During the winter of 1777-1778, George Washington’s army was encamped at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, twenty miles outside of Philadelphia. Although we are taught in school about the sufferings and hardships endured during the bitter winter, we often forget how difficult it was to procure supplies during a time of war.
George Washington appointed Nathanael Greene as Quartermaster General at Valley Forge, charging him with obtaining supplies for the army. Greene wrote to merchant Joseph Webb, requesting portmanteaus (large, hinged suitcases), valises, and canvas for tents, knapsacks, and mattresses.
This folded letter was sent on April 2, 1778, and franked “On publick Service,” a typical marking for military mail sent for free through the Constitutional Post. The franking privilege is a practice dating to the 17th century that allows certain public offices to send official government correspondence for free. During wartime, soldiers can have their personal mail sent for free, as long as it is franked by an officer in charge.
The letter most likely traveled on a westerly route, starting in Valley Forge, heading north to Easton, Pennsylvania, on the Delaware River, and continuing northeast to Fishkill, New York, and finally through Hartford, Connecticut, only three miles north of Wethersfield, Connecticut, its final destination.
This letter is featured in the Out of the Mails exhibit, which ended January 31, 2008, at the National Postal Museum
A Note on Conservation:
Did you ever wonder why letters survive from two hundred years ago but modern photocopies look faded after only a few years? The answer is their relative rag content and the level of acidity. Colonial paper was often made out of cotton rags. Today, paper is usually made out of wood pulp, the processing of which results in highly acidic paper. The acidity causes the paper to turn yellow or brown and become brittle. The cellulose fibers breakdown, and the paper quickly deteriorates.
Despite the quality of the colonial paper, the Valley Forge letter still needed conservation treatment before it could go on exhibit. Conservation is the active approach to stabilizing artifacts using reversible techniques. The conservator flattened the creases as needed for stabilization of the artifact and for mending purposes. She then mended the tears and holes, filling any loss areas with Japanese tissue paper applied with starch paste. Any extraneous pencil notations made by previous collectors that were not original to the document were noted in the conservation report and then erased.