In the days when writing a letter was the only means to send a message over the many miles that separated the communities of early America, letter writing was an important form of communication. Today, many of those letters that survived provide detailed records of Americans’ home life, their beliefs and political viewpoints.
Join us Tuesday, July 11 from 3-4 p.m. when the Libraries presents “Living Letters: A Special Delivery from Ohio’s Frontiers and Front lines,” the second installment of the Authors @Alden Summer Series. Digital projects librarians, Karmen Beecroft and Stacey Lavender, will explore the culture of letter writing from home and at the front lines of war—in particular, the Civil War.
During the mid-1800s to early 1900s, many Americans struggled with the cost of the paper to write letters, or the cost of mailing a letter through the postal service.
“We will have examples of how people really went to extreme lengths to conserve paper,” said Beecroft, “like folding the letter into its own envelope, writing across and then vertically, or multiple people writing one letter, but at different times.”
Some of the letters, like the Brown Family Collection written during the Civil War, have very unique patriotic letterheads that called out for a hands-on activity.
“We [the Libraries] are in the process of digitizing about one thousand Civil War letters…which was the impetus for planning this event. The prevalence of interesting, war-related letterhead throughout the collections provided ample examples for a letter writing activity,” said Lavender. “Due to the age of the materials there are no privacy or copyright issues, so there is no impediment to digitizing or reproducing them.”
With the availability of over 1,000 transcripts of the Brown Family Collection and many of the other Civil War letters in the Mahn Center—and the soon-to-be released digital copies—those collections have a high level of interest among students, researchers and community members.
“I think this event will be of interest to people who are fairly new to reading letters from this time period, especially young people, who may not have experience reading or writing in cursive. Hopefully it will open up that world to them,” said Lavender. “It will also make it easier to work with the large body of letters from that time period that we will soon make available online. Thankfully, the digital collection will also include [their] transcripts; they are very helpful. On their own, many of these letters are not particularly easy to read.”
Deciphering hand-writing is always challenging, especially when ink fades and paper becomes discolored, all of which of course, adds to the difficulty of understanding what is going on, and whose hand you are actually reading.
“This activity will serve as a primer on how to begin interacting with documents of this type, because they are everywhere in archives and special collections. This is what you need to know in order to be a successful primary source researcher…” said Beecroft. “We also just wanted to make it fun.”
Join us for an afternoon of learning and doing as attendees look at real-life historic correspondence, write letters utilizing some of those letterheads with fountain pens and sealing wax—and engage in a pop-up exhibit.
The event, free and open to the public, will be held on the fourth floor of Alden Library. Light refreshments will be served.
All images courtesy of Ohio University Libraries