The 21st century is most certainly a digital age. Almost all written communications are based around those transmitted electronically, through emails, broadcasts, printed letters, advertisements, and text messages. This is now the most common and accepted way in which to communicate with someone, taking over from the once preferred method of hand-writing documents that previously made up the basis of written communication in society.
It is due to this new age that I struggled when presented with boxes of handwritten letters, accounts and bills. Trying to understand and decipher the text on these was surprisingly a difficult task, as you can see from the image.
Thankfully I discovered that this one was actually written in Latin, nevertheless those written in English were almost as incomprehensible. I now understand why Kitty Ross, curator of Leeds Social History, mentioned that to work in this field a course in being able to read cursive hand writing should be given. However despite this, and the many fascinating objects within the ephemera collection at Abbey House museum, such as the newspaper that announced the death of Hitler to England in 1945, and references written from masters for slaves, it was these handwritten letters that fascinated me the most.
Communication is essential to civilisation, and just one of these documents whether small notes or large letters, personal or business related, give us a glimpse into the past.
This image is of a letter written from William Bailey to the recipient to ask her to pass the title of his house over to him, as further delay could bring damage in the future. Not only is the format and style different to today, including the use of parchment and writing with a quill, but the language is strikingly different – especially when compared to that of the common email or text message today! William Bailey not only apologies for having to bother her, “ I most humbly ask pardon for being troublesome to you at this time”, but he also reminds her that by doing this for him, it will “be ever acknowledged with the greatest gratitude”. Even the way the letter ends is extremely courteous “your most obedient and greatly obliged servant”. It appears today that the only letters that seem to reflect this language are those that are written in the context of a formal correspondence. However of the letters I have read in the ephemera collection, the majority seem to uphold this air of formality, respect and meaning in every genre of letter.
After researching written communication, it is interesting to see that the reason for such language was due to the great importance that was placed on being able to read and write. It was a status symbol, your reputation being judged through the way in which you presented yourself, this included letter writing. Guidelines to letter writing were even given, advising about how much content and how much of ones character should be given away, after all anyone could read them and make inaccurate assumptions. This is perhaps why the typewriter wasn’t as popular as the postcard and using lined paper, it was also seen as looking cheap! However letter writing was the most popular form of communication not only due to its implications on ones reputation, but also due to it being the cheapest form.
Reading such elegant letters and seeing how much effort and time was invested into writing to one another was moving, and it is sad to think that this importance has know been to some extent diminished. However being able to communicate quicker, and to almost anyone across the world is both more practical and less time consuming, elements required to accommodate the fast paced society that we live in today.
My time spent at Abbey House Museum has been both educational and enjoyable. Working behind the scenes in the museum and at the Discovery centre, working with the collections, and most importantly getting to know the team of people there, have really made this experience for me. An internship with Abbey House Museum has been an invaluable opportunity and I have enjoyed every part of it. Thank you.
Posted by Nicola, but written by Emily Gough, Abbey House Intern 2011.