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Understanding Common Record Types: Letters

Guide to understanding common types of archive documents: abstracts of title, accounts, annual reports, charters & letters patent, constitutions, diaries, household books, land deeds, letters, manorial records, maps & plans, minutes, photographs, & wills.

“A letter always seemed to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend”

Emily Dickinson 

Introduction to letters

Personal or administrative documents conveying information from one writer to a specific recipient.

Why they were created

Created to convey information, such as personal news, points of administration, enquiries and responses to the same, etc., from a writer to a recipient who are separated by distance.

Who might have created them

Created by private individuals, public figures, land agents, executive officers (secretaries, treasurers, chairmen, etc.).

Where you might find them

Usually found with personal records such as photographs and diaries or, if created in an official capacity, with administrative records such as minutes, reports and working group files. Commonly found in the following collections:

  • Landed families
  • Estates
  • Solicitors
  • Businesses
  • Charities
  • Pressure groups
  • Politicians
  • Political parties
  • Writers

Period from which they most commonly survive

Commonly appear in the archival record from the 17th century, increase in volume of letters as literacy rates increase over the next few centuries, with significant volumes of letters surviving from the 19th century onwards.

Key features

Physical features

  • Loose leaf paper, maybe single sheet or multiple sheets
  • Multiple sheets may be loose or attached together with a staple, paperclip or other paper fastening
  • Earlier examples are manuscript writing, typescript printing is common from the early 20th century
  • Examples from the mid-19th century often survive in or with the envelope in which the letter was sent
  • Examples prior to the mid-19th century often feature a partial wax seal that would have held the folded letter closed enabling it to be posted without an envelope

Informational content

  • Recipient's name and address
  • Date of writing
  • Postmark noting place and date of sending (after the introduction of public postal systems)
  • Writer's name
  • Writer's address, sometimes pre-printed on letterheaded paper
  • Personal news and updates
  • Commonplace details, i.e. current affairs, weather, etc.
  • Discussion of topics of interest to the writer
  • Details regarding business transactions
  • Administrative arrangements
Manuscript letter with an illustration of a women by the sea and another of a man and woman sat at a desk with a vase of flowers

U DDFA3/6/45/365

Letter from 'Rosemary' to Irene Lawley, conveying news of Escrick Park and individuals known to both women, c.1920

Typescript letter with manuscript sign off and signature

U DEN/6/5

Letter from Hetta Empson to her husband William Empson, conveying family news and activities, 19 Jul 1949

Typescript letter with manuscript signature of Philip Larkin

U DP214

Letter from Philip Larkin to Anthony Thwaite, discussing circulation of a book by Larkin and his opinion of Hull as a place to live, 21 Apr 1956

Typescript letter with manuscript signature

U DJH/15G/8

Letter sent from someone in Cairo to Ann Keen, discussing left-wing politics, 30 Jul 1945

Note on critical analysis

Things to consider:

  • The author of a letter will usually have a specific audience in mind when writing, this can determine the type of content included or omitted, for instance, a letter written to a family member might include more personal details than a letter written to a business associate
  • The author of a letter might be more or less conscious of the self-image they present depending on the degree of familiarity they have with the recipient

Potential research uses

Letters can be useful when undertaking research into the following areas:

  • Personal relationships
  • Communication styles and methods
  • Biographies of individuals
  • Organisational histories
  • Handwriting styles and development
  • Correspondence networks
  • Literacy
  • Personal opinions
  • Understandings and perceptions of political events and current affairs
  • Female interests, relationships and opinions
  • Travel

Specialist skills and knowledge

Further reading in the following areas will help researchers when using these sources:

  • Secretary handwriting, for letters written pre-19th century
  • Italic handwriting, for letters written post-17th century
  • Key dates changes in the development of the postal system

Resources at Hull History Centre

Search for further examples of letters using our online catalogue. Try using search terms such as letters, correspondence, missive, letter book, etc.

Alternatively, if you prefer to browse, the file below contains a list of letters held at Hull History Centre. Please note that this list is not comprehensive, but represents key examples of the document type.