1905: Ironing while memorizing passages from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Hiawatha”

The play Hiawatha being performed circa 1920 – NARA – 285367, by Unknown or not provided – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17160440

Going through some old books a few weeks ago, I came across Longfellow’s Hiawatha, and inside was this wonderful and curious little note left behind by my grandmother Zillah Trewin. I don’t know when she wrote this note; it was probably some time later for the benefit of my mother who would eventually inherit it:

Zillah from Mother, 1905.
Mother memorized the introduction, first 5 chapters, also 10, 11, 12, 19, 20 and 22, largely while ironing.

If you are familiar with Hiawatha, you’ll know that this was no small feat! I try to envision my great-grandmother Elizabeth Sargent Trewin standing over her iron and simultaneously memorizing Longfellow’s verse. An image definitely emerges–now if only I could hear her voice. That would really be something!

Elizabeth Sargent Trewin, 1904, before traveling abroad

Zillah Trewin, 1904 (age 19)


Categories: Reading literature, Trewin | Tags: , , , , | 17 Comments

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17 thoughts on “1905: Ironing while memorizing passages from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Hiawatha”

  1. Not that long ago people would commit yo memory their favorite poems and passages of literature. Something I never did but have admired people who could recall them when the occasion called for it.


    • Yes, you are right about that. Perhaps I should have pointed that out. I think literature was much more a central part of people’s lives back then. And, dare I say it, but I think the average person was much more well-read. The times were different, of course, with no TV/film/Internet/Netflix, etc., so I suppose that’s understandable. (Thank you for stopping in and leaving a comment!)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. That’s impressive!!! I remember having to learn poems by heart at primary school in the late 60’s, but much shorter verses. It’s interesting that we consider learning verse such an achievement, yet most of us can sing along to our favourite songs. Does the presence of music make it so much easier?


    • I think music must help. I have a hard time reciting lyrics without thinking about the tune that goes with them. I vaguely remember memorizing very short verse in elementary school as well, with ‘short’ being the operative word!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have memories of having to learn ‘The Highwayman’, but I’ve just looked it up and it’s really (really) long, so maybe we just had to learn a few verses. I still remember the first one, which is amazing because right now, I can’t remember where I put my library card!


      • It is funny how those things stay with us!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Actually, answering my own question, we probably just hear the songs often enough to learn them. Maybe we should have poetry reading programmes on the radio and TV?


  4. Peggy’s mom was a high school English teacher who required her students to memorize poems. A few years back, Peggy and I attended her 45th high school reunion. Several of her classmates came up and recited poetry that they had learned from her mom 45 years earlier! –Curt

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It’s amazing how much students were expected to memorize in days gone by.


    • Hi, Sheryl; Thanks for dropping by. I think in those days it was also a serious hobby taken up by people of all ages to improve the mind and become more literate and erudite. A challenge of sorts that, if met, could bring satisfaction and a feeling of achievement. People would recite poems they knew whenever occasions warranted that kind of thing; when I studied Russian in Moscow many years ago, I observed how most Russians I met always had a favorite poem to pull out on fitting occasions. People immersed themselves in literature and poetry; today most folks don’t have time or find time for those things. Of course, back in 1905 there was no TV or commercial radio; motion pictures were just starting to come out. If my great grandmother were growing up today, I doubt she would be memorizing Hiawatha! Hope your blog’s been going well; I’ll drop by soon; have been preoccupied for the last 6 weeks with some serious matters.


  6. I still remember part of Lochinvar that I learnt at school when I was about eight or nine in the 1950s, we had to learn a lot of poetry. Could your grandmother originally have been learning Hiawatha perhaps to recite in front of an audience?


    • I don’t know, Val. I know she was active with her church and taught Sunday School, but I doubt Hiawatha would have been performed there. Perhaps she was just doing it as a mental exercise. I still remember poems I learned years ago, too. This would probably be a good brain exercise to take up today. Note to self: get out a poetry book! Thanks for dropping by. Love your photo restorations! Amazing transformations.

      Liked by 1 person

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