Old Letters

Genealogists love family heirlooms.  Whether it’s the trunk that grandmother brought over from the old country, a quilt that’s been handed down for generations, or an old photo album, most genealogists dream of documenting and preserving these mementos of our family history.  While we may not have the space to store everything that our ancestors accumulated throughout their lifetimes, there certainly are some items that we would like to preserve, document, and pass on to further generations.  Sometimes family bibles, photos, and heirlooms end up in antique stores and flea markets, where they may be salvaged by people like Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak (yes, that’s two Smolenyaks there!) who try to reunite these orphan heirlooms with their families.

Last night I spoke with a friend of mine whom I hadn’t seen in a while and we spent some time catching up on each other’s lives.  He told me that a friend of his, an elderly woman, had died and he was helping her daughter clean out the house.  One of the first places they started to clean out was the woman’s desk, and when they opened the first drawer, they found a treasure trove of love letters between the woman and her future husband.  They read some of the letters, smiled and reminisced about the pair.  Then they opened the second drawer and found the drawer full of letters the woman had received from servicemen stationed overseas during World War II.  Apparently the woman was an avid letter writer and took it upon herself to make the boys overseas a little less lonely by writing to as many as she could.  Again, my friend and the woman’s daughter read a few of the letters.

Then came the decision – what to do with all these letters describing the love between two people and all these letters documenting the daily lives and personal feelings of servicemen in World War II?  The woman’s daughter didn’t want them, and there were no other descendants.  So they shredded the letters.

I was aghast!  These letters were important documents that should be preserved!  Even if the daughter felt that the love letters were too personal to be shared with others, the letters from World War II servicemen have significant historical value and could have been donated to a historical society or library!

This morning, I dug out one of the shoe boxes of old letters I have and started looking through them.  I was actually a little surprised at how “old” the letters smelled, but the odor was, nevertheless, somehow comforting.  I thought I’d transcribe a few here.  These aren’t necessarily the most interesting or most genealogically valuable letters in the box; they’re just the first ones I pulled out.

The first is a letter from Bishop Edward J. Maginn, the auxiliary bishop of Albany, New York who wrote to me from the Vatican II Conference.  The letter is written on thin paper with a Cavalieri Hilton Roma letterhead.

October 13, 1965

Dear Stephen,

I was very happy to receive your kind letter and I thank you for writing.  It gets pretty lonesome here, so far from home.

We are working very hard, especially on our homework, which, as you know, is harder than class-work.

Keep praying for us and asking the Holy Spirit to help us.

With a blessing.


+ Bishop Maginn

The second letter is from a friend of mine I’ve known almost since birth.  She wrote the letter shortly after starting her sophomore year at Dartmouth College.  The letter is written on both sides of stationary with pictures of colorful butterflies on the lower half.


Dear Steve,

Sounds like your courses are unusually stimulating (Z Z Z z z z …)

Well, I’m taking History of the American West, which is not difficult but a lot of reading; Comp Lit-Modern Novel I, which is Kafka, Mann, Zorba the Greek, etc., & Ulysses by Joyce – forget it!  I have 500 pages to read in it this week – 500 more I don’t understand.  Then, Music Theory; and Music II – private voice lessons, for the year, for credit & free (the most important).  Out of 20 kids who auditioned, 5 were taken; whether because of lack of ability or because of already silver-throated voices to be developed I really don’t know, but I prefer to fool myself into believing the latter.

I just (1/2 hr. ago) got a call from the Hanover Town Board of Recreation asking me to teach a dance class(es) at the H.S. for wages which I may select!  When you’re infamous you don’t have to look for anybody – they all come to you!

I’m singing in a trio, Andrews Sisters style, and we have our 1st appearance in a concert next Wed. with another group.  We still haven’t decided on a name, & after coming up with such winners as “The Hotcha Sisters”, the “Boogie Woogies”, and “The Sleaze Sisters”, the closest we could come to a possibility worth considering for more than 2 seconds, was “Daddy’s Daughters.”  No?  Guess it doesn’t quite make it either.  Hopefully, we’ll be performing at the big Glee Club concert in Nov., opening the 2nd half of the show, all depending on how we do on Wed.

Socially, things aren’t overly stimulating, if you know what I mean, but I’m very satisfied & secure right now, in knowing that I have a lot of good friends up here – it’s taken me a long time to realize, but it was worth the wait.

Well, hope things are better than O.K.  Write soon.     Love, Karen

The third letter is from my mother, written five years before she died.  She wrote this letter to me when I was attending the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, just after I had moved out of the dorm and into an apartment in a marginal neighborhood in Syracuse, New York.  The envelope was postmarked January 24, 1975, even though the letter itself is dated the next day, and the letter was posted with a 10-cent Christmas stamp.

1974 Christmas Stamp


Dear Steve,

You made my day when you called.  I was so happy.  Glad to hear everything is fine.

It’s been raining here all day, and it is quite damp.  Dad was home Tues, Wed, Thurs, & Fri, and he went to work to-day (3-11).  Not a very good day to go to work after being sick.  He feels better.

Did you get a copy of your report card?  Forgot to ask you on the phone.  Glad the T.V. works O’K.  As you say, it’s better than nothing.-

I bet you are kept pretty busy.  How are you making out getting to school in the morning?  How are you making out with living expenses?  Let us know if you need anything.



I wonder what will become of all these letters when I’m gone.  I have boxes and boxes of them, but will they be of interest to anyone else?  Or will they end up in the shredder?

Copyright © 2006 by Stephen J. Danko

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8 Responses to Old Letters

  1. Christine says:

    OK. Now you’ve got me reading other websites! Megan’s orphan heirlooms sounded like something I needed to read about since I occassionally find things that SOMEONE must be interested in, even if I’m not.

