “close family relations” to find.
Julia was the mother of Edith Frances, Alfred Alexander and Julian Cornell Biddle. She was also “Ma,” “Mama,” and “Mother” (and after Alfred married Gertrude, “Mrs. Biddle”). When writing to her mother, Edith (1881-1938) addressed letters to “Darling Ma.” Alfred (1885-1967), who wrote hundreds and hundreds of letters to Julia from 1899 to 1945, always addressed his letters to “Mama.” Julia’s youngest son, Julian (1890-1917) was more formal, addressing his letters to “Mother.” Even more formally addressed were the letters from Gertrude (1894-1942) who married Alfred in 1922. Despite always addressing letters to “Mrs. Biddle,” the relationship between Julia and Gertrude was clearly warm.
Julia addressed her own mother, Julia Cox Biddle (1819-1896) as “Mumsie.” Letters to her mother-in-law, Maria Cox McMurtrie Biddle (1818-1901) were surprisingly addressed to “My dear cousin Maria,” resulting in this archivist scratching her head in puzzlement for some moments before realizing that Maria Cox McMurtrie and Julia Cox were cousins. Oh, what a tangled web this family is!
Julia Cox Biddle’s letters were an absolute delight–as long as you were not her child. Letters to her from several of her seven children are contained in this collection (she is generally referred to as “Mother”), but the letters from her to her daughter Anna (1850-1932) are where a researcher can discover who the real Julia Cox Biddle was. She wrote to Anna continually from 1869 to 1896. In one of the finest examples of a parental guilt trip I have ever seen, Julia sends a letter to Anna the day after her marriage to Andrew Blair (1849-1932) in which she querulously asks “Why do you get married and leave us all? Oh dear oh dear, I am so tired and so blue that I just can’t write another line. So goodbye, my darling.” I am guessing that Anna’s honeymoon glow may have been slightly diminished.
In all seriousness, however, the mothers in this collection, none of whom history would deem “IMPORTANT,” and whose place in Philadelphia chronicles are indisputably overshadowed by their successful, wealthy, and influential husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons, were the foundation of the family. This collection contains the papers of six generations of a branch of the Biddle family, but it is the women’s letters (to and from them) that infuse the family with personality. The gents’ business letters are informative and important, but the letters to their mothers, wives, and even sisters have soul and allow researchers to see beyond the prominent face of the Biddle family in Philadelphia history.