I’ve been busy. On Tuesday I decided to paint my living room; I’m not at a stage in my life to invest in a couch (I’m twenty-two, that seems like a big step) but apparently I’m comfortable paying money to cover up the orange walls. So Tuesday and Wednesday were devoted to painting and the rest of the week I spent putting my apartment back together. I stupidly haven’t done much else. Apparently my slight obsessive-compulsive disorder goes into full drive when all the furniture from my living room is in my bedroom and everything smells like paint. It was a project.
I am still trying to figure out what to do with the hard facts I got from the Vaughan family correspondence that I went through two Fridays ago at the Massachusetts Historical Society. So if you’re curious about that stuff, I’m sorry but you’ll have to wait until I gather some more context. My budget may allow another trip to Boston in the coming days, perhaps next weekend, so that will happen soon.
I did have lots of time to think this week, while I was scrubbing the floor and airing out the apartment. And I thought a lot about the experience of holding an old letter in your hands. Although I guess you never really hold them, you try to flip them over without touching them at all. And there is most likely an archivist sitting a discreet distance away, but close enough to cough or even walk over to you and gently whisper what you’re doing wrong. I accidentally made the mistake of scooting one of the folders closer to me across the table so that I could lean back in my chair while deciphering a letter. The folder was apparently hanging over the edge (by about half an inch) which required the observant Society employee to come over and correct me. I felt bad.
So this thought crossed my mind while I was starting the second coat of paint. And if it is a naïve or pretentious thought, I apologize.
I only saw an original and real, real old handwritten document about two years ago. And I’m not talking about a middle-school field trip to a museum to see the Constitution or anything. These papers aren’t behind thick glass and there aren’t a bunch of other tourists jostling for position. You can touch these things, or you can touch them as much as the archivists will allow. So I wanted to explain how it is like to experience this stuff.
I was neither allowed nor equipped to take photographs while at the archive so to give you a sense of what these sort of documents look like, I googled “nineteenth century handwritten letter.” This is maybe the tenth picture that popped up. You can click the photo to get to the site.
Envelopes were hand-made until the 1840s. But paper wasn’t as easy to get as it is today and making an envelope took time and an unconcern for the wasted paper left over from cutting the correct shape. Envelopes, that is, a separate paper container to put a letter inside, were for affluent people. I highly suggest reading this – a wonderfully long history of the envelope written by a very focused and I assume passionate man named Maynard H. Benjamin. I admit, I’ve only skimmed, but it is now on my list of things to read when I “have time.”
So, no envelopes in 1815. Instead, you would simply get a big piece of paper and fold it in half. Now you have at least three pages to write your letter on and the back page is where you write the recipient’s address. But some letter-writers needed to squeeze in an extra post-script, so the margins and front of the make-shift envelope were often scribbled on. And sometimes letters seemed to be used as scrap paper before or after they were sent, with notes in a different handwriting or calculations scrawled on the side that don’t relate at all to the content of the letter. This all makes things very confusing. Not to mention that a lot of the time the ink has soaked through the paper and because the second page is the back of the first page, one could spend a long time trying to translate what turns out to be a sentence unrelated, just a mirror image from the back.
Now lets talk about handwriting. Its cursive. And I have to say, I am one of those people who cannot easily read cursive. I can understand my mother’s handwriting, and my boss’s scrawl, but that takes practice. These are strangers and a few of them don’t even appear to try to make real words, just long horizontal squiggles. Every letter blends together; r’s and m’s and w’s and n’s and even o’s are pretty much the same thing.
So all in all it is frustrating. Especially when you aren’t really allowed to touch them.
But I still enjoy it. It’s a weird excitement, like a baseball fan that gets to go to the Hall of Fame and not only see their favorite player’s glove, but to try it on. But not really like that, because I don’t know these people, I only get a brief sense of who they were by what they are writing. And only a fraction of that. Maybe its like a baseball fan just trying on a glove from a nameless player from when the game began.
You get to touch something real, from two-hundred years ago. It something with mass and texture and a smell. It’s personal, whether it was a business transaction or a love letter, not like a public building or anything from a museum. Someone put time and emotion and thought into that piece of two-hundred year old paper. You can see where they chose the wrong word and had to cross it out. You can see when they were rushed and when they took time to write their signature with care. You almost picture them at their desk, grabbing an extra piece of paper to jot a note down on, then folding it up and sealing the wax for it to be sent off. It is a tiny but concrete piece of a person and their thoughts and concerns from a specific time. You can touch what they touched. It makes that person a bit more real, not just a fuzzy gray apparition from a history book. It’s like when you’re a kid and finally see a photo of your favorite musician. You knew sort of who they are from their voice and their songs, but then you see them and they coalesce into something actual.
That is cool. That is something to be excited about. But maybe this is where I’m naïve or pretentious. Lots and lots of people do this all the time. Perhaps I don’t need to explain what its like or how it can be frustrating and difficult and disappointing and mind-blowingly awesome. So if I didn’t, I’m sorry you read all this way to not find anything new.
But wait! Read this:
My dear sister,
My wits are not the brightest, nor have I any stock of news to tell you that I can now bring to my recollection, yet I think you will receive some little stream of pleasure on seeing my hand writing, or reading that I love you all with the same sincerity I ever did.
From what I can make out, that is from a letter to Sarah Vaughan from her sister on April 8, 1815. I wish I had a sister so that she could write me similar things. What a delightfully verbose way of saying “Hey sis. Nothing new here. I love you guys.” But I suppose it isn’t verbose; every word in that sentence was there to convey exactly how Sarah Vaughan’s sister felt.
Now tell me that isn’t fun to read. That language makes even the most banal business transaction (of which I read many) seem soaked in meaning. That makes it worth the effort, though I suppose to more time I spend reading, the less Romantic spin I’ll put on it and the more business-like this stuff’ll become. We’ll see – Boston soon again, fearfully and hopefully!