Tag Archives: manuscripts

Other People’s Mail

Working with archival material allows the researcher opportunities to learn about different places and other times.  Photographs of long-vanished buildings or reports of events long over are reminders of things no longer present.  But perhaps the most immediate, and occasionally the most poignant, way to immerse yourself into a different world is through reading other people’s mail.

Stacks of World War II letters

World War II Correspondence

Archival collections often contain a variety of correspondence, including business communications, official statements, organizational announcements, and academic inquiries.  For many researchers, however, it is personal correspondence that best brings the past to life.  When reading mail sent years or even centuries ago, one can’t help but try to fill in the gaps, to hunt for clues in deciphering the stories behind the penned or penciled words, seeking the individuals who wrote or received the letters.  Recently, the Rare Books & Special Collections division of Boatwright Memorial Library purchased a collection of more than 700 letters, the majority of them written during World War II.  The collection is a compilation of several different sets of correspondence.  Although connected by the time period, these different sets offer a view into the lives of many individuals, each with their own story to tell.

For example, one set of about 100 letters written on U.S. Navy letterhead share the story of a young couple named Paul and Charlotte.  Paul wrote almost daily between March and July 1944, and through his letters, readers come to know a bit about life in the Navy, the challenges of planning a wedding via correspondence, and enough of a hint about Charlotte’s world to spark curiosity.  A bit of research uncovered that Charlotte and her family were Jewish immigrants to the United States, having left Germany in 1934.

The largest set of correspondence in the collection are the approximately 250 letters written by George Orlikowski to his girlfriend, and later his wife, Mary Zyla Orlikowski, which cover the time between July 1942 and March 1945.  In addition to learning much about both of their lives, many of the envelopes and stationary are humorous by themselves.

World War II letter

Letter from George to Mary with code for salutations

In one letter written in December 1944, George offers a secret code to Mary so that she can know where he is at in the Pacific after he sails without the censor catching on to them; he indicated he would change which salutation he uses in his letters to her to identify his location. Even after more than 70 years, the letters still carry the scent of his cigarette smoke.

Perhaps the most intriguing series of correspondence in this collection are the variety of letters sent to Dorothy “Dot” Raynham, a female college student, by a variety of soldiers between 1942 and 1944. With at least fourteen different men writing her from nearly all branches of the military, these letters offer glimpses of military life as well as life on the home front for at least one college student and her family.  Whether it is a bomber pilot wistfully recalling their dance to a Glenn Miller tune or a sailor encouraging her in her schoolwork, the range of correspondents suggests there may be an interesting story about this particular moment in her life.

Reading other people’s mail in the archives offers a glimpse into the past, one way to bring history alive, for researchers of all types, including University of Richmond students.  This collection has already been utilized in several classes, including a Weekend College session doing hands-on history and a first-year seminar exploring a life in letters.  Materials from this collection as well as correspondence from other collections is currently on exhibit on the first floor of Boatwright Library through the end of April.

Happy Birthday, Alice B. Toklas

Alice B. Toklas was born on April 30, 1877, in San Francisco, California.  Known best as the longtime companion of Gertrude Stein, Toklas was also an author in her own right. Toklas and Stein conducted one of the most famous literary salons in Paris, where they hosted an exceptional array of authors, including Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Not limited to the literary arts, cultural icons such as Pablo Picasso, Charlie Chaplin, and Paul Robeson also visited their salon.

Stein and Toklas toured the United States for six months in 1934 and 1935, with Stein presenting more than 70 lectures.  In early February 1935, the two women, accompanied by Carl Van Vechten, came to Richmond.  After lecturing in Charlottesville, the group arrived by car in Richmond on February 5, 1935, and were hosted to a dinner at the home of famed Richmond author, Ellen Glasgow.  Fellow Richmond author James Branch Cabell attended, as did Mark Lutz, Hunter Stagg, and Van Vechten.  After a night at the Jefferson Hotel, Stein spoke the following day at the Cannon Memorial Chapel on the campus of the University of Richmond, and also visited the sites of one of her favorite authors, Edgar Allen Poe.  The Poe Foundation hosted an afternoon tea.

Letters by Alice B. Toklas

Letters from Alice B. Toklas to Mark Lutz, MS-1

The Carl Van Vechten – Mark Lutz Collection, housed in the Galvin Rare Book Room here at the University of Richmond, contains many materials documenting the long relationship between Stein, Toklas, Lutz, and Van Vechten.  A noted photographer, Van Vechten took numerous photographs of the two women, especially documenting their American tour.  The collection contains photographic prints made by Van Vechten as well as literary and cultural materials from both Stein and Toklas.  The letters from Toklas to Lutz, for example, solidify making the arrangements for their visit to Richmond.

Toklas died in Paris on March 7, 1967, at the age of 89.

A Whale of a Name

Naming a blog isn’t easy. We thought long and hard, enviously looked at other blog names, and tentatively settled on Something Uncommon—a kind of definition of rare and how we feel about the collection. The next step was the image to personalize the page. We looked at several images taken from our shelves and settled on the hastily penned drawing of a whale from our 1856 whaling journal. (SC-1–Journal of a Whaling Voyage in the Atlantic Ocean onboard of the Brig Gem of Beverly, Nathaniel Ryder Master.)

Once we had the image, we decided to look through the journal for a tag line, or something that might make a more unique title. The ship weighed anchor April 7th from Provincetown Harbor, the wind from the northwest. Most entries give the longitude and latitude, the weather, and what transpired that day, such as “Wensday[sic], June 4th. This day lost a 30 bbl whale through Periwinkle.” And while the adventures of Periwinkle and his cohorts are interesting, it did not present us with a likely title.

Then, after some time we came to the page with the whale on it, and, like some karmic gift, directly above the drawing were the words: “Saw a very large school of sperm whale which is something uncommon in this latitude and longitude.” No need to look any further.

So visit us often to see what other uncommon things we have uncovered in the Galvin Rare Book Room.

Drawing of whale with comment: “Saw a very large school of sperm whale which is something uncommon in this latitude and longitude.”