I've written before about how to find clues in old letters and how they can be really powerful for telling a family story. Sadly, my own family stopped being packrats sometime between the 1970s recession and the invention of email so there is very little paper floating around in my siblings' attics to get excited about. But somewhere along the line, postage stamp collecting became popular again and old "covers" (stamped envelopes) began popping up on online auction sites. For a genealogist, online auctions can be like unexpected gifts sent by a favorite uncle if a letter is still inside the envelope!
I have been conducting a community study to compile a census of who lived in my colonial town in the early 1700s, well before the first national census was taken. In the process, I've "met" some wildly interesting families who were the foundation of the modern town's celebrated character. For example, any real estate agent will tell you about how the town's school system is rated in the top 10 in the state. What they don't know is how the priority for topnotch education was set when the first private school was established in 1780. (see my previous post "Private Schools of Northborough, Mass. (1700-1900)"). Following the earliest town families into the 1800s has also been an excellent rabbit hole to fall into and I marvel to see how their strong principles and beliefs endured through time.
One well-known family was that of Reverend Joseph Allen. The town minister ran a boys' school from 1818–1852 and his family's story won my heart. I even have a long-standing automatic search on eBay that has sent me everything from a book authored by his granddaughter to a photo album bought in a dusty old shop on the Gloucester (MA) waterfront. This week, an 1843 letter "cover" popped up on eBay and not only was the original letter included, but (bless the seller's soul) he uploaded clear images of all of the pages.
Happy dance ensued (my apologies to anyone peering through my office window at the time). Why? Because there aren't many 175-year-old letters kicking around to give a front row view of local history. And because this one tells the story a girl spending time at a boys' school, so it will prove to be an even more unique slice of life… one that will now not get lost to time.
Beth Finch McCarthy