Even in this world of lightning-fast emails and 2001: A Space Odyssey-esque video chatting, nothing makes me happier than spending weeks eagerly awaiting the arrival of a little envelope or two. I’ve been part of the snail mail revival for about half a year now, and I have very much enjoyed using hand-written messages to strengthen old friendships–and make new ones!
I have a very lovely pen pal from France whose wonderfully long letters always feel more like a charming, lively conversation (about art, history, languages, literature, and everything in between) than simple correspondence. Often, when my research for work leads me to discover some unexpected fact about an ancient civilization or an interesting etymological anecdote, I find myself eagerly making a note of it so I can remember to share it with her in my next letter.
In one of her more recent mailings, my letter-friend included some unbelievably fascinating little pieces of history that I just can’t stop poring over: she clearly knows me well! The ephemera trio consisted of a pair of pocket-sized photographs and a small card in an envelope–all annotated with beautiful cursive text. She found them by chance, which means that their origins and meaning are for us alone to piece together.
And that’s where things get interesting! Captions on the back of the photographs date them, and, as you can see by the year listed (1926!), my generation’s grandparents were barely alive when these were taken.
The postmark on the half-size envelope proves that it’s somewhat younger (though, I should mention, there’s no reason to assume that the three objects were always together!). Because I love nothing more than adding a bit of philately to my day, I did some research and managed to identify the stamp: it was in use from 1945-1954, and features an image of Marianne designed by Pierre Gandon and engraved by Henry Corot (names that you can see on the bottom of the stamp itself).
In any case, it’s definitely not the sort of stamp you’d see on one of my pen pal’s letters to me in the twenty-first century!
I get actual, visceral chills when I’m working at the museum and have a close encounter with an object that seems impossibly old–there’s a particular five-thousand-year-old Egyptian fish carving in the collections, for example, that has been haunting my thoughts recently.
Now, these little scraps from the past are certainly not souvenirs of long-forgotten millennia. Still, I can’t stop running my fingers over the delicate, fading paper and ink, wondering whose lives they might have touched before mine. What did that young woman grinning from one side of the see-saw think when she saw that photograph for the first time? Did she ever see it? Were these on view on a bulletin board or a desk for years, or did they stay hidden in a drawer or a long-forgotten box of abandoned memories?
Could the owners of these objects ever have imagined that these fragile bits of paper would outlive them?