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Historical correspondence in research

By Associate Professor Nathan Wise, Public and Applied History, University of New England (UNE)

Historical correspondence, often thought of as letters, telegrams and postcards, are among the most useful types of source material for historians. Not only do they describe events and provide personal insights, but they also reveal much about the styles and conventions of the time in which they were written, as well as social and cultural context. 

In any given period letter-writers will adhere to particular layouts, structures, forms of address, and language. During the 1910s, for example, it was a common convention of letter-writing to commence a letter with a query about the recipient’s health, often with a report on the author’s health, and the weather or immediate views in their current location. Often, when correspondents sent mail back and forth, a letter would begin with a note on the content and date of the last letter received; and in this way correspondents could track to see if a letter (and information) was missing. Sometimes they even numbered letters so this could be tracked more easily. When reading numerous items of correspondence between writers and their audience, researchers may be able to identify scripted structures and patterns to the material.

Another, often overlooked, form of correspondence is the diary and journal. While diaries sometimes involve a degree of instinctive uncensored reaction to events, which hint at a degree of privacy and intimacy, researchers should not assume that these items had no audience, or just a private audience, in mind. Many historical diaries and journals were written in the hope that they would have a broad public readership. In the least, chroniclers hoped their material would be read by close family or friends. Others encouraged their recipients to circulate the material broadly, while many notable chroniclers sought publishers for the works to facilitate broader distribution. 

With that broad audience in mind, many diary and journal writers directly addressed their audience in their entries, which can often be read as a one-way conversation. Their entries are influenced by their personal background and expectations, and also of the anticipated expectations of their readers. When writing for an audience, chroniclers will often blend readers’ expectations into their own to craft their narrative. They appreciate that their entries will shape readers’ views, not only of the subject of their writing, but about the writer themselves.

Thus, beyond documenting the events they witnessed, historical correspondence often provides remarkable insight into cultures and patterns of writing, and when read closely, can be used to assess societal values and expectations.

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