How to Be a Good Mother-in-Law: A Steamer Letter from 1940
This 1940 “steamer letter” is essentially a lesson in how to be a good mother-in-law: Tell your daughter-in-law or son-in-law what you like about them. Express confidence in them. Respect the privacy of the couple’s relationship. That’s what I see in these words of wisdom and affection from a wise mother nearly 80 years ago.
In 1940, a young newlywed couple married and embarked on a new life together in Alaska. They took with them some “steamer letters” from the man’s mother, Laura Lu Copenhaver. (See below for a definition of steamer letters.)
Later this week, Margaret Linford will share more from Laura Lu in another post. But this letter to a new daughter-in-law seemed worth sharing separately. Full of love, confidence, and respect, it completely defies all those stereotypes about mothers-in-law. This missal is a timeless example of the loving support mothers-in-law often show behind the scenes.
How to be a good mother-in-law: A 1940 example
“Lois, this is your steamer letter, as well as your mother-in-law letter. Perhaps, I have not known you long enough to be sure that my son has made a wise choice, but I feel that he has.
It might make you self-conscious if I tried to mention the things I particularly like about you. They are the important things, as I see it. I love the warmth in you, the going out to other people of affection and interest. I like your sincerity, the absence of snobbishness. Your poise which means that you are not always thinking of yourself and how you affect other people. I like your intellectual eagerness, your real interests in finding and reading the best books.
But, an analysis of your good points is probably the last thing I should be giving you now. I ought to be praising my son to you and showing his good points. But another thing I like about you is that you seem to appreciate them without any help from me. Perhaps you see him more clearly and love him more deeply than I do. That is possible. ‘For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother and cleave only unto his wife so long as they both shall live.’ Yours is a more unselfish love than mine, perhaps. I do not know.
We mothers are the medium, the vessels through which life grows and passes…and such a long, long line of mothers and fathers back of us.
We used to read sentimental novels which talked of the nine months of pregnancy and the pains of birth, as if that bound our children to us for life. Since my own children have been born, I have not felt that way. We mothers are the medium, the vessels through which life grows and passes…and such a long, long line of mothers and fathers back of us.
“It is the mystery, the adventure that I once thought thrilling and I still think so. Shall I wish you both the deepest, most lasting happiness? That, but more than that—in marriage you have parted the veil of one mystery, but not of all. I hope you will both always have reverence for the mystery of life, of God, of man in this world and for the hope of a new heaven and a new earth.
“All my love, Mother.”
Thanks to Margaret for sharing this gem with us!
P.S. What’s a steamer letter?
The phrase “steamer letter” intrigued me, so I ran a quick search for that phrase in Google Books. Here’s a charming description in the 1916 edition of Dame Curtsey’s Book of Entertainments for Every Day in the Year by Ellye Howell Glover:
The e-book is available for free on Google Books, and appears to be one in a series of many popular domestic advice books written at the time. (Click here to learn more about using Google Books to find family history answers you’re looking for.)
Stay tuned for the next installment of Laura Lu’s letters: a Mother’s Day special post by Genealogy Gems blog contributor Margaret Linford. She’ll share Laura Lu’s fantastic advice to the newlywed couple on how to have a great marriage—and her own memories of becoming a mother.
Meanwhile, will you help us spread this supportive message by sharing it via social media? Thanks! You’re a gem.
About the Author: Lisa Louise Cooke
Lisa is the Producer and Host of the Genealogy Gems Podcast, an online genealogy audio show and app. She is the author of the books The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, Mobile Genealogy, How to Find Your Family History in Newspapers, and the Google Earth for Genealogy video series, an international keynote speaker, and producer of the Family Tree Magazine Podcast.