There’s a story about a stamp collector whose particular interest was letters posted at sea. For philatelists who know about these things – and I don’t – there is a wealth of variety in the covers, franks and stamps on letters sent by passengers or crew from naval or merchant shipping, even in the present day.
In pursuit of his hobby, this man sent a polite letter to a naval vessel asking the captain if he would please frank the enclosed stamped addressed envelope and send it back. Outraged, the captain wrote an angry reply telling him not to waste precious naval time, put it in an envelope, hand addressed it, and sent it off with the ship’s mail – and thereby gave the collector a much more valuable item for his collection than he was expecting.
The story is almost certainly apocryphal, but it nicely illustrates the way different people look at letters. For the captain, it was a means of communication; for the collector, a physical object of value.
As a historian, I’m basically interested in content, but I’m increasingly aware of how much I miss by failing to give due attention to the physical object, and the information it contains.
As part of my new year’s resolution to get my biography of Walter S Davidson back on track, I’ve been going through old files. Some date back to the 1990s, when digital photography was not yet an option, and research meant sitting in a library, or at someone’s kitchen table, transcribing reams of original letters on my laptop. Thank God for touch-typing, but it was still a time-consuming process, and I cut whatever corners I could.
One was to get to the body of the letter without paying attention to the envelope it came in – or more likely, for the early 19th century, the central section of the letter on which the name and address was written before the page was folded and sealed for posting. I ignored the arcane markings – and even now, I barely have the vocabulary to describe them, so without cheap digital photography, I couldn’t have transcribed them accurately anyway.
I’m a historian. Like that naval captain, I’m interested in content. Yet for those with the eyes to see, those markings are full of information too. Two philately sites which make fascinating reading are Bishop Marks by Eunice Shanahan and Australian Postal History & Social Philately.
I’ve written before about the strange relationship between historians and philatelists. Collectors are interested in letters for very different reasons from mine. Their context is not my context. They sort them into different categories, and in doing this, a lot of my context is lost. I’m troubled when collections of letters get broken up and sold individually, which reminds me of dealers who break up rare books to sell them page by page.
Yet there are many letters that are of no real historical value. We would all drown in them, if every thank you note, invitation to dinner, or receipt of goods was kept for its possible historical content. Why shouldn’t they go to collectors who will appreciate them, preserve them, perhaps make them digitally available – and interpret them in ways that historians can’t do?
Every philatelist I have ever dealt with has been generous in sharing their time and knowledge. I’ve just had another experience of this.
The other day, still as part of my new virtuous work ethic, I googled Walter Davidson, as I do from time to time, and up popped a letter which is currently for sale on eBay. To cut a long story short, this morning a lovely clear scan of the entire letter with its enclosed newspaper clipping arrived in my inbox from David Shaw of David Shaw’s Old Letters.
As it happens, the letter is of some importance. Walter wrote it to his brother-in-law William Leslie in the middle of a long, bitter quarrel about William’s son Patrick, who had been sent to New South Wales to manage Walter’s property. Walter had accused Patrick of cheating him. For details, you’ll have to wait – with (I hope) baited breath – for chapter 8 of the book. But this time, thanks to photography and a greater awareness of the letter’s philatelic value, I’m looking at the postmark.
The letter was Prepaid, at a time when the recipient still usually paid the postage on letters. I’m not sure if this was Walter’s standard practice, because I didn’t look before, but it strikes me that if you are going to send someone a ranting diatribe about his son, it’s only courteous not to make the father pay! It’s an insight into Walter that I didn’t have before – and I thank David very sincerely for it.
Many thanks indeed – David Shaw’s Old Letters