Old Letters – The Beginning for New Visitors…


At the moment, there are over two hundred  letters on my dining room table. They are old letters, their envelopes yellowed and brittle. Fortunately, the pages which they have been protecting all these decades are still crisp and pliable – clearly offering their words in a meticulous, inviting script.

These letters were written from 1914-1926 by my husband’s grandmother, Helena Schlichter, who maintained a steady and faithful correspondence over those years with her mother, Louisa Ottens. Most of the letters are written after Helena’s marriage to Alfred Schlichter. The adventuresome newly-weds would end up far from home, but Helena’s mother was kept very much in her life through detailed and frequent letters. They always begin “Dearest Mother,” and are signed “Helen” – so, I will refer to Helena as Helen.

I have stacked her letters in piles sorted by year – the oldest having been written in 1914 when Helen was a teenager. The 1919 pile is the tallest and I will soon be reading into it and finding out why she had so much to say in that year. It is the year she arrived in China as a Christian missionary, and it is the year her first child was born – so let me guess…

I have my notebooks ready. I decided to take notes by hand rather than sit next to a computer as I read the letters. Handwork seems more connecting. I put some effort into finding notebooks with a quality of paper I will enjoy writing on – with lines which are not too dark.  I’ll be using a mechanical pencil because I like the slip of graphite on paper. I feel like an artist  getting ready to fill a canvas as I begin to move through Helen’s letters, one by one.

My goal is to create a representation of the story that lies in these pages. There is a process here, as there is in painting a landscape, or a portrait, in which much of the detail confronting you must be left out. The trick is to determine where the essence is, how to arrange it, how to interpret the hues.

My first task is to just read and marvel as portions of Helen’s life unfold through over a decade of articulate, long, reflective and detailed discourse with her mother. These are letters of familial love, religious passion, foreign adventure, domestic joys, fabric swatches, recipes, motherhood, lots of photographs and theological tracts.

I hope lots of friends and relatives join me as I “blog” through discovery and reflection along the way.

For the next  chronological entry – scroll to the bottom.  

1520 Franklin Street



  • Photo for next blog.

   Five young sisters looking over garden fence on Franklin  Street –   many years before Helen Ottens Schlichter  is born

We hear so much about 1520 North Franklin in the letters that I thought we should take a visit.

1520 Franklin is an address,  although Helen generally is alluding to the group of people living there when she refers to it.  But, it is, although secondarily, a place. I am so sad that among the boxes of photos we have of the family from that era,  we have found none of  this house. I will keep looking.

Many of Helen’s descendants have been there, however, because the Franklin Street home remained in the family until 1965.  My husband clearly remembers it.

And Helena lovingly described it to me when I interviewed her last spring. 1520 Franklin street was an important part of her childhood: Grossmama made vegetable soup and little dumplings, many wonderful aunts and cousins were in and out- always a bit of interesting  bustle going on, I would imagine.

1520 Franklin Street  (the North has generally been dropped in family conversation) was a four story, clapboard row house on the east end of Broad Street, near Philadelphia’s city center.

The home was owned by immigrants Amalia (Grossmama) and John Conrad Hungerbeuhler, the maternal grandparents of our letter writer. ( I have been given a contact by Aunt Betty of a descendant who did a thorough genealogy of the German Hugerbuehlers – if only I had time…)

The seven Hungerbuehler children were raised in the house – but  no one knows the family’s date of  occupancy, so it s not clear if they were all born there or if some or all moved there as children. John Conrad was in the wine business. Judging by their residence and some other indicators – they seemed to have been financially solid and were able to provide well for their children,  having four stories to spread out (rather “up”) in, and sending their son, Conrad, to medical school.

But more about the house.

Helena described it in such detail (she is her mother’s daughter), that I could almost see it. The front door opened into a hallway, a staircase on the right. The hall continued past the stairs to the back of the long, narrow building. Rooms went off the hallway, also to the right. First there was the formal living room.  Helena remembers  a large  piano in there.  (Aunt Betty remembers it being a “big, square Cunningham.”) Helena remembers tables with inlaid marble and a crystal chandelier – which the ladies of the house dismantled for cleaning once a year. There were big windows. Helena alluded to  “house parties.”

Moving down the hall, past the living room, was the formal dinning room. At the end of the hallway, at the back of the house, there was a side wing – the kitchen and family room. This is where everyone hung out. It was furnished with a table, a chaise lounge – and a blackboard hung on the wall!  Helena remembers parakeets (Betty thinks it was a parrot) in that room. The Hugerbuehlers liked animals and also had a very old cat. I have something in my notes from Helena’s interview about a poodle and a ferret – but don’t recall the conversation – and hesitate to make the claim – but, maybe…

The family room  looked out onto the garden and a side yard. Aunt Betty remembers a high fence around the yard. I believe that must be it in the photo at the top.

The photo is of the first generation in the house – a houseful of young Victorian women. You can almost hear the swish of their skirts. Then, our letter writer (second generation) grows up near the house and is surrounded (nurtured) by grandparents, many aunts and a loving uncle.  Helen’s daughters, Helena and Betty, own Frankilin Street  in their childhood experiences (third generation). My husband, Helena’s son, also visited Franklin Street during his childhood and early adult life. Well – if we count Grossmama and John Conrad – FIVE generations!

