How Do Old Family Letters Survive?

The flip answer is of course “very carefully.” But there is truth in that answer. If you think about it for a minute, for a family letter to even be written there had to be at least two people who were separated by enough distance to require written communication and who in fact wanted to communicate with each other. Today we routinely text or phone friends that we may actually be with shortly. Not so in the past.

This fact has led to some frustration in my research on Montgomery Ward.  He was never separated from his wife or daughter and not much given to writing personal letters in the first place.  So far I have only encountered one sent to a niece during a trip he and his wife took to Europe. It is a delightful, chatty letter revealing a great interest in seeing the sights and affection for this niece. I hope there are more such letters in the bowels of the Chicago History Museum.

Secondly, the people who are the recipients of the letters have to want to preserve them. My great-uncle John and his wife-to-be Lulu kept their letters to each other, but discussed in these self-same letters burning other letters to former love interests. These have obviously been lost to history.

Thirdly, once the original recipients have died, their survivors have to want to preserve them. Here as the letters pass down the generations are points where many are thrown out. Poor storage with possible insect, water and fire damage also take their toll.

So chances are that whatever survives is somewhat piecemeal. Of the hundreds of family letters which I have inherited I only have the (almost) complete correspondence between my grandfather Louis and grandmother Pearl in their courting days. So in this instance I can trace how they responded to each other’s feelings and concerns.

In other instances I unfortunately cannot. In writing Coming to Amerika,on which I am working now, I have letters of my great-great uncle Friedrich in Terryville, Connecticut to his relatives on the Plains of Kansas, but I do not have their responses. No one in Terryville saved the letters. The relatives in Kansas saved his even though they were written in Old German which they could not read. My grandfather Louis and my father saved them out of emotional attachment in the case of the former and an interest in genealogy in the latter. They have now been translated and once the book is finished, the letters and other documents will be donated to academic institutions to make sure they are preserved for the future.