A Joseph Smith Birthday Party


In March of 1842, Charlotte Haven of Nauvoo, Illinois, wrote a chatty letter to relatives in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, describing a party she had attended in a Mormon home. One hundred and forty-five years later, a group of seminary students in Portsmouth recreated that Nauvoo party.

When the first guests walked up the snowy path to the home of Dell and Laura Fox on December 23, 15 costumed teenagers were still running upstairs and down, checking fireplaces, whipping cream, arranging ringlets, and threading yarn through oversized needles. Our “Joseph Smith Birthday Party” was the culmination of four months of study in our Church history course. Early in the fall we began collecting ideas and materials. We wanted everything—food, costumes, games, program—to be as true to the period 1805–1844 as possible.

We learned, for example, that Nauvoo Mormons sent formal written invitations to social events. So early in December parents and other special guests opened handmade invitations “soliciting the pleasure of” their company on “December 23, instant.” (“Instant” simply means in the present or current month. In an age when communication was often slow, it had a practical as well as formal value.)

But because we also wanted to share much of what we had learned in seminary during the fall, we decided to do some things that the Saints of the 1840s couldn’t have done, like show slides and filmstrips. One of our anachronisms was purely for fun. Even though our research convinced us that early Mormon parties would not have included a sugar-frosted birthday cake, we made one anyway, complete with a replica of the Nauvoo Temple constructed with sugar cubes and glue.

The Fox home was the obvious setting for our party, having been built in 1820 when Joseph Smith was just 14 years old. It still has sliding interior shutters and a fireplace in each of the eight rooms. The floor plan is reminiscent of the Mansion House built by the Prophet in Nauvoo.

As they arrived, guests were greeted at the door by “Emma Smith,” then ushered into the living room where they were entertained with piano and violin music. With everyone assembled, we divided into small groups for a house tour complete with special activities in selected rooms. “Joseph Smith” greeted guests on the stairs and treated them to a few impromptu remarks. Upstairs was “a large quilting frame around which sat … the belles of Nauvoo” just as in Charlotte Haven’s day. But unlike the 19th-century girls who may have sewed quietly until the quilt was finished, these girls chattered enthusiastically, explaining the incidents from Church history illustrated in each square of the quilt.

Downstairs in the “drawing room,” two students showed slides of the Nauvoo and Kirtland temples and explained photographs and maps illustrating Joseph Smith’s achievements as a city builder. In the “parlour” small groups played 19th-century games to the accompaniment of considerable giggling.

Meanwhile, the refreshment committee was busy in the candle-lit dining room arranging a host of tasty treats concocted from old recipes. Like most 19th-century parties, those of Nauvoo featured heavily laden tables that included roasts and main dishes as well as sweets. We chose to concentrate on the latter, with homemade donuts and cider, three kinds of pie (mince, apple, and custard), and four puddings (bread pudding; maple cream; “Injun Pudding,” made with molasses and hand-ground corn meal; and “Freshmen’s Tears,” a traditional New England concoction thickened with old-fashioned tapioca pearls). In honor of Mother Smith, we included root beer and hard gingerbread, two commodities she manufactured in her Palmyra home and sold to neighbors.

The climax of the evening was a short program followed by testimonies around the fire. “Eliza R. Snow” read a poem of her own composition. “Mother Smith” sat in a rocking chair and reminisced about the life of her prophet-son as selected events came to life in short tableaus. In the darkened room, with flickering candlelight and the glow of the fire, we felt as though we had stepped back a century and a half and had gained a deeper appreciation for the life and work of Joseph Smith.

[photos] Guests were greeted from far across the snow by candles burning in every window of the Fox home. Inside they were entertained with violin and piano music and given a program of the evening’s activities. Those who wished could drive away the winter cold at one of the home’s eight fireplaces

[photos] “Mother Smith” recounted events in her son’s life as students dramatized them for the guests, reliving incidents such as the illness that almost cost Joseph his leg. Bonnets and shawls created a 19th century atmosphere for activities such as an authentic feast and a quilt-tying demonstration