"Wadsworth House" the home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Portland, Maine, ca 1908
While we were visiting Marietta, Ohio recently we went into the Antique Mall on Butler Street to look for old postcards. They had boxes and boxes of cards and we spent quite a bit of time looking through them. Initially it was the subject matter, Longfellow’s home in Portland, Maine, that attracted me to this card then I noticed that the person who purchased the card new had written notes on it about Longfellow and his home and had not mailed the card, more than likely keeping it as a souvenir of a visit to the house; therefore, I am including both sides of the card.
Chisholm Bros. of Portland, Maine published the card probably around 1908 as it has a divided back but the older style of writing identifying it as a postcard. Two other cards of the house that I have seen have the cameo portrait of Longfellow on the left side of the card and include more of the houses on either side. This particular card with the cameo on the right seems to have been a less popular version but is basically the same scene.
Many years ago I worked for the Longfellow scholar, Andrew R. Hilen, Jr., when he was editing the first volumes of his six volume set of the collection of correspondence written by Longfellow. Longfellow wrote over 1200 letters of which 805 still existed at the time Hilen was compiling them. Longfellow began his correspondence when he was seven and although he found letter writing to be tedious he continued writing letters all through his life.
Handwritten on the card above is the following information--“Longfellow’s childhood home “Wadsworth House” tho he was born in the Stephenson house on Fore St. Longfellow’s mother (a Wadsworth) inherited this property. Here his parents lived, tho they spent the winter of 1806-07 with Mrs. Stephenson whose husband was absent on a voyage to the West Indies. From this Fore St. house where the baby H.W.L. was born -–he was taken home a few months later—to this house [on the postcard]. In this house are Longfellow’s cradle and a little old trunk—so quaint—which he took with him on his first trip to Europe in 1826. Also the desk on which most of his poems were written.” [Mrs. Stephenson was Longfellow’s aunt, his father’s sister.]
The Stephenson home where Longfellow was born was demolished in 1956 but the house shown on the postcard where he lived for 35 years was designated a historical landmark in 1962 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966. The Maine Historical Society opened the house to the public around 1902 and operates it as a museum with tours from May to October. The house has many of the original furnishings and has been extensively restored to look as it did when the family lived here. The Maine Historical Society has a wonderful website with photos of the house and furnishing, please see: http://www.hwlongfellow.org/house_wlh_overview.shtml
The Wadsworth-Longfellow house was designed and built in 1785-86 by Longfellow’s maternal grandfather, Peleg Wadsworth, who had been a Revolutionary War General. Peleg and his wife, Elizabeth Bartlett Wadsworth, lived with their 10 children in this house before retiring to a farm in Hiram, Maine in 1807. The marriage of Peleg's daughter, Zilpah, to Stephen Longfellow IV, a lawyer, took place in the house in 1804. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was the second of eight children born to the couple. He was named after his mother’s brother, a Navy lieutenant, who had died in the Battle of Tripoli. Stephen and Zilpah added the third story to the house in 1815. Today the house is situated in the heart of downtown Portland, Maine and is the only single-family dwelling to survive the change from a residential to a business district. It is constructed of red brick and is the oldest standing structure in the Portland area.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born in 1807 and died in 1882. He was married twice. First to Mary Potter who died at age 22 following a miscarriage in 1835. Second to Frances “Fanny” Appleton who died in 1861 from burns sustained after her dress caught on fire. He was the father of six children, Charles Appleton Longfellow, Ernest Wadsworth Longfellow, Fanny Longfellow, Alice Mary Longfellow, Edith Longfellow, and Anne Allegra Longfellow. Anne lived in the house until she died in 1901.
Henry’s mother enrolled him in a Dame School, a private school for very young children somewhat like a pre-school or daycare today, that was usually held in the teacher’s home, when he was 3 years of age. By age 6 he was attending the private Portland Academy where he gained a reputation as being studious and proficient in Latin. His mother encouraged his literary interests introducing him to many books. He printed his first poem called “The Battle of Lovell’s Pond” in the Portland Gazette in 1820 when he was 13 years old. At 15 he was enrolled in Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine with his older brother, Stephen. While there he met Nathaniel Hawthorne, another American writer, with whom he became lifelong friends.
Longfellow left the United States in 1826 to travel in Europe, then returned home to teach first at Bowdoin College later at Harvard, translate and write, eventually giving up teaching to write full-time. His works include long poems such as “The Ride of Paul Revere,” “The Song of Hiawatha,” “Evangeline,” “The Village Blacksmith,” “The Courtship of Miles Standish,” as well as collections of shorter poems like “Voices of the Night,” and “Ballads and Other Poems.” His works were very popular among readers but panned by some other writers and critics of the time like Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, Margaret Fuller, and Lewis Mumford who thought his works artificial and imitative of European forms.
Very few portraits of Longfellow show him as a beardless younger man most show him older with white hair and a full beard. He did not grow his beard until after his beloved wife Fanny died. He had tried to put out the fire that caused her death suffering burns to his own face in the attempt hence the beard that seems so familiar to us today was a cover-up of the scars. He never got over the loss of Fanny and suffered bouts of depression until the time of his own death 21 years later. He is buried with both of his wives in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At his funeral his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson called him a “sweet and beautiful soul.”
In 1884, just two years after his death, Longfellow became the only non-British writer to have a commemorative bust sculpted and placed in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey in London. Two United States postage stamps have been issued with his likeness, one in 1940 and the second in 2007. Longfellow’s popularity waned following his death as poets like Walt Whitman, Robert Frost and Edwin Arlington Robinson began to be appreciated.
For additional information about the house and the life of Longfellow, see: