Many of our readers will remember seeing a singular object in the Storrs House Museum called the "Whispering Stick." The story that was told was that this six foot long hollow tube of wood was used by young courting couples to whisper sweet nothings under the watchful eyes of a chaperone. Over the years, research on the veracity of this legend has been stymied --every mention found seemed to refer back to the stick in Longmeadow!
Longmeadow's "Whispering Stick"
hollow top of stick,
missing a ferrule?
tapered bottom of stick
In the 1884 book "Proceedings at the Centennial Celebration of the Incorporation of the Town of Longmeadow, October 17th, 1883" edited by the Professor Richard Salter Storrs, describes the objects saved from the burning Williams parsonage house in 1846; "Among other more bulky articles in lower rooms, and hence more easily rescued, were the old oak writing table and the inkstand of Dr. Williams now in the church pastors' room, two very old bureaus and buffet pieces of furniture whose painted ornamentation includes the arabesque initials of Abigail Davenport, and extremely old and odd pistol which unbroken tradition refers to the former ownership of John Williams of Deerfield, and, most curious of all, a long, slender wooden tube, about six feet in length and an inch in diameter, octagonal at one end and round at the other and fitted at either end for ear and mouth pieces, now, however missing, which has for generations been known as the 'Courting Stick.' Whether it was really used for that purpose, as tradition has it, by young people sitting in the usual place for young people, upon opposite sides of the old-fashioned fireplace, to carry on their whispered love-making unheard by their elders more honorably located in front of the blaze, or whether it was simply used, as experiment now easily demonstrates it might have been, as a very effective ear tube for good old Dr. Williams, it is in either case a curiously unique relic of the olden time."
It is interesting that Salter Storrs (as he was known) questioned whether the device was actually an early form of hearing aid. He was a teacher of the deaf in Hartford, CT, along with his sister Sarah, who was deaf from a childhood illness. From an article from Hearing Health & Technology Matters, "Regulation of Hearing Aids in the United States, Part 1" by Holly Hosford-Dunn, PhD, speaking tubes "were another early means of channeling and conveying sound to the ear. These devices, often hand-made on the spot, offered the additional feature of enabling private communication in and across public places, which makes them somewhat analogous to modern-day telephones. Indeed, the first speaking tubes were created in Puritan times to allow courtship communication in public.
Hearing aid swan trumpet belonging to Sarah Storrs
In an article in the "Journal of American Folklore" in 1893, author Alice Morse Earle discusses 'Old-Time Marriage Customs in New England.' She writes "A more formal method of courtship is suggested by what is termed a 'courting -stick;' one is preserved in Longmeadow, Massachusetts. It is a hollow tube eight feet in length, through which lovers, in the presence of an assembled family, could whisper tender nothings to each other."
Another author, Mrs. Burton Kingsland, wrote the very useful tome in 1904 titled "The Book of Good Manners: Etiquette for all Occasions" published by Doubleday, Page and Company. In her chapter on engagements, she says: " Engaged couples might be interested to learn that young persons in their condition [engaged] in early colonial times were reduced to the necessity of using a 'courting-stick,' which was a hollow tube, eight feet long, through which lovers, in the presence of the assembled family, could whisper tender messages, unheard by the rest,--the telephone's earliest development. One is still preserved at Long Meadow, Massachusetts."
In fact, Mrs. Kingsland might have become aware of Longmeadow's courting stick by seeing photographer Clifton Johnson's image of the courting stick being used by a couple on the front porch of the Storrs House. Johnson, who was born in the village of Hockanum in Hadley, MA, was an artist, writer, folklorist and photographer, having bought his first camera in 1898. He later owned the Johnson Book Store in Springfield, MA, which was run by his younger brother Henry.
Photo of whispering stick by Clifton Johnson, circa 1910-1920
The courting stick at the Storrs House Museum is about 68" long, is hollow, octagonal and tapered. It appears that some kind of ferrule or fitting would have gone on each end. So, is this stick really a courting stick? Picture it--1846, the famous Williams parsonage is slowly burning around you, you are scrambling to save precious relics from the Reverend Stephen Williams' home, and you grab ten volumes of his daily diaries, two heavy pieces of case furniture, the precious pistol supposedly used in the infamous 1704 raid on Deerfield, family needlework, a silver cup passed down in the Davenport family made by the first American-born silversmith.....and a stick.
Contributed by Betsy McKee, LHS Board Member
Originally published April 8, 2021