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I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Illustrate My Letter

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The following is a guest blog post by Justina Moloney, an archivist at the Veterans History Project (VHP).

I’ve always wished I had a more skillful ability to draw. Of course, I can doodle like nobody’s business, but to truly master even the basics of perspective and form, that I’m lacking. I’ve doodled while taking notes for a class –and even the occasional meeting—and doodled on post-its or actual drawing paper. But I’ve never thought of an envelope as a potential canvas. To my surprise, I learned that the Veterans History Project (VHP) contains a vast collection of illustrated envelope collections, particularly from World War II.

Like many other staff members at the Library of Congress, I have been working a hybrid schedule this last year, with some days onsite, but many spent working from home trying to devise interesting ways to feature the fantastic material of VHP. One such application used by the Library is Story Maps, and I felt with this hybrid work schedule it was an opportune time to highlight visually stunning, digitized collections at VHP using this immersive web tool.

The result? The Art of Correspondence, a Story Map exploring three of VHP’s illustrated envelope collections.

Airmail envelope illustrated with a pen and watercolor sketch of a soldier exclaiming in excitement, "Hurrah it's the mailman!"
Screenshot of an excerpt from “The Art of Correspondence,” Story Map created by Justina Moloney, Veterans History Project, 2022. Photographs are from the Robert K. Bindig Collection, AFC2001/001/ 32475.

Mail has been a bit of a theme in my life over the last two years. I receive far more personal mail from friends and family than I can attest to pre-March 2020. Correspondence between veterans and loved ones is always of interest and importance at VHP, and we have plenty of moving correspondence collections amongst our holdings. But what would it be like for the envelope to be just as important an artifact as the letter inside? That can be found in the correspondence collections of Robert K. Bindig, Normand H. Carleton, and Samuel L. Boylston. Each of the veterans served during World War II, and their individual artistry illustrates the prevalence of the comic book art style during this time period.

Robert K. Bindig was already a professional ad agency artist before he began his service during World War II. His letters home feature humorous scenes of Bindig eagerly awaiting his mail, his wife visiting him in his dreams, and the struggles of “red tape” throughout military life. Bindig described his illustrated envelopes home as a “day-to-day diary in pictures.”

The envelopes of Normand H. Carleton feature less color than Bindig or Boylston, but there is no lack of heart in his ink drawings. Writing to his wife soon after they were married and he was immediately drafted, Carleton’s illustrated envelopes display his longing to be reunited with his wife, as well as to help her maintain her spirits during the indefinite time they were separated.

An airmail envelope with a pen and watercolor sketch of a veteran standing in front of an outhouse.
Screenshot of an excerpt from “The Art of Correspondence,” Story Map created by Justina Moloney, Veterans History Project, 2022. Photographs are from the Samuel L. Boylston Collection, AFC2001/001/01848.

Once your friends find out you can draw, there’s no turning back! Or at least that’s what happened to Samuel L. Boylston. Unlike Carleton and Bindig, the letters mailed inside the illustrated envelopes found in Boylston’s collection were not written by him, but rather by his friend, Gerald Duquette, to Duquette’s wife. In his own correspondence to his family in South Carolina, Boylston shared that “both officers and enlisted men keep me drawing cartoon envelopes. Their friends always write back and remark about them.”

Highlighting these fantastic, visual envelopes in the Story Map format allows each of these individual pieces of art to really shine. It is evident how each veteran was hoping that their illustrations would provide insight, humor, and especially a feeling of closeness to their family and friends back home. Perhaps like me, you’ll be inspired to illustrate your envelopes now, making both the envelope and the letter something to treasure forever.


Comments (4)

  1. I’ve been a philatelist for over 40 years now,,,and one area of interest is WWII mail,,, I purchased a cover collection, many years ago, of mail from a U.S. Army soldier. He was a cartoonist , so drew on “V -Mail “covers and actual covers. He sent these to his wife, and was island hopping according to his notes. Would you like to see some of these ?

    • Thank you so much for reading and commenting! Your cover collection sounds fascinating, and we’d love to hear more about it, if you’d like to get in touch by emailing us at [email protected].

  2. Wonderful blog post. Thanks very much for doing this. I especially like the different format.

  3. Hello from Canada. Wow, just found this. A few months back I was at a local literary event at a public library. An author of a book called The MailArtStories Project, Mail Art in the Time of COVID 19. You can view the book on Amazon. It has exactly what you showed but mailart sent recently. Two authors one from Canada and one from US teamed up in COVID and got people to send them mailart on envelopes, post cards etc from all over the world and then published this book. They made the request for mailart on social medica and got letters from everywhere. All the mail art is to be on display this month in a city close by. I loved the concept. I have already sent 2 mailart letters, with drawings on the outside. I got my granddaughter to make a clay person in bed and took a picture of it and used it! So it does not have to be just a WWII example. These two authors mailmen said they had the most interesting mail he had ever seen. I am thinking of doing the same when I write to a politician asking for change to make sure they even open the envelope. It is so much fun. Marie

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