List of Letters, c. 1860

May 3, 2015 § 2 Comments

The Maryland State Archives’ newspaper digitization project aims to preserve and provide easy access to newspapers published in Maryland from the 1700s through the 1940s.  Personal experience leads me to caution you that taking a casual look at their online collection can result in a great deal of time spent reading vintage advertisements and musing that the gossipy “Personal and Social” and “Local Matters” sections are, perhaps, the analog forerunners to social media (“Dr. and Mrs. H. L. Dodd’s little daughter recently sat on a needle and was very much inconvenienced until the cause of her sickness was discovered.” Yes, this tidbit really appeared in the paper, circa 1920).

While randomly browsing the Saturday, November 24, 1860 edition of the Kent News, a “List of Letters” signed by the postmaster caught my eye.


Curious about what this meant, I did some research.  Since Rural Free Delivery did not become a universal service until 1902, in the 1860s people had to stop by the post office and inquire whether they had mail.  Because of this, there was a postal regulation requiring:
“That the postmasters shall, respectively, publish, at the expiration of every three months, or oftener, when the Postmaster General shall so direct, in one of the newspapers published at or nearest the place of his residence, for three successive weeks, a list of all the letters remaining in their respective offices”

If the addressees failed to claim their mail within three months of the list being published, the Postmaster was charged with opening unclaimed items in order to look for “any valuable papers, or matters of consequence” and then attempting to notify or return items to the sender.

Today, individual post offices hold “dead letters” for a much shorter period of time.  “Undeliverable, unendorsed standard letters or flats” land in the recycling bin on a daily basis.  Certain categories of mail and loose-in-mail items are sent to the USPS Mail Recovery Center.  If valid claims for lost mail are filed, items are returned.  If not, they may be auctioned.

Have you ever lost something in the mail?


Leech, D.D.T. (1857). List of post offices in the United States; with the names of postmasters, on the 13th of July, 1857; Also, the regulations and laws of the Post Office Department. John C. Rives (publisher). Retrieved from:

Publication 100 – The United States Postal Service – An American History 1775 – 2006 ( 2012, November). Retrieved from:

Stam, J. L. (1860, November 24) “List of Letters” The Kent News, 21(29), 2. Retrieved from:


Sunday 7: Hey, dude!

November 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

When you write, the words you use are all for you.

Well, all for you and the lucky person who will receive what you’re writing.  But you get to choose them.

My point is, you don’t have to follow any “rules” when you write.  There are any number of authors and bloggers who are dedicated to telling you how to write a letter.  Not me.  I’m just encouraging you to write one!  And if you do, you’re the one doing the scribbling, so you get to make your own rules.  I was recently flipping through a book about letter writing and came across a section where the author talked about people–in her words, “You know who you are”–who would choose to start a letter with “Yo!” or “Hey, dude!”  She heartily disapproved and deemed such greetings to be un-letterly (that’s my made-up word, not hers).

To me, that’s equivalent to someone declaring that science fiction isn’t literature because it isn’t what he enjoys reading.  Just because that author wouldn’t want to be greeted with “Yo!” doesn’t mean that everyone else feels the same.

When you are writing,  use whatever words you want.  If “Hey, dude,” seems like the right greeting, go with it.  Following formalities is not what makes a good letter.  Communicating is.  Find your style and work it.

7 Styles for Letter-Writing

  1. txtspk.  This may be a good choice if you are a 100-texts-a-day type.  You can transition to a new format (pen and paper) while maintaining your language of fluency. :)
  2. Transcribe an imaginary conversation.  Between whom, you ask?  The possibilities are endless!  You and your recipient.  You and yourself.  Pets.  Babies.  Celebrities.  Inanimate objects.
  3. Letter list.  Intimated by the idea of writing large blocks of words?  Try a Letter List!
  4. Create a persona.*  Think of it as a mash-up between letter-writing and role-playing.  Excellent fun if you enjoy creative writing, improv or D&D-esque character development.  In rare cases, this approach to letter-writing has even been known to lead to publication.
  5. Tell a story.  Real or made-up.  Short or long.  Funny, pathetic, tender or bawdy.
  6. Write in rhyme.  Ooooh!  This could be fun.  And the possible styles are so varied–think Dr. Seuss, Common, Shakespeake, Gwendolyn Brooks, Mother Goose–that you can certainly find inspiration for your own rhyme schemes.
  7. Follow a formal style manual to the letter.  Sometimes following the rules is the right choice.  The could be because you’re writing to someone who cares a great deal for propriety and etiquette.  Or it could be because you want to poke fun at convention.  Mixing formal style with informal or off-color content can produce hilarious results.

In short, write however you want to write.  Focus on the person who will be reading your letter and what you want to communicate.  Feel free to ignore the rules of “proper” letter-writing.  Don’t be afraid to play!



*In order to avoid confusion, it might be best to warn your recipient beforehand if you’re writing under the guise of someone other than yourself.

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