Edward James Baker letters
Held at: Historical Society of Pennsylvania [Contact Us]1300 Locust Street, Philadelphia, PA, 19107
This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.
Overview and metadata sections
Edward James Baker, whose parents were from Germany (father) and Ireland (mother), was born in Philadelphia on September 14, 1894. Some year later his father died on July 15, 1905, after which he was placed in the custody of his eldest sibling Sallied (Baker) Schenk and her husband, Edward. The mother is not mentioned at any point in the historical record following the 1900 census. The 1900 census records two brothers – Andres (13) and Walter (3) – who, like the mother, no longer appear in the census after this point. One additional member of the household is an uncle, Joseph Baker (later recorded in the 1910 census with the surname Schmedding) who lived with the family and, like Edward, went to live with Sallie after the father’s death. In this period, it was common for immigrants to adopt anglicized surnames, which may be the case for the “Bakers.”
Although Edward did not receive formal education, he could read and write. The letters indicate in this collection that he was a prolific writer impacted greatly by the distance away from family and loneliness. With only a few grammatical issues, he was able to capture an emotional, yet simple and subtle, quality in his letters which told of the many years in which he had been affected by the experience but was unable to share it.
Edward served in both World War I and II. The crosscurrents of war and family were central to his concern for well-being and intimacy. Serving in World War I, Baker fought and traveled in France and Belgium. While there he wrote many letters to his sister but could not include much detail regarding what he observed and had to endure. Edward wrote to his sister, “There is not much that we can write as all the mail is censored, and if there is anything in the letter that should not be there, it will either be scratched or cut out. So it is best to keep that stuff out instead of having the letter all cut up” (Letter, July 4, 1918: Folder 2). Some parts of his previous letter, written to her on June 30th, were erased before she received it. This, of course, frustrated him: “I have a couple of guys beside me, trying to think what to write. This is one of the hardest jobs we got, that is writing a letter because we don’t know what to put in it” (Letter, August 25, 1918: Folder 3).
Nearly four million young men were drafted through the Selective Service Act of 1917; almost 1,200,000 of those men were sent to France as part of the American Expeditionary Force under General Pershing. Edward registered for the draft on June 5, 1917 and close to a year later he was sent to Camp Lee in Prince Geroge County, Virginia. Camps Lee is names for General Robert E. Lee as was established in 1917 as a division training camp. Some years later it was turned over to the state of Virginia and is now a game preserve. Edward was there from about April to June 1918. He does not write about what effects of receiving orders to go abroad had on him. However, once there, he opened each letter: “[From:] Somwhere in France” (Letter, June 24, 1918).
Although he witnessed combat, Edward seems to have had acclimated to army life quite well. In a letter dated August 11, 1918 he wrote Sallie saying, “I am alright and am getting used to the Army life now but it was a little tough at first.” He spent roughly two months in France; by October 15th he wrote from “Somewhere in Belgium.” In Belgium, the parts of the country he saw were ravaged by the war, which Edward wrote about briefly: “You see at the top of the letter where we are now and believe me it is what they call War-Torn Belgium.” Until the close of the war Edward was not able to state where he was based. However, upon “Germany’s unconditional surrender” he mentioned for the first time the city from when he wrote, Ishegem, Belgium. Quite moved by the war’s end, Edward concluded “it seems as though our job is finished” (Letter, November 29, 1918).
The American soldiers who served abroad were greatly applauded by the people of Belgium, as Edward noticed: “every big town we went through in Belgium we got a great reception” (Letter, December 11, 1918). From Belgium they went to Germany to join French Allied Forced in a parade at Aix La Chapelle Aachen. But some unpleasantness remained: “By the way I suppose you know that we all have ‘Cooties.’ When we get back we will have to take about six or eight twikish baths before we are allowed in the house. But we expect to leave here in a couple of days for a evacuation camp to get cleaned up and also get good clothes” (Letter, December 24, 1918). And, “Now that the war of that . . . shell, and shrapnel is finished, we have a ware all our own. ‘Killing Kooties.’ They had better soon get us deloused or some of the guys will scratch the skin off of their backs. One guy was picking them from his undershirt the other night. He caught an even hundred and quit. He said that was enough to croak in one night” (Letter, December 29, 1918).
Edward returned to the United States on March 27, 1919 for debriefing at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Soon after, he returned home to Philadelphia and resumed his position as a leather worker at Drueding Brothers. According to existing records he continued to live with his sister’s family. Much later at the age of 47 he registered to serve in World War II. His registration papers show that he was then working at the Weting House Electric Company in Lester, Tinicum Township, Pennsylvania. He died in 1983.
This collection is arranged chronologically. The letters were written between 1918 and 1919 during Edward Baker’s military training at Camp Lee in Virginia and service in France and Belgium. Edward wrote primarily to his sister Sallie Schenk about his experiences and observations, although not with much detail. There are a few letters to Sallie’s husband, Edward.
The letters written from Camp Lee are housed in Folder 1; these letters, compared to those written from France and Belgium, give a more point-by-point detail of Baker’s daily activities. Folders 2 and 3 cover his time in France. Folder 4 includes letters written while in Belgium and France. The last folder containing letters documents his return to France before departure for the United States, and then Fort Dix in New Jersey. In the last letter in the collection dated November 13, 1919 from Belgium he describes the conditions observed while traveling through the country. The letter ends by discussing his eventual return to Hoboken, New Jersey. The reasons for this return to Belgium are unknown. The final folder I the collection includes a photograph of Baker in uniform, post cards, and discharge papers.
- Historical Society of Pennsylvania
- Finding Aid Author
- Finding aid prepared by Weckea D. Lilly.
- Finding Aid Date
- ; 2012.
- Access Restrictions
This collection is open for research.