What is the value of a letter?

By Carol / June 10, 2013 /

When I was a kid growing up on the farm in the 1950s, I waited everyday for the mailman to stop at our mailbox. It wasn’t as though anyone was going to write to me, but any letter we received was exciting. Before email, Skype, texts, when telephones were used mainly for emergencies, letters were the common form of communication. Letters recorded the everyday; letters recorded the extraordinary. 

For writers, letters are a treasure trove. Where would David McCullough be without the letters John and Abigail Adams wrote to each other? All of the letters telling of their love for each other, their concerns about their children and the farm, their interest in affairs of state. 

Canada Ltr1

Letter from Wm. J. Johnston to Carl Jensen, Esq. Jan. 13, 1910

My maternal grandmother and grandfather were the inspiration for my upcoming novel set in pre-WWI Iowa. Because my grandfather died in 1918 and my grandmother never talked about him, the story I’ve created is fiction. In creating their world 100 years ago, I drew from many sources, among them a handful of letters my grandfather saved.

Canada Ltr2

$300 for three horses – 1910

Before he married my grandmother, Carl Jensen homesteaded in Canada. That didn’t work out for reasons we don’t know and he returned to Iowa. The letter I’ve included here is from one of his neighbors. As short as this letter is, it provided a wealth of information to inspire my writing.

Canada Ltr3

He would “Make a dicker” on farm equipment.

Among other things, I learned how people addressed each other, how they abbreviated names, the price of horses, what kinds of equipment they used.

Canada Ltr4

“… I will come in and get you and you can come out and batch for a while again.”

I learned that terms could be agreed to in a letter and both parties could be comfortable with that. I learned that the mailman didn’t come to every Canadian farm – Mr. Johnson was sending his letter into town to be posted by a neighbor who was going to make the trip to town.

On a personal level, the fact that my grandfather saved these letters said something powerful to me about the loneliness of farming on the Canadian prairie. Only a handful of letters from that era survive, but I treasure each of them.

I regret that we don’t write letters so often anymore. I wonder what writers of the future will use for their research? From time to time, I print out significant emails, but the fact that I print those and discard the others that deal with the mundane also says something.

What about you? Are you still writing letters? Do you save any that you receive? Writers – Have you used letters as research for your writing?

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  1. Linda Austin on June 10, 2013 at 1:00 pm

    Fabulous, Carol! I only write and receive emails these days, but there is a lot of history, and personal history, online now available to anyone via search. I learn a lot that way, and from memoirs like yours. Someday in the future someone may find your blogpost and read these letters!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on June 10, 2013 at 1:20 pm

      It’s true the Internet offers much personal info, Linda. The mundane is now regularly shared on Facebook! I wonder how long that will last for us to search? But to the point of someone finding this letter on my blogpost, perhaps I should post the other letters – for me and for others.

  2. Richard Abbott on June 11, 2013 at 1:43 am

    Hi Carol, I write about the second millennium BC near east, and we are very fortunate that a fair number of letters have survived from that era. Perhaps the most famous is a collection written from city-state rulers in Canaan to the Egyptian Pharaoh, called the Amarna correspondence nowadays (I used this as the basis for background in a short story). This is obviously at an ‘official’ level. But here and there some much less formal scraps have survived, especially in the dry climate of Egypt, and these do give fascinating insights into everyday life – domestic disputes, barter negotiations, families trying to keep in contact, etc. Even though literacy rates were very low by modern standards, these letters give invaluable insights into some parts of society.
    How fascinating that you have access to these letters from about a century ago!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on June 11, 2013 at 8:40 am

      It just amazes me, Richard, that correspondence from the second millennium BC could still exist. I’ll bet you can infer all kinds of political maneuverings from those writings! It shows how valued the written word was (and how favorable the climate, as you point out), that even bits of everyday correspondence survive. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Kathleen Pooler on June 11, 2013 at 7:54 am

    Carol, I couldn’t agree with you more! The letters written by my paternal grandfather to his daughter, my aunt, over a six month period in 1945 are a vivid glimpse into another time. How else can we recapture the day-to- day lives of people from the past? Letter writing has become a lost art and it saddens me to think of all that we miss by the cyberspace communication of today. .

    • Carol Bodensteiner on June 11, 2013 at 8:49 am

      Kathy, Coincidentally, our paper published an article this morning about a letter written by a GI during WWII to his girlfriend that was finally delivered to the man’s grandson who worked in a building in the same block where his grandfather worked. The grandson now has a written memory of his grandparents’ love for each other, how they spent their days, the nicknames they had for each other. How lucky you are to have letters from that same era. In the cyber era, so much more trivia is exchanged, but what will survive?

