The day in which any person is born; day of origin or commencement. The same day of the month, in which a person was born, in every succeeding year; the anniversary of one’s birth. — Webster, 1882
C.L. Dawley, D.W. Whitehead, and Thomas Dunn were each born on the 29th day of February, 1856. While they are forty-four years of age they have had but eleven birthday surprise party nuisances. – De Smet News, August 17, 1900.
Birthdays are not usually recognized or celebrated in the Little House books, while the anniversary of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s February 7th birth is widely celebrated today. In the series, only Laura’s fifth birthday and Almanzo’s ninth birthday inspire presents and treats, and, in Laura’s case, have Pa playing something special on the fiddle: “Pop! Goes the Weasel.” In the posthumously published The First Four Years, Wilder wrote that she and Almanzo (whose birthday was February 13th) celebrated their birthdays one year on the Sunday between them, and later that Cousin Peter and some friends were invited to dinner as a surprise for Almanzo another year.
Birthday Cake. In Little House in the Big Woods, the five little cakes that Ma makes for Laura may have been similar to today’s cupcakes (but probably unfrosted) and cooked in individual patty-pans, or they may have been more like sugar cookies. The only time a traditional birthday cake is mentioned is in connection with Ben Woodworth’s birthday party (see Little Town on the Prairie, Chapter 20, “The Birthday Party”), and the confection is only described as “white-frosted.”
The following recipes were included in the Cream City Cook Book, compiled by the Ladies Aid Society of the Congregational Church in De Smet. Recipes were solicited by the church ladies beginning in January 1904, and the finished cookbook was published in December of that year.
White Cake. Cream one-half cup butter, add gradually one and a half cups sugar, one cup milk or water, two and a half cups unsifted flour, add two teaspoons baking powder to the flour. Add to the sugar and butter first a little milk then a little flour till all are used, beat the whole five minutes, then add the carefully beaten whites of five eggs. If a nut cake is desired add one and one-half cups chopped nut meats. – Mrs. C.S.G. Fuller
Angel Food Cake. The whites of thirteen eggs, beat until very stiff; one and one fourth teacups of sugar scant; one and one-fourth teacups flour scant; one and one-half teaspoons cream of tartar, a little salt, flavor with vanilla. Sift flour, sugar, cream of tartar and salt together eight times; stir in whites of eggs a little at a time. Bake forty-five minutes. Frost with boiled frosting. For frosting: One cup sugar boiled in one-fourth cup water; when in threads have ready beaten whites of two eggs and pour sugar gradually into the eggs, beating all the time. – Mrs. A.G. Ruskell
White Layer Cake. Whites of four eggs, beaten very stiff, one cup sugar, one-half cup sweet milk, one-half cup butter (scant); one teaspoon soda, one teaspoon cream of tartar; one and one-half cups flour. Cream butter and sugar, then add milk, then the eggs, then flour. Mix soda and cream of tartar in the flour and stir all about three minute before baking. – Helen Loftus
Near as I can tell, E.J. was right.
In a letter to Rose written in 1937, Laura wrote: “Manly was supposed to be 21 years old. To enter a homestead a man must be 21 or the head of a household (married). E.J. told later (she would) that he was only 18. Manly has never admitted it but as near as I can figure E.J. was right.”
It always seemed funny to me that Laura wouldn’t know when her own husband was born. Or did she know, and we don’t? I’m not talking about book Almanzo at all, but the real one. The real one whose birthday was February 13… but what year?
The Wilder family Bible burned, so that’s no help. Almanzo’s birth wasn’t recorded in Franklin County, New York birth records, so no help there either. He’s not on church records in Franklin County or in Fillmore County, Minnesota.
Looking at censuses (which aren’t always correct), even they aren’t consistent as to Almanzo’s age:
— In 1860, Almanzo is listed as 1 year old (as of June 1, 1860). If he was born in 1857, he would have been 3. Royal’s and E.J.’s ages agree with their birth years.
— In 1870, Almanzo is listed as 11 (but both Royal and E.J. are two years off).
— On the 1875 Minnesota State census, Almanzo is listed as 14; Perley (the only other child at home) is listed as 6 (correct if born in 1869).
— On the 1875 New York state census, Almanzo is listed as 16, with no occupation and not in school.
— On the 1880 Dakota Territory census, Almanzo is listed as 22 (Royal 32, E.J. 29). Almanzo was enumerated in both Kingsbury County and Beadle County.
— In 1900, Almanzo is listed as 39, with his birthday given as February 1861 (Laura is said to be 32, with her birthday given as February, 1868).
— In 1910, Almanzo is listed as 51.
— In 1920, Almanzo is listed as 61.
— In 1930, Almanzo is listed as 73.
— In 1940, Almanzo is listed as 83 (and Laura as 74). His death certificate says he was born in 1857, information given by Laura.
There’s a sometimes consistent 2-year difference in Almanzo’s age through the years. Not exactly scientific, but on top of Laura’s apparent belief that Almanzo was too young to homestead in 1879, enough to make one wonder.
Then there are a couple of interesting items in Wilder history. In a letter supposedly dated 1872, James Wilder wrote that Almanzo was working out for a dollar per day. At age 13? At age 15? In an 1874 letter, James Wilder wrote that Almanzo was in school. At age 17? The 1875 census (age 14 given) does indicate that Almanzo was in school. (I probably shouldn’t say that I find it hard to believe that Almanzo was still in school at age 17.)
Almanzo needed to be 21 in order to homestead. If he was born in 1857, there would have been no question about his age. But even before publication of By the Shores of Silver Lake (in which Almanzo is introduced again, but not his age), Laura is writing that “as near as she can figure out,” Almanzo was too young to homestead. Remember too, that Almanzo filed on his claim in 1879, not 1880. An 1857 birth year makes him old enough to file; an 1859 birth year does not. I looked at marriage, death, and divorce records in Minnesota and Dakota Territory, thinking that perhaps there was a first wife who died. If Almanzo had been married, he could have filed on a claim, no matter what his age.
Sometimes you take things on faith. Sometimes it doesn’t matter. Sometimes you dig and dig and you still aren’t satisfied. I’m still not satisfied. [from blog originally posted February 13, 2005]
Ben Woodworth’s Birthday Party. In Little Town on the Prairie (Chapter 20, “The Birthday Party”), Laura writes much about her first grownup party, celebrating Ben Woodworth’s (15th) birthday on January 28, 1882. This is the date on the original party invitation, but in real life, Ben’s birthday was July 8 and Jim Woodworth’s was on October 31, so the party probably wasn’t to celebrate a birthday at all.
Wilder included Ben’s party in her Hard Winter manuscript, but it was edited out prior to publication. The 1882 date of the actual party places it a year after the Hard Winter. It fits in well with the theme of gaiety and close friendships developing in Little Town on the Prairie.
birthday (FB 12, 28; BW 5; PG)
Almanzo’s (FB 5, 9)
Ben Woodworth’s party (LTP 20; PG), see also Horace Woodworth family
cake (BW 5; LTP 20; PG)
gift of The Floweret (PG), see The Floweret
Laura’s (BW 5; PG)
spanking (BW 5; PG) – The origin of giving a child a gentle birthday spank for each year of life (and one more to grow on) is unclear. Some believe it developed as a pagan ritual prior to Christianity. It may hearken back to the spank a newborn was given in order to rouse a cry and clear the airways. Although a playful ritual in Laura’s time and when the Little House books were first published, birthday spankings are not as accepted today.