Did the Founding Fathers have a "Sent Mail" folder?
October 3, 2015 11:14 AM   Subscribe

Did people commonly make and keep copies of their handwritten personal correspondence?

I can't figure out a good, concise way to say "folks from the time prior to mechanically produced writing", but that's who I'm referring to in this question.

Inspired by listening to the Hamilton soundtrack obsessively, but also something I've wondered about before.

One thing that comes up in the show is Alexander Hamilton's sister-in-law Angelica (Schuyler) Church asking him to clarify the meaning of a comma he'd sent in a previous letter. Today on Twitter, someone posted an example of the reverse situation, Hamilton asking Church to explain her comma-usage.

In other cases, people seem to be able to refer to previous letters, even quoting them extensively.

It seems they would either need fantastic memories or otherwise be able to refer to their previous writings. Was there a custom of writing letters twice, so they'd have a copy to keep?
posted by brentajones to Writing & Language (9 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
the copying press was invented in 1780. before that it seems you needed to copy by hand. perhaps some founding fathers had copying clerks? related article for c19.
posted by andrewcooke at 11:24 AM on October 3, 2015

Thomas Jefferson used a device called a polygraph to make duplicates of letters as he wrote them. Here's the one that is at Monticello.

And here's a video of a homebuilt one.
posted by lharmon at 11:24 AM on October 3, 2015 [5 favorites]

I don't know about late 18th-century Americans, but among the people I study, European naturalists and scientists from the 16th to the 18th century, it was common to write a letter as a draft—correcting, deleting, or adding material as needed—and then make a fair copy, or have a secretary do so, to be sent. The draft would be kept as a reference. That wasn't always the case, since it required having the time to make a copy or the money to pay an assistant. A friend of mine at Harvard is currently working on a history of scholars' assistants in early modern Europe, so when she finishes her project we'll have a better idea of how common it was to have a secretary or amanuensis.
posted by brianogilvie at 11:34 AM on October 3, 2015 [12 favorites]

Lewis Carroll kept a register of all his letters received and sent. His book Eight or Nine Wise Words about Letter-Writing's section "On registering Correspondence" describes the form of the letter register.
posted by grouse at 11:41 AM on October 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

In short, yes. People often kept copies of letters they sent, at least the more substantial ones. These could have been drafts or copies. William Ewart Gladstone left over twenty folios of letters he sent. He was rather extreme in both his amount of correspondence and the carefulness with which he recorded it, but not unique in the specific habit.
posted by Emma May Smith at 12:16 PM on October 3, 2015

This article suggests that mechanical copying technology has been around since the 1780s and that Jefferson, again, used an early version of a copying press.
posted by protorp at 1:55 PM on October 3, 2015

A Polygraph is a device that produces a copy of a piece of writing simultaneously with the creation of the original, using pens and ink.

(Article includes a photograph of a portable polygraph used by Thomas Jefferson.)
posted by XMLicious at 5:14 PM on October 3, 2015

A detailed history of letter duplication machines, including a description of the usage of the copy-press.
posted by mwhybark at 10:39 PM on October 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Carbon copies used to be a thing, used also for handwritten letters. I have carbon copies of my late grandfather's private letters dating to from about 1930 to 1960 . According to wikipedia carbon copies have been around since early 1800s.
Even as late as 1988, some people used carbon copy paper to make copies of their hand written letters so they had copies at hand. They were very thin, brittle, often pink (sometimes yellow), barely legible and when I started office work I got to file those for the man I worked for then.
This was his private correspondence, as opposed to the business correspondence which I typed for him (and also made carbon copies of, by inserting all three sheets into the type writer, with the carbon paper wedged between the letter head and the thin pink paper. The paper was so very thin in order to successfully insert it into the typewriter.
I feel ancient even just remembering those thin pink sheets.
posted by 15L06 at 2:24 AM on October 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

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