Behind the Scenes: Helping Letters Tell a Story

Pile of disorganized correspondence on table, mostly in envelopes

Piles of family correspondence. Maurice Rosenblatt Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

This is the latest in an occasional series that looks behind the scenes at the work of Manuscript Division staff.

As an archivist, one thing that makes me particularly happy when I am processing a newly acquired collection of personal papers is the sight of bunches of handwritten letters in envelopes. These letters may not have been read since their envelopes were originally opened. I don’t know what they say or the stories they tell until I take them out of the envelopes and unfold them. The fun of finding out lies ahead.

Many archivists, including me, say that one of the things they like about their work is reading other people’s mail. But this can reinforce a common misperception that we read every item in a collection. Since a large portion of the collections in the Manuscript Division comprise thousands of items, it would take forever to finish our work if we did that. Although we cannot read everything, we do become skilled at scanning for useful information. And sometimes we can discover clues that enable us to supply missing information and organize letters in a way that makes them more useful to researchers.

Before doing any physical work on a collection of personal papers, archivists first examine the material and note what is there. They look for groupings of similar or related material and pay attention to how things are arranged. If they find a grouping of correspondence and can see that it follows a particular order, the archivists will most likely retain that arrangement. Any existing order helps document how the material was kept and used by the owner.

But if there is no order at all, the archivist needs to organize that correspondence in a way that will enable researchers to find what they are looking for as easily as possible. We weigh a number of factors in order to decide on an organizational scheme. We consider the amount of correspondence and the content of the material and think about how the letters might be used by researchers in the future.

Are there many letters from the same person? Are there letters from prominent people? Sorting and arranging letters alphabetically by name is helpful if researchers are likely to be interested in particular correspondents. That way historians, biographers, and genealogists can easily locate letters written by persons of interest to them without searching through everything.

One challenge, however, is that a friend or family member might have signed just their first name, or they used a nickname. The recipient of the letter knew the identity of Bink, or Freckles, or Sweetsie, or a lipstick kiss, but we may not.  It can take some time and effort to discover proper names. Sometimes a return address on an envelope or a mention in another letter might provide an answer. Monogramed stationary might provide an initial, if not a full last name.  Reading about a prominent person’s life may provide the names of family and friends who may have written them in an informal manner. Sometimes we just can’t figure out a person’s last name. In that case the letter will be filed at the end of the grouping of correspondence in a folder labeled “Unidentified.”

Handwritten letter on browning paper signed "Freckles"

Detail of letter from Freckles (Thomas Richard Barrabee) to F. Holland Day, May 26, 1919. Box 5, F. Holland Day Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Another option is to put all the letters in chronological order, avoiding the need to know the surnames of correspondents. A chronological arrangement may also be a good option if many of the letters were written during a time period of known historical interest, aiding researchers who are less focused on who wrote the letters and more interested in when and what was written.

Of course there are also challenges with arranging letters chronologically. Not everybody dates their letters. Also, people who wrote frequently to one another might just have dated their letters Tuesday or Tuesday the 3rd. In that case, archivists look for clues that can help with this problem. One of the most helpful tools in this search are postmarks on envelopes that provide dates and places the letters were mailed. A perpetual calendar table or calendar app are useful tools for determining the day of the week for a date in the past, helping to narrow down the years in which March 10 fell on a Sunday. Sometimes the content of a letter – a mention of a current event, a holiday, the latest movie they saw, or someone’s age – can help us hone in on a date or estimate the year in which it was written.

Pile of undated handwritten letters on monogrammed stationery

Undated letters written on the same stationery were probably written in the same time period. Box 27, Robert H. McNeill Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Physical characteristics can provide additional clues. If someone used the same writing paper or unique writing implement for a period of time, it is a good indication that undated letters on the same paper or with the same writing implement were written during the same time period.

Changes in handwriting can also help when trying to put undated letters in order. I have been able to figure out a general timeframe for letters by noticing that a person’s handwriting grew shaky in their later years.

The processing of correspondence in the papers of photographer John Vachon provides a good example of how observation and deduction enable archivists to organize letters in their proper order and make the stories they tell more accessible to readers. Among Vachon’s papers, archivist Connie Cartledge discovered two groups of letters he wrote while he was away on photography assignments. One group consisted of letters to Millicent “Penny” Vachon, his wife, and the other of letters he wrote to Ann O’Hara Vachon, his mother. He wrote on stationery from the hotels where he was staying, but he didn’t date his letters. The letters he wrote to his wife were still in envelopes with postmarks that supplied a date when the letter was mailed, but his mother did not save her envelopes. Connie realized that if Vachon wrote both his wife and his mother from the same location, she could match up the letters written on the same hotel stationery and use the dated envelopes to his wife to determine the dates of letters to his mother. By doing so, all the letters ended up in the proper order, thereby giving researchers much easier access to the story of John Vachon’s travels.

Since letter writing has been replaced by email, texts, and social media as a form of inter-personal communication, handwritten letters in envelopes, once commonplace, will likely become something a processing archivist will encounter less and less in the coming years. I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to handle letters that both the writer and the recipient held in years gone by and have experienced the fun of discovering what they wrote and read. The process of getting piles of old letters out of their envelopes and organized in a manner that best tells their story to readers in the future can be challenging, but solving the puzzles encountered along the way can be very satisfying.

Matching hotel stationery helped the archivist determine a date for the letter on the left. Box 2 and Box 5, John Vachon Papers. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress


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