Sean McHugh: Letters chronicle everyday life


I read an article in Smithsonian recently about a chest of 17th century letters that have just been uncovered in the Netherlands. The trove contains nearly 3,000 letters that historians hope will shed some light on what domestic life was like in that age.

I have a similar trove of my own. About 5 years ago, I did a project for my grandfather: I went through the boxes of letters from his mother and grandmother and extended family members and scanned and transcribed them. The assembled archive stretches from the 1860s to the 1910s, with a few gaps, and chronicles nearly the full life of my great-great-grandmother, Alice Edwards, as collected by her daughter, Mildred.

It's easy to think of mail as being the slowest of our forms of communication, but one has to recall that it is no longer a method upon which we expend a great deal of effort. In a period when it was the only reliable means of interpersonal communication it was relatively fast and efficient. Letters reference multiple mail deliveries in a day, and appointments and invitations for the very next day were made through the mail without a second's thought. And while not all these appointments worked out, they continued to make them with all the confidence of someone whose letter won't get routed through Hartford even if it's going to a PO Box in the same Post Office. In fact, on a letter written on Feb. 25, 1915, Mildred commented to her fiancée that this was her 53rd letter of the year.

Taken together, the letters form a small window on life in the Belle Époque, with all sorts of surprising facts visible through the minutia of day-to-day life.

There are the little quirks that come out, like how Mamie was a surprisingly popular name in the late 1800s (such that there are six or seven different people named Mamie referenced in letters), or Mildred's slate of 1910s idioms like "Isn't it the limit?" and "I'm up against it!"

There are the surprising modernisms, both linguistic and technological, that jar one out of preconceived notions about the old-timey days. Plus signs were commonly used as shorthand for "and" as far back as the 1860s. My great-great-grandfather installed battery powered streets cars in the Midwest, only to see them replaced by the cheaper, but in his opinion less functional, cable cars. In 1911, Mildred became the first person in my family to visit the Berkshires, driving over from Mount Holyoke in a rental car to watch the Williams-Amherst football game.

With family letters I can even chart genetic predispositions across generations. A sweet tooth is something that seems to skip a generation in my family, with my great-great-grandfather writing home to New York to ask his mother to send a very specific list of candies, including "one pound mixed chocolates, one pound bonbons, one pound candied fruit, and one pound of caramels and other kinds."

For every new fact and every connection that can be made, however, another mystery remains in the lives of these ancestors. What did Alice do that got her sent to boarding school at a young age? How did Mildred's first engagement end?

There are the tragedies, as well. A young friend's death from consumption. An aunt who barely escaped a fire at a home for the deaf, but lost nearly all she had. The collapse of Alice's relationship with her husband from their light-hearted courtship, through the hints of darkness at home, culminating in a bitter divorce with an ending out of an Arthur Miller play, a century ago this year.

But really, what comes through is the timeless humanity of the correspondents. A girl surreptitiously writing a letter during class. Another desperate for her school friends not to forget her, though all evidence suggests they did. A would-be soldier more concerned about getting his mail than the prospect of war with the Confederacy. A college student asking her parents for money. A family friend apologizing for not visiting and promising to stop by soon, year after year.

Some day, when all our modern history is just a dim memory, historians will stumble upon a cache of backed up tweets or status updates in a disused corner of the web. They'll laugh at our old-timey swears, marvel at how advanced our emojis were for the time, and speculate as to what they might learn if any messages longer than 140 characters had survived.


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