As the United States celebrates President’s Day, one might reflect on the physical treasures and glimpses into their lives that they have left us. From the viewpoint of a family historian, the founding families of the United States left behind absolute treasures. Journals, drawings, paintings, collections, gardens, estates, and records offer opportunities to come to understand the great men and women who took part in forming the nation. However, one type of record left behind is like no other, namely, the letter.
Letters of Benjamin Franklin, of John Adams to his wife Abigail, of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and scores more contribute much to our understanding of the American Revolution as well as the opinions, habits, and views of the writers.
There is much to be gleaned from the well thought out correspondence of one person to another. Journals and biographies capture a wealth of information, but letters capture not just facts and thoughts; they capture interactions with others. Family insights can be noted that otherwise would be difficult to decipher.
So how can you best use and preserve family letters in our own families?
Organizing and Finding Letters – To make the best use of family letters, first, start finding where letters are stored. Ask your living relatives if they know good spots to look and people to talk to who might have old family letters. If you ask only “Do you know if we have any family letters?” you’ll probably get a “no” because it’s the easiest way out. So ask where things like letters might be hiding and it will help everyone take a moment to think about it.
Many individuals stored letters bound with a rubber band in a drawer or shoe box somewhere. Look, with permission of course, in attics, closets, basements, under the stairs, and in family garages. If you don’t find anything, you’ll at least clean up those places as you go (let’s hope).
Once you’ve found a few letters, see if you can find the matching correspondence, and then organize the letters by correspondence. Think about it as storing the letters and return correspondence as conversations. It will mean much more when someone reads the letters if related and follow-up letters are stored next to each other.
Once letter “conversations” have been stored next to each other, group letters by date or by purpose/location. For example, you may want to group letters together that we written during the war and group separately those that were written to grandchildren later on in life.
Storing Letters – Once you have found the letters and have organized them, you will have most likely found that the letters are an incredible vehicle that will take you back into the lives and times of your ancestors and family members. Don’t keep all those insights just to yourself. Share them with the family.
One of the best ways to share your family letters is to scan them to your computer (making them digital so you can email them and easily make copies). If you don’t feel comfortable with this step, have a family member help. It seems like every family has at least one technical genius that runs around fixing everyone’s emails.
Scan the envelop and then scan the letter contents. Saving the letters as a PDF is a good way to go so that the pages of each letter stay together and don’t get jumbled up (as would be the case if they were scanned and saved as separate pictures). Name your files with the date, the name of the writer, and a short topic description of the letter. If there were replies back and forth, use the same topic description and simply add a “1”, “2”, “3”, etc. to the file name.
Writing Your Own Letters – Sadly, our modern society has lost much of the eloquence possessed by those of earlier generations. Our communication tends to be much more curt, abrupt, and without prior consideration. However, we are not without tools to aid us in creating a legacy of letters. The computer has made it much more easy to write, revise, store, and share letters. Email has helped us to maintain the tradition of written communication. Take and save important communications that you have engaged in.
If you haven’t written much or feel what you’ve written through emails doesn’t amount to much, here is a fun exercise: write a letter. Write a real letter. Set aside some time to write a letter to your spouse, mother, father, sibling, or child. Write down your thoughts and feelings. Write as if you were thousands of miles away, and ask them to respond to you through writing. Not only is it fun, but you now have a family history record that is more than an “instant message.” It has caused you to think, to reflect, and to express.
Perhaps we can regain and reclaim a portion of the eloquence and thoughtfulness of those who have gone on before and have so graciously left to us some of their most important thoughts and conversations.