In today’s digital world, we accept the fact that communication takes place in 140 characters or less. Anything longer is reserved for blog posts (like this one), articles, books and scholarly papers. The art of writing a letter strictly as a way to tell loved ones about news, life and other important matters has fallen by the wayside.
This is what makes this cache of old letters – any cache of old letters – vitally important. These particular letters were saved by Katherine (Barber) Belden, President McKinley’s niece. She saved them in a wooden trunk that is so large it needs to be supported by two chairs.
Most of these hundreds of letters were addressed to her, although some were written to her children: Marshall, Betty and Henry III, as well as her husband, Henry Jr. They range in date from the 1890s up through the 1940s, with the majority of them falling between the years of 1900 and 1919. Unfortunately, she did not save the letters that she wrote in response, so the conversations are somewhat one-sided.
One letter in particular was written to her by her aunt, Ida McKinley. This letter is postmarked November 15, 1904, and is written on the black-bordered stationary that Ida used after her husband was assassinated in 1901. The letter contains plenty of news (also known as gossip) about mutual friends, neighbors and family members. It ends with the words: “With much love, I remain your loving aunt, Ida McKinley.” It is this type of kind words that are abbreviated today, or expressed with an emoticon or two.
Even without a letter from a “famous” relative, this collection remains interesting. Although they were written to express sentiments, they contain tiny details about life during the time period. A mention of War Bonds evokes World War I, while slow and declining sales are indicators of the Great Depression; the history contained within the letters tells numerous stories at the same time.
It may be too late to spark any interest in the old-fashioned art of letter writing, but that doesn’t mean that there are boxes of old letters in people’s basements and attics waiting to be preserved. Are there any in yours? Let us know!