The Lost Art of Letter Writing

Family papers and other unpublished manuscripts provide a kind of insight into the lives of our ancestors that cannot be obtained from vital records, court records, census records, and other official documents. Our ancestors’ letters, journals, clippings, and ephemera, were the stuff of their daily lives, and reading them can give us glimpses of exactly what those lives were like. They reveal their personalities, their cares and concerns. They offer explanations and a better understanding of our ancestors’ actions, and they add the color that is lacking in the black and white of their more official records.

If we are fortunate, we may discover that our ancestors’ papers are in the safekeeping of a relative, or are preserved in an archive. If not, we may still be lucky enough to find mention of them in the papers of their known associates. There are close to 1,000 letters in the Oren Reed Family Papers Addition, and while many represent the correspondence between Sophia Reed and her parents Otis Reed and Julia Nye, and her siblings, there are a substantial number of letters which Sophia received from her friends and distant relatives. If you consider that the letters people saved were the ones written to them, it makes sense that the letters contained in archive collections will frequently have more to do with friends and associates of the family.

No one can argue that the technological advances of the 20th century haven’t been wondrous, and certainly the Internet has brought the world at large into the comfort of our homes, but what of the newsy letter? Yes, paper is fragile, and handwriting can fade, but will our emails and social media activity be accessible to our descendants in another 200 years?

If not for the handwritten letter, how would we know of Julia Nye’s pride in graduating Edinboro Normal School in 1883, and her tormented decision, two years later, to turn down a teaching position to stay home and care for her father and younger brothers following the unexpected death of her mother? [1] How else would we learn of Otis Reed’s piety and his advice to daughter Sophia that playing cards are “the Devil’s greatest tools…”?[2] Could any other record of Sophia’s friend Ella Gochnauer’s marriage convey the bride’s appreciation for a wedding day that “… dawned with a leaden sky, but glints of sunshine soon appeared and when the eventful hour of nine–thirty had come, the sun was in its proper place….”? [3] How could official records possibly convey Sophia’s affection for her friends, or the importance of her lifelong correspondence with students she’d taught while living in New Jersey in the early 1900s?

Our ancestors lived lives just like ours. They had adventures, fears, hopes, and dreams; they found and lost love, felt great joy and knew terrible sorrow—the details of which would be lost to us were it not for their letters and journals. They were so much more than their birth, marriage, and death dates. Think for a moment how much of who you are will never be found in the official records you leave behind. Yes, today’s technology shrinks our world and encourages a communication which is virtually instantaneous, but will our digital history outlive us? Think of the thrill you’d feel upon discovering a collection of your great–great–grandparents’ courtship letters. What will your children’s grandchildren know of you?  Decades or centuries from now, what a treasure even one letter or journal entry written each year would be to those who come after us, eager to learn who we were. They needn’t be brilliant, just sincere. You needn’t tie them in satin ribbons, a simple cardboard box will do. They will help prevent the obscurity of forgotten souls, and will let us live on in the hearts of those we leave behind.

This article originally appeared in the November 2012 issue of Keystone Kuzzins, the quarterly bulletin of the Erie Society for Genealogical Research. The Oren Reed Family Papers Addition, and other collections like it, can be found at the Erie Historical Society’s Library & Archives, Erie, Pennsylvania.

[1] Viola Nye Nowell, handwritten letter to her sister Julia Nye, 1885; Oren Reed Family Papers Addition, box 2, ff 19.

[2] Otis Reed, handwritten letter to his daughter Sophia Reed, 1911; Oren Reed Family Papers Addition, box 7, ff 101.

[3] Ella Gochnauer McAllister, handwritten letter to Sophia Reed, 1912; Oren Reed Family Papers Addition, box 4, ff 57.

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