By Nancy Pope, Historian & Curator
These days, letter writing is a lost art. But I’m asking you to consider picking up a pen and paper and taking a few minutes to write a letter to someone. Why? Well for one it’s a way to spend some calm and thoughtful time doing something different and productive. Also because April is National Letter Writing month. A letter is a gift. When you have taken the time to write a letter – not grabbing your phone to jot a quick text, but actually write a letter – you are demonstrating to a recipient that he or she is important to you. So dig out those pens and paper and get to writing!
Until comparatively recently, letters were commonplace. Now a text can pop up milliseconds after it is sent, rendering letters comparatively useless. I’d like to share some letters from a time when mail provided the only way for people to communicate with each other over distances. As the only connections to family and friends far away, these missives held special significance. Not only did they bring the latest news (even if it came days, weeks or even months later), but they were physical manifestations of the senders. The loved ones’ hands wrote the words, folded the letter and sealed it into an envelope. Each letter still brings with it that gift, a physical connection that can’t be replicated through phones or tablets.
The museum’s “Customers & Communities” gallery uses audio segments from five immigrant letters to give visitors a chance to hear individuals’ thoughts about life in the new world.
Norwegian immigrant Henrietta Jessen moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the mid-19th century, leaving her parents and sisters, Norea and Dorea, behind. We use a copy of Henrietta’s letter in the museum to showcase the critical role of letters in connecting separated families. In a letter to her sisters dated February 20, 1850, she wrote: “Fate has indeed separated me from my native land and all that was dear to me there, but it is not denied me to pour forth my feelings upon this paper. My dear sisters, it was a bitter cup for me to drink, to leave a dear mother and sisters and to part forever in this life, though living.”
In two sentences, Henrietta capsulated how letter writing served people for generations. It was the vessel for all they wanted to share, and at the same time the only connection between separated families, possibly to the end of their days.
A copy of Henrietta Jessen’s letter is one of a handful used in a display in “Binding the Nation” to show how critical letters were to individuals who moved into the prairies and further west.
Another copy of a letter on display is from Mary Searls (wife of Niles Searls, who served as Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court). In 1854 she wrote her mother: “My Beloved Mother, What can I say—where can I begin—to tell you of all that has taken place within our little house the last two weeks. I wish I had written by the last steamer, as I might just as well have done for I was quite well, and busy sewing, but I could not bear to write again till I could tell you all. . . on the sofa beside me lies the sweetest, tiniest little boy that ever you saw, and every little while I go and uncover his little face and try to realize that it is indeed my little one,--mine and Niles's.” Mary Searls mentions sending her letters by steamer, a trip that would have taken a month just to reach an East Coast port. Add on the two weeks Mary mentions waiting to write and the time it would have taken for the letter to travel to its destination and you realize Mary’s mother did not know she had a grandson until almost two months after he was born! Quite a difference from today’s grandparents who post baby pics on Facebook within hours of a birth.
Another wall in “Binding the Nation” features copies of letters as part of a visitor interactive.
Letters let us pour our emotions out onto a page to share with others. Unlike texting or phone calls, letters demand our attention before writing – a pause to get a word, phrase, or sentence just right because we can’t just push the delete button if we get it wrong.