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“A letter always seemed to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend”
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
- Pressure groups
- Political parties
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.
- 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
- 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
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
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
- Personal opinions
- Understandings and perceptions of political events and current affairs
- Female interests, relationships and opinions
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.
The following secondary literature demonstrates how letters have been used in historical research, and provides critical explorations of the issues surrounding their creation and use:
- James Daybell, The Material Letter in Early Modern England: Manuscript Letters and the Culture and Practices of Letter-Writing 1512-1635 (2012)
- Maire Cross, Caroline Bland, Gender and Politics in the Age of Letter-Writing, 1750-2000 (2004)
- Susan E. Whyman, The Pen and the People: English Letter Writers, 1660-1800 (2011)
- Julia Gillen, 'Writing Edwardian Postcards' in Journal of Sociolinguistics, vol.17, issue no.4 (2013)