Artifact Corner: 1830s Letter

Hi Everyone, and welcome back to another artifact corner. Today we will be looking at a letter that Henry Webb sent to his future wife, Frances Henrietta Delord. He sent this letter to her on August 4th, 1832, which we can see in the top right hand corner of the letter. He opens the letter by addressing Frances as “My Beloved French Girl.” He was writing her a little over a week before their wedding, which took place on August 13th in the Gold Parlor Room. At the time he was sending this letter, he was tending to his business in Albany, preparing to be away for his wedding and his honeymoon. Letter writing was the only form of communication for Henry and Frances in 1832, and pretty much everyone else! Let’s learn a bit more about the history of letter writing.

The history of writing and having a fully fledged writing system appears in multiple cultures around the world. In Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) cuneiform was used between 3400 and 3300 BCE, and shortly afterwards in Egypt we have hieroglyphs at around 3200 BCE. By 1300 BCE we have evidence of a fully operational writing system in late Shang-dynasty China. Sometime between 900 and 600 BC writing also appears in the cultures of Mesoamerica. The first letter ever written was believed to be one sent by Queen Atossa of Persia in around 500 BCE. It has been cited as the most important letter of all time by history and humanities professor Bríd McGrath, of Trinity College, Dublin. In the ancient world letters might be written on various different materials, including metal, lead, wax-coated wooden tablets, pottery fragments, animal skin, and papyrus. Through the Middle Ages, letter writing was reserved for the wealthy, because vellum (a fine parchment made originally from the skin of a calf) was very expensive. By the late 15th Century, paper was becoming more affordable, and therefore more available for the average person.

The 18th and early 19th Centuries were really the golden age of letter writing. During this time period, authors and people in power began to publish their letters. The goal was to save the letters for posterity, and potentially craft a narrative to make themselves look better or more important. Technology would change the way we communicate drastically in 1844, when the first telegraph message was sent. By 1866, a cable had been laid across the Atlantic, so that the US and Europe were linked. Information could now be transmitted across an ocean in real time. In 1876, the telephone was patented, and the technology took off like wildfire. The telephone definitely altered the way people communicated, but the invention of the internet and email truly ended the golden age of letters.

With cell phones and computers, very few of us send letters. The obvious exception is business transactions, but even most of those are now done via email. We are very fortunate that the Delord’s and Webb’s saved most of their letters and we still have them to this day. They are a wealth of information about our family, and we are so lucky to have them. Thank so much for stopping by.

Music: Acoustic Breeze by Benjamin Tissot,