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Letters Re-Create Moments In History

by Daisy Ridgway

Volume 3, Issue 1
January–March 1994

Narcissa Whitman, a missionary who was among the first to cross the Rocky Mountains in 1839, wrote a letter to her father about her daughter, Alice, who accidentally drowned at a mission in what is now Washington state: 

"I will describe to you, if I could, her bright lively appearance on Sabbath morning, the day of her death, and that night she proposed of her own accord to sleep on the mat on the floor. . . . I made a bed for her by the side of mine. When I used to take her into the bed with me, she would like a little while then wish to go back again. Thus she gradually went out of my arms to the grave, so that I should not feel it so severely as if torn from them at once." 

Whitman's letter is one of the more than 75 letters that play an integral part in the exhibitions at the National Postal Museum. Written largely by people not well-known, the letters are woven throughout the museum's exhibit galleries to re-create moments and places in history, such as the American Revolution, 19th-century California, the home of a Jewish family in Pittsburgh in 1891 and a battle-ground along the Chongehon River of North Korea in 1950. 

Since the mission of the Postal Museum is to tell the story of the nation's mail service, the museum reflects a larger story about the art of letters and the written exchange of words. 

"Letters bring exhibits to life by letting people talk about times in their own words," says Nancy Pope, curator and scriptwriter for the museum. "We can say everything we want to about western expansion, but to hear Narcissa Whitman talk about the way her young daughter died can give us an idea of what life was like in the West in the mid-1800's in a way that nothing else can." 

In order to furnish the exhibit with letters, Pope and Wendy Aibel-weiss, the museum's education director, embarked on a 2 1/2-year letter research project and reviewed nearly 5,000 letters found everywhere from the Library of Congress to the attics of private homes. What they observed in their research, however, was that no central source of information existed for finding letters outside of the larger archives. 

The researchers were confronted, instead, with a plethora of obstacles and were constantly engaged in elaborate searches. They realized that the letters they wanted—letters written by common men and women in history—existed in a vast universe of different places around the country. From their experience, Aibel-weiss and Pope realized that these "unstudied letters" are an underdeveloped resource of historically rich information. 

As a result, the museum is working to fund an effort to establish what will be the first national reference guide for letter collections, or the Letter Resource Project (LRP), as it is officially called. While the LRP will not contain actual letters, it will serve as an index for scholars and educators hunting for letters on a specific subject or from a specific time period. 

"When I started to think about establishing a letter resource guide, I realized how logical it was that the National Postal Museum should be the place to do that because that is what we're all about—letters and letter writing," Pope says. "What we're trying to do is find out what's out there. Anybody can go to the Library of Congress—to its Manuscripts Division—or to the National Archives. Those are known commodities. What we don't know is what's sitting over in the Umatilla County, Oregon, Historical Society or small departments hidden away in various universities." 

Aibel-weiss views the creation of a letter guide as a boon to schools and an opportunity to bring the use of letters into the mainstream of education. She proposes working with curriculum specialists to determine what types of letters apply to key subjects taught in schools. By using the reference guide at the National Postal Museum, a teacher might acquire copies of letters that reflect that subject and incorporate them into the lessons. 

"Letters will allow students to understand that the participants in history were thinking, feeling human beings who had ambivalence, anger and passion," she says. "Students will develop a human connection with the participants of the past. There is also something so artistic about a letter because it is expressive of the English language. Even if it is broken English, the emotion and the experience a letter imparts is very powerful." 

Pope talks about one of the National Postal Museum's changing exhibit galleries, which is part of a major, permanent exhibition called "The Art of Cards and Letters." The inaugural exhibit in this gallery features correspondence of the Madden family, an African American family whose letters trace back five generations, to 1740. 

"The Madden letters are an extraordinary collection because of how far they go back and the story they tell about the successes and difficulties of this Virginia family," Pope says. "I knew that finding our next changing exhibit was going to be a challenge. I decided we could spend a little bit of time and effort to establish a general data base that we could draw from year after year." 

Pope has begun surveying historical societies, libraries, city and state archives, genealogical societies, museums and private collections by sending out a questionnaire. The questionnaire asks each organization about its letter collections, including size, the date range, its condition, how it is cataloged, geographical range, ethnic type, and whether it was written by men, women or both. 

As information is gathered, it is entered into a data base and categorized by location, time period, and one or two distinct themes, such as ethnic identity, sex and historic time period. 

"Say you're trying to do research on Jewish immigrants in the West," Pope explains. "You can refer to our data base and name the date and the subject and the data base will inform you that the Denver Historical Society has a letter collection on that subject." 

While this reference index will help researchers pinpoint where letters are, Pope adds, it will not tell exactly what the letters contain. "At this point, the index serves strictly as a guide." 

Aibel-weiss reflected further on the extensiveness of her research for the museum's exhibits. "We studied a lot of military mail," she says, referring to the more than 20 letters written in war that are the centerpiece of the museum's letter writing gallery. 

Among her favorite letters on display is one from a Vietnam soldier named George, written to a person he knew only as an acquaintance: 


I'm living in a green world with a green canvas roof over me . . . dressed in green camouflage fatigues and sitting on a green cot . . . we're getting to the tail end of a tropical storm that has moved down by Da Nang. . . . I don't know why I'm writing this. 

Actually I have to write or go out of my mind. . . . The frightening thing about it all is that it is so very easy to kill in war. . . . You kill because that little SOB is doing his best to kill you and you desperately want to live, to go home, to walk down a street again. . . . I hope somebody somewhere is having fun tonight. 


"Postal history is more than just how the letters got there. It includes what was in the envelope," Aibel-weiss says. "Once you start reading these letters it becomes less of a concept and more of a passion. Once you read these letters, you are totally transformed."