Snail Mail History

Today in the world of almost instant communication, it is hard for many of our younger generations to imagine what the world was like in the mid-to-late 1800s. Through the collections of letters that have survived, we can get a glimpse of what families thought was important when a letter was sent.  Letters sent through the U.S. Postal Service were the usual means of communication for that time period.

Today when someone leaves they can stay in contact with family and friends in many ways. In the 1800s when someone moved away from an area, it was often the last time they would see most of their family and friends. Sometimes family members and the neighbors and friends from the home area would eventually move to the same place but not always.

Usually the letters contain news of the family members-their health and the health of any neighbors that were known to the letter recipients. Letters were often shared with any other family members or neighbors or at least the news was passed on when people saw each other. Besides the health of the family, the health of the economy was discussed. Many times the people who moved are trying to entice others to join them by relating the yield of their crops and the prices they received.

Letters were not sent often as can be seen in some of the letters when the writer asks to have a certain person write since they had not heard from them for over a year. In one collection at the Fenton History Center, letters span about 40 years but there are not many given the long time period. In this collection there is one letter that the whole first page is nothing except a listing of who died, including when and how. This includes the death of many hives of bees on many of the surrounding farms. There is another letter from a different time that recites a number of marriages over the last number of months.

There are some letters that are more chatty. For instance, there are at least two letters that included fabric swatches and descriptions of the articles of clothing that were made. Prices of the material were included. One garment had 35 velvet covered buttons. So the question is did they have to make 35 buttonholes or were they fastened with loops? This family lived in northern Chautauqua County and many family members and neighbors moved to Michigan. One brother moved to Canada. Sometimes a letter was written to one person and that person would relay the news to someone else in their letter so that eventually the news spread to other family members. At that time communication depended on someone who could read and write. All these letters were written in cursive hand writing and are very readable. Letters in other collections are not as nicely written and are much more difficult to read.

Family historians and genealogists, along with social historians, like to find collections of letters from their families or their area of interest. If you are researching a family that had members move on but do not find any letters of your family, start to identify neighbors in both places of residence and look for letters to and from those people. Friends and neighbors are often mentioned in letters to other family members or friends, especially births, deaths, marriages and others moving somewhere else.

Jamestown’s post office will be 200 years old on December 30, 2016.  The Fenton History Center will be holding a 200th Anniversary celebration from 11:30 AM to 1:30 PM.  All are invited to receive a commemorative hand stamp of the anniversary, either by bringing an envelope ready to mail, with a current stamp, that day or by purchasing a commemorative envelope with an image of James Prendergast, the Fenton Mansion, the anniversary handstamp and signatures of the current Jamestown Post Master, Mayor, Fenton History Center Board President and Director.

If you chose to bring an envelope to mail, please have it addressed and stamped so that the two-inch by four-inch commemorative hand stamp can cancel the stamp. Hand stamping will be available prior to the program and following the program.  The program will begin at noon with addresses by Jamestown Mayor Sam Teresi, Jamestown station post master Eugene Oyer, and Fenton Collection Manager Norman Carlson with additional local stories by Fenton Archivist Karen Livsey.

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