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Why historical letters are valuable, even if facts are lacking

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Many historians have a love-hate relationship with letters.

They love historical letters since they provide significantly more ‘color’ when trying to understand an incident or a particular period of time.

For instance, the American Great Depression in the 1930s can be looked at from a purely economic and political perspective. You can look at the ups and downs of the stock market, the collapse and rebuilding of the banking system or employment rolls. You can look at efforts to get more people working and the genesis of programs that are still in place today, such as Social Security.

But a “just the facts’ dive into the Depression won’t be complete without reading letters about people impacted by this disruption. Farmers who no longer were able to afford their land and had to move. Long lines for food. Criticisms of the government. Distrust of financial institutions. Wishes to drink more and why alcohol should be legal. Prayers and pleas for help.

While historical letters are definitely required source material when studying specific times of what came before, they have the challenge of not being considered factual, objective sources. They can be colored by the writer’s experiences and perceptions, and in some cases, they may not even be true, or details may be exaggerated.

Certainly, official government letters are intended to be accurate recollection of events, such as battlefield summaries. But personal or even professional notes can suffer from the risk of not being accurate.

Interestingly, researchers have different views of historical letters vs. diaries.

Letters, which are ultimately intended to be public messages from one individual to another, may have a different tone than a diary or personal journal, which are intended to be the writer’s private thoughts. In some instances, the views may even diverge: he or she may have opinions, hopes, or dreams that don’t necessarily match the messages they share with their staff or even family.

Diaries are actually a more recent way to organize one’s thoughts. Although we’ve been writing letters to each other for thousands of years, many Europeans began to write down their personal thoughts around the 17th century.

Men and women alike did so, but in some cases, the male version tended toward more of a private ledger keeping track of his household, while women were more likely to write about their daily lives as well as their general views on life.

Men did have some of these discussions, but often in letters to each other rather than a form of self-reflection.

Both of these forms can be examined in different ways. Historical letters can be gathered about a particular time and place to give an idea of the common thinking of that time, say the Great Depression again. Enough letters from this time can give scholars a good glimpse of the common and distinct feelings and experiences of people in different parts of the country as well as those in different economic circumstances.

Diaries, however, can be examined over the course of the writer’s lifetime, or at least the period they choose to write in. While someone who made it a habit to write daily or at least regular entries would be a treasure to future researchers, less-disciplined people may only do so during certain points in their lives. They may write about what their life is like at one point, abandon the project for months or years, and then return later in life. Readers can learn what, if any, circumstances may have changed in their life.

Many historians have a love-hate relationship with letters.

They love historical letters since they provide significantly more ‘color’ when trying to understand an incident or a particular period of time.

For instance, the American Great Depression in the 1930s can be looked at from a purely economic and political perspective. You can look at the ups and downs of the stock market, the collapse and rebuilding of the banking system or employment rolls. You can look at efforts to get more people working and the genesis of programs that are still in place today, such as Social Security.

But a “just the facts’ dive into the Depression won’t be complete without reading letters about people impacted by this disruption. Farmers who no longer were able to afford their land and had to move. Long lines for food. Criticisms of the government. Distrust of financial institutions. Wishes to drink more and why alcohol should be legal. Prayers and pleas for help.

While historical letters are definitely required source material when studying specific times of what came before, they have the challenge of not being considered factual, objective sources. They can be colored by the writer’s experiences and perceptions, and in some cases, they may not even be true, or details may be exaggerated.

Certainly, official government letters are intended to be accurate recollection of events, such as battlefield summaries. But personal or even professional notes can suffer from the risk of not being accurate.

Interestingly, researchers have different views of historical letters vs. diaries.

Letters, which are ultimately intended to be public messages from one individual to another, may have a different tone than a diary or personal journal, which are intended to be the writer’s private thoughts. In some instances, the views may even diverge: he or she may have opinions, hopes, or dreams that don’t necessarily match the messages they share with their staff or even family.

Diaries are actually a more recent way to organize one’s thoughts. Although we’ve been writing letters to each other for thousands of years, many Europeans began to write down their personal thoughts around the 17th century.

Men and women alike did so, but in some cases, the male version tended toward more of a private ledger keeping track of his household, while women were more likely to write about their daily lives as well as their general views on life.

Men did have some of these discussions, but often in letters to each other rather than a form of self-reflection.

Both of these forms can be examined in different ways. Historical letters can be gathered about a particular time and place to give an idea of the common thinking of that time, say the Great Depression again. Enough letters from this time can give scholars a good glimpse of the common and distinct feelings and experiences of people in different parts of the country as well as those in different economic circumstances.

Diaries, however, can be examined over the course of the writer’s lifetime, or at least the period they choose to write in. While someone who made it a habit to write daily or at least regular entries would be a treasure to future researchers, less-disciplined people may only do so during certain points in their lives. They may write about what their life is like at one point, abandon the project for months or years, and then return later in life. Readers can learn what, if any, circumstances may have changed in their life.

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