Recently Jim Harris and I went to pick up a couple of items donated to the museum. While we were there, Jim noticed an old chest sitting in the back of the storage shed. It was in pretty bad shape, but Jim felt he could fix it up and we could use it to store some of the antique clothes we have. Upon returning to the museum we pulled out the drawers to clean out those nasties that get into things left in storage. Fallen down behind one of the drawers were two letters dated from 1929. As usual, our research into these letters led us down a long, winding path.
Letters have always been part of the American fabric. Early in our history letter writers had an expectation level that their words would be shared within their extended family or even in the public domain of the day – the local pub. Letters written by our forefathers were carefully composed for public consumption in hopes of influencing opinions or votes. It was expected the reader would recognize the sender just by the cursive style used and familiar phrases. When John Adams did not know someone’s position on a subject, he would always write, “I do not know what the verye thoughts of their hartes were.”
While historical letters are fun to study, the letters we seem to enjoy most are informal ones. We love letters that are expressive and full of emotions, letters that are full of people and their personalities. A treasured collection of informal letters in our museum dates back to the Civil War. Until the war came along, most families had never endured a long separation. Letters, and their writers, suddenly had to bear the burden of keeping in touch, of expressing affection, and setting aside fears about a loved one’s well-being. Regretfully, these specific letters are not on display. We need additional funding to properly mount and exhibit them.
After the Civil War, letter writing turned into a national past time, a required social obligation no matter what your status. Complete books, called epistolary novels, filled the bookshelves of local merchants as people enjoyed the titillation of reading supposedly private letters of famous people. Everyone knew the speeches given by Abraham Lincoln, but to read his personal letters gave people insight to his personality. To hear Lincoln speak, via his letters, made him more personable and likable, helping to establish his lofty position in our history. In his personal letters we find a Lincoln unbound by politics and the scope of history. Readers enjoyed his humor, understood his anger, and were saddened by his melancholy.
Sadly, the seeds for the destruction of letter writing were about to be laid with the introduction of the telegraph. Senders were charged per word and so the brevity of the written word begins to find its way into our lives. Typewriters, becoming popular in the early 1900’s, just moved things along. Initially, typed letters were insulting to the receiver. Print style letters often meant the sender thought the addressee was uneducated and could not read cursive writing. For clarity, typed business letters, formal and often lacking emotion, became common. Since that time, in just over 150 years, we’ve gone from personal writing styles to cursive writing no longer being taught in school. Letters we get today are computer generated, robotically signed, and generally are just trying to get money out of us. Most young visitors to the museum find it almost impossible to read documents written in the 1800’s and early 1900’s and most struggle to understand any cursive writing.
A recent survey by Pen Heaven, a seller of fine writing instruments, found that 85% of people do not plan to write a personal letter this year. What will become of songs that celebrated our letter writing culture? Have we already relegated “Please Mr. Postman,” I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself A Letter,” “Take A Letter, Maria,” and “P.S. I Love You” to the quaintness of history? The “typed with one thumb on a tiny keyboard” communication style sends messages that are here today and deleted tomorrow. Without written letters, how will museums like ours exhibit the hopes and aspirations of the citizens of our early 21st century community?
We no longer write words and sentences to express our real feelings. Our true feelings cannot be understood by selecting an abbreviated missive or icon. A smiley face does not take any reflective thought or creativity. Current communication choices reward commonness and tend to drown out dissenting voices. People we do not know or even care about; people who are hiding behind user names and glass screens, are suddenly able to place themselves in our living room. Author Catherine Field wrote, “A good handwritten letter is a creative act, and not just because it is a visual and tactile pleasure. It is a deliberate act of exposure, a form of vulnerability, because handwriting opens a window on the soul in a way that cyber communication can never do. You savor their arrival and after, take care to place them in a box for safe keeping.”
So, what about the two letters that Jim and I discovered. They were written by two women who were part of our community in 1929. They were obviously close friends and their words reflect the role women’s letter writing played in the history of our country and our community, a subject for a future column.
We hope you will stop by and view the letters and documents from 1900 thru the end of World War II that are on display. Your Vanishing Texana Museum is open every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission and parking at our 300 South Bolton location is free.