    For me, I have a collection of Lithuanian letters written to my husband’s grandfather. Unfortunately, I don’t know what many of them say and only half of them are written by relatives. I’ve had those translated. For the others, I occassionally look for someone related to the letter writer and, if a relative is found, send them a copy of the letter(s) if they agree to get it/them translated and send me the translation. I’ve made interesting contacts this way and found out a little about the grandfather. It seemed he was answering personal ads in a Lithuanian newspaper since the letter writers are from all over the country. Through one of these ads he read that someone was looking for a relative of his who hopefully would sponsor them to come to the U.S. (a displaced person after WW II). Grandfather wrote them and said the relative was very sick (and died soon after) but he offered to sponsor them. I even had the opportunity to meet this family on one of my genealogy trips back east!

  2. Linda Schreiber says:

    I’m late, but I just discovered your blogsite. Came here to learn and browse and listen in, and mostly keep my mouth shut But I did a little browsing, and ran into this particular column. It hit me.

    I was also aghast at the loss of the letters. Two reasons:

    First, many of her letters written to those servicemen may be pretty much the only records of what these men were like and what they were living through. I suspect that she was writing to servicemen who might not have otherwise gotten many letters. There may be researchers for which these men were just names and dates….. Ah, how we all wish to find anything about the lives and personalities and experiences of these people.

    Second, even the love letters of the two who left no descendants…….. They were indeed personal. But someone on a gen list recently reminded me that relatives who never married or never had children will never have their stories recorded unless we do it. The letters may have been ‘too personal’ at the time of their death, but they do have relatives who will eventually want to have more than just a name and date for these people. The children and grandchildren of the brothers and sisters of these people would have treasured these letters.

    Linda S

  3. It’s never too late to post a comment, Linda!

    I wish I had some of the letters my grandparents wrote or received in their lifetimes. I know they kept in touch with relatives in the old country. I suppose they thought they were worthless after they read them, but they would be of enormous value to me now.


  4. Catalin says:

    When my grandmother died, my mother came into possession of several boxes of letters. I have scanned and transcribed some (love letters between my great-grandparents in 1911 and newsy letters from my grandparents to their respective parents in 1930 and 1034), but I’m concerned with how best to preserve the actual letters. They are quite fragile. There is even a scrap of a note from 1867 that my grandmother must have found in some ancestor’s papers and saved. What do I do with all these papers? I understand that they probably shouldn’t be folded and unfolded much, so should be stored flat and unfolded. Should they be in plastic, or is plastic bad for them? Is there a good way to display and share them?

    Any advice appreciated!

  5. Hi Catalin,

    I listened to an episode of “Questions and Ancestors” called “Preserving Family Heritage” and found it very helpful for learning about preserving documents. There are archival-safe boxes you can buy to store documents (you won’t want to store important documents in boxes that are acidic or contain lignin because they will speed the degradation of your documents).

    To store individual documents, you should be sure to use archival-safe plastic. PVC (polyvinyl chloride) is not good. Polyester is archival-safe. You shouldn’t laminate your documents because the lamination process is irreversible, but you can store the documents inside the plastic sheet protectors you can buy at office supply stores. I use Avery Heavyweight Presentation Sheet Protectors that I purchase at Costco. The box says that these are acid free and archival safe.

    You can also buy materials to encapsule your documents in plastic. By encapsulating, you seal the document in plastic on all sides. This will keep the documents away from oxygen and will help preserve them. Encapsulation allows you to cut the plastic and remove the documents without damaging them. Encapsulation materials are much more expensive than the Avery Sheet Protectors.

    You can listen to “Preserving Family Heritage” at http://www.byubroadcasting.org/questionsandancestors/episodes.asp

    On that page, there are also links to companies that sell archival-safe products.

  6. Jayne McCormick says:

    There are many letters written during the American Civil War at the Bits of Blue and Gray website. The original letters have been transcribed just as they were written, to preserve the integrity of the them. There are letters written by both Union and Confederate soldiers. If you take out the references to Union or Conf, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell who wrote them. They were all concerned about home and the family and they all wanted folks to write to them.


  7. Sharryn Clark says:

    I have many family treasures, pictures, letters, wills, funeral home stuff, land records and so on, I do have them in archival storage, for preservation. The real concern is the survival of these items, when I am gone. I have two sons, the first is a Navy Commander, who is rootless and single, the second is a Washington DC energy attorney, who’s only interest in survival is his own, he is married, but the wife’s pass time is tossing out, so these items have a slim chance, after me. I will considering scanning, so hopefully, their chances are abit better. I knew many of the people involved with this stuff, but my kids did not, so a broken link there. Libraries and genealogy societies simple do not have room for orignal donations, not certain they would accept scans. What will you do with your collection beyond your lifetime?

  8. Hi Sharryn,

    I have the same concern as you. Fortunately, I have a few cousins who might want some of the family treasures I have. My sisters and I just cleaned out the house in which we were raised and we managed to save quite a few items. We gave some of the furniture (Cushman Maple) to a young relative who collects Cushman Maple. Other relatives will probably want to keep some of the family papers, but what about everything else?

    My plan is to assemble the family papers into a book along with the family history. I think organized, bound volumes of the family history may be kept by someone who wouldn’t want to deal with loose papers, file folders, and binders.

    In fact, bound volumes might even be accepted by a local genealogical or historical society or the Family History Library in Salt Lake City.

    So, that’s the plan. Find relatives who want the family artifacts. Organize and assemble the most valuable documents as part of a bound family history. And hope for the best.

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