When was the last time you wrote a letter? A proper, personal (dare I even say, handwritten) letter — on paper?
I suspect the last time I did was in 2006; to my grandmother not long before she died.
I don’t even send all that many greeting cards anymore. Like letters they have been replaced with phone calls, Skype, emails and FaceBook messages.
For family historians, letters are invaluable. They are the “Sunday best” of information sources; the snapshots and snippets of past lives that reveal character as well as information. If public records provide a skeleton of our ancestors and clothe them in the uniform of their time, personal letters (and diaries) show us something of the colour and texture of a life. They are the ribbons and shawls that hint at personality and individuality.
Since literacy became widespread, letters have been a lifeline between family members and friends separated by distance. And with migration a feature of most nations’ histories, the number of people writing and receiving letters must have been huge. Within my family alone, I’ve found ancestors and relatives who left Scotland for every outpost of the British Empire, including my parents, who emigrated to New Zealand.
As a child I remember getting letters from my grandparents and aunts back in Scotland, and having to be chivied by my mother to reply. Well into my 20s I was still writing to my great uncle Tom, my paternal grandfather’s younger brother. I wonder now what he made of my letters — domestic details and tales of student life from someone he hadn’t seen since I was five. His letters to me always smelled of cigarettes; something I would normally hate, but actually made me feel close to him.
In the last few years, my mother has given me a collection of family documents she has saved. Mainly photos, there are also a few letters, including two that survived an air crash (which I’ve written about in On Touching History), and the letter my grandmother wrote to tell Mum that my grandfather was dying. The telegram is postmarked two days later, and simply says:
DAD PASSED AWAY QUIETLY MONDAY 23RD 910PM MUM
Over forty years later, I can’t hold these flimsy pieces of paper in my hands without crying.
In June 1917, The Big T’s great uncle Eric wrote a letter to his sister from an English hospital. He had been wounded on the first day of the Battle of Messines — the beginning of the terrible Passchendaele Offensive, and his letter describes the circumstances of his injury. The letter’s tone is light — partly to get past the censor, but probably also to protect his beloved sister from the terrible realities of the war. Only once does the “mask” slip. He wrote:
... the only thing I am worrying about is that it will get better too soon. (1)
Eric Gray died on March 27, 1918 near Auchonvillers in the Somme Valley (written about in Death of a Soldier).
Aside from a few letters from the Big T and some greetings cards that I think are particularly funny, I’ve kept no physical, written correspondence with family and friends. And aside from the greeting cards, I don’t think I’ve received physical, written communications through the post in years.
The growth in cheap telecommunications has diminished the volume of written communication, and that which is not spoken is increasingly electronically composed and transmitted. As life is increasingly experienced — and expressed — electronically, those traces of us that once survived long sea voyages, aircraft crashes and years tucked away in shoe-boxes at the back of the wardrobe, are disappearing.
So what will family historians of the future make of us? How will the depth of love of a woman for her husband be known without the letter to a distant child telling of grave illness? What will a sister hold on to when her soldier brother does not come home? And beyond the content of letters, the richness of personality revealed in handwriting, grammar, spelling, even the paper used; these will not be available to historians in the future.
We’re told our digital footprint is permanent, and perhaps that is true. But does that mean we will be known by our Instagram-d dinner snaps and FaceBook selfies rather than the carefully thought-out and laboriously written words our ancestors shared. Scary thought!
(1) The full letter can be found in We got dug in about five feed deep by dinnertime and then fritz started to shell ...