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I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Illustrate My Letter

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.


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