I love old books for their age, for their old-book smell, and for the links to previous owners that I discover in them. These are often markings, such as Florence's autograph or the alphabet that an anonymous person carefully etched into my 1910 dictionary (a souvenir of a trip to the beach). I also find artifacts tucked between pages: train-ticket stubs, recipes, a brittle, cryptic list of accounts paid or received in April 1884. These small gifts are treasures.
A name written in a book usually remains a murmur from the past and nothing more, but Florence whispered loudly enough to awaken the biographer in me. After a few minutes of online searching, I was able to sketch her life.
Florence Whitin was born in Northbridge, Massachusetts, on October 6, 1878. She graduated from Smith College in 1900, and on June 4, 1902, in Northbridge, she married a lawyer, Theophilus Parsons. The bidegroom was the son and grandson of men also named Theophilus Parsons who both had distinguished careers in law. For a time the couple lived in Hempstead, New York. Mrs. Parsons continued to value books, serving as secretary of the Hempstead Library Association and as president of a literary society, the Hempstead Woman's Club. She and her husband raised four children; the family was Presbyterian.
By 1920, the Parsons family was living on P Street in Washington, D.C. (I bought Florence's book not far from her Washington home.) Theophilus Parsons had become a lawyer in the Patent Office and was an amateur painter who favored landscape, marine, and figure work. A son, a fourth Theophilus, attended Cornell University. Another son, Paul, planned to enter Harvard in the fall. Florence's husband died in 1952; the year of her own death is unknown to me.
I have more in common with the Florence of 1920, but the one who reads along with me is Florence Whitin, age twenty-two, recently graduated from college and on the cusp of married life. She is the Florence who wrote her name in a book in 1901. I wonder whether she opened this volume again years later as a harried mother seaking peace: whether her children, as adolescents, curiously turned its pages; or whether it sat unread until I picked it up in 2010. I will always wonder and never know.
The same technology that allowed me to learn so much about Florence Whitin Parsons promises to make books obsolete, or at least less commonplace than they are today. I have no wish to halt progress, but I do regret that small pleasures may be lost. A reader can't slip a recipe for pumpkin soup within the pages of an e-book for a future reader to find, or inscribe it on a starlit night.