  4. Veronica Arnold on June 11, 2013 at 8:42 am

    When my mother was still living, I wrote to her every week, usually four to six pages. My husband couldn’t imagine what all I told her. He asked, “Do you tell her every time you take a breath??” Of course, he wasn’t interested enough to actually READ my letters before I sent them! I wrote them on the computer, printed them out, and mailed them to her, and I have all of them saved on computer files.

    When my three granddaughters came along I wrote to my mother every time they did something cute. Recently I began mining those letters for anecdotes to add to histories I am writing about my granddaughters.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on June 11, 2013 at 8:55 am

      I’m sure your mother waited eagerly for your weekly letters, Veronica. Rather like a serialized story that they used to run in the newspapers. I don’t know if your mother had low vision, but I’m sure typing the letters made it easier for her to read them – and had the added benefit of an electronic file for you. What a great idea to use the letters as a resource for histories for your granddaughters. I’m going to tuck that idea away for future reference.

  5. Sherrey Meyer on June 11, 2013 at 1:07 pm

    Carol, you’ve spoken to my heart today. I love letters — writing them and receiving them — and the advent of technology has changed that. I do have two sisters-in-law with whom I exchange notes via mail because they don’t use computers. I’m still a big fan of sending the occasional thinking of you card to special people, but otherwise I’m pretty much at the computer.

    However, when you ask about old letters, we are fortunate to have many letters written between my husband’s father and his father when Bob’s dad was in the Navy in WWI. Also a few items between Bob’s mom and dad during that same time period before they married. My cherished letter is one that Bob’s mom wrote to me on the occasion of our engagement welcoming me into the family. She did for me, at that time, what my own mother had yet to do.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on June 11, 2013 at 2:23 pm

      Like you, Sherrey, I’m at the computer more than I’m sitting pen in hand. I’m sure many who receive my handwritten notes WISH I’d typed them. I got C’s in penmanship on my elementary school report cards and things have only gotten worse. No matter how I try. In her last years, my mother had macular degeneration. As I was writing about my childhood, I encouraged her to write, too. And she did. I cherish each squiggly handwritten document. The legibility of those hand-written letters also tells a story.

      It’s wonderful that your mother-in-law took the time to write such a welcoming note to you. It feels more personal, more heart-felt when it comes in a handwritten form.

  6. Janet Givens on June 11, 2013 at 1:50 pm

    Carol, What a lovely post. It brought back both a fond memory of my grandmother and the chance to brag on how I”ve transported myself into the 21st century with my own granddaughter.

    A few years ago, my mother passed on to me a suitcase filled with memorabilia from my grandmother. In it were the letters I had written her over the years, from about age seven or eight through to college. I never knew she saved them.

    Today, along with the toddler drawings from all my grandchildren I have tucked away in a bureau drawer, I’ve also created an email Folder for each of them and every email that I now get from them goes into its Folder. In that way, I hope to pass down the gift that my grandmother gave me.

    And, yes. I do plan to use them in my writing some day.

    Thanks so much. I do love the way you weave words together.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on June 11, 2013 at 2:28 pm

      A gift from your grandmother that’s become a gift to your grandchildren. I love it, Janet! I’m also going to borrow your idea. My granddaughters are only 2 & 4 so they’re not emailing yet, but I’m sure they will. As they grow up, I’m sure they’ll laugh and be embarrassed and enjoy their own letters to you while they cherish the e-correspondence they’ve had with you. Just as we cherish the handwritten letters of times past.
      P.S. Thanks for the compliment. And thanks for joining the discussion.

  7. Belinda Nicoll on June 13, 2013 at 4:10 pm

    Interesting post, Carol. I’m treasuring a letter that my friend scribbled days before she died from complications due to a liver transplant (I was in S.A., she in the U.K.). Besides my memories of the good and not-so-good days of her life, it’s really the shaky handwriting that connects me to her, that gives me some insight into her last living days. Emails don’t quite work that way.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on June 13, 2013 at 5:08 pm

      There is so much more to “read” in a handwritten letter than the words, isn’t there Belinda? In her last years, my mother had macular degeneration. Even though her vision was limited, I encouraged her to write her memories as I was writing my memoir. Mom’s normally beautiful penmanship had become very scraggly, but the memories she put down and the fact that she made this effort speak volumes to me. We don’t have those clues to decipher in emails. I’m glad your friend made the effort to write and connect with you.

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