Before there were iPhones, emails, wall phones, desk phones, telephone operators or the invention of the telegraph, one wanting to correspond was forced to find a slice of paper and a writing utensil. They also needed to have the ability to print or write cursive, a skill that is going the way of a quill and ink.
As historians, we depend on the printed word to fill in the blanks of our progenitors and the manner in which they lived. As your scribes have mentioned often, we depend heavily on the newspapers, written oral histories and books to cobble together these extracts.
Of course, there are many gaps in the historical record. Paper records, be they letters, ledgers, or scrolls, are subject to loss through fire, flood, or intentional trashing.
It is also true that, through most of history, only the nobility and the clergy were capable of writing. We know very little about the lives and dreams of the lower classes, beyond the old dictum, “Nasty, brutish, and short.”
But those who were capable of writing often did not bother unless they wanted to communicate over distance. Our forebears had what we would consider remarkable memories, regardless of class, and had many tricks to keeping important facts close to hand, from simple rhymes to something called Memory Theater.
But all those facts that they had died with them, except for the few that were passed onto the next generation. For much of history, we have to rely on legends and tales, retold over and over, with much the same results as when playing telephone line.
Gaps in history have always existed, but there are those historians that fear in the future we shall refer not so much to AD and BC, rather as BT – when letter writing was the norm – and AT – after technology.
We still communicate, actually more often than we used to, via email and texts. Photos are certainly much more common. It is the longevity of these mediums that are an issue. When was the last time you printed your photos and put them in an album, or even moved them to a web-based album? So, while we tell each other everything to the point of TMI, that data is often short-lived or disorganized and will not be easily preserved for future generations.
Our archives contain many forms of written communication, as you might imagine. Most families have a letter or three that have been treasured and passed through the generations. Those that didn’t end up in the dump often made their way to us. We have holiday and birthday cards, diaries, and letters by the pile. Some are easily read and understood, while others have faded. The cursive styles and writing mediums of decades past make reading some quite a challenge. Should you decide to break with current norms and take up pen and paper, we strongly suggest you avoid pencil! A future generation’s eyes will thank you mightily.
Letter writing had many different permutations over the centuries. Prior to the creation of envelopes, writing paper was folded and sealing wax was used to fasten it. Different colors of wax signified different life events, we are told – nobody wanted a letter with a black seal. The advent of envelopes did not cause the demise of sealing wax. A wax-sealed envelope proved that your contents arrived unopened. At one time, the cost of postage was determined by the number of sheets of writing paper and the recipient paid the postage.
Postal service was also different. Two deliveries a day – more in the cities – and you could get a letter to Patchogue from Good Ground on the same day – thanks, of course, to the train. Often, postal clerks would have a whole train car to themselves, where they took on mail bags from each stop and sorted the envelopes enroute.
Addresses were short, no zips and a state didn’t necessarily need be mentioned.
Other letters in our history were not so prompt in arriving. Letters to our brave soldiers often took weeks to arrive, between having to travel via ship then be taken to the front lines, happily received though they were. How do we know this? Firstly, while doing oral histories with our veterans, letters from home and their heart-warming effects were often mentioned.
Secondly, we have more than a few in our archives, which we would like to share with you.
On Thursday, September 15th, at 7 pm, we shall be hosting a presentation based on a selection of these written histories. Letters from the Front shall present the stories of soldiers, in their own words, as they wrote home during their time of military service, as well as a few from home to their loved ones. Should you have any such treasured letters, bring them along. We would love to hear them.
So, put it in your calendar. Or grab that piece of paper and writing utensil of preference and write yourself a good old fashioned note, so you don’t forget!