Robbie Fee-Thomson

Document #2

Lydia Lord Davis Letter to “Dear Ones”

Fen Cho Fu, Shansi, China; February 6, 1894

L, A: Oberlin College Archives, Lydia Lord Davis Records Group (RG 30/80), Personal Correspondence Series III, Box 3, Letters Sent by Lydia Davis, Jan.-Mar. 1894 Folder



This original, hand-written letter was written by Lydia four years after her arrival in Shansi. Written to her mother and family in Ravenna, Ohio, this letter provides a lot of detail about life in the mission field for married missionary women, including household duties, family life and local cultural celebrations. This letter shows the gendered divisions and expectations of mission work: Notions of the traditional woman’s sphere followed the missionary wives to China. Although many missionary wives, including Lydia, were involved in many aspects of the mission work, evangelical, medical and educational, their primary responsibilities were to the establishment and management of the family home, especially once children arrived. Although Lydia did take her role as wife, mother and homemaker seriously, she also made time for mission work and she started the first girl’s school in the Shansi Province. This letter is unclear about whether or not she was teaching at the school during “confinement,” as she was pregnant during this writing. This letter is significant to our understanding of women missionaries in several ways. It, and the host of other letters written to her “dear ones,” shows us that maintaining familial relations during foreign service provided a vital and necessary sense of connection for the missionaries. Also, the emphasis on Willie’s birthday party suggests that Lydia paid particular attention to preserving traditional family celebrations and rituals to normalize the children’s experience in China; and that she was very resourceful in her preparations because of the unavailability of luxury food items, like cream. Additionally, this letter also indicates that close relationships with other women missionaries provided a nurturing social network, especially her close friendship with Tinnie DeEtta Hewett Thompson.


Fen Chou Fu, Feb. 6-‘94[o]

My dear ones[p]:

A week since I finished my last letter to you, and it started on its way. Let me see – what have I done since then! On Wed. I prepared for the party (?) for William Potter’s[q] birthday. I had cards at the plates like the one I enclose – for the children, each had a different quotation, for Mr. & Mrs. A.[r] I had larger cards tied with broader ribbon. They spred apart enough to stand up and looked very pretty we all thought. Dr. has been putting poisioned meat outside the city for wolves & has five or six they give us one which will make a very pretty rug for baby to keep. I had a nice dinner and all passed off so well – baked pheasants, mashed potato squash, tomatoes, cabbage – bread, butter, jell sweet pickles mince pie & red fruit pie ice cream & sponge cake – The ice-cream was splendid part I flavored with vanilla, part with strawberry, a spoonful of each on each saucer. Dr. thought it was made of real cream & I only used milk. It is such a nice desert, I think. I commenced with today on the new baby’s flannels, I do like to do it, but it is nicer to sew when some one else is sewing also.

Today was Chinese New Years, and Mr. Davis had several callers – They usually ask to see the lady on New Year’s day and all she has to do is to come out, while they bow to him – They bow in a very graceful manner – Willie was much interested to have so many in, He likes to have a lot around, and nearly cried when they went. I am going, I think to put in new sleeves into his long baby dresses – I wish I had more of that narrow braid for finishing them – but I still have a little which you sent – Will you send me some more sometime?

Mrs. Clapp[s] sent baby a jumping jack & Mrs. A. a pr.[t] of nice white mittens which she had crocheted they will be large enough for him two years hence I should think. He gives to sleep so beautifully at night – I feed him and put him in his bed – He often talks away to himself for a few minutes and then goes off to sleep. Now good night again We had our mail Sat. no letter from you but one from Louis[u] I see Nellie Ward[v] is married. Do you anything about it?

Wed. Feb. 7—I have a few mits. [w] And so am going to write, I have been sewing to-day in the new baby’s flannels I have the seams done and nearly all the pleats laid, I think I shall let the women do the feather stitching & button-holing – some in rather two I am going to cover the deams with white ribbon, I think they are going to be ever so pretty. I am going to try to have the school-girls[x] knit bands & stockings. This P.M. I went if to Mrs. A’s and took baby (he has the fifth tooth through) and my work – He sat in the floor and played nearly all the PM, and moved about quite a little though he did not creep any – I think he would soon creep if he were on the floor – I have not put him down he has had so much cold this winter. I fear he took a little more to-day. I do like to work on the little things. I am going to make the sleeves much longer & take the sleeves of the white dresses and make new – then I won’t have to be changing constantly. There is a woman in to-night from Yű Tao Ho[y] and I must go to the woman’s room for prayers – I would like so to talk with you. I shall be so glad when we hear whether or not you are going to build. I do hope you will.

Good night now.

Mon. Feb. 12 – I am going to write a little to you this morning, It is a most beautiful day and much more mild than it has been the last week – Mr. & Mrs. Clapp have decided to stay until April 23 and be here for the An. Met.[z] the 8 of Apr. It will seem so nice to see them once more.

I wish you could see Willie he is so pretty & well, so fat! Oh, I have had more sleeves made for him! I am having some new ones made now out of his baby blankets – I guess they will be large enough to last a time. I am making the ones for the new baby altogether too large I fear –

The woman is making the new flannels beautifully.

Mrs. Thompson[aa] is going to Chinz Yűan[bb], (two days from here & one from here home) in a week or two – I would very much like to go with her and if Francis is through with his accounts I may possibly go – I could go and get back in a week – I do miss her beyond measure – but I am sure it must be the Lord’s will that we can’t work together else He would open the way – She plans to come home in June[cc] – I don’t know yet where we will be – I very much want to go to the River – as it will be the first of July before we can go if we should wait until after I am sick and June is our hottest month – It would be very trying to be in our house here – trying for Willie I mean & I don’t want to go to Dr. Atwood’s though they have kindly suggested it. They always have a good deal going on and I want to be quiet with Mr. Davis & Mrs- Thompson – I know it will all be right someway and I have not tried to decide because things are so often decided for us Don’t you think so?

