“Vinnie says the dear friend would like the rule. We have no statutes here, but each does as it will, which is the sweetest jurisprudence.  With it, I enclose Love’s ‘remainder biscuit,’…”   (-Emily Dickinson)

Sarah Tuckerman, c. 1855

Sometime in March of 1878 Emily Dickinson sent a note with a “rule” (a recipe) and a sample of some slightly scorched caramels (the “biscuit” mentioned above) to Sarah Tuckerman, wife of Amherst College Professor of Botany Edward Tuckerman.  Sarah (known as Lizzie to her friends and family) lived less than a mile south of Dickinson in a large house she and her husband called “Applestead,” pleasantly located where the Amherst College Cage now stands.  Dickinson’s note to Sarah was published in early volumes of her letters, and repeated as Thomas Johnson’s letter 545, but the original manuscript seems to be lost, or is perhaps in private hands.  Although Dickinson doesn’t mention “caramel” in her note, Johnson observed that Amherst College possesses an associated Photostat of a letter from Dickinson cousin Fanny Norcross to Lavinia Dickinson that says “Now I will give you the caramel rule.”  Jay Leyda transcribed the Photostat at more length in his Years and Hours, although he omits the rule itself.  Eventually, the rule made its way from the Photostat in the Archives to publication in the booklet Emily Dickinson: Profile of the Poet as Cook (1976; 2010).

In 2009 Sarah Tuckerman’s descendants gave the College a large collection of Sarah’s correspondence (with the Dickinson material having been weeded out and mostly given to Amherst in the 1950s).  The collection is still being processed, but one of the items that surfaced quickly was the original letter from Fanny Norcross to Lavinia.  Its existence among Sarah’s papers seemed odd until I remembered Dickinson’s note to Sarah.  When Dickinson writes, “Vinnie says the dear friend would like the rule,” she must have meant that she had enclosed the Norcross note – that is, she didn’t rewrite the recipe, she simply included Fanny’s letter containing it.

Fanny Norcross to Lavinia Dickinson. Transcription at end of post.

Fanny dated her letter “March 1,” with no year mentioned.  However, she also mentions the “Silver Bill” (“I am really disturbed that the Silver Bill has passed”).  A quick check online revealed that there were a few such bills, with one dating to February 28, 1878, which would make Fanny’s mentioning it on March 1 timely.  The bill was the Bland-Allison Act, and of course Wikipedia has a little article about it, more than enough to confirm 1878 as the date of the manuscript.

The Norcross envelope with its “Mar 1” cancellation is also now at Amherst. Dickinson’s note to Sarah probably followed shortly thereafter.  Sarah almost always helpfully noted the date she received a letter on the outside of the associated envelope, but in this case she didn’t do so, perhaps because the envelope was enclosed in Dickinson’s note, or perhaps because Fanny’s note was not originally to Sarah.  Instead, the envelope bears the penciled notation of her nephew Robert Pegram Esty (1876-1958; AC 1897), who writes “(with the caramel recipe) 12/6/31 RPE.”  Esty seems to have read through all of Sarah’s large collection of correspondence, frequently annotating the envelopes in some way.  Fortunately, his handwriting and that of Sarah are easily distinguished.

There is also a circled “30” on the envelope, which corresponds to the Esty family’s numbering system for Dickinson manuscripts.  It was probably Robert Esty who assigned the numbers when the family divided the Dickinson-Tuckerman manuscripts among the four Esty brothers after Sarah’s death in 1915.

We have a related note from brother Edward Tuckerman Esty (1875-1942; AC 1897) in which he questions Robert’s numbering and mentions that one of his favorite Dickinson manuscripts was “the one accompanying the box of caramels with its ‘we have no statutes here but each does as it will, which is the sweetest jurisprudence.’”

Edward T. Esty to Robert P. Esty regarding Dickinson manuscripts owned by the family
Edward T. Esty to Robert P. Esty regarding Dickinson manuscripts owned by the family

Dickinson’s missing note indicates that she sent Sarah the remnants of a batch of caramels she’d prepared.  It sounds as if she let the candy get to hard-ball stage, or perhaps past it:  “With it [the rule], I enclose Love’s ‘remainder biscuit,’ somewhat scorched perhaps in baking, but ‘Love’s oven is warm.’  Forgive the base proportions.  The fairer ones were borne away.”

One hopes Sarah treated them as hard candy rather than trying to chew them (her letters mention frequent dental problems).  Our department’s sample was more like love’s remainder taffy, somewhat underdone in the baking and inclined to melt but still sweet jurisprudence.

Transcription of Fanny Norcross letter to Vinnie Dickinson:

My dear Vinnie,

We did receive your letter, and I am ashamed that it has not been answered before. I have no new thing to tell you. Our stay in this house is almost over. The first of April we move into a little bit of a cottage, on the bank of the river. Then, we shall collect our furniture, and some which belongs to other people and with our boat at the foot of garden or yard, we expect to pass a pleasant summer at least. In the winter we shall be very snug and warm. Then, we shall have pleasant neighbors on all sides of us, and I think, shall not be at all lonely. We have had a very pleasant winter in the old house, and I shall be sorry to leave it, on many accounts. I shall have spent almost a year in it when we leave, so it seems nearly like one of the homes. But it is too large, and would be too expensive for us to stay in [,] any longer, and we shall be very glad too, to have our own things about us once more. I may make another raid on your garret some day, but don’t anticipate that I shall make any trouble. Uncle Joel has been in New York a week for Mr. Tower. He spent the nights with various members of the [Wood] family, and it was like a long-forgotten dream, to read his accounts of them. Poor Auntie is very helpless and now probably dying, in Lavinia’s home. Aunt Olivia spent a day and night with us a few days ago and we had a nice little visit with her. Now I will give you the caramel rule.

½ lb Baker’s chocolate.
2 cups sugar (large)
½ ‘’ butter (small)
½ ‘’ milk Stir
1 ‘’ molasses constantly

Boil until a little dropped in water is stiffened hard.

This is all today. I am really disturbed that the Silver Bill has passed. Our love to all. Lou is going to write in a few days. We are both well. It is a good comfort to us to know that you are so much better.

Yours lovingly,


The chocolate may be cut into pieces as large as an inch square and allowed to melt gradually with the other ingredients. This saves much trouble.

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