1861: John Gaylord Wells to Catherine (Griswold) Wells

The following letter was written by John Gaylord Wells (1821-1880), the son of William Wells (1786-1825) and Catharine Griswold (1792-1880) of Hartford county, Connecticut. He was married in 1847 to Emily A. Cornwall (1823-1900) and their daughter Gertrude Leland (“Lela”) Wells was born in 1851.

In his letter, written on Christmas day 1861, John confesses to his mother that he was a “slave” to his work. “I enjoy business, consequently enjoy life for business is my life,” he wrote. This single statement reveals much of John’s character. Not only did he not celebrate the holidays himself, we learn that he had not seen his wife and daughter in six months. The Civil War had begun which created opportunities for entrepreneurs like Wells. His obituary, published in New York and Connecticut papers, indicates that he was the originator of patriotic envelopes (and stationery such as the one he wrote this letter on) which became a robust business in the first year or two of the war.

An example of one of John G. Well’s patriotic envelopes from early in the Civil War.

Wells began his career learning the printer’s trade in Hartford, Connecticut. He is credited with inventing “elastic type for printing on hard substances” and several other “ingenious contrivances.” However, much of his time and earnings were spent in patenting and defending his patents. Following the Civil War, Wells published his own book entitled, “Every Man His Own Lawyer” and advertised it as a complete guide in all matters of law and business negotiations. It sold over 800,000 copies in the U. S.

In January 1878, he sprained his ankle in stepping from a curbstone causing an injury that eventually led to its amputation. He never fully recovered from that injury and he died in January 1880.


New York [City, New York]
December 25, 1861

My Dear Mother,

Your kind letter was duly received. I have been extremely busy or I should have written you before. Today is Christmas and of course a holiday for the people—all business is suspended for today except slaves like myself. I know no holidays. You ask where I dined Thanksgiving. I will tell you—in my office on pen and ink. I wrote all day until about 9 o’clock in the evening and then went and bought an oyster item for my Thanksgiving dinner. This is as good as you can expect a slave to receive. I have spent today in the same way and expect to dine in the same way.

I enjoy good health for which I have occasion to thank God. Further than that, I have not much to give thanks to anyone for. I enjoy business, consequently enjoy life for business is my life. I suppose I ought to be thankful that I have a chance to make a slave of myself—perhaps I cannot tell whether I am or not.

I have not heard from “Fannie” since she left here. Think she might write me. Tell William I have a horse, wagon & harness I would like to sell him. Will sell him the whole establishment for $100. Would not sell the horse for $250 if I had any occasion to use him. Want money more than I want a horse on expenses.

How is William’s health this winter? How is sister Fannie, Cornelia, children and all? I am still at the same old place but after the 1st of January, shall be at 106 Fulton Street. Shall thereby save about twelve hundred dollars a year in expenses and probably do as much business as my business is mostly by mails and expresses. Emily and Lela are still at Morrison but I have not been there for six months or more. She is at the store occasionally. I have nothing of interest to write. Yours affectionately, — Jno. G. Wells

Wells’ letter was written on patriotic stationery that included this large “Panorama of the Seat of War” map printed on the inside of the folded sheet. Note that under the title it reads, “Entered according to act of Congress by John G. Wells, corner of Park Row and Beekman Street, in Clerk’s Office of District Court for Southern District of New York.” This same map was marketed by Wells in 1861 as a stand-alone folding map measuring 15″ x 9 ” although instead of portraits of Winfield Scott and George McClellan in the upper corners, it was sold with images of Commodores Silas H. Stringham and Andrew Hull Foote. See “Early Pocket Map.” This same stationery (without a letter written on it by the designer & marketer himself) is available for purchase at Gosen Rare Books for $750.

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