I am real well and am so glad. I had a nice letter from Louis last mail, he is so faithful in writing to me, I must try to write him this mail - Willie is in the court I will bring him in now –

He wouldnot go to sleep at all but maybe he will after dinner. Our cook is going home this week for a week & I shall have to be cook I don’t like the prospect – You know I don’t know much about it and do it so seldom – I forget what little I do know.

Tues. Feb. 13. Another day!

I went up to teach that Mrs. Chiang[dd] again last night, she is learning so fast – not due

[letter ends; no signature]


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[o] Also spelled Fen Cho Fu, the older romanization of the Pin-Yin word Fenzhou. Beginning in 1885, Fen Chou Fu was the second city occupied by Oberlin missionaries. The city is 60 miles southwest of Taigu or Taiku, site of the first Oberlin mission. Oberlin in Asia, 1 and 7.

[p] This letter is likely to Lydia’s family in Ravenna, Ohio. She most often addressed letters in this manner but sent them to her mother Mary. Various letters at OCA, Lydia Lord Davis RG 30/80, Personal Correspondence Series III, Box 3, Letters Sent by Lydia Davis, Jan.-Mar. 1894 folder.

[q] William Potter Davis, (1893-1975), born at the Fenzhou mission in Shansi, graduated from Oberlin College in 1915. He is also called Willie or Wm. Potter in subsequent letters. He later became the Treasurer of Oberlin College from 1941-1958. He is one of five sons born to Francis and Lydia, two of whom died in infancy in 1890 and 1894. No information is available about the names of the two sons who died in Shansi. John Lord Davis (b. 1896, Shansi) graduated from Oberlin College in 1918 and Lewis Eleazer Davis (b. 1897, Ravenna, Ohio) also earned his BA from Oberlin College in 1919. John and Lewis were Oberlin College Representatives in China following graduation. Lydia Lord Davis biography, OCA RG 30/80 Finding Guide and miscellaneous papers, OCA RG 28 Alumni Records, Grads and Formers Series, Box 241, Francis W. Davis student file.

[r] Dr. Irenaeus J. Atwood (1850-), an 1881 graduate of  Oberlin Seminary, and his wife Annette Williams Atwood (1851-). Also called Dr. and Mrs. A. or Mr. and Mrs. A. in subsequent references. Among the first of the Oberlin Band, the couple served in Shansi, China from 1882 to 1887, 1890 to1899 and 1901 to 1909. The Atwoods were not in China at the time of the Boxer Rebellion. Oberlin in Asia, 60 and The Oberlin Band, 184-85.

[s] Mary Jane Rowland Clapp (1845-1900) studied at Oberlin College and served in Shansi with her husband Dwight H.Clapp (1848-1900) of Kirtland, Ohio, who was an 1879 graduate of Oberlin College and 1884 graduate of Oberlin Seminary. The couple married in 1894. Mary Jane studied at the Lake Erie Seminary in Painesville, Ohio and Oberlin College. The couple served in Shansi from 1885 to 1894 and 1895-1900, where Mary Jane was involved with a boy’s school there. The Clapps were among the Oberlin missionaries killed in the 1900 Boxer Rebellion. Oberlin in Asia, 60; The General Catalogue, 185; The Oberlin Band, 187-88.

[t] Abbreviation for “pair.”

[u] Louis E. Davis. Lydia’s brother, graduated from Oberlin College in 1897 and later retired as head of the Oberlin College Classics Department. Miscellaneous typescript, OCA RG 28 Alumni Records, Grads and Formers Series, Box 241, Francis W. Davis student file.

[v] Unable to locate information on this individual.

[w] Likely an abbreviation for “minutes.”

[x] Likely refers to pupils at the Fen Chou Fu mission school for girls founded in 1893 by Lydia. It was the first school for girls in the Shansi Province. After the 1900 Boxer Rebellion, the school reopened and was renamed The Lydia Lord Davis School for Girls. Lydia Lord Davis biography, OCA RG 30/80 Finding Guide and Oberlin in Asia, 13.

[y] Town located about 8 miles from Fen Cho Fu. Letter from Francis Davis to “Dear Ones,” OCA, Lydia Lord Davis Records Group (RG 30/80), Personal Correspondence Series III, Box 3, Letters Sent by Lydia Davis, Jan.-Mar. 1894 Folder.

[z] This is likely the annual meeting of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.

[aa] Tinnie DeEtta Hewett Thompson (1863-1897), an 1888 graduate of Oberlin College, arrived in Shansi as a single missionary in 1890, following her graduation from the Oberlin Seminary. In 1892, she married James Brettle Thompson (1858-) and the couple served in Shansi from 1890-1895 and 1897. The couple assisted with the Davis’ school. The Thompson family returned to the United States on furlough in 1895 when Tennie needed medical attention following a miscarriage. The couple returned to China in 1897. That year their daughter Ada died and Tinnie died in childbirth. James returned home with baby Ethyl and daughter Marian and resign from mission service. Oberlin in Asia, 61 and The Oberlin Band, 189-90.

[bb] Unable to locate information on this location.

[cc] Tinnie returned to Fen Cho Fu for the birth of Francis and Lydia’s child in June 1894. Letter from Francis Davis to “Dear Ones,” located at OCA, Lydia Lord Davis RG 30/80, Personal Correspondence Series III, Box 3, Letters Sent by Lydia Davis, Jan.-Mar. 1894 Folder.

[dd] Unable to locate information on this individual.