Alma and Uncle Conrad never left Franklin Street. Both grew up there and died while living there – perhaps in the house. Bert stayed there until it was sold in 1965, when she was elderly.

And now – I have to talk about a  really pertinent  letter, which I  sadly can’t quote from at the moment – and this should be the moment!

When I first got the letters, and before I arranged them chronologically (they had gotten a bit out of order), I randomly looked at a few. One was so beautifully written and wonderful that I had to stop then and there  and read it to my husband:

Helen is reminding her mother of how she thinks in pictures and she can just see  everyone at 1520 – the 1520ites. She then clearly describes what she sees them doing at that moment. To date, my favorite passage out of many amazing bits of writing, and clearly establishing the importance of the inhabitants of Franklin Street in this story.

I will come across it as I read through the letters and I promise to share it when it pops up.

I will have the Hungerbuehler sister’s of the previous family portrait identified soon (via Aunt Betty). I fear I made a mistake on saying which one was Louisa – and I have a bit more information about the siblings to share.

Then – on to the Ottens. I have had a preliminary conversation with Aunt Betty about that side of the family. Truly – a book of it’s own. I don’t know if we’ll ever get to China.

” Give our love to all at 1520 North Franklin…..”









The  photo above is of Helen’s mother, Louisa, our letter recipient, and her siblings,  taken circa 1875. Louisa is in the back center, the tallest figure in the photo. These are  the Hungerbuehler’s of 1520 North Franklin Street,  Philadelphia.

They are: Amelia, Alma, Alberta, Louisa, Laura, Flora, and Conrad. A rhythmic litany of  Victorian names:  Amelia, Alma, Alberta, Louisa, Laura, Flora, and Conrad.

These are the aunts and uncles of Helen on her mother’s side. They were  part of her life – enriching it, I believe.  All of these names are mentioned  in Helen’s letters, often in reference to receiving  letters from them. So, we know Helen was supported by a rich family life.

I’ve identified Louisa and it’s obvious which person in the photo is Conrad. I cannot, at this time, identify who’s who regarding the other five sisters. But I do have a bit of information on most of  the Hungerbeuhlers of 1520 North Franklin Street:

Alberta  (“Aunt Bert”),  was an artist and every one in our family seems to have one of her wonderful paintings, each in an ornate frame, some quite large – botanical, still life, donkey with a cart, sewing basket with a Ladies Home Journal beside it- illustrations with fine detail, muted colors.  She never married and remained in the Franklin Street house. I recently came across  a 1918  letter from Helen to Aunt Bert, asking her, ever so coyly, if she would tint a photo of the  Arroyo.

“I am going to ask you to do me a big, big favor. Some time – some time, when you have plenty of leisure time ( – such a  time never comes, did you say?) will you tint a picture for me?”

Laura married and lived nearby – also in Germantown. A Laura is often mentioned by Helen in her letters. Since she does not refer to her as  “Aunt Laura,” perhaps she is  a cousin, Laura – maybe the daughter of Aunt Laura. Need more genealogy!

“Tell Laura she better come out here and join the girls that have such beautiful voices.”

It seems that this Laura could sing. My guess is that a reference to “Aunt Laura” will appear.

Amelia married and I’m not sure if she also lived nearby. Helen writes in her December 29, 1917 letter that,” Aunt Amelia sent money.

Uncle Conrad was an optometrist and never married. His medical office was on the second floor of the Franklin Street house.  Helen often expresses her desire to share her experiences with him.

“I wish Uncle Conrad could hear him (Dr. Evans), too. He is brilliant.”

Alma also never married and stayed in the Franklin Street house. She may have worked as a secretary.

Your delightful letter came Monday, Aunt Alma’s came then, too.”

Flora married and had a son named Harry. “Cousin Harry” is  referred to by Helen in her letters. He is high school age when Helen leaves Philadelphia in 1914.  She mentions receiving  letters from Aunt Flora – often mentions cousin Harry .

  “Tell Harry I haven’t forgotten that I haven’t yet written to him about Mr. Ward’s experience (with Navajo Indians in Arizona).

The Hungerbueuhlers, according to  Helen’s daughter, Betty (Aunt Betty),  were “very aware of things -alert.” I know from Helen’s daughter, Helena (Mimi),  that “the aunts were readers.” They sent the best in children’s literature to Betty and Helena when they were in China along with fine clothing from Wanamaker’s. ( Wanamaker’s comes up often in the letters!)  We  also have a child’s dress that belonged to Helena, from her childhood in China, with a Strawbridge and Clothier label – no doubt from one of the aunts.

We get the picture that the Hungerbuehlers  of Franklin Street are a  refined and educated Philadelphia family who maintain close family ties – and ties to the Franklin Street house which remained in the family until 1965.

Helen sometimes playfully referred to those still  living in the house during the period of the letters, as the  “1520ites.” We know that would include at least Helen’s Grandmother, “Grossmama;”  her  grandfather,  John Conrad, whom she sometimes affectionately referred to as “Old Man Smuckles;”  Uncle Conrad,  Alma and Alberta.

More about the Franklin Street house in the next post.

Then, we have to get to the Ottens,  Helen’s paternal family: Uncle  Henry (Harry),  the Ottens Louisa did not marry, and who is a story unto himself; and cousin Charles who is  frequently mentioned in the letters. As if the Hungerbuehlers were not enough family!